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Temperature (1) – from a personal perspective

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 8:21 PM GMT on July 29, 2010

Temperature (1) – from a personal perspective

Every now and then I get a long letter from a reader who tells a personal and passionate story of why they are skeptical that the Earth is warming and that we can attribute that warming to man. Sometimes the letters convey a thread through an entire career – a whole life. They are doubtful. They might convey disbelief that we, as a species, are able to cause climate change – or disbelief that we can measure and understand climate change because it is complex. Sometimes they convey belief – perhaps, belief that there is a divine role of humans on Earth and the climate is cared for to help us thrive or to punish our misdeeds.

I wonder if I should write such a story with a personal thread through my climate life …. Remembrance of some drought in North Carolina in the 1960s, next to the white oaks in the front yard, thinking that maybe we were the target of divine punishment, wondering if the atmosphere had somehow “forgotten” how to rain. Daddy assuring me that there was no way I could deliver adequate water to that oak from a hose. I read in 1969 about 6 or 8 or 10 ways we were changing the planet and that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was at the top of the list. I know this because I found the magazine with my handwriting in the margin; I was very worried about the end of the world. From my story, this thread of my experiences, my observations, and my anecdotes, I would make the argument of why I do believe that the climate is changing and that we are causing that change. The point … would there be a point? The point would be to show the allure, the strength, the weakness of such a story – especially, if the story can be aligned with some facts or some authoritative sources.

These letters are written by people who have obviously thought about climate, climate change, and their Earth. They are generally not argumentative and hostile. More likely, they say that they have read the words I have written and, in short, I have presented evidence that is pretty convincing in a way that is not offensive to them, but that there is just one thing that they cannot get around. Often times that one thing has something to do with the surface temperature record. Perhaps they are concerned with sloppy location of stations, or creeping urbanization, or tree rings. They might be worried about the satellite temperature data.

My response to this is to acknowledge that there are problems in the surface temperature record. That these problems are known; they are not ignored nor are they dismissed. Quite the contrary, there has been and is a long history of searching out, quantifying, understanding, and trying to correct these problems. More importantly, however, the scientific investigation of the Earth’s climate requires us to examine far more than the surface temperature record before we can say that either the Earth is warming or that humans are the primary cause of that warming. If the planet is warming we need to see the ocean heating up; we need to see the growing season starting earlier and ending later; we need to see ice melting, and possums in Michigan. Like the temperature measurements, if we see any one of these occurrences in isolation, then it is easy to find several rational, well-founded explanations. When we see them all together, well, the number of alternative rational, well-founded explanations decreases. (see BRAND NEW State of Climate 2009, which takes a comprehensive look across many variables.)

The presence of the signal of warming in measures other than surface temperature is not just a convenient coincidence. Good scientific practice requires that these “other,” “correlated” changes be predicted and measured. And if they are predicted and not measured, then that is a real problem. Good scientific practice also requires that multiple, independent investigators reproduce the results. There is a preponderance of evidence from multiple sources that stands in concert with the surface temperature record; this is at the forefront of my response to those worried about the fidelity of the temperature record. Sometimes the doubtful are convinced; sometimes they are not.

The Earth’s climate has become a political issue. This is because if we are going to do something about climate change, then we are going to have to change where we get and how we use energy. We are going to have to pay more attention to our energy waste. Some people see opportunity, others see dangerous cost. Minimally, there is change, and both the perception and reality of losers and winners. This infiltration of the impacts of climate change throughout society makes climate science a political issue, and it is a fact of our political system, that people make advocacy-based points to influence politicians and voters. A tactic when people are trying to make points of influence is to isolate the “fact” that supports their position; give that fact some special, fundamental value; and require that their special fact be refuted in some absolute way. This is a tactic – a form of argument. It’s an old tactic; it is effective.

Given the recognition of this tactic, there are several points to be made. For example, it is possible for those solely focused on the surface temperature record to rightfully point out the deficiencies of this observational stream. It there are efforts by scientists to identify and correct these deficiencies, then the political argument is that the data are being manipulated. For those vested in the political arguments, then communication and education about the whole story is of no interest. The whole story is dismissed because of the special nature of their chosen fact, infused with a fundamental nature and the requirement for absolution. For those developing the political arguments, education about the science of climate change is not the way forward.

As scientists we need to think about the reasons people take the positions they take and say the things that they say. Scientists perhaps fall too quickly into the trap that the systematic exposition of observation-based knowledge will provide a convincing counterargument to incomplete statements and misinformation. But if the messenger is trying to make a point to maintain a political position, then their goal is to create, maintain and spread doubt about science and scientists. If arguments are smothered by the systematic exposition of observation-based knowledge, then that only begets the identification of other isolated issues that breed doubt. Or perhaps, their arguments turn to less noble forms, for example, attacks on the personal motivations of scientists or the belief that there is conspiratorial movement to legislate people’s behavior with science-based knowledge of the environment and health. When will I be denied the burnt ends from Arthur Bryant’s BBQ?

It is important for scientists to recognize that exposition of knowledge is not the sole way forward. We deal with a form of argument. If we participate in that form of argument, then we propagate that form of argument. While what I present here is drawn from my observations and my experiences, there is knowledge from other perspectives that help us to develop strategies.

At a meeting in May, I met Anthony Leiserowitz from Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Look at his web page; he does studies on the communication of climate change. Leiserowitz has worked to describe the public and their positions on climate change. He types the people as: Concerned, Cautious, Alarmed, Doubtful, Disengaged (or Unconcerned), and Dismissive. The survey results are summarized around Beliefs, Behavioral Intentions, Policy Preferences, Demographics, Political Affiliation, Values, Media Use and Civic Engagement. I will let you look at an online presentation. In short, the polarization that permeates our political society is reflected in concerns about climate change – an issue that some think should be defined by the systematic exposition of observation-based knowledge.

My point - or at least a point: From the scientist’s perspective, it is necessary to recognize not only that there are differences in how the public assimilates the knowledge of climate change, but also that there are well-founded, non-scientific bases on which individual and group positions are taken. For scientists to conclude that all of the positions assumed in the public are positions of ignorance and that systematic exposition of knowledge will overcome that ignorance can, in fact, be damaging and helps to perpetuate and propagate the selective doubt generated by political arguments.


Figure 1: From Center for American Progress, Global Warming’s Six Americas. Here is a June 2010 update and more figures.

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.