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A new survey of scientists

Filed under: — gavin @ 29 September 2008 - (Deutsch)

Dennis Bray and Hans von Storch have been making surveys of climate scientists for a number of years with the reasonable aim of seeing what the community thinks (about IPCC, climate change, attribution etc). They have unfortunately not always been as successful as one might like – problems have ranged from deciding who is qualified to respond; questions that were not specific enough or that could be interpreted in very different ways; to losing control of who answered the questionnaire (one time the password and website were broadcast on a mailing list of climate ‘sceptics’). These problems have meant that the results were less useful than they could have been and in fact have occasionally been used to spread disinformation. How these surveys are used obviously plays into how willing scientists are to participate, since if your answers are misinterpreted once, you will be less keen next time. Others have attempted similar surveys, with similar problems.

As people should know, designing truly objective surveys is very tricky. However, if you are after a specific response, it’s easy to craft questions that will favour your initial bias. We discussed an egregious example of that from Steven Milloy a while ago. A bigger problem is not overt bias, but more subtle kinds – such as assuming that respondents have exactly the same background as the questioners and know exactly what you are talking about, or simply using questions that don’t actually tell you want you really want to know. There are guides available to help in crafting such surveys which outline many of the inadvertent pitfalls.

Well, Bray and von Storch have sent out a new survey.

The questions can be seen here (pdf) (but no answers, so you can’t cheat!), and according to Wikipedia, the survey respondents are controlled so that each anonymised invite can only generate one response. Hopefully therefore, the sampling will not be corrupted as in past years (response rates might still be a problem though). However, the reason why we are writing this post is to comment on the usefulness of the questions. Unfortunately, our opinion won’t change anything (since the survey has already gone out), but maybe it will help improve the interpretations, and any subsequent survey.

There are too many questions in this survey to go over each one in detail, and so we’ll just discuss a few specific examples (perhaps the comments can address some of the others). The series of questions Q15 through Q17, typify a key issue – precision. Q15 asks whether the “current state of scientific knowledge is developed well enough to allow for a reasonable assessment of the effects of turbulence, surface albedo, etc..”. But the subtext “well enough for what?” is not specified. Global energy balance? regional weather forecasting? Climate sensitivity? Ocean circulation? Thus any respondent needs to form their own judgment about what the question is referring to. For instance, turbulence is clearly a huge scientific challenge, but how important is it in determining climate sensitivity? or radiative transfer? Not very. But for ocean heat transports, it might very well be key. By aggregating multiple questions in one and not providing enough other questions to determine what the respondent means exactly, the answers to these questions will be worth little.

The notion of ‘temperature observations’ used in Q16 and Q17 is similarly undefined. Do they mean the global average temperature change over the 20th Century, or the climatology of temperature at a regional or local scale? Or it’s variability? You might think the first is most relevant, but the question is also asked about ‘precipitation observations’ for which a century-scale global trend simply doesn’t exist. Therefore it must be one of the other options. But which one? Asking about what the ability of models is for modelling the next 10 years is similarly undefined, and in fact unanswerable (since we don’t know how well they will do). Implicit is an assumption that models are producing predictions (which they aren’t – though at least that is vaguely addressed in questions 45 and 46). What ‘extreme events’ are being referred to in the last part? Tornadoes? (skill level zero), heat waves (higher), drought (lower), Atlantic hurricanes (uncertain). By being imprecise the likely conclusion that respondents feel that global climate models lack the ability to model extreme events is again meaningless.

Q52 is a classic example of a leading question. “Some scientists present extreme accounts of catastrophic impacts related to climate change in a popular format with the claim that it is their task to alert the public. How much do you agree with this practice?” There is obviously only one sensible answer (not at all). However, the question neither defines what the questioners mean by ‘extreme’ or ‘catastrophic’, or who those ‘scientists’ might be or where they have justified such practices. The conclusion will be that the survey shows that most scientists do not approve of presenting extreme accounts of catastrophic impacts in popular formats with the aim of alerting the public. Surprise! A much more nuanced question could have been asked if actual examples were used. That would have likely found that what is considered ‘extreme’ varies widely and that there is plenty of support for public discussions of potential catastrophes (rapid sea level rise for instance) and the associated uncertainties. The implication of this question will be that no popular summaries can do justice to the uncertainties inherent in the science of abrupt change. Yet this is not likely to have been the answer had that question been directly addressed. Instead, a much more nuanced (and interesting) picture would have emerged.

