Sunday, February 26, 2012

Hans von Storch: Sustainable climate science

To do climate science sustainably, a number of constraints in practicing research and communicating science need to be implemented. Among them are the admission of uncertainty and the possibility for future revision, the recognition that scientific knowledge is challenged and influenced by cultural constructions, and the usage of accurate language, which is not conflicting with every-day language. That scientific knowledge does not directly lead to political conclusions must also be recognized. A few elements needed for a successful science-public dialog are listed and discussed in the forthcoming article
von Storch, H., 2012: Sustainable climate science, In: M. Reckermann, K. Brander, B. MacKenzie and A. Omstedt (eds): Climate Impacts on the Baltic Sea: From Science to Policy, 201-209 in press

 The Brundtland Commission, convened by the United Nations (UN) in 1983, used the term “sustainability” in its 1987 report as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ Since then its use has been mostly used in he context of sustainable policy or sustainable use of natural resources – with a similar breadth as words like “ecological”, which are now common in the language of advertising. It was no surprise that I was confronted with opposition when I used the word in a somewhat different context, namely in the context of science and research. As scientists, I am interested that my profession is done “sustainably”. In Webster’s word-book ( a meaning of the word “to sustain” is given by “being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged” for the example of “sustainable agriculture”. Insert for the term “resource” the term “trust in the ability of science of generating reliable knowledge”, and the meaning of “sustainable science” becomes clear. Or, in a simpler manner: A scientific institution or a professor is doing science sustainably, when some decades later the public and stakeholders will assign to their former students the same authority for unraveling and explaining complex phenomena.

Studying classical Chinese language or the dramatic living of Abraham Lincoln is most likely done sustainably. Sustainability here means that the present science will have a bearing on future science, in an enriching way, but not in a limiting manner. The present science will not inhibit the legitimacy of future science. The public will be excited about future knowledge as it is about present newly constructed insights.

Research about the forest die back in Germany may serve as an example at the other end of the spectrum. This research was not done sustainably. The science of forest damages was in the 1980s heavily politicized, and used as support for a specific preconceived "good" policy of environmental protection. The resulting overselling and dramatization broke down in the 1990s, and news about adverse developments in German forests is now a hard sell in Germany. An observer wrote in 2004: "The damage for the scientists is enormous. Nobody believes them any longer." Of course, the damage was not only limited to the forest researchers, but also to other environmental scientists and politicians as well.

And climate research? Often it is done sustainably, but sometimes not. Some institutions and some publicly visible scientists are known for simplifying and dramatizing statements of what one would expect from NGOs, e.g., "Coal-fired power plants are death factories." A communication of drama is intended to "move", to initiate "action". The science is supposed to support a preconceived political agenda of something "good".

Overselling takes place in the triangle between policy, media and science. It goes with a risk: The risk for policy-makers is in the possibility that the goals set in this manner cannot be achieved, the ‘‘loss of legitimacy due to taking on too much.’’ The media primarily fear the ‘‘loss of public attention,’’ due to concepts and conceptual fields becoming worn out. For science, the principal risk is the ‘‘loss of credibility due to the particular dynamic of the catastrophe metaphor’’, or other characteristic misleading concept.

Exploiting short-term "advantages" in the public-political discourse by simplification and dramatization for furthering a pre-conceived agenda helps generating attention and short-lived support for this agenda. But this attention and support but can hardly be maintained for a long time as required in case of climate change policies. Attributing the hurricane Katrina to climate change made successfully headlines, and depicting global warming as an uninterrupted continuous upward trend made the understanding of the concept of global warming easier. But, later, we have to pay a prize. There were no more Hurricane-disasters like Katrina's since 2005, and warming is stagnating in the last years. Both facts are not surprising for the climate researcher. They are consistent with the scientific understanding of the phenomenon named "Global Warming". However they are at odds with the simplifying-dramatizing communication strategy and with the resulting medial construction.

The maximization of short-term utility goes with a prize: The public will understand that it has been manipulated, and that it had not honestly been advised by its publicly funded social institution "science". Admittedly, manipulated for something, which has been perceived by certain elites as "good" – but what is the principal difference in this respect between Greenpeace and Exxon? The dramatic decay of trust into the IPCC, following the illegal publication of e-mails at CRU in November 2009, the unacceptable sloppiness in preparing some statements, for instance about the future of Himalayan glaciers, in a report of the 4th Assessment report of the IPCC, was not really surprising.

The effect is twofold. First, the public will no longer believe in the "story", or consider it merely entertainment – and people will effectively become skeptics. Certainly the contrary of the originally intended effect! Second, the public will be unable to distinguish the social institution science and value-based NGOs – with the latter being considerably cheaper in delivering the same politically useful knowledge claims!


Werner Krauss said...

