John Abraham and Scott Mandia – Climate Science Strikes Back

November 19, 2010

For the community of scientists who study the Earth’s climate, these are bewildering times.

They’ve seen wave upon wave of political attacks. They’re getting accustomed to a public that grows more skeptical of their conclusions even as scientists grow more confident in them.

No wonder there’s much frustration out there in the climate science world—and now, a group of researchers have organized to do something about it. Their initiative is called the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, and it pledges to organize dozens of researchers to help set the record straight.

But can scientists really maintain a war room? What would that look like? How far can they go in fighting back against misinformation, without leaving themselves politically exposed?

To answer these questions, Point of Inquiry called up two of the initiative’s founders: John Abraham and Scott Mandia.

John Abraham is an associate professor of engineering at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has some 80 published papers, conference papers, and patents to his name.

Scott Mandia is a professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College in Selden, New York. He runs the “Global Warming Fact of the Day” group on Facebook, and is known as @AGW_Prof on Twitter.

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Today’s show is brought to you by Audible. Please visit Audible podcast. Dot com slash point to get a free audio book download. This is Point of Inquiry for Friday, November 19th, 2010. 

Welcome the point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney put him Inquiry’s, the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grassroots at the outset of our program, I wanna remind you that point of inquiry is sponsored by Audible Audible’s, the Web’s leading provider of spoken audio, entertainment, information and educational programing. It offers seventy five thousand books for download to your computer, iPod or C.D, and it’s willing to give you one of them for free. Here’s one possible download the book, Nonsense on Stilts How to Tell Science from Boehnke by Massimo Pilley Yuchi, a popular recent guest on this show to download nonsense on stilts or any other book. All you have to do is go to the following Web site. Otwell podcasts, dot com slash point. Let me say that again. Audible podcast. Dot com slash point. 

For the community of scientists who study the Earth’s climate, these are tough times. 

They’ve seen wave upon wave of political attacks. They’ve wrapped their minds around the paradox of a public that gets more skeptical of their conclusions, even as scientists grow more confident in them. So there’s tons of frustration in the climate science world. And now a group of researchers have organized to do something about it. Their initiatives called the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, and it pledges to organize dozens of scientists to help set the record straight. But can scientists really have a war room? What does that look like? How far can they go in fighting back against misinformation? Without leaving themselves politically exposed? Well, ask these questions, I brought together two of the initiative’s founders, John Abraham and Scott Mandia. John Abrahim is an associate professor of engineering at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has some 80 published papers, conference papers and patents to his name. Scott Mandia is a professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College in Seldin, New York. He runs the Global Warming Fact of the Day group on Facebook and is known as AGW Prof. On Twitter, John Abraham welcomed the point of inquiry. 

Well, hi, Chris. Thanks for having me on. It’s great to have you. And Scott Mandia, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Good morning, Chris. Thank you for having me on also. 

It’s a thrill to have both of you to talk about the climate science rapid response team, which you’ve created. It’s recently gotten a lot of media attention. I guess I’ll ask. Jon, first, tell me a little bit about how and why it came about. 

There were no reasons for forming the rapid response team. One of the main reasons is because there’s a real disconnect between what is understood among scientists and what’s known in the general public and in the media. The fact is that 97 percent of active climate scientists are in broad agreement that we’ve got global warming caused by humans. But if you talk to folks on the street and if you talk to folks in the media, there’s a real chasm. 

There’s a large group of people who are not convinced, who don’t think it’s much, much of a problem, much to worry about. So one of the focuses of this group is to bridge the divide between scientists and the general public and get scientists out, communicating their science directly with the media. So the way this team works is media requests would come in on specific topics of climate change and we would find scientists with the expertize aligned with that request and we would be essentially a matchmaking service. 

And Scott, I guess, is elaborate on that. How are you going to ensure rapidity? I mean, the scientists I know aren’t always that rapid. 

One of the things we’ve done is we already have about 46 scientists and our goal is to have 100. This way, we have plenty of scientists that we can refer to the media. But also these scientists are obviously very busy people and they’re doing this on their free time because they realize just how important this is. And with 100 names on our list, no individual scientists would be burdened by this. So the media is going to be able to get information from scientists very quickly and it’s going to be the top scientists in the field in that particular area of expertize. And when they make a request, we’re going to be able to very quickly one of the three of us vector correct scientists to the media. So they’re going to get a response very quickly from our group. 