Two questions of some relevance to us are Q61 and Q62, which ask whether making discussions of climate science open to potentially everyone through the use of “blogs on the w.w.w.” is a good or bad idea, and whether the level of discussion on these blogs is any good. These questions are unfortunately very poorly posed. Who thinks that anyone has any control over what gets discussed on blogs in general? The issue is not whether that discussion should take place (it surely will), it is whether scientists should participate or not. If all blogs are considered, then obviously the quality on average is abysmal (sorry blogosphere!). If the goal of the question was to be able to say that the level of discussion on specific blogs is good or not, then specific questions should have been asked (for instance a list of prominent blogs could have been rated). As it is, the conclusion will be that discussion of climate science on blogs on the w.w.w. is a good idea but the discussion is thought to be poor. But that is hardly news.

One set of questions (Q68+Q69) obviously come from a social rather than a climate scientist: Q68 asks whether science has as its main activity to falsify or verify existing hypothesis or something else; and Q69 whether the role of science tends towards the deligitimization or the legitimization of existing ‘facts’ or something else. What is one to make of them? There are shades of Karl Popper and social constructivism in there, but we’d be very surprised if any working scientist answered anything other than ‘other’. Science and scientists generally want to find out things that people didn’t know before – which mostly means choosing between hypotheses and both examining old ‘facts’ as well as creating new ones. Even the idea that one fact is more legitimate than another is odd. If a ‘fact’ isn’t legitimate, then why is it a fact at all? Presumably this is all made clear in some science studies text book (though nothing comes up in google), but our guess is that most working scientists will have no idea what is really behind this. You would probably want to have a whole survey just devoted to how scientists think about what they do to get anything useful from this.

To summarise, we aren’t in principle opposed to asking scientists what they think, but given the track history of problems with these kinds of surveys (and their remaining flaws), we do suggest that they be done better in future. In particular, we strongly recommend that in setting up future surveys, the questions should be openly and widely discussed – on a wiki or a blog – before the surveys are sent out. There are a huge number of sensible people out there whose expertise could help in crafting the questions to improve both their precision and usefulness.

112 Responses to “A new survey of scientists”

  1. 1
    rpauli says:

    Wonderful project!

    Isn’t it amazing how climate science must reach out to other disciplines. You describe some fundamentals of communications research. Professional pollsters really can be helpful here. And you will quickly note that even poll organizations can be biased in obvious ways. We don’t need to be reminded that polling scientists will only let us know their opinions, it does not validate or dismiss the science.

    Hearing that gubernator Arnold Schwarzenegger is planning a Climate change Summit in November. It might be nice to give him some results prior to that event.

    I think he deserves to wear a cape for this role.

  2. 2
    brianm says:

    If the same questions are repeated over the years, trends and changes can be of interest, even if the questions are flawed.

  3. 3
    Earl Killian says:

    Please consider writing up something on because it raises the question of how we survive the heating that results from a transition away from coal.

  4. 4
    Hugh says:

    There are a huge number of sensible people out there whose expertise could help in crafting the questions to improve both their precision and usefulness.

    And there was me thinking that all you ‘hard’ scientists had no time for us ‘softie socials’


    ps. Citing Popper, I would suggest, surely counts more as philosophy than sociology?

  5. 5
    Dill Weed says:

    One would think the creators of this survey would be aware of the dangers of ambiguous questions in a survey.

    I suppose part of the difficulty comes from trying to address professionals in very different specialties.

    A survey targeting scientists by specialty asking them to weight their agreement with interpretations of data with respect to AGW hypotheses could identify areas of uncertainty and flesh out areas of consensus. A well constructed suryvey could be very revealing otherwise it may well end up being a tool for deniers.

    Dill Weed

  6. 6
    Stephen Missal says:

    It is interesting to note that there is a recall effort to get rid of Schwarzenegger by the right-wing in California. This is a nation-wide phenomenon. The attempt to shut down debate and action appears to be agenda-driven, sadly. Worse, the flimsiness and vagueness of the survey, combined with its flawed set of recipients, makes it a poor instrument by which to make any conclusions about scientists’ opinions. It thus plays into the hands of those who consistently cherry-pick data and surveys like this to bolster their own otherwise poorly supported case. Notwithstanding that people are certainly free to interpret these things as they wish, it is incumbent upon active climate scientists and their peers in related disciplines to rebut bad reasoning and it is also incumbent that surveys of scientists be constructed in a much more robust and specific format. The longer we delay action by dithering back and forth on these matters, the worse the outcome for all of us, advocates and denialists alike.

  7. 7
    Richard Sycamore says:

    If you don’t like their survey, why not try running your own? Design one for the recognized authorities, and a smaller one for regular commenters here.

