Significant Figures by Peter Gleick

Nearly two years ago, Science magazine published the following Lead Letter, signed by 255 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences addressing attacks on the integrity of climate science. The science has continued to strengthen, the evidence in real world observations has become even stronger and more obvious.

In response, in the past few months, there has been a last-gasp effort (see, for example,  here and here) on the part of the ever-shrinking group of hard-core climate deniers to confuse the public and especially our elected officials. Given this continuing profusion of false and misleading information, and given the growing debate about climate policy and whether to pursue projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline, I repost the Letter here.

Climate Change and the Integrity of Science

(Science Magazine, May 7, 2010)

We are deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular. All citizens should understand some basic scientific facts. There is always some uncertainty associated with scientific conclusions; science never absolutely “proves” anything. When someone says that society should wait until scientists are absolutely “certain” before taking any action, it is the same as saying society “should never take action.” For a problem as potentially catastrophic as climate change, taking no action poses a dangerous risk for our planet.

Scientific conclusions derive from an understanding of basic laws supported by laboratory experiments, observations of nature, and mathematical and computer modeling. Like all human beings, scientists make mistakes, but the scientific process is designed to find and correct them. This process is inherently adversarial – scientists build reputations and gain recognition not only for supporting conventional wisdom, but even more so for demonstrating that the scientific consensus is wrong and that there is a better explanation. That’s what Galileo, Pasteur, Darwin, and Einstein did. But when some conclusions have been thoroughly and deeply tested, questioned, and examined, they gain the status of “well-established theories” and are often spoken of as “facts.”

For instance, there is compelling scientific evidence that our planet is about 4.5 billion years old (the theory of the origin of Earth), that our universe was born from a single event about 14 billion years ago (the Big Bang theory), and that today’s organisms evolved from ones living in the past (the theory of evolution). Even as these are overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, fame still awaits anyone who could show these theories to be wrong. Climate change now falls into this category: there is compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend.

Many recent assaults on climate science and, more disturbingly, on climate scientists by climate change deniers, are typically driven by special interests or dogma, not by an honest effort to provide an alternative theory that credibly satisfies the evidence. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other scientific assessments of climate change, which involve thousands of scientists producing massive and comprehensive reports, have, quite expectedly and normally, made some mistakes. When errors are pointed out, they are corrected. But there is nothing remotely identified in the recent events that changes the fundamental conclusions about climate change:

1. The planet is warming due to increased concentrations of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. A snowy winter in Washington does not alter this fact.
2. Most of the increase in the concentration of these gases over the last century is due to human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.
3. Natural causes always play a role in changing Earth’s climate, but are now being overwhelmed by human-induced changes.
4. Warming the planet will cause many other climatic patterns to change at speeds unprecedented in modern times, including increasing rates of sea-level rise and alterations in the hydrologic cycle. Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide are making the oceans more acidic.
5. The combination of these complex climate changes threaten coastal communities and cities, our food and water supplies, marine and freshwater ecosystems, forests, high mountain environments, and far more.

Much more can be, and has been, said by the world’s scientific societies, national academies, and individuals, but these conclusions should be enough to indicate why scientists are concerned about what future generations will face from business-as-usual practices. We urge our policymakers and the public to move forward immediately to address the causes of climate change, including the unrestrained burning of fossil fuels.

We also call for an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them. Society has two choices: we can ignore the science and hide our heads in the sand and hope we are lucky, or we can act in the public interest to reduce the threat of global climate change quickly and substantively. The good news is that smart and effective actions are possible. But delay must not be an option.

Signed
[255 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences]
[The signers are all members of the U.S. National Academy of Science, but are not speaking on its behalf. Names are in alphabetical order, except for Dr. Peter Gleick, the corresponding author.]

Gleick, Peter H (corresponding author)

