The Island of Doubt

The reaction from the scientific community to NASA Administrator Michael Griffin’s lack of concern over climate change is blunt. Here are some examples. First, from Jim Hansen, who works for Griffin: “I almost fell off my chair. It’s remarkably uninformed.”

Next we have Berrien Moore, director, Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space at the University of New Hampshire: “I don’t understand it. I’m really stunned that he could say something like that. I mean, I really find it shocking.”

And then there’s Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences at Princeton University: “It’s astounding that the head of a major US science agency could hold such attitudes, basically ignorance about the global warming problem. In fact, it’s so astounding that I think he should resign.”

Those three comments were broadcast this morning on NPR, the same outlet that broadcast Griffin’s thoughts on the subject yesterday. USA Today, meanwhile, quotes Jerry Mahlman, a former top scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and now a member of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, saying Griffin’s remarks suggest Griffin is either “totally clueless” or “a deep anti-global warming ideologue.”

Elsewhere at ScienceBlogs, the focus is on Griffin’s suggestion that it’s “arrogant” to take a side on the issue. We have Janet, who asks “Is it arrogant to want to use our scientific knowledge?” and Steinn points out that “whaterver we do, we are making a choice, and it is an arrogant choice no matter what.”

SciBlogger Chris Mooney, writing at the Huffington Post, asks: “How can anyone think this is not a tremendous societal risk, even if there might be some people–in, say, Buffalo, New York–who may actually have more pleasant weather under global warming?”

So far, that’s it for scienceBlogs. Frankly, I was expecting more. Perhaps I am being a little impatient.

All this about a man who oversees the lion’s share of American government research on climate change. A man with six graduate degrees in physics and engineering, as well as an MBA. Maybe that last degree, from Loyola College, is the source of the problem. MBAs make me nervous.

Comments

  1. #1 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    June 1, 2007

    …or “a deep anti-global warming ideologue.”

    Do you think it’s a mere coincidence that the manned-mission to Mars program sucked the funding out of various climate study missions? I don’t.

  2. #2 Arnaldo Rodriguez
    June 1, 2007

    All the reaction from the “scintific community” agaist Mr. Griffin are personally. No one contradicts is expressed data:
    1 A recorded rise in temperature for the past 100 years with an accuracy of 0.2 degree centigrade. Will this trend keeps for the next 100 years?
    2. Is the climate that we have now better that a warmer weather? agricultural production could improve with a warmer weather
    3 The fact that climate has always been changing.

  3. #3 matthew
    June 1, 2007

    James, you need to update your post with these new brilliant defences for Griffen. http://thinkprogress.org/2007/06/01/griffin-npr-nasa/

    Prepare to have your mind blown even more.

  4. #4 Luna_the_cat
    June 1, 2007

    Arnaldo — there are only so many times that people can answer the same, already-answered, overly simple objections and questions as presented by the apparently endless stream of people who can’t be bothered to go out and find the previously published information and discussions. I would guess that Mr. Hrynyshyn did not cover your particular questions because he hit that limit. I hit that limit about three years ago, myself.

    Please, please, go somewhere like RealClimate.org and spend a few hours working through the archives; perhaps you’ll get a better feel for the real answers to your questions. Or is the problem that you don’t want to do that kind of work? Do you need short, simple answers that don’t span more than a sentence or two, at most? I appreciate the fact that English is probably a second language for you, and not necessarily easy, but still, there needs to be some work put into reading.

    But, you want simple, so here, try this:

    1. Probably not; the best understanding available at this moment is that warming will accelerate sharply when current carbon sinks, such as the oceans and northern peat bogs, become carbon sources in response to the warming which has already happened. This is what is called a “positive feedback cycle.”

    2. Agriculture also depends on water supply and precipitation, not to mention the fact that there is an issue with distribution to various populations. If northern Siberia becomes productive cropland while the American Midwest and the bulk of Africa become dustbowls, how many people do you think will benefit from this?

    3. Yeah, no sh**. And for the vast majority of earth’s history, there haven’t been many humans around to worry about food supply, either. A human population of over 6 1/2 billion, many of whom live in crowded cities on low-lying coasts, and who depend on a delicate global economy, is as far as we know unique in the history of the planet — and this situation has arisen in a magnificently stable and temperate period of 7,000 years since the end of the Younger Dryas glaciation. So, let’s just go end this cool stability, shall we?

