Climate Change: A fundamental shift of our place in the world

May 14th, 2014 <-- by Richard Rood -->

Climate Change: A fundamental shift of our place in the world

Richard B. Rood, University of Michigan

This blog appeared originally in the Michigan Journal of Sustainability, The Conversation: Climate Change: A Fundamental Shift of Our Place in the World.

A scientist colleague told me, recently, he had realized that talking to the press about climate change was not about education and outreach, and he was no longer sure of his role. During the 1990s at the federal research labs, there were initiatives to communicate science to the public. A common vehicle was a one-page popular summary of technical journal articles. An underlying premise of this public outreach was that there was one conversation, that of informing the public of meaning, value and societal importance. This naive notion of outreach did not recognize other types of conversations. Already in the 1990s, there was an emerging political conversation about climate change. There were also philosophical conversations about humans, nature, conservation and sustainability – some anchored in religious convictions. A more psychological conversation evolved about being responsible for doing damage to the planet.

As these conversations have evolved, scientists have thought more formally about communication. In one meeting of scientists, I said that every time a climate scientist wrote or talked it was potentially political. When scientists participated in interviews, blogged or sat on panels at the local museum, then there was almost certainly a political element that might be extracted from their words. Some of my colleagues were offended at my statement, maintaining that that they never spoke politically, only from dispassionate knowledge. I also maintained that most scientists are ill-prepared to participate in the political arguments.

Recently, Secretary of State John Kerry framed climate change, the persistent warming of the Earth and its consequences, in terms of weapons of mass destruction. Secretary Kerry and President Obama reached for the seemingly easy comparison of climate change deniers to those who believed that the Earth was flat before the European sea exploration of the fifteenth century. This comparison motivated a predictable and easy response from those who consider climate change to be an exaggerated risk, with the public presence of that risk being maintained by a community of self-interested climate change believers – the warmists. So now we have the warmist versus the deniers. This is yet another type of conversation – tribal, you are wrong because of who you are.

One of the more prominent pieces that appeared in response to Kerry’s statements painted climate change deniers as mavericks of the past proved right by progress. Richard McNider and John Christy wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Why Kerry is Flat Wrong on Climate Change.” They maintain that, in fact, the scientific consensus of ancient times was that the Earth was flat, and it was the skeptical minority that motivated the thinking and exploration that proved the Earth round. They then walk through a list of failed predictions by prejudiced scientists who could be forgiven their follies if they were not so wrong and persistent in their message.

This recent kerfuffle, as one of my journalist colleagues calls it, was motivated by the Secretary of State. When the Secretary of State speaks, it is at its very root a political statement. I don’t have any way of knowing the calculation or preparation in the use of comparisons to flat earthers and to weapons of mass destruction. It is safe to say, however, that both were meant to make a point that was more political or rhetorical than scientific. The response by McNider and Christy shows the relative ease that these comparisons can be turned around. That is one of the attributes of political argument, the ability to twist and parry statements to make points, both substantive and not, to advance a political agenda.

If I were to take the time to analyze this fuss in my class on climate change, I would ask my students to look through the documents and identify questions from two perspectives. The first is scientific, using the principles of scientific investigation, what needs to be analyzed? The second is rhetorical, what forms of argument are used? I will accept Secretary Kerry’s statements as political. McNider and Christy write, however, as credentialed scientists. Yet the form of their argument relies on statements of prejudice, presentation of isolated information, invocation of disconnected facts to superficially bolster a point, fragmented quotes and easy personal conclusions that support their argument. These elements mark theirs as more a political than a science-based argument.

There is, however, a point made by McNider and Christy that caught my attention: namely, the claim of scientific consensus in the ancient world. But this point is actually difficult to substantiate because scientific investigation in the ancient world was so limited. In the basic teaching of science and mathematics, students are taught that Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the Earth about 200 BCE. This fact is generally touted as a scientific accomplishment that stood in contrast to the non-scientific belief that the Earth was flat. When the scientific and quantitative investigation of the natural world challenged the belief-based description in this way, it often ended badly for the scientist or mathematician, for example, Hypatia of Alexandria, who was torn to pieces by a mob during times of great religious conflict. It is easy to chip away at the idea of the scientific consensus in the ancient world being that the Earth was flat.

That question aside, McNider and Christy’s point put me in mind of the psychologist Gardner Murphy’s 1975 book, “Outgrowing Self-Deception.” Murphy maintains that we have two ways of ordering reality, “the way of science and the way of personal desire.” We are drawn powerfully to our personal desires because they in some way bring safety to our well being. In pursuit of this safety, we develop a personal imperative to believe that we are essentially correct or right. In our groups we share this rightness for collective assurance. This sometimes self-deceiving rightness often forms and aligns with society’s power structures, some political, some economic and some religious. It is, perhaps, a foundation of the tribal conversation.

In a late chapter of “Outgrowing Self-Deception,” Murphy offers a perspective on humankind rather than on the foibles of the individual. Murphy maintains that the scientific methods of Copernicus were frustrated by the underlying beliefs that the universe was “perfect” and a heliocentric model of the universe required orbits to be circular. Why? Circles were divinely perfect. Galileo’s observations challenged the human-imposed paradigm of the perfect universe and “force experimental physics into the center of the new knowledge as it forced the sun into the center of the solar system.” Charles Darwin, too, challenges the widely held perception that humans are different from all other living creatures. Through these and other examples. Murphy blames the often tortuously slow pace of breakthroughs in human thought on self-imposed deceptions, confrontation of power structures, and both individual and group imperatives to be right.

Today, climate change is often called the challenge of century, an existential threat and, according to Secretary Kerry, akin to a weapon of mass destruction. The fact that we have developed these types of conversation – political, philosophical or tribal, demonstrates that the science-based reality of climate changes stands as a fundamental breakthrough of human knowledge. We have the ability to transform the very nature of the planet – and we are doing so. Our individual and group perception of our place in the world is changed. We have to assume the responsibility of what we are doing to the planet. There is the responsibility of how we use the knowledge that we have generated of the ways the planet will change.

If we are to use the knowledge of climate change, then we challenge the familiar power structures of economies, politics, beliefs and perceptions. These challenges are consequential to a far larger portion of society than those of Copernicus, Galileo or Darwin. We, therefore, expect the conversations and the progress to be tortuously slow and conflated with arguments to maintain the power structures. To make the knowledge-based part of the conversations more effective, we must realize that we are in multiple types of conversations, set in the context of a fundamental change to the body of human knowledge. The political, economic and belief machinations will continue. Compared to those earlier times where we were merely trying to place the Sun in the center of the Solar System, the conversations about climate change are far more important. Those whose knowledge is based in the way of science need to find and to focus on the conversations that speed up the use of knowledge about climate change – to own and play their roles.

The whole silly warming pause, warming hiatus thing

March 1st, 2014 <-- by Richard Rood -->

This is a synthesis of the knowledge we have about the pause or hiatus in warming. In my little collection of blogs, I have written about this several times, and I link some of those entries below. Sometime in 2005, those in the lobby opposing climate-change science started to beat the drum that warming of the planet had stopped and that the assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were in fundamental error. The drumbeat was amplified by a knowledge-twisting article in the Daily Mail, which I discussed in It’s Not Getting Warmer – Again, Really? Increased credibility to the pause in warming was added by an article in The Economist reporting on the story of the “pause” and that, indeed, if you looked at the temperature record it was not documenting an unrelenting increase in global-average surface temperature (from when the Economist article was published).

When I first wrote about the warming pause, I referred to my piece Form of Argument on how to analyze this news report. The article focused on a single piece of information, isolated, and posed as an unanswerable contradiction. The reporting and figures did not carry the full descriptions of the graphs that proved no warming. There were also implications of stealth. The list goes on. The warming hiatus as a challenge to the body of science-based knowledge on climate change was a manufactured problem.

The planet is warming from the trapping of energy near the Earth’s surface. It is reasonable to expect the average surface temperature to increase; it has and it will (Just Temperature). However, the heat being accumulated does not have to go only to increasing the average surface temperature. Some of that heat has been melting glaciers, sea ice and ice sheets. In addition, much of that heat has been heating the ocean, causing it to expand and further raising sea level. Energy goes into motions in the atmosphere and ocean. As for temperature of the surface, the Arctic is warming at an alarming rate; the temperature does not change uniformly over the Earth’s surface. The graphs isolated to substantiate the warming pause don’t challenge the entire body of research. They only raise questions about that particular graph, the underlying knowledge used in the construction of that graph and whether or not that graph is being presented in a way consistent with its underlying knowledge. There are also questions about that graph as a communication tool – both to convey that the climate is warming and to prove that it is not.

No doubt, the discrepancies between global-average surface temperature and the same quantity calculated from model projections require attention. The need to explain the bumps and wiggles in the global average temperature is an important scientific exercise; it is one of research elements to improve predictive skill. This was the subject of my Bumps and Wiggles Series and specifically Some Jobs for Models. From a science-based perspective, discrepancies of the type in this graph don’t threaten the body of knowledge of climate science, because they don’t represent the body of knowledge of climate change. From a science-based perspective, the discrepancies in the graph are clues for growing the body of knowledge. Any challenge to the body of knowledge comes from either a deliberate or ignorant misrepresentation of information and its implications.

What I present below is a small synthesis of some of the research that has taken place to explain the warming pause / hiatus. Here is a picture (Figure 1) of the hiatus from the Economist article.

In Figure 1, the warming pause is the leveling off of the rise in temperature after that big peak in the late 1990s, about 1998 to be precise. The blue-shaded area is the temperature taken from an ensemble of models reported in the IPCC reports.

My climate-change course does not rely on equations, but I contend that it’s solidly anchored in science-based reasoning. I broke my students into groups and I asked for an analysis of the graph in Figure 1. After about 15 minutes, they came up with a list of items that needed to be addressed. One item on the list was that given the very definition of climate as a 30-year average, did it make sense to look at a 10-year trend? Were the surface-temperature measurements distributed properly to sample the warming in the Arctic? There were even questions about the objectivity of the chart maker. These are basic questions of scientific method.

There was another line of questions about whether the sunspot cycle might have an influence and if there had been changes related to reflection from aerosols, the particles in the atmosphere that absorb and reflect energy. These are ways the energy budget might be altered. There were questions of internal variability, especially that big spike in 1998, a known large El Nino warming. Shouldn’t that variability be removed so that a trend might be more confidently isolated? Could the ocean be a buffer? Are the models expected to represent El Nino and other types of internal variability on a case-by-case basis?

These are science-based questions. They pose no challenge to entirety of the climate-science knowledge base.

If we look into the scientific literature, there is a paper by Cowtan and Way (2014), entitled “Coverage Bias in the HadCRUT4 Temperature Series and its Impact on Recent Temperature Trends.” This paper does investigate the sampling of the surface temperature observations and, indeed, there are impacts on the temperature trend. They have been underestimated. Thompson et al. (2009) wrote “Identifying Signatures of Natural Climate Variability in Time Series of Global-Mean Surface Temperature: Methodology and Insights.” In this paper, they account for El Nino, which exposes the changes in temperature due to volcanoes. After extracting these signals to reveal the trends, their conclusions include “Filtering global-mean temperature time series to remove the effects of known sources of natural variability enriches the signal of the anthropogenically induced warming over the past century. The trends in the raw and residual data for the period January 1950–March 2009 are comparable (~0.12 K / decade); but the standard deviation of the (detrended) residual data is only 2/3 as large as the standard deviation of the raw data (~0.10 versus ~0.15 K).” The uncertainty in the trends has been reduced.

