Now I’ve Seen Everything

March 29th, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

NASA’s Jim Hansen has discovered STS (science and technology studies, i.e., social scientists who study science), and he is using it to justify why the IPCC is wrong and he, and he alone, is correct on predictions of future sea level rise and as well on calls for certain political actions, like campaign finance reform.

In a new paper posted online (here in PDF) Dr. Hansen conveniently selects a notable 1961 paper on the sociology of scientific discovery from Science to suggest that scientific reticence can be used to predict where future research results will lead. And he finds, interestingly enough, that they lead exactly to where his views are today.

What evidence does Dr. Hansen provide to indicate that his views on sea level rise are correct and those presented by the IPCC, which he openly disagrees with, are wrong? Well, for one he explains that no glaciologist agrees with his views (as they are apparently reticent), suggesting that in fact his views must be correct (a creative use of STS if I’ve ever seen one;-). If holding a minority view is a standard for predicting future scientific understandings then we should therefore apparently pay more attention to all those lonely skeptics crying out in the wilderness, no?

I find it simply amazing that Dr. Hansen has the moxie to invoke the STS literature to support his scientific arguments when that literature, had he looked at maybe one more paper, indicates that Bernard Barber’s 1961 essay, while provocative is not widely accepted (see, e.g., this book or this paper). And even if one accepts Barber’s article at face value which argues that scientists resist new discoveries (Thomas Kuhn, hello?), what Dr. Hansen doesn’t explain (as he is throwing out the IPCC model of scientific consensus) is why his views are those that will prove to be proven correct in the future rather than those other scientific perspectives that are not endorsed by the IPCC. (Dr. Hansen appears to ignore Barber’s argument in the same paper suggesting that older scientists are more likely to be captured by political or other interests when presenting their science.)

If we can use the sociology of science to foretell where science is headed, we could save a lot of money not having to in fact do the research. The climate issue is full of surprises and this one just about takes the cake for me. Now I’ve seen everything!

30 Responses to “Now I’ve Seen Everything”

  1. Don Thieme Says:

    I do not agree with Dr. Hansen that the problem with forecasting sea level rise is one of “reticence” or politics. Rather, it is an issue of scaling up from local studies and tide gage data to a global average rate. There is also another mathematical issue in that this recent rapid acceleration in the rate of rise is nonlinear. I think that is also why it is hard for glaciologists to work with the oceanographers and modelers on this. The melting of these ice sheets will represent discrete additions to the ocean volume, probably not reducible to a rate increment.

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  3. Benny Peiser Says:

    Can I suggest that someone gently informs Mr Hansen that 2500 of the world’s top scientists cannot be wrong. It’s the consensus. The science is settled and the debate is over.

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  5. Jonathan Gilligan Says:


    I read the Hansen piece and I just don’t see in it what you do—the assertion that reticence is at all predictive of correctness.

    What Hansen seems to be saying is more like, “I’m right and I have some straight science to back up my claims, but this nonlinear cliamte system is too complex anyone to make specific predictions backed by overwhelming proof. Most of the serious scientists basically agree with me, but in the absence of the impossible proof are reluctant to shout about it publicly for fear of seeming alarmist. This reticence of the community about jumping onto bandwagons with incomplete evidence may mean that we wait too long to clearly identify this new trend in ice-sheet loss.”

    Hansen seems more to be advocating applying a precautionary principle to standards of scientific evidence in cases where there may be catastrophic outcomes. Something like Condoleezza Rice’s famous “The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty…. But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

    I agree that Barber’s ideas are nothing special, but I fear you misunderstand the use to which Hansen is putting them. I just don’t see the assertion that reticence has any probative value.

    A much better version of Hansen’s line of argument was Pacala et al., “False Alarm Over Environmental False Alarms,” Science 301, 1187-88 (2003).

    To counter Hansen’s recommendation of clear warnings without the usual scientific nuance, I’d point to all the hay Rush Limbaugh, Dixy Lee Ray, The Wall Street Jounral, and others made of Mike Kurylo and Jim Anderson’s premature warning of an arctic ozone hole in February 1992.

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  7. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Jonathan- Thanks much for your comments. But based on what you’ve written, I don’t really see where we disagree. Your invocation of the precautionary principle is a good one in this context, because its limitations are the exact ones present here.

