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Considering Institutional Authorities and Climate Change.

February 9th, 2010 · 11 Comments

Recently, I realized that one of the reasons why it is so interesting to focus on energy and climate change issues is the incredibly complexity of issues, interconnections, and feedback patterns/cycles in these interactions. If one is serious in these domains and is even slightly curious in nature, it is essentially impossible to learn something new or consider a new way of looking at some part of the challenges / opportunities from a different angle every single day. That is, simply put, exciting.

As part of this complexity, there is a simple reality: anyone who asserts that they know everything about the issue(s), definitively, and knows every single answer is, well, simply not someone worth listening to about such complex domains.

Thus, a critical skill set is developing a sense as to who to trust and who is untrustworthy for consideration.

And, this “skill set’ can be used as a guide for where one might have uncertainty.

Greg Craven, youtube star extraordinaire and author of the highly recommended What’s the worst that could happen?, laid a hierarchy of authorities for considering a difficult subject area where one might not be expert but where you wish to figure out an answer via the thoughts and opinions of others.  Quite roughly, in order, you could have from high (implicit) to lower (need to be confirmed) trust as follows:

  • Professional societies
  • Government Reports
  • University Research Programs
  • Think Tanks
  • Advocacy Organizations
  • Individual Professionals
  • Individual Lay People

And, if an institution speaks in a way that contradicts its normal bias (like a tobacco company stating that smoking tobacco causes cancer or a fossil-fuel company stating that CO2 is a major threat to humanity and we need to reduce the burning of fossil fuels), then it should be given stronger weight.

Craven lays out why professional organizations are at the top of the credibility spectrum:

professional societies are organizations that exist not to advance a particular agenda but to simply serve the communication and training needs of a particular profession.  … With these groups, bias and political leanings are going to be small as can be expected in any human endeavor.

The level of expertise is fairly high because these groups are made up of people who know more about the field than anyone else; furthermore, fur such an association to come out with a statement, most of the members would need to agree with it, so what you’re getting is general agreement from a whole bunch of experts — no small thing. And, the longer an organization has been around or the mroe prestigious it is, the bigger the reputation it has to protect. You can be fairly confident that an organization has been quite thorough in making sure it doesn’t say something that later makes it look silly.

Now, “argument from authority” is a touchy subject. Just because the American Medical Association says today that X causes Y disease doesn’t mean that it won’t turn out that further research will uncover that X is unrelated to Y.  Even so, when trying to figure out how to avoid Y disease, today, would we find it more likely that the AMA or a community glee club would have more relevant information and advice?  “Authority” doesn’t mean certainty but, as Craven lays out, there are reasons to give some credence to such perspectives.

To apply this hierarchy of credibility, the first section might be laid out like this:

Table 1: Structuring a Table re authorities re humanity have a role in driving climate change

Humanity driving climate change Uncertain about extent of human role
??? Who … and what credentials … ??? Who … and what credentials …

After the fold is an attempt at filling in this table.

Table 2:  Professional Societies and Major Relevant Research Institutions on whether humanity is driving climate change

Humanity driving climate change Uncertain about extent of human role
  • National Academies of Science (US)
  • Royal Society (UK)
  • Chinese Academy of Sciences
  • Russian Academy of Sciences, Russia
  • Academy of Science of South Africa
  • Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Italy
  • Academia Mexicana de Ciencias, Mexico
  • Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina, Germany
  • Académie des Sciences, France
  • Royal Society of Canada
  • Indian National Science Academy
  • Science Council of Japan
  • Australian Academy of Sciences
  • Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Sciences and the Arts
  • Caribbean Academy of Sciences
  • Indonesian Academy of Sciences
  • Royal Irish Academy
  • Academy of Sciences Malaysia
  • Academy Council of the Royal Society of New Zealand
  • Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
  • NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS)
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
  • National Academy of Sciences (NAS)
  • State of the Canadian Cryosphere (SOCC)
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • Royal Society of the United Kingdom (RS)
  • American Geophysical Union (AGU)
  • American Institute of Physics (AIP)
  • National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)
  • American Meteorological Society (AMS)
  • Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (CMOS)
  • Woods Hole Resarch Center
  • American Association of State Climatologists
  • Federal Climate Change Science Program, 2006 (the study authorized and then censored by Bush)
  • American Chemical Society - (world’s largest scientific organization with over 155,000 members)
  • Geological Society of America
  • American Astronomical Society
  • American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
  • Stratigraphy Commission - Geological Society of London - (The world’s oldest and the United Kingdom’s largest geoscience organization)
  • Union of Concerned Scientists
  • The Institution of Engineers Australia
  • National Research Council
  • International Council on Science
  • ETC ……

