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Conference conversations

Rasmus & Gavin

The reason why scientists like going to conferences (despite them often being held in stuffy hotel basements) is because of the conversations. People can be found who know what they are talking about, and discussions can be focused clearly on what is important, rather than what is trivial. The atmosphere at these conferences is a mix of excitement and expectations as well as pleasure at seeing old friends and colleagues.

The two of us just got back from the excellent ‘Open Science Conference‘ organised by the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) in Denver Colorado. More than 1900 scientists participated from 86 different countries, and the speakers included the biggest names in climate research and many past and present IPCC authors.

Open Science Conference

The focus of the conference was on how climate research should be done in order to be of service to society. Hence, a fair bit of focus was given to how to create useful climate information, or ‘actionable science’. This is supposed to be part of a global framework for climate services (abbreviated as GFCS to make it a bit more cryptic). But there is a lot of discussion about exactly what form of information this would be, and there were many (not necessarily exclusive) ideas around.

Bruce Hewitson and David Behar both made strong cases that the context in which climate-related information was received was key to its utility. On a panel discussion with various ‘stakeholders’, a good argument was made that better ‘translation’ of climate information was a priority, and that perhaps the current demand is not for more science results. Perhaps the information we have about climate already is good enough for many purposes.

However, communicating that understanding to people who might benefit from it remains a work in progress. Communication involves an end-to-end two-way process, as opposed to simply sending off a message hoping that the recipient will understand. There are also ethical concerns linked to the context – what are the consequences of an incorrect forecast? Are there inequities in who benefits and who doesn’t? Scientists, on their own, are not necessarily well-equipped to deal with this.

There is an expectation that the climate services should include seasonal-to-decadal forecasts, and that the climate information should be ‘seamless’ in terms of time scales as well as spatial scales. The tools for making such forecasts, however, are far from validated, and there are large gaps in our knowledge about whether (and where) predictability for the next few seasons or decades can be found. Part of our knowledge gap stems from insufficient long series of measurements from vital areas, however, the non-linear complexity also makes it difficult to discern any precursor signals. There are some potential leads though: sea-ice, snow-cover, soil moisture, ocean temperatures and the state of the stratosphere all seem to give some contingent initial condition predictability over that expected for standard weather forecasts. The extent to which this will be useful is still unclear.

One session was dedicated to observational data where many people stressed the need to ensure that current observational platforms are sustained, and better yet, that a degree of redundancy be added as quality control. For instance, overlaps between old satellite missions ending their life and new missions can improve the inter-calibration of the results. Unfortunately, the impact of not doing this can end up as big jumps in the reanalyses as data sources come in and out. Kevin Trenberth gave a great overview on what was, and what was not robust across the multiple reanalyses products now available (see our previous post for more details on this).

There were two interesting topics that revealed some tension among participants: the future of climate modelling, and the attribution of extreme events (they are of course connected, but that wasn’t really the issue).

Christian Jakob argued for a return to the ‘foundations’ of climate modelling (which he implied was atmospheric physics) and a concerted effort to develop an internationally funded super-model that would be significantly better resourced than any existing climate model development efforts. This was a contrast to the presentation from Sandrine Bony on the CMIP5 multi-model ensemble which made a point of celebrating the diverse nature of the models and the gains that come from that. Post-talk discussions on these two views were ‘spirited’ (and not just because of the cash bar).

The other topic that exercised people’s conversational ability was to what extent and how extremes might be attributable to climate change. Peter Stott gave a good overview of recent attempts, and clearly favored the establishment of better tools and institutions to do this on a more operational basis.

Almost all of the speakers have written position papers, so even if you weren’t there, you can get a sense of the discussion. The conference also offered a Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn pages for social media access.

The contrast between the conversations in this meeting and what passes for serious issues in the media and blogosphere was very clear.

31 Responses to “Conference conversations”

  1. 1

    Scientists should exhibit a sense of the political realities. (I’m sure that in their private conversations they do.) People don’t harangue against AGW for scientific reasons. They harangue against AGW for economic reasons. People who offer variants on long re-bunked talking points aren’t interested in being stakeholders or whatnot. They’re only interested in money. Like the bishop in Caddyshack, they just don’t think the heavy stuff is going to come down for awhile. Then, they’ll be dead and it won’t matter.

  2. 2
    Clark says:

    Along the lines of how climate research should be done to help society at large, could any of the RC gang comment on the 2010 emissions reports out today, claiming higher levels than the worst IPCC forecast?

    It appears we are regressing.

  3. 3
    codeblue says:


    I see a lot of similarities with evolution denial which, along with climate denial, isn’t much of a problem in most other countries. I think a recent study I read found less than half of Americans accept evolution, which is similar to the number that accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change.

