Judith Curry Looks for Middle Ground in the Contentious Climate Debate (Jerry North, can you help her?)
“I am not afraid about the climate.”
- Judith Curry, quoted in Alexandre Mansur, “American Researcher Says That There Is Still a lot of Uncertainty About Global Warming, Época, May 1, 2010.
“Real Climate, I think they’ve damaged their brand. They started out doing something that people liked, but they’ve been too partisan in a scientific way.”
- Judith Curry, quoted in Eric Berger, “Judith Curry: On Antarctic sea ice, Climategate and skeptics.” August 18, 2010.
There is solid middle ground in the ever-contentious climate-change debate. And now is the time to welcome it, given that politics is not going to reverse in any detectable amount the human influence on climate.
And the shame of the post-Climategate era is that other scientists like Curry did not join her to right the wrongs of a profession that has become politicized, agendacized, and Malthusiancized. And perhaps no one more than Gerald North of Texas A&M epitomizes this lost opportunity. For North is a middle-of-the-roader who inexplicably went Left after Climategate, a story that I documented here at MasterResource.
Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle, whom I have previously identified as a straight shooter in the climate debate, recently posted an interview he did at his blog SciGuy with Professor Curry that is reprinted below (with permission). I also attach an appendix of another Curry interview.
Judith Curry: On Antarctic Sea Ice, Climategate and Skeptics
It’s been an interesting year for climate scientist Judith Curry, who after Climategate split with most of her peers and called for reform in the climate science community. She did this most publicly via a letter published by Climate Audit, a noted skeptic web site. Curry called for more transparency in climate research.
Judith M. Curry
But it’s difficult to paint Curry as a skeptic, especially when considering her scholarly work, the most recent of which was published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (see abstract). It delves into the question of why the Antarctic sea ice hasn’t been melting, and builds upon the consensus climate view.
Given the new paper I thought it a good time to speak with Curry about the last year. Here’s a transcript of our discussion.
EB: We’ve seen rapid melting in the Arctic, but not in the Antarctic. Is this something that has concerned climate scientists?
JC: It’s sort of a paradox. The paradox of why the Antarctic isn’t melting and the Arctic is has gotten a lot of attention, and it’s become one of the skeptics’ arguments. The climate models have generally matched the observations, so scientists have said that’s what the climate models predict, and people haven’t been too bothered by it. But trying to understand exactly what has been going on has not been intuitive. It’s not like there’s been a big debate in the climate community, or a lot of worry about this, because observations have agreed with the models. But that didn’t really explain anything. So in this paper we’ve tried to dig in and find out what really has been going on.
What did you find?
The answer is tied up in a combination of natural variability and global warming. But the most important part of the story is it’s not so much the direct heating from above, but how the precipitation modulates the heating both from below and above. The explanation we’ve found doesn’t translate into a simple sound bite.
So give me a non-sound bite answer.
Sea ice can melt from both above and below, either heating from the ocean below or the atmosphere above. In the case of the Arctic most of the melting is driven from the warmer atmosphere above. In the Antarctic most of the melting has been driven from the ocean below. What our study has identified is that there’s been increased precipitation over the last few decades that has freshened the upper ocean, which makes it more stable so the heat below doesn’t make it up to the sea ice to melt it.
Freshens the upper ocean?
It decreases the saltiness. When you have a fresh layer on top that’s less dense it acts as a barrier to prevent the mixing of warmer water from below. It insulates the ice to some extent. We’ve also seen a big role of natural variability, over the past 30 years or so the dominant climate signal has been from the Antarctic Oscillation rather than from global warming. The net effect of all this has been an increase in precipitation, mostly snow. This diminishes the melting both from below and above. It stops the melting from above because snow has a higher albedo and reflects more sunlight.
At some point does this result in a net loss of ice rather than gains?
What happens in the 21st century projections is that the global warming signal begins to dominate. We still have the freshening of the upper ocean, but the upper ocean is getting warmer because of a warmer atmosphere. And the precipitation starts to fall more as rain than snow. Rain falling on ice speeds the melting from above.
Three different models show Antarctic ice beginning to recede around 2060.
Aside from the new paper, you’ve certainly had an interesting year as a climate scientist.
Oh my gosh, I stepped into it with that little essay I put out. I figured, in for a penny in for a pound.
You have been among the most outspoken scientists in the wake of the Climategate e-mails. Most sought to downplay their significance. You took a position that this was a teachable moment for climate science. Has you gotten any traction on this?
