Scientists, the Public and Risk

Richard Kerr has an excellent article in today’s Science1 looking at the discomfort scientists face in going beyond the IPCC’s conclusions on the extent to which sea level might rise over the next century. The problem here is how to approach public communication and public policy in an area where the science is moving considerably faster than the consensus-identification process of the IPCC:

(James Hansen) finds himself at the head of an informal movement to again rouse the public and policymakers. This time he worries that sea level could rise several disastrous meters by the end of the century, as the warming he heralded sends the great ice sheets rumbling toward the sea. If nothing is done to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, he says, “I just can’t imagine that you could keep sea-level rise under a meter.” Then the sea would flood many kilometers inland along the world’s low-lying coasts, from Florida to Bangladesh.

That was Hansen’s warning to Congress in late April, but it’s not the message that came out of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in early February. Many news reports gave the impression that the prestigious international assessment actually downgraded the risk of imminent sea-level rise to a small fraction of a meter.

So Hansen seems to be out on a limb, again.

The contrary voice in Kerr’s story comes from Hans von Storch:

“When we speak to the public, we should not rely on the new result,” argues Hans von Storch of the GKSS Institute for Coastal Research in Geesthacht, Germany. “The newest results are not necessarily the best ones. The IPCC should represent a certain filter. That every taxicab driver knows about [the latest result] is a bit premature.”

  1. Pushing the Scary Side of Global Warming, Science 8 June 2007: 1412-1415, sub. req. []

5 Comments

  1. Today climate scientists are a wonderful specieces; they are far away to be able to define weather and climate in a scientific sustainable way; they have not come up with any reasonable explanations for the global cooling from 1940 to 1980, but they can explain everything on sea level raise and climate change in a distant future. A real miracle!

  2. Except for explaining the cooling by reference to aerosols, and actually you’ll find that they cannot exaplin everything on sea level rise, merely give an idea of how much can occur.

  3. OK, the “global cooling” is a quite difficult subject, but reasonable scientific definitions should not be so difficult, when there are many ten thousand trained men and women working full time in meteorological and climate science. At least what we have now is very insufficient, as briefly explained:

    WEATHER
    (webdictionary.co.uk): the meteorological conditions: temperature and wind and clouds and precipitation;

    (Encarta. msn): the state of the atmosphere with regard to temperature, cloudiness, rainfall, wind, and other meteorological conditions.

    (dictionary.net): The state of the air or atmosphere with respect to heat or cold, wetness or dryness, calm or storm, clearness or cloudiness, or any other meteorological phenomena; meteorological condition of the atmosphere;

    CLIMATE
    (en.wikipeada.org): Climate is the average and variations of weather over long periods of time.

    (en.wikipeada.org), citing IPCC as follows: Climate in a narrow sense is usually defined as the “average weather”, or more rigorously, as the statistical description in terms of the mean and variability of relevant quantities over a period of time ranging from months to thousands or millions of years. The classical period is 30 years, as defined by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). These quantities are most often surface variables such as temperature, precipitation, and wind. Climate in a wider sense is the state, including a statistical description, of the climate system.

    UNITED NATIONS FRAMEWORK CONVENTION ON CLIMATE CHANGE (FCCC):
    __Has not any definition on “CLIMATE”, but says that
    __”CLIMATE CHANGE means the change of climate …”!!!!

    NOTE:
    (1) Both terms are layman terms.
    (2) For scientific work, the referred weather definitions are of little help, as the “meteorological conditions” at a specific time is a “composition” of many dozen, if not hundred parameters.
    (3) If weather is not properly defined it is hopeless to define climate as average weather.
    (4) Defining climate as weather statistis, is not very helpful anyhow, as weather-statistics remain weather-statistics.

    PS: Only recently this site discussed on : May 23rd, 2007 : Global Warming or Climate Change; which shows how important are correct and meaningful definitions:
    __’global warming’ makes sense, as rising temperatures on a global basis can be explained as “global warming”; while
    __”climate change’ as introduced by IPCC and FCCC is a hopeless term; because one question must be answered first in a meaningful way:
    __What is “CLIMATE”???
    It is fantastic what James Hansen and his colleagues have achieved over the last 20 years without demonstrating that they are able to define in scientific terms what they are talking about.
    Indeed an unbelievable success! A unique miracle!! Lasting for ever?

  4. Few if any climate scientists seem confused by the definitions, Mico. For a weather definition, try the WMO.

  5. Steve, that is exactly the confusing point, and reference to WMO has been made (see above), showing that they use a term in place for more than 100 years. Defining CLIMATE as average statitics is a useless term, as statistics remain statistics, even when you name them HULA HOPP. As the early 20th century climatologist Koeppen explained: “The weather changes but climate remains”, it shows that one can use the terms weather and climate as convenient. It is indeed surprising that IPCC managed to proceed with laymen phrases, neither able or willing to see the nonsense.

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