Friday, August 09, 2013

AGU: advocacy or information?

This debate continues to generate more heat than light. I think it's time to attempt to bring some clarity into the proceedings.

One of the main problems (IMO) is the Rorschach-test nature of the original article. "Climate scientists must not advocate". There's a lot of room for people to read their own meanings into this. I'm not blaming Tamsin for this - the original article was necessarily brief and she can't be criticised for not anticipating every possible interpretation and misunderstanding. But I don't think I'm alone in having been repeatedly accused of misinterpreting what she wrote (though she herself has not commented one way or the other), and I don't think it is reasonable for people to throw out quite serious criticisms without being prepared to explain what they actually mean. One obvious way of moving forward is to ask for examples of this advocacy that has apparently cause so much trouble. What does this actually mean in practice?

So here's a test case for you - the recently updated AGU Position Statement on Climate Change (full statement here). Is this an example of climate scientists advocating on policy, outside of their areas of professional expertise? Does it reduce trust in climate science and/or climate scientists? Or are they just stating some fairly obvious and well-established truths?

I think it's obvious enough that (self-identified) climate sceptics will say that yes, the AGU is inappropriately dabbling in politics. Indeed a few of the usual suspects have already indicated as much (h/t Stoat) and I presume their followers will agree. I'm really more interested in the views of those who regard themselves lying in the mainstream in their scientific view - which we can probably take to mean, broadly in agreement with the content of the IPCC report (WG1 of AR4). The AGU is a huge and influential organisation, and probably a large proportion of climate scientists are AGU members at least on an occasional basis - you have to join to submit an abstract to one of the meetings, and it's only $20 anyway. (FWIW, I think my membership has just lapsed, at least my EOS subscription appears to not be working, and I'm not going to San Francisco this time round). So this is rather more than just a theoretical question about some inconsequential bit of fluff on the internet. I'm asking if one of the biggest voices in climate science is behaving appropriately in the opinion of its (real or potential) members.

Tamsin, Steven Phipps, Doug McNeall, I'm looking at you.


EliRabett said...

OK, IEHO this is really the IPCC problem. Contrary to rumor there are three working groups and two of them include economists and social scientists of all kinds.

David Young said...

James, Are you one of those

"who regard themselves lying in the mainstream in their scientific view - which we can probably take to mean, broadly in agreement with the content of the IPCC report (WG1 of AR4)."

You have taken exception to some of their main findings here, I think.

There is an interesting you tube from Columbia U. I think discussing this issue with Richard Betts, Judith Curry, and my right honorable friend Gavin Schmidt. Betts is very careful in his opinions because he said he has a legal obligation as a British civil servant to stay out of policy matters. Betts sounded pretty sound to me, but clearly not the best rhetorician. You know what Socrates said of Sophists. :-)

James, perhaps you should get her majesties government to grant Democratic rights to her public servants. :-)

James Annan said...

Yes, I think I've made it clear that I think the IPCC has a tendency towards alarmism at least in some respects. But the question isn't whether I agree with the contents of climate scientists' policy-related statements, but whether they should in principle be discouraged from and criticised for the very act of making any such statements. I think it's entirely appropriate for climate scientists to enter the debate, even though they are merely human and therefore liable to biases and errors on all sorts of things (even, within their supposed areas of expertise).

The position of UK Govt employees is nothing specific to climate science. The Met Office is (has been) substantially funded by the Ministry of Defence, there's a very different culture there to what you would find at different research institutes and universities around the world. Of course, even supposedly policy-neutral research is still in principle liable to be imbued with underlying assumptions, such as the range of questions that are actually being addressed...true "neutrality" is very much a mythical beast IMO.

(Technically, most of us have to get approval from above before making any public statements, policy-related or not. Practically, this doesn't actually happen, though there have been a handful of notable examples, like Canada recently, and Hansen occasionally in the past.)

David Young said...

I suspect that her majesties rule regarding civil servants was the result of good government types like my brother insisting that those entrusted with the public trust not advocate in the political arena. Probably even supported by the Guardian and probably also by the short tailed weasel (stoat). Hey, Teddy Roosevelt would approve. :-)

Rachel Martin said...

As a member of the public, I think scientists have a right to express their opinions and to lobby government just like the rest of us. Furthermore, If the AGU thinks human-induced climate change requires urgent action then they have a duty to say so. The Italian scientists who failed to communicate the risks of an earthquake in L'Aquila in 2009 were charged with manslaughter.

I am reminded of the plane crash of a Colombian aircraft near Kennedy International airport because the pilots failed to communicate the urgency of their situation to air traffic controllers. They ran out of fuel and crashed. The subsequent investigation found that the pilots should have used clearer language when communicating with air traffic controllers like using the word "emergency". They knew they had no fuel left and instead they said "I think we need priority". More here -

ob said...

To answer your question:

I think the title "Human-induced climate change requires urgent action" goes beyond information. Otherwise "they [are] just stating some fairly obvious and well-established" knowledge.

OT: Re: EOS. They had some technical problems earlier this week, but it works again (for me).

Doug McNeall said...

I think I need to take a leaf out of Jonathan Gregory's book. An "E", an "A" and two "L"s, people ;)

James Annan said...

Or you could learn to spell your name normally :-)

Sorry, and to think I specifically checked the Mac/Mc/N/n/a/i stuff. And Steven/Stephen too. I hate mispelling names.

Doug McNeall said...

No worries James, you join a long and (very occasionally) distinguished list. Funny how often people (including chief scientists, referees etc.) get the "a" right, but miss an "l".

Anyway, it's been a great discussion. Ed is collecting suggestions, but I would like to see a poll where people indicate statements that they would be happy to make in various circumstances. You could make them from very bland to full-out-death-trains.