    That is frightening, but what is interesting is that there is nowhere near the same level of FUD-funding behind “teach the controversy”, at least as far as I am aware. While there is certainly an element of money involved, I think there is something within this culture that makes people especially susceptible to denial – Charles Pierce had some fun ideas about it in his book Idiot America.

    I think we have to come to realize that when we engage the public, we aren’t going to convince the die-hard deniers. The people we have to speak to are those that are on the fence, those that are not ideologically committed to one position or another. One of the best ways is through public outreach presentations and Q&A sessions, because just seeing an actual scientist in person can sometimes open up a pathway through those cognitive biases.

  4. 4
    John Mashey says:

    This looks like a great conference, but you could have stuck around in the West for 3rd Santa Fe Conference, sponsored mostly by US government agencies. The agenda was this. It surely generated “spirited discussion” as well, given the attendance by the Viscount Monckton and various others.

  5. 5
    Nick Barnes says:

    Interesting. I’ve heard a number of reports from Denver, and I’m sorry I couldn’t be there myself. What would you say was the relationship between the ‘Open Science’ of the conference title and the ‘Open Science’ of, say, the recent Open Science Summit (which I did manage to get to, albeit briefly)?

    The attendees at the latter mostly share a fairly clear agenda: open access publication, open data (as defined by the Open Knowledge Definition), open source software, and – for some people – even open notebook science. This is what Open Science means for them. What does it mean to the WCRP?

    [Response: Nick, I think your efforts at openness are laudable, but sometimes the goal of a scientific conference is to discuss the science, as opposed to the context. To answer your question, the goals of the WCRP conference are given here: Among those goals: getting folks together who might well not meet otherwise, because they usually meet in their own sub disciplines. That’s what I take “open” to mean in this context. Surely you don’t object to that use of the word?–eric]

  6. 6
    Balazs says:

    I am glad that after twenty+ years of elevated climate change awareness finally, we are starting to talk about monitoring. My primary reason for being climate change skeptic is the apparent lack of adequate monitoring. I told Kevin Trenberth years ago (at some WMO meeting [edit]) that the current debate is akin to a doctor showing a plastic dummy to his patient and arguing that the patient needs open heart surgery, because the plastic dummy shows symptoms that the patient might have. The real travesty is the declining monitoring both in-situ and remote sensing.

    Instead of sustained monitoring we have the NRC Decadal Survey guiding NASA to launch a series of pet missions ranked by the egos of the promoting P-Is. My particular interest is river discharge, which I believe is a high quality signal of the amount of water participating in the water cycle that both weather forecast and climate models seem to represent poorly. River discharge can be measured cheaply and accurately on the ground and yet we are telling policy makers that we are going to measure it from space, because as scientists we love “innovation”. We justify the use of satellites by the “unsurmountable” difficulties in fostering international collaboration. One has to ask the question, if achieving such a minimal goal as sharing a little bit of in-situ data is deemed impossible, how we envision international collaboration to curb carbon emission.

    We are concerned about the extinction of species, but at the current rate, what will be extinct in IPCC reports are the words such as “observation” and “monitoring”. The first IPCC report expressed strongly the need for sustained monitoring. The second IPCC report articulated the need for data assimilation, but by the third and fourth reports the authors confidence grew and the sheer word count on “observation” and “monitoring” declined. When I tell other scientists that I wish if some of the wind turbine and solar panel subsidies were spent on monitoring, they look at me as being extremely naive. I have yet to understand, why it is more naive to envision a word where tax payers’ money is spent on monitoring even in foreign countries if necessary, than convincing millions to eat tofu instead of beef.

    Kevin Trenberth desperate search for the missing heat is particularly entertaining. One would think that even if we don’t fully understand the Earth’s climate system at least we know how to monitor. Climate models should be good enough to guide us to design adequate monitoring network as a combination of in-situ and remote sensing where there is no missing heat. Scientists spent twenty years to talk policy makers into taking actions and completely failed to lobby for better monitoring. I argued at many meetings that the minimum obligation of our generation is to leave accurate record of our changing planet. James Hansen fears the storm of his grandchildren. I fear that we will leave a series of inconsistent GRACE measurments and petabytes of climate model simulations for our grandchildren to reconstruct climate change [edit]

    We already wasted 20+ years in establishing long-term reliable records and we will continue to do so, while our stubborn push for immediate action to cut carbon emission will wreck the reputation of climate science for decades. By the time, climate scientist will have the knowledge to reliably predict climate change nobody will listen.

