Skip navigation

International Glaciological Society

You are in:  Home » IGS blog

International Glaciological Society blog

The Truth is not an option – part 5

Part 5. No awards and no allowance for willful ignorance

 “A hallucination is a fact, not an error; what is erroneous is a judgment based upon it.”

—Bertrand Russell, On the Nature of Acquaintance: Neutral Monism (1914)

Bertrand Russell was a philosopher, a pacifist, anti-Stalinist, anti-Nazi, anti-religious, and anti-Vietnam War.  He was also a prisoner of conscience.

In these key cases, more damaging than the misinformation about one scientific issue can be the grave damage to public understanding of the legitimate, constructive roles of science in society.  Science and its applied engineering offshoots (along with the labor and entrepreneurial spirit of millions of citizens and the vision of many leaders) are what built America and other modern developed nations.  Science and engineering have propelled America and the world into the age of planetary exploration, where planetary climate change (all natural, of course) is one of the driving scientific foci of exploration.  The same methods of analysis, but with a far deeper database of observations, are utilized to understand climate change on Earth, where causes in recent decades are clearly both natural and man-made.  The man-made component of climate change on our planet is rising above magnitude of the natural oscillations in many parts of the world.  If there is one thing that planetary science has taught us, it is that planets have many climate tripwires, many nonlinear forcing-and-response functions, many climate change mechanisms that are a challenge to understand from the past and even more difficult to predict.  The ones we know about and understand, when put into physics-based global climate models, are doing a pretty good job replicating the actual recent climate trends; the same models project more rapid and severe climate changes in the future.  Empirical models based on climate and CO2 levels of the geologic past suggest that, compared to baseline models presented by the IPCC, far more severe climate change could be in store for us.  The heat storage capacity and heat conveyance of the oceans, for example, are loaded with both slow and rapid climate change mechanisms, and the slow ones are apt to cause climate to keep warming for centuries even if we could stop greenhouse gas emissions.

This is not science fiction. It’s not a hallucination. It is not scare tactics.  But neither is it a subject of tight constraints and low uncertainties. The science is not developed enough to allow modeling with the tight specifications of bridge engineering design. There remains wide uncertainty about the trajectory of future climate change, not least because money politics and misinformation makes the carbon emissions trajectory a wild card, but also because the processes and sensitivities linking greenhouse gases and other dynamic forcings are still subject to a range of possible values; little to no linkage, as the denialists desire it, is not among the possibilities. If we should follow the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and completely ignore climate change, the uncertainties become much narrower in favor of the more drastic global warming trajectories and much reduced aspirations for the global and national economies and civilization.

This is the real Earth, and politicians had better get a grip on their words and policies and hallucinations of how they prefer reality to be. If this blog says anything, it is that the truth must be honored. Non-scientist skeptics’ questions and probing is welcome, so long as there exists a receptiveness and eagerness to learn and improve their own understanding.  Where such willingness is absent, our patience runs short.  The more responsible skeptics’ emphasis on uncertainties in climate models is a welcome and positive approach so long as the meaning of scientific uncertainty is not distorted in a smoke-and-mirrors misinformation campaign. If the uncertainties are acknowledged to cut both ways toward possible lesser and greater climate sensitivities of the Earth, then recognition of pertinent uncertainties can help policy planners devise the best near-term policy responses that start to deal seriously with climate change.

The recently divulged Heartland Institute documents epitomize an unscientific politicized approach to climate issues in education; in those documents, it is peculiarly assumed that controversy and discussion among scientists is somehow a weakness to be exploited for political and public relations ends.  This is a bizarre concept, completely opposed to scientific reason and scientific methodologies, and clearly echoes back to the tobacco lobby strategy of manufactured doubt.  Science not only encourages but requires discussion and promotes dialog and debate along rational lines.  It is perhaps due to a distinction between scientific and public political debate where a difference of approach arises and where political actors see weakness in science precisely where science has its strengths.  In public political debate, there can be bad actors and good actors, winners and losers, based sometimes in skilled articulation of facts but sometimes in mastery of strategy that involves skilled misinformation.  In public political debate it is all the same; a win is a win, a loss is a loss, no matter what lies or distortions are involved (not to imply all involved are liars).  What we need is statesmanship in our political leaders and responsibility amongst our corporate leaders.  Those who misinform on a serial basis should be marginalized by society; individual TV news viewers and voters have a responsibility as well, because at some level each person has an expertise and intellect that can and must be turned on when making key decisions.

