It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Monday, July 30, 2007

Climatological Culture, Wunsch and Ruddiman

Ecologists, the science closest to environmentalism, have had a culture of protest and dismay for some time. It's not surprising, really, considering what they study and what is happening to it.

Climatologists are perceived as culturally close to ecologists, and perhaps there is a tendency toward a countercultural perspective among younger participants. (I'm sort of the oldest of the young here.) On the whole, though, the field emerges from culturally conservative, Eisenhoweresque roots; physics, agriculture, military logistics, aviation.

You can see this attitude in the curmudgeonly attitude of the few older climatologists who have strayed into the camp of the obfuscationists (I'm thinking Grey and Lindzen in particular, with a sort of half-tip-of-the-hat to Reid Bryson), but it's interesting to consider the position of the founders of the field. While you do get people willing to rise to the occasion like Hansen and Broecker, you mostly see very politics averse people. I saw Robert Toggweiler visibly shudder when climate policy came up in his detailed mathematical discussion of the dynamics of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current in the the glacial cycle. His attitude to climate change is to wish it were someone else's problem, because life was easier when he was further from controversy. The older generation didn't get into climatology because they wanted to be in the thick of controversy!

You'll see this in younger scientists as well. I know of a promising young scientist who has some ideas about tropical storm incidence in climate change, but is backing away from the field as quickly as possible under the glare of non-scientific controversy.

Now, all of us are frustrated by how little the world understands our own obsessions. Climate scientists don't think the policy questions are all that complicated. If only people would pay attention! Yet, most scientists pay very little attention to the larger context in which we operate. This is how Karl Wunsch got in trouble. He didn't see Durkin coming not because he was credulous, exactly. Rather, he had no imagination that a creature such as Durkin might exist!

For those of you who find that strange, I am pleased to report that another of the old guard, William Ruddiman, in the conclusion of his excellent book Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum (2005) reveals the mindset of the scientists who revealed the climate change problem to the world. Ruddiman's book argues that human-caused climate change began gradually with agriculture, and has been at an instrumentally detectable level for millenia.

Here are some quotes that reveal how Ruddiman learned about the Durkins of the world.

Until the past year or two, I kept a wary eye on both sides of the global warming debate. I discredited the disinformation coming from both extremes of the issue and tried to weigh the solid evidence and form my own opinions. Very recently, however, I have become aware that this dispassionate detachment may be too idealistic. The debate has taken a surprisingly ugly turn. ...

I told [journalists] that the global warming issue was a hornet's nest, and I didn't intend to stick my hand into such a nasty mess. I also said that I was willing to predict how ... the two extremes would probably react. ... Both of these predictions came true: reports on my hypothesis appeared in both industrial and environmental newsletters, each making use of it for their own ends. ...

my name had somehow been added as a recipient of several [contrarian] newsletters ... These newsletters opened a window on a different side of science, a parallel universe of which I had been only partly aware. The content of these newsletters purports to be scientific, but actually has more in common with hardball politics.

One technique is instant commentaries against any new scientific results that appear to bolster the case for global warming. ... A related technique is to cite published papers that address the same subject but come to conclusions more favorable to the industry view. In the cases where I know the science reasonably well, these papers do not match the rigor of the originals. ...

This alternative universe is really quite amazing. ... But this alternative universe is new and worrisome; in the name of uncovering the truth, it delivers an endless stream of one-sided propaganda. ...
Stop the presses, eh?

How different this attitude is from the one that the obfuscationists try to paint us with! This is the dominant culture of climatology.

1 comment:

David Duff said...

It seems to me, at last, after months of arguments about tree rings, ice cores, glaciers coming down or going up, that Steve McIntyre's site has finally settled on the absolute core science of all this AGW controversy, that is, the *physics* of carbon in the atmosphere.

Alas, most of it will go over my head like the jet stream but hopefully I will catch the drift of where the discussion is going. There are some seriously big brains writing into his comments and it is well-worth reading not least because of McIntyre's insistence that 'political' sniping be kept out of the discussion so that the science can be kept to the fore.