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AGU talk on science and advocacy

Filed under: — gavin @ 23 December 2013

We have often discussed issues related to science communication on this site, and the comment threads frequently return to the issue of advocacy, the role of scientists and the notion of responsibility. Some videos from the recent AGU meeting are starting to be uploaded to the AGU Youtube channel and, oddly, the first video of a talk is my Stephen Schneider lecture on what climate scientists should advocate for (though actually, it mostly about how science communicators should think about advocacy in general since the principles are applicable regardless of the subject area):

The talk has provoked a number of commentaries from the Yale forum, Andy Revkin at DotEarth, Judith Curry and Bart Verhegggen – with varying degrees of comprehension of the main points.

There is a lot of overlap between my talk and those given by Stephen Schneider twenty and thirty years ago – in particular the video at the Aspen Global Change Institute on whether a scientist-advocate was an oxymoron, and in descriptions on his website. Though I also touch on newer discussions, such as those raised earlier this year by Tamsin Edwards in the Guardian and in subsequent twitter and blog conversations. Another relevant piece is the paper on bringing values and deliberation to science communication (Dietz, 2013)

What’s new today is that scientific communication (and scientists communicating) is no longer limited to a few top voices in the broadcast media, but rather to a much wider (and perhaps younger) cohort of scientists communicating at many different levels -via blogs, twitter, facebook, reddit etc as well as in the mainstream media. Issues that were merely academic to most scientists a few decades ago, are actually very real to many more now. A greater appreciation of what other scientists have previously said about advocacy is perhaps needed.

I will likely write this lecture up more formally, but in the meantime I’ll be happy to discuss the points or the implications in the comment section. Note that I at one point mistakenly credit Aristotle with a quote that actually came from Elbert Hubbard (thus are laid bare the dangers of finishing a new talk late the previous evening…).

While difficult, let’s keep the discussion about advocacy in general, rather than for or against advocacy of specific policies.


  1. T. Dietz, "Bringing values and deliberation to science communication", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 110, pp. 14081-14087, 2013.

177 Responses to “AGU talk on science and advocacy”

  1. 51
    Ray Ladbury says:

    What you say might be true if the arguments about climate change were contingent on the bleeding edge of climate science, but they aren’t. Except for a tiny handful of climate scientists, the questions among actual scientists reduce to whether doubling CO2 will warm the planet by 2.5 degrees (in which case, we’re screwed) or whether it will warm the planet by 4 degrees (in which case, we are completely screwed).

    In terms of climate policy, we are stuck at present between “do nothing”, or even “make things worse” and “do something woefully inadequate”. Neither position is predicated on science, but rather on politics fueled by public complacency and fossil-fueled disinformation. As scientists, we will take positions somewhere between “do something effective” and “ferchrissake do something!”, both of which are well outside the Overton window of climate policy.

    I would contend, however, that the public complacency may be driven more by the lack of good, well thought out policy options than by any inherent distrust of scientists. Without a policy option they feel confidence in, most people simply pretend the situation is not as dire as the experts are saying so they don’t have to live in dread of the future. They adopt the same attitude towards climate catastrophe they do toward their own inevitable mortality. Most people simply are not courageous. That is why we need courageous leaders willing to decide on a workable solution. You’ll never get courage as a grassroots movement.

  2. 52
    Hank Roberts says:

    > no clear and simple message

    Hold the lamp up a little higher.
    Look right here:

    Stop burning fossil carbon.

  3. 53
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Kip Hansen

    “Nutritional supplements” had the consensus claimed for the health benefits of lead paint, tobacco, and much else — unproven claims that didn’t hold up. Read the public health journals. Don’t be fooled again.

  4. 54
    Gordon Shephard says:

    When I read comments that speak of “scientists” as though they were not, first and foremost, people, I shake my head, sadly, and smile. We all act on the best information we are able to obtain, however filtered it may be by our various kinds of blindness. In my experience, being accused of blindness has never prompted anyone to look again.

    Gavin, I appreciate you work as a scientist, and your advocacy as a human being. Thank you.

  5. 55
    Roger Albin says:

    Excellent talk.

    There is an important complementary perspective. In many policy arenas, society needs the specialized expertise that only scientists (and other experts) can provide. As Dr. Schmidt points out, this requires certain standards on the part of experts and he does a very nice job of laying some of the basic requirements. The corollary, however, is that our societies need to have appropriate mechanisms for incorporating specialty expertise into public debate and democratic decision making. Climate change is a spectacular example of the failure of our political systems and our major media, which should be playing a major role in public education, to provide such mechanisms. In his book, Science in a Democratic Society, the astute philosopher Philip Kitcher provides an outline of a credible mechanism for democratic decision making addressing complex issues. Kitcher’s proposal will look familiar to most scientists, as it has marked resemblances to many aspects of how science runs as an institution.

    Mr. Hansen@49

    As a practicing physician, I can sssure you that every “general medical” does not have an “obligatory ‘nutritional consultant’.” In the USA, at any rate, the great majority of physicians regard vitamins and supplements as nuisances. Your history of how the FDA’s power to regulate the supplement industry was limited is incorrect. Rather than being an example of an over-enthusiastic research community indulging in inappropriate advocacy, this is actually a nice example of conventional interest group lobbying. The primary sponsor of the legislation limiting the FDA’s authority was Senator Orrin Hatch (R; Utah). Utah was, and is, a major center for supplement production. As occurs frequently in the US political system, commercial lobbying involving powerful politicians was successful in carving out a regulatory exemption for regional industry.

  6. 56
    Eric Swanson says:

    RE: #21 & #36, Edward Greisch

    Thanks for the reference to BraveNewClimate, a site which I had not seen before. After a quick look, it appears that Barry Brook’s take supports nukes as the best energy option. With a MsME, I have followed the energy problem intensely, beginning before the Arab/OPEC Oil Embargo back in ’73. I concluded that renewable energy was the best direction and that nuclear was likely to be have too many serious problems for wide spread future use. Subsequent events have shown the dangers of the first nuclear power plants, which leads one to be doubly worried about the push for more nuclear power, even given the claims of great safety improvements possible with the latest designs. Jim Hansen’s latest works advocate the use of these newest designs in addition to his call for taxes based on CO2 emissions.

