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November 29, 2011 / Mark Axelrod

More Climate Emails

Another batch of hacked climate change emails have been released in advance of this week’s Durban negotiations:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/nov/22/fresh-hacked-climate-science-emails?intcmp=239

The Guardian (UK) then discussed some of the contents, including interpretation of a few key sentences:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/nov/24/leaked-climate-science-emails
This second article demonstrates some important points about modeling efforts.  In particular, it should push us to think about what a model is, in any field.  All models, by definition, are simplified representations of reality, based on available evidence.  They are also often, particularly in this case, used to predict future outcomes.  Since we can never truly know the future, or what additional factors will be important in the future, such representations are necessarily subject to some degree of uncertainty!  Of course, the trick for policy makers is to determine what policy would be best – for simultaneously maximizing various goals, not just the outcome of interest to climate scientists – in light of this uncertainty.  Not an easy job, and certainly one that requires a clear understanding of how to interpret uncertainty!

Ultimately, the previous batch was deemed to indicate some insensitivity among scientists, but little question about their actual research findings.  So, will the new batch cause any greater trouble?  My initial guess is that it will not.  The most damning evidence seems to have been released in 2009.  While commentators may take the new material out of context, it appears (based on news reports and my initial glances) to confirm scientific insensitivity without raising any new concerns about the research process.

So why should we care?  Well, after the December 2009 email leaks, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found declining trust in “the things that scientists say about the environment”.  Declining trust, in itself, is troubling for the scientific community.  The greater concern for environmental policy makers is that, despite ongoing support for these findings, the same poll found a 10% decline in public support for regulating greenhouse gas emissions over that time period.  While other factors may influence this decline, the numbers at least suggest political difficulties when science loses public confidence.

This second tranche of hacked emails reminds us that scientists must be masters of communication in order for their work to be influential.  Ironically, the scientists in question clearly realized the importance of public image, but they got in trouble by trying too hard to publicize their findings in an accessible fashion.  Apparently we must add scientific communication to sausage and legislation as items most people would rather not see during production.  That leaves us with a long-term challenge of making science transparent while still making the public amenable to what it sees.

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