  5. #5 Donald Wolberg
    June 1, 2007

    Climate stable for 7,000 years…what world is that…not earth…I suspect Dr. hansen is less informed than he claims to be and wonder if he passed intro Historical Geology or looked at a history of life/paleoebvironments book. He certainly seems to like the attention and is more political than not. These are not good traits for a scientist.

    By the way, the last million or so has seen more than a dozen, perhaps 15 really cold intervals separated by the name number of warm intervals…hmmmm

    Cretaceous CO2 seems to have been 8-10 times the present; Oz perhaps 28% not 20.9; Devonian O2 was likely 32% and Permo-Triassic O2 14% (and most of anything alive in the world died); The tewrtiary recor of O2 has been generally down, and I suspect i would be more concerned about figuring that out than worrying about CO2 measured in ppb..but then the perspective of old fossils is a bit different.

  6. #6 Trade-winds
    June 1, 2007

    “I guess I would ask which human beings – where and when – are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that’s a rather arrogant position for people to take.”

    He should have said – ‘I guess I would ask which species – where and when – are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other species. I think that’s a rather arrogant position for humans to take.”

    I vote for 72.5 degrees.

  7. #7 QrazyQat
    June 1, 2007

    Also for Arnaldo,
    Deltoid (do a search) is a blog which also has lots of good info on the subject, and at either there or RealClimate you’ll find a link to the recent Grist list which answers these points and many more. All the points you raise are what are called “zombies” because they keep coming back, being used over and over, even though they’ve been thoroughly and accurately killed many times now.

    One quick point, because many innocently niave people assume that GW just means things get warmer. GW means the average gets warmer; some places would get colder, many warmer, and the bigger problem is the unsettled weather and changing weather patterns (more rain some places, less others, more and fiercer storms, that sort of thing). If we were just showing up at this planet and settling in for the first time, this would not be a problem, but we aren’t. We’ve settled into the place pretty thoroughly and set up our lives and our farming, etc., around pretty much the weather patterns we have. Drastically altering them now will make big problems.

    Another example is things like marine life stocks — fish, shellfish — a small change in seawater temps means that some species can’t live where they did and others can spread. This means invasive species (which are virtually always a problem) and dying out of wild stocks we depend on. (The Pacific coast of North America is seeing this already.) Again, if we were just showing up, or even if we were very thinly spread around the globe and didn’t use much of those stocks, this would not be a problem, but we didn’t just show up and we depend heavily on those stocks, and that’s a big problem.

  8. #8 Scholar
    June 1, 2007

    Jim, we look to you for answers first. I know you don’t like to make stuff, so the best we can do is tell em what we (you) know. Thanks for keeping tabs on the planet for us!

  9. #9 Renaisauce
    June 1, 2007

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that he was absolutely right in saying what he said. I’m assuming that he actually has had a few briefings about global warming as NASA head, especially since federal funding for climatology experiments help out with a lot of his current projects. Let’s also assume that he learned how to study and retain information on his way to all those doctorates. So, let’s stop saying that what he said was ignorant, because I’m willing to bet that he isn’t. The question is, why did he say it?

    One reason that I’m glad he said what he did is because we need a NASA head who is skeptical. I don’t want a leader with a strong global warming agenda. That’s not his job. His job is to lead an organization with scientific goals, of which only a fraction is overseeing data gathering for climatology experiments.

    We already have a GW crusader there as his climatologist- they can’t both be, or it risks skewing the purity of the research, resulting in more data that is interpreted to say things about the climate that they really don’t (and it wouldn’t be the first time, in any field.) Leadership has to have balance, and I think he’s right to be reluctant, if only to maintain that balance. It makes the climatologists keep working for their bread.

    That being said, I think you’ll see him expounding on his position in the next week, and I think you’ll see some, but entire retreading, and a restatement of NASA’s official position (which is gathering, not policymaking). I say we give the guy a little air to do his job and be grateful for a scientific thinker who remains critical.

  10. #10 llewelly
    June 1, 2007

    Arnaldo Rodriguez :

    3 The fact that climate has always been changing.

    Present CO2 levels (about 379 ppmv) are at the highest in over 400,000 years. ( here .)

    If CO2 levels remain that high, for a long period of time (no more than a few centuries), global climate will be perturbed well beyond the range of changes during the last 400,000 years – the period in which homo sapiens and our immediate ancestors evolved.

    The range of past climate variations is primarily (there are other lesser factors, such as Milankovitch cycles) constrained by the range in CO2 levels – between 180 ppmv and 310 ppmv . If CO2 levels remain outside of that range for long, we will be in a climate radically different from past changes, and from anything we evolved to cope with.