I am confused about this text. In most parts it reads like a skeptic's lament (all examples point in only one direction), and it falls far behind the "postnormal science" agenda.

Climate science indeed faces a big problem, and this is climate. There are no easy solutions, and there is no way back to an immaculate science before even Kuhn (if it ever has existed). Instead, climate science should accept the challenge and find a self-confident way to deal with uncertainty, public pressure, controversies and so on. They should not project this problem on others, be it the public, the NGOs or forest science.

I would suggest climate scientists should address their concerns openly instead of hiding them in statements "in the name of science" and in expert language. In case they think climate change is a threat to humanity, they should let us know. In case they think it is a fake, or they simply don't know, they should us let know also. In case they are confused or disinterested, that's fine with me, too.

The public can easily stand scientific controversies; it is science that still has to learn to deal with them. They should do so and not lament about NGOs, public trust, or Waldsterben.

Instead, climate science should find a language and a scientific culture to express their own dilemma - climate science still has to (re-) invent itself to become really sustainable.

Anonymous said...

@ Hans von Storch

You say: "As scientists, I am interested that my profession is done “sustainably”.

The question is what sustainability means in a world of dynamic communication, how it withstands in the struggle and how it can be established against what you call "short-term "advantages" in the public-political discourse by simplification and dramatization".

The conventional peer-review process doesn't match very well with the dynamical transfer of information in the Internet, neither does the IPCC reporting with its 4-year rhythm.

This handicap leaves the door wide open for all kind of charlatans and disinformation on both sides of the public debate.

Why not discussing the idea of a "scientific Wikipedia" or a net-based scientific panel on climate science?

Some kind of the IPCC/WG1 and WG2 but with a dynamic presentation and an open discussion of new papers and results, with a ranking of relevance, a short summary on the state of science, restricted access (contributions) for scientists working on the field, controlled, and monitored by a representative board of scientists nominated by the major scientific associations.

The media and the readers would learn to deal with uncertainties and a controversial debate. At present this debate ist left to opportunists following their own and sometimes well hidden agendas.

Science should try to win back the sovereignty of interpretation - or count it for lost.

V. Lenzer

hvw said...

I my view, Hans von Storch uses well known problems in current science communication to lay out some thoughts, which I consider not helpful, which mix up different categories and which might deteriorate things if followed up by enough scientists.

1. HvS seems to believe that the sustained authority and credibility of science is a function only of the behavior of its practitioners. That is obviously wrong. The standing of science in society is dependent on a huge amount of factors, just look at it throughout history, across different fields and across different societies. Recent examples from our culture that changed/are changing science's prestige in society: Scientifically highly successful research in nuclear weapons, the rise of the anti-scientific christian fundamentalist movement, the rise of esoterics, and yes, the activities of those who need to tell the world that AGW is a hoax.

2. HvS correctly observes that the "simplifying and dramatizing statements" put forward by scientists, in the best case out of ethical motives, "to `move', to initiate `action'", in the worst to gain publicity, are no good. But the reason however in my mind is not the complicated mechanics of credibility in the short attention span politics/media realm. The reason is that these people should sit down and do science, that's what they are payed for, that's their area of expertise and that's what the public expects. Any involvement in these secular minefields will abstract from your science. Jochem Marotzke in a recent interview states even that (very positively judged) engagement in scientific policy advisory disqualifies from doing proper science.

3. Now, 2. sounds like "back to the ivory tower everybody", but this doesn't address the problem, as most scientists feel there the most comfy anyways but have urgent reasons to wander beyond their realm: Science's funding depends on its standing in society (lobbying). The shared belief that decisions are better if based on science than on cargo-science, and the shared belief that a scientifically informed public is a good thing (ethical/missionary/educationally motives).

4. The solution would, in my mind, start by separating scientific outreach, public education and lobbying from the core work of science and by professionalizing it. Research institutes often have corporate communication departments that could cooperate to raise their focus beyond publishing the latest Times Ranking. Unlimited cheap labor is available in the form of grad students. I do not applaud Gleick's stupidity and I doubt that such a proposed organization should use such methods, but alone the availability of an entity with the dedicated mission to do what Gleick tried in a one-warrior show might have prevented the "burning" of a top hydrologist.

5. Learn from the past. "Post modern science" did not start with climate science. It started with environmental chemistry, 1962, with Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring". A (for me) horrible Reader's Digest - style read, loaded with anthropormized poor birds. It did its job though. An amazing job. It's considered the prototypical book for environmental topics. It was factual extremely correct as numerous trials against multinational chemical corporations have shown. The toxicologists at that time had the facts, they just failed to pull it together and communicate it to the public. Today: Well respected science-policy working process to ban dangerous substances (Stockholm Convention), but industry still uses the couple of years lag between manufacturing and ban to make profit of as dangerous or even more dangerous substitutes.

