Field of Science

Paradise regained?

It should be a resounding slap in the face of global warming contrarians, now that Al Gore and the IPCC have won the Nobel Peace Prize:

"for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change".

Now of course, that does not mean all our problems are solved, and that policy will now proceed smoothly. Fox News and others will still find good excuses to discredit the prize. They will probably even say that the prize makes Al Gore an even richer man while the rest of the world grows poorer. They will also speculate about the gratuitous lobbying that went on in their opinion in the deliberations. In addition, falling back on Gore's personal lifestyles is an argument which they could never let go of. Whatever.

The prize was expected and it's probably not very surprising even if a happy circumstance. There are still miles to go before we bring carbon emissions under control though, and even if we stop today, many deleterious effects will continue to be observed, and curbing those effects is going to be a complex scientific and political process. In fact, the prize also does not mean that climate change is now suddenly fully understood. But this is at least a partial vindication.

What I feel happiest about is not just that the Prize was awarded to Gore and the IPCC, but that it was also awarded to those thousands of scientists, who starting in the 1950s travelled to the farthest reaches of the planet to drill ice cores, document effects on sea level, snow cover, wildlife habitats and human populations. It's also a big thank you to those like James Hansen who have tirelessly worked in the face of political suppression to build computer models and relentlessly weed out the uncertainties (especially those caused by forcings). In fact, in my opinion Hansen himself deserved this prize, but it may been unfair to some other scientists.

Awarding one half to the IPCC for "building up" the scientific background of climate change and the other half to Gore for "disseminating" this knowledge seems like an apt split. The IPCC has constantly published reports since 1989 on climate change. It's latest report in 2007 was an encapsulation of cutting edge research and the most current conclusions it has drawn, which have not changed substantially from the 2001 report. The main contribution the IPCC has made between the two reports is to weed out uncertainties caused by "forcings"- factors including artificial ones like fossil fuel emissions and aerosols and natural ones like volcanic emissions that can either increase or decrease global temperatures. The problem previously was that some of these factors, especially those decreasing temperatures, had large uncertainties and so their potential balancing impact on CO2-induced warming could not be evaluated well. However, much progress was made between 2001 and 2006, and in its latest report the IPCC concluded that the "negative" forcings were much less than what was needed to counter the "positive" forcings. I would strongly suggest reading the IPCC summary. Anyone who reads it and still strongly suspects global warming needs to have immediate access to a dictionary and the mental asylum.

This is the first Nobel Prize for climate change as such, but it should be noted that one was given earlier for Chemistry to scientists who discovered the destruction of the ozone layer by CFCs. That research was a resplendent example of how science can starkly reveal the effects of human activities on the environment and force everyone to reconsider their way of life.

On the political front, George Bush and his yes-men can now do nothing more than concede to the grim reality of climate change, although it will be hardly surprising if they still don't. A couple of months ago, Bush stood in the White House Rose Garden and endorsed the 2007 IPCC report and human contributions to climate change. As Chris Mooney points out, he could have done exactly the same thing in 2001, when much of the science was equally well-known. But politicians and especially the current administration thrive on uncertainties in a perverted manner; while scientists thrive on uncertainties because they will improve understanding, politicians thrive on the same uncertainties so that they can cherry pick and try to discredit the entire enterprise.

The beauty of science however is that it always continues to progress, through mistakes as well as triumphs, and this is a fact which thwarts even the most powerful politicians' motives. Even if men in power can score temporary political points by discrediting science, they forget that science has simply retreated beyond the stage, where it continues to march on through the tedious work of dedicated scientists. This exact same principle applies to any other heavily politicised scientific debate, including the nonsense about creationism. As the eminent biologist Francisco Ayala says in his book about evolution, it does not really matter for science if creationism is taught in schools or whether anyone thinks evolution is a conspiracy, because research in evolution will always continue to advance our understanding irrespective of policy. Biological research on homosexuality will continue oblivious to the debate about gay marriage. Research on the benefits of stem cell therapy will continue oblivious to whatever veto the President enforces. Science will continue to thwart the contentions of conservatives about life beginning at conception. Science does not and will not care about the vagaries of politics and spin. And the heart of the reason for this inexorable flow of science is that while politics is about the affairs of humans, science is about factual truths about the world. Its course may be temporarily modified or even stopped in the rare circumstances where unreason triumphs over all (such as in the trial of Galileo), but we can be more than rest assured that since discovery is a process inherent in the history and future of the world, this process will never ever abate. Not just this prize but all vindication of climate change is a vindication of the character of science which will always progress, and we should be thankful for those scientists who keep on quietly working behind the curtains on this progress.

So there is it; the first Nobel prize for climate change. In my eyes, the biggest vindication more than anything else has been about the science. People should yet again be convinced now that the science, with all its uncertainties, is still founded on a solid basis, and this in fact goes to the heart of understanding the scientific process itself. Let's hope that the prize causes even more public awareness than before, especially on an individual basis. Combating climate change will involve changing human nature a little, and that seems impossible. But as Spencer Weart says in his excellent book on global warming, CFCs provide a good example of how humans can change deeply-rooted practices and profit making in the face of impending problems. Global warming is a bigger problem. It will just take bigger efforts. I don't see why we cannot do that.

Previous posts related to global warming and climate change: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8


  1. This is one of the few times I've agreed with you about something. ;)

  2. Haha...true! But then, we learn more when we disagree isn't it? ;)

  3. careful, even now the mechanism of ozone degradation is being debated. NOTHING in science is set in stone. If computers can't correctly model protein conformation, how can they possibly correctly model weather?

  4. but they can assign probabilities...that's what it's about


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