  8. 8
    Raven says:

    I would argue that such surveys are pointless because no single scientist is qualified to comment on all topics. For example, a biologist might be certain that the climate is warming because of evidence in the eco-systems studied by that biologist but that same biologist is not qualified to comment on why the climate is warming.

    Similarily, an aerospace engineer with experience in numerical modelling would be qualified on comment on whether the climate models are likely to provide useful information but could not reasonably comment about the accuracy of paleoclimate studies.

    Of course, this is a moot point because these surveys are simply propoganda tools and whoever sets the criteria for who is “qualified” to respond will choose the criteria that will produced the outcome desired.

  9. 9
    Walt Bennett says:

    Some of the questions seem quite pertinent to my recent postings, particularly 9 thru 19. It would be very, very interesting to know the responses to these questions, especially from those who work in a climate science discipline as their occupation.

    I hope, when the results are published, the answers are categorized in such a way that we can weigh the responses against the background of the respondents.

    Some of these answers may prove quite useful, if done correctly.

  10. 10
    Manny says:

    Why is climate science the only branch of science that polls its members?

    [Response: Why do you get that idea? Dentists, doctors and, I assume, micro-biologists are always being polled on their opinions about smoking, fluoride, stem-cell research and the like. – gavin]

  11. 11
    Richard Sycamore says:

    So have the respondent identify their areas of primary, secondary, tertiary expertise and weight their responses accordingly. Or better perhaps: beside each question have them rate their degree of confidence in their response.

  12. 12
    Marcos Mattis says:

    I wonder how usefull a survey of the public would be? Would the out come of either the survey of scientist or the public be useful in shaping the policy related to taking action on climate change? Would it make government more inclined to take action as they seem very reluctant just now?


  13. 13
    Tony Loman says:

    I agree with Richard Sycamore and with the two separate surveys idea. Who better than the RealClimate people to construct these? And here are some suggestions from someone that does this kind of work regularly: The survey should be shortened, to increase the response rate. In my opinion, that would include eliminating many of the questions (45ff) concerning communication (some of which are leading, as you note). It would be interesting to see if there is a range of opinions among climate scientists on many of these questions, but beyond saying that climate scientists agree or disagree about this issue, what else do you do with those answers? I believe the survey would better reflect the actual state of knowledge of climate scientists (question 9-44) if separate “Unsure” and perhaps other similar responses (like “Cannot be known currently”) were added to the response rating categories. Otherwise, people who do not know or who feel that something cannot be known tend to fall in the middle (4) on the 7-point scale items. Or they leave the questions blank and you have no idea why. I would volunteer my time to help construct such a survey if wanted.

  14. 14
    Walt Bennett says:

    Over at Climate Science (, Dr. Pielke, Sr. is commenting on

    “How Natural and Anthropogenic Influences Alter Global and Regional Surface Temperatures: 1889 to 2006″ by Lean and Rind, 2008

    from which he quotes:

    ”Contrary to recent assessments based on theoretical models [IPCC, 2007] the anthropogenic warming estimated directly from the historical observations is more pronounced between 45°S and 50°N than at higher latitudes…”

    “Climate models may therefore lack – or incorrectly parameterize – fundamental processes by which surface temperatures respond to radiative forcings.”

  15. 15
    Ike Solem says:

    The multiple choice format is not the way to go.

    If these are the world’s leading climate experts, the least they can do is give answers in the short paragraph format.

    Just to go over it again, there are three general areas of climate expertise: paleoclimate, climate modeling and real-time data collection.

    These areas span the academic separation of Earth sciences: land, air, biosphere and water, or as divided up traditionally into geology, oceanography, ecology and meteorology.

    Each of these areas is influenced by the even more traditional disciplines of mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology, to greater or lesser extents.

    More recently, it has also become clear that the study of the “natural system” must incorporate the effects of human activities, i.e. inputs and outputs and land mass use – so human economic-industrial activity now must be included as part of the “natural system.”

    Specific problems in climate involve all of these issues. One way to organize things more neatly is to look at things in terms of elemental and molecular cycles: the atmospheric circulation, the ocean circulation, the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the water cycle, the sediment cycle, the ocean-crust-recycling cycle and so on.

    This kind of scientific organization requires a good deal of interdisciplinary knowledge, but also allows for division of labor and specialization.

    Take a specific problem like ocean anoxia. A warming ocean could be a more stagnant ocean with less circulation, due to physical and chemical issues. Add a lot of nitrogen (via human industry and agriculture) and the oxygen is depleted even more, thanks to biological activity. There you have physical forcing, aqueous chemistry, agricultural economics, and the biological nitrogen cycle all interacting, and the result is increasingly anoxic ocean conditions, which are sure to have other negative repercussions.