The point I want to make is that there are studies focused on the scientific questions that my students raised. Many of these papers have been reported on in the blogosphere, individually touted as proof or deconstructed in isolation for their shortcomings. Collectively, they are a systematic investigation of the “pause” in warming. Collectively, they tell a coherent and convergent story of a warming planet.

In the previous two blogs, I have mentioned the paper of Trenberth and Fasullo (2013), who are following the heat of the warming earth, with the primary goal of understanding of how much heat is contributing to warming the Earth’s surface-air temperature versus how much is going to heating the ocean and melting ice and snow. Their focus is on approximately the past 15 years. Therefore, they pay attention to known ways that the atmosphere and ocean vary (Some previous Rood tutorials: Still Following the Heat and Ocean, Atmosphere, Ice and Land). Trenberth and Fasullo document the strong influence of the 1997-1998 El Nino. El Nino has a large effect on global temperature. The 1997-1998 El Nino was especially large. Trenberth and Fasullo show that the temperature in the atmosphere and oceans still remembers the 1997-1998 El Nino. They also examine the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation, which is characterized by sea surface temperature differences being above (or below) average in the north-central Pacific, while they are below (or above) in the north and east Pacific near the Aleutian Islands and the Gulf of Alaska. The Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation has been in a pattern of being cooler than average in the north and east Pacific since the 1997-1998 El Nino.

In another paper focused on the Pacific Ocean, England et al. 2014 investigate an extended period of strong trade winds. These strong trade winds have kept the eastern Pacific in a sustained cool period. The Pacific is so large, that the cool surface reduces the global-average temperature. England et al. present a suggestive figure of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO) and the global temperature record. (Figure 2: Top frame: Global surface temperature anomalies. Bottom frame: Pacific wind stress anomalies. From England et al., 2014) The suggested relation is that in the positive (warm eastern Pacific, +IPO in Figure) the temperatures rise rapidly. In the negative cool phase (cool eastern Pacific, -IPO), the temperature rise is halted. Note that it has not been declining. Their analysis accounts “… for much of the hiatus in surface warming observed since 2001. This hiatus could persist for much of the present decade if the trade wind trends continue; however, rapid warming is expected to resume once the anomalous wind trends abate.”

This body of research focused on understanding the pause or hiatus in warming is quite impressive. The consistent story that is emerging is, in fact, worrisome from the point of view of planetary temperature. It is virtually certain that the warm water in the western Pacific Ocean will, once again, move into the eastern Pacific. At this time, there will be a spike in the temperature increase.

The lobby opposing climate-change science is fundamentally political. A political tactic is the deliberate, distorted misrepresentation of information and its implications. It is effectively disruptive. It is not a threat to the science-based knowledge we have of our climate. It is, however, a threat to us all.


NRC Report: A National Strategy for Advancing Climate Modeling

September 18th, 2012 <-- by Richard Rood -->

New Report: A National Strategy for Advancing Climate Modeling

In late 2010 and 2011, I was writing about organizing U.S. climate modeling. I combined and posted some of the WU blogs on as Something New in the Past Decade? Organizing U.S. Climate Modeling. I want to revisit those issues in light of the release of a National Academy of Sciences Report, A National Strategy for Advancing Climate Modeling (2012).

I am a co-author of this Academy report. In this blog, I am writing not in my role as a co-author, but from my personal perspective. This blog fits in with many of the themes I have written about in the last few years.

First, I want to explain the role of the National Academy of Sciences. The Academy is a private, not-for-profit organization created by President Abraham Lincoln at the height of the Civil War. Lincoln and others at the time realized the importance of science and technology to the United States and wanted a way to get independent advice on issues important to policy. Almost 150 years later, this importance is greater, but the role of science is an increasingly controversial political issue – especially when scientific investigation comes into conflict with how we might want to believe and to act. (see, here or edited here ) So one role of the National Academy is independent review – a role that is at the heart of the scientific method and the culture of scientific practice.

Second, how does the Academy decide what to write about? The Academy serves as adviser to the government, and so organizations within the government ask the Academy to evaluate a specific set of questions or issues surrounding a body of science-based knowledge about a particular subject. Often, as in this report, there is a forward-looking aspect of the problem, such as an outline for a strategy. One example of a past report is an analysis President George W. Bush requested soon after his inauguration, Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions. This report is famous, partly, because it took one-month from start to finish. It found that the science of climate change was robust. In June 2001, President Bush gave a speech noting, “Climate change, with its potential to impact every corner of the world, is an issue that must be addressed by the world.” (see speech)

The current report on modeling strategy had many sponsors, notably among them the U.S. Intelligence community, a user not a builder of climate models. An early talk to the writing panel was given by Rear Admiral David Titley (Titley talks about climate and national security). In his presentation, he highlighted numerous concerns of the U.S. military, ranging from patrolling an open and disputed Arctic Ocean to threats of rising sea level to billions of dollars in assets. Other issues of national security are related to the stability of nations, the access to resources, and the volatility of commodity markets. A basic question to the panel is on the improvement of predictive skill, to address questions such as, when will we have to rebuild the dry-dock in Newport News, Virginia, and how high will it have to be?

Next, how does a panel like this actually work? The National Research Council is the operational part of the Academy. If you look on the Policies and Procedures link, you will see its rules of operations on, say, conflict of interest. The Academy selects a chair and a panel to answer the sponsor’s questions from a broad range of experience and points of view. Practically, members of the panel are assigned as lead authors on some chapters, secondary authors on other chapters, and reviewers and deliberators on the entire document. In addition to the panel, the Academy assigns staff members to manage the integration of the document as well as to assure the document is written according to Academy protocols. The staff is attentive to moving the document away from personal points of view towards a document that represents the collective view of the panel. That’s the process.

In this report I wrote history – the first draft of Chapter 2, Lessons from Previous Reports on Climate Modeling. Also, having been a co-author on some of those earlier reports, I provided continuity. For this blog, I am going to write from the perspective of someone who has advocated the need for our community to address a set of important organizational challenges. Or given a more than 20-year history of repeated recommendations and a series of Academy reports that re-identified the same problems, as stated in Chapter 2, “A challenge, therefore, to the current committee is how to disrupt the inertia of the U.S. climate science enterprise: going forward, what do we do differently?”

Because of the disruptive consequences of global warming, the scientific study of climate change has, long ago, moved out of the domain of curious scientists driven to explain the world around them. Climate change requires more than interpretation and guidance in order to be relevant to policy. Stated differently, to be directly usable by society, there is a requirement for scientific investigation focused on specific questions or classes of problems. Addressing these problems requires the use of complex software systems, multidisciplinary scientific information, rigorous and transparent evaluation, and interpretation of the knowledge produced and its uncertainty. Therefore, addressing these problems requires the combined efforts of many individuals from several professional backgrounds. There needs to be a process of planning, coordination, and execution.

We need, therefore, to coordinate activities that are, traditionally, scientific, computational, and organizational. My experience as a manager of scientific efforts is that organizational coordination is far more difficult than the challenges of computational and scientific coordination. Standing alone, coordination of computational and scientific efforts is stunningly difficult. Therefore, the new, perhaps overarching, recommendations of this report are focused on ideas that the committee viewed as helping to advance coordination, integration, or synthesis.

One of the report’s overall recommendations is “to evolve” towards a national software infrastructure for climate modeling. I think the word “evolve” is important because the reports from a decade ago also recommended software and information system infrastructure. In fact, following those reports, there has been investment and progress, both substantial, in the development of infrastructure. This is documented in the report, with the recognition that the organizational achievements are as notable as the technical achievements. Throughout the report, there are calls to build upon these successes, to utilize the communities that have made the progress of the past decade. To quote, “The Committee recommends a community-based design and implementation process for achieving a national common software infrastructure. While this goal has risks, costs, and institutional hurdles, the Committee believes they are far outweighed by its benefits.”

Another major recommendation is the formation of a modeling summit to promote “tighter coordination and more consistent evaluation” of climate models. This, to me, is perhaps the most novel and most important recommendation. Why? Previous reports have struggled with organizational issues and have made recommendations about re-organizing government agencies or re-focusing governmental organizations. At the same time earlier reports, as well as this report, express reservations about centralization and bureaucratic structures. What this recommendation recognizes is the need for a community-based organization that needs to find its niche within the federal agency structure, the interagency organizations, and the growing community of users. It recognizes the value of increased community-based planning and, hopefully, execution. And it, once again, recognizes the progress of the past decade of community building.

The next key recommendation is to “nurture a unified weather-climate modeling effort that better exploits the synergies between weather forecasting, data assimilation, and climate modeling.” This subject, too, has been flirted with in previous reports, and it is a recommendation that is more controversial than one might imagine. These two communities, weather and climate, have come to the modeling problem from different perspectives. Their practices of science have some distinct differences. There is also in the United States an idea held by many that weather forecasting is “operational,” and that “operational” comes at the expense of “science.” This recommendation from the Academy panel is based on the facts that 1) “operational” does not have to come at the expense of “science,” and 2) rationalization or unification of the different practices of science come with the benefit of more robust science-based products.

The final overarching recommendation is about the development of a new type of professional, the climate interpreter. This recommendation follows from other Academy reports and a growing body of research into the barriers of the use of climate information by scientists and practitioners who need climate information in their research, applications, and decision making. This recommendation explicitly recognizes the importance of formalizing the interfaces between climate modeling, more broadly climate science, and the usability of climate information by society as a whole.

These new recommendations are supported by a series of recommendations, which are, again, focused on pulling together the community: the scientific efforts, the computational efforts, and the interfaces to society as a whole. These supporting recommendations focus on continuation and strengthening of important activities that are of especial importance.

I want to also point out a few things that the report is not. It is not a list of important scientific questions. Many such lists have been made, and they are often the natural product of a group of scientists thinking about strategy. It is not a recommendation that if the government reorganizes in some way or simply provides more money, then we will address all needed climate services. We have no way to reorganize the government, and we are smart enough to know the challenges of money. And, finally, this report is not a call to centralize through reorganization. As a government manager, for years I studied centralized organizations, federations, and anarchist groups. I feel that centralization in a field and environment like ours is, primarily, a process that leads to increased risk. I feel that federated, community-based responsibility is the best path to assure success. It is also the most difficult.

As a final comment: I am a co-author of the report writing a blog that is my point of view. If I were asked to interpret the report in a strategic sense for a program manager, this is where I would start. One of the lessons I have learned is that this report is now in the hands of the public. Some people will interpret the report to support their agendas, sometimes their prejudices. I looked at past reports that I have been involved with, and I have seen recommendations cherry-picked for both good and bad reasons. The message of this report is synthesis, integration, and coordination. For the report’s message to become reality, those with the power to act and to implement need to focus on synthesis. We need to go forward more as a whole than as a thousand points of expertise brought together in grand exercises of climate-science assessment.


Belief and Knowledge and Humans and Nature:

July 18th, 2012 <-- by Richard Rood -->

Belief and Knowledge and Humans and Nature:

I am starting this entry from a previous blog, Rhetoric Again – Cycles. I got some interesting comments as well as a couple of letters for that entry. To set the tone, here is a thought from the end of that blog.