And speaking of response, John, what kind of response have you gotten since it became news, I guess, in the in the L.A. Times that you guys were doing this and it seemed like it got a lot of attention. Certainly caught my notice very quickly. 

Yeah, you’re exactly right, Chris. 

There was a lot of both national and international attention given to this effort, and the reception has been very, very positive. 

Many comments have come in essentially lauding these scientists for taking the initiative to speak out. And in fact, one of the motivations for this group was a recognition by myself, Scott, and our third party in this effort. Dr. Ray Wineman, we recognize that scientists were becoming more willing to engage directly with the public. Too often scientists are, and sometimes this is rightfully so. We limit ourselves to staying within the ivory walls and just communicating among our colleagues. But now, with this important topic of climate change really taking center stage in the media and really requiring some quick efforts to try to deal with it, scientists are becoming more willing to get involved in that. 

And I think the reception that we’ve got is a recognition that were not only willing to do this, but were we have an obligation as well. 

Well, I want to inform our listeners that the Web site for the Climate Science Rapid Response Team is WDW DOT Climate Rapid Response dot org. I’ll direct this question to Scott. People were, I think, fired up when this was announced. I blogged about it and someone put on either my blog or Facebook there like work and I donate money. But at the same time, there is a bit of a risk because I think a lot of members of the public want you to get out there and sort of trade blows with the global warming skeptics. But in some sense, that’s not the posture that scientists feel comfortable with. And they’re very afraid of being accused of engaging in advocacy. So they want to be seen as above the political fray. So how do you navigate that? 

Well, we are advocates for science education. So, you know, ad advocate is not a bad word. It’s. Good work. We are actually out there trying to get the correct information to the media because the media, they’re the ones that get this information to the general public. What’s going on is we have you know, a lot of scientists have been blogging. I mean, real climate was one of the first ones. But a lot of people that go to the blogs are they already have their position staked out. And a lot of those are actually science people going back and forth. The average person on the streets probably not taking time out to look at these blogs to get the information. And they certainly either don’t have a subscription or they don’t have access to the journals, which is where the real science is. So the media is critical and we’re going to get the correct information to the media. And so, in a sense, we are advocates, but red gets for education. We’re educating the public about science than the media is going to be the vehicle to do so. 

And Chris, if I can just add something. It is true that scientists are often uncomfortable advocating and communicating their science to the general public. As I said earlier, we’re much more comfortable staying within our discipline and talking among our colleagues, and we’re in this effort. We’re not going to arbitrate. What level of advocacy are members will take? Scott mentioned that we’re advocates on the issue of science education and some of our members are going to be advocates that society needs to take drastic action to deal with this problem. So scientists were humans, too. And we need to recognize and folks in the media and the general public also need to recognize that scientists wear two hats. As a scientist, we’re going to communicate the technical information as accurately as we can so that we together as a community can make informed choices. But as humans, we think that there is a real problem coming for the environment. And the problem is we’re starting to see it arrive even now. And so as humans, we want to encourage people to take active roles and deal with that. So we’re going to wear two hats. And to the extent that scientists are comfortable wearing those two hats, they will go out and advocate. 

Well, let me let me just follow on that and press you on that a little bit. I mean, I understand the point. Advocates for science, advocates for accuracy. I would hope that scientists would be advocates for the truth and what they have established and what they know. Advocates saying that we’ve got a problem we have to deal with. I think that that’s very legitimate, too. I think where some people would say and I’m not even sure I agree, but where some people say that’s not really a scientific point is to say we should have a cap and trade bill rather than a carbon tax. 

What about that kind of thing? 

You’re right. I agree with the sentiment that you expressed in that question. I mean, as a scientist, we can come forward and say humans are emitting carbon dioxide. It’s going to cause warming to the environment. Here are the causes. Now, the next question is. All right. So what should we do about it? Those are value judgments. If everyone is entitled to a value judgment, not just the scientists, just because we scientists have a good understanding of the consequences and the causes does not allow us to have a monopoly on value judgments and how to deal with how to provide good solutions. But the fact of the matter is that the discussion is not focusing right now on how to deal with the problem. The discussion is focusing on whether or not we have a problem. And that is largely settled science. So the point that you made is a good one. And scientists have to recognize and folks in the media and the general public have to recognize that when a scientist moves away from describing the science to describing what they think are good solutions to the science, they’ve taken off their science hat and put on their second half that they can wear. And everyone has a right to wear that second hat. And that is as a concerned citizen. 

Well, fair enough. And I just I need to raise this point because I’ve been myself privy to some conversations within the scientific community where they’re talking about how they’re going to communicate in this point of where is the line always comes up. But let me ask ask Scott a question. When it comes to communicating science, you establish this stable of site, a climate scientist ready to do it and they’re ready to set the record straight. What kind of communication techniques are you guys thinking about? I mean, is it just set the record straight? Are you thinking more elaborate, more strategic things like framing, targeting, bridging all the all the tactics, the communication pros. Teacher, you guys giving everybody sort of a boot camp first? 

No. At this point, I think that the individual scientists that are going to respond to the media are going to have their own ways to make that response. And again, John Wray and I are not experts in public relations. That’s certainly not one of our strengths. We certainly are going to you know, we’re on a learning curve in that sense. But I always look at it as, you know, that the truth is the truth. And we have the top people who are going to be giving that information out. And, you know, as John mentioned previously, the problem is. Right now, the debate is in what’s causing the global warming when we should shift it to one of the solutions and there really is a debate there. We have some things that we’re thinking of doing that maybe can help scientists become better communicators. But we’ve already had several people from the team on radio shows, and they’ve done a phenomenal job. I mean, as a group, scientists maybe aren’t quite as talented at communicating as maybe somebody who is in a communications area. Certainly, communication is not part of the curriculum in science. I wish that would change. But there are people and many of them on our list that are fantastic communicators. So they know how to get them the message across. 

Well, I think you guys are pretty good because you’re both showing one of the crucial aspects of communicating on a radio show, which is concision. I have some scientists who sometimes will talk for a couple of minutes, but you guys are very, very compact in your responses. We love that. If I can just get a little bit Metta for a second. Well, let me let me ask John about the political context you can’t ignore. It’s really impossible to talk about this matter outside of concerns of what’s going to happen when the Republicans take over the House, because many of them have said, including Rep. Darrell Issa, who’s going to head the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. They’ve said they want investigations into climate science. They don’t want to just talk about the science. They want to talk about alleged wrongdoing on the part of climate researchers. How do you talk about that? 

Well, you’re exactly right that it’s very difficult, maybe impossible to separate politics from this issue. And this is a point, quick point about the comment you made, the allegations of manipulating data, which I think you’re referring to, are unfounded. And the scientists have already been cleared of any manipulation charges. So some people would characterize these threats as a threated witch hunt. But I’ll leave that for folks to use her own characterization. It is true that especially with the recent elections, that there is a deep polarization within the United States on this issue. And it is certainly true that conservatives are far more likely to be skeptical about whether or not humans are causing climate change. And we can’t we can’t skirt around that fact. We can’t deny it. On the other hand, one of the things that we hope to accomplish with this organization and this team that we formed is to actively and accurately convey the sides in a civil manner. We really need to bring civility back and we need to focus our attention on coming up with solutions that both sides can agree upon. Because the fact of the matter is, I’ll tell you a dirty little secret. Conservatives are care about the environment, too. And if we can find solutions that do not play to fears that conservative people often espouse, then maybe we can move forward on effective solutions. I’ll just give you an example. Cap and trade. Cap and trade is something that many conservatives are against for ideological or economic reasons. 

Well, maybe we could find some solutions that do not bring the level of fear that cap and trade brings. And if we can do that, if we can have these discussions in a civil manner, then we can move forward together. 

Because the fact is, as long as we bicker about whether or not humans are causing climate change, we get caught in a stalemate and no action can be taken. 

Barden staffers are actually already come forward and said they have no plans to investigate climate scientists in January. And I also read a report that was said the same thing. So I think perhaps with the press given on Monday from the Climate Rapid Response Team, maybe some of these politicians realized that we now have scientists are going to stand together as a group to make sure the correct information is there. And if somebody does come after a climate scientists, there’s gonna be a network of experts backing them. And then the other part, as far as the politics, part of the responsibility, I think, of this group is to make sure people understand climate change is not a Republican or Democratic issue. It’s a human issue. There are plenty of reasons, as John mentioned, that conservatives should be concerned when sea levels rise and we have to move our ports inland. It’s going to be tax dollars that pay for that. I just read an article in your, you know, one of the magazines you write for Discover magazine. Denga hemorrhagic fever actually is in Texas, and that’s because of climate change. You have medical experts saying climate change is the most critical issue facing humanity. You have military and intelligence experts saying climate change is one of the critical issues facing humanity. And now climate scientists. These are three groups that don’t talk to each other. But we’re all sending the same message. That means there’s one or two percent truth by what they’re saying. 

