NSF in Climate Denial?

Note:  David Wojick, who holds a doctorate in the history and philosophy of science, sent me this essay.  It is thought provoking and deserves a read.

The US National Science Foundation seems to think that natural decades-to-centuries climate change does not exist unless provoked by humans. This ignores a lot of established science.

One of the great issues in climate science today is the nature of long-term, natural climate change. Long-term here means multiple decades to centuries, often called “dec-cen” climate change. The scientific question is how much of observed climate change over the last century or so is natural and how much is due to human activities? This issue even has a well known name – The Attribution Problem.

 This problem has been known for a long time. See for example these National Research Council reports: “Natural Climate Variability on Decade-to-Century Timescales (NAP, 1995)” and “Decade-to-Century-Scale Climate Variability and Change (NAP, 1998). The Preface of the 1998 Report provides a clear statement of the attribution problem:

The climate change and variability that we experience will be a commingling of the ever changing natural climate state with any anthropogenic change. While we are ultimately interested in understanding and predicting how climate will change, regardless of the cause, an ability to differentiate anthropogenic change from natural variability is fundamental to help guide policy decisions, treaty negotiations, and adaptation versus mitigation strategies. Without a clear understanding of how climate has changed naturally in the past, and the mechanisms involved, our ability to interpret any future change will be significantly confounded and our ability to predict future change severely curtailed.

Thus we were shocked to learn that the US National Science Foundation denies that this great research question even exists. The agency has a series of Research Overviews for its various funded research areas, fifteen in all. Their climate change research area is funded to the tune of over $300 million a year, or $3 billion a decade.

The NSF Research Overview for climate change begins with this astounding claim:

Weather changes all the time. The average pattern of weather, called climate, usually stays the same for centuries if it is undisturbed.

This is simply not true. To begin with, there is the Little Ice Age to consider. This is a multi-century period of exceptional cold that is thought to have ended in the 19th century. Since then there have been two periods of warming, roughly from 1910 to 1940, and then from 1976 through 1998.  There’s real controversy about what happened since then.  Until our government joggled the measured ocean surface temperatures last summer, scientists could all see that warming had pretty much stopped—what happened has been attended to here, and to say the least, the new record is controversial. 

But the two agreed-upon warmings indeed are indistinguishable in magnitude—only the first one could not have been caused by increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, because we had emitted so little by then.   If it were, i.e. if climate is that “sensitive”, it would be so hot now that there wouldn’t be a scientific debate on the Attribution Problem. 

Prior to the Little Ice Age there is good evidence that we had what is called the Medieval Warm Period, which may even have been as warm as today.

Thus it is clearly not the case that climate “stays the same for centuries.” So far as we can tell it has never done this. Instead, dec-cen natural variability appears to be the rule.

Why has NSF chosen to deny dec-cen natural variability? The next few sentences in the Research Overview may provide an answer. NSF says this:

However, Earth is not being left alone. People are taking actions that can change Earth and its climate in significant ways. Carbon dioxide is the main culprit. Burning carbon-containing “fossil fuels” such as coal, oil and gas has a large impact on climate because it releases carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere.

NSF has chosen to promote the alarmist view of human-induced climate change. This is the official view of the Obama Administration. In order to do this it must deny the possibility that long-term natural variability may play a significant role in observed climate change, despite the obvious evidence from the Medieval Warm Period, the Little Ice Age and the early 20th century warming.  As an editorial this might be tolerable, but this is a Research Overview of a multi-billion dollar Federal research program.

NSF is supposed to be doing the best possible science, which means pursuing the most important scientific questions. This is what Congress funds the agency to do. But if NSF is deliberately ignoring the attribution problem, in order to promote the alarmism of human-induced climate change, then it may be misusing its research budget. This would be very bad science indeed.

In technology policy there is a standard rule that says the Government should not pick winners and losers. It appears we need a similar rule in science policy. In the language of science what we seem to have here is the National Science Foundation espousing one research paradigm – human induced climate change and no other cause – at the expense of a competing paradigm – long-term natural variability.

Thomas Kuhn, who coined the term paradigm for the fundamental assumptions that guide research, pointed out that it is common for the proponents of one paradigm to shield it from a competitor. NSF’s actions look like a clear case of this kind of paradigm protection.