February 27th, 2014 by Sandy Dechert
The U.S. National Academy of Sciences and The Royal Society of London debut Climate Change: Evidence & Causes, a new publication produced jointly by the two world-leading scientific institutions, live on the internet on Thursday, February 27, 2014, from 10:00-11:30 EST.
The new publication bills itself as “a brief, readable reference document for decision makers, policy makers, educators, and other individuals seeking authoritative information on the some of the questions that continue to be asked” about climate change. A UK-US team of leading climate scientists wrote the document, and climate scientists and others reviewed it.
Dr. Ralph J. Cicerone, President of the National Academy of Sciences, and Professor Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, will introduce a webcast about the summary today. Miles O’Brien, host of the PBS Newshour, will guide the discussion with authors Dr. Eric Wolff of the University of Cambridge (UK lead), Dr. Inez Fung of the University of California, Berkeley (US lead), Sir Brian Hoskins of Imperial College London and the University of Reading, and Dr. Benjamin Santer of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Several of the above are joining the group via videoconference.
The publication is available now at both NAS and Royal Society websites. It comes in three forms: entire text, Q&A, and Climate Basics section. Both sites will webcast the discussion live. Audience participation is encouraged. You can send questions to to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow along/comment on twitter at #NASRSclimate. An archive of the webcast will be available for viewing soon after the event.
The organizations seek to move climate change discussions from the theoretical (“is climate change real?”) to the practical (“how can we limit destructive changes?”).
NBC News quotes Berkeley atmospheric scientist Inez Fung, a coauthor, as saying “Climate change is happening. We see it in temperature, we see it in the melting ice, and we see it in sea-level rise.”
“The evidence is clear,” the new report states. “However, due to the nature of science, not every single detail is ever totally settled or completely certain. Nor has every pertinent question yet been answered.” Uncertainties remain in details like estimates of how much warming can be expected; the cause of the past few years’ apparent slowdown in warming (“the hiatus”); and connections between climate change and extreme weather events (hurricanes and other storms, droughts, floods).
On the plus side, the organizations reliably tell us this about their booklet:
“The publication makes clear what is well-established and where understanding is still developing. It echoes and builds upon the long history of climate-related work from both national academies, as well as on the newest climate-change assessment from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It touches on current areas of active debate and ongoing research, such as the link between ocean heat content and the rate of warming.”
John Roach, a seasoned contributor to NBC News, provided a useful summary of the publication last night, but he may have overstated its usefulness. The authors aimed for something that would guide “decision makers, policy makers, educators, and other individuals seeking authoritative information.” Roach views the piece as “written in simple language and filled with pictures and graphs to illustrate why scientists are certain human activity is causing the climate to change.”
However, the text prefers the English version of the language over streamlined Americanese. Seven readability indices measure its style as difficult to read, probably because of sentence length and complex vocabulary. Most characterize it as 12th grade or college-level reading. As such, it likely overreaches the comprehension of some “other individuals seeking authoritative information,” as well as challenging American readers. However, Roach is right about the design of the book—a clear, modern infographic style.
As to content, the science seems to reflect current mainstream judgment fairly well. Roger Pielke, Jr., a climate policy analyst and professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder (The Climate Fix), told NBC that he found it “ho-hum.” To an expert, sure; but this comment reflects naivete about the level of climate change literacy. We are talking about a readership in which the the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found that only about a third of respondents are aware that most scientists think global warming is happening.
Penn State’s Michael Mann (The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars) warns that the pamphlet does not caution nonscientist readers about the tendency of models to underestimate impacts. He also repeats his frequent refrain about the opacity of the issue to decision makers and policy makers: “Sadly, in today’s political environment, where climate change denial is pervasive at our highest levels of government, it seems that the message is not being heard.”
Regardless of critical opinion, it’s undeniable that the core of Climate Change: Evidence & Causes reflects 97% or more of current expert thinking. If nothing else, for distilling very difficult and complex issues in an eventempered way, NAS and the Royal Society deserve an “A.”
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