Society

Climate, Controversy And Strangers On A Plane

A jetliner takes off over the Beijing Capital International airport in Beijing on March 02 2008. i i
AFP/Getty Images
A jetliner takes off over the Beijing Capital International airport in Beijing on March 02 2008.
AFP/Getty Images

He looked like a former linebacker, tall and solidly built. After stowing his wife's luggage in the overhead, he squeezed past me, sat down and looked straight at the astronomy textbook I was reading. "You're a scientist?" he asked. "Are you involved in that big controversy over climate?"

I looked into his face and could see he wasn't angry or hostile or combative. He seemed like a good guy and, by the way his wife gently rolled her eyes, I could see he liked to talk. So I took a chance and replied.

"What controversy?"

What followed was a long conversation, 30,000 feet above the American West, about a great and dangerous gap. On the one hand we spoke of science and what it looks like on the ground to those who practice it. On the other hand we waded knee-deep into the wreckage that is science in the sphere of politics.

From my seatmate's perspective the field of climate studies must be awash in controversy. Was the planet warming, or not?

As we spoke it was clear he was a guy who liked science and liked to think for himself. He told me about a water contamination problem in the school building where he worked. Folks were going crazy trying to find the cause. By methodically working through all possibilities he'd tracked the polluting source and solved the problem. In his eyes climate science was like the early phase of his school's contamination crises — everyone yelling at each other and pointing fingers.

"You want to know something weird?" I said. "For folks working on climate studies everyday, its not like that. Really. There's no controversy."

The question "Is the climate changing?" stopped being controversial for the day-to-day business of climate researchers a decade ago, at least. So much data had piled up that climate change stopped being a question. Instead it became an accepted finding. Researchers could not escape it if they tried.

This Berkeley analysis shows average temperatures over the last 6 decades. The blue line, trending up over time, is the result. The grey line represents the researcher's 95-percent confidence limits. The large fluctuations up and down every few years correlate with North Atlantic Ocean temperatures and with El Nino.

hide captionThis Berkeley analysis shows average temperatures over the last 6 decades. The blue line, trending up over time, is the result. The grey line represents the researcher's 95-percent confidence limits. The large fluctuations up and down every few years correlate with North Atlantic Ocean temperatures and with El Nino.

Berkeley Earth

My new friend had a hard time swallowing what I was saying. He couldn't believe there weren't daily fights about climate change in Earth sciences departments across the country. I asked him to make a quick review of publications from all major voices of American science when he got home (AAAS, NAS, NASA, NSF etc.).

"You'll see," I said. "They all say the same thing. Climate Change: Yup."

Of course, there are still lots of controversies in the field, such as the role of clouds in computer models and how to deal with the statistics of extreme weather events. That's fine because controversies are what science is all about. A changing climate however just isn't on that list anymore.

Then my neighbor asked about all the scientists who reject climate change.

"There will always be some scientists who disagree completely," I said.

That's the way science works. For years there were well-established physicists who said the universe wasn't expanding. We now know it is expanding. The question isn't if everyone agrees. The question is, "What is happening on the ground? When it comes to day-to-day climate research, the concerns of skeptics within the scientific community have been answered many times. Their challenges to the reality of climate change did not stand up to close inspection and folks moved on.

As a scientist, it gets pretty dull having to answer the same research question 20 times.

We went back and forth this way for the better part of an hour. What struck me was the vast gap between the daily realities of the climate science community and the perceptions of people outside the field.

For folks working in the field, and those scientists like myself watching from the sidelines, the situation feels like being Alice as she plunges down the rabbit-hole. Everything you've learned about how science works, how it judges what we know and how we know it, appears in public reflected back through some crazy, fun-house mirror.

It's not a pretty sight.

Someone told my science-loving seatmate there was great debate going on among scientists about climate change. Someone told this smart, clever guy that the reality of climate change was a great scientific controversy. But the truth is so much simpler. That controversy ended. The field had already moved on.

But the rest of us — him, you, me and everyone else — we're not being allowed to do the same.


You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and Twitter. His latest book is About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang.

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