I have a funny feeling that people who come out on different sides of this debate, might actually be happy making similar statements in similar circumstances.

JCH said...

Alarmism got smeared with "you can't yell fire in a crowded theater."

On that one, folks need to talk to their local fire marshall. If you see fire or smoke inside a crowded theater, please, for the love of gawd, start yelling. Because it's on film; people will just sit in place until it is way too late. They apparently think the burning props (natural variation) are part of the show.

It got so bad, people remaining mum inside of burning buildings, that they've taken to installing robotic fire alarms.

Non-alarmism kills; alarmism saves. They don't make fire non-alarms, though I admit to once taking a hammer to my fire alarm.

David Young said...

Read Doug McNeall's linked post. Excellent in my opinion. A calm voice of reason in a maelstrom of short tailed weasels and other communicators shouting at the top of their lungs.

David Young said...

Sorry, weasels bark, they do not shout :-)

Steve Reynolds said...

The title:
“Human-induced Climate Change Requires Urgent Action.” is a major problem. This is not a scientific statement. It requires value judgment that science cannot make.

As far as science goes, my view is reasonably in the mainstream of the IPCC scientific view, although I think their climate sensitivity limits may be at too high values (probably along with James).

“Impacts harmful to society, including increased extremes of heat, precipitation, and coastal high water are currently being experienced, and are projected to increase.”
Other than the heat, this strong statement about current experience seems contrary to IPCC reports (especially SREX). Projections lack sufficient credibility for the statement.

Many of the other statements may be technically likely true, but when put together read as propaganda in support of the title. The AGU should attempt to be as objective as possible, giving the best evidence on all sides. Then people can apply their own values to determine what policy to support.

Hank Roberts said...

AGU dues had its hockey stick moment last year; now $50/year. Still worthwhile for anyone trying to follow along and learn as it happens.

Hank Roberts said...

> seems contrary to ... SREX

Where are you getting something in SREX that "seems contrary" to the AGU statement?

I looked it up, and found

"Key themes
• In some parts of the world, increases in some extreme weather and climate events have been observed. Further increases are projected over the 21st

28 November 2011
IPCC Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation

Suppose the AGU had said exactly what SREX says. Would you argue with that?

David B. Benson said...

I'm most unlikely to join AGU but I certainly find the revised AGU statement to be entirely appropriate.

For a roughly comparable situation for scientists, consider the role of the epidemiologists and their association(s).

David Young said...

Benson may be right about epidemiologists. I would be grateful if he has some examples.

PeteB said...

I'm OK with the body of the statement including the sentence that begins 'Actions that could diminish the threats...' - I think that is information - The title is advocacy - although I personally I agree with the title, I'm not sure if it slightly oversteps the line for a scientific institution. I would have preferred a title that puts the onus back on the politicians to address the issue. I think there is a slight danger that politicians don't want to make the case for action because it is unpopular and would prefer the scientists to use their authority.

EliRabett said...

FWIW, except partially in the US, essentially all academics are government employees including in the UK

Unknown said...


Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, to whom the "shout fire" quote is ascribed, specifically said:

"The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.."

Holmes' quote could be validly called a description of "Alarmism", but not if there was a real fire.

Steve Reynolds said...

Hank, your quote from the fact sheet (not part of the SREX report) does not support the AGU statement much.

Hank: “Suppose the AGU had said exactly what SREX says. Would you argue with that?”

I welcome that, but SREX says a lot covering many areas. I would expect AGU to give a balanced account. If we at least look at the Summary for Policy Makers, one specific thing SREX says in this area:

“Increasing exposure of people and economic assets has been the major cause of long-term increases in
economic losses from weather- and climate-related disasters (high confidence). Long-term trends in economic
disaster losses adjusted for wealth and population increases have not been attributed to climate change,
but a role for climate change has not been excluded (high agreement, medium evidence).”

Doesn’t support the AGU statement I quoted and would not be very good to include as propaganda to support the AGU title.

Hank Roberts said...

whatsname wanted examples of epidemiology taking positions on policy. Here's how to find some:

Just the first 3 hits:

Position Statement on Asbestos from the Joint Policy Committee ... Urges all sister societies of epidemiology and/or public health organisations and agencies to ... The undermining of public health policy by the asbestos industry

Positions & Statements - Society for Healthcare Epidemiology ...
Abstract: Antimicrobial resistance has emerged as a significant healthcare quality and patient safety issue in the twenty-first century that, combined with a rapidly dwindling antimicrobial armamentarium, has resulted in a critical threat to the public health of the United States.

Epidemiology Consortium Speaks Out On The Dangers of Asbestos
Asbestos Statement By Epidemiologists Seen As A Critical Contribution In An Ongoing Public Health Battle [Ed. We ... it has also influenced public policy discourse ... In its recommendations, the Position Statement specifically urges public health ...

David Young said...

Thanks, Hank for the link. You can use my real name if you want :-). Only the almighty's name is not to be spoken.

The first position statement on the link is on Asbestos. It is a lengthy document with 5 pages of references to the literature. The final paragraph in the introduction is an acknowledgement that the issue of such statements is a subject of legitimate disagreement.

"This Position Statement on Asbestos was developed by representatives of 12 of our member societies, in consultation with these societies. On June 4, 2012, the JPC-SE approved this Position Statement. EAch member organization then followed its own endorsement process, such as the recusal of its leadership members when appropriate or necessary, such as for some government employees or for those with conflicting interests. Some individual epidemiologists hold the position that epidemiologists should not play any role in advocacy. Some of our member organizations, as per their won internal policies, do not issue or publicly endorse any specific statements."