Adams, Robert McCormick
Amasino, Richard M
Anders, Edward
Anderson, David J
Anderson, Wyatt W
Anselin, Luc E
Arroyo, Mary Kalin
Asfaw, Berhane
Ayala, Francisco J
Bax, Adriaan
Bebbington, Anthony J
Bell, Gordon
Bennett, Michael V L
Bennetzen, Jeffrey L
Berenbaum, May R
Berlin, Overton Brent
Bjorkman, Pamela J
Blackburn, Elizabeth
Blamont, Jacques E
Botchan, Michael R
Boyer, John S
Boyle, Ed A
Branton, Daniel
Briggs, Steven P
Briggs, Winslow R
Brill, Winston J
Britten, Roy J
Broecker, Wallace S
Brown, James H
Brown, Patrick O
Brunger, Axel T
Cairns, Jr John
Canfield, Donald E
Carpenter, Stephen R
Carrington, James C
Cashmore, Anthony R
Castilla, Juan Carlos
Cazenave, Anny
Chapin, III F, Stuart
Ciechanover, Aaron J
Clapham, David E
Clark, William C
Clayton, Robert N
Coe, Michael D
Conwell, Esther M
Cowling, Ellis B
Cowling, Richard M
Cox, Charles S
Croteau, Rodney B
Crothers, Donald M
Crutzen, Paul J
Daily, Gretchen C
Dalrymple, Brent G
Dangl, Jeffrey L
Darst, Seth A
Davies, David R
Davis, Margaret B
De Camilli, Pietro V
Dean, Caroline
DeFries, Ruth S
Deisenhofer, Johann
Delmer, Deborah P
DeLong, Edward F
DeRosier, David J
Diener, Theodor O
Dirzo, Rodolfo
Dixon, Jack E
Donoghue, Michael
Doolittle, Russell F
Dunne, Thomas
Ehrlich, Paul R
Eisenstadt, Shmuel N
Eisner, Thomas
Emanuel, Kerry A
Englander, Walter S
Ernst, W, G
Falkowski, Paul G
Feher, George
Ferejohn, John A
Fersht, Sir Alan
Fischer, Edmond H
Fischer, Robert
Flannery, Kent V
Frank, Joachim
Frey, Perry A
Fridovich, Irwin
Frieden, Carl
Futuyma, Douglas J
Gardner, Wilford R
Garrett, Christopher J R
Gilbert, Walter
Gleick, Peter H
Goldberg, Robert B
Goodenough, Ward H
Goodman, Corey S
Goodman, Morris
Greengard, Paul
Hake, Sarah
Hammel, Gene
Hanson, Susan
Harrison, Stephen C
Hart, Stanley R
Hartl, Daniel L
Haselkorn, Robert
Hawkes, Kristen
Hayes, John M
Hille, Bertil
Hökfelt, Tomas
House, James S
Hout, Michael
Hunten, Donald M
Izquierdo, Ivan A
Jagendorf, André T
Janzen, Daniel H
Jeanloz, Raymond
Jencks, Christopher S
Jury, William A
Kaback, H Ronald
Kailath, Thomas
Kay, Paul
Kay, Steve A
Kennedy, Donald
Kerr, Allen
Kessler, Ronald C
Khush, Gurdev S
Kieffer, Susan W
Kirch, Patrick V
Kirk, Kent C
Kivelson, Margaret G
Klinman, Judith P
Klug, Sir Aaron
Knopoff, Leon
Kornberg, Sir Hans
Kutzbach, John E
Lagarias, J Clark
Lambeck, Kurt
Landy, Arthur
Langmuir, Charles H
Larkins, Brian A
Le Pichon, Xavier T
Lenski, Richard E
Leopold, Estella B
Levin, Simon A
Levitt, Michael
Likens, Gene E
Lippincott-Schwartz
Lorand, Laszlo
Lovejoy, Owen C
Lynch, Michael
Mabogunje, Akin L
Malone, Thomas F
Manabe, Syukuro
Marcus, Joyce
Massey, Douglas S
McWilliams, Jim C
Medina, Ernesto
Melosh, Jay H
Meltzer, David J
Michener, Charles D
Miles, Edward L,
Mooney, Harold A
Moore, Peter B
Morel, Francois M M
Mosley-Thompson
Moss, Bernard
Munk, Walter H
Myers, Norman
Nair, Balakrish G
Nathans, Jeremy
Nester, Eugene W
Nicoll, Roger A
Novick, Richard P
O’Connell, James F
Olsen, Paul E
Opdyke, Neil D
Oster, George F
Ostrom, Elinor
Pace, Norman R
Paine, Robert T
Palmiter, Richard D
Pedlosky, Joseph
Petsko, Gregory A
Pettengill, Gordon H
Philander, George S
Piperno, Dolores R
Pollard, Thomas D
Price Jr. Buford P
Reichard, Peter A
Reskin, Barbara F
Ricklefs, Robert E
Rivest, Ronald L
Roberts, John D
Romney, Kimball A
Rossmann, Michael G
Russell, David W
Rutter, William J
Sabloff, Jeremy A
Sagdeev, Roald Z
Sahlins, Marshall D
Salmond, Anne
Sanes, Joshua R
Schekman, Randy
Schellnhuber, John
Schindler, David W
Schmitt, Johanna
Schneider, Stephen H
Schramm, Vern L
Sederoff Ronald R
Shatz, Carla J
Sherman, Fred
Sidman, Richard L
Sieh, Kerry, Nanyang
Simons, Elwyn L
Singer, Burton H
Singer, Maxine F
Skyrms, Brian
Sleep, Norman H
Smith, Bruce D
Snyder, Solomon H,
Sokal, Robert R
Spencer, Charles S
Steitz, Thomas A
Strier, Karen B
Südhof, Thomas C
Taylor, Susan S
Terborgh, John
Thomas, David Hurst
Thompson, Lonnie G
Tjian, Robert T
Turner, Monica G
Uyeda, Seiya
Valentine, James W
Valentine, Joan Selverstone
Van Etten, James L
Van Holde, Kensal E
Vaughan, Martha
Verba Sidney
Von Hippel, Peter H
Wake, David B
Walker, Alan
Walker John E
Watson, Bruce E
Watson, Patty Jo
Weigel, Detlef
Wessler, Susan R
West-Eberhard, Mary Jane
White, Tim D
Wilson, William Julius
Wolfenden, Richard V
Wood, John A
Woodwell, George M
Wright, Jr Herbert E
Wu, Carl
Wunsch, Car
Zoback, Mary Lou

