Lonnie Thompson & The Right to Speak Out on Climate Change

E. Dorset, Vt.: Clearing Weather over Mt. Aeolus

          Very few people seem more qualified to speak on climate change than Prof. Lonnie G. Thompson, the climatologist who predicted ‘the snows of Kiliman­jaro’ would disappear, albeit at a rate slower than it is now happening.

           But, do his intellectual achievements and four decades of field experience license him to talk about climate change’s consequences and what humans should do about them?  Or as a scientist, does he contaminate his findings by talking about his inferences about the future?

 The Paleoclimatologist

           ‘Clear and Present Danger’ by Earle Holland, the cover story on Prof. Thompson in the Ohio State Alumni Magazine for March-April 2011 (‘Alumni Magazine’) answers these questions emphatically in his favor.

           The Distinguished University Professor in the School of Earth Sciences and a Research Scientist in the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State, his fields are paleoclimatology and glaciology.  For 40 years he has studied ice cores drawn from glaciers from the poles to the tropics for insights into earth’s climate before humans began keeping records 400 years ago.

 Cores that Thompson and his Chinese colleagues drilled separately from a site on the Tibetan Plateau in 1992 provided a record for the last 130,000 years and contained ice as old as 760,000 years. Ice that ancient would contain records of as many as four previous ice ages.

           Last fall, Prof. Thompson published a lengthy paper summarizing current climate research and drawing some conclusions about the future.  It contains photos documenting Kilimanjaro’s glacial retreat, fascinating stories illustrating his research and dozens of citations.

 Behavior Analysis of Climate Change Responses

           The article appeared in an academic journal, Behavior Analyst, outside his field.  It was the lead article in a special section, ‘The Human Response to Climate Change: Ideas From Behavior Analysis’ (available online in its entirety in .pdf format) and is titled ‘Climate Change: The Evidence and Our Options’ (‘Evidence & Options’).

           It’s the ‘our options’ part that brought Prof. Thompson trouble.  ‘Global warming is here and is already affecting our climate, so prevention is no longer an option.  Three options remain for dealing with the crisis:  mitigate, adapt, and suffer.’  (Evidence & Options, p. 167)

           He came under attack, reports the Alumni Magazine, because to his critics:

 Scientific papers, as a rule, present findings based on evidence or experiments, new information upon which new science can grow. Rarely do authors raise questions or discuss alternatives for action.

 Dozens of news stories reported that Thompson’s paper included opinion as well as evidence….

Climate change skeptics in the blogosphere went even further, declaring that by arguing for specific actions, Thompson had slipped over into the world of advocacy. It’s a position often seen as highly risky for researchers who zealously safeguard their independence based on their expertise.

 ‘I’m No Advocate’

           Sadly, this type of attack – and loose logic by reporters trying to be balanced – leads Thompson to a convoluted ‘I’m no advocate’ defense of his position.  He contrasts his role with someone opposing ‘the next coal-burning power plant’.

As a scientist, it isn’t my job to determine the policies that we adopt to deal with the potential impacts that climate science tells us we are likely to experience. But it certainly is my job to assess and bring forward as best I can what we know about the climate system.

 There is a lot about climate that we don’t know. But we know enough … to conclude that we may be in trouble, and that trouble may come much sooner than later….

 If we don’t carefully consider what our options may be, and we haven’t really embraced dealing with some of these issues, then maybe we deserve what we get.

Surely this is ‘advocacy’ and of the best kind.

The Right to Speak on Climate

           Prof. Thompson also takes the wrong side of the ugly debate over who has a right to speak about climate.  The Alumni Magazine quotes him:

 I think you have to earn the right to speak out, but we live in a world where most people have not. Some of the most outspoken people on the climate change issue lack basic grounding in the mechanisms and background of climate change. They simply don’t know; they haven’t even done the most basic research.