I suspect that there is no meaningful opposition to banning asbestos, except for the 2nd world countries that produce it. There are effective substitutes and the science is very clear. I personally am not sure the AGU statement is analogous, either in its careful citations of the literature or its length. By the way, what's that bit about some government employees recusing themselves? Perhaps some government employees take their responsibilities more seriously than others.

Richard S J Tol said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard S J Tol said...

I don't think the problem here is advocacy. In a nutshell, they say: "climate is changing, must mitigate or adapt." That is trite. Advocacy goes beyond stating the obvious.

The problem here is professionalism. Here we have the American GEOPHYSICAL Union writing about SOCIETY. This is as ridiculous as the American SOCIOLOGICAL Society writing about the ATMOSPHERE.

Just stick with what you know.

David Young said...

Richard, I think what you say is important. Some would say that professionalism requires "sticking to the facts" and remaining neutral on the policy. Her Majesty's government feels that way about pubic servants, even though James says its very weakly enforced. It is an area where reasonable people can disagree, at least that's my thought.

David Young said...

I just reread the AGU statement. It didn't take long as its very short and in my opinion very superficial about the science. It contrasts very poorly (in my opinion of course) with the Asbestos statement, which was carefully documented from the literature.

In the youtube video on this with Betts, Curry, and Schmidt, Schmidt interrupted Curry to insist uncertainty was properly discussed. I find Curry to be largely right on this point.

David B. Benson said...

Translating Epidemiology into Policy

Of course epidemiologists have been doing this for a long time and have become rather more expert on it than the geophysicists.

Richard S J Tol said...

@David B
Epidemiology and public health are very close, and people often move from research to application and back. This is generally seen as healthy. After all, epidemiology seeks to discover what makes people ill and public health care seeks to prevent that.

The aims of public health care are widely, almost universally shared.

There should be, and I believe there are strong safeguards against wishful thinking in epidemiology.

@David Y
Advocacy is one thing. Amateurism is another.

Roddy said...


The heading of the AGU statement is 'Human-induced climate change requires urgent action.'

Your post asks:

"Is this an example of climate scientists advocating on policy, outside of their areas of professional expertise? ........ Or are they just stating some fairly obvious and well-established truths?"

Surely that heading is neither in their areas of professional expertise, nor a fairly obvious truth?

I'm not sure how your test works, so here's a test for you - do you recommend 'urgent action', as a climate scientist, and believe the requirement for 'urgent action' is 'a fairly obvious truth'? Which would suggest you think such actions are feasible, cost-effective, politically acceptable globally, and so on. I'd be surprised if you felt confident in that, and able to describe workable actions that could form part of an emissions treaty between USA, China, India, Africa, EU and so on.

I also agree with Richard Tol above, that it is unprofessional to make position statements so far out of their area, and to some extent yes that is likely to damage trust, your third question.

Rachel Martin said...

As a layperson, I want a professional opinion on the topic. Do climate scientists think urgent action is required? Or is urgency not necessary here?

Scientific papers are often quite hard to follow and unless the authors themselves explain the implications of their findings the general public is forced to get their information from Rupert Murdoch.

Walter said...

Of course scientists should talk about issues that could affect society. If not them, then who? This is a ridiculous argument. In the Western democracies we allow anyone to talk about policy, and most of the time policy is actually made by political aides listening to industry lobbyists. It's about time we heard from people who know what they're talking about and are not trying to make a buck from it.

David B. Benson said...

What Walter wrote.

David Young said...

Actually Walter is wrong about one thing. Civil servants have restrictions on policy advocacy. The issue is professionalism and credibility. Ask Teddy Roosevelt

James Annan said...

In the UK, scientists are not civil servants (with some limited exceptions). I expect the same is true in the USA - surely universities are private institutions there too?

EliRabett said...

In the UK the government owns most of the universities however well hidden this is. In the US there are more private universities but still large numbers of state owned schools. To concentrate your mind, how do you think that FOIA works? You can't FOIA private institutions.

David Young said...

The issue is conflict of interest. As a civil servant you are to implement public policy as determined by the sovereign, not make that policy. In democraxies the "people" are sovereign in fact their elected representatives. You know, progressives are not honoring their heritage. Where is the respect for the illustrious history of progressivism? You are off the reservation.

David Young said...

Sorry, I forgot that the Mann is sovereign over the people. Democracy is such a dated concept. :-)

James Annan said...

Eli: cite needed . Or to save you the trouble, I could just tell you (again) that it's not true.

Of course, even if they were owned by the govt, it would not mean the employees were civil servants anyway.

Even research council lab staff aren't civil servants - that all went out of the window decades ago. Indeed the staff frequently find themselves campaigning in a highly political manner about govt cutbacks...

None of my previous 3 research jobs in the UK had any prohibition on political activity, as far as I recall - though it wasn't high on my list of priorities (apart from the govt cuts), so I could be wrong.

In the UK, you can FOIA anyone who the govt chooses to put on the list of institutions that the FOIA applies to. They chose to include (most? all?) universities, including Oxford and Cambridge (and their constituent colleges) whose institutional independence is not in doubt.

But this all seems rather a digression to me.

Roddy said...


can I politely press you on your own test? Do you think 'urgent action' a la AGU is 'a fairly obvious truth'?

Do you think that kind of belief falls within clisci areas of expertise?

James Annan said...


Sure, sorry I meant to reply to you earlier.

Yes, the AGU statement is obviously advocating that something must be done, without being very specific about any particular something. I think it would be difficult for any moderately intelligent person to argue that the correct policy is to completely ignore the impact of climate change, but the urgency is less clear to me.

Of course, I'm not the one arguing that scientists should not advocate...I'm disappointed that those who take the opposing view (while considering themselves within the scientific mainstream) have so far declined to comment. Tamsin even specifically promised a reply to my previous post...

