Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Engaging the public without disengaging from science

Today, COMPASS published a commentary in PLOS Biology on the journey from science outreach to meaningful engagement. This post is part of a series of reactions, reflections, and personal experiences we hope will expand the conversation. Read the summary post here, or track the conversation by searching for #reachingoutsci

A few years ago, I found myself at a retreat with a group of highly accomplished scientists from around the continent. Why, I don't know. I suspect my invitation came much as it would to a team's equipment person, who are still needed during practice drills on the road to fetch all the loose balls.

On the penultimate evening, the discussion turned to the challenge of balancing science and outreach. The very unscientific activities of the retreat had wore down the competitive academic armour that most successful scientists wear like second skin, and revealed a surprising vulnerability among the group. Most everyone held an existential fear of this mysterious force, which most often went by the moniker "they".

You see, this "they" held ultimate power over careers and was adamantly opposed to scientists spending time on outreach, rather than research. At the time, I thought that young scientists starting out their careers should be afraid to do outreach because of judgement by people like those at the retreat. Yet here were some tenured faculty, people with, arguably, the safest jobs in the world, themselves feeling they did not have the freedom to do outreach. It was eye-opening.

I delivered an eloquent speech about the psychological legacy of years spent jumping though hoops in the hierarchical academic world and how the greatest obstacles we must overcome in life are often internal. Either that or I channeled old-country centenarian grandmother and said "What the %$@* are all of you talking about?". It's been a few years, so I don't recall the exact wording.

It is healthy for a scientist to be cautious about outreach. Really.

Yet there’s a big misconception among young scientists that "the academy" frowns upon those who engage with the public. Speaking up is not the issue. What scientists really frown upon is simply people who don’t know their stuff. If you're consistently good at your job, you really can talk to the public without fear of serious recrimination by your peers.

Those doing outreach might experience some backtalk, but so might those who get teaching buyouts from a grant, win external fellowships or publish in general science journals. Some of that is jealousy. The politics of academics are a lot like that of junior high, except it is a unique junior high for Type A adults who studied too hard in actual junior high to fully graduate past that stage of psychological development. I keed, I keed. Sort of.

I think the key to managing the balance between science and outreach in the competitive research world is to be a good scientist.  And, by this, I mean two different but related things, things that I wish I had been told years ago:

1. Before even thinking about outreach, you have to do your job and do it well. That means publishing in top journals, being cited by others, the whole ball of statistically significant wax. Why should anyone outside of scientist listen to a scientist who is not consistently doing research that is respected by others in the field? And respected, does not mean loved. People respect research that is thorough and well-supported, even if they disagree with the findings.

2. We're scientists, why not be scientific about outreach. Be systematic. Do research on the role of scientists in society. Evaluate different methods and assumptions. And when the time comes, be precise.

Be harsh - with yourself
To be scientific about outreach, you need to be extremely harsh with yourself about why you are getting engaged beyond the scientific world. I cannot stress this enough, I did not think about this nearly enough before starting this blog.

What values are motivating your engagement, and how are those values affecting the public statements you plan to make? It is perfectly acceptable to advocate. We are citizens, we have every right to express our views. However, if we are not clear with people about when you are making a scientific or "objective" judgement (i.e. our analysis shows climate change will lead to an increase in coral bleaching) versus a value judgement or a "should" statement  (i.e. we "should" reduce greenhouse gas emissions), then we are only doing harm to the overall scientific enterprise.

"Stealth" advocacy, as Roger Pielke Jr. discusses in The Honest Broker, can lead to the politicization of science. If the audience disagrees with my "should" statement, they may then question my objective statement or my results. They also may, quite reasonably, conclude that I am abusing the position of authority granted to me by the public as a consequence of my title and degree to advance my personal agenda. The perception of this dynamic is very much at play in climate change discourse, where a lot of scepticism of the science is rooted in a mistaken belief that the core of climate science has been politically compromised.

This means it is critical to think very carefully about who you are representing when you deal with the public or policymakers, be it in a public seminar, a policy hearing or a blog post. Are you speaking on behalf of your specific new research? Your greater body of work? Your field? Or "science"? Always keep in mind that while you may think you are speaking on behalf of your own research, the audience may think you are speaking on behalf of "science". Sometimes highlighting an anomalous result, like a resilient coral reef that is an exception to the global rule, can end up misleading the public.

Looking back, I'm glad that the scientists at the retreat were a bit reticent about outreach, even if I think the reasoning was wrong. If I've learned anything from my interactions with the folks at COMPASS and other science-public intermediaries, it is that we should be cautious about outreach just like we are cautious about research. We want to do both well, don't we?