    [Response: I take your points — they are valid in many ways — but a more constructive attitude would be good. Your medical analogy is apt, but not really correct. The real problem is that it remains difficult for many people to recognize that a ‘doctor’ is needed in the first place. A better analogy is a healthy 20-something that doesn’t buy health insurance because “I never get sick” I also fail to see how the lack of monitoring should make you a ‘skeptic’ (sensu lato). Look, the fact is that many many scientists (and others) have been arguing for monitoring for a very long time. The problem is not that no one gets the importance of this, but that the way our funding agencies are set up — not to mention our academic institutions, which reward immediate results, rather than keeping the long view — long term programs are very very hard to make happen. Constructive ideas for solving those problems would be very welcome.–eric]

  7. 7
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    “The focus of the conference was on how climate research should be done in order to be of service to society.”

    Might less “scientific reticence” help? Let people know things like
    “[Reduced consumption of energy] is essential, but only because it buys time–time, I would note, that must be bought now because we did nothing for 20 years, despite the near certainty that such a new energy infrastructure would be essential for the continuance of human civilization.”
    – Ray Ladbury, unforced comment 113

    Surely you agree that if we continue on the current emissions track or even half of that until nature stops us it won’t be pretty at all.

    The concentration on attribution or not of special events may be a distraction. The people of the planet might be better served with straight talk on the overall physical and statistical changes in global circulation and water cycle. With the overall water cycle trends – increasing area aridity, increasing floods in wetter areas and more bunched precipitation (fewer stronger events) in the areas in between, what is the likelihood of making it to a given year without a global famine? [for given emissions] Try to approximate that as a function of year.

    Drought papers like Dai’s, good as they are, give no combined risk of all water cycle enhancements. Let’s put it all together. On the other hand looking at extreme events one by one and find attribution hard, partial or not supportable is like ‘divide and conquer’ global warming. What people need to hear is the global hazard. Given the long and constantly growing list of floods etc, I don’t think communication will such a hard problem. You just have to say something about the cumulative hazard, and say it better, shorter and less hedged than the IPCC.

    Then of course there is the good news (not your department). Yes we have plenty of alternative energy technology right now. Deploy deploy deploy –> lots of jobs, clean air, and so on.

  8. 8
    Balazs says:

    In response to Eric’s response to my comment, I must say, I tried to be constructive for over a decade and I saw little or practically no progress in monitoring. Yes, it is widely recognized that monitoring is needed, but at the end it is easier to get funded to carry out another model simulation.

    We are in this climate change debate because politicians and the public actually listen to scientists (contrary to what many RC readers believe) and started already to implement actions (effective or not is a different questions). The voice of the scientific community was nowhere near as loud to advocate more investment in monitoring and still isn’t. I don’t hear delegates from any country heading to Durban to propose setting up international funds to operate global monitoring networks.

  9. 9
    Edward Greisch says:

    “what are the consequences of an incorrect forecast? Are there inequities in who benefits and who doesn’t? Scientists, on their own, are not necessarily well-equipped to deal with this.”

    I disagree in that there is nobody better equipped than all scientists together. There are philosophers who think they know more about ethics. I disagree with the philosophers. Look up “Socio-biology.” Find the book: “The Genetics of Altruism” by Lumsden and Wilson. My hypothesis: Too many altruism genes creates do-gooders and they are mal-adapted.

    Socio-biology is that branch of evolutionary theory that explores the evolution of morals and ethics as a part of human evolution. Socio-biology has replaced the philosophy department’s ethics branch.

    I did say “all scientists together.” That means add some socio-biologists next time you have this conference.

    “There is an expectation that the climate services should include seasonal-to-decadal forecasts, and that the climate information should be ‘seamless’ in terms of time scales as well as spatial scales.”

    This after RC has told me so many times that a 2 year forecast is a long range weather forecast? Since climate forecasting and weather forecasting do not fit together at the seam, there must be a jump from a 2 week weather forecast to a decadal climate forecast. The expectation has to be on the part of outsiders, non-scientists.

  10. 10
    J Bowers says:

    @ 3 codeblue

    You might want to get your hands on a copy of ‘Willful Blindness’ by Margaret Heffernan.

  11. 11
    J Bowers says:

    In fact, I’d suggest all climate scientists get their hands on a copy of Heffernan’s book, and if there’s another conference with a similar theme, you could probably do far worse than ask her to give a talk.

  12. 12
    Nick Barnes says:

    Reading eric’s response@5, I realise I didn’t make myself very clear. I really don’t object to the use of the word ‘open’; it’s simply a contrasting usage (on reflection, I guess it should be parsed as “open science-conference” – that is, a science conference which is open to all aspects and communities [of climate research] – not “open-science conference” – that is, a conference focused on openness). From what I hear, Denver was a fine conference and I wish I could have been there.