    Given these levels of complexity, it’s better to conduct literature surveys and see what scientists have actually been saying in print. That’s what the IPCC was intended to do – conduct a comprehensive survey of climate scientists and get a written report from them.

    The most succinct summation of that synthesis survey, from the last two pages of the report: “6: Robust Findings and Key Uncertainties”

    It would be far more interesting to get climate scientists to comment on whether they agree or disagree with each of those points, and why.

  16. 16
    Hank Roberts says:

    > polling

    Nature Nanotechnology 2, 732 – 734 (2007)
    Published online: 25 November 2007 | doi:10.1038/nnano.2007.392

    A comparison between two recent national surveys among nanoscientists and the general public in the US shows that, in general, nanoscientists are more optimistic than the public about the potential benefits of nanotechnology. However, for some issues related to the environmental and long-term health impacts of nanotechnology, nanoscientists were significantly more concerned than the public.

    Public Understanding of Science 2008, doi:10.1177/0963662507079373

    Manufacturing doubt: journalists’ roles and the construction of ignorance in a scientific controversy
    Holly Stocking* and Lisa W. Holstein

    In recent decades, corporate and special interests have developed a wide repertoire of methods to manufacture doubt about science that threatens their interests. In the case presented here, a trade association issued a rich assortment of rhetorical claims intended to sow public confusion about university studies that threatened to undermine its industry’s activities. Journalists’ use of these claims appeared to vary largely as a function of their perceptions of their journalistic roles and of their audiences, though their knowledge of science also appeared to play a role. Our findings offer insight into how and why reporters respond to rhetorical claims about scientific ignorance and uncertainty that actors use to discredit threatening science. In so doing, they contribute to growing scholarship on journalists’ contributions to the social construction of ignorance in scientific controversies.

    Polls are routinely used to understand research needs, e.g.

    Minimum detectable difference.
    —The goal of the
    video transecting methodology is to be able to
    detect the smallest biologically meaningful
    changes in percent coral cover with high pow-
    er at 0.05. We consider a change of 5–10%
    coral cover to be biologically meaningful,
    which is a stricter criterion than the 10–20%
    figure obtained by M. J. Risk and A. C. Risk
    (1997) in a poll of reef scientists …



  17. 17
    S. Molnar says:

    Speaking of Q61, I wonder if you might consider adding BraveNewClimate to your “Other Opinions” sidebar? It certainly adds to the “very good” side of the ledger.

  18. 18
    Ian McLeod says:

    Climate science affects policy more than any other science currently. It is important for policy makers and politicians to know what Americans think. It is important for Americans to know what scientists think. Most Americans believe in global warming,2933,250571,00.html
    However, most Americans are pragmatic enough to put medium to low priority on a distant risk and treat the here and now as a priority – it’s the economy stupid.
    To decide who should have a say or who is enlightened enough to have a say is shrill and elitist. I’m interested what all scientists think when it comes to global warming, not just the right scientists. Polling experts should be devising the polls. When enough polls are available, we can review the results and statistically quantify what a majority of American scientist actually think about global warming. I think that information would be helpful in policy discussions before politicians raise my taxes.

  19. 19
    Richard says:

    When you have +69 questions in a survey, the survey is automatically flawed. Too many questions. A survey should be concise otherwise biases due to the sheer magnitude of answering dozens of questions come into play. Perhaps Bray and van Storch should have consulted survey professionals before implementing their current survey.

  20. 20
    Paul Harris says:

    As a social scientist, having read the pdf, I have a few comments to make. Your article states: “There are too many questions in this survey to go over each one in detail…The series of questions Q15 through Q17, typify a key issue – precision”. In my view, there are too many questions full stop! 76 is far too big a
    number of questions to throw at busy people. You are right about the lack of precision. I’d single out questions 21 (really two questions in one)and 22. I also find some of the questions to be irrelevant or
    liable to produce meaningless results, eg 68-70. Question 70 asks what the opposite of science is, not what you think it is nor what in your opinion it is. One option is ‘other’: within other I might include “lies” or “the opposite of science is ideology” or “religion”. What does it mean, then, if 10% of respondents or 90% tick the all-embracing other? Finally, I’d have problems with the sample -how it is chosen? -and with the language bias- heavily towards those who speak English as a first language. Hope this helps.

