The times they are a-changin’: and not just for the climate

Michael H. Glantz
1 December 2008

The times they are a-changin’: and not just for the climate


Bob Dylan's Album cover, January 1964

Just wanted to say that “the times they are a-changin’.” They are a-changin’ for those involved in climate science research and modeling, and they are a-changin’ for those engaged in climate impacts research and application. They are also changing for those who fund climate-related research and research applications. The time has come for these communities to rethink the paths of their professional responsibilities. Here’s why I think this is so.

It appears that the science of global warming has become rather easy for people to understand, at least on a superficial level. At that level of understanding, people can (and do) form opinions about climate change, about its possible impacts on regional climate, and about what they might do about it. Graphic representations of the greenhouse effect and of the influence of greenhouse gases on the atmosphere and on the Earth’ s surface are colorful simplifications of reality. They are rather easily understood, explained, and used by the general public. By analogy, one does not need to go to the moon in order to gain knowledge about the moon. Just conduct an Internet search of subject content or graphics. Similarly, one does not need to know all the scientific data that goes into the modeling of the global climate system in order to understand either how the computer-based models work or how atmospheric processes behave. They just have to accept that the scientists and the graphic designers know what they are saying and doing.

A parallel situation exists for those who have been engaged in researching climate–related impacts for the past few decades. Obviously, climate is only one factor that influences human behavior, along with economic, political, social, cultural and ecological factors. For years now, a relatively small but growing number of researchers in the social and biological sciences have followed a risky career path that separates them from cohorts in their respective academic fields. They strayed from mainstream disciplinary research, choosing instead to view in a multidisciplinary way climate as a key influence on human and societal behavior.

Before the mid-1970s, blaming climate-related disasters primarily on the natural environment was, generally speaking, in vogue. Since then, however, numerous attempts have been made—often quite successful attempts—to sort out what parts of a disaster’s deaths and destruction should rightly be blamed on Nature and what parts should be blamed on human activities (and, more specifically, on decision makers and decision-making processes).

Now fast forward to 2007. In April, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, 4th Assessment was released to the public, and later in the year the IPCC, along with Vice-President Gore, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to draw attention to and clarify aspects of the global warming crisis. Those who have worked tirelessly to firm up the science of climate change and those who have devoted their careers to understanding societal influences on the atmosphere and the influences of atmospheric processes on society can rest on their published works and their laurels. Their mission really was accomplished!

In the waning weeks of 2008, the successful efforts of atmospheric physical, biological and social scientists are reflected around the world in what appears to be a fundamental step-like shift in political and economic concern about global warming and its impacts on society. Even people who still do not accept that global warming is a problem or that humans, through their energy consumption (among other ways), can influence the planet’s atmosphere are, for the most part, beginning to move on, trying now to figure out how to make money from mounting concerns about how to either mitigate or adapt to global warming.

Indeed, researchers – physical, biological, and social – have won a battle, a major victory at that. They have provided credible information that has convinced governments and corporations to move beyond skepticism and a “business as usual” approach to take seriously how to cope with both the causes of a warmer atmosphere and their consequences. But a victory in a specific battle does not necessarily win a war. The next battle looms threateningly on the horizon. At the same time that the success of these researchers in generating political awareness at the highest levels of government and society may have unwittingly made their lives more satisfying, their future research funding may now be less assured; Competition for funding is going to increase sharply.

Given its notoriety, many people are now attracted to the global warming issue. Recent increases in the credibility of the science, as well as in the resources now available for continued research into its science and especially its impacts, have made the field more accessible to unscientific newcomers as well. While many of these newcomers will undoubtedly refresh current research efforts by offering new perspectives and insights that could prove extremely valuable to future research, they are also now in competition with the “old guard” of climate and climate-related impacts research for limited funding.

shanghai harbor
Fantastic changes: Shanghai Harbor, 16 years apart. Note structure in right foreground is the only constant in both images.

Funding proposals can easily be prepared by people or organizations that have had little or no interest in climate impacts, but who can provide convincing sound bites and colorful graphics, which are, of course, the modern means of persuasion that has replaced – regrettably – the need for “a thousand (or more) words” to articulate clearly a correct portrayal of the science behind the existing body of literature on global warming impacts. Such newcomers will submit proposals to funders who might not themselves be able to distinguish between proposals with a firm knowledge base from those with shallow knowledge of climate-society-environment interactions.

This reality also suggests that funding agents and researchers have heightened responsibilities. For their part, funders are under more pressure to compare and contrast competing proposals. Old-guard impacts researchers, on the other hand, need to re-think their research paths, more earnestly distinguishing between research projects that are interesting and those that are essential in the “war with global warming.”

Finally, newcomers arrive with what may be valuable perspectives and insights. However, they too have a responsibility to delve into the research findings of the past few decades that have led to contemporary IPCC findings.  Only by doing so will they demonstrate their understanding of the large (and growing) body of research in science, impacts and policy that preceded their recent interest and involvement in addressing climate change and its impacts.

The atmospheric scientists have new responsibilities as well. They too are facing a new and different predicament. As a result of their scientific research and findings, they have been successful at convincing policy, corporate and other decision makers to act on causes and likely consequences of global warming. As a result, most decision makers are now increasingly focused on the potential impacts of climate change. Scientific research remains important for the monitoring and refining of regional and local physical, biological, and (especially) societal impacts. Even more troublesome for climate scientists is perhaps the growing realization that the “war on climate” has now become a “war on energy,” as decision makers ask what global warming means for the economic viability of their countries, regions or organizations.

--Michael H. Glantz

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