    What you say about a better funded ‘international super-model’ is interesting. What is your impression of the ICES Foundation?

  13. 13
    Matt McIrvin says:

    The people we have to speak to are those that are on the fence, those that are not ideologically committed to one position or another.

    That’s always how it is in these loaded controversies. I’ve actually changed a few minds about climate change, but they weren’t hardcore contrarian true-believers; they were people who had a general lay interest in the subject, but hadn’t heard much apart from he-said-she-said reporting and tendentious rants, and were not yet deeply committed to any point of view.

  14. 14
    Susan Anderson says:

    Speaking of conversations, gotta share this, goosebumpy. There’s lots more great Feynman at the site.

    h/t DarkSyde at DailyKos though it pointed at something else (space item).

    Put here because it’s about thinking, physics, and fascination.

  15. 15

    #7–“The concentration on attribution or not of special events may be a distraction. The people of the planet might be better served with straight talk on the overall physical and statistical changes in global circulation and water cycle.”

    With all due respect, I disagree. There is of course nothing wrong with the information and context that Pete proposes. But specific events are concrete–and concrete detail is what tends most strongly to convince.

    So it’s important to do both. We need the context and the big picture. But there’s a lot of folks who hear “two degrees” and think “Well, that’s nothing, and if it has to change by two degrees, better warmer than cooler.”

    For them, the streets of Moscow in July 2010, or of Bangkok in November 2011, are essential as concrete examples of what climate change really means.

  16. 16
    bill says:

    Re: #3 and #10.

    While it might seem off-topic, the article in Friday’s (Nov. 4) New York Times entitled, “Why science majors change their minds” and the more than 900 comments from readers is interesting, instructive, and worrisome. Sysiphus had an easier job than those here at RC.

  17. 17
    Killian O'Brien says:

    The problem is not the science, and it makes no sense at all to me to talk about how to “do” science to be most useful. That is not the problem. Not at all. The problem is in communicating and the point has already been made that we know more than enough to know we have huge, potentially extinction level events going on. In fact, we know we are already at extinction level event levels for many species and losing more every day. We do not need to know more, though the science should continue.

    We know more than enough to not only make decisions, but to fix the problems. There are a number of organic, low tech, non-invasive options for mitigation and adaptation, both of which are needed in the short term, though if we act quickly the adaptations to warmer conditions need not be permanent, though adaptations to be sustainable will need to be.

    I dare say you might have asked some teachers (I know scientists are also teachers, but lectures are not the same as more active pedagogy and the audience is primarily people that would never end up in college) and sustainable systems specialists to attend.

    I suggested back in 2008 a solution I thought would be able to reach millions while also helping find solutions. I still consider it a viable option. In fact, the idea has been used by others to just make money. It’s time to use it to just make change.

    Anyone curious? It involves modeling!

    Given the risk is extinction, that should be something we can figure out how to effectively message.


  18. 18
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Kevin @ 15, your point is good and we just about agree. Actually I want more attention in one direction but not taking away from the other (extreme events). Think of the great “Texas” (from north Mexico to Oklahoma) drought and heat wave this past summer. Texans prayed for rain and powerful flooding rains came – a few miles to east, stirring up more wind for the Texas fires. That’s a striking example of the need to look at the whole “enhanced” water cycle.

    How can everyone forget the great Tennessee flood of spring 2010? Alas Nashville.
    Kevin, trust me and follow that link through to the last picture. There has to be a book for which it belongs on the cover.

  19. 19
    John McCormick says:

    Killian, first off, great name.

    You said: “Given the risk is extinction, that should be something we can figure out how to effectively message.”

    In general, your comment has high value.

    But, the practical matter of “effectively messaging” needs work. Cable and print media are doing an atrocious job of reporting anything not related to Caine’s arrogant denial of his past actions; Mitt’s flip-flopping; the Michael Jackson trial…while the important climate-related news goes unreported, is butchered, may actually be worthy of note and all variety of grievances many of us have with main stream media.

    So, where, how and whom is responsible for the effective message? Scientists? No, not their skill? Environmentalists? Hated and worse by a huge part of US population? Recognized and trusted opinion makers? Getting close.

    And, larger questions are how to maintain that message’s shelf life, how to shoot down lies from deniers and packaging the message to assure listeners and readers reflect and act on what they learned.

    The U.S. would never have entered World War II if the lead up to our involvement was handled in the way this most dangerous challenge ever presented to humans has been handled.