  21. 21

    “Once more unto the bray, as you put it on another topic

    My main response to this: where do these people find their time, and what do they hope to achieve? This looks like a monumental waste of effort all round.

    How about this for a variant on Q52?

    “Some scientists having become aware of potentially catastrophic impacts related to climate change suppress their findings so as not to alarm the public. How much do you agree with this practice?”

    Of course we don’t know if anyone has done this (by definition) but an answer to this question would be a good counter to any bias inherent in the wording of Q25.

    Q38 to me smacks of ignorance: “The IPCC reports are of great use to the advancement of climate science.” Anyone who understands the overall process should know that the IPCC is not advancing climate science but summarising and evaluating it. I couldn’t answer this question with a strong positive without stopping to think what spin the authors could put on responses.

  22. 22

    Earl Killian writes:

    Please consider writing up something on because it raises the question of how we survive the heating that results from a transition away from coal.

    Heating that results from a transition away from coal??? Coal combustion gives off more carbon dioxide than any other industrial process. A transition away from coal can only make things better.

  23. 23

    Richard (#19) is absolutely right. The sheer size of such a survey will discourage many people from completing it. A scientist with more important things to do will not set aside an hour to complete a survey.

  24. 24
    Richard says:

    My other problem with Bray and Von Storch’s survey is who qualifies as a “climate scientist”. Climate science is multi-disciplinary. Concentrating just on computer modellers and other people who identify themselves as climate scientists is not good enough and the results will be biased. The area of climate science is contributed to by biologists, oceanographers, glaciologists, physicists, atmospheric chemists, geologists, geophysicists and many other professions. Really the survey should be open to all scientists. Our training is sufficiently robust to allow us to make informed assessments of the research regardless of whether we are classified as a “climate scientist” or not.

  25. 25

    Walt #14, once we’re quote mining, here are a few more from Lean and Rind 2008:

    None of the natural processes can account for the overall warming trend in global surface temperatures. In the 100 years from 1905 to 2005, the temperature trends produce by all three natural influences are at least an order of magnitude smaller than the observed surface temperature trend reported by IPCC [2007]. According to this analysis, solar forcing contributed negligible long-term warming in the past 25 years and 10% of the warming in the past 100 years, not 69% as claimed by Scafetta and West [2008]

    and, apropos of climatologists not being motivated to try and break things or ignoring evidence conflicting with their cherished models:

    With the goal of using the geographical patterns to quantitatively constrain simulated climate change, detailed comparisons with the GISS middle atmosphere GCM are underway.

    Worthwhile article by the way. Read all of it.

  26. 26
    Jess says:

    @18 Ian McLeod–

    Well, in a health survey, you’d probably rather they ask doctors in the relevant specialties. For example, if I were to survey docs on the dangers of smoking, a pulmonologist might be a little more use than a dermatologist. Or you or me. Is that elitist and shrill? Deciding what kind of climate scientists to ask is mostly about figuring out whose expertise is more useful in gauging this kind of stuff.

    Distant risk — that is, the risk that something will happen in the future — doesn’t mean no risk. See smoking — the risk of you getting lung cancer is elevated if you do it, but you’re saying “smoke away! it won’t be a problem for 20 years, likely!” And you’d be right, smoking doesn’t cause problems in one day, or a week, or even a year or two.

    Also, there is precedent for dealing with such risk and even raising taxes to do it. The Netherlands is not underwater precisely because the government there took steps after disastrous floods decades ago. Yes it raised taxes. Yes the risks were far in the future. But the Dutch are probably happier that those steps were taken.

    But people aren’t good at assessing risks that take place over decades. Our lives are only 70-90 years so for most of us such risks may not matter, at least as individuals. But the problem now is that there are risks to much of our civilization.

    When talking about mitigating risk of global warming, there are several ways to do it. It’s better to take a relatively small cost now — prevention — than it is to try the really expensive bit later. It’s a heck of a lot less expensive to move from coal power, repair the rail tracks, and encourage a replacement of the auto fleet with hybrids and more efficient models than it is to try and build massive walls around Florida. I might add that moving to more efficient cars was hugely successful, even in the US. (It’s worth noting that gas and oil are both cheaper now, adjusted for inflation, than they were in 1979-80). No, you may not be able to drive an SUV anymore. But that shouldn’t be a problem unless you have manhood issues. (Minivans are much more efficient and can do most of the same things).

  27. 27
    Richard Sycamore says:

    In #11 I’ve suggested methods that get around both #23 and #24. Send the survey out widely. With 69 wide-ranging questions you want 690+ respondents in order to make sure your sample is not pure noise. The effect of varying domain expertise can be controlled for by factoring in the certainty coefficients provided on each statement. Stop making up excuses why this can’t be done.

