Thursday, December 08, 2011

Why the Climategate 2.0 Emails are Devastating

I've started reading Mike Hulme's 2009 book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity. Hulme is, of course, a well-known climate scientist, founding Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, and now a professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia. I can't recommend this book highly enough.

Hulme has what seems a more balanced point-of-view than most, and recognizes that the debate over climate change is largely a proxy in the timeless war of larger ideas: about our values, about how society could/should/will be governed and the economy regulated. Hulme is a firm believer in man's influence on climate, but you can tell he's coming from a different place by his book's dedication on its very first page: "To my father, Ralph Hulme (1924-1989), who taught me that disagreeing was a form of learning," and by the quotation before the Table of Contents: "A good place to look for where you least expect to find it: in the minds of your opponents." (Jonathan Haidt, 2006)

In particular, the following passage struck me as a succinct summary of why I think the recently released batch of UEA emails are, as I first wrote, "devastating." It's from Hulme's sum-up of his chapter on "The Performance of Science" -- what I've highlighted in blue seems most relevant here (emphasis mine):
There are three limits to science that we must recognise. First, scientific knowledge about climate change will always be incomplete, and it will always be uncertain. Science always speaks with a conditional voice, or at least good science always does. Belief in the power of science requires a simultaneous doubt about the final and ultimate adequacy of any scientific knowledge claim. We must recognise that uncertainty and humility should always be essential features of any public policy debate which involves science, not least climate change-Certainty is the anomalous condition for humanity, not uncertainty

Second, we must recognise that beyond such 'normal' scientific uncertainty, knowledge as a public commodity will always have been shaped to some degree by the processes by which it emerges into the social world and through which it subsequently circulates. What will in the end count as scientific knowledge for public decision making is not necessarily the same knowledge that first emerged in the laboratory. In the production, or better still the co-production, of climate change knowledge for public policy, trust in the processes of science and participation in the social processes of co-production are essential. Without trust and/or participation, scientific knowledge about climate change is unlikely to prove robust enough to be put to good use. The separation of knowledge about climate change from the politics of climate change – a process that has been described as 'purification’ – is no longer possible, even if it ever was. The more widely this is recognised the better.

Third, we must be more honest and transparent about what science can tell us and what it can't. We should not hide behind science when difficult ethical choices are called for. We must not always defer to ‘science' or to the 'voices of scientists' when we need to make decisions about what to do. These are decisions that in relation to climate change will always entail judgements beyond the reach of science.

-- Mike Hulme, Chapter 3, Why We Disagree About Climate Change
So, the claims last month that 'the science is settled,' like this essay by John Abrahams and one by Scott Mandia, miss the point, I think. It would be great if humans were strictly rational animals who make decisions on nothing but the analytics, but that is not true, for any of us. This is no longer only about the science. To an extent this is unfair to climate scientists -- they should not have to operate in an environment like that of politicians, where every remark might be deeply scrutinized and exploited by enemies. Surely this is new territory for the enterprise of science, as is the climate change problem in general. One thing Hulme's book makes clear is that we will never attain a solution to this problem by somehow finally getting a thumbs-up or thumbs-down from "Science." And we should stop expecting one.

1 comment:

Kooiti Masuda said...

Scientific projection of global climate change is settled, in terms of global mean surface air temperature, given some realistic emission scenarios, with allowance of doubling or halving of the projection, and with assumption that volcanic eruption larger than Tambora will not happen.

Scientific projection of regional climate change is not settled. In addition to anthropogenic global warming, perhaps we need to have outlook of internal climate variability such as NAO, PDO etc., and we do not know whether these are predictable at all beyond one cycle. And everyone must adapt to local climate, not with the global average.

So, I think, both Hulme and Abraham/Mandia are correct in their respective turf.