SteveS said...

Agreed that "urgent action" is probably the most debatable bit of the statement. But even this could have been made uncontroversial by saying something like "given international agreement on a 2 degree limit to warming, and the long lifetimes of CO2-emitting infrastructure, urgent action is required to reduce emissions".

For an example of a really good position statement I'd recommend

James Annan said...

Yes, I agree that anyone who endorses the UNFCCC would have trouble disputing that urgent action is required.

Roddy said...

James, thanks. I've written an 'advocacy' reply, but the subject is a hydra, and it's too long. Briefly I think the AGU is NOT advocacy, as you say it is closer to 'something must be done or else ....'. What that 'something' is we all know. How to do it no-one knows, certainly not cli-scis.

Do you recall if there were opinions given by cli-scis at the time of the UK Climate Change Act? I would regard advocacy for that as out of expertise, and it could easily result in a diminution of trust.

Re your 'I think it would be difficult for any moderately intelligent person to argue that the correct policy is to completely ignore the impact of climate change, but the urgency is less clear to me.' - I think it's easy for a moderately intelligent person to conclude that adaptation beats mitigation, having thought about it? For instance this IDB/WWF report on LatAm says adaptation is 1/10th the cost of (their share of) mitigation (for up to 2050, 2C, sure).

'Ignore' is a strange word. Critics of mitigation policies are ignorers? A new polite form of deniers? :)

James Annan said...

Roddy, as I read it, the AGU statement does not explicitly call for mitigation, but also mentions adaptation. That's what Richad Tol also said.

I'm sure there would have been scientific input into the Climate Change Act, though I don't know the details. It would be pretty ridiculous for that not to be the case.

Roddy said...


I don't think that's right.

'Actions that could diminish the threats posed by climate change to society and ecosystems
include substantial emissions cuts to reduce the magnitude of climate change, as well as
preparing for changes that are now unavoidable.'

That sentence explicitly means mitigation, 'as well as' bracing ourselves through adaptation for what we have already done.

I didn't see what Tol wrote, but I'm not sure how the above can be read otherwise.

Anyway, no-one really objects to adaptation or advocacy thereof so a bit of red herring.

Walter said...

David Young:
"The issue is conflict of interest. As a civil servant you are to implement public policy as determined by the sovereign, not make that policy. In democraxies the "people" are sovereign in fact their elected representatives. You know, progressives are not honoring their heritage."
Civil servant != research scientist. As you point out, civil servants are the people implementing policy. Michael Mann is not implementing policy. There is no conflict of interest involved.

As I said before, I'd much rather have people who know some science give input to policy than rely on industry lobbyists. This seems like a perfectly progressive stance. You seem to capture the conservative ethos perfectly.

David Young said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David B. Benson said...

I am fairly sure Jim Hansen was a civil servant and he advocated (and continues to do so) certain policies.

The point is that being identified as head of NASA/GISS is for identification purposes only. Jim wasn't speaking for the NASA Administrator.

Another example is the DoESec. Certainly openly advocates certain policies and implements them (under the direction of the POTUS.

This is all quite silly and misinformed.

andrew adams said...

The problem here is professionalism. Here we have the American GEOPHYSICAL Union writing about SOCIETY. This is as ridiculous as the American SOCIOLOGICAL Society writing about the ATMOSPHERE.

Oh come on, isn't one of the reasons we study science (and devote large amounts of money to funding it) because it can have an impact on human life and our society? Particularly so with geophysical sciences.

If scientists' research leads them to conclude there will be outcomes which will have impacts on human society then it's perfectly reasonable for them to talk about that.

Similarly if social scientists' ever find that their work ever has implications for the atmosphere then they are perfectly free to bring our attention to it.

andrew adams said...

Steve Reynolds says

The title:
“Human-induced Climate Change Requires Urgent Action.” is a major problem. This is not a scientific statement. It requires value judgment that science cannot make.

Of course it's not a "scientific" statement, and it does require making a value judgement. But just because it's a value judgement it doesn't mean it is purely subjective, I mean surely there are some values which are so widely shared that we can pretty much tale them for granted. Otherwise it would be hard to have a meaningful discussion about many social or political issues because we would have to go back to discussing all issues from first principles - is poverty really a "bad" thing, are property rights really important etc.

andrew adams said...

That sentence explicitly means mitigation, 'as well as' bracing ourselves through adaptation for what we have already done.
Anyway, no-one really objects to adaptation or advocacy thereof so a bit of red herring.

It would clearly be silly to object to adaptation per se given that we are already committed to a certain amount of climate change and we will have no choice other than adapt to it. But I think a lot of people would object to the suggestion that adaptation would be an adequate response in itself without any attempt at mitigation.

I don't see any objection at all to the AGU's comments on mitigation. To say "if we do x then there could be serious consequences" and not then conclude "we should consider maybe not doing x" would seem to me to be rather odd.

David Young said...

David, I don't know what Hansen's status was. His advocacy caused a lot of friction. He said he retired to play a bigger role in policy debate. Richard Betts apparently takes the civil servant rules quite seriously. He is not silly but responsible. I' m surprised you are so dismissive of civil service rules.

David B. Benson said...

David Young --- You might care to check the rules for the Senior Executive Service.

Steve Reynolds said...

andrew adams:
“Of course it's not a "scientific" statement, and it does require making a value judgement. But just because it's a value judgement it doesn't mean it is purely subjective, I mean surely there are some values which are so widely shared that we can pretty much tale them for granted.”

And there are some values not agreed on. To give a stark example (assume for the sake of the values argument that the choice is real): What is more important, allowing a billion additional people in China and India to have significant access to electricity, or to prevent polar bears (and some other species not economically valuable) from becoming extinct?

andrew adams said...


