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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9 Responses to What if they are right?

  1. hunter says:

    Interesting and appropriate, but not as well laid out or compelling as the essay this one is mirrored on.
    The R&D analogy is interesting. And the transistor point is very interesting/ But you might recall that the transistor was developed in a private lab, not by massive federal spending or UN mandate. There are significant implications in that difference, imho.
    I do not believe that history will show climate science was under funded. After all, the most extreme version of climate doom are correct, it is already too late for us to prevent the great crisis.
    Another point is that the transistor grew out of applied research, not basic research. Bell Labs set out to solve a problem and make something that works. Climate science is not in the same league.
    By the way: Was there in fact a substantial resistance to TR’s national park/national forests expansion? Was it based on critiques of the science?
    But thank you for two thought provoking posts.

    • william hooke says:

      These are great comments. I’d agree with every one. Each of your points could be developed further. Just a few remarks to add to what you’ve said so well…

      First, I tried to be careful to mention Bell Labs for just the reason you cited. This was indeed a private-sector development, and very much a bit of applied science addressing a specific practical need. At one time, Bell Labs was responsible for 50% of the basic research done by the private sector in this country. A remarkable tradition, and a casualty of the breakup of ATT. As I’ve emphasized many times over the past eighteen months, neither the public-sector nor the private-sector alone will suffice in dealing with today’s science and technology challenges. We need both sectors…and collaboration versus we-they…and recognition of that reality in national policymaking.

      Vacuum tubes which had up to that point been the workhorse of electrical gadgets, were essentially tricked-up light bulbs and weren’t going to get us where we needed to go. Too bulky. Too power-hungry. Too fragile. But the Bell labs development was built on a foundation of basic science, and added more in the process…fundamental advances in understanding what today we call condensed matter physics (in my day we called it solid-state physics).

      And with respect to climate science, as you correctly point out, we may well be too late in the game for more science to help. But that to my mind was one of the strengths of the USGCRP…that it was formulated in terms of global change, not just climate change, and it was intended to address many features of Earth science and the interaction between Earth and society, not just climate change. So it could encompass a number of aspects of change in landscape, habitats, and biota, local and regional aspects of the hydrologic cycle, as well as climate change per se.

      As for the Teddy Roosevelt bit, my impression (formed in large part from the Ken Burns series on “the National Parks, America’s best idea,” versus any real scholarship) was that there was resistance, but it came from the resource developers, managers, versus from the science side…and the science side was itself second to the goal of maintaining public access to nature. Like most analogies not a perfect one.

      Again, thanks for some great insights.

    • J. Seifert says:

      (1) To consider: This question is 3 years too early to answer for the general public…..
      B.D. Santer points to 17 years to be required to answer and to detect or
      not detect a human fingerprint……. These 17 years are 2000-2017…
      when it will become obvious…. both Warmists+Skeptics have the same
      chance to win, no, the huge investments into the Warmists side (as the IPCC
      AR4 put it: “The tremendous advance of computer modelling allows us
      highly accurate forecasts within a minuscule range of error to be made”)
      give the Warmists an advantage edge…..
      (2) To consider: The great “climate science achievement” was the “MILLENIUMs achievement of TAR (the 3. IPCC report of year 2000, then published 3 months later inMarch 2001…… forecasting 0.2 C TEMP RISE per
      Everyone can now (Wood for Trees) check himself, how accurate the TAR
      predictions are: Please select GMT for this month 2001 to the same
      month 1 decade later…… temp increase ZERO…..this projected decadal temp forecast has not materialized…… therefore, logical, the sceptical stance
      is gaining ground day for day…..
      If there were an increase since the Milleniums achievement, well, you could
      put the question…..but it is 3 years too early…..
      ……. the enhanced computer models will decide in 2017 and then we will
      all know by then…. lets wait and see and abstain from “wild actionism
      in AGW” better, do it the Saxonian way: Sit, have coffee, observe, we will
      know for sure in 3 years time….

      The Warmists had

  2. Anteros says:

    Another interesting post.

    I confess to feeling that in a way it is somewhat inappropriate for me to comment, as I’m not American. This is odd, because using the same language (essentially..) as Americans, the internet makes the Atlantic often seem to disappear. Also, the subject of climate change may have regional specifics, both in terms of (alleged) impacts and policies, but it is very much a global concern.