There is little doubt that humans are the dominant life form on the planet today. We shape every ecosystem. We consume all forms of energy. Throughout time, plants and animals have determined and altered the environment. Today we humans change our environment, the atmosphere and ocean. Not only are we a dominant life form, we have this amazing ability to extract rocks and liquids and gases from the Earth and to burn them. We have the ability to push land around, to remove mountains, to build islands, and to manufacture concrete. We are, therefore, not only biological, we are geological.

We humans are a force of nature – while yet a part of nature. Because we have the ability to remember, to reason, to develop and to accumulate knowledge, unlike other parts of the natural world, we have the ability to make decisions that influence the future of our environment. Therefore, our role in nature, in the natural world, is unique. To be clear, that uniqueness is not in our ability to change the environment, but in our ability to understand the consequences of those changes and the ability to anticipate and influence the future.

I bring up this idea of humans as a reasoning biological and geological force for several reasons. First, I believe that to set the world into two parts, natural on one hand, human on the other, is both a false and dangerous division. As we focus on climate change, this division is at the foundation of the thought of those who argue that the climate is full of natural cycles, that the current warming is just part of that natural cycle, and hence that we humans have no need for concern. Or alternatively, there is no need for us to modify our behavior because the changes we see are simply a force of nature, and we don’t have any influence over nature. (see also). Some of the many who see humans as outside of nature see humans as a disturbance to nature, and others believe humans have divine providence over nature. The very foundation of how we think about climate change, our environment, and our place in nature is based on our beliefs. It is a belief base associated with our personal identity. (WWF, Environment and Identity)

I have been motivated to think about what we believe and how our beliefs influence how we think about climate change working to improve our ability to communicate climate change. Some scientists spend a lot of time thinking about how to communicate their work; in fact, research sponsors often require plans for communication, outreach, and broader impacts. Many scientists, trained in a discipline of evidence-based knowledge generation, naturally present evidence-based arguments, with the idea that ultimately the evidence-based argument will be convincing beyond reasonable doubt. In many ways, this invites an argument more suitable to our approach to legal problems. We the scientists will present the evidence base. This evidence will stand in contrast to the arguments of the nonscientist. There will, ultimately, be judgment in favor of the evidence base, because, well, it becomes self-evident. This form of argument does not recognize that we humans often look at evidence and make decisions that deny the existence of that evidence. We make decisions that align with our desires, our beliefs, and what we want to believe.

I have written about some of these communications issues, and they are compiled here in What to Do? What to Do?. What I want to state more explicitly than I have stated before is the importance of the recognition of the belief-based argument. First, I naturally contrast the belief-based argument with the knowledge-based argument, which is not really the right contrast. The belief-based argument is, in fact, informed by knowledge, but it does not give high weight to science-based knowledge. Hence, it is not especially useful to pose a belief-based versus a knowledge-based argument. I have already stated that both sides of the argument are belief-based and that both sides of the argument are informed by knowledge. Hence, these arguments easily fall into attacks on personal identity – I the scientist work from the foundation of knowledge and the ability to generate knowledge. You do not. Therefore, you are wrong. This form of argument is not useful.

Second, I have used belief-based argument with the idea that belief-based might be viewed as a politically based argument or even a religion-based argument. I have often referred to the politically based argument in my blog entries, and I have stated that once the climate change discussion becomes a political argument, where the foundation is not primarily science-based knowledge, there is really little purpose in arguing over facts and evidence-based knowledge of the Earth’s climate. There is even evidence that introduction of science facts increases the polarity of political arguments (see here). In such an argument, people may be working from a different base of believed facts. This failure of science-based knowledge to win the belief-based argument is especially evident in the arguments over biological evolution, divine creation, and, say, the observation-based scientific description of progression of Earth’s life and climate.

Where am I planning to take this blog? First, the communication of climate change is complex and individual. If we mash together evangelical, conservative, and Republican beliefs as dismissive of climate change and view a concern for climate change as secular, liberal, and Democratic, then we do disservice to all. It does not take much effort to reveal evangelical, conservative, Republican organizations that are concerned about and vested in ways to address climate change (Inglis and Climate Change). That is why in the 2012 political environment, a focus on exposing the companies, the governments, and the individuals that are seeking solutions is a more useful way forward than perpetuating the political arguments and despair over the political response. There is no simple key that will be uncovered by a compelling presentation of knowledge; there is no single approach to communication that will be effective. Successful communication is purpose-based and recognizes the valid points of view brought to the table by all constituencies. It often requires overcoming barriers of prejudice.

Next, let’s return to the idea of natural cycles – climate variability. We have been faced with many environmental challenges. I wrote this sitting in St. Cloud, Minnesota, in a region that was largely deforested many years ago, on the Mississippi River, which has an excess of nitrogen-based nutrients in the water. A few miles back I saw a bald eagle, a species that was endangered by the insecticide DDT after World War II. We eliminated the use of DDT, and we have seen the return of the bald eagle. Why can we make that decision – to ban DDT? Lots of reasons, an important one being the easy identification of cause and effect. And we see the return of the eagle over our lifetime. Climate change does not have that easy cause and effect.

Responding to climate change lacks the narrow focus on regulating an insecticide and saving a grand bird. It is not easy to see the benefit of regulating carbon dioxide emissions. Those benefits are many years in the future, and the near-term cost is high and very visible. It is like people not taking a medicine that has a 90 percent chance of curing them from a slowly progressing disease because they don’t understand how the drug they ingest might work and they don’t want to introduce alien chemicals into their body. They seem to be doing okay right now. And if we look at the consequences of climate change, they are frightening, threatening, and our fault. We don’t accept fault easily; we have a mandate to feel that we are right. We don’t like change forced upon us, either individually or collectively. We fall back to our beliefs, our identity.

After the blog Rhetoric Again – Cycles, I was asked whether or not I considered man part of nature. Yes, I am saying that man is part of nature. But I don’t think that nature proceeds as a completely unrestrained force. We are many, and we influence nature. In fact, we are at this time the most dominant force of nature. However, we are also able to investigate nature, develop knowledge, and anticipate scenarios for the future. Therefore, we can influence the course of nature. My belief is that we have the responsibility to act on this knowledge. And like people who get caught in cycles of behavior, perhaps trapped by psychological pitfalls, with recognition of our role in nature, we have the ability and the opportunity to take advantage of our knowledge.

To my students I try to teach that they separate what is known from what they believe and what they want to believe. Advocacy needs to be recognized by the advocate, and advocacy changes one’s role in decision making. The advocate identifies with an issue and is trying to elevate one position relative to other positions. The convincing advocate for addressing climate change is anchored in a knowledge base that is drawn from scientific investigation. With a separation of what is known, from what is believed to be known, and what is desired based on belief, the climate-change advocate becomes more effective in the decision-making process. It is then easier to incorporate climate knowledge into planning and policy, and societal response becomes possible.

We are what we repeatedly do

April 11th, 2012 <-- by Richard Rood -->

Form of Argument: Adventures in Rhetoric

In 2009 I received some questions from Westview High School in San Diego, California (see here). A few weeks ago I heard from the same teacher, Bob Whitney, and he was curious about how I would respond to the issues raised in this posting on Rogues and Scholars. This is a long exchange of postings between two engineers, Burt Rutan and Brian Angliss.

In my blog, for better or worse, I have tended away from engaging in the type of discussions that are represented by this exchange. A couple of reasons: One, this line of argument that works to discredit climate change is at this point political, and as I argued here, engagement in this argument is not productive. Two, while it is necessary to address the factual inaccuracies that are stated in this type of discussion, it has been done repeatedly and well by many others (look around, for instance, at Real Climate). That said – what do you say to students who have the discussion between Rutan and Angliss at hand and want to make sense of it all?

When I look at the words used by Rutan, I see words anchored around fraud, dishonesty, alarmist – this is an argument that relies on discredit and personal attacks. Such an attack quickly raises the emotion and takes the discussion away from a knowledge base. It is the sort of attack that has become pervasive in our political conversation in general, and it is an excellent diversionary tactic. It raises the specter of distrust.

I tell students to look for the form of argument. So, first, does it rely on discredit? In this case, it does rely on discredit, and it relies on discrediting thousands of scientists, writing many thousands of papers, over many years, from many countries. It is fundamentally conspiratorial, and not only is it conspiratorial it requires that many years before climate change emerged as an important environmental problem, that the foundation for the conspiracy was being laid down. To me, this lacks any credibility in reason, but if conspiratorial beliefs are held, then it is virtually impossible to provide convincing counterarguments to the person who holds those beliefs. If the form of argument relies on conspiracy, then it is immediately suspect.

One way to address, rationally, issues of dishonesty and conspiracy is to seek external review and, ultimately, judgment. The body of climate science research has been subject to extensive external review. Governments, the National Academy (here as well), non-climate-science scientists, and lawyers have reviewed climate science. They have all affirmed the results to be well founded and based on proper scientific investigation. The studies have documented that scientists have foibles and that peer review captures the vast majority of errors and prejudices and that there are no fundamental shortcomings in the conclusions that the Earth has, at its surface, on average, warmed and with virtual certainty will continue to warm. But if you dismiss climate science on the principle of conspiratorial malfeasance, then it is simple to dismiss external review. If you stand on only your own review and have the foundation to dismiss all external review because of conspiracy, then you are always right. Hence there is no discussion. There is no possible way forward for the student other than looking at the evidence and behavior and form of argument and standing as judge.

Does the argument rely on invoking moral levers of trust and distrust based on the belief of conspiratorial fraud?

Does the argument pull out single pieces of information and ignore other pieces of information? Does the argument rely on planting belief and disbelief by reaching for metaphors outside of the field? Does the argument assert that broad claims are made when there is no evidence to support such assertion?

So for the student – you have to think about the whole, not just isolated points that are meant to be provocative and planted to grow on an emotional state fueled by claims of amoral behavior.

Yes, carbon dioxide acts as a fertilizer, but is that the complete story of the vigor of plants? Is there any denial of this role of carbon dioxide in the climate literature? Can you find quantitative, science-based studies of the carbon dioxide fertilization effect?

Yes, there was a lot of carbon dioxide when there were dinosaurs; it was warm – what is the relevance of that argument? Does that establish that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant? Can’t things that are natural also be a pollutant? Isn’t that why we don’t want mine tailings in our drinking water? Isn’t that why we manage our sewage?

There is a wealth of information out there. There are ways to analyze that information, to evaluate its validity. If this sort of argument is encumbering, then there is a need to synthesize, personally, that information to form defensible conclusions.

If you look at the form of argument that relies on emotion, picks out pieces of information to support the argument, ignores pieces of information that do not support the argument, paints moods by long reaching metaphors, and ultimately relies on a belief that a field is corrupt, and that corruption requires a conspiratorial organization extending across decades and all nations – if that is the form of argument, then how is that robust? How is that believable? It is a prejudicial form of argument directed only at making someone believe the person making the argument; it is not seeking knowledge-based understanding.

That’s how I would look at that discussion.


Figure 1: A summary figure I use after I walk through about 10 lectures on the basics of climate science and global warming.

The Scientific Organization: Organizing U.S. Climate Modeling

September 30th, 2011 <-- by Richard Rood -->

The Scientific Organization: Organizing U.S. Climate Modeling

Summary: In order to address the need to provide climate-model products, a new type of organization is needed. This organization needs to focus on and to be organized to support the unifying branch of the scientific method. This requires application-driven model development. This will require the organization as a whole to develop hypotheses, design experiments, and document methods of evaluation and validation. In such an organization the development of standards and infrastructure support controlled experimentation, the scientific method, in contrast to the arguments that have been used in the past to resist the development of standards and infrastructure. This organization where a collection of scientists behaves as a “scientist” requires governance structures to support decision making and management structures to support the generation of products. Such an organization must be envisioned as a whole and developed as a whole.


