Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Who Knew? Climate Scientists Have Been Underestimating Climate Change. It's Time to Fix That.

If the recent deluge of climate change reports is getting on your nerves - there's no nice way to put this, it's worse than you've been told.

Scientific American takes a look at this long-recognized problem and what we can must do to fix it.
Consistent underestimation is a form of bias—in the literal meaning of a systematic tendency to lean in one direction or another—which raises the question: what is causing this bias in scientific analyses of the climate system? 
The question is significant for two reasons. First, climate skeptics and deniers have often accused scientists of exaggerating the threat of climate change, but the evidence shows that not only have they not exaggerated, they have underestimated. This is important for the interpretation of the scientific evidence, for the defense of the integrity of climate science, and for public comprehension of the urgency of the climate issue. Second, objectivity is an essential ideal in scientific work, so if we have evidence that findings are biased in any direction—towards alarmism or complacency—this should concern us. We should seek to identify the sources of that bias and correct them if we can.
The article, written by prominent scientists Naomi Oreskes, Michael Oppenheimer and Dale Jamieson, previews their new book, 'Discerning Experts.'
In our new book we explored the workings of scientific assessments for policy, with particular attention to their internal dynamics, as we attempted to illuminate how the scientists working in assessments make the judgments they do. Among other things, we wanted to know how scientists respond to the pressures—sometimes subtle, sometimes overt—that arise when they know that their conclusions will be disseminated beyond the research community—in short, when they know that the world is watching. The view that scientific evidence should guide public policy presumes that the evidence is of high quality, and that scientists’ interpretations of it are broadly correct. But, until now, those assumptions have rarely been closely examined. 
We found little reason to doubt the results of scientific assessments, overall. We found no evidence of fraud, malfeasance or deliberate deception or manipulation. Nor did we find any reason to doubt that scientific assessments accurately reflect the views of their expert communities. But we did find that scientists tend to underestimate the severity of threats and the rapidity with which they might unfold.
A defensive herd mentality or 'safeguarding the messenger.'
Among the factors that appear to contribute to underestimation is the perceived need for consensus, or what we label univocality: the felt need to speak in a single voice. Many scientists worry that if disagreement is publicly aired, government officials will conflate differences of opinion with ignorance and use this as justification for inaction. Others worry that even if policy makers want to act, they will find it difficult to do so if scientists fail to send an unambiguous message. Therefore, they will actively seek to find their common ground and focus on areas of agreement; in some cases, they will only put forward conclusions on which they can all agree. 
The push toward agreement may also be driven by a mental model that sees facts as matters about which all reasonable people should be able to agree versus differences of opinion or judgment that are potentially irresolvable. If the conclusions of an assessment report are not univocal, then (it may be thought that) they will be viewed as opinions rather than facts and dismissed not only by hostile critics but even by friendly forces. 
Playing it safe.
A second reason for underestimation involves an asymmetry in how scientists think about error and its effects on their reputations. Many scientists worry that if they over-estimate a threat, they will lose credibility, whereas if they under-estimate it, it will have little (if any) reputational impact. In climate science, this anxiety is reinforced by the drumbeat of climate denial, in which scientists are accused of being “alarmists” who “exaggerate the threat.” In this context, scientists may go the extra mile to disprove the stereotype by down-playing known risks and denying critics the opportunity to label them as alarmists. 
Many scientists consider underestimates to be “conservative,” because they are conservative with respect to the question of when to sound an alarm or how loudly to sound it. The logic of this can be questioned, because underestimation is not conservative when viewed in terms of giving people adequate time to prepare. (Consider for example, an underestimate of an imminent hurricane, tornado, or earthquake.) In the AR4 WAIS debate, scientists underestimated the threat of rapid ice sheet disintegration because many of the scientists who participated were more comfortable with an estimate that they viewed as "conservative" than with one that was not. 
The combination of these three factors—the push for univocality, the belief that conservatism is socially and politically protective, and the reluctance to make estimates at all when the available data are contradictory—can lead to “least common denominator'' results—minimalist conclusions that are weak or incomplete.
The authors contend that science needs to get past 'univocality' and consensus to present more raw opinion to our political caste, the decision makers. To me that sounds like embracing futility.

How many of these craven political grifters, from our country or any other, would hesitate to exploit uncertainty? How many of them even act on the watered-down consensus?  Our prime minister? Hell no. Despite the recent warnings of the urgent need to slash GHG emissions by half by 2030, the Dauphin is still using Harper's emissions cuts targets and failing to meet even those. Every damned Conservative and Liberal politician in this country is a petro-pimp. That's what they need from the scientific community - more wiggle room.

