Saturday, January 30, 2010

Climate Change News: everyone has an agenda

A recent admission by the IPCC that part of their 2007 report on climate change was false has been getting, rightly, a lot of attention. The International Panel on Climate Change said in their report that the mountain glaciers in Himayalas could melt by 2035, an exaggerated claim without a scientific basis. Actual scientific estimates (e.g. Ren et al. (2007) in the Journal of Applied Meteorology) are that around 67% of the glaciers are shrinking and have the potential to disappear by 2100. Other glaciers are actually growing. The IPCC statement on these glaciers was apparently politically motivated.

Perhaps some people are shocked that the IPCC would include a false report to support an agenda. But why should we be shocked? It perhaps seems more clear that conservatives that reject climate science do so because of a particular political agenda, but, frankly, it's a bit silly to assume that other political groups do not also have a political agenda to pursue. As I read dozens of peer-reviewed climate change articles last spring, it became clear to me that Al Gore's pop-science presentation of global warming had quite a few flaws, perhaps born out of his desire to motivate people to change, or perhaps for more self-serving purposes. Either way, we should not be surprised when political parties end up distorting an issue in order to further their own ends.

All of this, to me, highlights a basic need when it comes to presenting climate change science to the public: nuance. This is something I try to achieve in my own treatment of climate change in the classroom. Response to news like this is predictable from both sides of the political spectrum: conservatives see it as reason to believe that all climate change science is fake while others wave it away as an error that somehow sneaked through. Is anyone else as tired of this as I am? We seem to have an unreasonable aversion to nuance. Climate change education should simply an honest look at what we know (and what we don't know). The evidence for anthropogenic global warming is strong; carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and will undoubtedly warm the planet. However, the "alarmist" spin on climate change is also scientifically inaccurate; the Earth has been much warmer and has experienced more dramatic climate change in the past than it is now. By ignoring genuine uncertainties in the science and by exaggerating the immediacy of the threat, we open ourselves up to corrections by total skeptics, who then gain ammunition for their dismissal of anthropogenic warming. If we could just stick to being accurate in the first place, if we were the ones who openly admitted where the largest uncertainties are, if we could discuss the negative impacts of climate change without pretending that the Earth may not survive, it seems to me that there would be less room for disagreement in the first place.

Perhaps then we could stop pretending that only our political opponents have an agenda, partisan rhetoric could be replaced by (gasp) science, and we could reach a consensus about steps to take to curb our influence on our planet's climate.

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