Werner Krauss said...


I just read your comment #224 (!) on the Heartland Gate thread, where you write - if I understand you correctly - that it is sustainable to say that "elevated greenhouse gas concentration (has an effect) on temperatures", but it is not sustainable to say that they have an impact on, "for instance, on volcanism, formation of hurricanes, and the fate of the big ice sheets, not to mention malaria and ice bears."

Okay. But there is a practical problem. Many scientists think that elevated greenhouse gases - emitted from humans - pose a severe threat to humanity, and that action has to be taken urgently. Very urgently.

Should they add now, like on a prescription from the doctor: greenhouse gases are a threat to humanity, but possibly not for polar bears, and possibly they do not cause malaria, and possibly they are not responsible for more hurricanes, and in the question of sea level rise, we are still... etc...?

That's weird, of course. So how to express it correctly? How to raise alarm without being scientifically incorrect? Each statement seems to be "vulnerable" to skeptical critique. But even you seem to argue that action has to be taken urgently. How to argue then?

Isn't this exactly the post-normal case which can NOT be solved in simply being "honest", do "good" science etc (which is out of doubt, of course) - instead, there is a need to express something which can not be exactly calculated, projected etc... but it has to be said anyway. So we need new forms of collaboration and representation, a new language, a new approach to (future) reality which is not vulnerable to skeptical critique, but anticipates or incorporates it. Insisting on the basic values is simply not enough. There has to be added something new. That's my point.

@ReinerGrundmann said...

Werner, you ask
"How to raise alarm without being scientifically incorrect?"
and against Hans: "Insisting on the basic values is simply not enough. There has to be added something new."

The problem is that we had alarm for quite some time now and that climate science advocates think there needs to be "new" alarm ever so often to remind the audience that something needs to be done. Hans quite rightly says that thereby the advocates are carried away, into unsustainable territory, so to speak.

We need to change approach: In 1992 the world community has accepted that there is cause for concern and that we need to prevent dangerous warming. Most people in most countries are in favour of action, as opinion polls show. We need to find practical political strategies which help to achieve this goal. These strategies need to be attractive to voters. Climate science is of little or no use in this endeavour.

It is a travesty that many participants in this debate still think that they need to win a "science war" first. I know you are not among them, but you give in to this kind of thinking when supporting "more alarm", as you seem to do. Or do I misinterpret what you said?

Werner Krauss said...


No, you don't misinterpret me. I indeed thought about possibilities for a kind of "activist climate scientist" - without this scientist getting carried away or entering unsustainable terrain. The goal cannot be to silence all those concerned scientists, while I full agree with Hans that the sustainability of science has to be maintained. Other forms of representation - climate science understood as a not-yet-defined interdisciplinary field? Where art, politics, and science, for example, are not mutually exclusive?

Achieving to win the "science wars" is a trap, I agree. Those think tanks working (or not) for the energy industry are not the main problem; the problem is the energy industry which owns fossil fuels, sells it, distributes its, hijacks governments and politics and consumers. The "occupy movement" takes this up, once in a while, as far as I have read. Nice topic, 1% owns what 99% need.

I am somehow critical of "convincing voters" for practical strategies. I think grassroots movement are very important, when voters themselves become active. especially in the US, I guess, where national politics are muted by the climate debate, but people on the regional and city level are pretty active.

For example, I am still convinced that the rise of alternative energies (and its popularity) is not due to governmental initiatives, but to grassroots activities from citizens - the government only followed in what people wanted and did. This is what I mean by being somehow skeptical on focusing too much on governance strategies.

But sorry, just thinking aloud...

@ReinerGrundmann said...

yes, grassroots movements are important and I did not exclude them. Also grassroots activists need strategies. Some, alas, had nothing better to say than "we are only armed with peer reviewed science"!

Regarding the citizens' demand for renewables, you may find David Toke's work interesting

@ReinerGrundmann said...

"The goal cannot be to silence all those concerned scientists, while I full agree with Hans that the sustainability of science has to be maintained."

In fact, silencing anyone is not a good idea. I have studied advocacy scientists quite extensively (in ozone science and politics) and note that the case of climate is probably unique because of the institutionalisation of consensus. The IPCC mixes science and politics, advocacy and honest brokering, and creates a situation where it is very difficult to critique it without being seen as undermining climate policies.

Advocacy is best done by individual scientists, not by institutions -- note I am talking about scientists, not lobby or grassroots groups.

Honest brokering on the other hand is best done by institutions as most individuals have an agenda. We on Klimazwiebel voice our opinions but are kept in rein through others. I guess we would write differently on our own blogs.

I have a forthcoming article which develops these ideas a bit further. To be posted soon.