    So it does seem strange to have both a topic, and a medium that is shared, with a mutually comprehensible method of communication, and yet for there to be a sense of exclusion. Is it really a conversation you only want to have with yourselves?

    I most definitely don’t want to be needlessly provocative – there are many aspects of the debate (taxes, energy policy, nuclear, funding etc) that are specifically related to individual countries. But it seems to me the question of how history will view the science is universal. As far as I know, the climate science community is a world wide body – the IPCC itself is at pains to be inclusive.

    I certainly accept that there are some references to the globe as a whole in your article – perhaps my plea for more inclusivity is out of place (especially given the legend at the top of the blog..) but this conclusion –

    .. 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.

    – could more usefully applied to humanity rather than an individual country – unless there is something very specific about the state of science in America that doesn’t apply to the other 200 countries of the world.

    I don’t think history is going to pick out one particular country for its judgement upon the state of science at the beginning of the 21st century.


    The question being asked brought up for me the thought that it seems to presume that the ‘scientists being right’ includes that there will be plenty of negative consequences of warming. As far as I am aware, this is not something that can be asserted by the science but only by people and their imaginations -and I think there is a huge difference.

    The UK Met Office’s Richard Betts has said that he doesn’t believe that 2 degrees of warming will necessarily be dangerous, so if there is moderate warming it will be the case that the science was right, but some of the scientists were wrong. In other words, science hasn’t made any predictions of doom – human beings have. But your post seems to automatically assume that climate change will in some way be significantly negative – which I think is an assumption that is easy to make, but hard to justify.

    • william hooke says:

      Great comment…You’ve made a good start at filling in a major gap in the discussion…and at the same time you’ve hit on a gap (one of many!) in my background. I couldn’t agree more that the problems that all of us are discussing are global problems…and affect all seven billion of us. The awkwardness comes in that what little I know about science policy is regrettably U.S.-centric. So for me to make sweeping generalizations about, say, Europe’s R&D portfolio, or the Chinese policies would be grossly out of line. When it comes to exhortations on investments in climate science or STEM education, I feel I shouldn’t challenge folks from other countries that quite often are doing far better on much of this than we folks from the U.S.

      However, when it comes to exhortations on respecting one another, learning from one another, being committed to one another’s welfare, I’m willing to be quite global… 🙂

      again, thanks for reemphasizing this important perspective…

    • Michael Cunningham says:

      Anteros, Bill notes that “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.” I’d agree with that, with the qualification that the world-wide benefit is not due to the science per se but to the US’s great capacity for entrepreneurship, innovation and commercialisation. These particular capacities, so much more pronounced than in Europe and many other countries, were fundamental in the great improvement in living standards for billions in the last 60 years.

      Bill, at CE manacker queried your focus on “public” education, rather than all education, and I would suggest that it is the qualities of America’s private businesses which have allowed the plethora of good science in the US to be turned to world-wide benefit. I think that much of the basic science is also undertaken in private universities, albeit with government support. And one element of that support – that the results of all government-funded science must be made public – is a very valuable policy which is not always appreciated in other countries.

  3. Anteros says:

    William –

    I’ve just read your ‘About’ page and maybe my comments above are even less justified than I suspected. Apologies.

    • william hooke says:

      🙂 No apologies required…quite the opposite. See above…again, thanks for visiting this site occasionally and raising the tone of the place…

  4. My bet is that the answer will be that “they were sort of right.” CO2 is ultimately found to be important, but far from the only important factor, esp. when we figure out how to properly take clouds into account. The current models will have well overshot the mark, and while there is some noticeable warming, it is nowhere near the levels the extremists have been trumpeting. If I’m right, then our current policy decisions (or in-decisions) may also turn out to be inadvertently right as well.

    As an unrelated aside, am I the only one who has noticed that one positive effect of global warming would be huge reductions in the levels of influenza? Flu viruses don’t tolerate heat well. This very warm winter has resulted in one of the mildest flu seasons in many years, and with little apparent change in the dominant flu strains. And for those who might want to pooh-pooh this, remember that the greatest global and national disaster in terms of loss of life in the last hundred years was the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-20.

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