    If a distribution of scientific understanding has two tails around a consensus, then why should we be precautionary about one tail over the other, or even the consensus itself, (which is what Hansen is asking us to do)?

    George Bush invoked the precautionary principle, as you suggest, in arguing for the Iraq War, but one equally could have invoked it to warn of the risks of a quagmire and actually increasing terrorist risks. Just like the precautionary principle is an ineffective guide to action, so too is the principle of “scientific reticence” as a guide to scientific understandings.

    Your view that Hansen is saying that we “wait too long o clearly identify this new trend in ice-sheet loss” seems identical to my assertion that he is saying that one day in the future everyone will agree with what he believes today, so in other words he is indeed predicting the future state of scientific consensus (in addition to reality itself).

    I hope this makes sense, but if not ask again! Thanks.

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  9. Paul Dougherty Says:

    Wow! Jim Hansen mentions the necessity of slanting scientific papers to please both government funding agencies and the publications themselves. Gosh I thought it was only industry that unduly influenced scientists. He praises skepticism and talks of the natural reticence to speak out. Well that depends on what kind of skeptic you are as the cult over at RC will explain.

    Most importantly this physicist/modeler talks of the deficiencies of models in reproducing glacier activity. That expands his past exclamation, upon seeing the melting of the Greenland glacier, that his models had never predicted anything like that. Indeed. The list of things that climate models cannot predict or have been wrong about is long. Perhaps it is time to give those climate models a long vacation and return them to their proper status as mere tools.

    How about getting answers from the grunts in the field? Glaciologist Richard Alley said regarding extrapolating into the future, “we don’t know enough to give an answer.”

    So regarding polar melting and sea level rise, the models don’t work and the folks in the field don’t know enough. What’s left? It is Jim Hansen’s gut opinion and the opinion of other respected scientists like him that’s left and it should not be ignored. Nor should the opinion of the old skeptics be ignored. Climate science is extremely complex and uncertain; the opinions of scientists should be the same.

    Hopefully the political process will realize that the whole AGW thing is nothing but a collection of opinions and neither field data or sacred models produce any certainty whatsoever. Although both the religious and the atheist exist in the global warming play, it is really the agnostics who should prevail. Political action must be taken but with due deliberation not panic.

    I think this Hansen heresy is a good thing and confirms the breaking up of the consensus glacier that Kevin saw in Montreal.

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  11. Jonathan Gilligan Says:


    I think we disagree about whether Hansen claims predictive power for reticence. Despite this, we agree his prescription is terrible.

    You describe Hansen’s claims thus: “scientific reticence can be used to predict where future research results will lead.”

    I see Hansen claiming certainty not on the basis of other scientists’ reticence, but on the basis of his incredible intuition. Not much of an improvement, I grant you, but a distinction that’s important to make given the way you wrote your post.

    Relevant quotations from the Hansen article: “The nonlinearity of the ice sheet problem makes it impossible to accurately predict sea level change on a specific date. However, as a physicist, I find it almost inconceivable that BAU climate change would not yield a sea level change measured in meters on the century time scale.”

    He’s citing his expertise as a physicist, not the reticence of others as reason to believe his prediction.

    When he later writes, “Reticence is fine for IPCC. And individual scientists can choose to stay within a comfort zone, not needing to worry that they say something that proves to be slightly wrong” he’s acknowledging that his prediction might be wrong and that his comments about reticence are normative statements about what scientists should say rather than epistemological statements about what we know.

    If you’re right, Hansen claims that we can use reticence to reduce uncertainty, so precautionary principles would be moot. I read Hansen differently, saying that the uncertainty is real and the problem with reticence is that we need to be bolder about acting with incomplete information.

    You say that precaution is ineffective at guiding action, but that’s only if the two tails are somewhat symmetric. If one tail, but not the other contains severe and irreversible consequences, then a sensible person opts for some degree of precaution.

    As an aside, it’s a common mistake to cast discussions of precautionary principles as a false all-or-nothing dilemma: no precaution at all vs. paralyzing risk aversion. Most of us live our lives using precaution daily, but in moderation.