  28. 28
    Joseph O'Sullivan says:

    Interesting post, it raises good questions. Sixty-nine questions is a long survey. I’m assuming that it will bias the results by over-representation of scientists who are motivated enough to complete it. This then brings in the question of motives which is very messy.

    Questions 61 and 62 could be more specific, like should scientists participate in public blogs and if so what type of blog, i.e. moderated science blogs like Real Climate, unmoderated larger issue blog like Gristmill or contributing to contrarian sites like Climate Audit. Perhaps a separate survey for climate scientist on blogging would be useful.

  29. 29
    Walt Bennett says:

    How about the folks in the various science organizations which contribute to RC, answer 9 thru 19 and let us know how it breaks down?

    Better to be looking for bias and not finding it, than to not be looking for it.

    They can do it over lunch. No need to disrupt their important work.

  30. 30
    RichardC says:

    I doubt any good will come of such a poll. Too long, too convoluted, and so many questions that are really just statements. Even if it were better, the answers folks listen to are those given by the ones whom they perceive to be right. The answers will \prove\ to those who agree with the results that they were right all along, and will \prove\ to those who disagree that the poll is fatally flawed because of A, B, and C. And as everyone knows, the brilliant contrarian who happens to agree with \ME\ beats all the cattle who voted against the Truth. Naw, we’ll be kicking and screaming and fighting pointless battles with polls and politicians until the experiment we started a hundred plus years ago runs to completion. There are too many jurisdictions and owners. Even if 90% of countries or people agree (an impossible figure), then the other 10% will take advantage of the void and convert the rest of the dead dinosaurs to cash. Saudi et al stop pumping oil? China/US stop digging coal? Not gonna happen until the hard data – as in results, not science – is in. And then it’s too late, so why not continue partying like it’s 1999?

  31. 31
    outeast says:

    Earl Killian @ 22

    From the abstract, it looks like the paper discusses (among other things) the impact of removing aerosols from burning coal. It attempts to expand upon AR4 by recalibrating the medium-turn warming to which we are committed to take into account the aerosol reduction that would occur with immediate abatement of coal-burning…

  32. 32
    Richard Ordway says:

    Large Arctic ocean bottom methane clathrate releases confirmed by second source in a second area.

    If this continues and increases, I don’t believe that IPCC 100 year projections have even incorporated this into scenarios yet. Large Arctic Ocean bed methane clathrate releases weren’t expected for another 100 years at least.

    I have heard conjecture that this is possibly due to warming river waters feeding the Arctic which were not previously incorporated into temporal calculations.

  33. 33
    Chris G says:

    In response to Ian McLeod #18:

    In computer science there is a category of decision making processes labeled “greedy algorithms”. When defining all possible outcomes or solution paths becomes too intractable, one of these is often brought into play. They can be thought of as simpler processes that take the best option they can foresee, knowing and accepting the fact that they can’t see to the end and may well choose a path to solution that is less than optimal. Like in a computer chess game, you can sometimes set how many moves ahead the program should look. Players that realize they are up against one of this type of chess program can detect when, say the computer chooses a move that steers the game down a path that looks good (to the computer) for the next three moves, but leads to it being checkmated in five. I’m an American, but if I had to categorize Americans, I’d have to say that the majority operate using a greedy algorithm.

    Next, regarding your elitist concerns, it is not elitist to ask a plumber what he thinks about a plumbing problem, and his answer means a lot more than what an electrician has to say about about it.

    Last, climate change is a global concern; so, I would not restrict my assessment to American scientists. I would gather the reports from thousands of scientists who are “plumbers” and publish a briefing that represented sort of a middle ground of all their conclusions. Sound reasonable so far? And, I would call it, I don’t know, an IPCC Report? Just because your plumber tells you something is going to cost you a lot does not mean that you are better off gambling that he is wrong.

    Climate change will affect food production. If you assume that farmers have a pretty good idea how to optimize the production on their land under current climatic conditions, then any change in climate can be predicted to have a negative impact. Couple this with the fact that oil is our cheapest, broad-use energy source and is becoming harder to get, and you get a double-whammy looming just over most people’s horizons. It takes a lot of energy to produce food at the rates we need. It’s not just the gas for the tractor; it’s also the fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides required to maintain a high production. Rising energy costs are slowing the economy; climate change costs will add stress to the situation.

  34. 34

    Scientific truth by polling.

    What will they think of next!

