Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Climate Change Scientists: The Big Misunderstanding

It's still below freezing today here in the Deep South. I have my mini-split air conditioner running as a heat pump here in the lab, but only at the minimum setting of 16°C. I'm bundled up in my comfy chair with a heating pad on my feet, fingerless gloves, and an earflap hat. My iPad is on a little folding stand right in front of my face and my bluetooth keyboard is on my lap. (This is important because it's why this essay isn't going to have a lot of embedded links. The Blogger iPad app is terrible. I'd have to get up and use my real computer to open lots of tabs and paste in links and quotes.)

I watched a lot of NASA TV this morning on their iPad App. There was a press conference in honor of the 10 year anniversary of Spirit and Opportunity landing on Mars. Roboticists and geologists talked about exploring Mars, proof of liquid water in the past, and how a human geologist could have performed the tasks of a 90 day robot mission in about 20 minutes. They had a little girl on who ran down her resumé of going to space camp 12 times, seeing every NASA visitor center, and a litany of enviable privilege. She intends to be go to Oxford or Cambridge, then International Space University in France and then MIT. She will major in astrophysics and then become an astronaut and go to Mars. Somebody asked her what advice she had for other kids. She gave the stock answer of "Never give up on what you want to accomplish," and I bristled at that. The truth would have been, "Be sure you have rich parents that indulge your every whim."

Because that's really what it comes down to isn't it? What if NASA had a relationship with congress like that little girl has with her parents? Anything NASA scientists and engineers wanted to achieve their dream of exploring the universe, all the engineering they need to solve problems so they can investigate all their questions, congress would just sign the permission slip and write the check. 

One of the reasons NASA is working on a manned Mars mission is because they have to, it's in the contract. It's like if that little girl's mother said she could only go to space camp if she stripped the wallpaper in the foyer first. Oh, but one catch, she has to buy the ladder and the DIF wallpaper stripper and a plastic scraper and sponges and buckets and gloves with the money for the plane ticket to Houston. 

The guys in the press conference all said they liked the manned mission idea because a person can study the geology a lot faster in person. I think that's true if you have rich, indulgent patrons. The fact is that working on half-assed manned missions means NASA can't do other science with robots where they get a lot more data for their dollar. It's confusing when you see interviews with people that seem like they should be supportive of NASA who say they don't like some program or another. I think it's taken out of context. They mean given a budget that's too small, they would rather do something else, not that they just want to do less.

I think the same misunderstanding happens with certain climate experts. The media portrays them as deniers who disagree with the rest of the scientists. But that's not it. If you go to an oceanography class in graduate school everybody sounds like that. That's how scientists talk. They talk about what they don't know. They discuss new data for a while, agree that there isn't enough data yet to really come to a solid conclusion, then they talk about how to get more data. Richard Lindzen and Judith Curry just talk to everybody like they are graduate science students. They don't deny that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and they don't deny that the actions of people have jacked up the amount in the atmosphere so much that it is having a global warming effect. 

But the general public are not graduate students in oceanography. They aren't even close. They don't understand how scientists talk. If you want to talk to the layman you have to invert the lecture. You don't talk about the data and then discuss what it means. You just talk about what it means and then you have to explain to the people why they care. Lindzen and Curry seem extremely stubborn in their refusal to talk in terms regular people can understand. I had to read a lot of their stuff to figure out what they were really saying and I sat in those graduate school oceanography classes for two years to get the background I needed to make sense of it. What they are saying is basically the same damn thing I've been saying for years.


The earth, I mean. Leave it the fuck alone. 

Judith Curry's basic message is that we should be looking at ways to cope with climate change rather than putting all our effort into models to predict it. She says we should be investing money into gathering data on the basic science, not models. We don't know enough about the interacting processes to begin to simplify it into a model. I agree with her. It's the old joke, "assume a spherical cow." And the general public is not getting the joke. Because they aren't telling it right.

In this article about Lindzen they talk about how the frightening talk about catastrophic weather as a result of anthropogenic climate change is a way for scientists to get their funding.

Liberals like me are ok with that scare talk, I guess, because we get it's a strategy. But conservatives use it against us because of people like Curry and Lindzen that won't play along. My dad says you can't trust government so any research they fund is suspect. Well shit. Who else is going to pay for it? BP? Exxon? Georgia Pacific? I'd suspect their data before I'd suspect a study funded by the Department of Energy. 

I am an optimist. I inherently trust all scientists. I want to believe we all basically agree. I don't think it matters who paid for your mass-spec, as a scientist you are going to be sure it's calibrated and your samples aren't contaminated. If the data doesn't come out with a conclusion that supports your funding source, no big deal. Just say the topic warrants further study. That's all anybody ever says anyway because scientists are aware of what they don't know.