    Brook posted a review of a book by Howard Hayden, “The Solar Fraud”, pointing out that renewables aren’t like fossil fuels as they tend to be diffuse and require storage. Therein lies one of the big problems with any future energy source, as mankind’s industrial society is built around energy sources which inherently include storage, be it wood, coal, oil or natural gas. Our economic system has traditionally calculated the cost of such energy as the cost of recovering the resource without including the cost of collecting and storing the energy. As a result, most renewable options can not compete with those fossil resources within our present accounting framework. Also, the systems to use that energy evolved in a way which leads us to expect near instant availability of supply, as we step into our gasoline powered cars or switch on the lights or the HVAC to control our indoor climate. It may be that it will always be impossible to fit renewable energy into the fossil fuel built mold, rather like trying to smash a square peg into a round hole. The so-called “developed” countries with their high density urban/suburban land use patterns are structured around the high density energy found in fossil fuels. If society decides to limit CO2 emissions, I expect that we are all going to need to adapt to different ways of living.

    The realization that storage must be a part of the renewable system has always been obvious to me, yet some solar advocates have claimed that an electric grid can use solar input without storage. When I designed my “mod 1” solar house 15 years ago, I built it around a 5,000 gallon water tank, with the expectation that I could collect enough solar energy to heat the water for days when there was little sunlight. My solar collectors haven’t performed as well as expected, for several reasons which I am still attempting to correct and I’ve never filled the tank with water. Here’s a story from today’s NYT, which indicates that California is waking up to the storage problem:

    Strangely enough, an all nuclear power grid would also have a difficult time meeting the varying loads which have been typical in past. Present nuclear plants are capital intensive and the utilities need to run them at full power all the time. They have large thermal inertias and thus do not “load follow” very well. Thus, effective storage systems or other backup power would be needed for these, much like that for renewables. If there is to be a major shift away from coal and other CO2 emitting fossil fuels for generation of electricity, then the added cost of storage might be similar for both renewables and for nukes, thus countering arguments for nukes vs renewables based on storage.

  7. 57
    Hank Roberts says:

    This may be a problem:

    Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior

    Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals. In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals.

    In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to

    exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3),
    take valued goods from others (study 4),
    lie in a negotiation (study 5),
    cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and
    endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7)
    than were lower-class individuals.

    Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.

  8. 58
    Hank Roberts says:

    Apropos: Reddit/r science forum banning climate denial posts

    We discovered that the disruptive faction that bombarded climate change posts was actually substantially smaller than it had seemed. Just a small handful of people ran all of the most offensive accounts. What looked like a substantial group of objective skeptics to the outside observer was actually just a few bitter and biased posters with more opinions then evidence.

    Negating the ability of this misguided group to post to the forum quickly resulted in a change in the culture within the comments.

  9. 59
    Frank says:

    Professor Schneider provided an excellent description of ethical science and the “ethical double bind”, but he made a serious mistake not proposing a solution to the problem (other than individual conscience). IMO, Tamsin Edwards’ solution – self-censorship by the most knowledgeable members of society – is absurd and undemocratic. To avoid the appearance of partiality, it would be preferable for scientists writing scientific reports for policymakers be ones who have not publicly advocated for a particular policy, but this may not always be possible. If some authors have taken public positions, then scientists representing all points of view should be included on the author team.

    To put it bluntly using Schneider’s phrases, any time a scientist tells scary stories, makes simplified dramatic statements, or fails to express doubts; he or she is not speaking as an ethical scientist. Schneider makes this clear when scientists are speaking with or writing to their peers, but what if the audience is policymakers, reporters or the public? Sometimes it is impossible to go into all of the caveats. Sometimes describing normal scientific uncertainty or conflicting studies can misinform about the strength of one’s convictions. Is a scientist required to “pull his punches” – when opponents may have no ethical standards at all? Of course not – but it is equally inappropriate to allow your audience to think they are hearing from a scientist- whom they expect to tell the whole truth with all of the caveats. A scientist who exaggerates, oversimplifies or hides doubts is acting as a policy advocate, whether the subject is policy or pure science that informs policy. The audience deserves to know whether the speaker or writer is following the extraordinary, higher standards of ethical scientific discourse or the ordinary standards of policy advocacy. Scientists should be obligated to inform them. Ethical reporters interviewing scientists should ask.

    In the legal and political arena, we have an adversarial system that allows both sides of an issue equal opportunity to present their case and publicly question the case presented by opponents. No one expects a politician or lawyer to present the whole truth with all the caveats. Ethical journalists are expected to seek out and publicize information from both sides of a political or legal controversy. In science, however, we usually rely on individual scientists to present both sides of a controversy and to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their work in their papers and presentations. As Feynman said in Cargo Cult Science: “In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.” Being able to trust that their peers have told the “whole truth” “with all of the caveats” saves scientists significant amount of work. This tradition of scientific “self-auditing” partially explains the outrage at “citizen auditors” like Steve McIntyre, who usually aren’t as familiar with complex issues as the scientists who actually carry out the work. Since science seek to uncover universal truth about the world, I believe the public holds scientists to higher standards of their profession than the standards of lawyers and politicians, who inhabit an adversarial world.

    The solution to Schneider’s ethical double bind is for scientists to acknowledge when they are speaking or writing as policy advocates. For example, if one presents just the projections from the IPCC’s climate models, one is acting as a policy advocate – not an ethical scientist – even though the material is purely scientific. Model projections aren’t the “whole truth” “with all of the caveats”. The IPCCs models don’t exhibit the full range of ECS that the IPCC currently recognizes is possible: a 70% likelihood that ECS is between 1.5 and 4.5 degC. The IPCC’s models also contain numerous parameters that describe sub-grid processes and their output doesn’t reflect uncertain about the correct value for these parameters. Without a discussion of caveats, this model output is policy advocacy, not ethical science.

