Tuesday, January 23, 2007

An Overwhelming Case for Action

Having lost the scientific debate, climate denialists are increasingly demanding the respect they're due as good fellow creatures and children of God. For instance, they were very upset by Heidi Cullen's recent suggestion that the AMS should strip its certification from meteorologists who don't believe in anthropogenic climate change. That's extremism, you see.

I thought her idea was pretty good, myself. If you can't uphold the standards of your chosen field, there's no obvious reason why a professional body should have to tarnish its reputation - and those of your colleagues - by continuing to count you as a member in good standing. If I were certified by the AMA, I wouldn't want them to certify the homeopath down the street, because it'd dilute my credibility and the meaning of my accomplishments. From that standpoint, you can make a case that the AMS would be crazy not to distance itself from denialist dead-enders.

But ultimately, it's a silly argument. I agree with people like David Roberts, who feel that denialism is dying on its own, and manufactured scandals like this one are simply dragging out the process.

I'm still fascinated with denialist rhetoric, though...the postmodern relativist stuff, especially. People who once treated undergrad courses on the "phallocentric gaze" as evidence of declining academic standards have no problem hurling academic standards out the window, if it'll help to legitimize Exxon-funded pseudoscience. And people who formerly screamed bloody murder when Luce Irigaray talked about "sexed" equations are now willing to accept Michael Crichton's ravings as an antidote to the "hegemonic discourse" of mainstream climatology. (And why shouldn't they? The man can bend spoons with his mind!)

I actually sympathize, to an extent, with the conservative rank-and-file’s revolt against science, just as I previously sympathized with the Left's revolt against it (in the days before dewy-eyed technophilia became more or less a default stance of dirty fucking hippies). But there's a difference between critiquing science - in itself, or in its relation to political and corporate power - and embracing what Pierre Bourdieu calls the "naively Machiavellian view of scientists' strategies," in hopes of reducing them "to the calculated brutality of political power relations."

The latter approach used to have a certain radical chic, God knows, but these days it seems to be not entirely incompatible with "moderation." At least, that's what I gather from Eric Berger's article on the alleged overselling of climate change by a shadowy gang of "absolutists":

In their efforts to capture the public's attention, then, have climate scientists oversold global warming? It's probably not a majority view, but a few climate scientists are beginning to question whether some dire predictions push the science too far.
The opinions of "a few climate scientists" probably don't comprise "a majority view"? Fair enough.

Berger trots out Kevin Vranes, a climatologist at the University of Colorado, as an example of a scientist who worries about overselling the dangers of climate change:
Vranes, who is not considered a global warming skeptic by his peers, came to this conclusion after attending an American Geophysical Union meeting last month. Vranes says he detected "tension" among scientists, notably because projections of the future climate carry uncertainties — a point that hasn't been fully communicated to the public.
Berger dutifully goes hunting for corroborative accounts of this "tension." He speaks to two scientists who dismiss it, and one who argues that if it does exist, it may simply have to do with struggles "between younger researchers and older, more established scientists."

On his last attempt, though, he hits pay dirt:
"I can understand how a scientist without tenure can feel the community pressures," says environmental scientist Roger Pielke Jr., a colleague of Vranes' at the University of Colorado.

Pielke says he has felt pressure from his peers: A prominent scientist angrily accused him of being a skeptic, and a scientific journal editor asked him to "dampen" the message of a peer-reviewed paper to derail skeptics and business interests.
See how Pielke takes abuse from both sides? What can this possibly mean, but that he's a principled moderate struggling bravely against the mirror-image extremisms of Al Gore and James Inhofe?

From what I’ve read of Pielke, his main concern seems to be that scientists are “politicizing” science by taking positions of advocacy (i.e., by expressing opinions he doesn’t agree with). Putting aside whether Pielke’s specific targets are guilty - and, more important, whether his standards oblige him to fall on his own sword - it’s hard to see how an issue with such a huge potential impact on society (and on politically connected industries) could be anything but politicized. Pretending to be above the fray is a popular gimmick, but it certainly isn't objective, or neutral, or moderate. Quite the opposite, actually.

Anyhow, Berger goes on to say that "nearly all climate scientists believe the Earth is warming and that human activity, by increasing the level of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, has contributed significantly to the warming." If that sounds serious to you, it's probably because you don't understand the uncertainties involved in predicting climate. Will earth get a little hotter, or a lot hotter? Only time will tell!
To the public and policymakers [but not to scientists?], these details matter. It's one thing to worry about summer temperatures becoming a few degrees warmer.

It's quite another if ice melting from Greenland and Antarctica raises the sea level by 3 feet in the next century, enough to cover much of Galveston Island at high tide.
Well, not exactly. Either way, you're looking at manmade climate change. And the two scenarios that Berger presents as possible outcomes aren't mutually exclusive, by any means.

Pielke gets the last word:
"The case for action on climate science, both for energy policy and adaptation, is overwhelming," Pielke says. "But if we oversell the science, our credibility is at stake."
I suppose you can lose credibility by overselling an "overwhelming case" for action, so it’s nice that Pielke’s trying to save these politicized scientists from themselves.

But I hasten to add that you can also lose credibility by claiming that there's an overwhelming case for action, and then indulging in hairsplitting, hippie-baiting, and general dilettantism. Or by claiming that the problem will be solved by the same splendid free-market principles that got us into it.

On that note, I believe I'll go burn some incense and read the Tarot.

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