Honesty is good, always. There's nothing wrong with the science types admitting they've been putting a lot of water in our wine. But to suggest that honesty has any currency with our decision makers is the height of naivete.


Northern PoV said...

this calls for the gif from Jack N.

"You can't handle the truth."

"There’s a 10- to 15-year time lag between the rise of carbon dioxide emissions and the subsequent rise in air surface temperatures. The climate impacts we’re seeing today — the forest fires, hurricanes, droughts and floods — were locked in" 15 years ago.

The Mound of Sound said...

I thought of that same line as I was reading the SA report, NPoV.

To the lasting discredit of both major parties, climate change has been transformed into a political issue that inevitably invites political solutions or no responses at all.

As the world descends into a potentially existential crisis our damned political caste continues to use it as a political football. That ensures failure.

Toby said...

Back in the days of the "Greenhouse Effect" the thinking of scientists and those of us who cared was linear. The earth would get warmer in a steady and predictable fashion. It has taken a while for scientists and environmentalists to learn that the problem is not linear; it is exponential. Global Warming is not just a carbon dioxide issue; that was just the trigger. Without going into details (which this blog has often posted) Global Warming is accelerating. Those 200 year predictions are down to PDQ. I am sure that many scientists, specialized as they are, were caught off guard.

While I am sure that the gist of the Scientific American article is correct that scientists have been under estimating the pace of climate change, I smell a rat. The rat is politicians squirming. Senior politicians have been well and truly briefed by scientists and their military officials. They know what's coming and they don't want to deal with it. They don't even want to talk about it. The problem isn't scientists, it's politicians and vested interests. Ultimately, the problem is us. We can expect more blaming of scientists as crises get worse.

Anonymous said...

A great read is Jeff Goodell's "The Water is Coming....he has interviewed many Military Personnel is the US. They do know what is happening and one of the biggest problems they have is "what to do" when their most important Bases are totally flooded...will cost the earth to relocate these Bases. '"By century's end, hundreds of millions of people will be retreating from the world's shores as our coasts become inundated and our landscapes transformed. From island nations to the world's major cities, coastal regions will disappear. Engineering projects to hold back the water are bold and may buy some time. Yet despite international efforts and tireless research, there is no permanent solution--no barriers to erect or walls to build--that will protect us in the end from the drowning of the world as we know it.

The Water Will Come is the definitive account of the coming water, why and how this will happen, and what it will all mean. As he travels across twelve countries and reports from the front lines, acclaimed journalist Jeff Goodell employs fact, science, and first-person, on-the-ground journalism to show vivid scenes from what already is becoming a water world."' Anyong

Northern PoV said...

Re Toby's "Senior politicians have been well and truly briefed by scientists and their military officials. "

if only ...

The BOK (body of knowledge) available to the scientific and military elite is no more extensive than the cumulative climate information posted on Mounds' blog. (And elsewhere of course.)

"They know what's coming "
No, I'd wager they're mostly with the willfully ignorant majority.

Alas, the future is hard to predict, cause nobody knows what is going to happen.

Toby said...

Northern PoV, I'm sure that senior politicians have been briefed. Generals would have made sure of it if for no other reasons than to make plans for bases that will go under water and refugees streaming across borders.

Agreed that the BOK (as you call it) is available to anyone who cares to look. It's not a secret.

Agreed again on the willful ignorance. I assume that many sat through briefings with their fingers in their ears.

Anonymous said...

I have a family member who happens to be an Environmental Scientist and an Aerospace engineer. I listen to that person for they know exactly what is happening. Governments have worked endlessly in muzzling Scientists throughout the in the Harper style. Governments are deliberately allowing false statements to be made to keep the world in flux.

Northern PoV said...

I think we're pretty much in agreement. Perhaps, 'violent agreement' ;-)

“I'm sure that senior politicians have been briefed”

OK, but who does the briefing and who is on the committee that determines the content?

The S.A. article linked to in Mound's blog, talks about the IPCC's 'political' process and how that mutes and shapes the message. It is no less political inside the military and gov't. Advisers want to keep their jobs and will shape their message accordingly.

For ex: Does Butts get it? (He should.) Did he ever try and get through to Jr? Who knows?

In my opinion, the image of the high-level briefings, where all the secret info is discussed comes from spy fiction and Hollywood. It can help foster the belief system that expects technology (i.e. a positive Black-Swan) to save us.

Anon 8:46 seems to agree more with your pov.

Mound makes a good closing point: "But to suggest that honesty has any currency with our decision makers is the height of naivete."

But this refers to both their output and the input they get.