    So I have sympathy with Hansen’s policy goal to risk a false-alarm in order to head off a possible, but uncertain, catastrophic loss of ice.

    But I agree strongly with you that bringing this policy preference into the epistemological realm by asking scientists to judge truth based on possible consequences (come to think of it, what Hansen has done here is to rediscover Pascal’s wager: You should believe in God because you don’t want to risk damnation) can only undermine the credibility of science as a nonpartisan source of knowledge and analysis.

    The worst part of this is its arrogant technocratic attitude: the poor public can’t figure things out for themselves when we scientists argue, so we need to overstate our certainty and patch over our disagreements about the detailed science so we can present a clear and consistent case for our preferred policy without worrying whether what we claim with certainty turns out to be wrong.

    As I wrote in my previous comment, people tried this before and it turned out badly. Not just the 1992 arctic ozone hole but also the 1956 National Academy study which concluded that fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests was too weakly radioactive to cause cancer; Nuclear Regulatory Commission assurances shortly before TMI that meltdowns were impossible; and so on.

    Extreme opposition to the Yucca Mountain waste repository draws heavily on previous false assurances about fallout from weapons testing. Extreme opposition to nuclear power has much to do with false assurances that accidents couldn’t happen. Climate scientists should be careful not to similarly squander their credibility.

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  13. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Thanks Jonathan for the thoughtful contribution!

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  15. mz Says:

    Quoting Roger:
    “If a distribution of scientific understanding has two tails around a consensus, then why should we be precautionary about one tail over the other, or even the consensus itself, (which is what Hansen is asking us to do)?”

    Understanding the precautionary principle:
    The both tails of the probability distribution are not similar or equal policy options, if the other includes horrible catastrophes and the other not.

    Everybody’s familiar with the expectation value? If x is the outcome (say, temperature rise), and p(x) is its probability distribution and m the average outcome, and J(x) the cost per outcome, then expected cost necessarily isn’t J(m) (it can be of course), but is by definition integral of J(x)p(x) over all x. And if there are huge values of the cost J at big temperature x, they make even the expected cost big, even if p is small at those x. It doesn’t matter that much if there are very small values of J at small x.

    Now, I understand that Hansen is talking about these somewhat unprobable (small p(x)) but potentially catastrophic (big J(x)) events, which should command attention.
    If one says, hey, there’s another small tail at the other end too, that nothing will happen, so why should we care about this, it’s showing really really bad judgment.

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  17. Michael Kenward Says:

    “Can I suggest that someone gently informs Mr Hansen that 2500 of the world’s top scientists cannot be wrong.”

    Tosh. Science does not work by consensus. Way back in the distant past, a similar percentage of the world’s scientists thought that the world was created a few thousand years ago. Before that they saw the Earth as the centre of the universe.

    That is the wrong argument to make. It plays into the hands of the deniers.

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  19. Michael Jankowski Says:

    Certainly there have been issues in the past where scientists were wrong with dire consequences. Things certainly can flip-flop from safe to deadly and back to safe again, such as with silcone breast implants.

    Some skeptics like to bring up the “global cooling” scare of the 1970s, with some folks claming it was “only a few scientists” or at most “a handful,” and not a consensous like there is with anthropogenic global warming. I guess it’s good these scientists didn’t get the world caught-up in the precautionary principle and set back climate science by a decade or two.

    Hansen’s call is similar to how Gore expects everyone to rely on the IPCC and scientific consensous when it comes to most AGW issues but claims the scientists, “Don’t know…they just don’t know” when it comes to sea level rise. Gore also has no problem direly proclaiming we should be worried about a sea level rise orders of magnitude higher than the IPCC suggests.

    With Gore being a politician, I can understand his double-standard. With Hansen, if he wants to be quoted in Time or Newsweek on his opinions as such, that’s fine. But I don’t see why what is essentially his widely-opposed opinion and call to the precautionary principle belongs in a science journal.

    I’m not sure what to make of his call for a panel of scientists to summarize current sea level rise understanding. How would this report be different from relevant sections of the IPCC report? Would the scientists who contribute to this report be any different from those who contributed to the IPCC report?