    What does it mean to have my neighbor say he saw an interesting piece on NBC about climate change? Do I see his outdoor lights on the next evening and wonder if he really got eh message?

    There are about five hundred Americans who will have to get the effective message and act on it before we see any change in US policy on climate chaos. For starters, most of those 500 are members of the US Congress, others are insurance executives, major investors and stock speculators, utility execs operating coastal power plants.

    Lets focus on them as audience #1 and design means (using retired generals is one idea) and to get the effective message into the ears of those 500 decision-makers. Maybe we could demonstrate in front of their homes to get their attention.

    Trusting the masses to act on effective messages is what has gotten us to this place and we are no place with regard to acting on climate chaos.

    John McCormick

  20. 20
    gavin says:

    There are a few other interesting blog posts on this meeting and the conversations there:

    Steve Easterbrook: “One model to rule them all?

    James Annan: Day 3 and Days 4&5

    Both bloggers are worth reading.

    Judy Curry has also chimed in, commenting directly on this post. Oddly enough she was too shy to mention it here.

  21. 21
    Dan H. says:


    I couldn’t agree more. We spent too much effort on modeling climate changes, and woefully little on actually measuring cliamte changes. This leads to headlines concerning the “missing heat” and the like when observations do not match what modelling dictates. Perhaps if we had spent the time and money on scientific observations 10 years ago, we would have more answers by now. The IPCC not only shied away “observations” and “monitoring”, but also from field research in favor of modelling and projections. You may want to add the IPCC to your list of extinctions, as many scientists seem to think that, without significant changes, the next report will be its last.

    [Response: Guys, the IPCC does not and cannot do any of these things you suggest. The IPCC can only report what the scientific community at large is doing. They have little budget, and none for primary research. If you wish to complain about research directions, talk to the funding agencies (i.e. your government!), not the IPCC.–eric]

    [Response: You periodically say some really stupid things.–Jim]

  22. 22
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Dan H. and Balazs

    Oh FFS. I don’t believe you guys. After nearly a decade (2000-2008) of having every single meaningful earth science proposal shot down in Congress or by the Administration, you guys have the fricking cojones to complain of lack of monitoring? Ferchrissake, they even changed NASA’s mission statement to omit “to understand and protect our home planet”!!!

    I would suggest you read the following essay:

    Then decide which planet you are from.

  23. 23
    Hank Roberts says:

    For Dan H., you may want to review the history. Ten years ago US government was cutting out research programs, and Heartland was spinning that as progress.
    Whatever country you live in, look up your own government and private funding and consider what you were asking for at the time.

    US residents can search for “climate+research”+”bush+administration”

  24. 24
    SecularAnimist says:

    The defunding of Earth monitoring projects was for the deliberate purpose of enabling folks like Dan H. to say “we don’t have enough observational evidence to justify action against AGW”. Refusing to gather evidence is a very reliable way of ensuring that you don’t have it.

  25. 25
  26. 26
    Dan H. says:

    Are you insinuating that I was able to influence the government of the U.S. into sabotaging observational measurements in order to justify inaction to combat AGW? Wow! You must think I have enormous influence. Not to mention your incorrect analysis of my AGW position.

    This is just another attempt to politicize AGW, instead of relying on scientific evidence.

  27. 27
    Dan H. says:

    Yes Hank,
    Tamino and I have going back on fforth on the subject. This was poted on the thread, showing how certain start or end times deviate from the majority of the trends. Particularly those that start around the early 1910s or late 1970s, and those that end in the early 1940s or early 2000s. The pattern in the lower corner of the triangle repeats in the upper corner.

  28. 28
    Ray Ladbury says:

    [edit – please no sniping at other commenters]

  29. 29
    dhogaza says:

    Dan H.

    This is just another attempt to politicize AGW, instead of relying on scientific evidence.

    What Jim said. Inline, above.

  30. 30
    dhogaza says:

    Dan H.

    Tamino and I have going back on fforth on the subject.

    Back and forth in the same sense that Tamino uses a mop to clean his kitchen floor.

  31. 31
    RichardC says:

    17 Killian said, “Given the risk is extinction, that should be something we can figure out how to effectively message.”

    One important target audience is notable skeptical scientists. Convince them and they will convince all reasonable skeptics. A conference might be a great way to initiate/continue discussions with top skeptical scientists about projects that could address their concerns. I’m sure clouds and missing heat would be prominent topics.

    Engaging skeptical scientists in public forums helps. I enjoyed Pielke’s discussions here. Mainstream scientists should also participate in skeptical blogs. That’s also where you’ll find the segment of the population we (you) need to convince. It’s a highly-directed captive free audience.