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Gluckman gets it wrong: being alarmed is not alarmist Bryan Walker Aug 13

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On Sunday morning, Radio NZ National’s Chris Laidlaw interviewed the PM’s science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman regarding his recent report on the likely future impacts of climate change on New Zealand. In an intelligent interview it was good to hear the report being given more prolonged and thoughtful attention than the initial news items about it afforded. It’s not my purpose to comment on the report other than to welcome it and hope it carries weight with the government. But in the course of the interview Gluckman made a couple of comments which I want to challenge. I’ve transcribed, I hope accurately enough, the section of the interview in which they occurred.

Laidlaw: The report is remarkably restrained …you say in the introduction that the most probable future scenarios are cause for concern. But unless there’s some sort of political miracle we’re going to be looking at an average temperature increase of somewhere between 3.6 and 5.3 degrees centigrade over this century. This is rather more than cause for concern I would have thought. It’s going to be a catastrophe.

Gluckman: I would agree personally.

Laidlaw: Yet your language is very restrained in this

Gluckman: I don’t think the scientific community has done its case well by becoming emotive on this issue. I think that my role as science adviser is to collate the scientific information from experts and put it out there for the political and public processes to reach the conclusion you’ve just reached.

Laidlaw: Do you think that we have and that scientists themselves also have sort of overdosed on alarmism?

Gluckman: I think so and I think …scientists need to distinguish whether they’re being a knowledge broker and putting the knowledge forward to everybody or whether they’re advocates for a cause. And I think in the climate change area, for understandable reasons, a large number of scientists have acted more as advocates where I think what is needed is knowledge brokerage and that’s what I’m trying to  demonstrate and do  here.

I’m not a scientist but I’ve been following climate science as well as I’m able for several years now and have seen no sign of any climate scientists swapping science for advocacy. Indeed I’ve been struck by the caution and careful delineation with which their findings are typically presented. I’m not sure what Gluckman means by advocacy, or whom he is thinking of when he makes the accusation. Let us imagine he has James Hansen in mind.  Hansen certainly advocates action to lessen the impact of climate change. But he does so from the solid base of a distinguished scientific record which he has continued to build along with the advocacy role he has increasingly assumed in the later years of his career. Nor did he rush into an activist role. It was only after he became a grandparent and realised that the issue was mired in denial in the political world that he took up a public role of advocacy.

I have come to value such scientists as Hansen highly. I became deeply alarmed by the climate change issue six or seven years ago, all the more because the media, the world of government and the public at large seemed in denial that there was much to be concerned about. I wrote columns for my region’s newspaper for some time, trying to communicate some of the scientific findings I was reading about, but the arrangement was discontinued because of editorial anxieties about “balance”. In the apathy and ignorance which has long seemed the dominant public mood it has been important that at least some clearly well-qualified scientists have been prepared to voice publicly the alarm they feel at society’s failure to move away from fossil fuels to the abundant sources of clean energy. Who is better placed to communicate the message of innumerable peer-reviewed studies or the massive summaries of the IPCC? Certainly not retired English teachers like me.

I acknowledge the claims that the political world where policy is formulated has more to take into account than the scientific facts of the matter alone. But the voice of alarmed science needs to be heard as part of the mix with which policy makers are concerned. Otherwise it’s all too easy for governments like our own to settle for the gradual emergence of new energy sources while remaining determined to extract wealth from what remains of fossil fuels. Someone has to say that slow gradualism will not work, that the remaining fossil fuel reserves cannot all be burned without causing profound damage to the climate and the ecology on which human society relies.

Too emotive?  Overdosed on alarmism? Not at all. It’s the blunt reality of the science and it would be odd if scientists held back from saying so out of some anxiety that they might be thought to be compromising their science by their advocacy. One can be both knowledge broker and advocate. The two are not necessarily at variance. I can understand the PM’s science adviser avoiding advocacy in his report, but cannot agree with his judgment that that’s what climate scientists should generally be doing.

New Zealand’s changing climate and oceans: new Gluckman report out today Gareth Renowden Aug 01

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The Prime Minister’s science advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, today released a new report looking at the probable impacts of climate change in New Zealand over the next 40 years. The report, New Zealand’s Changing Climate and Oceans: The impact of human activity
and implications for the future
(pdf) is:

… intended to update the public on current scientific understandings of climate change and ocean acidification. In particular, it focuses on how these changes are likely to affect New Zealand’s climate and industries at a regional level over coming years.

