Guest columnist Joseph Silverman: Controversy on Hadley’s Climate Change Committee

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Published: 11-27-2023 6:05 AM

A recent article reported on a climate science expert who resigned from the Hadley Climate Change Committee after she responded to challenges from committee members with an emotional outburst that included profanity [“Climate panel member quits,” Gazette, Nov. 7]. I can empathize with both sides of this controversy.

On the one hand, I understand the frustration of the scientist, as I share her sense of urgency that time is running out for us to drastically reduce carbon pollution. On the other hand, I think it is very challenging for those without a science or statistical background to sort through the blizzard of misinformation — and there have been times when reports in the news media of scientific findings were later shown to be inaccurate. But that’s not the case now with climate change.

The outburst at the committee apparently came following an objection to a statement regarding “total system collapse.” I don’t think anyone, even within the scientific community, can say for certain how close we are to a tipping point where the continued warming of the planet is no longer reversible; however, concern about this possibility is not unreasonable. A recent article in Scientific American magazine is titled, “Humans Have Crossed 6 of 9 ‘Planetary Boundaries.’” The first sentence reads: “Human activity is turning Earth into a world that may no longer adequately support the societies we’ve built.”

In regard to geoengineering, scientists are exploring this approach to reducing global heating because if nations are not successful in reducing emissions, then desperate times might call for desperate measures.

One of the commonly discussed interventions is the spraying of aerosols, such as sulfur dioxide, into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight. This is not being done now and many scientists think this a very bad idea. Human manipulation of the earth’s natural ecosystems does not have a good track record of success and could have unanticipated and disastrous consequences. Besides, if people thought that there is an “easy fix” to climate change, the motivation and efforts for doing what is necessary but challenging (e.g., transitioning to clean energy, changing agricultural practices) could be reduced.

The only large-scale geoengineering happening now is humanity’s burning of fossil fuels that releases the carbon dioxide that has been safely stored in the ground for millions of years.

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Another issue mentioned in the Gazette article is the attribution of the summer floods in the Pioneer Valley to climate change. It’s important to remember that weather is not the same as climate, as weather varies on a daily basis but climate refers to large-term changes.

There is little doubt that climate change has increased the frequency and intensity of severe weather events, such as the disastrous flooding that has been reported in multiple locations around the globe. This happens because warmer temperatures in the air holds more moisture that eventually gets released. Scientists have improved their ability to assess the impact of climate change and this is often expressed in terms such as that the severity of a storm was 30% worse than it would have been without global heating.

Finally, a quote from the New York Post by climatologist Judith Curry was submitted to the Hadley committee. This tabloid, unlike Scientific American magazine, is not a reliable source of information. It is owned by Rupert Murdock and can be considered the print version of Fox News.

Judith Curry has become somewhat notorious within the climate community. More than 97% of climate scientists agree on the basic facts of human-caused climate change and, from what I’ve read, Professor Curry agrees with that conclusion but focuses more on the amount of uncertainty and the degree of alarm warranted. As a result of this position, she has been featured repeatedly on Fox News, now has a lucrative consulting business, and has testified to Republican-led House committees multiple times.

Rather than paying attention to any single scientist, a more valid approach would be to look at consensus statements from reputable scientific organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, The National Academy of Sciences, scientists at NASA and NOAA, or the American Meteorological Society.

Joe Silverman, Ph.D., is a retired psychologist and is now focused on the psychology of climate change communication. He is active with the local chapter of the Citizen’s Climate Lobby.