- If people and governments are going to take serious action to reduce carbon emissions, the time pretty much has to be now, because any delay will make efforts to stave off major changes more difficult and expensive to achieve.
- In the wake of “Climategate” and attacks on policy makers, the public is more confused than ever about what to think, particularly when it comes to talk of uncertainty in climate science.
- Climate policy is stalled.The public needs to understand that scientific uncertainty is not the same thing as ignorance, but rather it is a discipline for quantifying what is unknown.
- Climate scientists need to do a better job of communicating uncertainty to the public and responding to criticism from outsiders.
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In trying to understand the Judith Curry phenomenon, it is tempting to default to one of two comfortable and familiar story lines.
For most of her career, Curry, who heads the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has been known for her work on hurricanes, Arctic ice dynamics and other climate-related topics. But over the past year or so she has become better known for something that annoys, even infuriates, many of her scientific colleagues. Curry has been engaging actively with the climate change skeptic community, largely by participating on outsider blogs such as Climate Audit, the Air Vent and the Blackboard. Along the way, she has come to question how climatologists react to those who question the science, no matter how well established it is. Although many of the skeptics recycle critiques that have long since been disproved, others, she believes, bring up valid points—and by lumping the good with the bad, climate researchers not only miss out on a chance to improve their science, they come across to the public as haughty. “Yes, there’s a lot of crankology out there,” Curry says. “But not all of it is. If only 1 percent of it or 10 percent of what the skeptics say is right, that is time well spent because we have just been too encumbered by groupthink.”
She reserves her harshest criticism for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). For most climate scientists the major reports issued by the United Nations–sponsored body every five years or so constitute the consensus on climate science. Few scientists would claim the IPCC is perfect, but Curry thinks it needs thoroughgoing reform. She accuses it of “corruption.” “I’m not going to just spout off and endorse the IPCC,” she says, “because I think I don’t have confidence in the process.”
Whispered discreetly at conferences or in meeting rooms, these claims might be accepted as part of the frequently contentious process of a still evolving area of science. Stated publicly on some of the same Web sites that broke the so-called Climategate e-mails last fall, they are considered by many to be a betrayal, earning Curry epithets from her colleagues ranging from “naive” to “bizarre” to “nasty” to worse.
All of which sets up the two competing story lines, which are, on the surface at least, equally plausible. The first paints Curry as a peacemaker—someone who might be able to restore some civility to the debate and edge the public toward meaningful action. By frankly acknowledging mistakes and encouraging her colleagues to treat skeptics with respect, she hopes to bring about a meeting of the minds.
The alternative version paints her as a dupe—someone whose well-meaning efforts have only poured fuel on the fire. By this account, engaging with the skeptics is pointless because they cannot be won over. They have gone beyond the pale, taking their arguments to the public and distributing e-mails hacked from personal computer accounts rather than trying to work things out at conferences and in journal papers.
Which of these stories is more accurate would not matter much if the field of science in question was cosmology, say, or paleontology, or some other area without any actual impact on people’s lives. Climate science obviously is not like that. The experts broadly agree that it will take massive changes in agriculture, energy production, and more to avert a potential disaster.
In this context, figuring out how to shape the public debate is a matter of survival. If people and governments are going to take serious action, it pretty much has to be now, because any delay will make efforts to stave off major climate change much more expensive and difficult to achieve. But the COP15 climate negotiations in Copenhagen last December ended in a watered-down policy document, with no legally binding commitments for countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Following Copenhagen, the U.S. Senate was unable to pass even a modest “cap and trade” bill that would have mandated reductions. And in the wake of Climategate a year ago and widespread attacks on the IPCC and on climate science in general, the public may be more confused than ever about what to think. Is Curry making things worse or better?