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  21. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    mz- Thanks for your comment. You have conflated scientific understanding with policy action. It may be entirely appropriate to bias action in favor of precaution in a nonsymmetric distribution of outcomes as you have described. It is quite another thing to use the specter of potential catastrophe to argue why the tail of a distribution of scientific understanding should be at the center. Thanks.

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  23. Brian BAKER Says:

    It seems that Hansen is following Mick Hulme of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in saying that the science does not matter since by that you have to postulate a hypothesis and then skeptical produce n number of anti-thesis in order to disprove or prove the hypothesis. We are he says in the age of Post normal science i.e. not science at all as the following quote from an article by him in the Guardian (UK) states.

    “Philosophers and practitioners of science have identified this particular mode of scientific activity as one that occurs where the stakes are high, uncertainties large and decisions urgent, and where values are embedded in the way science is done and spoken. It has been labelled ‘post-normal’ science…The danger of a ‘normal’ reading of science is that it assumes science can first find truth, then speak truth to power, and that truth-based policy will then follow.”

    Nealy Marxist that. He stated that philosophere up to him that is, endevoured to explain the world: his role was to change it. In that process which he labled as “scientific” the analysis (dielectcal and historical materialism) looked at the class interests. So now we have to change class for bureaucrats and we are there.

    By the way – how is science education going in the US? Like us teaching the application and precautionary approach rather than the science.

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  25. Mark Whitney Says:

    Hansen is simply up to his usual tricks-promoting bad science. One poster declared that the debate is over and a consensus exists, the usual uncritical drivel from fundamentalist alarmists. If such a consensus does exist, then why is it necessary to endlessly perpetrate and perpetuate frauds such as Mann’s “hockey stick” and the ludicrous Stern Report?

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  27. mz Says:

    Roger Pielke Jr said:”You have conflated scientific understanding with policy action.”

    Nah, I have simply taken both into account. I never said I’d stick just on the “science side of the firewall”.

    I just felt it was worth pointing out that as a whole (science and policy both taken into account) it makes sense to concentrate more on the catastrophic tail, even if it’s unprobable, and direct scientific resources into researching that, than the “no consequences anyway”-tail. To characterize it better so that the policymakers can gauge the risks and costs.

    Shouldn’t science, at least partly, aid humanity in survival and well-being? Can’t the policymakers ask questions from the scientists? Does that make science political? Perhaps it colors it. But it’s still not the same as ordering certain results from the scientists.

    Interesting questions.

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  29. hank Says:

    >Now I’ve seen everything

    Isn’t this incorrect? The IPCC made clear they aren’t addressing questions raised since 2001 about sea level rise, specifically because the research came in too late for the deadline for this year’s edition.

    So in fact you should say “I haven’t seen everything” on this.

    If you put it that way, then you could question whether James Hansen, rather than your honest broker self, should take the lead in the process of calling together the proposed group of scientists, to address the sea level/ice melt information.

    Someone should, since that whole area — explicitly — wasn’t covered by the 2007 IPCC, so as to address it publicly before the next IPCC report comes out years from now.

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  31. Frank Says:

    Those who accept as gospel the scientific oracles espousing AGW frequently ask the question: “What if we do nothing and you are incorrect (in your assumption that man is not the culprit in GW)?” The subtext to that question is a not so veiled threat that those who are skeptical (I find the word “deniers” smells a bit too much like religious dogma) will be sorry as they experience what those who know better, i.e. “the faithful,” know will happen.
    Turn the question around. What if you do something and you are wrong? What will be the cost of doing “something?” If the assumptions are correct, only the most extreme measures will make any differece in the climate at all. The costs of forestalling even a small change would be quite high. Those hit hardest by the costs would be those least able to bear the burden. Those most financial able will continue to pollute and trade carbon to justify it.
    So, what happens when resources have been spent and the theory finally collapses? Who will have the resources to do what should have been done to start with – adapt to change?
    The fact is that there is a AGW jauggernaut being driven by ego and economics that is pushing for changes of dubious value based on science which is far from certain, much less settled.

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  33. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Hank- Thanks for your comments. Hansen is not simply saying that we need to interpolate the IPCC reports. He is saying that the IPCC report is too conservative, and not that it is outdated/superseded. I have no problem with subject matter experts getting together to produce a consensus document, for instance, the WMO hurricane effort was a major contribution.