Thursday, April 25, 2013

Who is right about the oil sands: James Hansen, Joe Oliver or none of the above?

Years ago, when I was on the editorial board at the Silhouette, McMaster University's campus weekly, we received lots of letters to editor expressing outrage about some university decision. The vitriolic letters would invariably start with the phrase "I am appalled by", a phrase that was often bandied by the overtired editors trying to put the paper "to bed" at 5 or 6 am.

There was no shortage of outrage yesterday when Canadian Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver called out well-known climate scientist Jim Hansen during a speech in Washington. Oliver argued Hansen is "exaggerating" when he says exploiting the oil sands (thanks Brad) would be "game over" for the climate. Oliver laid out his argument in full later in the day during this follow-up interview on CBC's Power and Politics:

Should we be appalled by the Minister's statement?

This very issue was subject of a recent post, some of which is paraphrased here. In defending Keystone XL and the oil sands, Oliver quotes a much-discussed article published Neil Swart and Andrew Weaver that found the total amount of carbon stored in the oil sands is "only" sufficient to raise the world's temperature by 0.24-0.50°C.

In that sense, what Oliver is saying is true, in that it does reflect the results of the Swart and Weaver analysis. Given that full extraction of the oil sands would take many many years, and that new pipelines like Keystone XL itself would only allow a fraction of the oil sands to be extracted, it would appear to be correct that any claim that expansion of the oil sands or building Keystone XL is directly "game over" for the climate is an exaggeration.

However, if you consider the oil sands as part of a particular energy future, Hansen's claim, though a bit hyperbolic for my tastes, does have legitimacy. (note: Hansen did not specifically say, in the original article, that the oil sands alone were "game over", but his comments since more or less support that assertion)

The figure below shows that according to International Energy Agency (IEA) modeling, if all of the oil sands projects with regulatory approval go ahead, oil sands production will exceed the level expected to occur in a +2°C world. If the projects under regulatory review all go ahead, oil sands production will be higher than that in the IEA's +6°C scenario.

The first column is existing, planned and announced oil sands projects;
 the orange bars are oil sands production in the IEA future scenarios.
Production is assumed to be 80% of capacity, following the IEA methods. 
As Minister Oliver notes, the oil sands are only one source of oil, and only one source of fossil carbon. That carbon will not be exploited in a vacuum. In analysing this problem, you need to consider what role the oil sands are likely to play in the global oil and global energy system. A world in which the oil sands are fully exploited is a world in which many other sources of oil and carbon are also exploited.

Regardless of whether the carbon in the oil sands should be directly considered "game over", the IEA Outlook suggests a world with greater oil sands extraction is, in essence, a "game over" in Hansen's mind, because it would guarantee dangerous impacts from climate change (e.g. eventual loss of the major ice sheets). If we want to avoid Hansen's "game over", we probably need a global energy system in which the expansion of extraction in the oil sands is constrained. Since the proposed pipelines like Keystone XL would allow for construction of the extraction projects with regulatory approval or under regulatory review, blocking the pipelines might be the best indirect way of leaving most of that carbon in the ground.

In the end, round one of Oliver v. Hansen says more about overly cartoon-ish discussion about climate change, than it does about the climate science and the oil sands. Oliver's argument has some merit. So does Hansen's. Rather than deal with the grey, we force all this into black and white. Outspoken scientists are messiahs. Conservative politicians are oil-soaked, climate deniers. It makes for great video and easy outrage on twitter. It does not advance the conversation or lead to any solutions.

Communications and the media have come a long way since those long nights at the Sil, where we laid the paper out by hand on big boards, carefully pasted single words into articles to correct mistakes, and used RP tape (black lines) to create edges on the photos.

Letters begat emails. Emails begat blog posts. Blog posts begat tweets. People are still appalled, but now in 140 character bursts.


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

How not to report about climate science

Exhibit C: Early 21st Century Science Reporting

Reminder: Please do not lean against the glass.

April 7, 2013 (Reuters) - Climate change could get worse quickly if huge amounts of extra heat absorbed by the oceans are released back into the air, scientists said after unveiling new research showing that oceans have helped mitigate the effects of warming since 2000. 

April 16, 2013 (Reuters) -  Scientists are struggling to explain a slowdown in climate change that has exposed gaps in their understanding and defies a rise in global greenhouse gas emissions.


The previous exhibit showed that, in the early part of the century, science reporting often suffered from a problem popularly known as "balance as bias". The journalistic norms of reporting on both sides of the issue led some writers to give equal space to voices representing the bulk of the science community on subject like climate change as to voices representing a few outliers in the science community or industry groups opposed to action on climate change.

This exhibit displays a more egregious reporting error. In the Reuters' article from April 16, 2013 entitled "Climate scientists struggle to explain warming slowdown", the reporters not only failed to interview any climate scientists at all on the subject of the supposed struggle, they failed to check recent articles from their own organization.

NOTE: The apparent slowdown in warming described in the April 16 article may not be familiar to many visitors to the museum. It is, in fact, visible in the global temperature record over the past two centuries if you increase the resolution on your e-glasses, ignore the multi-century warming trend, and focus on the decade in question.


Monday, April 08, 2013

Can climate science live up to expectations?

There's a huge demand for local and regional climate projections. Policy-makers, planners and everyday people all over the world are looking for scientists to provide "data" on the future climate of their region, their town, their coast, their water supply, in order to better inform long-term decisions.

This demand is captured by the fast-spreading concept of climate services. In the past few years, there have been many new national and international initiatives and forums, like the recent Pacific Islands Climate Services Forum, aimed at getting scientists, government agencies and the private sector to "supply" these services.

Pacific Islands Climate Services Forum (Jan 2013)
The initiatives face some real-world obstacle. For one, whether better "data" can ensure, or even contribute much to, good decision-making is itself an open question. But before we can even think about the decisions themselves, we need to deal with what the expectations surrounding the data.

The recent RealClimate post on regional climate modelling illustrates the size of that gap. In short: a couple recent publications, summarized in Science (Kerr, 2013), question the effectiveness of the regional models  based on comparison analysis of model output and climate observations. The RealClimate post rightly takes the articles to task, reminding everyone that no climate model, regional or global, should be expected to recreate the exact year-to-year variation in the weather. The system is too chaotic and sensitive to the initial conditions in the model. So models can describe the frequency and magnitude of climate variability, but "these fluctuations are not synchronised with the real world."

This confusion is an example of a gap between what science can deliver and what people expect science to deliver, as Mike Hulme discusses in Why we disagree about climate change?.

The gap is common with climate change science, but hardly unique to climate change science. Think of going to the doctor with a sprained ankle. You hope for a clear diagnosis and timetable for recovery. Instead, you receive a vague answer on a simple three point scale about the severity of the sprain, and a range in weeks for the likely recovery time.

The expected recovery time from the sprain is the medical equivalent of a multi-model ensemble prediction: we can't tell you exactly when the ankle will heal or how much the climate will change, but we can tell you given the input data, it "should" occur in this range. It is, statistically-speaking, possible that it will not occur in that range, because there is a chance that the data on which that range was based did not capture 100% of the range of possible experiences.

As a patient worried about being able to walk, you quite likely to want the "expert" to do more definitive tests to improve the answer. However, the high-technology test, be it a MRI or a new climate model, are not guaranteed to radically improve the diagnosis of what's happened or the future prediction. This is simply not something we can know with 100% confidence and 100% certainty.

Many of the potential users of climate change projections, not educated on the fine technical points of climate modelling or statistics, are often looking for precise answers that scientists and our models will never be able to provide. This expectation is embedded in the very language that is used. At the Pacific Islands Climate Services Forum in January, I was told many times about the need for "data", a word I've intentionally place in quotes in this post, for decision-making. The word "data" implies a precise measurement. Yet what scientists can provide is a "prediction", which comes with uncertainty, itself a combination of known and unknown elements

It is clearly important to develop and properly evaluate methods for regional climate prediction. Even with the uncertainty, some of which is irreducible, in future predictions, the information can still be of use in decision-making. We are, after all, able to decide whether it is safe to start running again after an ankle sprain, despite imperfect knowledge on the exact state of the ligaments, muscles and tendons.

Scientists, however, need to recognize the core challenge is not just improving models, but improving understanding of what can be modelled. Otherwise, scientists and decision-makers will be at cross purposes.

If you're interested in more of these ideas, I recommend the third chapter - "Performance of Science" - of Hulme's book. I assign it to my undergraduate students every year.


Thursday, April 04, 2013

The Vancouver Accord: Reaching international agreement on climate policy, in class

The students in Geography 312 (Climate Change: Science and Society) just completed a mock UN climate summit.

Like the real UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meetings, the detailed negotiations were contentious and concluded with
only minutes to spare.

Unlike the real UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meetings, the students managed to forge some creative and very detailed solutions to avoid stalemates over long-term action to address climate change.

Without further adieu, I present the 13-part Vancouver Accord, composed and agreed to by 65 negotiators from 21 countries.


1. The parties to this convention agree that the climate change represents a dire threat to the ecological and economic future of the planet. The parties agree that greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere should be stabilized at a level that would avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system and the wellbeing of people and economies worldwide.

