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Climate Change

Rising Seas, Melting Ice, Raging Fires — Why Didn’t Anybody Warn Us?

Are timid scientists to blame for not telling us years ago that rapid changes in the climate are possible, or are there other forces at work that made them more conservative in presenting their views?

A recent op-ed in the New York Times by Eugene Linden is entitled “How Scientists Got Climate Change So Wrong. Few thought it would arrive so quickly. Now we’re facing consequences once viewed as fringe scenarios.” The problem, Linden suggests, is that scientists are often too conservative in their approach and are hamstrung by a perceived need to achieve consensus within the scientific community. He points to a recent article in Scientific American that says much the same thing.

melting polar ice NASA

Image credit: NASA

That article, by well known authors Naomi Oreskes, Michael Oppenheimer, and Dale Jamieson, argues that scientists often seek to speak with one voice on a given issue, believing that if they are not nearly unanimous in their findings, policy makers will find ways to dismiss their findings in favor of more politically acceptable alternatives.

“We found little reason to doubt the results of scientific assessments, overall. We found no evidence of fraud, malfeasance or deliberate deception or manipulation. Nor did we find any reason to doubt that scientific assessments accurately reflect the views of their expert communities. But we did find that scientists tend to underestimate the severity of threats and the rapidity with which they might unfold.

“Among the factors that appear to contribute to underestimation is the perceived need for consensus, or what we label univocality: the felt need to speak in a single voice. Many scientists worry that if disagreement is publicly aired, government officials will conflate differences of opinion with ignorance and use this as justification for inaction. Others worry that even if policy makers want to act, they will find it difficult to do so if scientists fail to send an unambiguous message. Therefore, they will actively seek to find their common ground and focus on areas of agreement; in some cases, they will only put forward conclusions on which they can all agree. This has had severe consequences, diluting what should have been a sense of urgency and vastly understating the looming costs of adaptation and dislocation as the planet continues to warm.”

Damn those timid, consensus seeking scientists! This is all their fault! Up until about 1960, there was a popularly held belief among scientists that changes in climate took place over thousands, tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of years. But there were some anomalies in the historical record, particularly a period of about 1300 years after the end of the last Ice Age when the Earth seems to have cooled rather precipitously. Dr. Wallace Broecker of Columbia University published a paper in which he suggested changes in ocean currents could lead to quite rapid climatic changes. Oceanographers have detected similar changes recently.

The problem is this. For the majority of climate scientists, the range of possible climate changes were confined to a scale of 1 to 10. Boecker’s hypothesis was more like 100 — the pace of change he posited would be ten times more rapid than the upper extreme generally accepted by the scientific community. Broecker was an outlier and by a wide margin.

In the 1990s, scientists completed more precise studies of ice cores extracted from the Greenland ice sheet. Dust and oxygen isotopes encased in the cores provided a detailed climate record going back eons. They revealed there had been 25 rapid climate change events during the last glacial period.

The evidence in those ice cores would prove pivotal in overturning conventional wisdom, Eugene Linden writes. Science historian Spencer Weart wrote an article for Physics Today in August, 2003 entitled The Discovery Of Rapid Climate Change. In it, he says “Only within the past decade have researchers warmed to the possibility of abrupt shifts in the Earth’s climate. Sometimes it takes a while to see what one is not prepared to look for.”

Today he says, “How abrupt was the discovery of abrupt climate change? Many climate experts would put their finger on one moment: the day they read the 1993 report of the analysis of Greenland ice cores. Before that, almost nobody confidently believed that the climate could change massively within a decade or two. After the report, almost nobody felt sure that it could not.”

In 2002, the National Academies of Science acknowledged that rapid climate change was a real possibility in a report entitled Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises. It said for the first time, “Large, abrupt climate changes have affected hemispheric to global regions repeatedly, as shown by numerous paleoclimate records” and added “changes of up to 16 degrees Celsius and a factor of 2 in precipitation have occurred in some places in periods as short as decades to years.” 16 degrees Celsius? Yikes! We are in deep, deep trouble.

Linden goes on to point out how rapidly changes in the environment are occurring today. Ocean storms are more powerful with significantly more rain. Ice at both poles is melting more rapidly than expected just 10 years ago and the permafrost that covers much of the northern hemisphere is melting as well. Sea levels are rising and average ocean temperatures are increasing faster than anticipated.

All of this, Linden suggests, is information scientists could have made available much sooner if they were not so constrained in their thinking because nobody wanted to go against the conventional wisdom. Of course, Linden has a point. But what he doesn’t mention is the scientific community has been terrorized by stooges hired by the fossil fuel companies to sow fear and doubt among the public.

They have distorted the meaning of e-mails among researchers to make it seem as though the scientists were deliberately cooking the books, ostensibly to enrich themselves with fat research grants. Climate scientists like Michael Mann have been put under surveillance and their every action scrutinized for telltale signs of bias. There is no discussion in Linden’s opinion piece about how these tactics of intimidation may have influenced members of the scientific community to understate their findings in order not to be seen as alarmists and thus adding to the feeding frenzy of those arrayed against them.

In the end, the important lesson from Linden’s piece is not that scientists may have understated the dangers of climate change. It is that evidence of rapid alterations in climate exists in the historical record and that all the predictions we are concerned about today may be wrong by several orders of magnitude. That, friends, is one scary prospect.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his homes in Florida and Connecticut or anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. You can follow him on Twitter but not on any social media platforms run by evil overlords like Facebook.


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