Duking It Out in Public


Where do you stand on climate change? Is the issue settled? Do you think there are still some uncertainties to be cleared up?

Last week I wrote about a recent report on the science behind sea level rise; the authors of that report explain the models and data they’re using to make predictions but acknowledge that some things are still uncertain, and the farther we try look into the future, the hazier things become.

Steven Koonin, a physicist and former undersecretary of energy for science during the Obama administration, suggested in this Wall Street Journal editorial last week, just a day ahead of the March for Science, that the issue is not as settled as some on both sides of the debate would have us believe, but that there might be a way to air the differences and come at least a little closer to consensus.

“At a recent national laboratory meeting,” he writes, “I observed more than 100 active government and university researchers challenge one another as they strove to separate human impacts from the climate’s natural variability. At issue were not nuances but fundamental aspects of our understanding, such as the apparent—and unexpected—slowing of global sea-level rise over the past two decades.”

Because so much of our policy, infrastructure investment, and other economic and environmental decisions depend on a clear understanding of what’s going on, he proposes a tried-and-true method of hashing out the differences by putting the various players into the ring and letting them battle it out in full view of the public. He recommends a Red Team/Blue Team exercise, such as has been used to identify risks and “reduce—or at least understand—uncertainties” in situations like analyzing the 1986 space shuttle Challenger accident and reviewing the facts on cold fusion in 1989. The process would start with a published scientific report on climate change, including recommendations for policymakers. A Red Team would critique the report, a Blue Team would rebut the critique, and the process would continue, back and forth, “to the point of diminishing returns.” The whole thing would be overseen and moderated by a commission made up of people who are technically knowledgeable but who are outside the established climate science community. The Red and Blue team members, he notes, would necessarily be members of that community and as such would be “avowedly opinionated scientists”—thus the need for an independent oversight commission.

The Red/Blue exercise, he notes, is very different from a traditional peer review process, which is usually confidential. This process, in contrast, “would produce a traceable public record that would allow the public and decision makers a better understanding of certainties and uncertainties. It would more firmly establish points of agreement and identify urgent research needs. Most important, it would put science front and center in policy discussions… The inherent tension of a professional adversarial process would enhance public interest, offering many opportunities to show laymen how science actually works.”

He notes that the process could go either way—showing that the current prevailing beliefs are either stronger or weaker than are widely supposed. “But whatever the outcome…climate policy discussions would be better informed.”

What do you think of his proposal? Would such an exercise be beneficial, either in strengthening the foundation on which we’re basing our decisions, or in improving public understanding of the issue, or both? And do you think it’s possible to assemble such a thing as a knowledgeable-but-neutral oversight commission?  EC_bug_web

  • The fact that nothing like what has been proposed by Steven Koonin has taken place to date belies the fact that what has been guiding US policy, and what was recently marched on this past Earth Day, wasn’t truly science. So, yes, by all means, do this ASAP! At least, that is, if a “knowledgeable-but-neutral oversight commission” can be formed to guide the work. BIG if.

  • Antonio De la Cruz.

    The proposal of Steven Koonin remainds me of a spanish tale. Two hares were running away from several dogs that were chasing them. Suddenly, the hares stopped and started a discussion over the dogs “will there be greyhounds or podencos” In no time the dogs caught up with them and they both perished. Although some issues may not be totally clear the rapid and extensive melting of polar ice and glacial retreat are clear signs of climate change. Let´s no waste time.

  • When I was 10, in the late 70’s, they were shouting about a ‘global Ice Age’. They had me scared as a little kid that I was going to freeze to death.. That didn’t exactly work out.
    Then in the late 90’s, they moved to ‘greenhouse gasses’ and extreme heat. In January 2006, Mr Gore screamed that we have 10 years left until we all cook…..
    Since that didn’t work out, in the 2010’s they repackaged it to ‘climate change’. obviously no one can deny that… it’s been happening since the dawn of time, but if our menial 150yr climate record is any indication, humans can’t cause or control it.

  • Sally Cuffin.

    Koonin argues the models are still uncertain – as are nearly all “models”. But look at the observational data. The northwest passage will soon be a reality, vast expanses of Antarctic ice are falling into the ocean, Greenland and Iceland are rapidly melting, coral reefs are dying, runoff from western mountain ranges happens earlier and earlier, etc.

    Even models of mechanical/electrical devices we make have flaws – so it’s no surprise that climate models have issues. But Koonin is a theoretical physicist (a profession that claims to possess the “theory of everything”) – and probably rarely actually walks out the door to see what’s happening to our world. Focus on what’s happening…

  • Dennis Fleming.

