Sunday, 3 May 2015

Gavin Schmidt, welcome to Hamburg

Neglecting to monitor the harm done to nature and the environmental impact of our decisions is only the most striking sign of a disregard for the message contained in the structures of nature itself.
Pope Francis

Bad Astronomer is mad:
A passel of anti-science global warming denying GOP [USA Republican party] representatives have put together a funding authorization bill for NASA that at best cuts more than $300 million from the agency’s current Earth science budget. At worst? More than $500 million. ... The authorization bill passed along party lines (19 Republicans to 15 Democrats).
Bad Astronomer also reported that last year the Republicans shifted the climate research funding for NOAA towards weather prediction.

John Timmer of Ars Technica adds:
The bill comes a week after the same committee reauthorized the America COMPETES act, which includes funding for the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy. As at NASA, geoscience funding takes a hit, down 12 percent at the NSF, with environmental research from the DOE taking a 10 percent hit.

There seems to be a pattern.

One wonders if they know what they are doing.

I would personally interpret a reduction in the budget for climate research as claiming: the science is settled. If these Republicans were sceptical about climate science, they would want to fund research to find the reason for the misunderstanding. The consensus of 97% of climate scientists, myself included, that global warming is happening, is caused by us and will continue if we do not do something, will not go away by itself. That will require research, arguments, evidence. In this light it would make sense when Democrats would shift science funding from climate research to climate solution, but they may realise that there are more considerations.

It also goes against the motto of the mitigation sceptics that we should help ourselves and adapt to climate change, rather than to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Because then we should know what to adapt to.

When it comes to the relationship between greenhouse gasses and global mean temperature, our understanding of climate change is pretty solid. Not perfect, science never is, but pretty solid. For adaptation, however, you need local information; global means are not enough. That is a lot harder, that requires that all the changes in the circulation of the oceans and the atmosphere are rightly predicted. It likely depends on aerosol concentrations (small atmospheric particles), on changes in the vegetation, water tables, sea ice.

Many impacts of climate change will be due to severe and extreme weather. Sea level rise, for example, endangers low lying regions, but the sea dikes will breach on a stormy day, thus you also need to know how storms change. Thus for adaptation you do not only need to know the annual or decadal average temperature, you need to know the changes in atmospheric events that happen on short time scales. From minutes to days for severe weather, from weeks to months for heat waves and droughts. This is hard for the same reasons why predicting local changes is hard.

It is not enough to know what happens to temperature, while especially precipitation and storms are very hard to predict accurately. They are, however, very important for agriculture, infrastructure, flood prevention, dikes, and landslides. When it comes to infrastructure or long term private investments, we would need to know such changes decades in advance. Alternatively, you could "adapt" to any possible change, but that is very expensive.

This is the kind of detail we need to prepare our communities to adapt to climate change. This is hard and very much ongoing research. If you are taking the bet that adaptation is enough, it does not seem wise to leave the American public unprepared.

Earth observation is also much more than climate. The same satellites, the same understanding of these measurements and deriving information products from them are used in meteorology. One of the main reason why casualties due to severe weather are decreasing is because of good weather predictions, we see the bad weather coming and can respond in time. Good weather predictions start with a good description of the state of the atmosphere at the start of the weather prediction (called [[data assimilation]]). More computer power, better models, better assimilation methods and detailed global Earth observations are responsible for the improved modern weather predictions. My guess would be that the better observations are easily responsible for half of the improvements. While I work on ground-based measurements, I must admit that for accurate weather predictions beyond one or two days the global overview of satellites is essential.

Other applications of Earth observations:
- assisting wildfire managers in wildfire recovery
- supplying farmers with knowledge about when to grow which crops and where
- drought/famine prediction
- the effects of deforestation and natural disasters (such as landslides, earthquakes, hurricanes, etc.) on local communities and surrounding ecosystems
Earth observation is also important to organize the rescue work after catastrophes. Think Hurricane Katrina.

The funding reductions also give the impression that climatologists are punished for their politically inconvenient message. Maybe these Republicans think that they can influence the state of the science by beating scientists in submission. This will not work. Science is not organised like a think tank, which are there to write any bunk that the big boss wants written.

Science is a free market of ideas. Like the free market uses distributed information on how to efficiently organize an economy, science is highly distributed and cannot be controlled from the top. Every researcher is a small entrepreneur, trying to search for problems that are interesting and solvable. Science is organised in small groups. If your group does not function, you'd better get out before your reputation and publication record suffer. Multiple such groups are at one university or research institute. In one country you will find many universities and institutes. All these groups in many countries are all competing and collaborating with each other. Competing for the best ideas, because it is fun and get more possibilities to do research. The currency is reputation.

Your articles are peer reviewed by several anonymous colleagues selected by a journal editor, research proposals are reviewed by several senior anonymous colleagues selected by the funding agency, the university groups and institutes are regularly reviewed by groups of senior scientists. You are competing to be able to collaborate with better groups. This web of competitive and collaborative relations is designed to get the best ideas to float up and to make it hard to apply pressure top down. Add to this researchers who are fiercely independent, intrinsically motivated and do science because they want to challenge themselves, understand the world and measure themselves with the best. At least the majority of people starting with research is intrinsically motivated. The climate "debate" gives the impression that for some the joy of science fades with age.