Over the past 25 years there have been many reports written about climate and weather modeling (example), climate and weather observing systems (example), high performance computing (example), and how to improve the transition from research to operations (example). A number of common themes emerge from these reports. First, the reports consistently conclude with commendation of the creativity and quality of U.S. scientific research. Second, the reports call for more integration across the federal agencies to address documented “needs” for climate-science products. De facto, the large number of these reports suggests that there is a long-held perception that U.S. activities in climate science are not as effective as they need to be or could be. The fact that there are reports with consistent messages for more than two decades suggests that our efforts at integration are not as effective as required.

Integration within existing organizations and across organizations is always difficult. Within institutions when there is a push towards more integration of research, there is both individual and institutional resistance (earlier entry). This resistance occurs for many reasons, both good and bad, both structural and cultural. I want to focus on those reasons that appeal to the sanctity of “the science.”

There are attributes of science-based research that, perhaps, pose additional challenges. These arguments are often based on the notion that creativity and innovation cannot be managed. Further arguments rely on the observation that many innovations come from unexpected places and cannot be anticipated. Therefore, the creative edge of science needs to be left unencumbered by the heavy hand of management needed to assure integration.

Another argument that is used to resist integration of scientific activities maintains that complying with the standards required to integrate component pieces into a whole hurts the integrity of “the science.” There are two lines that support this. The first line focuses on examples of when management-focused attention and resources towards, for example, facilitating technology (cyberinfrastructure), the result of that attention was of dubious scientific integrity – or the diversion of resources that could have been used to support “the science.” The second line is that by the time a particular component, say the algorithm that calculates ice particles in clouds, is integrated into an operational weather or climate model that that algorithm is no longer state-of-the art. Therefore, again, the integrating activity is a step behind the “best science.”

Such arguments serve to benefit the dominate type of scientific efforts in the U.S. These are the efforts associated with individual scientists, who focus (or reduce) their problems in such a way to isolate something specific and to determine cause and effect. This reductionist approach to investigation is central to the classic scientific method and is an effective method of discovery or knowledge generation.

The focus on reductionist investigation, however, comes at the expense of the unifying path of science; that is, how do all of the pieces fit together? This unifying path requires a synthesis of knowledge. This synthesis does, in fact, lead to new discoveries because when the pieces do not fit together, then we are required to ask – why not? The synthesis of scientific knowledge is also required to, for example, forecast the weather or climate or to adapt to sea level rise – or more generally, problem solving. (An excellent reference on this: Consilience by E.O. Wilson, and A complex book review)

My ultimate thesis is that a focus on unified science does not come at the expense of “the science,” and does not undermine the scientific method or the integrity of “the science.” If we are going to address the recommendations and ambitions addressed in the reports linked above, then we must develop a practice of science that supports the synthesis and unification of science-generated knowledge.

The Scientific Method and The Scientific Organization

Core to the scientific method is checking. In a good scientific paper most of the text is spent describing the results and how those results are defended – determined to be correct. A scrupulous reader looks for independence in the testing and validation; that is, how is unbiased information brought into the research to evaluate the results. Then the paper is subjected to peer review, which is another form of verification. Once a paper is published, it becomes fair game for all to question, and there is, ultimately, a requirement that the result be verified by independent investigation. If the result cannot be reproduced, then there is little acceptance of the result as correct (see Wikipedia Cold Fusion).

This process of checking is ingrained into scientists, and those who develop a sustaining legacy as quality researchers are always expert on how to check results in multiple ways. It is also true that on the individual level, it is ingrained into the scientist to question the results of others – to be skeptical. Therefore, at the level of the individual, the culture of scientific investigation does not promote synthesis, integration, or unification. Quite the contrary, what is promoted is the creation of many high quality granules of knowledge. These granules may or may not fit together to form a consistent body of knowledge.

The synthesis, the fitting together, of scientific knowledge to address specific problems does not happen organically. It requires attention; it requires some form of organization or coordination or management. Within the field of climate science, there is much effort spent on “assessment.” ( IPCC Assessments, National Climate Assessment). These assessments are the synthesis and evaluation of the body of knowledge. The ability to provide modeling information for these assessments is one of the motivations for the reports listed at the beginning of the article. Many scientists view these assessments as a halting of research, and they are widely viewed as a tax on the science community. Some view that they impede model development.

Building climate models is also a matter of synthesis and integration. Tangibly, software components are brought together in a unified environment: software components that represent physical, chemical, or biological processes; software components that provide connectivity; software components that represent computational infrastructure. The software components represent science-based research; hence, the intellectual capital of research is integrated. When a model is built, it is the function of the model as a whole rather than the performance of individual components, that becomes the focus. It is the science of the collected, rather than the science of the individual. Therefore, the focus needs to be brought to this integrated system. This integrated system poses a different set of scientific challenges than those posed by investigation of the individual components; there is science associated with integration – with coupling components. The integrated system also poses a set of information technology challenges that are crucial to the execution of the model and also impact which components can be used in a particular configuration of the model. Like assessments, modeling building requires organization or coordination or management.

Framing integrating activities such as assessment and model building, more generally, the synthesis path of the scientific method as a scientific activity, and formally recognizing it as such, is a necessary step to advance the organizational issues required for delivering climate products.

Validation, verification, evaluation, certification, confirmation, calibration: All of the words in this list have been used in discussions of how to assess the quality of models. For some, there are nuanced differences between the words, but in the general discussion they are all likely to take on the same meaning – some quantitative measure of model quality. This quantitative measure of quality is at the core of the scientific method. If climate modeling requires formal organization, then there needs to be an organization that, as a whole, honors the principles of the scientific method. This requires, then, a process that builds trust among the individuals of the organization. It requires structuring of checking and validation in a form that supports the transfer of knowledge (and computer code) from one individual to another. It requires the development of validation strategies that test the combined knowledge, the combined algorithms, in a quantitative and repeatable way. This organization is far different than an organization that is comprised on many, individual, excellent scientists, each following their own expression of the scientific method.

What does it take for an organization to adhere to the scientific method? First, I introduced that such an organization has to recognize, formally, the synthesis or unification of scientific knowledge as a path of the scientific method. Second, the organization has to develop strategies to evaluate and validate collected, rather than individual, results.

A Type of Scientific Organization: In May I attended a seminar by David Stainforth. Stainforth is one of the principles in the community project From their website, “ is a distributed computing project to produce predictions of the Earth’s climate up to 2100 and to test the accuracy of climate models.” In this project people download a climate model and run the model on their personal computers, then the results are communicated back to a data center where they are analyzed in concert with results from many other people.

Figure 1: Location of participants in From the BBC, a sponsor of the experiment.

This is one example of community science or citizen science. Other citizen science programs are Project Budburst and the Globe Program. There are a number of reasons for projects like this. One of the reasons is to extend the reach of observations. In Project Budburst people across the U.S. observe the onset of spring as indicated by different plants – when do leaves and blossoms emerge? A scientific motivation for doing this is to increase the number observations to try to assure that the Earth’s variability is adequately observed – to develop statistical significance. In these citizen science programs people are taught how to observe – a protocol is developed.

There is another goal of these citizen science activities, education about the scientific method. In order to follow the scientific process, we need to know the characteristics of the observations. If, as in Project Budburst, we are looking for the onset of leafing, then we need to make sure that the tree is not sitting next to a warm building or in the building’s atrium. Perhaps, there is a requirement of a measurement, for example, that the buds on a particular type of tree have expanded to a certain size or burst in some discernible way. Quantitative measurement and adherence of practices of measurement are at the foundation of developing a controlled experiment. A controlled experiment is one where we try to investigate only one thing at a time; this is a difficult task in climate science. If we are not careful about our observations and the design of our experiments, then it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to evaluate our hypotheses and arrive at conclusions. And the ability to test hypotheses is fundamental to the scientific method. Design, observations, hypothesis, evaluation, validation – in a scientific organization these things need to be done by the organization, not each individual.

Let’s return to A major goal is to obtain simulations from climate models to examine the range of variability that we might expect in 2100. The strategy is to place relatively simple models in the hands of a whole lot of people. With this strategy it is possible to do many more experiments than say one scientist or even a small team of scientists can do. Many 100,000s of simulations have been completed.

One of the many challenges faced in model-based experiments is how to manage the model simulations to provide controlled experiments. If you think about a climate model as a whole, then there are a number of things that can be changed. We can change something “inside” of the model, for example, we can change how rough we estimate the Earth’s surface to be – maybe grassland versus forest. We can change something “outside” of the model – the energy balance, perhaps, some estimate of how the Sun varies or how carbon dioxide will change. And, still “outside” the model, we can change the details of what the climate looks like when the model simulation is started – do we start it with January 2003 data or July 2007? When you download a model from, it has a unique set of these parameters. If you do a second experiment, this will also have a unique set of parameters. Managing these model configurations and documenting this information allows, well, 100000s of simulations to be run, with a systematic exploration of model variability. Experiment strategy is explained here. has designed a volunteer organization that allows rigorous investigation. Protocols have been set up to verify that the results are what they should be; there is confidence in the accuracy of the information collected. Here is an example where scientists are able to define an organization where the scientific method permeates the organization. Is this proof that a formalized scientific organization is possible? What are the attributes that contribute to the success of a project like Are they relevant to a U.S. climate laboratory?

Bringing this back to the scale of U.S. climate activities – in 2008 there was a Policy Forum in Science Magazine by Mark Schaefer, Jim Baker and a number of equally distinguished co-authors. All of these co-authors had worked at high levels in the government, and they all struggled with the desire and need to integrate U.S. climate activities. Based on their experience they posed an Earth System Science Agency made from a combined USGS and NOAA. In their article they pointed out: “The synergies among our research and monitoring programs, both space- and ground-based, are not being exploited effectively because they are not planned and implemented in an integrated fashion. Our problems include inadequate organizational structure, ineffective interagency collaboration, declines in funding, and blurred authority for program planning and implementation.” Planning and implementation in an integrated fashion, I will add – consistent with the scientific method.

Validation and the Scientific Organization

In a philosophical sense there is controversy about whether or not climate models can be validated. The formal discussion of whether or not climate models can or cannot be validated often starts with a greatly cited paper by Naomi Oreskes et al. entitled Verification, Validation, and Confirmation of Numerical Models in the Earth Sciences. In fact quoting the first two sentences in the abstract:

“Verification and validation of numerical models of natural systems is impossible. This is because natural systems are never closed and because model results are always nonunique.”

Oreskes et al. argues that the performance of the models can be “confirmed” by comparison with observations. However, if the metric of “validation” is a measure of absolute truth, then such absolute validation is not possible. By such a definition little of the science of complex systems, which would include most biological science, medical science, and nuclear weapons management, can stand up to formal validation. This points out a weakness in the development of models of natural systems, that the adjustments of the models to represent a historical situation does not assure that model correctly represents the physics of cause and effect. In fact, this is a general problem with modeling of complex natural systems, if you get the answer “right,” then that does not mean you get it right for the right reason. Hence, in the spirit of Oreskes et al. validation is not possible – there is no absolute to be had.