When we're deciding what actions to take (or not) to address the problem all kinds of value judgements come into play because there aren't any easy solutions and there will certainly be disagreements about priorities, responsibility and other thorny subjects.

But I don't think that means we shouldn't still agree that there is problem. I think a lot of people would say that they would put the welfare of poor people in the developing world above that of polar bears but would still see the threat to polar bears and other vulnerable species, ecosystems etc. as a problem. And there are a lot of people in the developing world also threatened by climate change.

PeteB said...

David Y, I don't think you can necessarily compare James Hansen and Richard Betts, they are in different position, operating under a different code.

I actually rather like Hansen's policy ideas, and to me the US badly needs someone coming from a right wing / conservative / republican angle suggesting a market based approach, rather than either denying the problem or pushing a 'big government' approach. He seems like a good example of a well informed scientist pushing economically literate solutions :

After an ill-fated, and it could be argued ill-conceived, attempt to pass climate legislation in the first year the the Obama administration there has been little traction on the issue. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is delaying its rules on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and the new Department of Energy energy efficiency standards for appliances are also being delayed.

And that’s okay with Hansen, who says he sees the solution coming in a different form, a carbon tax, and from a different place — the right of the political spectrum.

“It has to be a carbon tax and it really has to come from conservatives,” Hansen said. The reason is that the tax has to be market-based and revenue neutral.

“The fundamental fact is that as long as fossil fuels appear to the public to be the cheapest energy we are going to keep burning them,” Hansen said.”Fossil fuels are not the cheapest energy they only appear to be because they are subsidized.”

California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, have introduced a bill that would create a carbon tax, but that doesn’t make Hansen happy.

“As usual the Democrats are going to take some of the money, 40 percent of it,” Hansen said. “Conservatives have to put ta foot down and say you can’t use this as another excuse to make government bigger. Democrats have a problem they can’t keep their hands off our wallets.”

The reason Hasen is so adamant is by his calculation if the government keeps 40 percent most people will end-up paying more for energy than they get back. “It is important that all the money go to the public, so get this push from below,” he said.

What of the general reluctance from anyone — and we mean just about anyone — on the GOP side of the aisle to take up the issue since Arizona Sen. John McCain and South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham abandoned their 2008 efforts to fashion bipartisan legislation?

“If they continue to pretend that human-made climate change is a hoax, eventually you get to the point where nature makes it clear it wasn’t a hoax and then the public demands the government do something and that’s the worst nightmare for conservatives,” Hansen said.

“It would allow the government to take over and do things by fiat, which not in anybody’s interest in my opinion, because the government never, seldom, makes the right choices,” Hansen said. “Let the market make the choices, which is a conservative approach.”

Roddy said...

Andrew it wasn't about objecting to our not objecting to. James said the doc didn't explicitly advocate mitigation (from memory). I said that it did.

Steve Reynolds said...

andrew adams:
“I think a lot of people would say that they would put the welfare of poor people in the developing world above that of polar bears but would still see the threat to polar bears and other vulnerable species, ecosystems etc. as a problem.”

No disagreement there, adam. But the AGU statement: “Human-induced climate change requires urgent action” does a lot more than just identify a problem. It makes the value judgment that ‘urgent action’ is required. Since effective ‘urgent action’ that has been proposed will restrict access to low cost energy, it will have significant negative consequences that depending on values, outweigh benefits.

AGU should stick to science and not advocate policy.

David Young said...

PeteB, Thanks for that information. Hansen every once in a while has a spectacularly good thought. His advocacy of nuclear power is something I agree with. A carbon tax might be viable in the US, but probably not in the 2nd or 3rd world.

Walter said...

I was listening to NPR's Living on Earth this weekend. There was a report on prairie dogs. It ended with a the scientist in the report saying:
"CEBALLOS: A good scientist has to do good research, but then has to translate it into action. There is no way that we can continue just being like historians – recording all the things that we are losing, instead of becoming actors. Now, my main objective in life is to save as many species of plants and animals as I can."

I like it. The idea that scientists should be isolated from acting on their research is stupid.

James Annan said...


I think most climate scientists would be delighted if advocates and politicians on all sides of the debate were to talk primarily about the costs v benefits of polar bears versus electricity for impoverished nations, rather than making up bogus proxy arguments about the reality of anthropogenic global warming.

While I'm writing, I would like to thank all commenters for interesting and on-topic contributions, in contrast to what you sometimes see elsewhere :-)

Rachel Martin said...

I completely agree with you Walter. In fact, I saw a program on the BBC yesterday about controlling grey squirrels in Britain as a means of increasing the population of the native, red squirrel. If ecologists studying the red squirrel came out and said, "the red squirrel population is in danger of extinction" and left it at that, no-one would take much notice or do anything about it. If instead they said, "the red squirrel population is in danger of extinction and we need to urgently act to prevent this by controlling the numbers of grey squirrels through culling", then this is much more effective. This is exactly what they're doing.

On the question of whether we help the poor or the polar bears, then a good person to ask is an ethicist. An ethicist who has devoted much of his life to helping the world's poor is Peter Singer (professor of bioethics at Princeton). He wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal a couple of years ago with the title, Does Helping the Planet Hurt the Poor? ( Here's a cut-and-paste from this article:

"Some development projects provide employment opportunities for the poor but at a high cost to wilderness. From Indonesia to Brazil, vast areas of tropical rainforest have been cleared to grow palm oil and soybeans or to graze cattle, thus destroying entire ecosystems and releasing huge quantities of carbon.