The thing that’s getting traction, the most important thing, is the need for transparency, to get the methods out there and the data out there. There’s a real public demand for accountability on this subject and it’s just plain good science. With the World Wide Web it’s just easy to do. The whole transparency thing, everyone agrees on that, and it’s slowly happening. The other thing I’m seeing is that two of the professional societies, the American Meteorological Association and the American Geophysical Union, are talking about ensuring that skeptical papers get through if they’re of the right quality.
Some people were getting their papers rejected because they disagreed with the IPCC. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. Papers were getting rejected for the wrong reason. It’s good that professional societies are taking this seriously. Those are some good things that have happened in the science community.
What about on the policy side?
On the policy side of it everything seems to have fallen apart. A year ago it seems like we were on track for something to happen, but everything’s fallen apart for a whole host of reasons. It’s not like Climategate caused all that. There were a whole bunch of political and economic issues, like the developed world versus developing countries.
Frankly I think this is a good thing that it’s fallen apart in the short term so everyone can sit back and reflect a little bit more on what we should be doing — to try and really understand where our common interests lie and maybe get away from the UN Model and understand the unintended consequences of some of the policies people are talking about. There’s some no-brainer things that people can be doing, and I hope some of this can get started. But in terms of these big, huge far-reaching policies … the work that needs to be done is really in the economic and political arena to figure out what actually makes sense to do.
Solutions that make sense to a broad range of interests?
Exactly. Otherwise it’s just not going to happen.
Have the positions you’ve taken affected your standing in the climate science community?
I have no idea. I haven’t had any obvious ostracism. A few people who were directly involved in Climategate e-mailed me and weren’t particularly happy about it. But I’ve gotten encouragement from other people, and other people don’t seem to be particularly aware of it. I’ve gotten a fair amount of positive feedback but there’s probably a lot going on out there among people who don’t directly communicate with me. I think it’s fair to say it’s pretty unpopular in certain circles.
Oh yes. Those guys are directly involved in Climategate so that’s not a huge surprise. (note: Joe Romm, of Climate Progress, was not directly involved in Climategate as his private e-mails were not published. Gavin Schmidt, of RealClimate, points out that he was the victim of a crime and not guilty of anything.)
Do you think those kinds of sites are helpful in trying to build public confidence in climate scientists?
That’s a tough one. Real Climate, I think they’ve damaged their brand. They started out doing something that people liked, but they’ve been too partisan in a scientific way. Their moderation hasn’t been good. There was a lot of rudeness toward me on one thread that was actually encouraged by the moderators. I don’t think that has served them well.
Why have you been so conversant with some of the so-called skeptical sites, sites that are certainly outside mainstream climate science?
One of the other positives that I think has come out of Climategate is a realization of what other bloggers like (Steve) McIntyre (of Climate Audit) are actually up to. This isn’t Merchants of Doubt, oil-company-funded effort. It’s a grassroots effort. These are people who are interested, they want to see accountability. They have a certain amount of expertise and they want to play around with climate data. There’s no particularly evil motives behind all this.
We really don’t understand the potential or impact the blogosphere is having. I think it’s big and growing. The sites that are growing in popularity are Watts Up With That, which really have huge traffic. I think there’s a real interest in the subject. I think there’s a hunger for information. I think there’s a huge potential here for public education.
People say it’s polarizing, and sure, you have Climate Progress and Climate Depot on the two extremes, but in the middle you’ve got all these lukewarmer blogs springing up. So I can also see a depolarizing effect. There seems to be a lot more stuff building up in the middle right now. With the IPCC, and the expectation that scientists hew to the party line, it was getting pretty evangelical. When I speak up about maybe there’s more uncertainty, some people regard that as heresy. That’s not a good thing for either science or policy. We’ve got to lose that.
Appendix: The Curry Interview in Portugal (Alexandre Mansur, “American Researcher Says That There Is Still a lot of Uncertainty About Global Warming, Época, May 1, 2010.)
ÉPOCA – Do you have any fear of the consequences of climate change?
Judith Curry – There exist significant risks associated with them. This whole question of how “dangerous” is climate change has not been adequately evaluated. But I am not personally afraid of this.
ÉPOCA – Are scientists fulfilling their mission to inform the public?
Curry – The public’s perception that global warming is a planetary emergency probably had its peak between 2005 and 2007, with Hurricane Katrina and Al Gore’s film. Since then, interest has been falling. The skepticism of climate change now questions if the impacts of warming are large or predominantly adverse. And if anything can be done to improve the situation. The public debate has deteriorated into attempts to discredit or censor scientists. And what we see is propaganda in order to influence the politics, and not to inform the public.
ÉPOCA – What is the risk of this?
