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June 15, 2011
Checklist Climate $cience
Many of life's mundane chores can be relegated to simple checklists: bread, milk, eggs... check, check, check. Stop mail, leave lights on, lock doors... check, check, check. But, can checklists be followed beyond the ordinary or routine to make extraordinary decisions? Can they be used to solve complex scientific challenges and mitigate societal problems? Perhaps, in a few cases, but, definitely not when the checklists are composed of essentially political talking points. Such politicized checklist use is what appears to be happening for momentous decision-making whereby government-sponsored climate science is co-opted to prop up government energy-use policy.
The tedious, dispassionate observation and evaluation of atmospheric variables such as temperature, precipitation, cloud cover, and wind data has apparently been subsumed into a political process. As long as an assessment of climate variables leads to the foregone conclusion that the earth's changing atmosphere is due to man's increasing reliance on fossil fuels, then the science is good-to-go. Promotion of anthropogenic global warming is the litmus test.
The goal of observations or experimentation is seemingly to confirm that conventional industrial activity is altering natural climate variability. To be more specific, here's what must be affirmed:
- Fossil fuels are bad. (Coal, oil, and natural-gas combustion produces emissions--primarily carbon dioxide--that lead directly or indirectly to substantial climate disruption; whereas natural influences on climate are readily overwhelmed by output from human activity.)
- The earth-system is in big trouble from people. (Although some emission-instigated and natural changes to climate in some instances may alleviate dire consequences temporarily, nevertheless, dire consequences will ultimately occur.)
- Action is required now. (The world community has very little time to act, but act we must; the longer we wait and the longer we tolerate uncooperative skeptics the longer it will take to properly address the coming catastrophe.)
Check, check, check.
This list is admittedly quite brief, but also quite robust. After all, we know that human-induced climate change has been blamed for everything from Asteroid-strike risk to Zebra-mussel threats, and just about anything in between. You name it and there's probably a climate-change reason for its occurrence.
And why not? The official charge to members of the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is to assess "the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation..." (emphasis added). In other words, by sticking to the U.N.'s directive to find the "risk of human-induced climate change," there's high-profile, important work to do and beaucoup bucks to be made for many years to come.
Fame, fortune, job security... Check $, check $, check $.
But science for hire produces dubious results. History has demonstrated that the scientific fads of the past supported by political demand go the way of geo-centrism. And, in the case of earth's climate, more than a few practicing atmospheric scientists* believe future climate conditions will ultimately invalidate popular climate-model prognostications. (* For example, see the agenda and list of participants for the 6th International Conference on Climate Change beginning later this month in Washington, D.C.)
So, although checklists are terrific for remembering grocery items and preparing for a vacation, they're terrible, especially when hijacked for political purposes, for deciding scientific outcomes and, ultimately, national energy policy.
Anthony J. Sadar is a certified consulting meteorologist and primary author of Environmental Risk Communication: Principles and Practices for Industry (CRC Press/Lewis Publishers 2000). Susan T. Cammarata is an independent environmental- and family- practice lawyer in Pittsburgh, PA.
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