A leading scientist warns about the climate: “The time for debate has ended. Action is urgently needed.”

Summary: The science establishment is betting its credibility, going all in on extreme climate in preparation for November’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.  The pretense of professional objectivity has been abandoned. The role of science in our society and the political Left — allies in this project — might depend on the weather of the next few years. Have they weighed the stakes vs. the risks?  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

A Burning World

Today’s astounding example of science at work is this editorial by Marcia McNutt — editor-in-Chief of Science and next President of the National Academy of Sciences — in the July 3 issue of Science: “The beyond-two-degree inferno“. Please read it in full, for you’ll see many more such statements this year. I’ll cite a few of its strange elements.

The coming inferno

“Let’s act now, to save the next generations from the consequences of the beyond-two-degree inferno.”

The title is shocking. Describing the effects of rising CO2 as apocalyptic is a defining trait of climate alarmists, outside the climate science mainstream since there is little support in the IPCC’s Working Group I reports for such dire forecasts.

There is little basis for describing a rise of 2 degrees above temperatures at the preindustrial moment (temperatures fluctuated before industrialization). For details see Samuel Randalls (University College) “History of the 2°C climate target” (WIRES Climate Change, July/Aug 2010). It might not inspire your confidence in the utility of 2°C as a red line.

Large increases in surface temperatures are possible if climate sensitivity is at the high end of current estimates and we burn off almost all the world’s fossil fuel deposits (especially coal) in the 21st century. However, the high end to estimates of the climate’s sensitivity to CO2 has been falling. The latter assumption seems even weaker. It’s only 2015 and the developed nations are already moving away from coal (North American coal consumption peaked in 2005, dropped 21% by 2012 — and continues to fall). Even China, the big coal growth story, intends large-scale replacement of coal-burning plants (forced by their horrific air pollution).

Earth Burning

Strange allies

“I applaud the forthright climate statement of Pope Francis, currently our most visible champion for mitigating climate change, and lament the vacuum in political leadership in the United States.”

Citing the pope as a scientific or moral authority is problematic, outside of a sectarian context. The Roman Catholic Church has opposed science for much of its history. Its 20th century history includes engagement with NAZI Germany and widespread facilitation of child abuse. Now it’s under fire for policies regarding the role of women and homosexuals, and its policies regarding contraception and abortion.

Since the impact of a rising population might dwarf all other anthropogenic damages to the environment, the Pope’s opposition to contraception makes him an odd ally for greens.


The role of custodians in science

“The time for debate has ended. Action is urgently needed. “

What horrible words from the editor of a science journal, a gatekeeper to the professional survival of scientists (who must “publish or perish”). Until now claims that the “science is settled” were an urban legend. This marks a milestone on a dark path for science.

The operation of science requires the people running these powerful institutions to have some open-mindedness to new and even upsetting ideas. Once reputation for fairness (always imperfect) is lost, the slide begins to epistemic closure and scientific debates becoming exercises of institutional power (even more than usual). If the public policy imperative of climate change requires shutting off the oxygen to scientists challenging the current paradigm, what’s next?

The history of science shows such confidence in a theory to be unwise. Scientists have been quite certain about many issues of importance to public policy, often wrongly. For example, the books of the late biologist Stephen Jay Gould document scientists’ confidence about racial differences, which led to the science of eugenics (“More children from the fit, less from the unfit — that is the chief issue in birth control” said the Editors of American Medicine in 1919) — and to organizations putting this “knowledge” into practice.

Editor McNutt gives us alarmist rhetoric, cites the pope as an ally, and declares that the debate is over (with the presumption that these custodians will use their power to end the debate, or at least the careers of scientists who oppose them).  Such things risk eroding the foundation of confidence of scientists and the public in Science and other major journals. If lost other institutions will arise to replace them.

Truth in science
Graphic designed by IdeaTree Company.

Public perceptions

Leading scientists probably enjoy the applause of taking bold positions in the great public policy debates, plus the boost to their careers and incomes. The cost to science and us might be high.

Perhaps the current El Nino will produce a substantial increase in atmospheric temperatures, followed by an increase in many kinds of extreme weather (so far not seen). But such a short-term forecast is a gamble given the current state of climate science. Forty-plus years in finance has taught me that no bet is a sure-thing, so never wager what you cannot afford to lose.

There is a wide range of estimates for the duration of the pause (broadly defined as little or no statistically significant warming since roughly 2000). What if in 2025 people see no substantial increase over historical levels in tropical cyclones, tornadoes, droughts, floods, etc? Questions will be asked. Will the public respect the excuse that mistakes were made and there are now new theories? It would be a cruel irony if rapid warming then began.

Taking sides in a political issue and being wrong seems likely to have unpleasant consequences. At the very least such a false alarm probably would drastically decrease the public’s confidence in science, something we cannot afford as we navigate the complex and dangerous 21st century.

Updates: converting the National Academy of Sciences into an advocacy engine

“I worry that if society does not take action on the problem of climate change within the next few years, it will be too late to make a meaningful difference in emissions before unacceptable consequences are a foregone conclusion. My goal as NAS president would be to spur serious action on mitigation and adaptation, showing U.S. leadership in technology choices and policy solutions that can be widely adopted.”

— Marcia McNutt, Science, 8 July 2015.