In science, debate concerns the truth as best we can see it, divorced from personal passion, personal fortune, or personal fame. There can be plausible and implausible hypotheses, well founded and poorly founded ideas; there can be substantiated and accepted bodies of fact, and disproven concepts of reality; there can be seeming good ideas that then fail to pass observational or theoretical tests; but there are few or no absolutes.  Everything is uncertain to a degree. The public misunderstands important matters that affect them and their descendants, while political actors abuse the concepts of uncertainty, error assessment, and hypothesis making to invent improbable creations of what reality is: the public because they are misled, and the political actors because they have a dollar to make or a vote to win.  The truth sometimes seems to be nowhere in the mix. It’s all about bucks and votes, and that’s all.

It is a disservice to everybody (politicians, scientists, and citizens) to garner attention, votes, funding donations, readership, adoration, or a confused electorate by either exaggerating the truth or diminishing it.  The physics of radiation transfer and thermodynamics drives climate and glaciers; the Universe honors nobody, no campaign stash, no super-PAC, no NGO, and no scientific funding grant; it is simply the truth and it trumps both exaggeration and denial of reality. 

It should be clear that I am not a doomsdayer. I would find some reason for optimism even if I was the last human on Earth.  Surely I can see a bright future still for civilized humanity, and it is my point that the brightest prospects will be those conceived in a maximally informed society, with exaggerations and trivializations of climate change set in the margins and footnotes of global discussion. In a similar context, a sober discussion of the climate-change issues should include recognition on all sides of the arguments that no matter what happens, even in the best possible outcome, the Earth’s surface geography and biosphere is going to be dramatically remade, even more than it already has been.  There is no escaping it.  But Earth has always been dynamic, whether at the hand of nature or, now, of humans.  We can make the best of it.  If we get our act together we can preserve most of the best in nature and have a bright future for civilization.  But time spent on the same path we are on is not our friend.

There is truth, which we should all seek; and then there is faith, which it seems we all have; I have my own. I am an optimist.  That’s my faith’s credo, that there’s something hopeful and good no matter how bad things become.  Climate change can have winners and losers, and I am nobody to prognosticate exactly what will happen and who/what will end up winning and losing. If we doom ourselves, life is resilient (so says the fossil record).  Something even more amazing than ourselves—either our descendents or a better species– will follow us (so says my faith).  Ten million years is all it takes. As of now, we humans still have some say in the matter as to our future role and the fate of our civilization. Modeling the future on false premises—whether exaggerated or trivialized climate change– is not apt to achieve the best outcome.

Abuse of science in the arena of climate change politics is bad enough for climatology; but the consequences go even farther.  Already, abuse of science is impacting global economic security and is an important factor contributing to an uncontrolled shift in the balance of power and competitiveness of nations.  The Americans’ loss of green energy technology in a few short years of anti-green politics was a stunning economic loss for the U.S. and short-term relative gain for China, but everybody loses when we waste one decade after another on our current global economic course.

Once a public culture of reflexive doubt and pervasive distrust of science sets in, then political actors can become immunized to make increasingly ludicrous challenges of fact and logic and the scientific process.  Blatant falsehoods can be broadcast and propagated overnight on the internet and in the mainstream media, or can be issued by politicians, whether campaigning for Congress or Parliament or President. Rejection of critical thinking by the public and lawmakers and abandonment of science as a foundation of progress results in paralysis of policy formulation.  This, of course, is a chief goal of groups like the Heartland Institute, but the paralysis (or worse) extends to all of civilization.

From the time of Benjamin Franklin, America advanced because of its expertise in and general public respect of science; each time Medieval thinking loomed into dominance in public discourse, American society and governance ultimately rejected such thinking as a threat to our progress-oriented society and economy. It is not so clear where America stands this time around. The looming neo-Medievalism in the U.S. and some other Western nations is a clear and present danger to national security and competitiveness when so utterly rejecting science; the rise of superstition, unfounded conspiracy thinking, and anti-science sentiment has done quite a few contemporary and historic cultures immense harm. It is of the utmost importance that the anti-science movement is recognized as such and rejected by those who lead and influence our nations.  I am not so sure that the U.S. and some other countries have not already passed a tipping point whereby further collapse is inevitable due in great part to abandonment of science as a national foundation of economic health, industrial progress, and social well being and cohesion. 

None of this is to define a cure for climate change, either by mitigation or adaptation; both are needed, but it has not been my purpose in this blog to define what has to be done about climate change. But it should be self evident that the best fix would be one where world leaders agree that modern science (with neither exaggeration nor trivialization of reality) should be a part of the deliberations on what to do; furthermore, I’ll go on record to say that the Kyoto Accords, though possibly a starting point, were fatally flawed by omitting rising powers and letting them off the hook.  The burdens of a fix cannot be shouldered by just some of the nations; a leaky solution will not fix the problems.  China and India and even lesser developed nations are on the same hook as the U.S. and long-established industrialized nations.