    My observation is that individuals who depend on government funding for their paycheck support the hypothesis that human activity is the primary cause of was known as global warming but is now called climate change. Individuals who consider the data question if it supports the hypothesis. The scientific process should be used to determine if the data has been altered and does it support or disprove the hypothesis. Remember that Galileo was sentenced to house arrest for questioning the leaders’ proclamation that the sun orbited the earth. A movie and a proclamation by a chief executive are not the appropriate method of evaluating scientific questions. The statement that “97% of scientist agree that human activity is the cause of global warming / climate change.

  • Dennis Fleming.

    Correction to previous comment; The statement that “97% of scientist agree that human activity is the cause of global warming / climate change” should be challenged and validated.

  • Dr Edo McGowan.

    I liked the reference to the Spanish rabbit tale. Where I came from, Ag Engineering at UC Davis, our motto was “crudely right rather than precisely wrong.” This then brings my tale into the ag arena. We have been land applying 70% of our sewage sludge. Many places are thought to be drying to the point that dust bowls are projected. This will be exasperated by the draw-down of aquifers or direct mining of ground water basins. There is no honest debate that sewage sludge aka biosolids is not a mode for carrying serious pathogens many of which are multi-drug resistant. Data show that these pathogens which can shift to other bacteria by lateral transfer can see the genetic information transfer to reservoirs in the soil. When these soils start to blow, the pathogens will move with the dust and movement will be in terms of meridians. Thus, a 300 foot setback is meaningless. For example dust carrying pathogens arising in Africa crosses the Atlantic to fall out over the Caribbean causing lung disease. If major portions of the dryer areas of the U.S. start to blow, the surge capacity of the health care industry may be easily overcome. Where is the discussion, hence preliminary planning effort in this area? We are running out of functional antibiotics while facing more serious and unstoppable super bugs. ” In no time the dogs caught up ”

    Dr Edo McGowan

  • Stretch.

    Certainly something is happening. Certainly there is some contribution due to modern technology. Certainly, due to past history, this sort of oscillating thing happens in (time) waves. By the time we know for sure, it may be too late. However, US doesn’t need to pay for it, lead the charge, etc. We want technology to come up with answers. Thus, science makes sense. But science has contributed to the problem, fact. The extent of the problem is unknown. We cannot save the planet, ultimately. We can make somewhat of a difference, but if only there is a real problem which will not be countermanded by the swinging pendulum. To say we don’t care is ridiculous. CONFLICTING issues and truths and facts. Discussion is meaningful, but to what end?

    • Dennis Fleming.

      The scientific process should be used to determine if empirical data has been altered or corrupted. Was some data omitted to support a predetermined desired outcome. I question the hypothesis that work funded by a national or international government entity is above reproach.

  • Tamara Thomas.

    In many ways I wonder if it really matters to the issues at hand if it was human “caused” or not. Real questions (IMHO) are: Is it happening? How much where? and Can we change it? If so, how? Granted its usually helpful to know how something happened in the first place to understanding its behavior and mechanisms. But given the emotional/political influence on determining the blame, perhaps we should try to move forward on the ‘how to fix it’ approach.

  • Daniel MCDONALD.

    As everyone is no doubt aware, climate change is the defining issue of our time. With every single scientific academy and professional organization in the world having stated that climate change is real and that human activity (except the AAPG), is the cause, it would be irresponsible to pretend otherwise. Just as we take the risk of environmental harm seriously while working in the construction field and therefore take precautions, or of potential harm when driving our cars and taking precautions, we would be irresponsible to not do likewise for climate change. The risk/reward scenario is strongly skewed in favour of taking action. The sooner the better.
    Since the planet was very slowly cooling due to natural forcings leading into the industrial revolution, all subsequent warming can and has been attributable to human activity by the major academy of sciences as per the published scientific literature. Since I’m not a researcher in one of the many branches linked to climate, it would really be bizarre to take up a contrary position. I wouldn’t do so in any other field of science, yet many choose to do so in only one specific field – climate change – one of the most divisive issues slicing right down party and/or ideological lines. It is barely an issue in Europe, where I work, and seems to be a cultural phenomenon restricted to the US and to a lesser extent in other english speaking nations.
    As for the proposal of a red/blue team, scientific knowledge is determined via the tried and true system already in place for every field; the peer reviewed scientific publications. It works in every other field and works in climate science. The arena for advancing climate science is the appropriate literature, published by the experts in their respective fields, not via a forum, the media or a ‘debate’ with red/blue teams.
    That’s my two bits.


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