Recently I decided it was pertinent to broaden my engagement in science communication. It is critically important that those of us scientists who are positioned to do so, extend ourselves to reach out to the public and address basic issues.
Along these lines, I want to start conversations about climate change science and do my best to address questions that arise.
I want to start by addressing a few claims that I sometimes read in the media:
False Claim 1
There are places in the world that are getting cooler through time, which disproves the whole idea of Climate Change!
Sometimes I have heard the argument that Global Warming as a phenomena means that EVERY PLACE on the globe will get warmer through time in relationship to EVERY historical time point.
If there are local areas that are not getting warmer, or are cooler in relation to specific time points in the past.
As a specific example, the map below shows how the temperature has changed across the globe from the beginning of instrumented records (1880) to the present. That means, from the time that we have records of temperature. The map extrapolates from the different points in space. Red colors means warmer, blue means cooler. The image below is a snapshot that compares 1997 to the long term average and you can see that eastern North America is actually cooler that year (blue colors in the map below mean cooler temperatures- from NASA: Link.)
One could then conclude, if they only used data from New York for instance, that in the year 1997 it was actually cooler than the long-term average. This would be accurate in fact!
However, this particular point in space does not overwhelm the overall global pattern. If you look at that map at Siberia, you would say it is massively warmer through time, and if you average across the GLOBE you would say it is getting warmer. Focusing on one space and one point in time ignores the term “Global” in Global Warming. In fact, if you look at global temperature, the long term warming trend is easy to see (from NASA):
False Claim 2
Scientists are making money on Climate Change and are funded to be part of a conspiracy, which is why their data consistently supports Climate Change as real.
Climate change deniers act in bad faith when they accuse scientists of generating data to make money. They sometimes claim or insinuate that the reason a scientist would publish data that supports climate change is that some hidden agency or company is actually giving them money to do so. Everyone is motivated by money! Right?
Fine, but in this case it has little to do with the way climate science is done.
The fact is- scientists who do climate change research practically never have financial gain as a part of their project and often end up paying money to publish their Climate Change research (in the form of what are called “page charges”)!
I can speak to this from firsthand experience because I have personally published climate change research. Here is my article in what is called pre-print form: Link. And the Link to the article on the publisher’s page.
I can tell you with absolute certainty that:
-No agency, including the University of Dayton, provided any compensation at all particularly for the publishing of this manuscript. In fact, if I remember correctly, I had to spend money from my account to cover the page charges.
-The publication of this manuscript had very little, if any, real influence on my career. Meaning that I did not NEED to publish this article and that writing a climate change article was neither required nor particularly significant in my career. It was enjoyable, and I think the findings are important and interesting, but I didn’t NEED to publish this. I have never used this article in a grant application. It is listed with my other publications on my resume, but whether it is there, or not, matters very little to my career.
-The climate data were acquired from a publicly available source. Anyone can find those data and run the analyses on the climate variables from our study.
-The results of the study do not necessarily follow some kind of orthodoxy (more on this below). If you read the paper, it does not claim that all species are being influenced by Climate Change. Some are, some are not. It depends. Further, it depends on which particular climate metric you are looking at! So there was no “purity test” for this publication.
In summary, I am a climate change researcher, as evidenced by this publication, and I can assure you there was no secret compensation. I am offended, honestly, by the very idea of it. I know plenty of people who do climate science and they are like me. Just asking and answering questions and following the data. We are paid by Universities to teach classes and mentor students. We do win grants sometimes, which is awesome, but we spend the grant money on things like salaries for undergraduates and equipment for our projects. We financially benefit from grants sometimes in the form of “summer salary” which is money to cover months in the summer where we are not employed by our home institution. Many academics have 9 month contracts that run from August to May, so we can supplement our income in the summer through having the grant cover those months. If we do not have money to cover that time, any research time we spend in the summer is volunteering! Summer salary is the only form of financial compensation that we may get from winning a grant, and that is relatively rare. The money associated with our projects generally just fuels more research. Also, as a side note, we are super careful with this money! I imagine that federally funded research grants are the most carefully accounted for dollars anywhere in the federal budget.
It is worth pointing out that scientists who had a heavy incentive to prove Climate Change was false ended up coming to the conclusion that it is in fact real, in spite of their interests. In fact, according to this story in Scientific American which was followed up by Rolling Stone (here), it has become increasingly clear that oil companies own internal research supported Climate Change as a real phenomenon linked to combustion of fossil fuels by the late 1970s. In fact, it looks like their models were quite good as their estimates of temperature change and timelines seem to match current models.
False Claim 3
Scientific orthodoxy demands that we generate results that support the Climate Change paradigm and doing otherwise, even with good evidence, would ruin our careers.
This is a common sense argument that appeals to the skeptical public- basically, that scientists would be encouraged toward herding behavior based on self interest. If you do not “toe the line”, your career could be negatively impacted, which would force scientists, even if they have counter evidence, to support climate change. The problem here is that it is a complete misunderstanding of how science actually works. In fact, science is an inherently confrontational system that rewards “transformational” research. Indeed, the most funding, and highest profile, goes to science that changes the way we view things. A discovery that changes paradigms is much more important than one which reinforces things that we already knew. So, actually, a scientifically based refutation of climate change that could withstand peer-review and is rigorous would be an incredible boon for any scientists career! It could possibly lead to a Nobel Prize in fact. IF(!!) the science was sound and ended up being true it would upend an incredible body of research and utterly transform how we understand global systems.
Despite the incentive, it is extremely unlikely that this will come to pass because an incredible body of research exists supporting Climate Change. It has been tested and re-tested, and the indications always end up pointing in the same direction-> the Earth is getting warming and human-caused emissions are an important driver of this warming.
Good Sources of Information
There are many great sources of climate information. Below are three that are excellent and I would recommend to anyone who is looking to communicate with a climate skeptic:
(a) NASA– Who else!?! Gorgeous, user friendly and data rich.
(b) IPCC– The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a highly respected global information clearinghouse. Perhaps one of the greatest accumulations of scientific knowledge ever assembled
(c) Real Climate– Climate Science from Climate Scientists.
If you have ideas, please share either in comments or directly to: firstname.lastname@example.org