What should we do? Sometimes we should choose to protect the environment and the nonhuman animals that depend on it, even if that denies economic opportunities to some people living in extreme poverty. Areas rich in unique biodiversity are part of the world's heritage and ought to be protected. We should, of course, try to find alternative environmentally sustainable opportunities for those living in or near these areas. But there is no single currency by which we can measure the benefit of saving human lives against the cost of destroying forests that provide the last remaining refuges for free-living chimpanzees, orangutans or Sumatran tigers.

Cost-benefit analysis certainly can't handle this task. Even when economists ignore environmental concerns, their usual method of assigning a value to human lives leads to the ethically embarrassing conclusion that the poor count for less because they earn less and cannot pay as much to reduce life-threatening risks."

David Young said...

I'm not sure Rachel if your comment is parody or serious. Singer is tremendously controversial. He for example contends that it is not wrong to take innocent human life in some circumstances. From Wikipedia:

"Singer's positions have been criticised by groups, such as advocates for disabled people and right-to-life supporters, concerned with what they see as his attacks upon human dignity. Singer has replied that many people judge him based on secondhand summaries and short quotations taken out of context, not his books or articles.[50]
Some claim that Singer's utilitarian ideas lead to eugenics.[51] American publisher Steve Forbes ceased his donations to Princeton University in 1999 because of Singer's appointment to a prestigious professorship.[52] Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal wrote to organisers of a Swedish book fair to which Singer was invited that "A professor of morals ... who justifies the right to kill handicapped newborns ... is in my opinion unacceptable for representation at your level."[53] Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, criticised Singer's appointment to the Princeton Faculty in a banquet speech at the organisation's national convention in July 2001, claiming that Singer's support for euthanizing disabled babies could lead to disabled older children and adults being valued less as well.[54] Conservative psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple wrote in 2010 that Singerian moral universalism is "preposterous—psychologically, theoretically, and practically".[55]
Singer's work has attracted criticism from other philosophers. Bernard Williams, who was a critic of utilitarianism, said of Singer that he "is always so keen to mortify himself and tell everyone how to live". Williams criticised Singer's ethic by saying that he's "always so damn logical" and thus "leaves out an entire dimension of value". Williams claimed that Singer's utilitarianism is impractical as it's impossible to "make these calculations and comparisons in real life".[14]
The philosopher Roger Scruton wrote in 2000, "Singer's works, remarkably for a philosophy professor, contain little or no philosophical argument. They derive their radical moral conclusions from a vacuous utilitarianism that counts the pain and pleasure of all living things as equally significant and that ignores just about everything that has been said in our philosophical tradition about the real distinction between persons and animals".[56]

The references are available there.

I haven't heard much recently about the tropical rain forest. I seem to recall that the scare was convincingly shown to be in error. However, I haven't looked at it closely recently. You know prosperity is the best cure for deforestation. In Europe and North America despite 3 centuries of intense exploitation, forests are doing very well and forested land is increasing dramatically as marginal land is removed from agricultural production. All made possible by dramatically improved modern agricultural methods, something available only to the relatively wealthy.

Rachel Martin said...

My comment is serious. Peter Singer is a serious philosopher. I've read much of his stuff and if you're interested in what he really says about the value of human life then read what he says about it rather than what someone else thinks he says. I'd recommend as a starting point his book "Practical Ethics" which is very good and widely used in introductory courses on ethics.

MikeR said...

Parallel question on the AGU: Just as (some think) that AGU scientists should not discuss areas out of their expertise, would all of us agree that the AGU _committee_ should not speak in the name of the other members of the AGU? Generally, in political organizations a committee comes up with a proposal, but then it is ratified by the organization as a whole. Why shouldn't all AGU members get to vote on a statement that is already being quoted in their name?

I personally am pretty sure that a considerable majority of AGU members would support the statement. Still, it would be right to let members vote, and knowing the actual percentage would be a lot more accurate than some of the ridiculous "97%" surveys running around.

MikeR said...

On the original question, I have a hard time seeing any side but Tamsin's. Scientists can do whatever they want. But my automatic response to seeing anyone in the media talking about stuff they don't know about is to think badly of the questioner, the answerer, and anyone listening. I don't care, no one should care, about some actor's opinion of such-and-such (unless they are really really interested in that actor).

I have the same reaction to scientists when they "stray off the reservation". If a climate modeler is talking about climate modelling, cool. If he starts talking about his own favorite political response or economics or such, I am likely to think: You don't seem to mind blathering on national television about things you apparently don't know anything about.

Of course, that is especially true if I don't like what the scientist is saying. At least here in the US, the main battle is not, Should we mitigate?, but, Are we convinced yet that this is a serious problem? Scientists who try to skip the first step or hurry past it, especially when it is the only step they really know, risk losing their audience.

Walter said...

I don't see many scientists trying to skip the "do we think this is a problem" step. I do see many people with no relevant expertise at all trying to say "it is not a problem" (ie the lukewarmer crowd). I see many people with no relevant expertise saying "is our earths warming?" or "is this problem" or "anyway, plants eat it up!"

So where are the MikeR's, David Youngs and Tamsin Edwards on this issue? I assume you are haunting blogs telling the Heartland Institute and CO2 Science types to shut their yaps, right?

MikeR said...

Plenty of people with no expertise, as usual on any subject. I don't mind them, but I ignore them. I try to listen to the experts. That privilege is dearly given, and can be revoked, if an expert convinces me that he is a partisan politician.

Not sure what you mean that the "lukewarmer crowd", whoever they are, has no relevant expertise. Doesn't that depend on which ones? Couple of days ago, I was reading Lucia's blog (I know she calls herself a "lukewarmer"), Michael Tobis showed up in the comments with several objections, Lucia answered them all, and near as I can tell Tobis backed off. Do you imagine that one side is always right? I'm much more comfortable with hearing the real experts discuss the issues and work them out, rather than "picking sides" and attacking the enemy.