    However, it seems to me that Hansen has already reached a conclusion and is looking for some way to legitimize it. He may very well be 100% correct in his views on ice sheets, but he probably should be careful in asking us nonexperts to discard the consensus model of science advice.


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  35. Richard Tol Says:

    Thanks, Roger, one would almost agree with Bush that Hansen should shut up.

    Hansen, like Rahmstorff, is not a glaciologist but pretends to understand ice better than true experts — and resorts to half-baked science sociology to prove his point.

    My glaciologist friends tell me that they do not really understand and really cannot model the fast ice dynamics. They know their predictions are wrong, but they cannot even say whether it is an upward or downward bias.

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  37. mb Says:

    “Hansen has already reached a conclusion and is looking for some way to legitimize it. He may very well be 100% correct in his views on ice sheets, but he probably should be careful in asking us nonexperts to discard the consensus model of science advice.”

    Hansen may have reached a conclusion and he may or may not be 100% correct (if he is then the consequences of BAU would certainly be greater than projected by IPCC). However, it seems to me to be a bit of an exaggeration to say that he is asking anyone to “discard the consensus model of science advice.” Rather, I would suggest that he seems to be raising an issue that probably deserves some consideration – the impact of non-germane (scientifically) factors in scientific discussion. This is certainly not a novel concern, for example Lesser et al (2007) “Relationship between Funding Source and Conclusion among Nutrition-Related Scientific Articles”. However raising this issue does not in and of itself argue for discarding scientific consensus – the question of whether “scientific reticence” has any role in influencing GW related research and reports could certainly be seen as relevant to discourse on climate change, potentially important, and I would think might be worth discussing on its own merits.

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  39. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    mb- Thanks for your comments.

    I’ve got no problem with Dr. Hansen “raising an issue that probably deserves some consideration” in the sociology of science. However, if he does so I think he has an obligation to actually engage a bit in the literature of the sociology of science, rather than simply cite a single paper when there is a much broader relevant literature.

    You write, “the question of whether “scientific reticence” has any role in influencing GW related research and reports could certainly be seen as relevant to discourse on climate change” … indeed it could, but not as presented by Dr. Hansen.


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  41. Paul Dougherty Says:

    I read Benny’s comment on consensus as funny sarcasm. Then several other posts seemed to miss the point and take him seriously. But then I read your post, “he probably should be careful in asking us nonexperts to discard the consensus model of science advice.” Now I am confused.
    I never knew that science pursued consensus. Paradigms come into existance but not through aspiration and to me they are negative. Does certainty increase when there is consensus? So when you use the term consensus model I assume that this is something unique to the science/policy process and not
    to science itself. Would you please expound on this?

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  43. hank Says:

    Roger, what do you mean by “interpolating” above?

    Of the science on sea level published since the IPCC deadline, which papers have you read? and do you consider any of those you’ve read significant enough to warrant concern before the next IPCC report?

    If you’re not talking about science published since the IPCC deadline, would you say so clearly? It’s awfully hard to tell.

    A list of papers would be most helpful clarifying your basis for the thread — what _have_ you heard, to say that you’ve “heard everything” on the issue?

    Here’s an analogous situation — the Montreal Protocol isn’t due for reconsideration for another decade, but most of the signatory countries, including the USA, are urging quite strongly for an early meeting to tighten and shorten the limits on production of hydrofluorocarbons, because the ozone layer science is exceedingly clear, the problem’s not going away as hoped.

    With sea level, there’s new science in since the last IPCC deadline; in the ordinary schedule it would not be considered until four or five years from now; the argument’s being made that it should be considered sooner.

    Would you please take the time to pin yourself down as clearly as possible about the basis for your thinking here? Show us how the science side of ‘political science’ is done — please.

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  45. Mark Bahner Says:

    “However, as a physicist, I find it almost inconceivable that BAU climate change would not yield a sea level change measured in meters on the century time scale.”

    Do you suppose James Hansen is willing to put his money where his mouth is?

    I’ll be happy to bet him $50 a year for the next 40 years that the sea level rise from 2000 to that year will be at a rate of less than 1 meter per century.

    In other words, in 2008, it sea level will be less than 8 cm higher than in 2000. In 2009, it will be less than 9 cm higher than in 2000. In 2010, less than 10 cm higher, and so on.