    Today, human activities add over 6 trillion (6 * 10^12) kilograms of carbon to the atmosphere each year, resulting in a 1-2 ppmv rise in CO2 concentrations per year.

  11. #11 Luna_the_cat
    June 1, 2007

    Ok, I have to address some of this. Donald:

    Climate stable for 7,000 years…what world is that…not earth…

    If you knew half as much about paleoclimate as you seem to think you do, you would be aware of the temperature swings of up to 15degC, as the earth fluctuated between freeze and fry points of stability. These temperature swings were accompanied by sea level changes of up to 300 meters or more. Since the end of the Younger Dryas and the abrupt leap upward of the global mean temperature by ~10degC, which happened roughly 7,000 years ago, variation has been less than 1degC in either direction, in the main, with consequently small shifts in sea level. So, yes…stability.

    By the way, the last million or so has seen more than a dozen, perhaps 15 really cold intervals separated by the name number of warm intervals…hmmmm

    Fer the love of little green apples, do you even know what Milankovitch cycles are?? Do you understand the concept of “cycle” being predictable? Do you understand that possibly, just possibly, people who spend their adult lives studying climate are smart enough to check for natural cycles — or are you one of those people who feels that somehow, tens of thousands of people in hundreds of institutes in dozens of countries of differing languages, religions, and political affiliations are all in some vast conspiracy to conceal this dreadful weakness of research?

    Cretaceous CO2 seems to have been 8-10 times the present; Oz perhaps 28% not 20.9; Devonian O2 was likely 32% and Permo-Triassic O2 14%…

    Your numbers are…the kindest word I can apply is odd. Certainly I have never seen them before now. Source, please?

    Permo-Triassic O2 14% (and most of anything alive in the world died)

    Ok, there was some drop in O2, but you need to think this through with me. Free oxygen in the atmosphere comes from photosynthesis; there is no source of free oxygen other than photosynthesis which can or would provide more than an atmospheric O2 content of more than 1%. Hence the fact that prebiotic earth didn’t have it, and the formation of banded iron rocks charts increasing concentrations of O2 with the advent of photosynthetic algae. With me so far?

    Ok, so what happens when huge areas of plant life and algae die?

    Oxygen drops, maybe?

    The trigger for the extinction boundary caused the drop in oxygen, hon. The drop in oxygen was subsequent to the initial extinction, although it could well have fed back to further animal extinctions, after.

    I suspect i would be more concerned about figuring that out than worrying about CO2 measured in ppb

    CO2 is measured in parts per million by volume, not parts per billion; and you are one of those people who seems to think that because there is only a little of it, it can’t have a big effect. Trace gases can have a huge effect, Donald, because chemistry and physics simply work that way. A scant few molecules of black widow venom will kill a horse, too; effect in very many cases in nature is not linear to quantity of source. Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is a trace gas in the atmosphere as well, present in far, far smaller quantities than CO2 (roughly .000000003% of the atmosphere, to be exact) — but boy, oh boy, you sure know when it’s around.

    Think about this a little, ‘k?

  12. #12 Andy
    June 1, 2007

    Griffin doesn’t like Earth sciences, stat. I heard him speak at AGU a couple of years ago. NASA is an exploration agency, not just a science agency, he said, and he was pretty pugnacious about it.

    I also heard the NPR interview. I was pretty stunned (a) with his sceptical approach to climate change science and (b) that as the head of an agency that employs many scientists working in weather, climate and earth sciences, he did not make a stronger point that NASA does that. “Yeah, we have those people, but what we really want is a moonbase.”

  13. #13 QrazyQat
    June 4, 2007

    One reason that I’m glad he said what he did is because we need a NASA head who is skeptical. I don’t want a leader with a strong global warming agenda. That’s not his job. His job is to lead an organization with scientific goals, of which only a fraction is overseeing data gathering for climatology experiments.

    The position he took was not skeptical, because skeptical does not mean denying what has become plain — similarly, creationists aren’t “skeptics” about evolution in nay meaningful use of the word “skeptic”. The evidence is far too strong, and all on one side, which means that anyone who doesn’t accept it is a denier, not a skeptic. WE do not need people in positions which deal with science who deny clearly supported science.

  14. #14 Skeptic8
    June 7, 2007

    “Yeah,…we really want a moonbase”! (appx) Who in the hell can get you there, keep you there, and send the supplies? Climate instability- and military adventures- reduce our surplus capacity. You have to keep THIS planet self-sustaining and generating the capital for exploration.