The timing of the report — which appears at first glance to offer a reasonable overview of our current understanding of likely local climate changes — seems a trifle odd. In a matter of months the IPCC will release the first part of its Fifth Report, covering the underlying science, and while we’ll have to wait until March next year for the Working Group 2 report on regional impacts, Gluckman and his team would have had a firmer foundation for their report with only a modest delay.

I’ll be reading the report carefully over the next few days, and will have more to say in due course. I’m particularly interested in exploring how Gluckman approaches the risks associated with local climate changes, and his take on how the wider international context will impact New Zealand.

See also: Peter Griffin, NZ Herald.

Human stupidity and the NZ election (Heigh ho! Heigh ho!) Gareth Renowden Nov 23

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I’ve been writing about climate science and policy for the last five years, and taking an interest in the subject for far longer, but I’ve seldom read more depressing news than Fiona Harvey’s Guardian article last week – Rich nations ‘give up’ on new climate treaty until 2020. According to Harvey, expectations for the UN conference in Durban are low:

…most of the world’s leading economies now privately admit that no new global climate agreement will be reached before 2016 at the earliest, and that even if it were negotiated by then, they would stipulate it could not come into force until 2020.

Unfortunately for all the inhabitants of this planet, the atmospheric carbon load is increasing fast and unless emissions peak soon – no later than 2020 – we will be committed to dangerous, and quite possibly uncontrollable future warming. How in the name of your favoured deity did we allow that to happen? Here’s a clue: a few sentences taken from the environment policy statement of New Zealand’s National Party, who led the outgoing government, and who on current polling will lead the next after Saturday’s election:

We’ve introduced a more balanced approach to climate change … Ensured New Zealand is doing its fair share on climate change … Amended Labour’s ETS to strike a better balance between New Zealand’s environmental and economic interests.

The National Party document also claims the last (Labour-led) government ’set an impractical goal of carbon neutrality’. Well, have I got news for you, John Key and Nick Smith. Carbon neutrality is not an impractical goal – it’s what the evidence tells us we need to achieve, not just in New Zealand but around the whole world.

Here’s the first bit of evidence, taken from the NZ Climate Change Centre’s first Climate Brief, on The Challenge of Limiting Warming to Two Degrees1:

NZCCCEmissionsf3

This graph illustrates the practicalities of global emissions pathways, based on a simple idea — in order to give ourselves a 50/50 chance of staying under a 2ºC increase in the global average temperature, we can only emit 1,445 gigatonnes of CO2 from 2000 to 2050. If emissions had peaked last year, an annual decline of 1.3% would be all2 that’s required, but if we leave it until 2020, then annual cuts of 5% will be required, and global carbon neutrality will be necessary by 2050. Leave the emissions peak until later, and you rapidly run into impossible to meet rates of emissions reductions, and face having to suck prodigious amounts of carbon out of the air to meet the goal.

Carbon neutrality is therefore not an impossible luxury, but likely to be a necessity for the planet and New Zealand. A “50 by 50″ target just doesn’t cut it.

The National document also makes much of the idea of “balance”. They’re taking a “more balanced” approach to climate change, “striking a better balance between NZ’s environmental and economic interests”. There are actually two kinds of “balance” here, and they’re both radically mistaken. With respect to climate policy, and in particular emissions reductions, the government has chosen to ignore the best current evidence and pursue a watered-down set of objectives. This is portrayed as not so “extreme”, as if there were a middle course3 to be steered between doing what is necessary and doing nothing.

Global and national economies can only operate as a subset of the total planetary environment.

Then there is the idea that you can strike a balance between environmental and economic interests. This assumes that the two things are separate and separable, but nothing could be further from the truth. We can only have an economy because the planet provides us with resources of all kinds — and not all of them are renewable on an annual basis4. Global and national economies can only operate as a subset of the total planetary environment. The environment therefore imposes limits on what we can do, and we ignore those limits at our peril.