  10. 60

    Regarding Reddit and climate denial, in 58 Hank Roberts quotes:

    We discovered that the disruptive faction that bombarded climate change posts was actually substantially smaller than it had seemed. Just a small handful of people ran all of the most offensive accounts.

    Sounds like each flesh-and-blood denier was responsible for a whole lot of sock puppets. As a participant of online discussions you oftentimes wonder, but apparently the people at Reddit are able to tell. It would be nice if they provided ballpark figures — just to get some sense of the leveraging that is going on.

  11. 61
    John Mashey says:

    re: 45
    AMA can sometimes act more like Chamber of Commerce.

    For sure, IPCC ~ Surgeon General reports or similar *science* assessments. Both were/are done with small support staffs and a bunch of experts who don’t get paid directly for doing that.

    On the tobacco comparison, medical researchers have been doing that for decades, but some, quite properly have gotten into studying the tobacco companies, the efficacy of various policies, and advocating for policies that work…. in part because they or their colleagues get to deal with people needing lung transplants or breathing holes in their throats.
    One of the top places is UCSF’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, whose Director Stan Glantz who has an interesting backgroun, starting with engineering, getting into cardiology, and then getting into tobacco research, and sometimes advocacy. CTCRE also hosts that concucopia of misbehavior, the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library. A few of his postdocs accidentally discovered the tobacco indsutry’s partnership with Koch thinktanks in fostering the Tea Party. As a result, certain people tried to knock out his NIH funding (no) and certain folks from thinktanks (that have long gotten tobacco funding) were unhappy, despite being techies with no obvious health policy expertise.

    Does any of this sound familiar?

    If anyone thinks that scientists in general must avoid *any* advocacy, they should retroactively undo 70 years of medical research and resulting advocacy for change by experts, and have let the tobacco folks control policy, which probably would mean many more of them, their kids, and grandkids would have grown up smoking, as in the old days.

  12. 62
    David B. Benson says:

    Eric Swanson @56 — You are largely wrong, but a climatology blog is not the best place to discuss the matter, especially when going off topic on a dedicated thread. I’ll be happy to point out your oversights over on the Brave New Climate Discussion Forum. BNC commenters are willing to rationally consider all the alternatives without prejudice. But as there are a high proportion of engineers commenting there the discussion tends solidly towards the economically deployable.

    Take it there, please.

  13. 63

    Advocating for a particular method of attempting to mitigate climate change through the use of a carbon tax/dividend is not only reasonable, in my opinion, it should be convincingly broadcast to all concerned, and decisions made to develop it to the fullest. Surely, not all that James Hansen has said will stand the test of time (analysis). I doubt than anyone always speaks truth. That we as scientists should be muzzled is equivalent to denying free speech, something we fortunately have, and, therefore, advocacy and science fit well together…just remember to “Believe nothing of the sayings of your masters and priests. Believe only that which you have tested and find reasonable”…Buddha 500 B.C.

  14. 64
    Eric Swanson says:

    Re #60 David B. Benson – Gavin’s talk and the topic of this discussion thread was science and advocacy, which I thought might refer to Jim Hansen’s recent efforts to advocate for particular solutions to address global warming. Thus discussing those solutions might be on topic, IMHO.

    While I have earned 2 engineering degrees, that was decades ago and much has changed. After many years of study, I made an effort to design and build a solar heated house and then found that my design was not as productive as I had originally thought it might be. In that sense, my design is a failure, but that’s how we learn. I had to wait about 20 years to begin building the first due to lack of funds and then did much of the work myself, slowing things even further. Sad to say, it’s unlikely that I will have another chance, (a “Mod 2” design which would incorporate improvements on the original concept), because of lack of motivation, money and time.

    BTW, have you (or anyone else for that matter) actually built and operated a Gen IV nuclear plant? Do you have an engineering background that I should want to enter debate with you on another blog?

  15. 65
    Mark A. York says:

    Merry Christmas to RealClimate. Heat Wave is 99 cents

    In the not-so-distant future, an assassin kills a U.S. presidential candidate seeking to fix a world ravaged by climate change, and Sam Emory uncovers a chain of murders with a megalomaniac industrialist at its core. The newly elected president vows to solve the climate crisis. Can Emory and his friends stop the assassin from striking again?
    HEAT WAVE begins in Chena Hot Springs, Alaska, but the political intrigue and murder spread to Washington, D.C., and into the labyrinth of an Aspen, Colorado energy research facility, where free-marketers manufacture chaos in the electrical grid, and where Emory confronts a terrifying a secret from his past.

  16. 66
    Hank Roberts says:

    Eric, note that BraveNewClimate is among the sites in the right hand sidebar on the RC pages — linked under Other Opinions.

    It’s not a fanboy site, though you’ll find some of that sort of enthusiasm — commenters are commenters. It’s recommended because the hosts make a serious effort to moderate a needed discussion.

    You might also look into physicist John Baez’s Azimuth Project.

    There’s serious discussion needed. Not here.

  17. 67

    “You’ll never get courage as a grassroots movement.”

    Not so sure you’re right this time, Ray. But perhaps time will tell.

  18. 68
    Edward Greisch says:
    “Dr James Hansen Discusses Solutions To Climate Change”
    Dr James Hansen is correct.

    35 richard pauli: Could you explain the math more simply please? The graph at
    shows rapidly escalating funding for GW denial. Will, and when will, the required funding exceed the fossil fuel industry’s ability to fund?

    42 DIOGENES: Some of the messages supposedly from “us” may be from the denialists in disguise. Dr James Hansen is telling you exactly the truth. Other “answers” are time-wasting loops. Some answers are advertising spam that should be “moderated” or deleted. Political correctness figures strongly into some positions. See 58 Hank Roberts

    56 Eric Swanson: 2 corrections:
    1. In the old days, we recycled spent nuclear fuel.
    2. We have tested reactors that can load-follow.
    Please read this Book: “Plentiful Energy, The Story of the Integral Fast Reactor” by Charles E. Till and Yoon Il Chang, 2011
    62 David B. Benson is correct. Please don’t get me to answer you here again.
    64 Eric Swanson: Gen 4 reactors: See Till & Chang first.