American Association of Petroleum Geologists

Very simply the AAPG is the only major relevant scientific professional institution that I am aware of that does not agree that humanity is playing a major factor in driving global warming. Do they say, however, that humanity is irrelevant, that this is all natural. Their actual statement is interesting:

In the last century growth in human populations has increased energy use. This has contributed additional carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases to the atmosphere. Although the AAPG membership is divided on the degree of influence that anthropogenic CO2 has on recent and potential global temperature increases, the AAPG believes that expansion of scientific climate research into the basic controls on climate is important. This research should be undertaken by appropriate federal agencies involved in climate research and their associated grant and contract programs.

Thus, the AAPG calls for more research. However, in the meantime, the AAPG calls for what might well be described as a ‘no regrets strategy’ of energy efficiency and moving toward lower carbon fuels.

  • AAPG supports reducing emissions from fossil fuel use as a worthy goal. (However, emission reduction has an economic cost, which must be compared to the potential environmental gain).
  • AAPG supports the premise that economies must retain their vitality to be able to invest in alternative energy sources as fossil fuels become more expensive.
  • AAPG supports the pursuit of economically viable technology to sequester carbon dioxide emissions and emissions of other gases in a continuing effort to improve our environment and enhance energy recovery.
  • AAPG supports measures to conserve energy, which has the affect of both reducing emissions and preserving energy supplies for the future.

The AAPG, which has a good portion of its membership working in fossil-fuel related industries, is the sole major scientific professional association with relevance to the issue of climate change which states uncertainty. While expressing overly cautionary words about the potential for reducing fossil fuel use (far from a contradiction to what might be expected to be their normal bias), AAPG states that reducing fossil fuel emissions is “a worthy goal” and stating support for “measures to conserve energy”.

Respect authorities? Scientific Consensus?

Yes, Galileo existed and the Church was wrong. However, when betting our individual and collective future, it makes sense to take time to reflect and consider who makes sense to listen to for knowledge about complex subjects.

NOTE: See Brad Johnson, Wonkroom, The ‘Climate Change Debate’ Is Science Versus Snake Oil as to what institutions say humanity has a role in global warming and those who say not (and even question whether there is warming).

Tags: Energy · Global Warming · climate change

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 sailrick // Feb 11, 2010 at 2:29 am

    Here’s a few more scientific institutions that agree with AGW and the IPCC, to add to your list.

    Woods Hole Resesarch Center one of the worlds premier oceanographic institutes

    American Association of State Climatologists

    Federal Climate Change Science Program, 2006 (the study authorized and then censored by Bush)

    American Chemical Society - (world’s largest scientific organization with over 155,000 members)

    Geological Society of America

    American Astronomical Society

    American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

    Stratigraphy Commission - Geological Society of London - (The world’s oldest and the United Kingdom’s largest geoscience organization)

    Union of Concerned Scientists

    The Institution of Engineers Australia

    National Research Council

    International Council on Science

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  • 5 A. Siegel: Scientific Society Revises Climate Change Statement: science advances | STMGZN // Apr 26, 2010 at 9:27 am

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