Weather models, river forecast models, storm surge models all suffer from the fact that their correctness cannot be assured in any absolute sense. Yet, aren’t storm surge models, weather models, climate models, etc. useful and usable? Their evaluation is usually cast as a set of predictions. Predictions do not represent a complete set of metrics to evaluate models, and the success or failure of these predictions does not state in any absolute sense whether or not the models have usable information.

It is easy, therefore, to establish that models that cannot be formally validated can be both useful and usable. The results of these models might not be certain, but the degree of confidence that can be attributed to their calculations is very high. This confidence is, in general, established by many forms of model evaluation and, in addition to the ability to predict, the use of additional sources of relevant information, most importantly, observations and basic physical principles.

Validation is, therefore, both controversial and important. I pose that validation is at the center of the development of the scientific organization. (Validation and the Scientific Organization) Climate scientists need to develop a standard process out of all the nuanced meanings of validation and evaluation. The evaluation of climate models can be structured and quantified as “validation.”

The definition I have posed for the scientific organization is an organization that as a whole functions according to the scientific method. Therefore, if it is a climate modeling organization the model development path, the modeling problems that are being addressed, are determined in a unified way. In that determination, it is required that ways to measure success be identified. This leads to a strategy of evaluation that is determined prior to the development and implementation of model software. With the existence of an evaluation strategy, a group of scientists who are independent of the developers can be formed to serve as the evaluation team. Both of these practices, pre-determined evaluation strategy (hypothesis), and evaluation by an independent validation group, are consistent with practice of the scientific method.

The development of an evaluation plan requires that a fundamental question be asked? What is the purpose of the model development? What is the application? If the model is being developed to do “science,” then there is no real constraint that balances the interests of one scientific problem versus another. There is little or no way to set up a ladder of priorities.

The scientific organization to support the synthesis of knowledge requires developing organizational rather than individual goals. It is a myth to imagine that if a group of individuals are each making the “best” scientific decisions, the accumulation of their activities will be the best integrated science. Science and scientists are not immune to the The Tragedy of the Commons. If one wants to achieve scientifically robust results from a unified body of knowledge, then one needs to manage the development of that body of knowledge so that as a whole the scientific method is honored. A scientific organization requires governance and management.

When I was at NASA I had a programmatic requirement to develop a validation plan. And, yes, my friends and colleagues would tell me that that validation was “impossible.” But I am stubborn, and not so smart, so I persisted and still persist with the notion. That old plan can still be found here in Algorithm Theoretical Basis Document for Goddard Earth Observing System Data Assimilation System (GEOS DAS) with a Focus on Version 2.

The software we produced was an amalgam of weather forecasting and climate modeling. For the validation plan the strategy was taken to define a quantitative baseline of model performance for a set of geophysical phenomena. These phenomena were broadly studied and simulated well enough that they described a credibility threshold for system performance. They were chosen to represent the climate system. Important aspects of this validation approach were that it is defined by a specific suite of phenomena, formally separated validation from development, and relied on both quantitative and qualitative analysis.

The validation plan separated “scientific” validation from “systems” validation. It included steps of routine point-by-point monitoring of simulation and observations, formal measures of quality assessment by measure of fit of simulations and observations, and calculation of skill scores to a set of “established forecasts.” There was a melding of methodologies of practices of the study of weather and the study of climate. We distinguished the attributes of the scientific validation from the systems validation. The systems validation, focused on the credibility threshold mentioned above, used simulations that were of longer time scales than the established forecasts and brought attention to a wider range of variables important to climate. The scientific validation was a more open-ended process, often requiring novel scientific investigation of new problems. The modeling software system was released for scientific validation and use after a successful systems validation.

The end result of this process was the quantitative description of the modeling system against a standard set of measures over the course of one modeling release to the next. Did it meet the criterion of the absolute validation? No. Did it provide a defensible quantitative foundation for scientific software and its application? Yes.

Summary: In order to address the need to provide climate-model products, a new type of organization is needed. This organization needs to focus on and to be organized to support the unifying branch of the scientific method. This requires application-driven model development. This will require the organization as a whole to develop hypotheses, design experiments, and document methods of evaluation and validation. In such an organization the development of standards and infrastructure support controlled experimentation, the scientific method, in contrast to the arguments that have been used in the past to resist the development of standards and infrastructure. This organization where a collection of scientists behaves as a “scientist” requires governance structures to support decision making and management structures to support the generation of products. Such an organization must be envisioned as a whole and developed as a whole.

Figure 2: Chaos and order, 2008 Galvanized wire, 60x60x60cm. Barbara Licha, Finalist of Willoughby Sculpture Prize 2009. (from Ultimo Project Studios


Something New in the Past Decade? Organizing U.S. Climate Modeling

February 6th, 2011 <-- by Richard Rood -->

Something New in the Past Decade? Organizing U.S. Climate Modeling

Update: The report referred to in the original blog was released on September 7, 2012: National Academy of Sciences Report, A National Strategy for Advancing Climate Modeling (2012).

In 1999 I was part of a small group of people that was asked to write a report on climate modeling and supercomputing, and in particular, what needed to be done to make U.S. Federal efforts more effective. The report was published in 2000, and it is still available on line at the USGCRP website. (U.S. Global Change Research Program) Now in 2011 a panel is being convened to write about “A National Strategy for Advancing Climate Modeling.” (link) In this entry I want to return to the older report and think about what is different from 10 years ago.

When my co-authors and I wrote this report, we presented the results to several panels of distinguished people. Over the years, people have continued to send comments to me about the report. I contend that this report was different from a lot of other reports. I think it is safe to say that the authors of the report were chosen because of a willingness to look beyond their home agencies. Also we included as an author a sociologist who is expert in organizations and how to make organizations function.

The report was motivated by what I might call discontent by some of those responsible for oversight of Federal climate expenditures. There was in the late 1990s a (highly politicized) national assessment of climate change. Much of the information for model predictions came from Canadian and British models. This occurred despite the fact that not only were their several U.S. modeling efforts, but the U.S. spent (far) more money on modeling than these other countries. A natural question, what was wrong with the U.S. efforts?

In the report, we concluded some things that some of our colleagues considered radical. We focused much of our discussion on issues of management of scientific programs and organizations, and concluded that the culture and practice of science in the U.S. was, fundamentally, fragmenting. We even went as far as to state that “Without addressing these management issues, providing additional funds to the existing programs will not be effective in the development of the Climate Service.” (Not sure that statement helped my career and reminding people of that might take me right through retirement.)

In the spirit of being conversational – there was press coverage of the report at the time, and most of that press coverage was in publications that focused on computing and supercomputing. We authors quickly regretted this emphasis on computing, and the document being cast as a “computing report.” True we did say that U.S. policy on supercomputing and our ability or inability to import supercomputers impacted, negatively, the competitiveness of U.S. climate and weather modeling. But we did not feel that our primary message was about computing.

Our primary message was meant to be about fragmentation and distribution of resources that could be brought together to address integrated problems such as climate assessments. The U.S. scientific culture values highly innovative, curiosity driven research. This is often best achieved through the efforts of individual scientists and small groups. This individuality is exciting, and it is how scientists get promoted. It develops a culture of expertise. Our point in the document was that there needed to be another path of scientific practice, one that valued the integration of all of the pieces and the production of validated, science-based products. We called this “product-driven” research. We could have as easily called it applied research.

So the question comes forward, how do we value product-driven research? It’s hard. In the U.S. we have this idea that if we generate products from our research, then that is in some way damaging to innovation and the generation of the “best science.” The “science” gets compromised. The word “operational” is invoked, and there is a prejudice that operational systems, ones that produce products on a schedule, must be less than they can and should be scientifically. Hence, anytime there is a push towards product-driven research, there is both individual and institutional resistance that rises to defeat the push. This makes sense, because it is asking people to change, and it is asking them to do something for which they cite plenty of evidence that it will assure less successful careers.

We have institutions where people are expected to work on community models but, at least historically, their performance plans make no mention of community activities. I have worked on documents for U.S. agencies as recently as 2010 where I tried to write that we were building climate models that could be used in energy planning, policy decisions, and by society to anticipate and plan for climate change. This, however, was deemed as contrary to the true agency mission of fundamental research for the benefit of the nation. People are hired to do multi-disciplinary research, but they are promoted or given tenure for their individual accomplishments in specific disciplines. Individuals are recognized for novel breakthroughs, programs are recognized for funding novel breakthroughs, and agencies are recognized for having programs that fund novel breakthroughs.

So in the final presentations we made of the 2000 Report we drew pictures like the one below. We put in arrows and money signs and suggested lines of management, and argued that there needed to be internalized incentive structures. (For those with energy, the article continues below the figure!)

Figure 1. An organization designed to deliver product-driven research (maybe what we should do).

What I have stated above is that the fragmented way we approach the practice of science is valued because it encourages innovation and fundamental discovery. One the other hand, it stands in way of the cross-disciplinary unifying branch of science. As climate scientists we have a need to perform assessments, and assessments are, by definition, cross-disciplinary unifying science. Therefore, to align our assets and efforts to perform assessments comes into basic conflict with not only our fragmented scientists and science organizations, but with the underlying culture of our practice of science.

The fragmentation extends beyond the practice of research. There are separate organizations responsible for high-performance computing, and they have their needs to demonstrate breakthroughs. Such a goal might be the greatest number of calculations in a second. Goals like that are achieved with special problems and computer codes, not with messy real problems like weather prediction and climate modeling. Computers are often provided for a set of grand challenge problems. Another point in the report was that the climate models and computational platforms needed to co-evolve; they needed to be managed together.

And if computers and models need to co-evolve, then there needs to be balanced development of software and data systems and analysis capabilities. In fact, in the 2000 report, we identified the greatest deficiency in federal investment being in software infrastructure. Since 2000, there has been significant development of software and data systems and analysis capabilities.

Perhaps then, there is some impact from the report, with more balance in the funding of all of the pieces that are needed in a robust climate program. The expenditures, however, are still fragmented, and the developments have a tendency to be independent. Even given the recognition that these expenditures are essential for a robust climate program, there is always a fight to maintain the expenditures as they are viewed to take away resources from “the science,” from research, from discovery. The program managers and software engineers and the data system professionals have to compete with the high profile breakthroughs of research and high-performance computing.

I paint here a fundamental characteristic of our practice of science. It is deeply engrained, and in many ways, it is highly successful. Therefore, approaches to provide assessments, to address cross-disciplinary unifying science, to develop climate services – these approaches need to build from this practice and from these successes. This is a challenge to agencies who like to think in terms of re-organizations, institutions, and programatic collocation of needed assets. Reorganization does not address the basic fact that the underlying structure is fundamentally fragmenting, that there is perceived value in that fragmentation, and that there is investment in that fragmentation.

In the 2000 report we described the type of organization that we thought was needed to address the issues of climate modeling, high-performance computing, and climate services. Today, I would nuance or refine that recommendation, based on emergence of community-based approaches to complex problem solving. A new type of organization is needed, one with stable, balanced, coordinated, product-focused investments in all of the elements necessary for science-based climate products. Essential in this organization is giving value to those who perform cross-disciplinary unifying scientific research to address complex problems. This is not reorganization or restructuring; this is not merging agencies and programs; this is focused, mindful development of a capability to achieve a specific, needed goal.


What to do? What to do?

October 31st, 2010 <-- by Richard Rood -->

What to Do ? (1) Politics and Knowledge:

A few months ago a Republican candidate for State Office came to my office to talk about climate change. At the end of the hour he asked me how I thought we could advance beyond the current political state which is publicly characterized by, my word, tribalism – do you or do you not believe in climate change? Since I had recently posted an article on the subject (here), I had some semblance of an answer queued up. At one level the answer is time, but I will get back to that.

