Sat 10 Jul 2010
Well, it has been an eventful day – the blog has been in existence for something like three days, and I’ve already been blown up by traffic over a post. Which, of course, is better than complete silence from the blogosphere. However, I am not one to subscribe to the idea that there is no such thing as bad publicity, so I wanted to clarify a few things.
First, from my perspective the evidence for anthropogenic climate change is very, very clear. This is NOT to say that all debate about the subject is over – after all, the climate is a tremendously complex system that we cannot know fully under existing methods (unless someone here has the means to locate every molecule in the atmosphere, and record their state, vectors and velocities simultaneously . . . oh, and then do the same for the oceans, land, and all life on earth, as the atmosphere interacts with all of that) – so we work in ever more refined approximations (the models of which, by the way, continue to converge with observed reality as we refine them, a strong sign that our approximations are at least on the right track). That leaves room for error, and surely we are making some errors now that will have to be corrected over time. Then again, there is room for error in our understanding of gravity, but I have yet to hear a convincing argument for trying to fly from my roof. Remember, the scientific method never proves anything – all you can ever do is fail to disprove something so often that it becomes very, very likely that you accurately understand whatever it is you are testing.
That said, I am not a climate scientist. I do understand the physics of climate change reasonably well, as I have had to pick up quite a bit in the course of my research and teaching. I also understand modeling reasonably well – I even sat in on a colleague’s graduate seminar on biogeographic modeling to refine my knowledge base. But again, I am not a climate scientist. So I am not going to dedicate a lot of blog space to the nuances of climate science, not when far more qualified people run outstanding blogs on the subject (check some of the sites in my sidebar). Those are the correct fora for such discussions. This, I hope, will be a forum for the discussion of the intersection of development and global change thought broadly – both economic and environmental change.
Second, the question of why I wrote the post in the first place. Contrary to Steve Bloom’s comment (whose comments were generally quite good), there was no unintended irony in my posting a complaint about IPCC communication that would become fodder for the climategate crowd. When I received that letter, I read the first two paragraphs congratulating me on my appointment to the IPCC and though “how nice”, and then my stomach dropped when I read the third paragraph (the focus of my post). If there is one truism about e-mail, once you hit “send”, it is out there for everyone to see. I knew immediately that it was only a matter of time until this letter, and its poorly-worded paragraph, was in the hands of people who already mistrusted the IPCC, to be used as yet another attack on the process. In my mind, it came down to this – should the complaint come from someone with credibility in the global change community, who clearly wants the IPCC to succeed, and who can frame the complaint around the idea of failed communication strategies (which is really what is at issue here), or should I wait until someone with the opposite agenda unloaded on the entire process? I believe I made the right choice.
Third, I think it is important to note that by the time Mickey Glantz posted my comments on his blog (which is great reading) and forwarded my post to Andy Revkin at Dot Earth, Revkin already had a copy of the letter. In other words, Mickey and I were not the only ones concerned with this paragraph – we’re just the ones who allowed ourselves to be named. I believe that by jumping in, Mickey and I helped shape the discussion of this paragraph, and moved it down a productive path toward a discussion of how we interact with the media and the general public. It is of some interest to note that by mid-day Saturday, all of the IPCC WG II members had been e-mailed a guide to interacting with media (Revkin posted a copy on his site). The guide is pretty polished – in other words, they had this ready, but had not yet circulated it. I cannot say that this little firestorm caused the secretariat to send this out, but its existence actually supports my complaint – the organization actually has very reasonable public outreach guidelines in place that do nothing to curtail our freedom to interact with the media or the public. But the letter made it seem like things were quite the contrary.
Hopefully this is clarifying. Or entertaining. Or something in between. Please resume your regularly scheduled websurfing.