Rather than sweeping that uncertainty about ice sheets under the rug, as Curry’s overall critique might lead one to assume, the IPCC’s 2007 Fourth Assessment Report flags this uncertainty. Specifically, the report projects 0.18 to 0.59 meter of sea-level rise by the end of the century but explicitly excludes possible increases in ice flow. The reason, as the report explains, is that while such increases are likely, there was insufficient information at the time to estimate what they might be. Since the report came out, new research has given a better sense of what might happen with ice dynamics (although the authors caution that considerable uncertainty remains about the projections). It turns out that the original projections may have been too benign.
The same could be true for other aspects of climate. “The plausible worst-case scenario could be worse than anything we’re looking at right now,” Curry says. The rise in temperature from a doubling of CO2 “could be one degree. It could be 10 degrees. Let’s just put it out there and develop policy options for all the scenarios and do a cost-benefit analysis for all of them, and then you start to get the things that make sense.”
There is no question Curry has caused a stir; she is frequently cited by some of the harshest skeptics around, including Marc Morano, the former aide to Senator Inhofe and founder of the Climate Depot skeptic blog. It is not just the skeptics: Andrew C. Revkin, the New York Times’s longtime environment reporter has treated her with great respect on his Dot Earth blog more than once. So has Keith Kloor, who runs the militantly evenhanded Collide-a-Scape blog.
What scientists worry is that such exposure means Curry has the power to do damage to a consensus on climate change that has been building for the past 20 years. They see little point in trying to win over skeptics, even if they could be won over. Says Gavin A. Schmidt, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City and proprietor of the RealClimate blog: “Science is not a political campaign. We’re not trying to be everyone’s best friend, kiss everyone’s baby.”
To Curry, the damage comes not from the skeptics’ critiques themselves, most of which are questionable, but from the scientific community’s responses to them—much as deaths from virulent flu come not from the virus but from the immune system’s violent overreaction. Curry remarks that she has been a victim of this herself, spurned by her colleagues for her outreach efforts (although she adds that she has not been damaged professionally and continues to publish). “She’s been hugely criticized by the climate science community,” McIntyre says, “for not maintaining the fatwa [against talking to outsiders].”
Some disinterested commentators agree. One is S. Alexander Haslam, an expert in organizational psychology at the University of Exeter in England. The climate community, he says, is engaging in classic black sheep syndrome: members of a group may be annoyed by public criticism from outsiders, but they reserve their greatest anger for insiders who side with outsiders. By treating Curry as a pariah, Haslam says, scientists are only enhancing her reputation as some kind of renegade who speaks truth to power. Even if she is substantially wrong, it is not in the interests of climate scientists to treat Curry as merely an annoyance or a distraction. “I think her criticisms are damaging,” Haslam says. “But in a way, that’s a consequence of failing to acknowledge that all science has these political dynamics.”
In a sense, the two competing storylines about Judith Curry—peacemaker or dupe?—are both true. Climate scientists feel embattled by a politically motivated witch hunt, and in that charged environment, what Curry has tried to do naturally feels like treason—especially since the skeptics have latched onto her as proof they have been right all along. But Curry and the skeptics have their own cause for grievance. They feel they have all been lumped together as crackpots, no matter how worthy their arguments. The whole thing has become a political potboiler, and what might be the normal insider debates over the minutiae of data, methodology and conclusions have gotten shrill. It is perhaps unreasonable to expect everyone to stop sniping at one another, but given the high stakes, it is crucial to focus on the science itself and not the noise.
This article was originally published with the title Climate Heretic.