McNutt will bring a strong voice to the NAS as its president. But political advocacy at the NAS might not well serve either the institutions of science or the nation. For a cautionary note see this by Roger Pielke Jr (Prof Environmental Studies, U CO-Boulder) from 2005: “Science Academies as Political Advocates“.

Truth Will Make You Free

For More Information

For more about this see the comments of Judith Curry (Prof Atmospheric Science, GA Inst Tech) at her website.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see The keys to understanding climate change, all posts about El Nino events. Also, see these posts about the Left’s attempts to sell catastrophic anthropogenic climate change (it’s very bad and it’s us) …

For a more detailed look at today’s extreme weather

To learn more about the state of climate change see The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change by Roger Pielke Jr. (Prof of Environmental Studies at U of CO-Boulder, and Director of their Center for Science and Technology Policy Research).

The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change
Available at Amazon.



9 thoughts on “A leading scientist warns about the climate: “The time for debate has ended. Action is urgently needed.”

  1. Some comments.

    1) The Catholic Church (CC) learned from the Galileo fiasco and has supported astronomy with the Vatican Observatories. They are also in favor of Darwinian evolution, leaving God to create the four forces and let it go.

    2) That being said, they now seem to follow a kind of trendy liberalism on other issues, like global warming. At St. Louis U, they followed political correctness in removing a statue of a Jesuit missionary preaching to Indians. (Wasn’t that his job?)

    3) The science establishments act childishly sometimes. I remember the IAU vote denigrating Pluto taken with only 300 out of 9000 members voting. I couldn’t vote because I couldn’t get to Prague. Others had mostly left the meeting before they held a vote.

    1. Socialbill,

      I agree about the Catholic Church today. Their problems with science are in the past, as is their flirtation with the NAZIs. Unfortunately their cover-ups about entrenched child abuse continue.

      But I doubt an AAAS vote will pass to endorse the Church’s current policies about abortion, women’s rights, contraception, and same sex marriage.

      The Left suddenly parading the Pope as a moral exemplar is IMO an example of why they’re losing to the Right. It is seems hypocritical, and suggests they believe we’re too stupid to notice.

  2. Fabius –

    ==> “The pretense of professional objectivity has been abandoned. ”

    Do you consider that a “smear?”

    ==> “Until now claims that the “science is settled” were an urban legend. This marks a milestone on a dark path for science.”

    False claims that many scientists have said that “the science is settled” are a favored rallying cry of “skeptics.” Unfortunately, it appears that you are promoting that practice by equating McNutt’s statements to statements that “the science is settled.”

    What science is she saying is settled?

    1. Joshua,

      “The pretense of professional objectivity has been abandoned. … What science is she saying is settled?”

      You must be kidding us. That’s a clear interpretation of her words, which are those of a political activist. That’s a legitimate action, of course. But has implications, especially for people holding key decision-making positions in the machinery running science.

    2. Follow-up —

      “do you consider that a “smear”?

      Smear: to damage the reputation of (someone) by false accusations.

      First, it’s not false. Second, to become an activist does not “damage” a reputation. It’s a political stance, and can be considered a highly ethical action (even if one does not agree with it).

  3. Fabius –

    You can put quotes around the words and attribute them to McNutt by claiming that is the “clear interpretation” of her words. In my book, that doesn’t cut it. “Interpretation” is inherently subjective, and your claim of “clear interpretation” is confusing opinion with objectivity.

    The statement of “the science is settled” is ambiguous. What does it mean? What science? The details covered by uncertainties? Or the broad stroke science that ACO2 emissions cause warming, which in turn entails risk (that some “skeptics” like “realists” claim is not disputable)?

    ==> ““I worry that if society does not take action on the problem of climate change within the next few years, it will be too late to make a meaningful difference in emissions before unacceptable consequences are a foregone conclusion. ”

    IMO, the conditionals of that statement are not consistent with the “clear interpretation ” that you impose on what she said. It is easy and valid, IMO, to disagree with her assessment of the degree of uncertainty without twisting her words for rhetorical purpose.

    Re: follow-up:

    Personally, I consider referring to dictionary definitions to be a counterproductive form of conversation. It’s a fallacious appeal to authority, in fact. Notice how you selectively cull just one of the many definitions (and connotations). You are smearing her, IMO, by saying that she has no scientific integrity.

    In the real world, of course, it will not damage her reputation in any material fashion. Your impact is not sufficient to do so, and only those who already agree with you anyway will consider your smear to be meaningful, let alone (for the most part) read it.

  4. Fabius –

    To bad that you choose to make no comment of substance in response. I was hoping for a more interesting engagement.

    ==> “Let’s just let readers draw their own conclusions.”

    My comment wasn’t directed to readers, it was directed to you. I also notice a similar issue here…

    “…You must be kidding us…”

    Who is “us?” I thought I was engaging you in a discussion. Who are you speaking on behalf of?

    Once again, simply, your determination of a “clear interpretation” confuses fact with opinion. Interpretations by their very nature are subjective. You haven’t even defined what “the science is settled” means. Support your assertion about what is “clear” rather than just arguing by assertion. What science does McNutt think it “settled?”

    I laid out an argument. Since you think it is so obviously flawed, spell it out for me. Or not.

Leave a Reply