But it seems to me that I do see scientists skipping the "is this a problem step". That is, they try to give the impression that "97%" of everyone agree on every _important_ issue, and everyone else is just a Merchant of Doubt, hired by oil money, and let's talk about the real issue of mitigation. That just isn't going to work in the US; they may be right, but they have yet to convince a big chunk of Americans.

Walter said...

Great example. Lucia is an expert what? Blogger? So why do you listen to her when she says climate change is not a problem (ie, she promotes lukewarmism.) Shouldn't you be chiding her for going outside her sphere of expertise?

James Annan said...


I believe the AGU process invited comment from the membership. I don't think it is unreasonable for the elected leadership to speak on behalf of the members without a referendum on every statement: this is how representative democracy usually works.

Based on the Tol Test, probably neither Lucia nor Michael Tobis nor Tamsin are worth listening to on just about anything. I actually think that "expertise" is a far more nebulous and widespread notion than "what I've published original research on". Just as well, as probably no-one has sufficient "expertise" (by the Tol measure) to make any significant contribution to any complex problem. How many people have actually generated and published original research in all of energy generation, geoengineering, climate change and impacts to any significant depth?

David Young said...

Martin, You must be kidding. Prairie dogs are not an endangered species. They have plenty of advocates among the huge Green NGO's which are very well funded. Scientists don't need to get involved, other than to do the research. But in the grand scheme of things, I'm not sure prairie dogs are an important issue. They are furry and cute and coyotes love to eat them, but play a minor role in prairie ecosystems.

jules said...

I also think prairie dogs look quite tasty. Don't people eat them? I'd have thought they'd be as tasty as bunny?

David Young said...

Yes, James, that's the point. Most people have expert knowledge about a very small sphere. If I wanted people to respect me and take my opinions seriously, I'd be careful about advocacy in the political arena, especially if there was a significant chance that I was wrong. Most people here are confusing what one has a right to say and what one can say without destroying your credibility. It's an important distinction. It's as if one should say what one thinks just because one has a right to say it. most people with fiduciary responsibilities know this distinction.

David Young said...

Jules, Next time you and James are in Wyoming, you should shoot one and roast it. I regard you as an expert on whether I should take up hunting them. :-)

MikeR said...

"I don't think it is unreasonable for the elected leadership to speak on behalf of the members without a referendum on every statement: this is how representative democracy usually works." I really don't think that anyone imagines that statements by the US Congress or the President "speak for me". They are empowered to act for me, not to represent my opinion. If someone suggested that "the people of the United States feel __", everyone would laugh at them.
But, as I said, I already have seen people claiming things like, "So you think you know better than the opinion of the thousands of scientists in the AGU?"

As for Lucia and Tobis, I guess I don't understand your point. Certainly Lucia is a expert on the subject I mentioned. That is, she had done real original mathematical calculations testing climate models, which Tobis originally questioned and eventually suggested that they should be published. You may argue with her results, but scientists do that all the time. Why wouldn't she pass the Tol test?

James Annan said...

According to google, Lucia has published nothing of any significance or relevance. Do you know differently? Does she not discredit herself (according to your criterion) by pontificating in areas where she has no credentials?

Conversely, if blog posts count as expertise, then surely plenty of climate scientists are competent to contribute across a wide variety of spheres.

James Annan said...

Mike, the AGU statement does not say "the AGU members feel" (or anything equivalent). You need to work harder at your analogy if you are going to convince me.

MikeR said...

Well, I'm not in the field, but I don't see why publishing on the web is not publishing. McIntyre may have published a couple of peer-reviewed articles, but his main impact has been from very detailed and documented blog posts with all code included, which have been picked up and picked over on both sides of the climate sphere. That is at least as good as "peer reviewed" by any reasonable definition. It's not his writing that has had an impact, it's his work.
But no, blog posts don't count as expertise; scientific work counts as expertise. Read the person's work and decide. Some are doing real calculations, working through the math of other people's papers, and generally participating in the work. Others are spectators, taking others' word for it. Nothing wrong with that, but anyone can tell the difference.
You may disagree with the details of their work, but I assume that happens a lot with scientists in any field; that's not what I'm discussing.

And you're right, the AGU doesn't say it. Everyone else is saying it, though. I'll just quote Curry,, "What really irks me about this statement is that I am a member of the AGU, and therefore this statement is implicitly speaking for me." I don't think she's mistaken; I think you're mistaken: that is the impression given by statements by professional organizations. I think that the members have a right to more input than some vague "invitation to comment" which means very little.

Walter said...

David Young:
"Martin, You must be kidding. Prairie dogs are not an endangered species. ... They are furry and cute and coyotes love to eat them, but play a minor role in prairie ecosystems."
"Most people have expert knowledge about a very small sphere. If I wanted people to respect me and take my opinions seriously, I'd be careful about advocacy in the political arena, especially if there was a significant chance that I was wrong. Most people here are confusing what one has a right to say and what one can say without destroying your credibility. It's an important distinction. It's as if one should say what one thinks just because one has a right to say it. most people with fiduciary responsibilities know this distinction."

Guess what, turns out you don't know much about prairie dogs. Turns out they are a key species in maintaining the prairie. They destroy mesquite. If you kill the prairie dogs, the mesquite moves in, sucks up the water and prairie turns into scrub desert.

Prairie dogs had been killed because they made holes that interfered with ranching. When the prairie dogs were gone, the land turned into not-so-good ranch land.

So instead of ridiculing prairie dogs, maybe you could have gone "hmm, that sounds strange to me -- what's he talking about -- maybe I'll look into it" and learned something. Sometimes you don't know everything.

Walter said...

Saying blog science counts as expertise basically guts your argument. You might want to rethink that.