  19. 69
    DIOGENES says:

    Edward Greisch #68,
    “42 DIOGENES: Some of the messages supposedly from “us” may be from the denialists in disguise. Dr James Hansen is telling you exactly the truth. Other “answers” are time-wasting loops. Some answers are advertising spam that should be “moderated” or deleted. Political correctness figures strongly into some positions. See 58 Hank Roberts”.

    The point I am making is that there is no single clear and simple message from the climate advocates. A layperson reading any of the climate advocate sites would be completely confused by the diverse often-conflicting messages, even after filtering out the obvious denialists. Unless such a message is developed, the critical mass of climate supporters among the lay population will not be achieved.

    In terms of your comment on ‘advertising’, I would use the word ‘advocacy’ instead. Without knowing where the presenter draws his paycheck(s), or where his investments are placed, we have no way of distinguishing between shilling, advertising, or purely scientific motivations. Name-calling, which is often used on this site, is a non-starter. We need to evaluate each concept on its technical merits.

    Hansen has done highly credible work for decades, and has put his neck on the line for climate protection many times. I take his extensive writings very seriously. In a recently published assessment of climate change (, he states:
    “If we assume only 50 GtC reforestation, and begin emissions reduction in 2013, the required reduction rate becomes about 9%/year.”

    His goal is to keep mean global temperature increase as near to 1 C as possible, a limit to which a number of credible scientists have subscribed. Is that the unified message we should be conveying? If so, how do we get there; we’re not that far away? As Hansen points out in his recent paper, making the cuts required to achieve that target would have been relatively painless if started decades ago; that’s not the situation we face now.

    I have seen your proposals for nuclear; I don’t find nuclear to be a credible option at this time. The time from a gleam in the eye of a proponent for constructing a plant on a given site to actual power on the grid must be well more than a decade, including planning, licensing, and overcoming local opposition. That’s not consistent with the time scale necessary for limiting CO2 buildup in the atmosphere so that the ~1 C target will not be exceeded. We would need about 400 1GWe nuclear plants to replace all the fossil plants in the USA alone. Given there were almost no nuclear plants constructed over the last three decades, and only a handful are expected to go online by the end of the decade, the ramp-up required defies credibility.

    Finally, Hansen makes the following statement about potential methane releases:

    “There is a possibility of rapid methane hydrate or permafrost emissions in response to warming, but that risk is largely unquantified [215]. The time needed to destabilize large methane hydrate deposits in deep sediments is likely millennia [215]. Smaller but still large methane hydrate amounts below shallow waters as in the Arctic Ocean are more vulnerable; the methane may oxidize to CO2 in the water, but it will still add to the long-term burden of CO2 in the carbon cycle. Terrestrial permafrost emissions of CH4 and CO2 likely can occur on a time scale of a few decades to several centuries if global warming continues [215]. These time scales are within the lifetime of anthropogenic CO2, and thus these feedbacks must be considered in estimating the dangerous level of global warming. Because human-made warming is more rapid than natural long-term warmings in the past, there is concern that methane hydrate or peat feedbacks could be more rapid than the feedbacks that exist in the paleoclimate record.”

    In an interview with Nick Breeze in Summer 2012, Natalia Shakhova, one of the world’s hands-on experts on methane release in the Arctic, discusses the potential for rapid methane release ( At about 5:30 into the interview, where she is estimating the large releases might take as short a time as decades, a voice in the background is heard to say “it could happen anytime”, and that message is repeated a few times. That voice belongs to her collaborator, Igor Semiletov, who is perhaps THE world’s hand-on expert on methane release in the Arctic. Why he was not included in the interview is not clear; perhaps people are too uncomfortable with an expert talking bluntly about what is really possible, in the same way they are uncomfortable with McPherson’s predictions.

    [Response: It is not ‘discomfort’, it is disquiet that people insist on points that they are unable to demonstrate to anyone else. Both Semiletov and McPherson are over-confident in their statements and for which they provide no convincing evidence. – gavin]

  20. 70
    Eric Swanson says:

    Re #68 Edward Greisch – I think Dr. Hansen’s climate concerns are valid, but his carbon tax is a bad idea because it isn’t likely to work as intended. And, there was some fuel recycling for 5 years at the West Valley, NY plant, but the later planned operations at the Barnwell Nuclear Fuels Plant were closed in 1983 without ever reprocessing any fuel. If you wish to continue the discussion, we can do so at the old Google “globalchange” news group where I am still a moderator:

  21. 71
    Hank Roberts says:

    DIOGENES says (again) “that there is no single clear and simple message from the climate advocates.”

    Again: hold your lamp up higher, read slowly and carefully:

    Stop burning fossil carbon


    “What!” he said, “A ferocious beast has sucked the blood of my family; I tell you to get rid of that beast, and you ask me, what shall we put in its place!” — Voltaire

  22. 72
    Radge Havers says:

    Advocating ~ Framing

    Is Humanity Nature’s Customer?

    …The core of democracy is based on values, and the shift from “citizen” to “customer” or consumer has, in itself, a large impact on our values. Consumer is what might be called a frame that unconsciously evokes certain values and references, and as cognitive linguist George Lakoff argues, frames we are repeatedly confronted with become our ‘common sense’ and difficult to reason beyond. The creeping dominance of particular frames – such as notion of “customer” – can shift the ideologies of entire populations…

    …Several actors have also warned against using economic frames in communicating nature´s value. George Monbiot exposes the gross new lexicon it has already led to. Resource Media, a US non-profit PR firm, has prepared a needs assessment on ecosystem services messaging as a step toward helping practitioners more effectively convey the value of their work. They state that people: 1. don’t understand the concept ecosystem services and 2. don’t like it, as it is inadequate to convey the core values at stake…

    Ecological conversations and systems thinking

  23. 73
    John Benton says:

    All scientists who become advocates, irrespective of who they are, cannot be trusted to produce unbiased scientific output.

    The temptation to introduce, either intentionally or unintentionally biased influences, is too great. It may be that these influences take the form of simply failing to report negative results in research work, but the suspicion will always exist that their work will be tainted.