The problem with planetary science, be it NASA on Mars or research into climate change here on Earth, is money. It's always money. And ignorance. Some of us know we don't know and we need money to investigate. We sort of know how ocean circulation currents work and we know how long it takes water to go around the whole world. But we don't know what will happen if something breaks that process. We DO NOT KNOW. I think all scientists agree that we don't know. I'd be surprised if any scientist would say they are 100% sure that the main circulation patterns won't change, ever. (This is a safe bet because Phil Plait won't even say for sure a photograph taken by a TV camera is Jupiter even if he can see the moons and knows Jupiter was visible the day the shot was taken.)

But if anybody handwaves away a change like no more warm Gulf current washing over the shores of Great Britain as not being a big deal, then I just don't even know. Maybe this is the same part of me that wrote a letter to the Atlanta Olympic Committee telling them that putting 13" CRT televisions outside in open air in the Olympic stadium for the press was dangerous and they shouldn't do it. For that one precious week in August we had no rain and no lightning and it was way too sunny and hot for anybody to sit there at those TVs anyway so it didn't matter. But that doesn't mean that a CRT set knocked off a table in the rain won't still electrocute somebody. And it doesn't mean I didn't have an ethical obligation to warn the decision makers. I guess I see this kind of not knowing the same way.

It's kind of our job as scientists and engineers to warn society about the worst thing that can happen. We have to plan ahead so the infrastructure is ready. It's management's job to ignore my letter and put the TVs out in the sun anyway. 

The idea that humans are fucking around with the planet without knowing what they are doing is disturbing to me. We could break it. We've already broken it in lots of small ways, irrevocably changed estuaries with jetties, drained wetlands for development, and more. Developers always triumph over environmental concerns. Things get built right on a sandy beach that have no business whatsoever on a sandy beach. When Judith Curry says we should be working on ways to cope with climate change, not ways to model it, I fancy a plan to abandon Miami. New technology to demolish and recycle materials from high rise hotels, turn it right back into sand. Rich people no longer get to build whatever kind of illegal sea wall they want on a beach. States start hiring environmental enforcement officials who aren't intimidated by money who tell developers No and mean No.

I understand I'm emotional about this and my argument is weak, but that's kind of what I'm getting at. As a big-picture kind of thing I think trusting my gut is as valid as anything else because we don't know shit. We don't know if the Earth is special. We don't know if there are lots of other planets just like it and it's a common occurrence to have a nice warm moist planet like this. We don't know how long it's going to be this way. Mars is dry and cold. It used to have liquid water. It was warmer and wet and now it's not. It is not what it used to be. Is anybody getting this? There weren't even any people there fucking around with it and it changed from one climate to another. 

To glibly hand-wave away climate change is mystifying to me. Even if evolution had stopped before tool-making animals there's no reason to think the Earth would just continue indefinitely as a perfect oasis for life. Mars sure as hell changed a lot. We should be planning how to cope with the what-ifs, not just refusing to spend money on science because it might give us an answer we don't like. To me the secret to maintaining a delicate balance is to not fuck with it. Jerks in the desert who push over beautiful rock formations because they might be dangerous are a literal example. Why is it your job to reduce potential energy in the desert? Maybe just don't stand under it. 

The Earth is currently balanced such that it supports life > we don't really know how it all works > better not fuck with it too much

I have no idea what to do about NASA not getting as much money as the military. I have no idea what to do about people who thing climate scientists are fighting when they are all basically saying the same damn thing, only using a different tone of voice to say it. I don't know what to do about conservatives not trusting government and liberals not trusting corporations. I don't know what to do about states paying environmental officials with science degrees less than a fast food worker. 

I think Earth is a beautiful planet. I feel very fortunate that I live on it. I think it is likely a rarity in the cosmos or at least a rarity in cosmic time scales. (I mean I suspect this kind of planetary climate doesn't last.) I have great appreciation for the complexities involved in making Earth what it is. I don't think humans are all that special at all though. There's a saying, "Be the change you want to see in the world." That's why I live a small life in my small dwellings. I don't really participate in the parts of the world involving money and people because I don't feel the same appreciation for the complexities there. I only feel anxiety, unfairness, and imbalance. 

This reminds me of my term papers in grad school. I never knew how to end those either. In conclusion, further investigation is warranted.

*update Jan 17: Here's a link to Dr. Curry's testimony to the Senate http://judithcurry.com/2014/01/16/senate-epw-hearing-on-the-presidents-climate-action-plan/

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