IF you see something, say something

Last week I saw a SundayReview Opinion in the New York Times “If You See Something, Say Something” written by Michael Mann. It was an argument in favor of scientists being activists when it comes to climate change and it goes like this: if climate scientists see “clear and present danger”, they can not sit aside and they have to “communicate the urgency of acting to avert potential disaster”. In order to tell his daughter later that he saw the threat and did speak up about it. As such I can understand his reasoning. If we see something wrong it is perfectly okay saying something about it.

This is how it starts:

The overwhelming consensus among climate scientists is that human-caused climate change is happening. Yet a fringe minority of our populace clings to an irrational rejection of well-established science. This virulent strain of anti-science infects the halls of Congress, the pages of leading newspapers and what we see on TV, leading to the appearance of a debate where none should exist.

In fact, there is broad agreement among climate scientists not only that climate change is real (a survey and a review of the scientific literature published say about 97 percent agree), but that we must respond to the dangers of a warming planet. If one is looking for real differences among mainstream scientists, they can be found on two fronts: the precise implications of those higher temperatures, and which technologies and policies offer the best solution to reducing, on a global scale, the emission of greenhouse gases.

What makes me shiver is that he claims there should not be a debate. Really? Is the science (by the way, of a chaotic system) really that clear? Mann points out his own hockey stick graph that “proves” that the average warmth of the Northern Hemisphere is unprecedented in the last 1000 years. But how clear is this signal? It was derived from proxy data and the result was very dependent on a couple of sets (out of a total of 110) of Bristlecone datasets, which are not a good proxy for temperature anyway. Put that together with incorrect use of PCA technique, therefor mining for hockey stick shapes. Leave the Bristlecone sets out and suddenly no signal at all was shown. So, taken this into account, how strong this evidence actually is? This was an important milestone for my journey from believer to a more skeptical view.

The consensus and the 97% agree: I am not really impressed. Consensus has no bearing in science. Although it can be nice to know for the public that a number of scientists have the same opinion, consensus doesn’t really prove anything. There is also the question how this consensus is determined. The ones from Doran & Zimmermann, Oreskes and Cook didn’t give me much confidence that this number is a correct representation of reality. And hey, the consensus changes with time, in the 1970s the new ice age was also brought as “The Consensus”.

He continues to say that scientists can be activists. First he mentions James Hansen (Nasa) and his activist approach. Ending with the statement that “there is nothing inappropriate at all about drawing on our scientific knowledge to speak out about the very real implications of our research”. True, I have no problem with that. But Hansen is not just a scientist, he is maintaining one of the datasets of the average global temperature. This specific dataset is the one that shows the most warming globally, but it also changed dramatically over time. For me as a member of the public it is difficult to know if the data changed because of a real change in temperature (in intensity not picked up by others, but also not found in earlier versions) or because of the adjustments of that data over time.

Secondly he mentions Stephen Schneider. I agree that “scientist-advocate is not an oxymoron” and that “just because someone is a scientist it does not mean that (s)he should check their citizenship at the door of a public meeting” and that “fighting for scientific truth and an informed debate is nothing to apologize for”. But this is not the issue. Schneider was not really a school example of someone that found communicating truth that important. He was in more for the shock effect than for the truth.

He also mentions drought and wildfires, which he claims are on the increase. Huh? The observations doesn’t tell us that. US forest fires seems to be going down at least in the last decade and in the Midwest the percentage area with no drought is also going down, not up.

The urgency for action was underscored this past week by a draft United Nations report warning that another 15 years of failure to cut heat-trapping emissions would make the problem virtually impossible to solve with known technologies and thus impose enormous costs on future generations. It confirmed that the sooner we act, the less it will cost.

The United Nations is a political organization and the “we have to act NOW” is a proven method within politics. The report was from the IPCC. Again a “leaked” report. Was this to destract from the deep freeze temperatures in the US? It followed after the first draft report in September in which was said that “humans were are almost certainly to blame for climate change” (but when looking closer it even backpedaled from the previous report…oops).

To summarize: after a standstill of global temperatures for about 13 – 17 years (which baffles the investigators and they try to find a plausible explanation for it, underscoring their limited grasp of climate in reality), with global storm activity at a low, forest fires on the decrease, the melting Arctic back within 2 standard deviations since November 2012 and the Antarctic see ice at its all time maximum, yet we are suppose to believe that the global warming issue became even more urgent? In this situation it should get less urgent, not more.

Then the final appeal to the emotions:

How will history judge us if we watch the threat unfold before our eyes, but fail to communicate the urgency of acting to avert potential disaster? How would I explain to the future children of my 8-year-old daughter that their grandfather saw the threat, but didn’t speak up in time?

As a mayor and very vocal proponent of The Cause, his arguments seems to be very weak and are based more on politics and emotions than on science. But what if the theory turns out not to be correct? We have been there many times before. How would history judge us then? What would we than say to our children? That we saw a non-existing threat, stifled debate about it and forced governments to put so much money in it that we jeopardized their future?

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