Is "scary" a technical term?

Science magazine today has a long and comprehensive article on scientists who are "Pushing the Scary Side of Global Warming." As it won't be freely available for months, I will post some of the juicy bits, while doing my best not to violate the AAAS copyright.

First, you gotta love the headline. And the headline for Richard Kerr's story is just as provocative:

Greenhouse warming might be more disastrous than the recent international assessment managed to convey, scientists are realizing. But how can they get the word out without seeming alarmist?

This is, after all, the quintessential question bedeviling climatologists and climate change activists the world over. Al Gore, when training his slide show team, bends over backwards to emphasize the dangers of scaring the audience too much, and advises presenters to bump up the "hope" budget.

I'm still not convinced that's the best strategy, all due respect to Gore's vast experience in rhetorical technique. Apparently, many a climatologist is similarly stumped by the challenge of remaining appropriately professional while still conveying just how close we may have come to positive feedback loops, or "tipping points" that could send the planet's climate into a new equilibrium, one to which we humans aren't particularly well adapted. The Science article quotes the usual suspects (Jim Hansen, of course) and others, who are grappling with the dilemma.

Scientists are still trying to strike a balance between their habitual caution and growing concern over uncertain but disastrous greenhouse outcomes. "Most scientists don't want to, but I think we need a way to explore" the extreme end of the range of possibilities, says glaciologist Robert Thomas of NASA contractor EG&G at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Thomas says scientists need "a better way" than IPCC's consensus approach, "so we can communicate with the public without becoming scaremongers."

Much of Kerr's piece deals with the uncertainties surrounding the fate of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets. Melting only half of them would raise sea levels by amount 6 meters. That seems inevitable if we don't change our industrial habits, but no one seems to be sure just how fast it would happen.

Hansen and a long list of co-authors recently wrote, in a peer-reviewed journal, that it could happen by the end of this century -- topping even the worst-case scenarios of some of the more alarmist non-scientist activists. Turns out, this is becoming something of an obsession.

Although forewarned, some researchers are generating numbers for public consumption by going beyond physics-based models. In a paper published in Science in January, too late for the IPCC to consider it, Rahmstorf took "a semiempirical approach to projecting future sea-level rise." He determined how much sea level rose in the 20th century per year per degree and projected that rate through the 21st century, with its expected warming. That projection produced a sea-level rise in 2100 of 0.5 to 1.4 meters above the 1990 level, well above the IPCC's projection of 0.18 to 0.59 meter.

Then, Rahmstorf and six co-authors, including Hansen, published a paper in Science on the day the IPCC report was released. They pointed out that warming had been running toward the high side of IPCC projections during the past few decades, while sea levels rose at the upper limit of projections. "These observational data underscore the concerns about global climate change," the authors wrote. IPCC had clearly not exaggerated sea-level rise, they said, and may even have underestimated it. Reinforcing their message, news stories published a few days before the IPCC report's release quoted Rahmstorf and other scientists lamenting the expected shortcomings on sea-level projections.

Along with much gnashing of teeth over the wisdom of the necessarily conservative approach of the IPCC, the bottom line seems to be that the climate science community is genuinely worried -- first about our headlong rush toward dangerous climate change, and second about how to get that message across. Hansen again:

The world is on a "slippery slope," Hansen has written, that could lead to meters of sea-level rise in the next century or two unless people take immediate actions to cut greenhouse gas emissions..... Only last week in a GISS press release announcing a new publication, Hansen warned of disastrous effects--including increasingly rapid sea-level rise--if greenhouse gas emissions continue apace for even a couple more decades.

A couple of decades. Slap that up against what George W. Bush has managed to portray as a carelessly aggressive plan by European leaders to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half, by 2050. It's a classic tactic -- redefine the middle. Only the best science is telling us that we need to cut emissions by 70 to 90 %, and long before 2050.

No wonder the climate geeks are getting frustrated.


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And then there are the thousands of scientists that just don't buy the official doctrine. They generally won't speak publicly for fear of loosing funding or jobs but they won't endorse the party line either. The Oragon petition was one good example. There are others....
Hmmmmmmmmm. Me tinks there is more here than meets the eye.

Gary - the 'thousands' of scientists you speak of seem to be no more than the ravings of the usual suspects - probably much the same people who were behind the nonsense of the Oregon Petition

A quick look at Chris Mooney's work alone shows that there are thousands of US scientists who seemingly don't buy the offical doctrine, if by official you mean the one coming from the White House and their sockpuppets in the senior levels at NASA. They realise that 'scary' is exactly the position we are in, but know that if they join Hansen et al in alerting people to the very real dangers ahead, then they will run the risk of get defunded, hauled up in front of Inhofre and co, and generally painted as 'scaremongers'. Anyone who has ever seen Ibsen's 'Enemy of the People' knows exactly what any dissenter is up against.

The reality is that the IPCC is the lowest common denominator in terms of climate change - its the most conservative expression of just how bad the situation is. The denalists and special interests have been very good at convincing the public at large that there is still doubt as to the pace of climate change, and have used the natural caution of academics as part of this attack on reality.

My default position on anything in my subject area is 'maybe', 'possibily' and 'it could be argued'. Classic academic tactics - but looking at the possible feedbacks and tipping points, the time for nice academic language is over. Hansen has been in the lead on shouting out scientists real fears , but he seems to have been very much a lone voice.

The only way that anything is going to get done is for us all to be very very afraid. 'Scary' doesn't even begin to describe how we should be feeling.
Personally, I think we should bear in mind Dr Johnson's words - 'If A man knows he is going to be hanged tomorrow it concentrates the mind wonderfully'. We are in the process of going to a scaffold of our own making - and its up to the scientists of the world to show us the noose. Only then will we understand what needs to be done.