I agree with you that it is. It doesn’t have to be a partizan issue, although it does tend that way in the present moment. And there’s actually even, I believe, research. I’m going to get it wrong because I’m personally remembering it, showing that, you know, if you show conservatives a newspaper. Your article and you change the title and one of them is something like, you know, global warming is a problem, therefore we must change, you know, regulate the economy. There is react very badly. But if you say glowworm is a problem, nuclear power is a solution and they like reacted very positively. But of course, this is getting into actually the realm of of of policy choices. 

Right. That’s a paper by hand at all. And I think Tahan also had a paper in February of 2010 that essentially showed you tend to assign expertize to a person who is telling you what you want to hear more than someone who tells you what you don’t want to hear. So it’s the old if you don’t like the message, shoot the messenger. Unfortunately, the messengers is everybody now. It’s not just one side of the political spectrum. 

Well, let me tell our listeners again that if you want to find the climate science rapid response team on the Web, go to Climate Rapid Response dot org. I’ll direct this question to John. If we get past the political context or at least the direct political congressional context, I’m guessing this time of year, one of the things you guys are going to have to communicate about soon is going to be winter weather. I mean, there’s going to be a big snowstorm somewhere. Guaranteed. And people who Naegle Warmer are going to be like, hey, ha ha. Snow, storm, snow. Some global warming you got here. What will you say in response to that kind of thing which happens every year? 

Yes, it does. And it’s almost as though Big Brother is watching me because I’m sitting on the side of the road in Minnesota watching our snow storm come in, even though we’ve had record temperatures here in November. 

But one of the things that we have to do is we have to talk about the differences between climate and weather. And in a certain sense, people, environmentalists shoot themselves in the foot in this area because we often hear people saying this heat wave or this hurricane was caused by global warming. And it’s really hard to ascribe any single weather event to climate change. And so when you do that, you open yourself up for criticism when the weather fluctuate the other way and you get cold temperatures, for example. 

So we have to be very clear when we separate climate and weather. And I think that, you know, when you talk about long term weather trends, you can point to a cold year or a cold couple of years or reductions in in rainfall over a number of years or a couple of decades. Then the argument becomes much stronger. So if you use, for example, the reduction in rainfall in the western U.S. or in Australia, those are much more likely associated with climate change than the snowfall that I’m sitting in right now. 

That’s definitely one of the biggest problems is that people see weather day to day. They don’t see the long term, which is climate change. And it’s kind of like, you know, I have a six year old boy and that’s one of the six and a three. Oh, boy. That’s one of the reasons why I’m so passionate about this, because I really I want to leave them a better world than I have now. And honestly, climate change is essentially going to make that impossible. So my generation is leaving them a world that’s gonna be worse off than than what I have now. But I look at him and he’s definitely grown from being a baby to being six years old. So long term, he’s definitely on the rise. If I measure his height seven days in a row and he doesn’t grow, I cannot say, look, he stopped growing. There is no growing going on. You have to look at it long term. It’s kind of like when you look at yourself in the mirror everyday. You don’t see if you’re gaining or losing weight, but someone you haven’t seen in five years. They immediately as soon as they see, you know, you’ve you’ve changed your weight. Hopefully it’s less than they give you a nice compliment. So that’s the problem. We have to try to convince the public that that weather and climate are not the same thing. And it’s simply put, when you make the climate warmer, you evaporate more water, heat and water vapor are the fuel that drives severe weather. And severe weather has definitely been on the increase. 

Well, that’s the interesting communication point to me, is that that last one is really important because one could argue scientifically that we get big snowstorms. Global warming is actually people would think paradoxically, but it isn’t paradoxical, but they would think so at play because the atmosphere’s retaining more moisture. And so when you snow does fall, you can dump more of it. But trying to get that through the public’s mind when there’s this huge confusion over climate and weather and saying that the snowstorm is related to global warming, I don’t know. It might be just too high of a hill to climb. 

Oh, it’s a high hill to climb. I don’t know if it’s too high. We’ve got to certainly try. And the problem is made worse by the fact that our daily experience is very different from climatic experience. 

I mean, we we see temperature changes every year in Minnesota. We’ll get temperature changes of 100 degrees Fahrenheit easily between January and and August or July, but in excess of 100 degrees. 

So when we come in and we tell someone, hey, we’re concerned that the Earth might warm by six or seven degrees Fahrenheit, they’ll look at us and they say, oh, who cares? I mean, that’s that’s the temperature difference that we see from one day to the next. Why should I be concerned about just a few degrees? The fact is that a few degrees averaged over the entire globe is an enormous temperature increase. 

