Archive for January, 2006

On Donald Kennedy in Science, Again

January 19th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In this week’s Science magazine editor Donald Kennedy opines that “Not only is the New Orleans damage not an act of God; it shouldn’t even be called a “natural” disaster.” Could it be that he sees the significance of millions of people and trillions of dollars of property in locations exposed to repeated strikes from catastrophic storms? Unfortunately, not at all.

Prof. Kennedy is a Johnny-come-lately to exploiting Katrina for political advantage on climate change. He writes, “As Katrina and two other hurricanes crossed the warm Gulf of Mexico, we watched them gain dramatically in strength. . . We know with confidence what has made the Gulf and other oceans warmer than they had been before: the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from human industrial activity, to which the United States has been a major contributor.”

I suppose one could make the convoluted case that Prof. Kennedy is [just a bad writer/only talking about statistics/dumbing-down the science/anticipating inevitable future research results] and didn’t really mean to link Katrina’s damage (or Katrina) with global warming. But he did, clearly. The current state of science doesn’t support such claims. Let’s review:


A Question for RealClimate

January 19th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Here is a question for the RealClimate folks, which I hope that they will address on their site, and other relevant experts are welcome to respond as well:

What behavior of the climate system could hypothetically be observed over the next 1, 5, 10 years that would be inconsistent with the current consensus on climate change? My focus is on extreme events like floods and hurricanes, so please consider those, but consider any other climate metric or phenomena you think important as well for answering this question. Ideally, a response would focus on more than just sea level rise and global average temperature, but if these are the only metrics that are relevant here that too would be very interesting to know.

Here is why I ask: I am in the midst of a professional exchange with colleagues related to some published work and the issue has been raised that certain observed climate phenomena are “consistent with” modeled results. But it seems to me that give the incredible number of model studies any observed behavior of the climate system is “consistent with” some model study that has been published somewhere by somebody. The way to make such a statement more meaningful would be to clearly distinguish a priori what observations would be “consistent with” from those that would be “inconsistent with” climate model behavior. I have often seen claims about “consistency” but never a discussion of what observed behavior of the climate system would be “inconsistent with” current expectations.

I have more than a passing interest in this question, having a long-time interest in the role of models (PDF) and predictions in decision making.

Thanks much for all responses.

Past the Point of No Return?

January 19th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Advocates for action on climate change are in an interesting double bind. One the one hand, some may feel that motivating action requires strong statements, such as we saw in comments from James Lovelock reported in The Independent earlier this week, that human-caused climate change has “passed the point of no return.” On the other hand, if it becomes generally accepted that we have indeed passed the “point of no return” then this condition would render irrelevant the central objective of the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC), under which the Kyoto Protocol is negotiated, requiring a new debate on the basic objectives of international climate policy.

The central objective of the FCCC is described in its Article 2 as “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” But if dangerous anthropogenic interference has already occurred or is inevitably on its way, then “prevention” is not in the cards and Article 2 becomes meaningless. And re-opening up Article 2 for revision would be extremely contentious, which in my view would not necessarily be a bad thing. So to be consistent with the FCCC, those calling for action have to walk a careful line between rendering the FCCC obsolete yet still making a strong case for immediate action, hence the double bind.

I would expect that we will see this double bind play out implicitly in the context of the next report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as well as in the public statements of scientists on climate change. For scientists who support the FCCC, the only “politically correct” interpretation of the state of climate science is to claim that we are approaching a point of no return, and that we have a brief window of, say, 10 to 20 years to take action. Any other position on the science of climate change could be interpreted as rendering the Framework Convention moot (i.e., past the point of no return), or not generating a sufficient motivation for near-term action (e.g., a longer time-frame for action).

We should fully expect to see this dynamic play out as a debate among those advocating action on climate change. Those who are hip to the implications of claiming that we are “past the point of no return” will find themselves contradicting those who are unaware of the political consequences of such strong statements. I’d bet that there already such statements from politically-savvy scientists in response to Lovelock’s recent claims. All of this might be good for climate policy as re-opening discussion of Article 2 is desperately needed (e.g., see this paper in PDF for more discussion of the pathologies associated with the FCCC and its Article 2).

NEHRP fears came true

January 17th, 2006

Posted by: admin

I spent some time in early 2004 working on the Senate’s part in reauthorizing the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) in the 108th session. It eventually became law as PL 108-360.

NEHRP is a research direction and interagency coordination bill, with funding pieces in FEMA, USGS, NIST, and NSF. As the House Science Committee writes in its report on the NEHRP reauthorization bill (H.Rep. 108-246):

Currently the agency responsibilities within NEHRP include:

FEMA—overall coordination of the Program, education and outreach, and implementation of research results;

USGS—basic and applied earth science and seismic research;

NSF—basic research in geoscience, engineering, economic, and social aspects of earthquakes;

NIST—problem-focused earthquake engineering research and development programs aimed at improving building design codes and construction standards.

NEHRP was first created in 1977 as PL 95-124. The biggest change in this reauthorization was a switch from FEMA to NIST as lead coordinating agency. This change was requested by stakeholders such as the groups who joined the NEHRP coalition. These stakeholders saw an alarming disconnect by FEMA on natural hazards and disasters after FEMA was swallowed by the Department of Homeland Security in the post- World Trade Center executive branch reorganization. When stakeholders began asking Congress to take the lead role on NEHRP away from FEMA and give it to NIST, and when FEMA didn’t even bother to dissent, Congress seemed happy to agree.



January 17th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The website Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President has been uncharacteristically inactive in recent months. For example, the most recent posted speeches by OSTP officials John Marburger, Kathie Olsen, and Richard Russell are at least six months old. And with the exception of a report released last month on tsunami risk reduction, OSTP has been completely mute on substantive science and technology policy issues.

