What if they are right?

Yesterday afternoon and last night, snow proved to be pretty much a no-show in the DC area, but Judith Curry’s post, What if they are wrong? drew a blizzard of comments on her blog Climate, Etc. [And prompted a post here on February 18.]

Remember the question? Originally posed by self-described Republican/conservative Harvard physicist-blogger Mike Stopa, it went like this: Suppose it turns out that CO2 has essentially nothing to do with the earth’s climate. How will the history of this colossal mistake be written?”.

Buried in the 500+ entries within the Climate, Etc. comment string, someone asked, could they look forward to a post on the flip side…what if they are right?

To turn Mike Stopa’s question around: “Suppose CO2 proves indeed to be a major actor in climate change over the next century or so, generally along the lines anticipated (by, say, the IPCC and others). How will this history be written?” [There are many ways this opposite could be expressed. This may well not be your favorite formulation…but please cut some slack and let’s take this or something like it as our starting point. The precise wording won’t matter so much in what follows next…]

Mike Stopa’s not likely to give that a try, and Judith Curry has better things to do. But surely this is a fair question. What would constitute a useful response?

Initially, it might seem there’s not much to say…it’s reminiscent of the old news adage that “man bites dog” is worthy of headlines…but “dog bites man”? Not so much. The next thought might be that if the science is on target, that’s just the beginning of the story…the real story is the societal response. [Let’s put this thought on hold for now; we may come back to it.] But just maybe, if this broad segment of the scientific community is indeed right, there’s both (1) encouragement and (2) a cautionary tale for us about the state of science and science policy in this country – two lessons that history will likely note.

Encouragement. It’s popular to list the flaws in both our science itself and in its interplay with society. Certainly we can all agree there’s much that could be improved. We could start with the process by which support for science is allocated, both across and within disciplines. There’s the conduct of science itself. Which brings us to publication. Peer review cuts across all of this…and everyone is painfully aware that peer review is struggling to cope with today’s increasing demands. Finally there’s the vexing issue of translating scientific advance into societal benefit. Politics is intruding into every aspect, and not in the best way. Yesterday’s scientists labored in obscurity; today’s scientists can find themselves under the glare of media scrutiny, in a world of naked hatred and rage. Accusations fill the air…plagiarism, falsification of data, social pressure…cronyism, and worse. Each of these topics isn’t a blog post in itself. It’s hundreds of posts. We could go on and on.

But the fact is, our country’s science policy, and its evolution, going back our founding, has arguably been not only a good thing for the United States but also for the world. And the science policy advocated by Vannevar Bush following World War II, the policy that led to one of the most remarkable social contracts in the history of mankind, can claim some of the credit.

Just what was that contract, and what makes it notable? Here’s the background (much of which we’ve covered before). Following the end of the war, the country breathed a collective sigh of relief, and noted that success in science and engineering helped win the war…and could have lost it for us. On the positive side of the ledger, the invention of the atomic bomb, radar, and the discovery of penicillin all played a role. On the negative side, we were lucky that German advances in jet aircraft and rocketry came too late to help them turn the tide in their favor.

Bush and others realized that science and technology were so important to the nature’s future that success in this arena could not be left to chance…and yet at the same time, the nature of research is such that it’s difficult if not impossible to pick winners and losers. They also realized that knowledge can’t be created overnight. It takes time – not weeks or months, but decades. So they formulated the policy which governed half a century of R&D in this country. Oversimplified, it can be stated this way…if we give scientists lots of money, based on proposal peer review, and don’t ask too many questions, someday we’ll be glad we did.

The idea was to build up a store of knowledge and understanding prior to any time we might need it, to pay for that out of the proceeds realized from earlier science and technology that had been harnessed to societal application, and to build an engine of innovation that would be self-sustaining.

The policy is working. Take the transistor. The transistor, developed at Bell Labs, was one of the fruits of such R&D. It’s at the heart of every major IT device today. There are 100 million on the integrated circuits in each smartphone, maybe 1017 or so transistors worldwide. Arguably, the invention of the transistor, by itself, has paid for all the R&D that’s ever been done, and all the R&D that ever will be done.

Sometime in the 1980’s, however, policymakers and scientists started to identify broad subject areas they felt merited more attention. They began establishing additional, large-scale, sustained research programs to accelerate the research needed. Biotechnology. Nanotechnology.

And Earth system science – the first of these.

Let’s zero in on this latter for the moment. Recall the discovery of the so-called ozone hole. In the late 1970’s, scientists began detecting a steady decline in stratospheric ozone levels, punctuated annually by a larger springtime decrease over each polar region. Some urgent detective work followed. Chlorofluorocarbons…refrigerants leaking into the atmosphere from refrigerators, air conditioners and other cooling devices (and then reaching the stratosphere and catalyzing ozone destruction) were found to be the culprit. A nifty bit of detective work, and not a moment too soon. Through the 1987 Montreal protocol and other international agreements, governments worldwide partnered with private industry to work a shift to other, less dangerous refrigerants. The ozone layer has since been recovering.

Everyone realized we were able to move from problem detection to understanding to policy response in a few years only because decades of prior ozone study established a framework on which to build.

This episode shared many features in common with the role of science in ending World War II. Only here there was no willful, sinister enemy…just billions of people attempting to make a better life and unintentionally harming the environment through sheer numbers and the unintended consequences of technology advance and social change. It was clear that many other environmental problems were surfacing…from other chemical releases, whether on local, national, or global scales; from changes in landscape and the destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity, and so on. We needed to add to our storehouse of basic scientific understanding, and quickly. Under the George Herbert Walker Bush Administration[1], scientists and policymakers formulated the U.S. Global Change Research Program in the early 1990’s.

And (remembering that our hypothesis here is “what if scientists are right?”), history will say that this investment of one-two billion dollars a year in all sorts of climate modeling, and studies of oceanography, the hydrologic and other biogeochemical cycles, related ecosystem dynamics, and so very much more was worth every penny. And the 2007 Nobel peace prize awarded those participants in the IPCC process? That’ll be just the start of the honors and recognition.

Cautionary tale. But historians may also say something else in this scenario. They may well note that we could and should have invested more…that we paid a heavy price for not having needed Earth observations, science, and science-based services in hand much earlier in the game. They might observe that the few billion dollars invested worldwide in this work each year…less than 0.1% of global GDP… was inadequate, and represented a false economy, given the complex and urgent nature of the global challenge and the high stakes. They’ll also say that we seriously under-invested in public science education in this country and in the world, especially education in the Earth sciences.

So, to summarize…if scientists are right, history will likely say:

1.       Late 20th and early 21st-century Earth observations, science and services saved the day.

2.       Just as U.S. financial preoccupations and isolationism of the 1920’s and the Depression of the 1930’s slowed the advance of science needed to deal with the Axis threat of World War II, the United States and other nations still to this day are under-investing in the science needed to anticipate and to cope with global change in all its aspects.

3.       In particular, we are underinvesting in public math and science education.

That’s one forecast. Others could be constructed. What’s yours?



[1] A Republican administration, the last time anyone checked…and if scientists are right some day the Republicans who decry this program will instead embrace it, much as they embrace Teddy Roosevelt’s leadership in building the National Parks.

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