11.25.2015

Scientific Solidarity

All for one and one for all! (Cast of the original 1921 film, The Three Musketeers)

Last week, I wrote about Congressman Lamar Smith’s (R-Tex and chairman of the House Science Committee) Congressional subpoena for all correspondence related to a paper from this June that yet again debunked the persistent false claim that global warming has been on “pause” since 1998. Congressman Smith rejects the scientific conclusions, preferring instead to believe that NOAA scientists and officials have colluded to change data to further what he calls President Obama’s “climate change agenda” but what is actually, um—how to put this diplomatically?—the scientific reality. There is simply no evidence to substantiate his conspiracy theories, and overwhelming evidence against them.

One of NCSE’s Board members, Dr. Ben Santer, a scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, knows only too well what Dr. Thomas R. Karl, the Director of the National Center for Environmental Information (NCEI), is going through. Karl is the lead author of the paper that has Congressman Smith so upset and is one of the targets of Smith’s campaign to cast doubt on the results of his peer-reviewed research. Santer was the convening lead author of chapter 8 of the 1995 IPCC report in which the following sentence appeared: “the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate”. Like Karl, Santer became the human face of a conclusion that climate change deniers desperately wanted to discredit. Unable to discredit the facts, the deniers instead sought to discredit Santer. They accused him of “scientific cleansing” of the IPCC chapter, they accused him of manipulating journals to publish his own work and delay that of others, they went after his emails despite the public availability of all of the data on which Santer’s published work was based. You can read the details in Santer’s “Close Encounters of the Absurd Kind.” Be warned, it’s a deeply depressing story.

It’s even more depressing to contemplate that TWENTY YEARS LATER the forces of denial are still up to the same tricks, attacking the scientist rather than engaging responsibly with the data, and doing their best to insert unmerited doubt and confusion into the international conversation on climate change. (Gee, right before the next big international climate change conference….coincidence?) At NCSE, we deal with the consequences of that campaign to cast doubt every day, as we try to help teachers cover climate change forthrightly and without false debate. Doubt doesn’t stop at the classroom door, and millions of students are being misled about how certain the scientific community is that the climate is changing and human activities are responsible. The damage that this kind of attack does to science education and the scientific enterprise overall cannot be overstated

It is in that spirit that I reprint – with Dr. Santer’s permission – the letter he wrote to his colleague, Dr. Karl, who is now suffering disingenuous criticism of his work and unwarranted fishing expeditions into his correspondence.

Dear Tom,

I just wanted to express my gratitude and scientific appreciation for the critical research you and your NCEI colleagues have performed over the last several decades. You have been pioneers in many different areas: in producing observational estimates of global-scale changes in land and ocean surface temperatures, in identifying non-climatic artifacts in temperature measurements, in developing rigorous scientific methods of adjusting for such artifacts, and in accounting for the incomplete, time-varying coverage of observations. 

NCEI has made its surface temperature data sets freely and openly available to the entire climate science community, thus enabling important research on the nature and causes of climate change, climate variability, and climate model evaluation. NCEI staff have clearly and thoroughly documented each surface temperature data set that NCEI has released - in scientific publications, in presentations to policymakers and professional societies, and in extensive online material. No scientific organization has done a more thorough or transparent job in developing and analyzing observations of 20th and early 21st century changes in Earth’s climate. 

I am deeply concerned that NCEI’s science is now being subjected to Congressional scrutiny and criticism. Such scrutiny and criticism is not warranted. The leadership of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology should understand that science is dynamic rather than static. All observational temperature data sets have evolved in important ways over time, in tandem with improvements in the ability to identify and adjust for in homogeneities introduced by changing measurement systems, changing measurement practices, and changes in the spatial coverage of measurements. This is true not only for surface temperature data sets, but also for measurements of the heat content of the world’s oceans, and for satellite-based estimates of temperature change in Earth’s lower and upper atmosphere. Evolution of observational temperature data sets is a normal, on-going scientific process. It is not evidence of non-scientific behavior.

If our country is to take informed decisions on how to address problems arising from human perturbations to the climate system, we need access to the best-available scientific information on how Earth’s climate has actually changed. NCEI provides such critically important information to the scientific community, policymakers, and the public. You and your NCEI colleagues deserve our sincere thanks and our continued support.  

With best regards,

Ben Santer

Distinguished Member of Scientific Staff, Lawrence Livermore National Lab

Member, U.S. National Academy of Sciences         

I am sorry that such a letter needed to be written, but I am heartened that Dr. Santer, the leadership of NOAA and many scientific societies (see, for example this letter sent to Smith by seven societies representing hundreds of thousands of scientists and engineers) are standing up for Dr. Karl in the face of this blatantly political harassment. Karl has important work to do. He should be left to do it. The only gauntlet he should be worried about is the formidable one of rigorous peer review that faces every scientist. Our elected officials need great science if they’re going to make great decisions. It seems to me that discrediting science the last thing we need when humanity has a lot of truly difficult challenges to address.

photo credit: "The Three Musketeers (1921) Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org