A climate change at AMS

“Out of the heart the mouth speaks.” – Jesus of Nazareth

In recent weeks, the American Meteorological Society has released not one but two new statements on climate. The most recent, just out today, is a revised information statement on climate change per se. It supersedes an earlier statement dating back to 2007.

Earlier this month, the AMS issued a brand-new policy statement on climate services. This statement attempts to capture emerging trends in the need for and provision of climate services and a parallel evolution in ideas about how the public, private, and academic sectors might best collaborate in providing those services.

For those interested in such matters, AMS Information Statements are intended to provide trustworthy, objective, and scientifically up-to-date explanations of scientific issues of concern to the public at large. By contrast, AMS Policy Statements are aimed at representatives of local, state, or Federal government, officials of international bodies, and related policy professionals. Material on the AMS website goes into this nuance in more detail.

Despite these differences, the two statements have similarities. To start, they each reveal changes in the meteorological community’s understanding of climate and climatic variability and the implications of those realities for how we do our business. The Climate Services statement is self-explanatory in this respect. To fully appreciate the evolution captured by the climate change statement, those interested might compare the present version with its 2007 predecessor.

Ellen Klicka of our group did just that. Her background (MIT brain and cognitive sciences undergrad; George Washington University MBA, about a year of experience with us) makes her perspective especially interesting. Her impressions might be somewhat similar to that of the policymaker we’re trying to reach. Here’s a summary of a comparison she provided me in an informal e-mail (not intended for this purpose), taken verbatim:

2007 version included this but 2012 did not:

“A few members offered alternative views on climate change or put quite different emphases on the uncertainties of climate projections. In the last fifteen years, scientific debates of this kind have stimulated much new research which deepened considerably our understanding of climate, and reduced the uncertainties in our projections. The scientific process of debate and investigation is the lifeblood of science; this essential process must continue.”

 This implies that AMS membership represents a diverse set of viewpoints that are difficult to capture fully in a statement that attempts to portray a unified voice. Why did they remove it? I think it helps characterize the unique nature of AMS as a society. [boldface added]

 General observation:

 2012 version is more accessible to a lay audience. Fewer technical terms are used without explanation and more plain English terms are used.

 2012 version includes more specific numbers to quantify facts, without getting bogged down in details or increasing the length of the statement.

 2012 added mention of increase in amount of rainfall in very heavy precipitation events. In general, the “How is climate changing?” section adds specific numbers for observed changes such as global average temperature increases and sea level rise.

 The 2012 statement recognizes a much larger role that humans play in changing our climate:

 2007: In recent decades, humans have increasingly affected local, regional, and global climate by altering the flows of radiative energy and water through the Earth system.

 2012: it is clear from extensive scientific evidence that the dominant cause of the rapid change in climate of the past half 62 century is human-induced increases in the amount of atmospheric greenhouse gases. 

 2012: More specific predictions for changes in hurricane activity, predictions for the range of sea level rise are now quantified.

 2012: Mitigation and geoengineering are discussed in the section “How is climate expected to change in the future?” as alternative courses of action to combat climate change.

 2012: Mitigation and adaptation are discussed more deeply in the Final Remarks section.

[You and others might characterize the dissimilarities slightly differently, but Ellen’s treatment should give us a flavor.]

Second, a similar process led to the development and approval of the statements. With some over-simplification (the details are spelled out on that same AMS link): the process is driven by the AMS Council; the resulting products are Council statements. The Council puts out a call for volunteers for the writing teams, and approves the make-up of those teams. A Council member serves as a liaison to the team. The writing team’s initial draft is put out to the entire membership for a comment period. The writing team responds to those comments and executes a redraft. The Council, meeting in person or in teleconference, may make final edits before voting to approve or disapprove the statements. The end-to-end process runs against a time limit of several months. Statements are in force only for terms of a few years, before they must be dropped or renewed.

Third, the statements share a common contribution to the AMS: they have become part of our working vocabulary. When the AMS is asked to comment on issues as a body, those comments are based on statements of the Society. These statements are literally how the AMS speaks.

But there’s a fourth similarity, one that prompted in part the portion of Ms. Klicka’s comments that appears here in boldface. The statements represent a synthesis of a range of views and perspectives from a broad cross-section of a diverse community. Our members include scientists of a number of stripes; on-camera and radio broadcasters; forecasters working shifts in NWS and AWS offices, and private-sector firms; policy officials in federal and state agencies, engineers building satellite instruments and radars; social scientists, and many others, from this country, and abroad. They are every political persuasion, religious denomination, and ethnic group. Consensus statements such as these can be developed only after much thought, deliberation, and debate.

All these similarities can be found in the more profound deliberations of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that go into producing their Reports. Think of the IPCC process as the AMS deliberation on the big screen. More than one hundred countries (versus a handful of AMS Councilors) involved in the sign off. Hundreds of authors on each writing team. Years instead of months for each report cycle. Extraordinary cultural differences. Incalculable national, institutional, and individual self-interest.

Are efforts like these and the individuals and institutions who make the endeavor flawed? You bet. There’s plenty of room for improvement. Most of it is duly noted, on a regular basis – in the press, on the blogosphere, and in daily conversation.  Criticizing the IPCC is a cottage industry. In fact, out of this attention and dissatisfaction come the seeds for future improvements the next time around. This is how it feels when things are going well.

So let’s not forget as we sift through the particulars and the shortcomings, that the process works only if all parties are high-minded men and women of good will. When you and I hear the AMS (and IPCC) speak in this way, through this and similar statements, we do well to recognize the ideals and mutual respect that lie at their heart.

“Out of the heart, the mouth speaks.”

Soon to come, AMS statements on data sharing/access; space weather; and geo-engineering; and more. Want to get involved? Check the AMS website from time to time. Keep an eye out for those calls for volunteers.

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One Response to A climate change at AMS

  1. Roger Caiazza says:

    To say that I am disappointed in the just released AMS policy statement on climate change does not begin to cover my feelings. This statement is an advocacy document pure and simple. As far as I am concerned the Society sold out to the Forecast the facts organization and their ilk.

    I find it very disheartening that this statement is intended for policy makers and has removed the section highlighted by Ms. Klicka that “AMS membership represents a diverse set of viewpoints that are difficult to capture fully in a statement that attempts to portray a unified voice.” Her observations why removing this statement in this policy statement are unpersuasive and expose her unrelated background. That the Council approved this statement is incomprehensible to me unless it is yet another sign that advocates have a vested interest at stake in catastrophic anthropogenic global warming scenarios.

    I am sure that soon the statement “Avoiding this future warming will require a large and rapid reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions” will be politicized to the point that anyone with alternate viewpoints will be demonized. I have to ask myself whether I want to be part of an organization that would publish that statement without caveat and then claim that these statements literally “show how the AMS speaks”.

    For the record I provided comments on the draft which were ignored completely.

    Roger Caiazza, CCM

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