Clearing the Air on Climate Science

The following post is from Dr. Amanda Staudt, National Wildlife Federation climate scientist:

February 2007 marked a giant step forward for the field of climate science. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the Working Group I contribution of the Fourth Assessment Report, an encyclopedic review of the physical science basis of climate change. In the starkest terms used to date, the report concluded warming of the climate system is “unequivocal,” humans activities were very likely responsible, and more warming & larger impacts were in store if emissions continued.

I worked closely with many of those scientists in the years leading up to the release of this report. I saw them struggle with how to articulate a clear sense of the urgency without overstating what we do or do not know. I saw them wrestle with how to do policy-relevant science, despite the risk that it could affect their scientific credibility.

What did their courage earn them? Theft by computer hackers. Threats of prosecution from polluter-friendly politicians. Personal harassment from people egged on by ideologues. Blatantly inaccurate reporting in the mainstream media.

It’s important to understand how inconsequential the “scandals” ginned up by polluters & politicians have been:

  • An Associated Press investigation turned up nothing in these emails to alter our understanding of climate change.

  • A few relatively inconsequential errors have been found in the Working Group II report of the IPCC – all related to projected impacts of climate change, none related to collected data or projected temperatures. In the set of 2007 IPCC reports totaling about 3,000 pages, I honestly find it impressive that so few errors have been found. Even so, the IPCC has pledged to evaluate their review processes and add even more checks to ensure accuracy.

Considering I’ve devoted most of my professional life to climate science, it feels a little like having your dirty laundry exposed for everyone to see. It’s not spot-free — scientists are human and make mistakes. But the reality is that the laundry is pretty darn clean. I think we can all agree that it would be ridiculous to throw out your entire wardrobe because you accidentally got a tiny spot on one cuff of one item.

And what’s critical to understand is that since that 2007 IPCC report, the science has only grown more urgent, the evidence more clear:

So where do we go from here? Climate scientists must work harder than ever to earn the public’s trust and maintain their credibility. At the same time, climate scientists need to keep doing what they do best — observing and studying our planet to help us make the best informed choices about our future.

That’s why I’m joining the team of contributors here at the National Wildlife Federation’s Wildlife Promise blog. I plan to use these posts to expand the work that I’m already doing –- taking technical climate science and translating it in a way that’s easier to understand and better connects the dots to impacts for our communities, wildlife & natural resources.

I also hope to give you a look behind the scenes at the lives of climate scientists. How do they go about their work? What are their day-to-day struggles? The reports that are the end products of our work are the result of thousands of hours of research, discussion & rigorous review from other scientists.

Most of all, I hope to engage you with what attracted me to climate science in the first place –- a fascination with our home planet, a tireless commitment to better understanding how the planet works & a devotion to making sure we preserve the wonders of the natural world for future generations. Use the comments section to tell me what you think – agree, disagree, or ask me questions. I’ll be listening.

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Published: March 9, 2010