TCS Daily

Science Priorities After 9/11

By Willie Soon - January 17, 2002 12:00 AM

The annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) held late last year in San Francisco gathered over 8000 scientists in the year's largest and most important meeting on earth science. Research on climate change was front and center.

But there was a clear mismatch between the results of actual research last year and the sensational news reported from the conference. The outpouring of news sounded more frantic and panicked than usual, and such hysteria makes bridging the gap between research and reality on climate change more difficult.

Consider the fear-inducing quotes reported by Tom Clarke in the prestigious journal Nature that "the rise in levels of greenhouse gases has halted an oscillation of air pressures over the Arctic [known as the Arctic Oscillation], bringing warmer, wetter winters to Northern Europe, Siberia and Alaska. The shift could get worse with increasing CO2 emissions ..." Another AGU-related press release from Richard B. Alley, a geoscience professor from Pennsylvannia State University, claimed "expected future warming also might bring short-lived or local coolings, floods or droughts, and other unexpected changes."

The Need for Falsifiability

The trouble with these claims stems from a fundamental problem at the heart of today's discussions about climate science. Any scientific theory, in order to be considered legitimate, must be "falsifiable" in some way. That is, the theory must contain within itself the possibility that, if certain conditions and circumstances are met that produce results that contradict the theory, then the theory will be considered untrue or false. As it stands now, a CO2-caused global warming theory is non-falsifiable. More importantly, the proper scientific stance for all serious scientists should be to work very hard to falsify the CO2-global warming theory. That posture would yield much stronger science and analysis.

Consider fears over future abrupt climatic change. Now, the ability to predict climate change accurately would be proof that the theories we hold about how or why climates change are true. But as Richard Alley, the chairman responsible for the soon-to-be-published National Research Council's report on Abrupt Climate Change, put it succinctly: "[I]t will be a long time, if at all, before we are really good at predicting climate change." In other words, fashionable scientific theories and the reality of our current scientific knowledge are not yet aligned.

So what, then, accounts for the hysterical rhetoric that emerged from the meeting? Perhaps the geosciences community is beginning to recognize changing scientific research priorities after September 11.

9/11 and After

The new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association administrator, Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, promptly reminded the AGU audience that the U.S. national priorities for scientific research are now likely to rank national security and homeland defense at the top with areas like climate change, environmental stewardship or even fishery ecosystem managements secondary or tertiary concerns.

Even more revealing is Vice Admiral Lautenbacher's statement that the post-September 11's atmosphere means "no new money" for funding pure climate research. (Despite that, the fiscal year 2002 budgets for three major U.S. Science Agencies -- NASA, National Science Foundation and the US Geological Service -- just signed by President George W. Bush, have all seen healthy increases over 2001.)

Could that, then, be the primary reason for the frantic up-tick of alarming climate change news over the last four weeks: searching for more research dollars for more climate change research programs? Would all the scientific uncertainties and unknowns be solved or reduced by making more monetary resources available for climate research?

The recent George C. Marshall Institute report "Climate Science and Policy: Making the Connection" concluded that "a large amount of money is already available for climate related activities. It is a question of using these funds as effectively and productively as possible."

While the mere act of asking about the funding realignment of today's climate change research is a deadly taboo in some circles, the scientific method must prevail over all politically motivated worries if genuine problems concerning climate change are to be resolved.


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