    [Response: So according to this theory, the temptation to bias results has nothing to do with what scientists actually think, but only whether they tell someone what they think? Or is it that the only scientists who are pure and objective and without any preferences can do ‘real’ science? Please do tell. (In the meantime, try actually listening to the talk to get a sense of what is being discussed). – gavin]

  24. 74
    Mal Adapted says:

    On the comparison of climate scientists and medical doctors, and their respective roles in society, these words bear frequent repetition (my italics):

    One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.

    Diogenes, think of a smoker who won’t quit smoking, despite increasingly stern and detailed admonitions from his doctor. Consider that although the public debate about the hazards of cigarette smoking has been pretty much over for decades, 1 in 5 Americans continues to smoke cigarettes. Take note of the economic and political forces that “protect smokers’ rights”. Now tell us, what should a conscientious doctor do in the face of smokers’ facilitated denial?

    Then tell us, what should a climate scientists do that the doctor hasn’t done?

  25. 75
    nigelmj says:

    Im all for scientist’s advocating the science, however I think scientists should avoid debates, or politics, or too much comment on how to reduce CO2, unless they have some expertise, or they open themselves up to attack. Stay with the science, climate myths and maybe their personal stories.

  26. 76
    DIOGENES says:

    Gavin #69,

    [Response: It is not ‘discomfort’, it is disquiet that people insist on points that they are unable to demonstrate to anyone else. Both Semiletov and McPherson are over-confident in their statements and for which they provide no convincing evidence. – gavin]

    ‘Convincing’ is a very subjective term; what it takes to convince you will be different from what it takes to convince me, and what it takes to convince both of us will be very different from what it takes to convince Judith Curry. I give high weighting to the predictions of hands-on experts like Wadhams and Semiletov, who have been going to the Arctic for decades and making myriad measurements. They have gathered much valuable information over time, and they have integrated their observations and measurements to present us with a bottom line. It may be an uncomfortable bottom line to many, but, in my view, it has high merit.

    McPherson is another story. His past statements reflect emphasis on the worst cases, and his writings tend to mix speculation with ‘hard’ fact. I don’t just accept his bottom line, and I certainly don’t accept third-party interpretation of his bottom line. In his outstanding Summary and Update, he presents many references. I have read most of them, and discard what I believe is the fringe and much speculation. What remains is more than enough to make his case, and he would do well to eliminate these weak written and quoted references from his site; they only provide ammunition for those whose intent is to obfuscate and belittle his message. That doesn’t mean I accept his conclusion of the inevitability of near-term extinction. He cannot prove that and, frankly, neither I nor anyone else can disprove that. There are too many unknown events that can happen with increasing temperature to make a definitive statement either way; my Semiletov quote from Natalia’s interview is only one of many of these unknown events.

    In reality, Hansen, Anderson, McPherson et al are not saying anything all that different. Their main message is that when we start going above 1 C increase, and especially near 2 C increase, many existing phenomena can accelerate and new phenomena can kick in to drive us into a dangerous region of climate instability. McPherson and Anderson believe we are locked in already to at least 2 C; I suspect down deep Hansen believes it as well. Given the recent election of the Abbott government in Australia and their dismantling of any remaining constraints on fossil fuel exploitation, the similar actions of the Harper government in Canada, and the rapidly becoming similar actions of our own government, we are probably locked in to more than 2 C for all practical purposes. McPherson is just converting these observations to print more bluntly than the others.

    Hank Roberts #71,

    ” Again: hold your lamp up higher, read slowly and carefully: Stop burning fossil carbon”.

    Cute, but incorrect. First of all, that’s not what the advocates are saying. They are saying ‘reduce fossil fuel use’. The annual reduction amounts are different, the time frames are different, the temperature ceiling limits that govern the reductions required are different, and, most of all, the packages they add on to this statement are very different. There are myriad weighted combinations of demand reduction, renewables acceleration, energy efficiency improvements acceleration, nuclear development acceleration et al being proposed, and these are very different animals. Again, until we have a clear, simple, and unified message to present to the ‘unconvinced’, we will not make progress in assembling the ‘critical mass’ required.

  27. 77
    DIOGENES says:

    Mal Adapted #74,

    “On the comparison of climate scientists and medical doctors, and their respective roles in society, these words bear frequent repetition…..
    Diogenes, think of a smoker who won’t quit smoking, despite increasingly stern and detailed admonitions from his doctor. Consider that although the public debate about the hazards of cigarette smoking has been pretty much over for decades, 1 in 5 Americans continues to smoke cigarettes. Take note of the economic and political forces that “protect smokers’ rights”. Now tell us, what should a conscientious doctor do in the face of smokers’ facilitated denial?

    Then tell us, what should a climate scientists do that the doctor hasn’t done?”

    It’s not clear to me why you are raising this question with me, since I have not compared climate scientists and medical doctors. However, it is an interesting question, and I will respond.

    First of all, you are comparing apples and oranges. The medical doctor in the situation is a clinician, whereas the climate scientist is probably a researcher (at least the ones discussed on this site; climate clinicians (weathermen???) are not often discussed). Their responsibilities are different.

    If I were a medical doctor and the patient you describe had full control of his faculties, I would take it as my responsibility to provide full disclosure of his illness, his prognosis, and the various treatment options available, and do what I could to help him decide on, and execute, his options. If he refused to follow my advice, I would tell him he is free to choose his path, and here’s what he can expect. If he wants to kill himself, that’s his right, as long as he doesn’t take along others with him who want to live.

    Now, if I were a medical researcher working on this problem, I would present my results as fully and as detailed as possible. If all the links between smoking and serious illness could not be made definitively, but my years of experience convinced me that the links probably did exist, then I would take it as my responsibility to present the case for probable linkages in more public forums. I believe ethical scientists cannot ‘hide’ behind only what can be proven with high certainty. If the problem is sufficiently serious, they need to do what McPherson, Semiletov, Anderson, and others of that ilk are doing; lay out what appears probable but not yet certain or fully supported by the evidence.

    So, to answer your final question, the ethical climate scientist should do what the ethical medical researcher should do, as I describe above. With climate, those unwilling to follow the advice of experts choose their own demise, but take many innocents with them. In either the medical or climate case, the practitioners have the responsibility of doing what they can to prevent the innocent from dying.

    BTW, McPherson does actually raise this very issue. I can’t locate it right now, but he makes the statement in one (or more) of his documents that a medical doctor who did not reveal the full extent of a patient’s illness and prognosis could be sued for malpractice (I have no idea whether or not that’s true). He then goes on to state that Hansen and McKibben should also be sued for malpractice (or words to that effect) since they know the climate predicament we are in but do not tell their readership about the coming extinction. Supposedly, the video on this link contains that statement in a speech of his (

  28. 78
    Ray Ladbury says:

    John Benton: “All scientists who become advocates, irrespective of who they are, cannot be trusted to produce unbiased scientific output.”

    Because we couldn’t depend on things like, oh, I don’t know, curiosity about the subject matter to which one has devoted one’s life…or maybe the esteem of one’s peers or the progress in one’s career. Or even maybe the self-respect and honesty that are essential to the pursuit of science. Nah! None of those things could work! Any scientist that has any sort of opinion or draws a dime of salary from anyone can’t be trusted. Much better to leave the debate to utter imbeciles, right, John?

  29. 79
    Jon Kirwan says:

    I finally listened to the entire featured talk for this thread. (Of course, earlier would have been better. But it was an hour. So it waited until now.)

    I must admit I would have loved to have seen more discussion about truly difficult quandaries, with serious wrestling and perhaps no actual results in the end. I would rather listen to the way various scientists think about these issues, than to know their conclusions (or Gavin’s.) It’s the way my betters think, not so much what they conclude, that teaches me more.

    I need to go find Schneider’s talks (those excerpted in Gavin’s lecture), because I think I perceived more wrestling about things and would very much like to find out if that’s so and if so, how so. If anyone knows the links, I’d appreciate them very much.

    At the end of the featured lecture by Gavin there was a questioner asking about the possibility of a geoengineering feature article here. At this time, I am probably more worried about what politicians and business will do, if scientists open this door to them and lend the topic any of their good reputations. The result will probably look nothing like it should. But I’d also very much like to listen to such a discussion here because I think I’d learn a great deal more and also expand the scope and range of my thinking on this topic.

    Has it been decided? Yes? Or no? Or is the question still in discussion?

  30. 80

    So what has been really achieved by this kind of advocacy? A lot, but not enough. As far as I know only one scientist wrote a simple letter to a president and start a Manhattan project. I suggest more writing and especially discussion like Michael E. Mann did right after Hainan:

    “Although exact measurements are hard to come by (there were no flights in the Western Pacific to provide direct measurements) satellite images along with readings of ocean heat seem to suggest that Haiyan was an unnaturally powerful storm. The science is hinting that this storm may not have been so catastrophic in a world without warming.

    The unusually deep, unusually warm pool of water that provided the initial fuel is unlikely to have existed in a world without warming. ”

    Mike is part of Real Climate group, yet not even Real Climate covered Hainan aftermath and its implications. Especially details on that pool of water, but in true scientific objective fashion, RC covered terse science subjects, nevertheless all important and interesting:

    After Hainan Titles like :

    “Simple Physics and climate” , “Global warming Since 1997 Underestimated by Half”, “Sea-level rise: What the experts expect”

    etc. but nothing about Hainan exactly when the world wants to learn about it. Similar case I believe with Hurricane Sandy, these two have a strong possibility of a connection with AGW. Yet Dr Gavin superb climate scientist and co. chose not to engage even a forum on them. Popular topics and debates amongst the community draws more interests for the public to stir their reasoning, at least start their own discussions about AGW “steroid effect” . Advocacy fails when even the grandest climate disasters are ignored in real time. Timing is everything, and so Einstein wrote to FDR before WW2, an apt time. While we wait for the larger population to be interested in the study of climate change, mission impossible given the scarcity of interest, which only peaks when something big happens. I always thought that these mega mind blowing events would trigger greater discussion amongst the best in academia , even if no peer reviewed papers can be published in a few days, at least having the best and brightest discuss implications, facts , the science basics at the right time would be efficient advocacy instead of a journal press conference 2 or 3 years later. I always thought big events would be tragic and disastrous, but at least the truer end result of our inactions, far better than false paid publicity on the virtues of carbon pollution. However, if there is no one explaining the possible link especially when there is a huge audience, an audience with all seats taken, but no one on the stage, then these disasters will be simply a terrible news event without rhyme or reason, an act of nature. Who can blame the unspecialized audience eager to learn when the professor is absent.

  31. 81
    Eric Swanson says:

    Re #68 Edward Greisch – Till & Chang (Plentiful Energy) is available on line and I read the first chapter, which is a summary of the efforts by the Argonne National Lab to develop the IFR. I found it quite interesting until I got to the section where they blamed the demise of the US nuclear power industry on anti-nuclear protesters. Having been part of that effort, I see things rather differently.

    Before the Arab/OPEC embargo, the US electric power demand was growing at a fast pace, about 7% a year. The thinking by industry was that this rate of growth would continue, which implied a doubling in demand every 10 years. To meet the demand would require that an entire new generating system would need to be built within 10 years and that larger generating capacity would need to be added the next 10. There were claims in 1974 that the US would be a need to build some 1,000 power plants by the year 2000 and thus the utilities had placed orders for many new plants.

    After 1974, energy prices climbed steeply and the public began to conserve. Nuclear power plants were the most capital intensive plants and the long lead times to construct them meant that funding had to be obtained many years before they produced any electricity. Suddenly, as the rate of demand growth fell and as “stagflation” pushed up the cost of new generating capacity, many of those orders for power plants were canceled. The second oil supply shock after the Iranian Revolution only added to the problems. Typical of the resulting economic reality was the bankruptcy of the Washington Public Power company, which had previously provided low cost generation from hydropower but then found generating costs skyrocketing as demand slipped.

