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The Consequences of Climate Blinkers

March 29, 2010

Climate change is just one of many serious environmental problems, but it is by far the most visible and dominant. In my view, this is a problem for two reasons. First, it takes away from other serious issues. Second, it encourages us to view problems through the lens of climate change, when there may be better approaches.

This is a problem for science policy as well. Some of the researchers I have interviewed note that they prefer to think of adaptation as a response to many kinds of interacting change (population growth, technological advance, globalization, land use, etc.). But they recognize that their work will be more successful if it appears to be focused primarily on climate change. That is where the research dollars are. And that is where the high profile research results are.

In light of this, I’m lovin’ this op-ed by climate scientist Mike Wallace in the Seattle Times. He’s is examining some consequences of a narrow-minded focus on climate. But he is also handing out blame, and he puts a healthy share of it at the feet of the climate science community:

Over the past 20 years we have stood by and watched as governmental and nongovernmental organizations that deal with environmental issues became more and more narrowly focused on the long-term impacts of global warming.

Meanwhile, more imminent issues relating to the sustainability of our planet’s life-support system under the pressures of growing human population and the widening gap between rich and poor are not getting the attention they deserve….

Scientists still write papers and speak to the media about environmental concerns outside of the purview of the IPCC, but with so much of the world’s attention riveted on climate change there is a lack of institutional infrastructure for calling attention to other issues.

Wallace is talking about scientific, institutional, and policy myopia. They are all related, and mutually reinforcing. It is wrong to just blame the media for creating hype. This stuff is all interconnected.

Wallace also calls out the bloggers and other activists wage (and perpetuate) the endless battle with skeptics:

Climate scientists and their detractors are slugging it out every day in blogs and editorial pages while legislative initiatives to get governments to address environmental and resource issues remain stalled, despite broad public support for them.

Couldn’t agree more, Mike. It is definitely worth reading the whole article.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Casey Chapple permalink
    March 29, 2010 3:41 pm

    Pielke Jr. liked this column too. I don’t think it would have been written if “climategate”, among other blasts of bright light into the dark corners of climate science in the last few months, hadn’t happened. I do wonder about the field of study and how it has grown over the last 20 or so years. Perhaps there are surveys out there of grants and other money laid out for climate research in that time. If Wallace is right, and there’s been a kind of whirlpool effect – the warmists’ alarms causing an inordinate amount of money going to one side of the environmental disaster spectrum, causing scientists in other specialties drawing false and/or misleading connections to climate warming, we’re in more of a muddle than we thought. It’s a good thing, at least, that this discussion seems to be maturing into something that could actually help the situation.

    Wallace did use the term “denialists”. Almost ruined everything, until I got a grip.

    • March 29, 2010 4:49 pm

      Thanks Casey.
      It’s hard to look at the history of climate funding because it happens in so many different places. 13 different federal agencies fund climate research these days. Each agency categorizes and reports in different ways. There is an annual report to Congress called Our Changing Planet, which summarizes climate science funding across agencies, but it’s hard to drill down and understand how that influenced priorities in other areas, or the extent to which it overlaps with other priorities. In total it’s at least $30 billion since 1990.

      A colleague of mine used bibliometrics to look at how climate science has shaped the field of ecology over recent decades (pre-publication PDF here). Not as comprehensive a view as you might be looking for, but interesting nonetheless.

      I think you are twisting Wallace’s words somewhat when you suggest two ends of a spectrum. There are many different environmental problems out there, so it’s not an one-or-the-other kind of thing. The fact that climate climate change is just one of many problems does not mean that it’s not a problem. Sounds like we may just disagree on that one.

  2. Casey Chapple permalink
    March 30, 2010 7:36 pm

    Thank YOU, Ryan. I’m not used to getting responses to my posts, much less courteous ones.

    Spectrum was the wrong word. I meant to look at environmental problems as a simple grouping, without judging their relative importance or interrelatedness, where climate research may be like a sinkhole draining funding from the other areas of concern.

    I would not call myself a skeptic. I’ve just been a good recycler for many years, trying to keep my footprint tiny, until Joe Romm called Freeman Dyson a “denier”, and it occurred to me that something terrible was happening in the world of climate research.

    So I think the uproar on the blogs has been useful – to a point. There was outrage at the arrogance of the climategate scientists that needed an outlet for expression, and then there were the rightists and Imhof crowd who were always there. For a while, there seemed to be an attempt to attribute all the consternation to the rightists. That has failed, since participants in the blog discussions, for instance on Revkin’s blog, were so high-quality, and their concerns so informed and well-expressed, that it finally became apparent that something had to give. And then we have people like Curry, Pielke and Wallace who actually have a history of allowing introspection to intrude on their musings and who have spoken up about the role of scientists in creating this strange brew.

    It’s coming along. I’m hopeful that some oxygen has been let into the climate research hot house, allowing minds to clear and good science – according to the scientific method – to go forward. I can add you to the list of knowledgeable, thoughtful people who are moving this debate in a positive, productive direction.

    • March 30, 2010 10:12 pm

      “until Joe Romm called Freeman Dyson a “denier”, and it occurred to me that something terrible was happening in the world of climate research. ”

      Amen. There’s a lot of insanity in the climate blogosphere, but Romm, with his combined visibility and hysterical, manipulative, hit-man style, really takes the cake.

      I agree with you in your dislike of the term “denier.” There are plenty of people in the climate debate (on both sides) who seem to occupy a state of mindless denial, but the term is far too charged to be appropriate, in my view. And in any case, it takes a certain brand of “denialism” to characterize Dyson’s views in this manner. If nothing else the man’s opinions are both informed and well-considered.

      Thanks for your lucidity and kind words.


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