…these are the last years of the great human bubble

Accepting this fact is hard for most politicians, wedded as they are to the idea that economic growth as we currently understand it can somehow continue ad infinitum. Some pay lip service to the idea of sustainability, without understanding what it really means — living within our environmental means. There’s a real challenge here: how to design steady-state, truly sustainable economies that can give people fulfilling lives, and I can’t really blame our current crop of politicians for failing to realise that’s what they’re going to have to do sooner or later. They are a product of their times — as are we all — and these are the last years of the great human bubble.

Most politicians aren’t stupid, but they are very skilled at avoiding or ignoring evidence that doesn’t suit their ideology or which they suspect might be unpopular with their supporters and financial backers. Apart from selecting a new government this Saturday, NZ’s voters are also being asked to vote in a referendum on our proportional voting system, MMP. I would much rather be voting in a referendum designed to require politicians to produce evidence-based policies — that is, policies that are informed by the facts and the evidence, as the PM’s science adviser discussed earlier this year. Evidence-based climate policy would be a long way removed from what we see both in New Zealand and in the machinations around the post-Kyoto deal-making.

A final thought: humans can be individually brilliant but collectively stupid. What we are seeing in the politics of climate policy, nationally and internationally, is the latter, writ large. This weekend, New Zealand will vote for the politicians it wants to govern the country for the next three years. Climate policy — beyond some facile jockeying for position on the details of a watered down emissions trading scheme — has hardly figured in the campaign of either of the major parties. It has certainly not been fought over, or accorded the prominence you might expect of an issue that is going to shape human destiny over the next century.

At times like this, you can either laugh or cry. I choose laughter.

For a comparison of party and candidate policies on climate issues in the NZ election, I heartily recommend the efforts of Generation Zero here.

  1. The whole thing is well worth a read. Would that some of our politicians did so.
  2. All! References to relevant literature in the Climate Brief.
  3. A third way, even!
  4. Earth Overshoot Day 2011 — the day when the world starts dipping into natural capital instead of consuming renewable resources — was September 27th

Return of the Climate Cluelessâ„¢: there’s none so blind… Gareth Renowden Apr 17

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Sir Peter Gluckman, scientific adviser to NZ prime minister John Key, recently published a discussion paper entitled Towards better use of evidence in policy formation (pdf). It’s an interesting read for anyone who has ever noted the sometimes large discrepancy between political dogma and policy outcomes. Sciblogger Peter Griffin went so far as to describe it as “possibly one of the most important [papers] he has released thus far”.

Over in the land of the Climate Cluelessâ„¢ however, Richard “Climate Conversation” Treadgold has taken Gluckman’s paper as a cue to demand evidence of climate change. Treadgold appears to have forgotten that one of Sir Peter’s first acts following his appointment was to review the evidence and issue a statement on the subject, and is perhaps still smarting from Gluckman’s comments on climate denial last year. He therefore issues this stern challenge:

I would remind Sir Peter that evidence is required to establish the following key factors in the global warming debate – evidence that has not surfaced so far. We have been looking for evidence to show:

  1. The existence of a current unprecedented global warming trend.
  2. That the greenhouse effect is powerful enough to endanger the environment.
  3. A causal link between human activities and dangerously high global temperatures.
  4. That climate models have a high level of skill in predicting the climate.
  5. A causal link between atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and global temperatures.
  6. A causal link between global warming and the gentle rise in sea level.

Time to play some whack-a-mole…

Treadgold appears not to have been “looking” very hard, because there is plenty of evidence to address every one of his points.

We have been looking for evidence to show:

1. The existence of a current unprecedented global warming trend.

Warming_Indicators_480.jpg

All of these things confirm that the planet is currently warming (more at Skeptical Science). But is it unprecedented, I hear the pedants squeal? Well, no. But over the earth’s history, sudden rapid global warming is often associated with major extinction events — and you’d think that was something we might try to avoid.

2. That the greenhouse effect is powerful enough to endanger the environment.

The greenhouse effect is powerful enough to deliver the environment we live in, by retaining enough heat to lift surface temperature by about 33ºK. In other words, without greenhouse gases, the earth’s surface would average about -17ºC. Increasing that already large warming by adding more greenhouse gases can certainly “endanger the environment” as past warmings show (see above, and here).