Mike; Very interesting response. (honestly) I am so used to hearing all those same comments from the other side I would not have expected to hear them from the Pro-alarmist side. When I refer to doctrine, I think of the Religeous acceptance of the IPCC's every word. I consider anything from them to be suspect and heavely influenced by political agendas and activism.
Interesting indeed.
So more to the point, what exactly do you find wrong with the Oragon petition? Seems pretty clear to me. over 17000 who don't buy it?
Good site BTW

Giving you the benefit of the doubt, gary, the simple fact is that the Oregon petition was gotten up on half truths and lies. The actual statement is fairly vanilla:

"We urge the United States government to reject the global warming agreement that was written in Kyoto, Japan in December, 1997, and any other similar proposals. The proposed limits on greenhouse gases would harm the environment, hinder the advance of science and technology, and damage the health and welfare of mankind.
There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gasses is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate. Moreover, there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and animal environments of the Earth."

For 1997, I suppose it would have gotten more support- it is important to remember this is ten years ago. Science moves on. 60 years ago many geologists thought continental drift was rubbish, then 10 or 20 years later they all thought it was correct.

Also, very few people were predicting "catastrophic" warming, partly because catastrophic is one of these words that is poorly defined. The wording is loose enough that many people could and probably did sign after glancing at it. However the problems arise when looking at the supporting "evidence". Which was and has turned out to be utterly wrong. One thing that much was made of was discrepancies between balloon temperature readings and satellite data that suggested warming was not occuring. But it was found that the satellites were in error, and warming was indeed occuring as predicted.

Also, the material was written in the style of a submission to Proceedings of teh National academy of sciences, which appears to have been done to make it look more official. Needless to say the article of supporting evidence was not peer reviewed or anything. Lastly, lots of people keep mentioning the Oregon petition, but seem unable to provide any evidence as to how reducing CO2 emissions would lead to environmental damage, hinder the advance of science and technology (Quite the opposite, surely, as we require better technology to reduce our CO2 emissions) and so on.

Your comment about religious acceptance of the IPCC is quite wrong. The IPCC findings have been argued about, debated and investigated for several years. Thus they are the definitive scientific statement on climate change (up until last year anyway) available, so I'm afraid claiming people are taking a religious attitude to them is wide of the mark.

Why are we still arguing - wasting our time - on those people who believe that global warming is a misinformation conspiracy? Let's spend our time figuring out how to save this silly world. We've done it once before - when we slowed the ozone hole from expanding and then shrunk it. But that was threatening First World peoples more than the developing world. Global warming will immediately threaten indigenous peoples, island peoples, and poor people - like those in New Orleans. The wealthy want to profit from it first, and then believe in global warming. It'll be too late by then. Right now, we have a choice, should our grandchildren drown or our children?

Actually Irwin, I think its more likely they will they starve or will they be shot by invaders looking for some nice safe real estate.

(But we'll find out over the next few years the fate of the Greenland ice sheets)

Wll qualified atmospheric physicists such as Dr. Richard Lindzen (of MIT) and many others equally well qualified, who have all devoted their entire careers to actual atmospheric, climate and paleo-atmospheric research (rather than basing judgments on sophisticated yet incomplete computer modeling of the enormous and extremely chaotic atmospheric system), estimate that mankind may have contributed as much as 2 to 3% towards the actual 1.6 F of additional warmth that has occurred on this earth, since warming began again at the end of the Little Ice Age period.

With that, overall, it's clear that the warming earth has experienced since that time has been very beneficial towards life in general on earth, and mankind as well. Despite the 400 foot rise in sea level that has occurred in steady small increments over time, since the last Ice Age began to retreat. Most of which had occurred well before modern mankind ever existed.

At the end of the day it must be understood that the IPCC is merely another attempt at global policy making, as an United Nations political construct. That is clearly guilty of cherry picking experts and the facts, to form a false state of affairs regarding climate. In an attempt to achieve the political agendas of various member States.

The IPCC is overwhelmed by the influence of less than friendly to the United States countries, many with outspoken disdain for this country and of our American versions of individual liberty, and confidence of free markets. Who collectively are attempting to exert an undue influence over what should otherwise be issues of facts, sovereignty and science.

In support of my contention, here�s an excerpt from a March 23, 2007 Financial Post article by Lawrence Solomon titled �Bitten by the IPCC� concerning the issues:

[ �How do such people become numbered among the IPCC's famed "2,500 top scientists" from around the world? Prof. Reiter, wanting to know, wrote the IPCC with a series of detailed questions about its decision-making process. It replied: "The brief answer to your question below is 'governments.' It is the governments of the world who make up the IPCC, define its remit and direction. The way in which this is done is defined in the IPCC Principles and Procedures, which have been agreed by governments." When Prof. Reiter checked out the "principles and procedures," he found "no mention of research experience, bibliography, citation statistics or any other criteria that would define the quality of 'the world's top scientists.'"�]

Although it would be best if all would read the entire series that is linked at the page, at the very least, everyone who would like to comprehend these issues better should read the rest of the article I excerpted, for yourself here:…

So your saying that because of the usual gvt shenanigans, all the robust science behind climate change is wrong?

Pull the other one, its got bells on.

As for Lindzen and his estimations, they're mince.

>PACDEX ... 400ppm

That's following low level pollution plumes out of Asia. It's not valid to compare that to the Mauna Loa number.

All of the PACDEX readings are likely to be above the global average. PACDEX by definition must be the Lake Wobegon of carbon dioxide measurement programs!

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 14 Jun 2007 #permalink