The AGW Debate Descends to 'Science'

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) issued a statement last month, outlining its position on global warming…

The Earth’s climate is now clearly out of balance and is warming. Many components of the climate system—including the temperatures of the atmosphere, land and ocean, the extent of sea ice and mountain glaciers, the sea level, the distribution of precipitation, and the length of seasons—are now changing at rates and in patterns that are not natural and are best explained by the increased atmospheric abundances of greenhouse gases and aerosols generated by human activity during the 20th century. 

The AGU does not explain what a “balanced” climate is supposed to be, nor do they offer any explanation as to what a “natural rate of change” is. This is, of course, because neither statement is scientific. The idea that the climate is “balanced” is an assumption, but with almost mystical significance, as is the idea that there are “natural” and “unnatural” rates of change.

Andy Revkin ran a post about the statement on the New York Times “Dot Earth” blog, the responses to which constitute an epic online battle between some high-profile sceptics and warmers. (The link follows, but BE WARNED: the conversation is a gigantic 1050+ posts long, and it is likely to cause your browser some problems. HERE. )

Environmentalism’s public enemy #2, Marc Morano, raised the point that the statement cannot be representative of the organisation’s 45,000+ membership. This then led to a comment from Raymond T. Pierrehubert, a member of the climate modelling blog team, Real Climate. (A fine example of newspeak, that climate modellers call themselves ‘Real’ Climate”).

In response to Mr. Morano, I’ll echo one of the other commenters in pointing out that AGU is a democracy, and the officers are elected by vote of the entire membership. If any significant part of the leadership were notably out of tune with the membership, they would be voted out of office pretty swiftly, or would never have risen to the posts they have. To deny the significance of this statement on the grounds that it is a product of the council is like denying the legitimacy of US law because we have a representative democracy. 

It emerged during the conversation that the AGU statement was in fact written by a committee, appointed by the AGU’s council, agreed ‘unanimously’ by the elected council after a seven-month process. That’s less than a paragraph every two months, yet it possesses zero explanatory power. No science. It could have been written by any old eco-warrior. It is a political statement.

It is striking that the truth of the statement was defended on the basis of the AGU’s democratic organisational structure, as though material facts can be determined in this way. Voting is a test of mandate, not a test of truth. The AGU leadership only needs to demonstrate legitimacy to its membership in a small way. You wouldn’t expect earth scientists to divide themselves on political matters, as though, for example, plate tectonics was a “left wing” theory of geography, and the nitrogen cycle a piece of neoliberal political philosophy. Earth science is about studying the material world, and it seems hard to imagine why differences of political ideology should split that study. However, the last paragraph of the statement says,

With climate change, as with ozone depletion, the human footprint on Earth is apparent. The cause of disruptive climate change, unlike ozone depletion, is tied to energy use and runs through modern society. Solutions will necessarily involve all aspects of society. Mitigation strategies and adaptation responses will call for collaborations across science, technology, industry, and government. Members of the AGU, as part of the scientific community, collectively have special responsibilities: to pursue research needed to understand it; to educate the public on the causes, risks, and hazards; and to communicate clearly and objectively with those who can implement policies to shape future climate. 

The statement asks for the world to put earth scientists at the centre of a political process involving “all aspects of society”. Whatever side of the debate you are on, you have to admire their political ambition. The AGU statement attributes change to humans, and takes the unscientific view that change will spell disaster for human civilisation, unless, of course, we surrender sovereignty to earth scientists because,

Members of the AGU … have special responsibilities … to communicate clearly and objectively with those who can implement policies to shape future climate. 

If making statements such as “The Earth’s climate is now clearly out of balance and is warming” is “communicating clearly and objectively”, then god help us. Such alarmist and unscientific language give all of us good reason to challenge statements like this. Which is unfortunately what didn’t happen, back at the NYT blog.

The conversation did not answer any problems with the AGU’s statement about the science (what is a “balanced climate”, etc) and nor did it answer the political questions raised by such politicisation of science. Instead, it avoided both by descending into wranglings of the eternal “it is happening”/”it isn’t happening” variety, with increasingly bitter accusations being hurled at and by either side. This seems to be how any discussion about climate change ends up. It resorts to “science”. But it is science that has been neutered. It is not science with explanatory power, it is science which is used to legitimise a course of action. The logic appears to be that if it is, once and for all, comprehensively proven that humans had influenced a change in the climate, the rest of the argument – that we put earth science at the heart of our political process – follows from it. But even showing that climate change “is happening”, doesn’t explain a “balance” or “stable” climate. As it happens, sceptics and warmers do find plenty of science to argue about – which is a good thing. Perhaps if climate scientists didn’t put their names to statements which appeal to “balance” and “natural” rates of change, those arguments would be harder for the sceptics to have. You don’t actually need to be a climate scientist to know that it’s bullshit.

Political arguments about the way to respond to climate change get deferred to scientific arguments. This takes the form of “the science is settled, and anyone who doubts it has a political agenda” followed by “it is happening” versus “it isn’t happening”. If the conversation at the NYT blog was just a battle of received wisdoms of the kind you can find all over the web, then it would not be significant. But the blog was populated by many of the “qualified scientists” that we’re being asked to store so much faith in, and who posted to the blog to register their support of the AGU statement. These were no amateurs. Warmers ought to realise that, although they may not believe themselves to be arguing from an ideological position, what they are arguing for is deeply ideological; they want to reorganise society around a new system of values. No amount of science and fear mongering legitimises that intention.

If you challenge politicians or public figures on climate policy you will hear the answer that it is the view of the majority of scientists. We have pointed out many times before that public statements on climate rarely match the reality of what has been said by the IPCC, even when it’s high-profile scientists (such as Lord Ma
y
, or Lord Rees), not politicians, who are doing the doom-saying. They ought to be answering questions about what kind of world that would be. Even a world dominated by climate-scientists-as-politicians would not have a “stable” or “balanced” climate, nor will that world be any better informed as to what a stable or balanced climate actually is.