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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

In Defense of Science

The international press has been quick to illustrate the myriad ways in which climate change science has taken a beating in recent months, thanks to 'Climategate', the IPCC's errors and the so-called resurgence of climate scepticism. Although is it arguable whether such bad PR merits a rethink regarding the state of climate science, scientific institutions are clearly on the backfoot, and much effort is being devoted to reiterating where 'the science' stands. This has manifested with a UN call for an independent review of the IPCC process, not to mention the scientific review of research at the University of East Anglia (which is producing its own controversies) and the scrutiny of Penn State's Michael Mann. Meanwhile, various surveys are indicating that society-at-large may be growing weary of climate warnings (see, for example, here or here).

In Australia, the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology have frequently been called upon to provide updates to the Federal Government regarding the state of climate change science, and recently they did so once again. The latest "snapshot" provides an up-to-date overview of trends in climate and greenhouse gases in Australia. While the brief report received significant media coverage (much of it phrased as "science strikes back"), it really doesn't offer anything new to the increasingly partisan debate in Australia (although the two scientific institutions were quickly accused of playing politics). In fact, while the report presents observed trends, it doesn't provide any evidence regarding the attribution of those trends, other than to reiterate IPCC statements regarding human attribution of observed global changes. Nor does it give the public any indication of why such trends should be of concern. Presenting the science of climate change without directly addressing the "so what" questions that invariably arise is a recipe for apathy. And the more scientists appear defensive, the more they feed the perception that they may in fact have gotten something wrong.

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