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Today, William Connolley comments on the Reith lectures, which I featured last week, to discuss the accuracy of Jeffrey Sach’s comments. Michael Tobis has something to say about this, which is worth thinking about. But what I want to focus on here relates to the comment I have made on William’s thread.

This is what I said:

William: in a sense, Sachs is correct: when local weather extremes occur, it draws the public’s attention to weather and climate. Where there are no strong or visible impacts, interest is relatively low. Even though the conflation of weather events with climate changes is a logical inconsistency, it is a fact of human nature that we tend to care about what is happening to us or near us, more than what is happening to distant people in distant times and places.

Inasmuch as the reporting on weather extremes has probably increased, and this is frequently linked by association to a larger debate, the public has become more aware of a range of ‘extreme’ events globally and, with the assistance of the media, is associating this with climate change. Making the issue of CC immediate and local increases its relevance and the desire for action to be taken.

But this places the scientist in a quandary: doing this is productive, but arguably fallacious; trying to establish the ‘true’, long-term implications of CC is more ‘honest’, but less effective: what should the moral scientist do?

Here is a question that a climate scientist, or blogger, might want to consider: Do I use the best tools available to get the message across, even if these mean compromising my integrity, or do I insist on maintaining a standard, even though it will probably place me at a disadvantage in the debate?

If a scientist really does believe that the recent weather extremes are evidence of an ongoing process of climate change, and has the published support to make this claim, then the problem is moot; there is no dilemma. But very few scientists seem to be in this position; my impression (and please correct me if this is wrong) is that the majority of climate scientists see the climate change issue as a long-term problem, rather than an immediate one. The evidence for linking recent weather events causally to the historic rise in temperature to date is, at best, patchy. The best that can often be said is that such impacts certainly look like they relate to historic change, and, if this is the case, are likely to increase in force or frequency as the causal agent increases. This can probably be argued quite strongly for the state of the Arctic sea ice, and for the state of glaciers globally; can plausibly be argued for the various droughts that are being experienced worldwide (or, more technically, changes in the Palmer Drought Severity Index), but the tropical cyclone and sea level issues are much less clear.

So, it may well be to the scientist’s short-term advantage, if he/she wishes to get public opinion ‘on side’, to allow the public to believe that such events are in fact evidence of what the future is likely to bring, even if he/she does not himself believe that the scientific connection has been adequately made. Should he/she do this? Would it be right to allow a misunderstanding which could be corrected to influence opinion in the ‘right way’,  for the sake of establishing a greater ‘will to action’, or is this compromise in itself an undermining of the very truth, the search for which lies at the core of science itself?

I am glad I don’t have to address this problem, not being a scientist. On the other hand, I am trying to create a blog where truth, justice and freedom are underlying ethical values; so I, too, must decide what should and shouldn’t be said, and so should every blogger, whatever their position on the climate debate happens to be.

Be loved and be truthful.


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April 2007