And another argument that folks make, which is not too many people make this, but some people do make it is you know, people can’t predict the weather seven days in advance. How can you predict the climate in 10 years or 30 years? And that’s the argument that is fallacious. I’ll give you an example. I can’t tell you, Chris, what the weather is going to be like in in seven days here in Minnesota. But what I can tell you that in July it’s going to be warmer than it is in January. And that is the difference between long term climatic trends and very short term weather fluctuations. 

We need to distinguish between weather and climate. 

Well, let me direct this to to Scott. We’ve been on weather and climate. That’s only one of the areas where there’s confusion. 

What are some of the other factual myths or misinformation that you feel like you’re gonna be doing a lot of debunking of or that you’re prepared to take on? 

Well, for me, I always think there are three things I always like to talk about. Number one is there’s an O. As John alluded to, there’s an overwhelming consensus that humans are driving global warming. Ninety seven percent of the publishing experts say that essentially every single international scientific body and they represent the reputations of tens of thousands of scientists. They all say the same thing. So essentially, we’re saying the earth is round. So anyone who says the earth is flat is really fringe. Secondly, there’s a comment that scientists are all engaged in group think. And they’re and they’re doing this because everybody else is saying, well, Galileo, Einstein, Darwin, they don’t. They didn’t get famous for agreeing with everybody. They got famous for overturning the science. This tremendous incentive for scientists to publish something in a journal that says global warming isn’t happening or humans aren’t causing it. You are instantly famous. And that journal is instantly the top journal for that month, easily or that year. And then the third thing is scientists are only saying this because they get they get money. Well, it’s actually against federal law for a grant to essentially pay your salary. So I applied for a NASA grant, it was turned out, but it would have paid me sixteen thousand dollars a year. Had I got gotten the grant, NASA would have paid me the 16000. And Suffolk Community College I work for would have not paid me that sixteen thousand. So my W-2 for the whole year would not have changed. And if you drive around the parking lots of the major organizations of scientists do climate science. They’re not driving Porsches and for hours they’re driving everyday cars within modest home. So those are the three big arguments that I always like to bring up that that shows it’s just not common. 

That’s to say the science is wrong, and I’ll hit on just a couple of the science math I just sketched out a couple here, a number of myths include that the variations in solar activity cause climate change. That’s not true. Another one is that the urban heat island is the reason why temperature is rising. That’s not true. Another one is that models don’t include clouds or water vapor. That’s not true. That CO2 is largely natural in humans only emit about three percent of the carbon dioxide. That’s barely through. That’s essentially not true. Another one is that CO2 is a minor greenhouse gas. That’s not true. The confusion of weather and climate weather sunspots cause climate change. That’s not true. 

And then the fact that there are a number of people argue there isn’t a consensus on climate change among climate scientists, and that’s not true. Those are just a short litany of some of the scientific myths. 

Well, you guys do seem armed and prepared with the facts and the talking points. So best of luck to you. Let me just round up with one question for each of you and I’ll ask you for a brief reply. And I’ll start with Scott. Is it better public education? We need to get the word about climate change across or is it better media outreach? 

Well, I think, honestly, the best way to educate the public is by having media be well-informed and get that correct information to them. So so really, it’s really both. I mean, we can’t do one without the other. We really can’t. 

And, John, you’re out there now. You’ve gotten a lot of attention. You’re operating, been in the press. How are you going to know if you’ve succeeded? 

We’re going to turn the dial on the next time the Pew report comes out with a stats about the general public understanding and concern about climate change. 

If we can move that dial a little bit, I think we’ll also be successful if we can encourage other scientists to take a more active role, if they see their colleagues out engaging the media, surviving and thriving. I think that would be a marker of success. And then if we can protect some of our scientific colleagues against some of the potential but unlikely unwarranted investigations, that would be a third marker. And then finally, if we can either stop bad legislation or help promote good legislation to deal with this problem, that would be a fourth. 

Well, that sounds convincing to me. John Abraham, thank you so much for being on point of inquiry. 

I appreciate the opportunity. Chris, thanks. 

And Scott Mandia, thanks for being on point of inquiry. You’re very welcome. 

I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved in a discussion about the climate science rapid response team. Please visit our online forums by going to Center for Inquiry. Dot net slash forums and then clicking on point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry thought. Org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Wailin. This episode also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney