Connecting the Dots on Climate Science: The Importance of a Complete Science Narrative

September 5, 2017 | 5:18 pm
IPCC (Flickr)
Keith Daum
Independent researcher

In Walter M. Miller’s classic apocalyptic novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz, an atomic holocaust leaves the world in a modern version of the Dark Ages. In this post-apocalyptic world, books are burnt and cultural information destroyed by anti-intellectual mobs. The monks of a small knowledge-hoarding religious institution try to preserve, understand, and control what information remains.

A few pre-apocalyptic scraps of paper are unearthed and the writing on these is transformed into holy artifacts. One of these holy artifacts is The Sacred Shopping List, a hand-written memo by a long-dead engineer named Leibowitz, that reads: “Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels—bring home for Emma.” With so little information available, The Sacred Shopping List becomes a pillar for the monks’ religious narrative.  The general population are just followers to the outlandish narrative the monks concocted from the holy artifacts.

A Canticle for Leibowitz depicts a classic problem that arises when people try to collect information to develop a narrative. The monks connected only the dots they could find, not having a clue that they had collected an incomplete and misleading set of dots. In science terms, the sample size was both small and biased, leading to their outlandish narrative.

In our own world, a functional science narrative requires a complete and well-chosen set of dots so scientists may connect them into a sensible narrative. Over the last few weeks, the Trump administration has eliminated several important dots (sources of information) about science, some openly and others more discreetly. These losses, when strung together, are significant –  they may drive us back to using our own Sacred Shopping List to develop our science narratives.

Climate science under threat

In 1989, President Reagan established the Federal Advisory Panel for the Sustained National Climate Assessment to help translate findings from the National Climate Assessment into concrete guidance for public- and private-sector officials making decisions about how to deal with climate change. This important National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) advisory group, a critical dot in this science narrative, was eliminated a few weeks back when the current administration chose not to renew the charter.

NOAA recently completed the first draft of the Fourth National Climate Assessment Report, which is intended as a special science section of the National Climate Assessment, congressionally mandated every four years. NOAA does not control how the information in the report will be used, and the loss of the Federal Advisory Panel leaves a vacuum in developing the guidance that should come from the Fourth National Climate Assessment Report. The draft report is under review by the current administration, which must approve it before the report can be published. It is critical that this important source of information be used in the science narrative about climate change.

The administration has also proposed a 2018 federal budget that zeroes out the United States’ nearly $2 million contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC is crucial to coordinating efforts of several thousand scientists, industry experts, nonprofit researchers, and government representatives from across the globe who review reports that provide climate analysis for decisions ranging from the Paris climate agreement to the US military’s national security threat assessments. Eliminating funding for the IPCC would leave US scientists out of important scientific discussions and inhibit our country’s—and the world’s—ability to respond to climate threats.

Our congressional leaders will play a key role in determining whether IPCC funding will continue in the 2018 fiscal year. We need our lawmakers to uphold the United States’ climate leadership and commit to supporting funding for the IPCC. This is one dot we can’t afford to lose.

A path forward

One bright spot comes from our military, which continues to acknowledge the role of science in developing infrastructure that is resilient to the increasing national security risks from climate change. This is where the rubber meets the road. The US military is already dealing with threats from the growing numbers of refugees fleeing affected areas and numerous coastal military installations that will be impacted by climate change. They are using a useful set of dots to make their decisions.

We all benefit from these critical “dots” and need them to be connected into a sensible science narrative.  Many scientists like myself strongly support continuing funding for IPCC, bringing back the Federal Advisory Panel, and protecting federal climate science and research. It is important to use the knowledge of experts to evaluate and compare information and to be part of the plan for how the information is integrated into policy. The science narrative cannot rely on The Sacred Shopping List.