Archive for the 'Opinion' Category

Climate Change: A fundamental shift of our place in the world

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

Climate Change: A fundamental shift of our place in the world

Richard B. Rood, University of Michigan

This blog appeared originally in the Michigan Journal of Sustainability, The Conversation: Climate Change: A Fundamental Shift of Our Place in the World.

A scientist colleague told me, recently, he had realized that talking to the press about climate change was not about education and outreach, and he was no longer sure of his role. During the 1990s at the federal research labs, there were initiatives to communicate science to the public. A common vehicle was a one-page popular summary of technical journal articles. An underlying premise of this public outreach was that there was one conversation, that of informing the public of meaning, value and societal importance. This naive notion of outreach did not recognize other types of conversations. Already in the 1990s, there was an emerging political conversation about climate change. There were also philosophical conversations about humans, nature, conservation and sustainability – some anchored in religious convictions. A more psychological conversation evolved about being responsible for doing damage to the planet.

As these conversations have evolved, scientists have thought more formally about communication. In one meeting of scientists, I said that every time a climate scientist wrote or talked it was potentially political. When scientists participated in interviews, blogged or sat on panels at the local museum, then there was almost certainly a political element that might be extracted from their words. Some of my colleagues were offended at my statement, maintaining that that they never spoke politically, only from dispassionate knowledge. I also maintained that most scientists are ill-prepared to participate in the political arguments.

Recently, Secretary of State John Kerry framed climate change, the persistent warming of the Earth and its consequences, in terms of weapons of mass destruction. Secretary Kerry and President Obama reached for the seemingly easy comparison of climate change deniers to those who believed that the Earth was flat before the European sea exploration of the fifteenth century. This comparison motivated a predictable and easy response from those who consider climate change to be an exaggerated risk, with the public presence of that risk being maintained by a community of self-interested climate change believers – the warmists. So now we have the warmist versus the deniers. This is yet another type of conversation – tribal, you are wrong because of who you are.


We are what we repeatedly do

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

Form of Argument: Adventures in Rhetoric

In 2009 I received some questions from Westview High School in San Diego, California (see here). A few weeks ago I heard from the same teacher, Bob Whitney, and he was curious about how I would respond to the issues raised in this posting on Rogues and Scholars. This is a long exchange of postings between two engineers, Burt Rutan and Brian Angliss.

In my blog, for better or worse, I have tended away from engaging in the type of discussions that are represented by this exchange. A couple of reasons: One, this line of argument that works to discredit climate change is at this point political, and as I argued here, engagement in this argument is not productive. Two, while it is necessary to address the factual inaccuracies that are stated in this type of discussion, it has been done repeatedly and well by many others (look around, for instance, at Real Climate). That said – what do you say to students who have the discussion between Rutan and Angliss at hand and want to make sense of it all?

When I look at the words used by Rutan, I see words anchored around fraud, dishonesty, alarmist – this is an argument that relies on discredit and personal attacks. Such an attack quickly raises the emotion and takes the discussion away from a knowledge base. It is the sort of attack that has become pervasive in our political conversation in general, and it is an excellent diversionary tactic. It raises the specter of distrust.


The Scientific Organization: Organizing U.S. Climate Modeling

Friday, September 30th, 2011

The Scientific Organization: Organizing U.S. Climate Modeling

Summary: In order to address the need to provide climate-model products, a new type of organization is needed. This organization needs to focus on and to be organized to support the unifying branch of the scientific method. This requires application-driven model development. This will require the organization as a whole to develop hypotheses, design experiments, and document methods of evaluation and validation. In such an organization the development of standards and infrastructure support controlled experimentation, the scientific method, in contrast to the arguments that have been used in the past to resist the development of standards and infrastructure. This organization where a collection of scientists behaves as a “scientist” requires governance structures to support decision making and management structures to support the generation of products. Such an organization must be envisioned as a whole and developed as a whole.


Over the past 25 years there have been many reports written about climate and weather modeling (example), climate and weather observing systems (example), high performance computing (example), and how to improve the transition from research to operations (example). A number of common themes emerge from these reports. First, the reports consistently conclude with commendation of the creativity and quality of U.S. scientific research. Second, the reports call for more integration across the federal agencies to address documented “needs” for climate-science products. De facto, the large number of these reports suggests that there is a long-held perception that U.S. activities in climate science are not as effective as they need to be or could be. The fact that there are reports with consistent messages for more than two decades suggests that our efforts at integration are not as effective as required.


Something New in the Past Decade? Organizing U.S. Climate Modeling

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

Something New in the Past Decade? Organizing U.S. Climate Modeling

Update: The report referred to in the original blog was released on September 7, 2012: National Academy of Sciences Report, A National Strategy for Advancing Climate Modeling (2012).

In 1999 I was part of a small group of people that was asked to write a report on climate modeling and supercomputing, and in particular, what needed to be done to make U.S. Federal efforts more effective. The report was published in 2000, and it is still available on line at the USGCRP website. (U.S. Global Change Research Program) Now in 2011 a panel is being convened to write about “A National Strategy for Advancing Climate Modeling.” (link) In this entry I want to return to the older report and think about what is different from 10 years ago.

When my co-authors and I wrote this report, we presented the results to several panels of distinguished people. Over the years, people have continued to send comments to me about the report. I contend that this report was different from a lot of other reports. I think it is safe to say that the authors of the report were chosen because of a willingness to look beyond their home agencies. Also we included as an author a sociologist who is expert in organizations and how to make organizations function.


What to do? What to do?