This seems pretty inconsistent with the quote from President Bush featured on the OSTP home page, “”Science and technology have never been more essential to the defense of the nation and the health of our economy”.

If it is so essential, then what gives with the absence of OSTP in the face of important science policy issues of the day?

Myanna Lahsen’s Latest Paper on Climate Models

January 17th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Myanna Lahsen is an anthropologist who spent about seven years embedded within the “tribe” of climate modelers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. She is presently a research scientist here at our Center, and for the last several years she has been conducting fieldwork in Brazil on the “interplay of science, culture, power and politics in international affairs through a focus on the Large-Scale Biosphere Atmosphere (LBA) experiment.” Her project website is here. Her work is rich in detail and strong in weaving together analysis from data collected through participant-observation.

Myanna just had a very interesting paper come out on climate models:

Lahsen, M., 2005. Seductive Simulations? Uncertainty Distribution Around Climate Models, Social Studies of Science, 35:895-922. (PDF)

The paper will be of interest to scholars in STS because it provides an alternative (and much needed) perspective on Mackenzie’s somewhat influential notion of the “certainty trough.” If you are interested in Myanna’s critique and elaboration of Mackenzie’s perspective, then have a look at the full paper. For those folks interested in the perspectives of climate modelers on uncertainty with respect to their models, I thought that a few excerpts from Myanna’s recent paper might be worth pulling out and highlighting. However, given the richness of the paper and importance of context for understanding her arguments, I would still encourage you to have a look at the whole paper. Meantime, the excerpts below will give you a sense of her analysis and arguments.

She starts by noting that her purpose is not to criticize models or modelers but to focus on how their creators understand them and their uncertainties. This is a particularly important subject because climate modelers are important contributors to policy debates and discussions on climate change.


Indur Goklany’s Rejected Nature Letter

January 16th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Indur Goklany, of the U.S. Department of Interior, shared with us the letter reproduced below which he submitted to Nature and had rejected for publication, as is of course their prerogative. However the letter is interesting enough that we thought it to be worth sharing, with his permission. It is a response to an article by Patz et al. which appeared in Nature last November. Patz et al. repeated WMO claims that human-caused climate change causes over 150,000 lives annually, which comes from McMichael et al. 2004 (here in PDF). Last year we commented on this WHO report, taking a somewhat different perspective than Goklany does below. Have a look, it is an interesting letter. Goklany has also had some smart things to say in his publications about adaptation and climate change.

Goklany Letter

Sir – It is astonishing to find a review article in Nature (Patz, J.A., et al., Nature 438, 310; 2005), henceforth “the Review”, whose major conclusion is taken from an analysis whose authors themselves acknowledge did not “accord with the canons of empirical science”. Specifically, its estimate, that anthropogenic climate change already claims over 150,000 lives annually, is based on the Review’s reference 57 which notes (on p. 1546)(1) that:


Re-Politicizing Triana

January 15th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

University of Maryland’s Bob Park, a generally reliable and always interesting commentator on science issues, falls well short of his usual standards in today’s New York Times in an op-ed on the termination of the NASA Triana satellite. Park chooses to go after cheap political points rather than engage the real substance of policy issues involving the convoluted and controversial history of Triana.

Park bemoans the termination of Triana and asks ominously, “Why did NASA kill a climate change project?”. He suggests a sinister conspiracy within the Bush Administration to “avoid the truth about global warming” and to transfer their “hated” of Al Gore onto the project he first proposed in 1998. Supposedly coming to Vice president Gore in dream, the original idea for Triana was based on putting a high definition TV camera far out in space where the satellite’s 24-7-365 view of the Earth would inspire people to be better stewards of our planet. In 1998 the Clinton White House issued a press release on Triana, which described the proposal as follows:

“Vice President Gore proposed today that NASA scientists and engineers design, build and operate a satellite that will make available a live image of earth 24 hours a day on the Internet … “This new satellite, called Triana, will allow people around the globe to gaze at our planet as it travels in its orbit around the sun for the first time in history,” Vice President Gore said. “With the next millennium just around the corner, developing this High Definition TV quality image of the full disk of the continuously lit Earth and making it available 24 hours a day on the Internet will awaken a new generation to the environment and educate millions of children around the globe. This new space craft will be carried into low earth orbit where a small motor will place it in orbit 1 million miles from earth at the L1 point (short for the Lagrangian libration point), the point between the earth and sun where gravitational attractions are balanced. The satellite will carry a small telescope and camera to provide these new compelling images … These images of the earth moved thousands of Americans and encouraged them to become active stakeholders in our planet’s wellbeing, Vice President Gore said.”


Spring Syllabus Online

January 15th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

This spring I am teaching a graduate seminar, “Science and Technology Policy”. The syllabus is online here. Comments welcomed.

Some Various Quotes

January 13th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Here are some quotes from things I read recently that I thought were interesting:

Former Colorado basketball player Chauncey Billups was not talking about grade inflation, but he might as well have been when he said, “When you have success and you’re not working as hard as you can, it can really be a curse because it gives you a false sense of what it takes to be successful.”

Havard’s Sheila Jasanoff has many wise things to say about science, policy, and politics. Here is a passage from her 1986 book, Risk Management and Political Culture, p. 72, about risk assessment:

“Scientific judgment must be exercised throughout, usually in full knowledge that different choices may lead to substantially different policy recommendations. Given this state of affairs, it is almost inevitable that a scientist’s personal and political values will influence his reading of particular facts.”

And page 70 has this gem,