Curry – Many researchers, genuinely worried about the risks of warming, including myself, are disappointed by the political decisions for confronting the climate challenge. To begin with, I believe it is necessary to make changes to the IPCC, in order to reestablish its credibility. The process needs to be more open. It is necessary to improve the selection of authors and reviewers. A team of inspectors should supervise the process and investigate complaints. Due to the release of the e-mails, we must change the manner in which we evaluate the uncertainties. Many times, in the IPCC reports, the mere judgment of a specialist replaces the degree of uncertainty of the data of a rigorous scientific analysis. We are talking about the imprecision in the time of adjusting the temperature data in order to compensate for the effects of urban heat (the growth of cities, with a concentration of cement and asphalt, artificially increases the temperature of the region). Or to fill in regions of the Earth where there are no data available.
ÉPOCA – What do we still not know about climate change?
Curry – There are still many uncertainties. They are associated with the records of temperatures in the past. And also the climate models that researchers run on their computers to simulate the behavior of the atmosphere and to make estimates of the future.
ÉPOCA – It possible that science will be able to establish the degree of seriousness of the climate crisis?
Curry – They do not know with certainty how much of the warming that occurred in the 20th century can be attributed to human activity. And the projections for warming for this century are not exact.
ÉPOCA – Do we need to wait until these uncertainties are reduced or eliminated before we make decisions that avoid the worst consequences of climate change?
Curry – This is not what I am suggesting. The uncertainties cannot be eliminated. We make decisions all the time in uncertain situations. It is that the degree of imprecision should be taken into consideration in the decision process. The chances of tragic consequences due to warming are at a minimum at least as great as arms of mass destruction in Iraq would have been. In the end, they did not exist, but we went to war anyway. We have a history of deciding to act in order to avoid bad things even when the probability is low.
“No one knows how much of the warming that occurred in the second half of the
twentieth century can be attributed to human action”
ÉPOCA – How can we tell the legitimate skeptics from the industry lobbyists who just want to increase confusion?
Curry – The fundamental question turns on the data and scientific models. A genuine skeptic puts forth arguments and will debate these in scientific journals or technical blogs.
ÉPOCA – Do you see a lobby campaign by the fossil-fuel industry to increase confusion?
Curry – This also exists. But I do not see it as an important factor in skepticism in general in relation to climate change. The majority of people who write against the control of emissions use political or economic arguments. They are not concerned with the science. You can’t even call them skeptics. There are other skeptics who have a background in science. But few of them receive any money from oil or coal companies. Entities like the American Enterprise Institute or the Competitive Enterprise Institute are preoccupied with the politics that could affect the competitiveness of the U.S. and our economy. So, they spend time and money organizing conferences and demanding information from climate researchers.
ÉPOCA – How do you view the controversy generated by the e-mails that were taken from the University of East Anglia?
Curry – The e-mails fed the concern about the methods used to construct the chronology of temperatures on Earth’s surface over the last 1,000 years. It is call the “hockey stick” (that shows a long period of lower temperatures and a sharp increase in the most recent years, like the end of a hockey stick). Also, the e-mails raised doubts about the behavior of the scientists in relation to the process of evaluation by colleagues of each study, before it is published in scientific journals. And maybe there were even violations of the Freedom of Information Act (or FOA, as it is abbreviated in English, a law that gives a citizen the right to ask for access to secret government documents).
ÉPOCA – Do the messages exchanged between Michael Mann and Phil Jones demonstrate any sign of improper conduct?
Curry – There exist various investigations for evaluating this. From what I know, the answer would be “yes.”
ÉPOCA – The investigations by the British scientific committee and the University of Pennsylvania exonerated Mann and Jones.
Curry – I agree with the conclusion of the investigations that there was no evidence of incorrect scientific conduct. I did not see a sign of plagiarism or falsification of data in the work of the scientists. Not using all the data, selecting data arbitrarily and using inappropriate statistical methods do not fall under incorrect conduct. But also it does not inspire confidence in the product of the research. The behavior of these scientists, such as disqualifying critics and showing little transparency, delaying the public availability of the temperature data they used. But I think it is time to stop focusing on individual behavior and to start a reevaluation of the entire process of the IPCC’s scientific evaluation.
ÉPOCA – What needs to change in the IPCC?
Curry – It needs to be more open to different opinions and to external verification. There is a rush to publish articles in scientific journals just before the IPCC closes. Clearly, scientists want their work to be included. There is the perception that the best way to get your work included is to support the basic narrative of the IPCC. And the scientists of the IPCC tried to disqualify researchers who published articles with contrarian opinions. Thus, in order to continue to be relevant, the IPCC can no longer limit itself to summarizing the scientific literature every five years. It needs to open the range of scientific views about warming and the political options for confronting it.