Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise has been watching the climate world since 2009. What she sees isn't pretty.

The Sad State of the Debate

I’m a cheerful, optimistic, can-do personality. But some days, I just want to pull the blankets up over my head and not get out of bed.

Slashdot.org is an online community devoted to the discussion of technology and science news. The chatter there is often informative and insightful. But not always.

A few days ago a story titled Bastardi’s Wager got posted. It’s about Joe Bastardi, a professional weather forecaster with a degree in meteorology who happens to be a climate skeptic. (The original story is here.) What has me distressed is a line of argument adopted by those in the Slashdot community who contributed some of the earliest comments.

In sports this phenomenon is called playing the man rather than the ball. In logic it’s called argumentum ad hominem. What it boils down to is that, rather than responding to someone’s ideas with ideas of our own, we instead attack the person presenting them. This distracts from the real issues, and channels the discussion into irrelevant territory.

It’s a cheap and lazy way to debate. And it gets us nowhere. The first Slashdot commenter had this to say:

For the record, meteorologists are not climatologists. This is little different than engineers imagining themselves as physicists.

That was soon followed by these two comments:

Meteorologists ride on the coattails of climatologists success.

Another weatherman who thinks what he’s doing is climatology.

In fairness, the Slashdot discussion did get more substantive farther down, but you only discover this if you can stop yourself from leaping out a window in despair.

There are, indeed, occasions when highly specialized knowledge matters. One doesn’t want an orthopedic surgeon (whose specialty is bones) performing brain surgery. And, as I pointed out recently, when there are bona fide experts who specialize in droughts and floods available it’s perverse for the media to interview someone from another field entirely about these topics.

But anyone who thinks the only people worth listening to are climatologists has to be consistent. That means we should stop paying attention to anything ever said on this topic by Al Gore, the Prince of Wales, politicians of every hue (including the UN’s Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon), and a long list of celebrities ranging from filmmaker James Cameron to musician Sheryl Crow.

More than 98 percent of what has been written about climate change in books, magazine, newspapers, and on blogs was not authored by climatologists. Which demonstrates just how absurd is the suggestion that only climatologists have views worth listening to.

I’m not sure where this notion came from that only a special breed of human known as a climatologist is equipped to talk about climate change. That mere meteorologists are unworthy. Because this overlooks some rather inconvenient facts.

Let’s start with the late Swedish scientist Bert Bolin. He helped establish the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) back in 1988. While serving as its chairman until 1997, he oversaw the first two of the IPCC’s four major reports. Anyone care to guess at Bolin’s academic specialty? That’s right, he was a meteorologist.

And which two United Nations bodies founded the IPCC? The minor player was the United Nations Environment Progamme. The dominant organization was  – drumroll please – the World Meteorological Organization. To this day, it’s logo is part of the IPCC’s letterhead.

If one examines this list of names – of IPCC authors and reviewers for a specific section of the 2001 edition of the climate bible – one finds no fewer than 20 people associated with meteorological bodies from around the world. A similar list, cataloging those who contributed to the Working Group 1 portion of the the 2007 climate bible, includes 61 names associated with meteorological bodies.

When the current IPCC chairman visited Australia in 2002 he met with the media at that country’s Bureau of Meteorology. Indeed, we’re told that his visit was hosted by the director of that body.

For good measure, here are a few more bits of trivia:

  • Kevin Trenberth, a senior IPCC author about whom I’ve written recently, has a Doctor of Science in meteorology and has been a fellow of the American Meteorological Society since 1985
  • David Karoly, about whom I’ve also blogged, is another IPCC insider who happens to hold a PhD in meteorology
  • Osvaldo Canziani, the Working Group 2 co-chair for the 2007 IPCC report, holds both an MA and a PhD in meteorology

I am not, for one moment, suggesting that meteorologists are uniquely equipped to speak about climate change. Indeed, it can be argued that one of the problems with current climate science is that it contains too many meteorologists (who have access to thermometer records spanning a grand total of 150 years) and too few geologists (who view climate change through the prism of much longer time frames).

My point is that it’s profoundly uninformed to dismiss someone’s climate change perspective on the grounds that they’re only a meteorologist. If the argument of the Slashdot posters had been that Bastardi holds an undergraduate meteorology degree and is therefore outranked by a Trenberth or a Karoly that would be one thing. But this brings us back to an earlier concern. Someone who holds any degree in meteorology is likely to have a better grasp of these matters than a non-scientist such as Ban Ki-Moon. So should every non-science-degree-holding person be silenced going forward?

Rather than descending into a never-ending disqualification contest, surely it’s better to keep the focus on the strengths and shortcomings of a person’s ideas.

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