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Editor: Helen Gavaghan.

Climate Change. Evidence & Causes. A report from the UK and US National Academies of Science. Report published 27th February, 2014. 1pm GMT.
A GC Indigo database item. Keywords for this item are climate and weather.

A review and commentary by Helen Gavaghan writing 7th March, 2014.
Ocean heat content in relationship to global warming, estimates of future global warming, and the connection between climate change and extreme weather events are among the areas of active research and debate in the field of global climate change, according to a joint report from the Royal Society and US National Academy of Science, published last week.

The report is presented as a series of questions and answers.

In their preamble the authors write it is now "more certain than ever" humans are changing Earth's climate, and this, they say, is the case despite not all details yet having been elucidated with certainty, because of the nature of science.

Of course human activity impacts Earth's oceans and atmosphere beyond the effects of nature alone, but I disagree with the authors' conclusion that uncertainty about how this happens is because of the nature of science. Rather, I argue, it is the innate nature of natural phenomena which endows the climate-change debate with uncertainty. My point is not arcane, because the altered emphasis places the philosophical underpinning of the debate and research agenda where it belongs, with nature, not science and human activity. The latter are investigative tool and cause, but in the context of this report it is nature not science which is most important. My argument decentres science, without disempowering science, its 21st-Century methodology and its self policing.

Any trained scientist can tell you the self policing of science is way, way bigger and more complex than the concept of peer review, which, in my view, is in danger of becoming what those of religious turn of phrase call a false god. I am not of a religious turn of phrase or mind, and have long viewed the genesis story of creation, through to eviction from the Garden of Eden, as a metaphor for being human, followed by a desperate intellectual and legal battle to regain the promised land. That, in my thinking, is where 21st-Century western science enters the human story.

Problem, at least for me: the Roman Catholic Church has had an undue influence on my thought patterns from before when I could speak. In part I learned my rationalism from the Gregor Mendels and Teihard de Chardins of this world, and poetry from the sprung rythms of Gerald Manley Hopkins. Who influenced Newton, Galileo, Darwin and Einstein. Who influenced historian and philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn?

Seems to me that science needs a spot of good old fashioned iconoclasm, shifting the dominant driver in the climate-change research agenda back to nature, and away from the human construct of science and human climate-changing activities. But that is not enough. As a profound and long-time opponent of proselytizing (not the same as requesting my point of view be understood before it is smashed to smithereens) identifying and eliminating dominant Judeo-Christian (and any other religious) thought processes might also help 21st-Century science to understand nature.

I had an editor once who might have called this commentary so far throat clearing. It isn't. It is intellectual spring cleaning. But having completed my spring clean I am still within an intellectual structure of my education and experience. And this is why people are - or should - be interrogating other intellectual constructs, ways of thinking and indigenous peoples and their knowledge, all within the context of cultures other than our own. If one thinks in pictograms before writing a sentence, or writes and reads from right to left how might one's brain physics be modified? With the Earth's future in the balance because of human activity, now is the time to interrogate more widely the human race and non humans. Nature not science is the Rosetta Stone which will enable knowledge sets and ways of thinking and conceptualising and building knowledge, other than those gained by western science, to be translated among one another. Nature is the common language linking the heuristics of 21st-Century science, the knowledges of indigenous peoples and cultures, and those of non-human animals.

I am not saying observe non-human animals to find out what the norm of their behaviour is (though that obviously is reasonable science), but find out what is the essence of their behaviour at any one time. Is it homeostasis, or hunger, danger, evolution or geology.

That train of thought awakens the historian in me. Were British political classes, and social and military classes of earlier centuries responding instinctively in part to a desire to answer such questions. What do the animals know? Instinct driving self preservation? In which case Joseph Banks would have found his path smoothed.

Which brings me back to 2014 and 21st-Century science, a human activity which has, convincingly for me, made the case that human activity alters the world's climate. If we had understood the knowledge and culture of indigenous peoples they might have convinced us sooner. Is the dominance of a 21st-Century science heuristic wholly the best option for the future survival of the Earth and its biology?

To elaborate a research agenda effectively within the areas identified by the two national academies means scientists internationally need to focus their hypothesis formation on the uncertainties in their knowledge of nature. The obvious. What is the geological context? Two poles. Two views of Earth: an ocean ringed by continents, the Arctic; and a continent ringed by oceans, the Antarctic. What is the dynamic context? Spin dynamics, within solar-system and galactic spin dynamics. Shifting magnetic poles. What are the heat transfer and storage contexts? If an explanation of heat storage relates to water structure and bonding, might other language describing the reason for the phenomon observed prompt new exploration of relationships between properties of physical entities like water and solar-terrestrial physics? Mimicking is a form of communication.

This report by the Royal Society and the National Academy of Sciences is not about these issues. Its first question is, "Is the climate warming?" Yes, is the answer, and the report tells us we know this because of thermometer measurements and other observations. For a more detailed answer to this question read, "Whither weather forecasting and climate services?", an interview in Science, Peole & Politics by myself with Dr Tillmann Mohr, a special advisor to the secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organisation [Issue 2 (March-April), volume ii (2010), VII]. Dr Mohr was previously the first director general of EUMETSAT, the intergovernmental organisation with resonsibility for looking after Europe's weather satellites and for monitoring climate change. Before that he headed West Germany's weather service.

Question two asks how scientists know climate change is caused largely by human activities, and the answers given are not altogether satisfactory. Writing that "Since the mid 1800s, scientists have known that CO2 is one of the main greenhouse gases of importance to Earth's energy balance" left me wondering why that piece of information was provided as of relevance to the present. The rest of the answer did not add links in the complex histories I know full well exist. I am a long-time follower, editor and reporter in science and its policy nationally and internationally, so naturally the climate-change debate is on my radar. I know how slow and painstaking has been the path to today's knowledge claims. In the 1980s I even once joined a scientific field expedition to the Kansas prairie. The expedition was collecting vegetation data vital for interpreting satellite-based and air-borne observations [I was on staff at New Scientist at the time, based in Washington DC, and the magazine published my work.]. Given the hard slog en route to assertions about human activity causing climate change such authoritative voices as The Royal Society and US National Academy of Sciences must not inadvertently add fuel to current disputes between nations by implying however remotely or unintentionally that power brokers in the past knew and understood more about today's science and its proven consequences than was known. That is not how politics works, nor is it what is behind the polemics of politics.

That said, dotted around the work are some useful facts, aswell as important omissions. For example, water vapour and a full exposition of carbon isotopes in relationship to types of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are poorly explored, or not explored. The title for the report, "Climate Change. Evidence & Causes" says to me that both these topics should have been included. To my mind this report lacks the punch it should have had given its authors. Though a matter of record because of who its authors are, I do not think the report adds anything not already known to the climate-change debate.

Thank you to my colleague, environmental journalist, Fred Pearce, for reminding me water vapour is as significant a contributor to climate and climate change as are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and halocarbons, such as CFCs.

1995. Paper on water vapour, drawing attention to the unknowns in 1994. Accessed 7th March 2014.

2004. Water vapour feedback observations and climate sensitivity. Accessed 7th March 2014.

2011. Characteristics of water-vapour inversions observed over the Arctic by Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) and radiosondes. A. Devasthale, J. Sedlar, and M. Tjernström. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. Published 25th May, 2011. Work relevant to the thermodynamics of climate-change models.

NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory, focussing on water vapour, and troposheric and stratospheric ozone. Accessed 7th March 2014.

Item closed to substantive changes 22.30, GMT, 2014.


URL visited by site editor on 26th June, 2014. One minor miskeying of a word corrected.