           No one has to earn the right to speak; one has to earn the right to persuade.   Prof. Thompson could not be more wrong, more destructive of the prospects for his position, my position – which by his standard I lack the right to assert.

Near Naples, Fla.: Corkscrew Swamp Audubon Sanctuary

         Not that he is entirely wrong:  In his excellent March 14 New Yorker article, ‘The Gulf War:  Were there any heroes in the BP oil disaster?’ (behind paywall), Raffi Khatchadourian tells a story:

At one point during the spill, a blogger wrote on the San Francisco Chronicle Web site, ‘I was disturbed to get another anonymous tip that Corexit 9500 [the oil dispersant used in the Gulf] also has dihydrogen monoxide, but I can’t confirm this because Nalco will not reveal if dihydrogen monoxide is in fact a secret ingredient of Corexit 9500.’  The blogger explained the chemical was ‘really bad and nasty stuff,’ used in explosives and poisonous compounds.  ‘It mutates DNA, denatures proteins, disrupts cell membranes, and chemically alters critical neuro-transmitters.’  Dihydrogen monoxide – better known by its chemical symbol, H2O – is plain water.  (At pp. 52-53.)

 Translating Science to Persuade

           I share Prof. Thompson’s impatience with the Climate Sceptics.  But the route to persuasion lies in the translating the science so people can understand what they are observing – something he is a master at.

           ‘Thirty years ago, Ohioans only had thunderstorms in the summer.  Now we have them in nearly every month of the year,’ he told the Alumni Magazine.  One evening in February, several degrees north of Columbus, I watched for over an hour lightening illuminate the snow-covered Green and Taconic Mountains.  I experienced what he’s talking about.  So have others.

 The Climate System’s Solution

           Such links between experience and science over time build a convincing case, as they did in the 1970s for the first round of environmental legislation.   But Prof. Thompson is right that we don’t have the luxury of time:

Whether we like it or not, the human race is conducting an experiment. We are changing the composition of our atmosphere, and there will be consequences for that.  We’re deciding to just let the climate system do its thing.  And it will. I have no doubt that the climate system will take care of the problem.

But I don’t think we’re going to like the way it does it.

 -30-

           H/T: To Behavior Analyst for putting online its special section on climate change.  I especially liked the introductory article’s title: ‘Dealing with What Is’ (pp. 145ff).  The articles are made more difficult than they should be by the abominable social science citation format that inserts what should be footnotes into the text.  Nonetheless, Prof. Thompson’s article is, largely, very readable.  Much of his reporting – e.g., on the ‘ice man’ (Evidence & Options, pp. 165-66) – is fascinating.  All the articles are peer-reviewed.

           H/T: To the Ohio State Alumni Magazine for publishing the Lonnie Thompson article.  Ohio’s executive and legislative branches have just been captured by the far right.  So, it took a lot of guts to publish this.  I hope the consequences are not killing.  There is another sidebar, not cited above, on the psychology of climate sceptics.  It is worth reading. 

2 Comments

  1. Many thanks for the statements of support for the magazine piece we did explaining Thompson’s stance. As you said, it was a gutsy thing for him to say and for the Alumni Magazine to run. But after spending the last three decades reporting on Thompson’s work, I can clearly assert that you’re off base regarding his position as one of advocacy. If the man sees a clear distinction between his role as a scientist and a role as an advocate, it’s only fair to let him establish whatever boundaries he sees appropriate. The dilemma he sees — and which we have discussed for years — is that once scientists begin advocating a political stance regarding a scientific issue, they begin to lose their independence as unbiased experts and slip into roles as just another person with an opinion. And that’s not a position he sees himself as ever reaching. As to your point that his statement — “you have to earn the right to speak out” — is inaccurate, that all have a right to speak, I’ll concede that point. We should have said, “you have to earn the right to speak out with authority” — the addition of the latter phrase intended to separate those with actual knowledge from the ever-increasing din of rampant verbiage with little or no basis in fact.

    April 12, 2011
    Reply

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