How to unsettle settled science (and settled scientists)

Paul Danish

Talk about getting hoist with your own petard.

Australian climate scientists have succeeded in convincing the management of the country’s main research institution, The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), that human-induced climate change is settled science.

Unfortunately, The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization happens to be their employer. And after reflecting on the news that the debate over climate change is over, Larry Marshall, the organization’s CEO, sent an e-mail to CSIRO’s climate science units saying, in so many words, “Cool! Since the science is settled, who needs you?”

Climate models and measurements have now proven the existence of global climate change, Marshall wrote, and CSIRO’s focus going forward would now be “what do we do about it,” and “how can we find solutions for the climate we will be living with?”
About 220 jobs in the oceans and atmosphere and the land and water units will be cut over the next two years. The ocean and atmosphere unit will lose 110 of its 130 scientists. John Church, an expert on sea-level rise who has spent 38 years with the unit, said, “the CSIRO is effectively saying ‘climate science is done and we’re moving on to adaptation and mitigation.”

“My view is that there is inaccurate and misleading science in that statement — climate science is not done,” he added.

He’s got a point there, but why is it, then, that for the last four or five years scads of climate scientists have been telling us that global warming is settled science — some even going so far as attempting to suppress the publication of work by climate skeptics. If you keep saying the discussion is over, it’s not unreasonable for your boss to decide it’s not worth paying you to keep talking.

Anyway, within nanoseconds of Marshall’s e-mail, an outcry ensued. Quickly followed by an up-roar. And then by a great perturbation in the force. As of Monday, Feb. 16 some 3,000 scientists from 60 countries had signed a petition to CSIRO saying, in so many words, “climate change is not — repeat not — settled science! What were you thinking, mate! P.S. There is no such thing as settled science!”

Whatever else Marshall has accomplished, chances are he’s ended the use of the settled science narrative by climate researchers until the end of the next ice age. Good. The settled science trope is just another manifestation of political correctness, and one which is both intellectually dishonest and intellectually lazy at that.

Marshall is right to pivot his institute’s research toward solving the problems of adaptation and mitigation instead of the current self-evidently unsuccessful strategy of trying to stampede the world into stopping the use of fossil fuels before proper alternatives have been developed. (Proper alternatives are those that work as well as fossil fuels, that are cost competitive with them, that don’t require people to make major lifestyle changes, and that governments don’t need to coerce people into adopting.)

Personally, I think adaptation and mitigation are pretty good ways of dealing with existential threats. We’ve had a lot of success with them over the last couple hundred thousand years. They got us through the last ice age and shot us right up to the top of the food chain, which is more than can be said for carbon credits.
Here’s an inconvenient little bit of settled reality: In the final analysis, combating climate change is discretionary. Adapting to climate change is mandatory.

However, Marshall is wrong to dump his current climate science programs. Climate change may or may not be settled science, but it is not complete science. There are still a lot of questions that remain to be answered — involving time, place and manner, for instance. And a lot of those questions have a direct bearing on what we should do about mitigating the consequences of a warming climate and how we go about adapting to it.

If I were making climate policy, here are some I would like to know the answers to before I did anything rash:
Is climate change going to produce winners and losers? If so, who are they; which countries will win and which lose? Will parts of the tropics become uninhabitable? Will parts of Canada, Alaska, Siberia, Greenland and Northern Europe become more habitable? Will the U.S. be a winner or a loser?

Is global warming a bad thing or a good thing? On balance, will a warmer world be a more habitable world or a less habitable one? Or is all climate change ipso facto bad? The current assumption seems to be all change is bad. I’d like to see that question addressed with some scientific rigor.

CSIRO’s climatologists should not be sacked. But to the extent that they’ve been singing in the climate-change-is-settled-science amen choir they richly deserve to be slapped upside the head. Which Marshall has done.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.