And now I return to the issue of scientific mistakes and exaggerations. How do these relate to outright lies and premeditated distortions? No longer can the scientific community dismiss as mere annoyances the most serious errors, exaggerations, and accidental misrepresentations of scientific data by prestigious sources and authorities, whether they are exaggerations or trivializations of the pace of changes affecting our planet and society. To be absolutely clear, avoidance of both exaggeration and trivialization of climate change does not mean that professional safety is in taking the baseline or middle line.  There can be risk in pushing the envelope and questioning the middle line, but it is not something that will bring on a scientific campaign like we saw with the Atlas mistake or criticism of the Heartland Institute’s dedication to misinformation. We know that there are both positive and negative feedbacks on the climate system, although we don’t always know the impact these have; hence, there are legitimate reasons to consider both low-end and high-end climate sensitivities, to evaluate various tipping points and process cascades, as well as factors that can moderate climate change.  There are good grounds to challenge climate models and observational databases. We scientists can always make more precise and accurate measurements and formulate improved models; science pushes onward because we can always do better.  However, it does not mean we lack any fundamental and quantitative understanding of what is happening to Earth; we have actionable observations and models already. 

As this fifth installment of this series was revised for posting, NASA’s James Hansen wrote in the New York Times op-ed pages about “Game over for the climate” if Canada’s tar sands and oil shales are fully exploited19.  Continuing his career-long effort to translate climate science for the public and policy makers, Hansen wrote that even in the near term the U.S. landscape and economy, as well as the world’s, will be (and already is being) severely affected by climate change.  In response to his op-ed, I’ll venture that uncertainties in models may allow for some scenarios that, though challenging, might not be “apocalyptic” (Hansen’s characterization).  Hope depends considerably on whether humans respond both in reducing carbon emissions and in dealing cooperatively with the impacts of climate change already in progress.

In terms of what our climate will look like a century from now, the largest uncertainty is how we will deal with carbon emissions.  Indeed, the tendency of our world leaders to dismiss climate change as something to plan for has the tendency of pushing climate trajectories to far more severe paths, suggesting that perhaps the IPCC has been too mild in its forecasts.  In this, Hansen may be right. The willful distortions and obfuscations of climate change—the grotesque exaggerations and the denialism—are not model outliers or maverick science; they are not science at all, and they are not helpful to the future economy, environment, and social well being of the U.S., Europe, China, India, or the world.  People will increasingly recognize this. It’s a Galilean Jupiter Effect: you can’t hide reality for long. Thus, I am not ready to give up; we are not yet necessarily at apocalypse’s door.  In fact, I am brimming with optimism that for every closed mind there are many more seeking the truth, and the truth is there to be seen and reported and implemented in policy.

Nations who were instrumental in the sabotage of the Copenhagen deliberations in 2009 should particularly take note; those nations have a special responsibility to overcome the damage they inflicted on themselves and the world.  On the other hand, a Kyoto-like accord, where everything difficult is done by somebody else, will not do it; nor will a plan that effectively denies poor nations the opportunity to develop.  However, emerging economies must not follow the American development plan from the last century; to do so would be the utmost foolishness.

These early decades of the 21st Century will likely make its share of George Washingtons and Abraham Lincolns of bold responsibility and Thomas Edisons of ingenuity with regard to climate change; it is also making plenty of Herbert Hoovers and Enrons with regard to smoke-and-mirrors deception and muddled thinking.  Our political leaders and aspiring leaders should be seeking climate change advisors who are practitioners of truth and reason, not distortionists, denialists, or exaggerators. Likewise, the media should be enlisting the efforts of experts who aspire to the truth and can help cut through the weeds of misinformation and disinformation. Scientists are here by the thousands, here to help, with more patience than ever. If we need help to become better communicators, then train us!

What we need is the truth and an honest portrayal of reality by those who lead or aspire to lead; those of us leading from the political realm, in the mass media, from science, the pulpit, or the living room are responsible for the words that come from our mouths and the consequences of our words and deeds.

If we are to continue to advance as nations and as a global society—and there’s no definite reason yet that we can’t—we need new economic models of market Capitalism and globalism, because the past century’s economy, which did so well for America and Europe, will do very poorly for this century. Our energy basis of the global economy must change while we still have the capacity to move smartly into the future.  Meanwhile, many glaciers are melting and impacts of climate change are being felt more broadly; we can deal with it if we choose to. If we ignore the problem, that’s where Jim Hansen’s alarm should sound about a threat to civilization.


19. James Hansen, 2012, Game over for the climate, New York Times, op-ed, May 10, 2012.

“I know that truth will ultimately make itself heard and felt.”

–Mahatma Gandhi, Young India, A Weekly Journal, Aug. 20,1925

   Send article as PDF   

Leave a Reply