At the top of the strategy was the realization by scientists that climate change was, now, a political issue, and that within the realm of the political culture, knowledge-based education was not, first and foremost, the way forward. In fact, in many cases, the exposure of more knowledge, more science, was likely to have a negative effect, fueling the political turmoil, and damaging, more, the body of scientific knowledge. Nuance of the scientific literature adds to uncertainty, and all uncertainty can be used to build doubt, which is the goal of the political argument.

Climate change has been a political issue for many years, but the relative weight between political issue and scientific issue has changed. The fact that a political candidate came to my office is, perhaps, a measure of how political it has become. But there are more thorough and, do I dare, more scientific measures. As mentioned in an earlier blog, Anthony Leiserowitz and colleagues have been investigating the how the public perceives climate change. Table 31 in this June 2010 presentation shows that Democrats are in a very small minority of those who are “Doubtful” or “Dismissive” of climate change. Republicans are in a slightly less distinct minority of those “Alarmed” or “Concerned” about climate change. The group who identified themselves as “Concerned” was the largest of six groups.

The majority of people who were “Alarmed” and “Concerned” about climate change identified themselves as Democrats. In the categories of “Doubtful” and “Dismissive” the largest group of people identified themselves as Republican, with a large percentage identifying themselves as Independent.

This quantifiable information supports the identification of climate change as a political issue and aligns climate change with the values associated with political affiliation. Hence, policy (and de facto commercial) interests and political values of taxation, regulation, energy, environment, conservation, etc. enter into how people think about climate change. For example, climate change means we have to change our reliance on fossil fuels, and if I make my living on fossil fuels, then I will likely be inclined to embrace the doubt that is the product of the political argument.

Once accepting that climate change is, publically, a political issue more than a scientific issue, it is important to realize that this challenge to science-based motivation of policy and societal change is not unique to climate change. In a paper I have referred to many times before Liisa Antilla states in her conclusions (I refer you to the original paper for the references):

“The attack on climate science, observed Pollack (2003), replicates previous assaults on science, such as by the pesticide industry (DDT), coal-burning electric utilities (acid rain), and the chemical industry (effect of CFCs on stratospheric ozone). Furthermore, Nissani (1999, p. 37) stressed that the ‘phoney’ controversy surrounding anthropogenic climate change has been preceded by controversies on such issues as slavery, child labour, and civil rights. There have always been experts willing to back up a ‘profitably mistaken viewpoint’; there have always been efforts ‘to cover the issue in a thick fog of sophistry and uncertainty’ and to ‘unearth yet one more reason why the status quo is best for us’ (Nissani, 1999, p. 37–38).”

It is important to appreciate that the politicization of climate change is not unique because it means that there is not some piece of magic, something that we have being saying wrong, that if we say it correctly, more convincingly, with a preponderance of knowledge and rationality – if we say it correctly, then we can move forward. Also realizing that the climate change is not unique in its politicization allows us to depersonalize the attacks, which are sometimes highly personal (a tried and true political tactic).

The use of the heavy weight of scientific investigation in such a political argument, I assert, serves just as much to maintain the politically useful perception of the arrogance of scientists and elitism of education as it does to correct misconceptions. This continual flow of knowledge and education from scientists engaged in this political game fuels the words of those making the argument that there is a conspiracy to deny personal choice – forced vegetarianism, a breathing tax, small dangerous cars …

Never mind the fact, the evidence, that small cars are not distinguished by excess danger, this is not a game of knowledge, of facts. Though not specifically focused on climate change a recent paper by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler study The Persistence of Political Misconceptions. They find through case studies of a set of recent cases, that the correction of incorrect information in polarized political issues did not lead to a rationalization of factual knowledge. In fact, they found that the correction of factually incorrect information could backfire, leading to more polarization. Quoting from their conclusions:

“As a result, the corrections fail to reduce misperceptions for the most committed participants. Even worse, they actually strengthen misperceptions among ideological subgroups in several cases.”

The realization and acceptance of climate change as a political issue that has a significant element of political values or ideology in how climate change is perceived has a profound influence on how we advance beyond the current political state. Notions that the way forward is simply a matter of communication are naïve. Yes, there is a subset that such information might influence; however, it will not convince those who have taken an explicit anti-climate change position. It will likely fuel them, amplify their message, with that also influencing those in middle ground open to influence. Not a simple case. The next articles will explore more aspects of the strategies for advancing the issues of climate change – What to do? What to do?

What to Do? (2) Who is the Audience?

In the previous article I argued that much of the “opposition” to climate change was politically motivated or politically aligned. With such political positioning a communications and education strategy motivated by the opposition only feeds the political argument. This is especially true in crisis situations, where reactions to the crisis serve to build and perpetuate the crisis. Then some become vested in maintaining the crisis, including those whose primary goal is to seed doubt – which is the purpose of the political argument. Casually, therefore, it makes some sense to step back from the argument and, perhaps, seek to do no harm.

More generally, if the way scientists, individually and collectively, decide to communicate is based upon and focused on the points raised by political opposition, then this seriously compromises the ability to move forward with knowledge-based action. Why? As argued and substantiated in the previous article, the correction of factual misstatements often does not make things better and can make things worse. This means that the energy expended in making the arguments of correction is largely wasted, and the messages that enter into the public dialogue are largely defined by the political opposition. This does pose a dilemma, which I will get to below.

I return to the research of Anthony Leiserowitz and colleagues who investigate how the public perceives climate change. This research divided the U.S. into Six Nations as indicated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: From Center for American Progress, Global Warming’s Six Americas. Here is a June 2010 update and more figures.

Focusing only on the “Alarmed” and “Concerned” communities, together, they provide an actual majority. This suggests that, in fact, the science-based study of the Earth’s climate, projections of climate change, and the potential consequences have been communicated and accepted as substantive. On top of this, it is reasonable to add to this informed group the people listed as “Cautious,” yielding quite a large majority of people who have at some level heard and are receptive to the issue of climate change. The “Cautious” group is split across Democrats, Republicans and Independents. Not only does this suggest success from the point of view of the scientist, but it has implications for communication strategies as well as moving forward.

With regard to communication strategies, the target of communication might naturally be those in the “Cautious” group. Therefore, rather than reacting to the message of the “Doubtful” and “Dismissive,” it is perhaps worthwhile to respond to the questions of “Cautious.” Hence, we need to know the questions of the “Cautious,” and these will not be only questions about scientific investigation.

With regard to moving forward, the results in Figure 1 show a majority of people are “Concerned” or “Alarmed.” Under the assumption that these people do not hang on in quiet desperation, there should be a substantial amount of actions and intellectual energy focused on developing and implementing solutions. Therefore, the extraction of knowledge from these evolving activities serves not only to promote creativity and accelerate the development of solution paths, but also to diversify the base of people who are advancing climate change as an important issue. This takes climate change out of the realm and culture of scientists, making the message more broadly concrete, and revealing more and more opportunity that comes from addressing climate change as a societal value.

Above, I mentioned a dilemma. On one hand I am advocating that scientists (perhaps others) disengage from the political argument. I base this argument on the idea that participation in the public political argument often makes the problem worse; this includes the correction of untrue information and errors. Yet aren’t we required to make these corrections? It is important to assure that there is knowledge-based information, and that this knowledge-based information is regularly refreshed. It is important that there is education, both formal and informal. It is important that we constantly improve the ability to communicate the essence and the substance of complex problems. Explicitly, the dilemma is both the need to correct incorrect information, with the realization that the correction of incorrect information does not lead to knowledge-based reconciliation of disagreements.

What is required to bring some rationalization of this dilemma is, again, the recognition of the political motivation of the opposition, and to set that political opposition into its proper context. It exists; it can be identified, and the level of response is then tailored to what it is. If the political opposition is continuously engaged; if it is allowed to define the strategies of communication and education; then it serves to erode the science-derived knowledge base. This is, perhaps, a generalization of Edwin Friedman’s Fallacy of Empathy, which is that an excess of empathy towards an individual propagates through an organization and exaggerates the (usually negative) influence that that person has on the organization. Success requires the containment of the political (and emotional) argument, and the separation of the education and communication functions from this political and emotional argument. This is a difficult, but necessary and doable, proposition. And, as argued above there is a ready audience for this message. (Do I dare invoke the Silent Majority …. No.)

The point of this blog is that to move these issues forward it is necessary to avoid the lure of the political argument and the personal attack. It is critical to identify the receptive audience, and it is critical to target substantiated information to this audience. On the flip side it is important to minimize the harm of participation in the political argument, and it is important to avoid having the political argument define the communication and education mission of the importance of climate change.

What to Do ? (3) The Messenger Matters:

The first article in this series was motivated by a Republican candidate for State Office coming to my office to talk about climate change. The previous two entries in the series (one, two) have focused on the identification of the evolving political nature of climate change and what that means to knowledge-based education and communication. I have argued that scientists, generically, are not well positioned to participate in ideological confrontation and are easy foils for savvy political strategists. This leads to a dilemma – there is a need for communicating correct information about climate change, but at least a subset of this communication serves to fuel the political cause of those who oppose using resources to address climate change on a political or ideological basis. It is easy to make things worse.

One of the common points made in political arguments is that scientists sustain arguments about the threats of climate change because it is a way to keep funding coming to the field. This is a classic conflict of interest argument, which does not, intuitively, carry a lot of substance. For example, as Steve Schneider pointed out, if scientists were truly vested in a conspiracy to enhance and maintain their funding, then they would not state that global warming is “unequivocal” (IPCC 2007). It would be a lot smarter to say that we think global warming is important, but we need to do a WHOLE lot more research. For scientists to state that warming is “unequivocal,” and that we really need to pay attention to impacts often works against the obvious self-interest of the climate scientist. Such a position empowers new fields of expertise and their constituencies. In a tight budgetary time this pulls money away from science. But like the knowledge of climate change itself, if too much effort is made to counter the conflict of interest argument, then this only serves to fuel and spread the political argument. (“More research” is quite often a political tactic to delay action.)

There is a point to be extracted from the above. The messenger is important.

The role of the scientist in the communication of scientific issues and in the possible consequences is complex. Scientists open themselves up to the conflict-of-interest criticism if there is even an indirect link between what people say and the way they get their funding. However, scientists are required by the scientific method and, de facto, contractual obligation to report their research. In their reports they need to write why the work is novel and important. Being novel and important does contribute to sustained funding – as it should. On top of this there is constant pressure from agency program managers and politicians for scientists to communicate their results in a way the public can understand. There was a time period when I was in the government where it was stylish to be asked the question “so what?” The implication of this question was that you must go beyond saying something is important, but you must say why it is important – often we were told, “so your mother could understand it.” In addition to these motivations and demands for scientists to communicate broadly, there is also the role of advocacy. There are some who see issues as so important that they move beyond the purveyors of objective knowledge to advocates of particular points of view (Scientists as Advocates).

