Monday, 8 March 2010

How public trust in climate scientists can be restored

The Met Office's review of latest climate research will strengthen the case for human-induced climate change

Chris Huntingford
The Guardian, Friday 5 March 2010
We know from many long-term records of environmental change (for instance, analysis of bubbles of air trapped in ice cores) that planet Earth is a truly remarkable "living" entity. The climate has had both warm and cold periods in the past. But what is different about the present is the speed at which the planet is warming.
Our computer simulations can only recreate this rapid warming when the addition of large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from human sources is included. If this warming continues, we may reach a situation where very unwelcome changes occur to our weather patterns, which for developing nations could cause major difficulties with food and water security.
So what are the potential flaws in this line of argument? First we have to completely trust the temperature measurement records, such as those developed by colleagues at the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit. Although their temperature numbers are very similar to those produced by other American groups, the revisiting of their analysis is in many ways to be welcomed. I cannot imagine what my colleagues at CRU are going through at the moment, but although we cannot pre-empt any form of inquiry, most climate researchers believe that their analysis will have been shown to be accurate.
Second there is the question of whether major policy decisions should really be made on the basis of simulations of the climate system, as performed on a few specialised computers dotted around the world? There are compelling reasons to trust these computer models, but at the same time, more direct evidence underpinning the claim that climate is changing is needed. That is why the work by Peter Stott and colleagues is important. It looks beyond temperature to other artefacts of a changing environment. Direct measurements show decreasing amounts of Arctic sea ice, changes in rainfall patterns and associated levels of moisture in the atmosphere, rapid variations in ocean levels of saltiness. All of these things can be attributed to impacts of global warming. They are all additional strands of evidence that climate change remains a concern.
The recent furore surrounding the science of climate change is difficult for those working on the subject, yet most of us do think that ultimately something good will come from this. There certainly has to be more openness about the underpinning research. To preserve public confidence, we must "buy out" the copyright from research journals of key papers so that these can be freely available to all for inspection. Datasets must also become more available for general scrutiny. Effort should also be made to avoid statements on climate change that could, inadvertently, be perceived as scare-mongering. Researchers need to calmly present their findings on climate change as an issue, among many others facing the world, on which well-considered collective thought and economic or technical action is likely to be needed.
I sincerely hope we can win back the trust of the public. If we do so, then hopefully society will keep emissions on a pathway that ensures a safe climate for future generations while avoiding any damage to the global economy.
• Dr Chris Huntingford is a climate change researcher working at Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.