Restraining climate-science diversity

Diversity is a big deal on college campuses these days. Yet social diversity is what’s promoted primarily, if not exclusively, not diversity of opinion. In a complex field such as climatology, intellectual diversity should be encouraged to help unravel the what, why and how of the globe’s climate.

A careful, dispassionate look at the enormous complexity of the Earth-atmosphere system and what we think we know about it reveals that we know very little. Mountains of data have been collected on our land masses, oceans and atmosphere – thermal properties, structure, chemical composition, short- and long-term fluctuations and the like. But the integration, interpretation and confident, long-term predictive powers that might someday emerge from the data seem to be a knowledge reserved for the distant future. Nevertheless, numerous scientists and politicians speak with one voice that not only do we know enough about how the climate operates to alter its operation, but that there is a strong, even overwhelming, consensus in this supposedly confident knowledge.

Where did such single-minded confidence originate? The halls of academia offer a good place to start. Atmospheric science has blossomed tremendously since I was a meteorology student at Pennsylvania State University in the mid-1970s. From slide-rule calculations, paper maps and lumbering mainframe computers, the field exploded, not only with new theories and models and lightning-speed computer products, but in celebrity as well. Meteorologists seemed to handle the increased attention and authority in a reasonable, measured manner, whereas climatologists, not accustomed to being in the limelight, seemed to relish the sometimes fawning attention. After all, climatology jumped from a cloistered and tedious compilation of facts and figures to a field trusted not to make mundane daily and weekly weather forecasts for Podunksville, USA, but to prognosticate years, even decades, into the future for Planet Earth. Upon these momentous outlooks, world economies would rely, living conditions would be altered, personalities would be exalted.

Climatologic products lived up to and probably even exceeded technical expectations with marvelous mathematics and three-dimensional animated graphics. But with all their deep sophistication, climatologists’ ability to predict the distant future with any modicum of certainty is most likely cosmetic.

Back at the academy, as models of the physical climate continued to impress, models of education continued to digress. At my alma mater, a world-renowned leader in atmospheric science, the universitywide focus today, as elsewhere, is strongly on diversity – diversity of culture and lifestyle. Yet, again, what is really needed is diversity of reasonable thought and expression across all college campuses.

In climate science, more diverse insights, viewpoints and voices are required to mine the mounds of information, help the public see through the politicization of the scientific process and speak to the nonsense that a “consensus” has been reached on human contributions to global warming, aka climate change.

Many of the diverse voices are speaking but, unfortunately, their audiences are often limited by mainstream media that abridge, filter or simply don’t cover perspectives that oppose “established science.” The reason for this lack of coverage may be that many, if not most, members of this same media have an understanding of science that is as limited as is their initiative to uncover how science and scientists actually operate, how science is never really “settled,” especially the forecasts related to science, and how debate is what gives science its strength. To limit debate only weakens the discipline.

What appears to be happening, primarily for political purposes, is that the normal challenges that are made to any proposed “theory” in science have been largely quashed in the case of climate change. Conversely, research results related to creative but challenged methods, such as the infamous “hockey stick” graph by a now-Penn State professor, are quickly embraced, declared conclusive and rushed to the public, all for the ostensibly honorable purpose to “save the planet.” But, “Climategate,” the selective process employed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and emerging doubts about the accuracy of temperature measurements in North America raise a huge red flag.

These recent, ominous signs on the workings of contemporary climate science signal the need for more diversity of thought and dissemination of enlightened dissent. At a minimum, climate-science practitioners themselves must be more diligent, open and honest about what they know and, perhaps more important, what they don’t know. Thus, even the uninitiated and those more focused on social diversity can make a more informed decision about the complex world of climate change.

Anthony J. Sadar, a certified consulting meteorologist and co-author of Environmental Risk Communication: Principles and Practices for Industry.