Earlier in this series I put forward the notion that scientists needed to be cognizant of their role in what is now political discourse and, perhaps, to seek to do no harm. This requires scientists not only to understand their audience, but to also understand where their point of view is perceived to lie. Assume that one determines that they are engaged in a political exchange. Then given that the IPCC report has been politicized, authors of the IPCC report are by definition engaging in a political discussion. Being in a political discussion the role of correct facts and consideration of complete knowledge becomes complex. Not only does the aforementioned role of factual knowledge in science-motivated political issues come into play, but the IPCC author is a political voice motivated by a perceived partisan defense of their position and their work. Careful accurate statements by a scientist in such a position is likely to do little good, and careless statements are likely to generate new tendrils of the political argument and contribute to escalating personal attacks and attempts to discredit the messenger.

The messenger is important, and the most obvious way past the problem of the politicized messenger is to expand and diversify the messenger base. Perhaps the easiest diversification of the messenger base is to engage a far broader cross section of voices from the community of scientists. There are experts outside of the community of IPCC authors and the lead authors of classic papers. These voices bring new strength and perspectives to the body of knowledge – different ways of stating ideas. Often these voices are young, the next generation, and if we have confidence in our efforts, then we should have confidence in those who have learned from us.

The idea of the inclusion of new voices in scientific communication is almost simplistic; however, it is not easy to achieve. For example, journalists and reporters naturally come to the expert and the people at the top of the author list. They come to people who have made news, perhaps have a history of controversy or the notoriety of an advocate. In this case, if there is to be diversification to new voices, then making that happen might fall to the scientists themselves – scientists opening the paths to new voices. Sometimes this requires a harsh personal accounting of where a scientist sits in the political and communication environment, followed by self-imposition of boundaries. Am I doing good? Am I doing harm?

The role of translators between the climate expert and a particular audience is growing. The audience ranges from the general public to people in business, in government, in nongovernmental organizations, in academia and education, and even to climate scientists from different sub-disciplines of climate science. Translators are often needed in complex problems. The experts in the field may or may not be good communicators, and they are often not comprehensive and objective.

Traditionally, a subset of journalists stood as translators, but the past decade has seen great changes in journalism. We have the democratization of journalism with the emergence of, for example, blogs; the decline of structured, editor-supervised journalism; the emergence of point-of-view journalism; and the identification of virtually all authors as representing a point of view or a political position. In many instances, I strive to serve as a translator in these blogs/articles, and I have made the deliberate decision in my research career to translate between fields.

A natural question arises in this search for translators and honest sources of information: are there ways that we can organize to provide a source of substantiated, vetted, and unbiased climate information? Ideas of community wikis and community-certified blogs emerge. (see Judy Curry’s controversial take on this) This will be explored more in future articles, but such a self organization has, potentially, profound implications for the process of peer review and role of the professional societies. Such an approach is, perhaps, a democratization of science, which would change the role of the expert.

The widest diversification of the messengers of climate change comes from the active inclusion of people who are positioning themselves to adapt to climate change and to address the changes in energy policy that are necessary to affect climate change. I have mentioned several times the paper by Daniel Farber that concludes that scientific investigation of climate change warrants legal standing in U.S. courts (Trust, but Verify). I have also discussed the positions articulated by Jim Rogers the CEO of of Duke Energy. Responses to climate change can be found in national security, energy distribution, municipal climate action plans, the insurance industry, etc. These are people and organizations who have looked at the knowledge, looked at the evidence, and have started to align capital and human resources with the solution space. These are the stories and the messages that need to be brought forward. Diversification of the messenger community outside of the community of scientists and academics and government researchers not only brings forward voices who are responding to the body of climate-change knowledge, but also untangles conflict-of-interest perceptions and provides concrete examples of the translation of climate science to action. This is where some principles of organization need to be focused.

What to Do ? (4) Time for New Community:

This is the final in a series of blogs that explores the political nature of climate change, strategies for communication of information about climate change, and how to move forward our collective response to climate, climate variability, and climate change. One of the ideas that I have advocated is to make much larger and more diverse the people who are contributing to the discussion and knowledge base of climate change. In this final piece, I want to move away from the original points of the first three articles to broader issues of developing and providing information about climate change. (Previous articles in this series: one, two, three)

Though a few scientists and politicians identified human-caused climate change as an important environmental issue before World War II, until the last 20 years or so, climate change remained primarily in the realm of scientific investigation and scientists. With the emergence of global warming as an environmental issue that will disrupt societies, climate change became an issue of public policy. In contrast to, for example, the issue of tobacco and lung cancer or even coal burning and acid rain, we have not moved to situation where the definitive proof of global warming and its consequences lie behind us. There is not, therefore, a definitive boundary between the time of scientific research and the time of public policy. The two are required to coexist. (Here is new paper that I wrote with Maria Carmen Lemos on the use of climate projections in public policy.)

In the initial research-dominated phase of an issue that emerges as a public policy priority, it is natural to imagine scientists and science communicators working to inform the public as well as those who are perceived as having a need to know. This is a push of information, and in earlier articles I have argued that there has been quite an effective push of knowledge about climate change (Who is the Audience?). As a result of this successful push of information, there are many individuals who are motivated to take action on climate change – or at least to figure out what to do about it. Aside from high profile efforts like the Climate Action Partnership, I have worked with people considering how to migrate forests northward, anticipate new public health risks, manage fisheries, price carbon, maintain urban water supplies – the list goes on. My first point is that there are already many more people on this solution side than there or on the physical climate research side. We need to recognize more vigorously the resources represented by this community and to develop the capability for this community to both pull on the climate-science knowledge base and to contribute to development of that knowledge base.

There is a second point that follows from the recognition of this community outside of the mainstream of climate researchers. As an example, consider the issues facing a water resource manager in coastal Florida versus North Dakota. In Florida there are concerns of sea-level rise, salt water intrusion, and the sinking of land as ground water is removed. Wetland ecosystems are central to Florida’s water management challenges. In North Dakota concerns are more likely dominated by better management of rivers and lakes in the presence of more volatile drought and flood cycles, as well as competition with agricultural needs. Both managers have to deal with their current facilities, projections of population, tax bases, and local, state, regional, and national water policies. The take away message is that to incorporate climate variability and climate change into plans for management and development is strongly influenced by the specifics of the problem. It is so strongly influenced by the specifics, that it is unreasonable to expect that a guidebook to climate solutions will be generated by a relatively modest number of climate experts and then prescribed to a waiting audience. With the enormous complexity that will be faced in seeking climate solutions, it is, again, necessary to consider how community-based approaches can be used to allow the organization of the complexity and the emergence of new solution paths.

I advocate, here, a re-framing of the climate and climate-change problem. Rather than this being, primarily, a scientific problem with scientists or an institutional service pushing information to waiting and perhaps under-informed audiences, we must develop community-based resources that allow for the participation of an informed community in the evolution of climate solutions. This supports the pull of information, self-organization, self-correction, and the ability of the community to inform the research needs of the community. Simple to say – more difficult to accomplish.

Climate and weather scientists have been at the forefront of data sharing and community activities (again a reference to Paul Edwards’s book, A Vast Machine). A major reason for sharing of weather data is the need to have routine observations of the entire globe in order to provide weather forecasts. Within the climate community the development of the Community Climate Model serves as a premiere example of community resources. Now the Community Earth System Model (CESM) this activity has provided a series of models available for general use by both scientific and non-scientific communities. The CESM activities have engaged through its working groups a large number of scientists. This activity was begun at a time when climate science was, primarily, the concern of research scientists and when computational and intellectual resources required the centralization of efforts to develop super systems that were beyond the ability of individual researchers.

The community reframing that I am advocating recognizes the evolution and successes of open source communities and the use of open innovation techniques in management of complexity, complex problem solving, and the emergence of knowledge (Wikipedia, for instance). Compared with the original concept that led to the Community Earth System Model (CESM), these open communities have broader, more active, less managed participation by the community. A re-framing might be that a model would be built by the community not for the community, even if there is substantial community participation.

The concepts of open communities raise many concerns, especially when there is a need to assure accuracy and truthfulness of information and results. Going back to the basic definition of the scientific method there is the notion of controlled experimentation, where the environment is controlled to isolate cause and effect. There is the fundamental practice of anonymous peer review to assure accuracy. Often in the building of complex systems like rockets, there is need for control over process to assure mission success. Opening up processes and knowledge generation raises the risk of inaccurate knowledge – it potentially opens up a body of knowledge to political manipulation or advocacy or advertisement. The question then arises on how to reduce these negative risks to a level that they are overwhelmed by the positive attributes of problems being solved and the emergence of solutions out of the complexity.

The questions of a successful community become, therefore, how is governance instituted to assure the accuracy of information, how is credibility established, how are inaccuracies identified and corrected? The success of an open community relies on its relationships with existing and evolving entities, institutions, and communities. The existence of successful open communities suggests plausibility. The goal of an open climate community would an accessible knowledge base that serves as trusted resource of objective information for those who have an interest in climate and climate change.

Time. At the start of this series of articles I mentioned that one thing that is necessary to evolve climate and climate change, productively, as an issue is time. When I wrote that, I was thinking of the half-generational time span that is needed for controversial environmental issues to rise above the opposition to the changes in behavior that are necessary to address the issue. I was thinking that we need to shorten that time span. Part of what is needed to accelerate our response to knowledge of climate change and actual climate change is to shorten the amount of time that is needed to produce accurate and usable information about climate change. This requires us to generate new methods of review and evaluation of knowledge and to accept new ways of the inclusion of uncertainty in complex problem solving. This requires education and alteration of climate scientists and the scientific process just as much as it requires education by scientists about climate and climate change. The large number of people already making decisions about how to invest their time and money in response to the body of knowledge about climate change will move much faster than is consistent with the traditional generation of scientific knowledge. We need the best climate information at any given time. Despite the challenges of governance to assure accuracy, if we don’t develop open community based approaches to climate change problem solving we will not accelerate our collective response; we will miss opportunity, and we will isolate the generation and use of scientifically generated knowledge from problem solving when it is most critical.


If Lady Chatterley’s Lover, then …

August 7th, 2010 <-- by Richard Rood -->

If Lady Chatterley’s Lover, then … :

The first paragraph of Sheila Jasanoff’s book, The Fifth Branch, starts

“Scientific advisory committees occupy a curiously sheltered position in the landscape of American regulatory politics. In an era of bitter ideological confrontations, their role in policymaking has gone largely unobserved and unchallenged. …” (1990, The Fifth Branch, Chapter 1, Rationalizing Politics; 2009 Interview with Professor Jasanoff)

The first chapter of The Fifth Branch is something that I think that all managers of science in the U.S. Agencies should read. The book, quickly and compellingly, describes the role of scientists in the U.S. political environment. There are references to and case studies of many instances where scientific investigation is motivating and informing policy. There are examples from environmental science, from waste management, and from approval and management of prescription drugs. The book makes it clear that if scientific investigation suggests a need to change, to regulate, or to restrict a certain practice or behavior, then there is a response to oppose that change, that regulation, or that restriction. The depth and vigor of the opposition depends on the wealth and power of those who perceive themselves as impacted; there is often the funding or the advocacy of “opposition science.”

As part of the opposition, there is the tactic of searching for, finding, and amplifying any weaknesses or indiscretions of the scientists. Occasionally, there is revelation of true fraud. (Previous blogs on all of this are listed at the end.)

Building off of the opening sentences quoted above, since 1990 bitter ideological confrontations have become more bitter. There is little evidence that this trend will change until some sort of catastrophe forces the change. The evolution of political tribalism has entrained the scientific advisory panel into politics and brought the role of the scientist out of obscurity.

