Monday, May 28, 2007

Scientists overselling or underselling climate change risks?

Kevin Vranes wrote a while back that he felt that scientists may feel like they've almost accidentally oversold their certainty about climate change and associated risks, particularly their confidence in climate model results.

On the other side, James Hansen says this about the risk of a 5 meter sea level rise in a century:

a 'scientific reticence' is inhibiting the communication of a threat of a
potentially large sea level rise. Delay is dangerous because of system inertias
that could create a situation with future sea level changes out of our control.
I argue for calling together a panel of scientific leaders to hear evidence and
issue a prompt plain-written report on current understanding of the sea level
change issue.

So who's right? Wish I knew. But, both of them could be right - scientists could be overselling 85% certainty as 95% certainty, while refusing to discuss a 10% risk of catastrophe. Or maybe just one is, or neither.

Hansen does add, "scientists preaching caution and downplaying the dangers of climate change fared better in receipt of research funding." Pointing out that something could be considered a risk at the current state of science, when it is likely (but far from certain) that the improved science will eliminate the risk, isn't going to make the scientist look all that prescient. Hansen's argument makes some intuitive sense to me, and we'll just have to see if Kevin Vranes is right or not.

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