Richard Alley and Michael E. Mann | Solid science benefits our overall knowledge

March 20, 2014 

We can have a bigger economy, more jobs, greater national security and a cleaner environment if we choose to make wise use of the solid scholarship on energy and climate — and Penn State is a leader in these areas.

Unfortunately, the accompanying column by John R. Christy fails to accurately inform readers about the vast body of useful climate-change science showing the true risks we face if we choose not to reduce carbon emissions.

But the real problem, regrettably, is how issues such as climate change tend to be covered in our media. There simply are not two valid “sides” when it comes to the scientific evidence.

Facts matter.

In science, the best idea is the one that has survived the most attacks, and the biggest awards are reserved for those who defeat an old idea with a better one that describes the world or predicts the future more accurately.

Science thus encourages the contrarians who try to find cracks in the armor of our current understanding. Skepticism — true skepticism (rather than contrarianism or outright science denial) — is a good thing in science.

But, while science searches for better knowledge, it also uses what we know now to help people.

Our understanding of relativity, which started with Albert Einstein, may not be the last word on gravity, but it is in the GPS in your cellphone, which wouldn’t work with the older physics of Isaac Newton.

Scientists strive to improve on Einstein, but are also helping engineers use relativity every day in good ways.

Similarly, scientists strive to improve our understanding of biological changes over time. But our modern understanding of evolution, some of which dates back to Charles Darwin, is also being used in labs around the world to help us stay ahead of infectious diseases as they evolve new ways to defeat our medicines.

Scientists have spent more than a century trying to find a way around the realization that the carbon dioxide released by fossil-fuel burning has contributed to warming our climate and that humans and other living things are affected by the resulting climate changes.

Things would be much easier if that were simply not the case. Unfortunately, for more than a century, the science has gotten stronger and stronger when it comes to the basic conclusion that our continued reliance on fossil-fuel burning and release of CO2 into our atmosphere will produce ever-more damaging changes in our climate — and the observations over that time agree.

The world’s best researchers have found no way around that conclusion.

A few scientists, including Christy, continue to claim that the resulting climate changes will be smaller or less damaging than expected, or opposed by natural changes.

These views have been given a careful and thorough hearing in the scientific community (personally, scientists are like others in wishing such views were correct), but these views have repeatedly failed to do better — or even as well — to explain observations and predict the future — the “acid test” of good science.

In the United States, dating back to Abraham Lincoln getting advice on how iron-plating Navy ships affected navigation by magnetic compasses, we have used “assessment” from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and similar groups to provide guidance for policymakers and all other people on the best available science.

And, beginning more than 30 years ago, such assessment efforts for climate have included the full range of scientific views including those “skeptical” of human-caused climate change.

Yet those assessment exercises have repeatedly, consistently yielded an overwhelming body of evidence that our fossil-fuel emissions are turning up the planet’s thermostat, that the changes will become much larger if we continue with business-as-usual fossil-fuel burning, and that damages will rise accordingly.

Those assessments also pave the way for how we can use this information to craft policies that improve our well-being in numerous ways. The fundamental physics of the sun’s energy interacting with gases in the air, understood through quantum mechanics that overlaps with the science behind the computer in your cellphones, is at the start of a chain of scientific reasoning that has withstood all challenges from very bright and dedicated people for more than a century.

We expect, and hope, that some scientists will continue to challenge this understanding in good faith, just as scientists will continue to search for gaps in relativity and quantum mechanics, medicine and evolution.

But we will use our GPS devices, our computers and our medicines, thankful for the benefits of the solid, assessed science. And we will continue to emphasize that the science of climate change is similarly solid and that an appreciation and acceptance of what the science has to say will help us to chart beneficial paths to the future.

Richard Alley is Evan Pugh professor of geosciences, and Michael E. Mann is distinguished professor of meteorology. Both are associates in the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute at Penn State.

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