    Being the really nice guy that I am, I’ll even give him even money, instead of demanding that he give me 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 money when he loses. (It would be reasonable to demand better than even money, since he says that, “as a physicist, I find it almost inconceivable that BAU climate change would not yield a sea level change measured in meters on the century time scale.”)

    How about it Dr. Hansen?

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  47. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Mark- Better check those units …

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  49. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Hank- Thanks for your comments, here are some efforts to answer your questions:

    1. By “interpolate” I mean to summarize the science in between the IPCC assessment reports.

    2. I am not a sea level rise expert. The most recent consensus perspective is the IPCC report. If the science has advanced since that report was done then we need to “interpolate” the IPCC. This sort of “interpolation” made good sense in the case of hurricanes and I have no objections to sea level experts doing the same thing.

    3. You ask “what _have_ you heard, to say that you’ve “heard everything” on the issue?”

    That is a sarcastic comment referring to the fact that Dr. Hansen is using (inappropriately in my opinion) the sociology of science to make a point about the state of science, why he is correct and brave, and others are either wrong or cowardly.

    4. If Dr. Hansen’s point is that the science of sea level has advanced faster than the IPCC can handle it and we need more frequent scientific summaries then he might have said something like: “the science of sea level has advanced faster than the IPCC can handle it and we need more frequent scientific summaries.”

    The introduction of “reticence” as the basis for needing a new summary or why the IPCC is wrong simply doesn’t wash with me, sorry.

    Nonetheless, a more rapid assessment of the science of sea level certainly makes sense.

    Hope this helps, if not, please ask again. Thanks.

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  51. Tom Boucher Says:

    Dr. Hansen’s argument is simply…strange – When everyone agrees with you, you must be correct because that is a consensus, but when you disagree with everyone (the consensus), you must be correct because everyone is reticent – is he serious?

    I also agree that Benny Peiser was being ironic when he wrote

    “Can I suggest that someone gently informs Mr Hansen that 2500 of the world’s top scientists cannot be wrong. It’s the consensus. The science is settled and the debate is over.”

    An obvious irony.

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  53. Mark Bahner Says:

    “Mark- Better check those units …”


    100 cm = 1 meter.

    So if the sea level is going to rise at least 1 meter in the next 100 years, it must rise by an average of 1 cm per year.

    P.S. It’s currently rising at about 0.3 cm (i.e., 3 mm) per year.

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  55. hank Says:

    I have to ask who here knew about the Austin meeting before it happened; was anyone invited who’s posting here? And if not, why do you think their statement was so blunt and simple?

    “… Our understanding of ice-sheet flow suggests the possibility that too much melting beneath ice shelves will lead to “runaway” thinning of the grounded ice sheet. Current understanding is too limited to know whether, when, or how rapidly this might happen, but discussions at the meeting included the possibility of several feet of sea-level rise over a few centuries from changes in this region….”

    Seems to me this issue’s raised eyebrows and alarms from a variety of people, in a variety of forums, all rather much at the same time.

    The message seems more important than how you like the particular messenger or how you split hairs over the issue being raised.

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  57. hank Says:

    By the way, Mark’s info is a couple of decades outdated:

    “… the rate of sea-level rise during the 20th century has not been constant and that modern rates are more rapid than those determined by geologic studies conducted two decades ago. The current rate of sea-level rise at the mouth of the Chesapeake is about 4 millimeters per year (about 1.3 feet per century)” [as of 1998, when the rate had just begun to go up faster]

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  59. Mark Bahner Says:

    “By the way, Mark’s info is a couple of decades outdated:”

    “The current rate of sea-level rise at the mouth of the Chesapeake is about 4 millimeters per year (about 1.3 feet per century)” [as of 1998, when the rate had just begun to go up faster]”

    Yeah, right. Because the Chesapeake Bay is like the entire world, right?

    Why don’t you go to this graph posted at Real Climate within the past week, and tell me what rate of sea level rise *you* get from the “satellite altimeter.”

    It looks to me like approximately 3 cm per decade…or 0.3 cm (3 mm) per year.

    Hmmmm…that’s just about exactly like what I wrote, isn’t it?