As background, Professor Jasanoff describes the Fourth Branch of the U.S. government as the Agencies, which have evolved to carry out the functions of the government. This includes the pursuit of scientific investigation for the benefit of the country. These agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and NASA, are formally in the Executive Branch. There are political appointees in the agencies, and there is a standing force of civil servants and associated private-sector contractors. The agencies fund research outside of the government. The staff and longevity of the agencies gives them a life that extends far beyond the term of any particular President. (these are perhaps D.H. Lawrence’s “… good sort of society of people in the government who are not tip-toppers, but who are, or would be, the real intelligent power in the nation: people who know what they’re talking about, or talk as if they did.” Lady Chatterly’s Lover)

In February I wrote that in the absence of comprehensive policy to address climate change in the U.S. the 2007 Supreme Court Decision that allows the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate carbon dioxide becomes more important. As the EPA plans to move forward with the authorization to address carbon dioxide as a pollutant, some legislators are moving to block the EPA. ( see also) This is a classic political push and pull, with the argument that the regulation power of the agencies is out of the hands of voters, because the agency is not an elected representative (see Wall Street Journal Review and Outlook) Interestingly, the sponsors of the bill are, in fact, bipartisan, which shows the ultimate rule of their constituencies, which include coal mining, automobiles, and oil.

If there is any doubt that climate science has moved from a discipline of science to, de facto, an element of politics, then Senator Inhoff’s Minority Report should remove that doubt. Aside from amplifying the political positions about the EPA in the previous paragraph, this report implies the criminal investigation of a set of scientists involved in the IPCC Assessment Reports. The increasing role of point-of-view journalists and public relations professionals is discussed in this The Daily Climate Article. These are disruptive and, often, intimidating political tactics in the tradition of, well, unsavory participative politics. (see also, Climate Science Watch).

All of this has motivated a series of open letters by Ben Santer. The last in the series is an eloquent statement that the sustained political attacks does not stop the fact that the Earth will warm, sea level will rise, and the weather will change. (Santer’s Open Letter # 6, The List of 17).

What’s the purpose of my article?

At this point we have established that, going forward, “climate change” is a political issue, and it is subject to both the well founded and the pernicious aspects of the political process. This is nothing new; in fact it is ancient. Scientific investigation has challenged, with dire consequences to scientists, that the Earth is at the center of the universe and many other tenants of nations, religions, and corporations. The ramifications of their investigations rarely enter the minds of young people motivated by the scientific process. Therefore, not only are scientists not well positioned to participate in the realm of bitter ideological confrontation, scientists are, I assert, by both training and predisposition, easy foils for savvy political strategists.

This leaves the scientist in a lose-lose situation. They are required to defend themselves, but their self-defense perpetuates and amplifies the political confrontation. The confrontational process is not one, as one of my readers more eloquently stated, where we are looking for knowledge-based reconciliation of an issue. Knowledge-based reconciliation is the scientific instinct.

The knowledge that this is a political process that has been repeating itself for centuries, that there is always a community motivated by factors other than knowledge, and that we are in a world of nuanced language of words like “consensus” – this knowledge, derived from social scientists, does offer strategies. First the scientists need to think, individually and collectively, that their responses are, by definition, political. We need to adopt a position, not of defense or isolation, but to do no damage. In a political process certain individuals evolve to the point that there is nothing they can say that serves to advance their position. Nothing. I have been there. This is a difficult-to-accept powerlessness. There is a need to learn, at times, to be quiet – to do no damage.

There are other voices in the community of science, and their voices bring new strength and perspectives to the body of knowledge. Often these voices are young, the next generation, and if we have confidence in our efforts, then we should have confidence in those who have learned from us. There are voices outside of the community, from other fields, those who study the process of science, those who are impacted by the results of scientific investigation, those who use the results of investigations – these are powerful, independent, and supportive voices. They provide informal external review; they could provide formal, external review.

There are organizational steps we can take. In the United States we need to use our principles of checks and balances to have different organizations that generate science-based knowledge from those which use it – perhaps a provider-customer relationship. Or for the scientist, setting up a “validation process” that is independent; an organization that affirms value. This would help to break the perception of a conflict of interest, where scientists are often viewed as both provider and customer. As a matter of practical policy, scientists are pushed into this position by the requirement that “they prove what they have discovered is important.” (If we develop a Climate Service, this service should NOT be responsible for the use of the information they provide, for example, climate adaptation. Perhaps we need an organization made up of Agriculture, Interior, the Centers of Disease Control, etc., that are users of the Climate Service.)

We, scientists need to learn, better, that scientific knowledge is used and misused in both the political process and in all forms of decision making. And that misuse is part of the process – knowledge, once released, is no longer controlled. We need to learn that uncertainty is part of all decision making processes, and that systematic reduction of uncertainty in a complex problem like climate change is not the natural evolution of investigation. We need to learn that promising reduction of uncertainty is both scientifically and politically naïve.

Most of all, there are those, and this is perhaps what is really happening, what the majority will do – there are those who will take the knowledge that the Earth is warming, sea level is rising and the weather is changing and act on it. They will think about the investments of their companies, the management of our resources, and the incremental development of policy, that will take advantage of the tremendous and unique opportunity offered by the projections of climate change.


Strength in Many Peers

“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”

Trust, but Verify

Scientist as Advocate

Science, Belief and the Volcano

Opinions and Anecdotal Evidence

And here is

Faceted Search of Blogs at

Facilitating Disruption

December 17th, 2009 <-- by Richard Rood -->

“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”

Yesterday I got into an exchange with a person who posted a comment wishing the curse of a pox to the students writing on the UoMichigan COP15 Blog . It reminded me of Joseph Welch’s question to Senator Joe McCarthy, “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” (Welch-McCarthy Exchange from American Rhetoric)

In the United States we devolve into something that is more like tribalism with sides taken based on the color of your uniform or who pays you the most. Discussion is based not on ideas and solutions, but on who makes a statement. Issues are advocated, and ideas are placed into extremes that take on attributes such as good and evil, for and against. The other side is wrong, and their intentions are of hidden control or hidden profit. This threatens our credibility and our viability.

US Senators pursue an investigation of climate science based upon the stolen and published correspondence of a small clutch of prominent scientists. Here at the Conference of Parties (COP15) in Copenhagen the news says that we should anticipate a visit by Congressman Sensenbrenner to call for the end of “climate fascism.” This will place this US political tribe in solid alliance with, perhaps, Saudi Arabia.

For the conference as a whole, I, my students, my colleagues, new people I meet, the discussion in the plenary sessions – from all of these sources, I hear no serious discussion about any challenge the CRU emails present to the basic conclusions that the Earth will warm, ice will melt, sea level will rise, and the weather will change. I have had a small number of interviews, and the question is asked almost as a curiosity. It’s more like the scandal of the emails is really a scandalous aspect of the US culture, like displays of disfigured animals in the back lot of a traveling freak show.

Some of my American colleagues, those closest to the IPCC, these people spend time developing rational responses to calls for investigations, allegations of lies, searches for conspiracies, and efforts to control the participation of individual US scientists in IPCC assessments. They work to craft rational responses to the irrational. Members of the Congress form and dissolve COP delegations. The rationalist’s response to a process that is being managed to be irrational is, itself, irrational. As the rationalist counters the irrational, their irrationality becomes more and more damaging.

It took me several years of management at NASA to realize that there were some people who thrived on the fight. There were those who were disruptive and sometimes deliberately hostile. Others, who benignly fueled chaos. These efforts to cause organizational dis-structure, to increase organizational entropy – these efforts were their strategy for success. Or if not a strategy for success, it was a strategy to keep others from succeeding, of using the distraction to outlast efforts they viewed to their disadvantage.

I spent some time as a manager of scientists trying to find the rational arguments that would help people see the intent and advantage of what I was trying to do and to develop buy in. I had some success, but there was always a group that worked, deliberately or subconsciously, to sabotage. Their strategy was often to create disorder. Their tactic was often to isolate facts or conjecture that in their isolation suggested rationality, compelled a rational response. The rational response was, ultimately, parried with the next isolated fact or conjecture. This is a tactic to build selective doubt.

While at NASA I had the experience of being on a long camping trip with a person who had a psychotic episode. My companion started to hear voices in the radio background, and transmissions through rusted cans lying on the side of the trail. There were always perceived people with weapons in groups of people near us. My first response was to discuss the inability of people speaking through rusted cans. Then I proceeded to showing that nothing bad did occur following the perceived threat. I tried to use a rational description of reality to prove a point that was motivated and fueled by extreme irrationality. Irrationality ultimately anchored in fear.

As a manager, I became more aware of fear and the fear of change. I tried to make my contribution as organizing disorganized systems. I hired a sociologist to work with me at NASA. What I learned is that this tactic of developing the rational response to the isolated assertion, conjecture, or fact was, fundamentally, ill posed. I learned that irrationality and sabotage were a natural part of getting the job down. I learned that if you allow the isolated assertions, conjectures, and facts to grow to dominate the job, then progress will be slowed, perhaps stopped. I learned that if you want to make progress then the leader has to differentiate her/his self from the turmoil, objectify the irrationality and sabotage as part of the whole – and manage it. Place the disruption in its place – the place of the disruptors.

I also learned that it is important to listen to the disruptors, to truly understand the motivation of the disruption. Almost always a sound foundation of the disruption is offered. It was my job to determine if the stated foundation was the real foundation – what is the subtext? It was my job to determine if I needed to accommodate the concerns of the disruptors into the direction the project or organization needed to take. The reason people disrupted ranged from a true conviction that a certain path was wrong to strong emotional attachments to particular ideas and, even, pieces of software. There were always some who where, often by their own admission, contrarian. And, if one is contrarian, it is usually because being contrarian has been a successful strategy in their lives. There are a host of reasons to disrupt, to resist, and to sabotage change.

As long as the community of climate scientists engages in the disruption and the creation of selective doubt, the disruptors will garner attention and an exaggerated amount of success. The march forward will be slowed. The behavior of all will be reduced to one where it makes sense to question decency. The disruptors cannot be convinced by the exposition of the rational totality; they are not looking to be convinced. Their motivations are elsewhere.

The person who made the original comment on the blog responded to me that their comments represented civility in 2009 and suggested that I would be intimidated by and unwelcoming of the language of Shakespeare. I do not, however, accept that participating in this game of personal attacks, repeated slogans, and outrageous assertions is the form of how we must now carry out deliberations of serious issues. I find no relevance of the curses of MacBeth’s witches. If I behave like a character in a tragedy, then it is likely the results will be tragic.

This behavior of disruption is an old and common tactic. It is always in present in politics and management – really throughout life. It is something one imagines as absent in the purity of science, but it is not absent in the best of worlds; it is a community peopled by scientists. We in the US have allowed it to grow to a way of doing business that threatens our relevance and our viability.

I sit here in Copenhagen, not far from Hamlet’s castle of tragedy. I hear quiet men developing community-based climate adaptation plans to link to development activities in their countries. I see interesting technology in transportation and energy from countries eager for wealth. I see policy and practices developing in other countries that promote efficiency and environmental trade. I see the US distracted and wasting its intellect and time on disruptions designed to play to people at home, and which will assure to hasten our marginalization as a great culture. We don’t even look smart to our own children.


Other relevant blogs

Paul Edwards: IPCC Press Briefing

Paul Edwards: “Climategate,” Not IPCC

Jeff Masters: Manufactured Doubt

Jeff Masters: Don’t Shoot the Messenger

Rood: Climategate Copenhagen Impacts

Rood: Update from Copenhagen

And here is

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