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

What to Do ? (1) Politics and Knowledge:

A few months ago a Republican candidate for State Office came to my office to talk about climate change. At the end of the hour he asked me how I thought we could advance beyond the current political state which is publicly characterized by, my word, tribalism – do you or do you not believe in climate change? Since I had recently posted an article on the subject (here), I had some semblance of an answer queued up. At one level the answer is time, but I will get back to that.

At the top of the strategy was the realization by scientists that climate change was, now, a political issue, and that within the realm of the political culture, knowledge-based education was not, first and foremost, the way forward. In fact, in many cases, the exposure of more knowledge, more science, was likely to have a negative effect, fueling the political turmoil, and damaging, more, the body of scientific knowledge. Nuance of the scientific literature adds to uncertainty, and all uncertainty can be used to build doubt, which is the goal of the political argument.


If Lady Chatterley’s Lover, then …

Saturday, August 7th, 2010

If Lady Chatterley’s Lover, then … :

The first paragraph of Sheila Jasanoff’s book, The Fifth Branch, starts

“Scientific advisory committees occupy a curiously sheltered position in the landscape of American regulatory politics. In an era of bitter ideological confrontations, their role in policymaking has gone largely unobserved and unchallenged. …” (1990, The Fifth Branch, Chapter 1, Rationalizing Politics; 2009 Interview with Professor Jasanoff)

The first chapter of The Fifth Branch is something that I think that all managers of science in the U.S. Agencies should read. The book, quickly and compellingly, describes the role of scientists in the U.S. political environment. There are references to and case studies of many instances where scientific investigation is motivating and informing policy. There are examples from environmental science, from waste management, and from approval and management of prescription drugs. The book makes it clear that if scientific investigation suggests a need to change, to regulate, or to restrict a certain practice or behavior, then there is a response to oppose that change, that regulation, or that restriction. The depth and vigor of the opposition depends on the wealth and power of those who perceive themselves as impacted; there is often the funding or the advocacy of “opposition science.”


Facilitating Disruption

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”

Yesterday I got into an exchange with a person who posted a comment wishing the curse of a pox to the students writing on the UoMichigan COP15 Blog . It reminded me of Joseph Welch’s question to Senator Joe McCarthy, “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” (Welch-McCarthy Exchange from American Rhetoric)

In the United States we devolve into something that is more like tribalism with sides taken based on the color of your uniform or who pays you the most. Discussion is based not on ideas and solutions, but on who makes a statement. Issues are advocated, and ideas are placed into extremes that take on attributes such as good and evil, for and against. The other side is wrong, and their intentions are of hidden control or hidden profit. This threatens our credibility and our viability.

US Senators pursue an investigation of climate science based upon the stolen and published correspondence of a small clutch of prominent scientists. Here at the Conference of Parties (COP15) in Copenhagen the news says that we should anticipate a visit by Congressman Sensenbrenner to call for the end of “climate fascism.” This will place this US political tribe in solid alliance with, perhaps, Saudi Arabia. (more…)

Sustainability, Climate Change, and the Role of the University

Friday, October 30th, 2009

This post is something in the spirit of an essay. These are a few introductory paragraphs on a big picture view of sustainability, climate, global warming, and, ultimately perhaps, on the expanded role that I think educational institutions will have to take going forward.

Sustainability, Climate Change, and the Role of the University

Cultures, civilizations, and nations have evolved in the past 5000 years within a temperate climate with stable sea level. The accelerated growth of economies and population since the European Renaissance has relied on ready sources of energy and the ability to discover and utilize new sources of minerals and ecosystems. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-nineteenth century, we have been able to change, on a global scale, the basic physical and biological characteristics of the land surface and the composition of atmosphere and the ocean. These anthropogenic changes are significant enough that we now influence the mean state of the environment on local, continental, and global scales. Air quality is a defined and managed resource. Decisions made in land use and land management influence local and regional temperature, precipitation, ground water replenishment and water runoff. The increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have and will warm the surface of the Earth; melt the abundance of fresh water held in snow, glaciers, and ice sheets; lead to rises in sea level that are unprecedented in human experience; and cause more violent storms, more flooding rains, and more severe droughts. Humans and the enterprise of humans are an integral part of the energy balance that is the Earth’s climate. Moving forward a sustainable planet will require us to take responsibility for managing the climate. No longer can we count on the discovery of new lands for resources – and no longer can we dispose of our waste into the atmosphere and ocean without regards to the consequences of our behavior.


Science and the Carbon Market

Sunday, March 29th, 2009

Science and the Carbon Market

With the change of U.S. administrations, there is renewed discussion of climate change policy. Ideas at the forefront are environmental pollutant markets and tax-based controls. The market-based approach, called cap and trade, is posed in opposition with the tax-based approaches. This polarization is not a useful or correct way to advance policy.

The advocacy of a cap and trade market follows from the success of the sulfur market, which controls acid rain. The amount of pollutant that can be tolerated is informed by scientific investigation. This leads to a “cap” on the amount. (more…)

Science, Belief and the Volcano:

Sunday, March 8th, 2009

Science, Belief and the Volcano:

In January 2008 there was an article in the National Geographic called the The Gods Must Be Restless. The author, Andrew Marshall, describes Mbah Marijan, who has the job of satisfying the ogre that inhabits the volcano Merapi in Indonesia. The volcano is about to explode, the government has ordered an evacuation and Marijan is not convinced. Quoting the article:

“The alerts are merely guesses by men at far remove from the spirit of the volcano. The lava dome collapse? ‘That’s what the experts say,’ he (Marijan) says, smiling. ‘But an idiot like me can’t see any change from yesterday.’ ” (more…)