In any case, all of Lucia's lukewarming really has nothing to do with the issue of what will be the impact. She just argues that every other professional scientist in the field has their models wrong, but she has nothing about what x deg warming will do to ecosystems, infrastructure etc. She (and other lukewarmers) apparently just believe that effects will not be significant just because. (I think they really mean just because don't raise my taxes.)

You're just listening to Lucia, Curry and McIntyre because they tell you what you want to hear, which is that things aren't so bad just because.

MikeR said...

Walter, aren't you just moving the goalposts? Surely these are somewhat independent questions. If the models are wrong, probably the end result of that would be to decrease transient (and maybe) equilibrium climate sensitivities. So "x deg warming" would have a smaller x.

Why are you complaining that she doesn't know what x degrees of warming will do, a matter of ecology or even economics? This is exactly the kind of drifting out of one's expertise that I'm dissing.

By the bye: there's apparently some impression that I'm against people writing blogs on subjects where they aren't expert, or that Tamsin is. I do not think that's what we're talking about. I understood Richard Tol's test as referring to situations where the person is being presented as an expert. There he is on Fox News/MSNBC, discussing his climate models. Then the questioner asks him something about Kyoto or impacts on the local aardvark population. According to the Tol test, and my own feelings, he should be obligated to add, Well, I haven't really studied that, but... before answering. That's all.

Walter said...

I don't think it is moving the goalposts and I'll tell you why.

You can divide the climate change "problem" into a number of steps.
1) Is it happening?
2) Will it be a problem?
3) How do we deal with the problem?

My impression of what the lukewarmers believe is that they would say yes, no, N/A. Perhaps this is because they make step 1a) How much and when? and answer as not much and later.

Either way, the key point is the judgment that climate change is not enough to be a problem. To make that claim you should have some idea of what change would cause a problem.

Even Lucia would say the earth is warming. So will it be a problem?

If Lucia is a professional academic, and expert in climate change modeling, why is she not publishing in that field?

MikeR said...

I'm just not following. Almost all scientists specialize. Lucia seems to be most interested in climate modeling, especially because she apparently does computer modeling in industry. I honestly don't have a clue what she thinks will happen to aardvarks, nor do I know what she thinks should be done about carbon taxes. She doesn't seem to write about those things, perhaps because her modeling experience doesn't say anything about them, perhaps for some other reason. So what's your complaint?

You also mentioned McIntyre as a "lukewarmer". I don't know if he is or not; I've been reading him for years and don't remember him ever once express an opinion. He does seem to like to re-analyze dendro-chronology, so that's what he does. Same question for you.

What makes you think that these people have a Goal? Must anyone skeptical of any detail of climate science be on the dark side? Maybe their Goal is that they disagree with the way the science in their areas is done, and want it done better.

David Young said...

Walter, Mike makes a good point. Lukewarmers seem to be the equivalent of my brother in medicine. They usually don't have a policy agenda but do want scientific standards raised. This is why the "community" is not embracing them. Rather like the reason Robber Barons didn't embrace Teddy Roosevelt.

James Annan said...


Yes, scientists specialise, and if you want to impose any meaningful quality control standard on what you consider a scientist (ie publishing research literature) then Lucia is not one in any field.

OTOH if you think that blogging counts as a sign of expertise, it would be hard to argue that climate scientists shouldn't have a voice in policy-related discussions.

MikeR said...

Dr. Annan, it seems to me that you didn't answer my 10:59 pm comment. You are offering only two polar opposite choices: publishing research literature, or "blogging". What about the possibility in the middle that I mentioned: Making real contributions used by other scientists in the field, but in a more informal way. That's not just "blogging". McIntyre has made a big difference to his specialty; a lot of the impact was through his blog. Willis Eschenbach, who I would not normally think of as a scientist, was the one who suggested the Scalpel technique that the BEST project eventually used (quoting Steve Mosher from the project).
And take the Lucia post(s) I was discussing before
They seem to my inexpert eyes to be presenting some tests on the climate models not available elsewhere. If climate modelers aren't reading her blog, they may be missing some of the latest information in the field.
Are you clinging to some outmoded definition of scientist that misses the modern world?

Look, I'm not an expert; I dabble, read a few blogs. But if it seems to me that Lucia is publishing new stuff that no one else has, then you have two choices: 1) Either go to her blog, refute her posts, show it all wrong (or quote it and refute it here). Nick Stokes tries to do that, and seems to be treated okay, and sometimes makes good points there and at climateaudit. or 2) Ignore the whole thing, keep repeating that if she isn't published on paper it doesn't count to _real_ scientists. I imagine you can see why that's not likely to be very convincing to the rest of us.

James Annan said...


I'm not interested (here) in discussing the merits of Lucia's blogging. I'm asking whether advocacy by climate scientists is irresponsible and/or harmful, and if so, do the arguments presented by the advocates of this premise, also apply to others?

David Young said...

James, I think Mike's argument makes sense. Lucia and McIntyre are outsiders to climate science. They do not make pretensions that they are experts who should be listened to by policy makers. Climate scientists, particularly a small subset such as Hansen, Trenberth, and the activist crowd, make strong pretensions that they are right about the science and that it requires action. Climate scientists make pretensions to have special status as oracles of climate and policy. Thus, they have a special responsibility if they want the public to take them seriously. In any case, Lucia and McIntyre I don't think advocate policy generally but I haven't checked carefully.

Climate science is rather hostile to intelligent outsiders such as McIntyre. As I've said before that should be a warning sign. Particularly the auditing function is better performed by outsiders with strong mathematical credentials. We have seen recent examples of this, for example the recent financial crises where the auditing function became meaningless.

Chuck said...

It's fine.