3. A causal link between human activities and dangerously high global temperatures.

Human Fingerprints480

There’s no doubt that the current warming is being caused by increasing atmospheric CO2 levels, a direct result of human activity (burning fossil fuels, deforestation etc). As this Skeptical Science graphic shows, this view is supported by (at least) 10 lines of supporting evidence. But will the warming be “dangerously high”, the pedants pipe up? See the information on past warming events linked above, and then ponder on the Eemian, the last interglacial, when CO2 at 300ppm delivered sea levels 6 m higher than today and global temperatures 1ºC higher than present. Or what about the Pliocene, when CO2 levels equivalent to today delivered sea levels 25 m higher, and an Arctic as much as 13ºC warmer?

4. That climate models have a high level of skill in predicting the climate.

We don’t need climate models to understand where we may be heading, as the paleoclimate evidence demonstrates, but they are extremely useful tools for trying to work out what might happen. If we had two planets to play with, we could leave one with low CO2, and continue burning fossil fuels on this one to see what happens. Unfortunately that’s a luxury we don’t have. But do climate models have a high level of skill? They do pretty well by a wide variety of measures, but do you really want to risk waiting a decade or two to see how current models perform? Doesn’t strike me as wise, given 1. and 2. above…

5. A causal link between atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and global temperatures.

This is Treadgold’s blockhead moment. The “causal link” is basic physics, understood for 150 years (Fourier, Tyndall). More CO2 means more heat retained in the system, or the greenhouse effect he seems to admit exists wouldn’t. That’s about as clear a link as you can get.

6. A causal link between global warming and the gentle rise in sea level.

More basic physics that seems to have eluded Treadgold. If you warm up water, like most things it expands. Thermal expansion has been (until recently) the single biggest contributor to sea level rise and will continue to play a big part until the oceans reach thermal equilibrium — and that will take hundreds of years, even if we do manage to end our binge on fossil carbon.

Treadgold claims to be “looking for evidence”, but clearly hasn’t been looking hard — or perhaps at all. There is an obvious irony in his using a paper he hasn’t read to demand evidence he can’t be bothered to uncover or understand, but — and much worse — it’s a continuation of a long-term pattern of behaviour, as Hot Topic readers with long memories may recall.

When offered evidence, Treadgold adopts the Nelson defence. He can’t see it, so it doesn’t exist. But he’s been playing this game for so long that his demands and protestations cut no ice. Being blind to the evidence is not scepticism, it’s denial, and that’s an estate Treadgold has occupied for a very long time.

[Robert Palmer]

Terry keeps his clips on Gareth Renowden Jun 14

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As predicted, New Zealand’s tame band of climate cranks have waxed all pompous and upset about Sir Peter Gluckman’s perceptive comments on climate change denial. But I was wrong about one thing. Instead of Barry Brill stepping up to the plate, it’s the grand dame of NZ denial, Terry Dunleavy, “honorary secretary and webmaster” and co-founder of the NZ Climate “Science” Coalition who does the honours.

Terry’s piece is nothing new. Certainly nothing newsworthy. But I can’t resist quoting Richard Treadgold on the subject, because it made my day. Under the heading PM’s Chief Science Adviser must change – or go, Treadgold reproduces Dunleavy’s thoughts verbatim. But he can’t resist adding a final thought of his own:

I would suggest that our highly respected Sir Pete ought to acquaint himself with some real climate science if he wants to be taken seriously by the scientists in the NZCSC.

Gave me the best laugh of the day… “Sir Pete” is, I imagine, rather uninterested in what scientists of the calibre of — who, Vince Gray? — think of him. And the scientists in the C”S”C would do well to try to be taken seriously by — well, anyone, really…

[Former greatest living Englishman Viv Stanshall]

Gluckman: climate denial undermines all science Gareth Renowden Jun 10

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NZ PM John Key’s Chief Science Advisor, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, tackled denialism head on in a lecture at Victoria University of Wellington’s Institute of Policy Studies last night. Titled Integrity in Science: Implications from and for the Climate Change Debate [pdf of full text], it’s an interesting and worthwhile overview of the issue from someone steeped in the science. Gluckman’s thesis is that the tactics of those who deny climate change — for whatever reason (he defines three) — are undermining all science:

…in an electronically connected world the tactics of those who reject the consensus, whatever their motives, can undermine confidence in the entire science system. In a world that is increasingly dependent on science in many domains, I cannot regard it as helpful to actively promote distrust and suspicion of the scientific process for political ends.