Comments

  1. [...] See also Peter Gleick’s reposting of the 255 signatory Science letter of [...]

  2. #2 Steven Earl Salmony
    Chapel Hill, NC
    March 22, 2013

    This discussion is so little, comes so late, and misses the vital point that the impact of unbridled global human population growth is the proverbial ‘mother’ of all human-driven global threats to future human well being and environmental health on our watch. This challenge must be acknowledged. For knowledgeable elders to continue to deny extant science is a breach of duty both to science and humanity. Scientists in large numbers have got to become more vocal and active in the public domain now. Their silence is a huge problem.

    Many too many scientists have unassumed responsibilities to accept and unfulfilled duties to perform when they refuse to report on all extant research of critical subjects like human population dynamics and human overpopulation. The mainstream media is full of preternatural thought and ideological idiocy that is presented as if such thinking and theorizing had the support of the best available science with regard to the skyrocketing growth of the human species in our time. The failure of so many self-proclaimed experts on matters regarding the human population to skillfully examine, carefully interpret, objectively evaluate, and openly share data is unforgiveable. How about joining me by acknowledging this problem and then doing something to overcome it….fast? Perhaps Pogo was right after all, ‘We have met the enemy and we are it.’ The continuing denial of Pogo’s understanding is proving ruinous of all we claim to be protecting and preserving.

  3. #3 Steven Earl Salmony
    Chapel Hill, NC
    March 22, 2013

    A note from a friend regarding the failures of scientists to respond ably to the challenges of our time….. ” — They feel like they have done important science, and they leave it to the public and politicians to react.

    – They roughly agree that about half of their colleagues have just checked out – they see what is coming, see little to do about it and are resigned to doing their job and disengage from the issue.

    – researchers are keenly aware that US climate research funding is sadly below what other nations are doing (academic, satellite, computational).

    – And sadly that US governments agencies are squabbling factions of inefficiency.

    The deadline of known predictions of climate change events – such as sea level rise are proving correct. There are laws of thermodynamics rather than “theory” of melting ice. ”

    The problem appears to be that inevitable physical climate changes will unfold sooner than human evolutionary thinking and acting can mobilize to mitigate the changes. Just a theory

  4. #4 Steven Earl Salmony
    Chapel Hill, NC
    March 22, 2013

    Questions from a friend for scientists:

    1.Why are we driving our numbers and activity levels relentlessly towards the moon, in the face of clear and present dangers that should be obvious to everyone?

    2.Why is humanity as a global whole so impervious to behavior change when new knowledge is presented? Is there something about this particular set of behaviors that make us especially resistant to changing them?

    3.Why are we apparently so afraid of stopping (let alone reversing) our growth?

    4.Why does all of accessible human history, and the history of life and the universe itself, display constantly growing elaboration of structure, and why can we not prevent that elaboration from appearing within human culture, despite its deleterious effects?

  5. #5 Steven Earl Salmony
    Chapel Hill, NC
    March 23, 2013

    The ecological science of human population dynamics and human overpopulation of the Earth is remarkably simple. For too long a time human population growth has been comfortably and pseudoscientifically viewed by politicians, economists and demographers as somehow outside the course of nature, somehow disconnected from the population dynamics of other evolved species on Earth. The possible causes of human population growth have seemed to them so complex, obscure and numerous, so they have said for too many years, that an adequate understanding of the cause of human population growth, much less a strategy to address the emerging and converging ecological problems posed by the unbridled growth of the human species, has been assumed to be unapproachable. Their preternatural grasp of human population dynamics has lead to widely varied forecasts of human population growth. Some forecasting data indicate the end to human population growth soon. Other data suggest the rapid and continuous increase of human numbers ad infinitum, and like the endless expansion of the global economy, without adverse impacts. Can any thinking person even imagine ‘endless growth’ of human numbers or the global political economy in the world we inhabit? How about the Second Law of Thermodynamics? The dogmatic adherence of so many politically correct experts to erroneous, unscientific theory regarding automatic population stabilization around the midpoint of Century XXI and a benign demographic transition to a good life for the human community at large cannot be accepted any longer as if it is based upon the best available evidence. This thinking is absurd on its face.