    Captcha : frozen policies

  35. 35
    Marcus says:

    #32 Richard Ordway: I don’t see this news release as being evidence that there are “large” Arctic ocean methane releases. In fact, in the link they state that it is likely that these releases have been probably been going on for 15,000 years. They _speculate_ that global warming may increase the rate… but I see no firm evidence that this will be a larger source than the various positive feedbacks from permafrost methane release that are incorporated in several existing models. (yes, this can go on our list of “known unknowns” but I think we are a long way from having this be in a standard model)

  36. 36
    Marcus says:

    Re: #11: Richard Sycamore: “beside each question have them rate their degree of confidence in their response”: It is well known that people are very bad at accurately estimating uncertainty in numbers (

    Also check out the Morgan and Keith (1995) work on estimating climate sensitivity: you can pick out Dick Lindzen’s “the climate sensitivity is low with no uncertainty” anonymous entry easily.

    Having said that, I think that studies like the Morgan and Keith work are useful, but the point is that they are also difficult to do well. And they are easier to critique than create: I would wager that rather than having Gavin try and run such a survey himself, it would be more useful to have Gavin work in collaboration with Granger Morgan or some other survey expert instead.

  37. 37
    A.C. says:

    #30 — there’s a great example in the news yesterday of the power of democracy to check/balance capitalism, even US capitalism. Granted, not everyone everywhere lives under the constraints of a constitution today, but all rulers ultimately must respect and embrace the wills of their peoples. So the greatest tool of the ruler is to manage/manipulate the will of the people to coincide with the ruler’s objectives.

    But if 70% of people across the world ever agree that weening ourselves off of carbon is good for everyone, the changes will be made, whether the other %30 fall in line or not.

    And of the people I’ve talked to, even the people who deny AGW, almost all recognize that the seasons are weird getting weirder. Just based on the changes I’ve seen in the attitudes of people I know, I think within five years there will be a 51-plus percent popular consensus (in Kansas!) that local climate is changing for the worse. (I think there will be a 70% majority of Kansans in favor of doing something about climate change within 10 years…mostly because oldest generation is going to kick the bucket during that time, and because most of the boomers I know are reasonable people….) These people may or may not care why it’s changing–they may never accept it as anthropogenic, partly because the word doesn’t mean anything to most of them–but they will CERTAINLY ask what can be done. So the real battle, as I see it, is not about convincing people that AGW is real and happening, but rather, about convincing people that adopting non-CO2 lifestyles will be a more effective solution, especially in the long term, than throwing money at other types of geoengineering.

    If I were going to do a survey, I’d ask regular people where they stand on climate change and what they think should be done about it. Like a reprise of this or something.

    captcha: rev relation

  38. 38
    Richard Sycamore says:

    There are umpteen different kinds of “plumbers”, not to mention the various “electricians”, etc. that make up the “consensus” on what to do about this house we live in. McLeod #18 is suggesting polling widely rather than narrowly. Assuming you can factor out the various skillsets that introduce various biases into the analysis, what’s wrong with a democratic approach? To suggest that this is what IPCC has already done is to argue that Bray and Von Storch are wasting their time duplicating IPCC’s work. Don’t you think they’ve read the IPCC reports? Don’t you think they are capable of recognizing a data gap? The question is not “what’s the consensus”, but “what’s the relationship between individual and group opinion”. These are obviously very different questions.

  39. 39

    Since reCaptcha seems popular (based on the number of people who type its requirement into their response as well as into the required field), I thought I’d mention that it’s made it into Science:

    Mine: BALKAN President (and they say they choose the two words at random).

  40. 40
    Aaron Lewis says:

    Re 32,
    Warm river water floats. It might explain the Russian observation. In fact, there have been hints of methane over the Sea of Leptov since 2003. However,the British observation seems to have deeper sources. It is interesting enough that we should wait for the peer reviewed publication before speculating. In short, the huge range of depths that seem to be producing the methane plumes seen by the British have shocked me into silence.

  41. 41
    RichardC says:

    37 AC, you’re talking 5-10 years out for democracy to crank up to agree, and I’m saying the Arctic ice and methane will conk us over the head in a few years, and so democracy will no longer be needed to “vote” on the science, so I agree, take a poll or a vote in 10 years, and it will be a landslide. As you fear, geoengineering will probably win the next vote. Here’s a bit on a rather benign (hopefully) type of geoengineering. David Keith at the U of Calgary says he’s got a filter that grabs 20 tons of CO2 from regular air for less than 100KWH of electricity. Doesn’t give a capital cost or materials used or how to sequester the CO2 captured, but an interesting development.