Gluckman begins by discussing the nature of science and true scepticism, then moves on to define the climate debate thus:

At the heart of the climate change issue are three questions:

  • What is the rate of change in global temperature and what will be its local effects?
  • What is the level of certainty about these predictions and the assumptions made in reaching these predictions?
  • What is the nature of response that the world community must make?

The bulk of climate science and indeed the IPCC consensus approach has been an effort to deal with the first two questions.

Finding answers to the third question is the hard bit, because that’s where what science tells us feeds into policy decisions, and special interests and ideologies come into play. Gluckman defines three groups opposed to action on climate change:

…a small group of scientists who sustain a contrary view for a variety of reasons, some scientific and some not, those who have a vested interest in promoting denial and those who for a variety of reasons, largely philosophical, will reject the evidence.

One philosophy he considers in some more detail:

In particular, many with a libertarian ideology do not accept that the state should control how they live their lives, particularly when the actions required will not impact for a generation or so. The economic libertarian believes growth is paramount and if there is a problem then technology will eventually solve it. There seems to be some irony in accepting that science may solve a problem but that it cannot correctly identify the problem.

That might ruffle a few feathers. I suspect a pop-gun broadside will be on its way from Barry Brill in the near future. In reality, Gluckman is being rather cautious. I find it a little disappointing (if entirely understandable, given his position) that he doesn’t go on to describe how these groups have become intertwined, to the extent that climate denial is now almost a required position for anyone with strong right wing views. It’s also clear that the melange has been encouraged, planned and funded through a clever campaign by special interests. Gluckman notes the parallel with tobacco denial, but doesn’t draw the obvious conclusion: that the tactics and tools for delaying action were first developed there, and then transferred on to climate and other issues. If he hasn’t already got a copy of Merchants of Doubt or Climate Cover-Up, perhaps we should club together to send him copies…

The media plays an important part in all this, and Gluckman is pretty direct about the responsibility they carry:

The issue here that concerns me is that of how to communicate complex science. The public has a right to understand these issues and in the end they determine how society will respond. However without responsible media it is not clear how this can be achieved. Publishers, editors and journalists all have a role in ensuring quality in the information exchange.

He underlines his point by quoting from a recent essay and book review (pdf) by Philip Kitcher in Science (which is well worth a read in its own right):

’It is an absurd fantasy to believe that citizens who have scant backgrounds in the pertinent field can make responsible decisions about complex technical matters on the basis of a few five minute exchanges amongst more or less articulate speakers…’

He goes on a few sentences later to say:

’Those covering the questions in the media, have the duty to convey the results so that citizens can cast their votes as an enlightened expression of freedom, justifiably aimed at the outcomes for which they hope. Staging a brief disagreement between speakers with supposedly equal credentials, especially when it is not disclosed that one of them is answering to the economic aspirations of a very small segment of society, is a cynical abnegation of that duty’.

Clearly, communicating science in those circumstances is a difficult task, and Gluckman notes how difficult and frustrating that can be for working scientists. Naomi Oreskes (reported in a Revkin tweet) goes further:

Scientists and academic institutions need to expand definition of what their ’real work’ is: “The work is not done, in my opinion, until it’s communicated in a way that citizens understand.”

It’s just as difficult and frustrating for communicators who aren’t working scientists, forever playing whack-a-mole with arguments and ideas that have been repeatedly debunked, dealing every day with the deluge of denialist propaganda. And I can’t help but have sympathy for the under-resourced and hard-pressed non-specialist journalists who have to deal with the issue in New Zealand’s media. The easy option may sometimes be the only feasible option.

Gluckman’s key point, however, is that the encouragement of confusion and mistrust of climate science has wider implications:

There is a growing concern among those of us who have some role in marrying science and policy that the way the debate is being framed is undermining confidence in the science system.

I would put it more strongly. The tactics being used to delay and undermine action climate change are quite deliberately poisoning the interface between science and policy-making. It has become almost standard corporate practise to deny, delay and defer action. Policy-makers are left in an invidious position — especially when those corporates and their shareholders play a significant role in funding politicians and parties. John Key’s appointment of Gluckman was a step in the direction of a solution. One can only hope that the PM is following his advice.

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