State of climate science

Via Clean Break, John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, offers some useful thoughts on the recent controversy surrounding the emails stolen from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. Holdren touches on the current state of climate science, the significance of the emails, and the nature of the scientific process.

Some excerpts from the transcript:

> It’s important to understand that these kinds of controversies and even accusations of bias and improper manipulation are not all that uncommon in science — in all branches of science. The strength of science is that these kinds of controversies gets sorted out over time as to who is wrong, who is right, and how much it matters, by the process of peer review and continued critical scrutiny by the knowledgeable community of scientists. Of course, openness in sharing of data and methods is very important to this process…

> There is and there will remain after the dust settles in this current controversy a very strong scientific consensus on the key characteristics of the problem. Global climate is changing in highly unusual ways compared to long experience and expected natural variations. The unusual changes match what theory and models tell us would be expected to result from the very changes in the atmosphere that we know have been caused by human activities — above all burning fossil fuels and tropical deforestation. Significant impacts on human wellbeing from these changes in climate are already being experienced. And continuing with business as usual in the fossil fuel burning and tropical deforestation activities that are the largest contributors to these changes in the atmosphere is highly likely to lead to growth of the impacts to substantially unmanageable levels…

> I emphasize again that in my judgment and that of the great majority of other scientists who have seriously studied this matter, the current state of knowledge about it — even though incomplete, as science always it is, and even though controversial in some details, as science almost always is — is sufficient to make clear that failure to act promptly to reduce global emissions to the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and other heat trapping substances is overwhelmingly likely to lead to changes in climate too extreme and too damaging to be adequately addressed by any adaptation measures that can be foreseen. The United States — as the largest contributor to the cumulative additions of anthropegenic greenhouse gases to the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution; and still today the second largest emitter after China; and as the world’s largest economy and preeminent source of scientific and technological innovation — we have the obligation and the opportunity to lead the world in demonstrating that the needed emissions reductions can be achieved in ways that are affordable and consistent with continued economic growth.

The journal Nature also recently offered some apt comments:

> A fair reading of the e-mails reveals nothing to support the denialists’ conspiracy theories…If there are benefits to the e-mail theft, one is to highlight yet again the harassment that denialists inflict on some climate-change researchers, often in the form of endless, time-consuming demands for information under the US and UK Freedom of Information Acts…

> In the end, what the UEA e-mails really show is that scientists are human beings — and that unrelenting opposition to their work can goad them to the limits of tolerance, and tempt them to act in ways that undermine scientific values. Yet it is precisely in such circumstances that researchers should strive to act and communicate professionally, and make their data and methods available to others, lest they provide their worst critics with ammunition. After all, the pressures the UEA e-mailers experienced may be nothing compared with what will emerge as the United States debates a climate bill next year, and denialists use every means at their disposal to undermine trust in scientists and science.

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  1. michael - December 9, 2009

    Unfortunately the science community doesn’t freely exchange data as quickly as mother nature freely exchanges warm and cold air…and please give me my two seconds Adam…”even though we do not know everything” it is clear, and has been clear to me, that our activities are changing this planet.
    Science requires funding to operate, so how do we build a collaberative effort whilst not injuring the initiative? I certainly don’t know.

  2. Woody - December 9, 2009

    Holdren’s words are exactly correct and clear. So why all the controversy over what is so obviously right? Unfortunately, a big problem lies in the fact that most people hear words like his through the mass media, which creates its own reason for existing by continually pairing the clear truth of the world’s best and brightest with the words of people who have vested interests in creating doubt. Our commercial news media ultimately does as much harm as it does good. Most issues are split nearly 50/50 because the media has carefully manipulated the dissemination of information with this inevitable result. Thus both sides will keep tuning in or logging on to learn of the latest bit of give or take in a tug-of-war that will continue as long as the media can fuel each side of the controversy. And they are the best and brightest at doing just this!
    It’s a frustrating situation, but the only thing to do is to keep pressing forward with the truth. New information is becoming available all the time supporting the scientific consensus. We need to keep using it to keep naysayers at bay. It will be a never ending effort.