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):
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Last year I discussed the basis of the AR4 attribution statement:
Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.
In the new AR5 SPM (pdf), there is an analogous statement:
It is extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together. The best estimate of the human-induced contribution to warming is similar to the observed warming over this period.
This includes differences in the likelihood statement, drivers and a new statement on the most likely amount of anthropogenic warming.
As part of the IPCC WG1 SPM(pdf) released last Friday, there was a subtle, but important, change in one of the key figures – the radiative forcing bar-chart (Fig. SPM.4). The concept for this figure has been a mainstay of summaries of climate change science for decades, and the evolution over time is a good example of how thinking and understanding has progressed over the years while the big picture has not shifted much.
The Radiative-Forcing bar chart: AR5 version
It is a truism that all models are wrong. Just as no map can capture the real landscape and no portrait the true self, numerical models by necessity have to contain approximations to the complexity of the real world and so can never be perfect replications of reality. Similarly, any specific observations are only partial reflections of what is actually happening and have multiple sources of error. It is therefore to be expected that there will be discrepancies between models and observations. However, why these arise and what one should conclude from them are interesting and more subtle than most people realise. Indeed, such discrepancies are the classic way we learn something new – and it often isn’t what people first thought of.