    On your 70% of countries, how do you propose stopping (pick any 2 of the following) the US, Russia, Canada, Saudi Arabia, China, or India? Oil and other fossil fuel supply is incredibly inelastic. Nearly all costs are capital, so even if oil plummets to $20, it will still be pumped and a buyer found. Imagine the financial meltdown if Alberta’s tar sand mining was stopped. Imagine the turmoil in Iraq if we said, “You can’t sell your oil.” I suppose that’s one reason folks are going after coal. Oil, including tar sands, is just too volatile to touch. Even coal, imagine closing coal power plants. Imagine crushing perfectly good SUVs. It’s all fine and dandy saying that if 70% say so, (that 70% will certainly be those with zero investment in the technology to be taxed/banned), the 30% whose very livelihood/transportation depends on the tech in question will meekly agree. Remember, democracy and polls are just phase 1. In phase 2, it gets messy in lawsuit land and rogue nation world.

  42. 42
    Andre Velone says:

    This is an excellent post. The results to this “survey” will be biased to the deniers of climate science. I hope that this post will be shared widely so that we can limit the damage of this faulty poll before it becomes used by the deniers. Without Real Climate the public would be fooled by nonsense that looks sensible. Thank you for advancing the truth.

  43. 43
    David B. Benson says:

    RichardC (41) — That’s one tonne (metric ton) for ‘less than’ 100 kwh.

    Still, this appears to be one of the most efficient carbon cature method that I’ve seen.

    [reCAPTCHA reminds us we had better get started by entoning “Nation THREAT”.]

  44. 44
    A.C. says:

    RichardC — Thanks for the link. I’m not sure how I misunderstood your post in #30, but based on #41, our views seem more similar than I first thought. For the record, I’m opposed to geoengineering only when it means manipulating some piece of atmospheric chemistry other than CO2 in an effort to solve what (for the moment) is a CO2 problem.

    I doubt I’ve understood the true meaning of the link tho…so someone please (please!) help me out. Since I don’t want to waste everybody’s time with what is probably gibberish, I’ll throw that on my own page and hope somebody from ’round these parts will stop by to straighten me out.

    captcha: roll smooth

  45. 45
    Nylo says:

    Re #32, #35, #40

    I don’t understand why they claim that the methane being liberated happens because of permafrost melting. How can there be permafrost in the sea bed? On top of the sea bed you have liquid water. Liquid water is over 0ºC. And as you go deeper into the sea bed, the temperature only rises. Is that compatible with the existence of permafrost in the sea bed? I thought that permafrost was a land-only phenomenom. I never heard of permafrost under the sea.

  46. 46
    Ricki (Australia) says:

    Of course the skeptics might-miss use the survey results. That is their modus operandi. However, I can understand what the aim of the survey is, and it may help to convince some people who are undecided.

    I note with interest the survey of American public opinion (#18). It would be nice to see the Presidential candidates taking a stronger stand on mitigation. Perhaps this is the time to put the pressure on them to commit to strong action, when they are trying to get elected.

    They need to be pinned down to a target for 2020 so that the USA can go to Copenhagen and lead the world.

  47. 47


    I believe oceanic methane is held in clathrates in sea floor sediments, not in permafrost.

  48. 48
    Cobblyworlds says:

    #32 Richard Ordway, #40 Aaron Lewis,

    “The discovery of this system is important as its presence provides evidence that methane, which is a greenhouse gas, has been released in this climactically sensitive region since the last ice age,” Professor Westbrook said.

    i.e. ….since the last ice-age.

    And as the data shows the Carbon 13 content of methane has increased in 2007/8 (when a clathrate release should reduce it – correct me if I’m wrong): I think it would be well not to run ahead of the evidence on this matter. Things are bad enough as they stand.

  49. 49
    Figen Mekik says:

    Permafrost is a land only phenomenon, but there are huge methane ice reserves in deep sea sediments in addition to methane ice stored in permafrost on land.
    There is liquid water at the bottom of the ocean but it is very cold, close to zero degrees in most places and below zero in some. The reason it is not frozen is partly the huge pressure of the overlying water column and partly deep sea currents moving the water around.
    However at those low temperatures and high pressures, methane is in hydrate form and is stable as ice in the sediments.

  50. 50

    re 45:

    Nylo, it is not so simple. Here is a quote from Wiki that may help: “While it is stable at a temperature of up to around 0°C, at higher pressures methane clathrates (ie., the methane-containing permafrost) remain stable up to 18 °C.”

    (For more on the topic, see the article:

    See also the National Snow & Ice Data Center: