Saturday, February 27, 2010

Judith Curry asks for climate sanity

Georgia Tech climatologist Judith Curry is one of very few senior climate scientists to reach out to the climate skeptics and outright denialists that are behind the "Climategate" scandal. Here she writes of her interest in seeing some research "sanity" prevail.

The scandal itself is of course at least eight or nine-tenths manufactured by unscrupulous denialist exploitation of minor weaknesses in some parts of both the research itself, and the way that it has been presented and defended by a tiny minority of scientists. I tend to think of it as a storm in a teacup. This too shall pass.

But what should I think about Curry's essay? Because in many ways she's quite right. We really should try to let reason prevail, and let the data begin to speak for themselves again.

That at least is my policy in my teaching. I've been teaching climate science to quite conservative youngsters for many years now, and I do find that the data speak better for themselves that I can speak for them. The majority of students in my classes are moderate climate skeptics. They usually come away at the end with a moderately deeper appreciation for the science, and are better able to understand the risks and uncertainties. It's good work, and redeeming, and I must be a good dooby, doing the right thing.

But what grips me about this whole debate is how little it really matters in the light of oil depletion and technological improvement in renewables and efficiency.

This, I think, is where it helps to be trained in engineering and economics as well as climate change. Only the interdisciplinary perspective here can really sort out the problems. But the problem is getting sorted out.

Because the new low-emissions technology in the pipeline now is just excellent. Looking better and better every month.

By the time we have another ten years of technological advancement and deployment in amorphous solar, fourth generation nuclear power, algal biofuels, green building and retrofit, hybrid-electric vehicles, smart grid technology, and even the hyped-up Bloom Boxes, we won't be worrying nearly as much about how we're going to reduce emissions any more.

No, what really matters is not so much whether we worry about this climategate scandal and restoring trust, but whether we keep up the pace of technology innovation and deployment.

Anyone who thinks we're going to want to burn coal when all these newer, cheaper, cleaner systems are available is not paying attention.

So do we need to rebuild the public's trust in climate science? Well, it would be nice. But it's not the most important thing, and it isn't going to decide the outcome. And the public is lazy and fickle. It's a lot of effort.

Newsflash: A good majority of the American public routinely doesn't trust science. On the one had we have the flat-earth anti-evolution crowd, on the other we have organic-granola crunching advocates of homeopathy. Flat-earthers can't accept climate science because they think the planet didn't evolve anyway. And while our left-leaning organic types like climate science because it fulfills their expectation that evil humans are killing Mother Gaia, and the solution is to collectivize and go back to the land, I'm not sure I want this kind of wishy-washy thinking on my side in any case.

I think at this point we could perhaps stop trying quite so hard to convince the public about climate change, and we might actually do succeed better as a result. We could perhaps even run the risk of not passing a climate bill (which would be the main reason for educating the public in the first place). If Jim Hansen is right and the advent of an El Nino means another bumper hurricane crop and another hottest year on record, that will help a bit. But I'm no longer so desperate to have people understand, to have them see what I see in the data.

Instead we could let oil price settle the issue for us. Now that the Chinese economy is back on track, demand will begin to outstrip supply again, perhaps even this year, and so all these new technologies will get a boost. A few strategically placed subsidies and research grants might accelerate the process of R & D and deployment.

The main thing would be not to build new coal-fired power plants and to phase out the ones we have. But price points can do that as efficiently as public pressure and legislation can, or more so, given how long it has taken to get Congress to even think about the issue. And coal is desperately centralized, as power goes. While the coal power itself is cheap, it's expensive to keep patching together this centralized grid that delivers the power to market, and it isn't secure. It will make a lot more sense to use the new technologies and ideas to begin to create a more decentralized grid.

Because if there's one thing the American public does agree on, it's that everyone likes a bargain.

Plus, if we really don't want to be owned by China, we need to be masters of our own technological fate. Luckily, a lot of these new patents are well-and-truly American.

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