    Recent scientific evidence appears to indicate that the governing dynamics of absolute global human population numbers is knowable as a natural phenomenon. Despite all the misleading, intellectually dishonest and deliberately deceptive ‘scientific’ research to the contrary, Homo sapiens can be shown to be, and now seen, as a species that is a part of and definitely not separate from the natural world we inhabit. Experts in politics, economics and demography have consciously fostered and continue obdurately to countenance a perilous disconnect between ecological science and political economy. Perhaps politics, economics and demography are themselves disciplines that are fundamentally disconnected from science. They appear to have more in common with ideology rather than science. To suggest as many too many politicians, economists and demographers have been conveniently doing that understanding the dynamics of human population numbers does not matter, that the human population problem is not about numbers, or that human population dynamics has so dizzying an array of variables as not to be suitable for scientific investigation, seems wrongheaded and dangerous.

    According to research of Russell Hopfenberg, Ph.D., and David Pimentel, Ph.D., global population growth of the human species is a rapidly cycling positive feedback loop in which food availability drives population growth and the recent, skyrocketing growth in absolute global human numbers gives rise to the misconception or mistaken impression that food production needs to be increased even more. Data indicate that the world’s human population grows by approximately 2% per year. All segments of it grow by about two percent. Every year there are more people with brown eyes and more people with blue ones; more people who are tall as well as more short people. It also means that there are more people growing up well fed and more people growing up hungry. The hungry segment of the global population goes up just like the well-fed segment of the population. We may or may not be reducing hunger by increasing food production; however, we are most certainly producing more and more hungry people.

    Hopfenberg’s and Pimentel’s research suggests that the spectacularly successful efforts of humankind to increase food production in order to feed a growing population has resulted and continues to result in even greater human population numbers worldwide. The perceived need to increase food production to feed a growing population is a widely shared and consensually validated misperception, a denial both of the physical reality and the space-time dimension, a colossal misunderstanding. If people are starving at a given moment of time, increasing food production and then distributing it cannot help them. Are these starving people supposed to be waiting for sowing, growing and reaping to be completed? Are they supposed to wait for surpluses to reach them? Without food they would die. In such circumstances, increasing food production for people who are starving is like tossing parachutes to people who have already fallen out of the airplane. The produced food arrives too late. Even so, this realization does not mean human starvation is inevitable.

    Consider that the population dynamics of humankind is not biologically different from, but essentially common to the population dynamics of other species. Human organisms, non-human organisms and even microorganisms have similar population dynamics. In all cases the governing relationship between food supply and population numbers of any living thing is this: food is independent variable and population numbers is the dependent variable. We do not find hoards of starving roaches, birds, squirrels, alligators, or chimpanzees in the absence of food as we do in many “civilized” human communities today because non-human species and what we call “primitive” human communities are not engaged in food production. Please note that among tribes of people in remote original habitats, we do not find people starving. Like non-human species, primitive human beings live within the carrying capacity of their environment. History is replete with examples of early humans and more remote ancestors of “civilized” people not increasing their food production and distribution capabilities annually, but rather living successfully off the land for thousands upon thousands of years as hunters and gatherers of food. Prior to the Agricultural Revolution and the production of much, much more food than was needed for immediate survival, human numbers supposedly could not grow beyond their environment’s physical capacity to sustain them because human population growth or decline is primarily determined by food availability. Looked at from a global population perspective, more food equals more human organisms; less food equals less human beings; and no food equals no people. The idea that food production must be increased to meet the needs of growing human population has been actually giving rise to skyrocketing human population numbers, not only since the Industrial Revolution but even more recently and intensively with the onset of the Green Revolution that began sixty+ years ago.

    Something is happening on Earth that appears to be driven by billions of human beings overconsuming, overproducing and overpopulating.Is that not what everybody is doing to one degree or another?Some overconsume; some overproduce and others overpopulate.And many do all of the above.All of this disntinctly human-induced activity is patently unsustainable on a planet with the size, composition and ecology of Earth.Well established scientific knowledge, human intuition and common sense are in agreement that the unbridled overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities cannot continue much longer, much less indefinitely.

    Perhaps necessary behavior changes toward sustainability are in the offing.
    .

  6. #6 Steven Earl Salmony
    Chapel Hill, NC
    March 24, 2013

    “Truth is not only violated by falsehood; it may be equally outraged by silence.”

    Henri-Frederic Amiel

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    March 28, 2013

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