2. The aspiration of the long-term cooperative action is stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at level that will keep global warming at minimum below 2° C above pre-industrial levels, currently expected to be 450 ppm CO2 equivalent, and possibly below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The concentration goal will be subject to later review, based on the best available science, including the climate sensitivity.

3. The parties agree with the notion of common but differentiated responsibilities, based on recent greenhouse gas emissions and the unique circumstances of each nation, towards this goal.

4. Following this notion, the parties agree to consider legally-binding emissions targets for 2020, with recognition that medium-term targets for 2030 and long-term targets for 2050 should be considered as part of the 2015 agreement on long-term co-operative action.

5. These proposed CO2 equivalent emission targets, pending agreement by all major emitters, may include:
• Canada: 18.5% below 2005 level by 2020
• EU (Germany, France, U.K.): 30% below 1990 level by 2020; 40% below 1990 levels by 2025, and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050
• Japan: 18.5% below 1990 level by 2020
• Norway: 40% below 1990 level by 2020
• Russian Federation: 18.5% below 1990 level by 2020
• U.S: 18.5% below 2005 level by 2020&
• China: 30% below 2005 level by 2040 provided other listed countries reach their targets for 2020

6. Commitments may be met by flexible measurements, to be proposed by the parties no later than the 2015 COP, and to be negotiated no later than 2017 in order to come into effect before 2020.

7. Flexible mechanisms may include bilateral and multilateral emissions trading and/or technology transfer agreements. The mechanisms will be monitored and managed by this convention. Examples include the Bilateral Offset Credit Mechanism created during these negotiations by Japan, in which Japan has reached agreement with each of Bangladesh, China, Germany, India, Maldives, Mali, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Solomon Islands, on transfer of low-carbon technology or adaptation assistance in specific areas in exchange for emissions credits applicable to the 2015 agreement on long-term co-operative action and credit toward targets set for developed country financing to the developing world. Another example is a bilateral agreement between Germany and Saudi Arabia agree to consider mutual development of solar technology.

8. The parties recognize that youth will play a critical role in creating a sustainable, prosperous future for the planet. The parties will consider the creation of an International Youth Education Program on Climate Change and an annual Youth Initiative Conference where young representatives from all the participating countries will share their views and ideas and get educated about the ways to support sustainable future, developed to accommodate each country's unique circumstances. The program will operate under the Global Standard Education System. All the parties are required to submit an annual feedback to the system, and all the parties will be funded according to needs.

9. The Annex I countries present (UK, Germany, France, Norway, Australia, Japan, US and Canada) agree to have 30% of their national energy from renewable sources by 2030. This is dependent on the US and Canada agreeing on a reasonable improvement in technology transfer between the two countries. Japan has also asked for a flexibility following the Fukushima disaster. This agreement is legally binding if the above are achieved. The target will be shared within the EU, with goals of 25% for France, 30% for the U.K. and 35% for Germany.

10. A subset of the parties developed the “Agreement to Population Control for Least Developed Countries”. Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Chile, Indonesia, Australia, India, Maldives, and Mali have agreed to minimize population growth to 10-15% increase within the next 40 years. This agreement is non-binding, and requires external funding from the UN. Strategies for Population Control are included in the agreement.

11. A subset of the parties (Japan, U.S., Solomon Islands, Russia, Chile, Brazil, Australia, Bangladesh, Mali, Tuvalu, and India) agreed that the Green Climate Fund will be the most effective way to combat climate change in developing countries. Developing countries will accept a portion of short-term financing loans that will turn into long-term grants upon proof of results towards project goals (as determined by third party actors on behalf of the Fund Board). However, these countries stress that grants are ideal mechanisms for developing countries.

12. Under negotiations for REDD+, the parties (Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Chile, Nigeria, Solomon Islands, Indonesia, Norway, U.S.) agreed that by the 2014 COP to draft a conditional agreement on a standardized and transparent process of monitoring. The systems must be verifiable by international standards to ensure the consistency of emissions monitoring. The system will include:
• Establishment of adequate monitoring systems at either national level, or if the nation does not have the capacity have the option, with international or partner state assistance
• National standards for emissions reductions monitoring with the condition of transparency between countries through a standardized monitoring process.
• Regional incentives for countries without UN-REDD implementation at the national level with a goal to have programs implemented at the national level by 2020

Based on this conditional agreement on the standardized emissions monitoring, the parties will move forward to address additional funding schemes.

13. Following the REDD+ negotiations, at the upcoming COP in Warsaw, the parties will address setting up an international framework for the Green Climate Carbon scheme. This market-based climate scheme will expand the financial capacity of developing nations to reduce deforestation and forest degradation from anthropogenic emissions, while increasing incentives developed nations to fund the program.

Saudi Arabia
Solomon Islands
United Kingdom
United States