    There’s an even more glaring omission in the first chapter as the authors make no mention of the Three Mile Island meltdown. TMI resulted in 20 tons of damaged fuel in the bottom of the reactor core, a fact little known by the public given the 8 years needed to dig down to the bottom and remove the fuel rods. After TMI and then Chernobyl, the public began to understand the potential dangers of the older nuke designs and the disaster at Fukushima repeated that message loud and clear. Whether the cost advantages, improvements in safety and low emissions claimed for the IFR designs can overcome the public’s concerns remains to be seen.

  32. 82
    flxible says:

    For Jon Kirwan, start here

  33. 83
    prokaryotes says:

    wayne davidson #80 Advocacy fails when even the grandest climate disasters are ignored in real time.

    A page summary with general findings would be helpful for media people and interested readers. Later when more data is in you can start comparing events and this could be the message together with the general findings. Since the media 99% of the times does not mention climate change when covering weather, you can point out that weather is dependent on the climate and in part all weather events can be attributed to the climate.

  34. 84
    doug says:

    Thirty years from now when climate changes are more apparent, very few who look back in time will think scientists should have kept quiet.

    Very few.

  35. 85
    Dave123 says:

    As I follow this conversation, the conversation is strictly among academic scientists- but please correct me if I’m overstating the case. I certainly haven’t seen a statement like I’m going to make below:

    In an industrial environment I can have a number of responsibilities- from something that looks like pure research to safety, reliability, profitability etc.

    There is no question in my world that I have a responsibility to both warn of hazards, recommend actions, seize opportunities and sometimes push the “scram” button, or blow the whistle to the appropriate authorities. I have no shield or shelter of “it’s not my job” or ” I shouldn’t be an advocate”. I have a responsibility to the shareholders of the company to protect and maximize their investment and to the law to act or blow the whistle to keep my employer operating legally. I am not protected by rank or assigned responsibilities: I’ve also had two colleagues serve jail time for failing to report and act on an antitrust situation imposed on our company by our customer (not quite the way you normally think of a price fixing scheme, but what was amazing to me, knowing how the company operated was that the people in charge of the parent company, who I know damn well knew what was going on (after I left the company), never had a glove laid on them.

    But I digressed.

    No one cared about me compromising my scientific neutrality…. the moment I signed the employment contract I was a whore like everyone else (and that may be falsely demeaning to people who sell sex). But I couldn’t hide behind “I’m just a dumb test-tube jockey” either. Even without stock options I had a responsibility to the bottom line.

    I suspect inside Shell, Exxon etc., they’ve been hearing messages loud and clear all the way up about what the science says. From the people I know at those companies, they’ve made a personal moral judgement about their situation that I can’t be too critical of because I don’t see any absolutely right answers.

    So having thrown an industrial perspective on the table (I think) where does this fit in with Gavin’s talk and Steve Schneider’s perspective?

    So with that bit of rambling down- I wonder whether this is useful for others to build on or react to.

    [Response: Indeed, that is a different perspective. I guess the main difference is that academic scientists don’t have contractual obligations of these sorts, instead they have vaguer and more ill-defined responsibilities to ‘society’. Some of these are clear (don’t spend grant money on a ferrari, don’t make stuff up or indulge in other scientific misconduct, don’t abuse graduate students, turn up for class etc.) but the rest (what is your responsibility to share learning? what role should you play in decision-making at your institution or more widely? what is your expertise *for*?) are not agreed upon – and so personal judgements play a larger role. It’s worth thinking about this a little more though…. – gavin]

  36. 86

    correct Prokaryotes, throwing everything pertinent in the mix. Filipinos are no strangers to typhoons, this one had unbelievable winds, probably the most ever in history, those who witnessed this, hard core typhoon survivors, seemed shocked. There is a perspective to make with past antecedents, Mike wrote out the headlines of the science story, but the details are crucial as well.

  37. 87
    Miguelito says:

    To me, advocacy by scientists is fine as long as climate scientists stay within their field of expertise and don’t start advocating for things they have no background in.

    That means:

    1) Yes, give warnings, that accumulating GHGs in the atmosphere is a very bad thing.

    2) Keep drawing the links between extreme weather events and how the likelihood is likely increasing thanks to warming.

    3) Publicly criticize the deniers, going after their credibility and ignorance.

    4) Provide warnings about potential pathways to emission reductions. Specifically, you’d look at forecasts of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere under various scenarios and say what the risks are.

    5) You’d stay away from things like mechanisms to reduce GHG emissions other than what I’ve suggested in #3. That means keeping out of the nuclear, renewables, natural gas “bridge fuel”, and carbon-capture and storage debate. These are largely economic/engineering issues and already have many scientists, economists, and engineers looking at them and can provide their own issue advocacy.

    One of the most annoying things is when a respected voice makes an argument about something they’re not knowledgeable of and it creates a major misunderstanding in the general public. It can hinder good, practical solutions for years and take quite a lot of effort to dispel, often distracting those who are trying to help solve the problem.

  38. 88
    wili says:

    Miguelito, interesting distinction. I agree that when, for example, James Hansen starts advocating for a particular kind of nuclear power plant that is certainly getting beyond his central area of expertise. But scientists are also citizens, and all citizens should have a voice in this discussion.

    Perhaps scientists can wear a ‘science hat’ when discussing things in their central area of expertise, then switch to their ‘concerned citizen’s hat’ when straying into other areas of policy?

    On ‘economists’ in your point #5, though:

    Much of economics is, as Herman Daly (former chief economist for the World Bank) put it, ‘an ideology parading as a discipline.’ Assumptions that eternal economic growth on a finite planet is possible, necessary, and wonderful are among the many that make people who have a broader perspective put much faith that many people from that ‘discipline’ will ever have much of value to contribute to the discussion.

    We really need lots of ‘outside the box’ thinking in this area, and it doesn’t mostly seem likely to be coming from folks deep inside the discipline.

  39. 89
    Hank Roberts says:

    > industrial perspective

    I’d really like to see more on that. We know how it’s done from the tobacco disclosures:

    I recall reading at RC that the petroleum industry uses climate models to figure out where to look for likely prospects, since the continents have moved around over time and sites where oil formed moved along with them.

  40. 90
    Dave123 says:

    hank- I don’t know about climate models for oil prospecting.

    but so far as the tobacco lawyers and scientists in the tobacco companies go, that’s the other side of the coin of being a whore. Being in industry creates a bias to keep your job, to go with the flow, not to make waves. But when a tobacco scientist knew that their work was being hidden, they took an advocacy position by not acting….and IRRC some did speak up.

    I hope I wasn’t creating any impression of any moral weighting here- just trying to point out how my life differs from the academe. Industrial scientists don’t have true freedom of speech….which is one of the reasons I don’t use my name on these kinds of posts.

  41. 91
    Miguelito says:


    “Much of economics is, as Herman Daly (former chief economist for the World Bank) put it, ‘an ideology parading as a discipline.’ Assumptions that eternal economic growth on a finite planet is possible, necessary, and wonderful are among the many that make people who have a broader perspective put much faith that many people from that ‘discipline’ will ever have much of value to contribute to the discussion.”

    This kind of statement is why it’s inappropriate that people with little knowledge of a topic don’t speak about it, because it can poison the debate. Instantly, you’ve denigrated an entire field as useless.

    But economists are essential to this because they’ll help advise on the most cost-effective solutions regardless of whether the economy is growing or shrinking.

    And just because you don’t know of any deep thinking in the field doesn’t mean there isn’t any. There are many, many economists working on the problem of climate change.

  42. 92
    Hank Roberts says:

    > economics
    The sidebar link for RealClimateEconomics now redirects to a related site, Economics for Equity and Environment; that page mentions RealClimateEconomics as a “sister site” but doesn’t seem to have a working link to it. It also has a Climate tab.

    The E3 Network is awarding grants to economists to apply an analytical framework to case studies of future economy innovations – emerging models of sustainable enterprise at the level of the firm, cluster, industry, community.

    Where did the climate economists go? Pointer please.

    (Also, alas, Head in a Cloud is still a dead link.)

  43. 93
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Miguelito, Uh, so the former chief economist for the World Bank doesn’t have an understanding of economics? If not, who does?

  44. 94
    OnceJolly says:

    Herman Daly was never the Chief Economist of the World Bank; he served as a Senior Economist in the Environment Department of said institution.

  45. 95
    Hank Roberts says:

    for Miguelito — and on topic.
    A physicist’s blog on constraints to economic growth:

  46. 96
    Dave123 says:

    Miguelito- I agree in principle with not disparaging whole disciplines….after all it’s done to climate science on a routine basis. Bricks, glass houses- that sort of thing. However, I’m also skeptical about economics as a predictive or advisory discipline simply because you have Krugman here, The Austrians there, and countless other stuff that is simply more story telling than a quantitative scientific discipline.

    On the other hand I’m a huge fan of behavioral Economist/psychologist Kahneman, and the work he did with Tversky demonstrating the limits of human rationality.

    I suspect for all the number crunching going on, a workable solution may have a number of very human, irrational elements to it in order to form a consensus…

    as a technologist highly engaged in the development of new technologies across a number of disciplines, I have to say that the ‘past is prologue’ and ‘we can reliably forecast a richer, smarter society 50 years from now, so we can push our mess off onto to them’ as being foundationless feelgood stories. I see them and my reaction is “Oh, another con-job from another marketing department…and you know what’s crazy, some of them actually believe it”.

  47. 97
    wili says:

    Thanks, Ray; you beat me to it. Really, I should have prefixed “neo-classical” to economics in the above post.

    Try not to be so touchy, Miguelito. I know there are a number of economists (Herman Daly among them) who _get it_ at some relatively deep level. But as far as I’ve seen, most economists are still in the mind set of endless growth.

    And note that I said “much of economics,” not “all.”

    To make this a more productive rather than a reactive discussion, could you steer us toward the works of some economists that you think are on the right path?

  48. 98
    Miguelito says:

    Thanks OnceJolly for pointing out Herman Daly was never Chief Economist of the World Bank, but only a Senior Economist of one of its divisions.

    Plus, as we all know from climate science, one climate scientist’s view on AGW (e.g. Lindzen or Spencer) must be representative of ALL climate scientists.

    I’m not going to argue about economics, because I’m not an economist. I’m just warning that there are serious pitfalls awaiting climate policy if you ignore those who have the best understanding of what economic repercussions of various emissions-reduction pathways might be.

  49. 99
    Hank Roberts says:

    Thanks OnceJolly for the pointer to the Wikipedia article on Daly.
    His publications linked there include
    Herman E Daly – A Steady-State Economy
    Date: 23/07/2008
    Classification: Economics
    Document type: SDC Reports & Papers
    Download: Herman_Daly_thinkpiece.pdf – 135 KB
    Summary: the fifth opinion piece for the Redefining Prosperity, third seminar “Confronting Structure – achieving economic sustainability”

    and to mention of him in this book:

    So — if we assume Economics is a science, then we have the example of a science that does advocate for policy choices — routinely, prominently, and as a normal part of their work.

    If we don’t assume Economics is a science, nevertheless, they advocate.

  50. 100
    Hank Roberts says:

    And a brief quote from the first page of the Daly thinkpiece linked above:

    … The most important change in recent times has been the enormous growth of one subsystem of the Earth, namely the economy, relative to the total system, the ecosphere. This huge shift from an “empty” to a “full” world is truly “something new under the sun” as historian J. R. McNeil calls it in his book of that title.

    The closer the economy approaches the scale of the whole Earth the more it will have to conform to the physical behavior mode of the Earth. That behavior mode is a steady state—a system that permits qualitative development but not aggregate quantitative growth.

    Growth is more of the same stuff; development is the same amount of better stuff (or at least different stuff).

    The remaining natural world no longer is able to provide the sources and sinks for the metabolic throughput necessary to sustain the existing oversized economy—much less a growing one.

    Economists have focused too much on the economy’s circulatory system and have neglected to study its digestive tract.

    (emphasis and extra breaks added for online readability — hr)