Even if it would be better for American scientists to shut up and spread Republican propaganda, no one could enforce that, while there are strong enforcement mechanisms for the quality of science. I am sure that most American scientists that would be pressured by the Republicans would still stick to the truth. You get into science because you want to understand reality. Scientists accept low pay and bad labour conditions to do so. If they are no longer allowed to tell the truth, I would expect most scientists to move to another group, to another country or simply to stop.

Punishing scientists for their inconvenient message also send a bad signal to the world. A country with a government meddling in the results of scientific research is not attractive. A large part of the scientists in America come from abroad. New high potentials may now think twice before they go to America.

Researchers may go to my birth country (The Netherlands) or home country (Germany)instead. They have freedom of science and research in their constitutions. In both countries you only need English to do your work and nowadays you can also get by in daily life with English (although I would still advice to learn the local language for better social integration). For Germany I know that we are always looking for good scientists. Too little students start studying meteorology to fill the vacancies. They even took me as a physicist because they could not get any better.

In the 17th century, when in most of Europe's rulers did not tolerate deviating thoughts, The Netherlands was a haven of tolerance and experienced a golden century. This little country attracted an enormous influx of the best scholars, scientists and artists from all over Europe, introduced many free market innovations, became a world power. Before and during the Second World War many Jewish and German scientists migrated to America because of the repression in Europe. This has kick started American science. The repression of scientific freedom has real economic and cultural consequences.

One wonders if they know what they are doing. The GOP representative, that is. They almost unanimously have trouble accepting that we are responsible to (almost) all the warming seen in the last century. The normal Republicans (except for the Tea Party) fit into the American mainstream when it comes to accepting that climate change is real. The very vocal mitigation sceptics on the net that give America a bad name abroad only represent a few percent of the population. One wonders when these normal people tell their politicians to get their act together.

In the realm of climate research, my guess would be that Europe is already a little stronger than the USA. The aggressive mitigation sceptics to do not make America more attractive. The FOIA harassment in response to inconvenient science does not make America more attractive. When the political radicals are determined to hurt American interests and pass this bill, I would like to invite Gavin Schmidt to Germany. In am sure the Max Planck Institute in Hamburg would be interested. The Max Planck Foundation was specially founded to attract the best researchers from all over the world by providing them with a lot of freedom of research. After all, top researchers know best what is important for science. Gavin welcome to Hamburg, your [[ICE]] is waiting.

Related reading

Phil Plait (Bad Astronomy blog): House GOP Wants to Eviscerate NASA Earth Sciences in New Budget

Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker: The G.O.P.’s War on Science Gets Worse. "Ignoring a problem does often make it more difficult to solve. And that, you have to assume, in a perverse way, is the goal here."

Discover: House GOP to Humanity on Global Warming: Put on This Blindfold and Keep Marching

John Timmer of Ars Technica: House Science Committee guts NASA Earth sciences budget

Stop all harassment of all scientists now

Peer review helps fringe ideas gain credibility

The value of peer review for science and the press

The Tea Party consensus on man-made global warming

Do dissenters like climate change?

Climate myths translated into econ talk

* Photo at the top of Alster by André H. (An der Alster) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
* Photo of St. Pauli by Heidas is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
* Photo of Altonaer Balkon in Hamburg by Udo Herzog ( [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
* Photo of Jenisch by Wolfram Gothe (Transferred from de.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
* Photo of the main station of Hamburg by Thomas Fries / Lizenz: CC-BY-SA-3.0


  1. I am not sure how serious, or effective, your attempt to recruit Gavin Schmidt to the Max Planck might be, but this is a really good overview of the state of the science in the field of climate, and the state of the political climate in this field of science.

    There are several insights that I wish I had written, and probably will shamelessly steal in the future!
    The importance of improved observations for weather forecasting, ESPECIALLY in a changing climate system, is well made. It is the local impacts of the secondary effects of a warming globe that will require prediction and adaptation. The benefits of improved forecasting, even by a few hours for severe storms (tornados, hurricanes), and a few days/months for floods and droughts has a very large social utility. But the improved observations for weather forecasting are also the basic data for the climate predictions. I gather the weather forecast models are at least similar to the climate GCMs.
    The historical weather record has deficiencies as a source of data on global warming, with the resulting quibbles, (real and invented) over the reliability of the data. However the improvements needed for better weather forecasting, more accurate measurement, and consistency over time, are just the factors that would have rendered the past weather records, and hopefully WILL render future records, reliable enough to make firmer conclusions.

    The utilitarian need for better weather forecasting in a warming world also improves the observational data for climate science.

    The political climate in the US is ... strange. That anti-science trait has always been apparent to those who have engaged in the Evolution 'controversy'. The cut in science funding is certainly bound to have an effect on the retention of good scientists and the education of the next generation of experts. I think you are right that Europe is already now ahead of the US in the range and quality of its climate research. Just as a similar shift has occurred in particle physics, at least in part because of CERN.
    Although I suspect that is a view that might be 'hotly' disputed.!

    And unfortunately the dogma of austerity and governmental minimalism has affected European centers of education and research as well. Even without the political/economic motivation to suppress certain fields of science, the drive for economies has seen a shift in courses, a reduction in staff and research funding and the introduction of heads of these institutes with 'business experience' who can bring their superior money management skills to the service industry enterprise that the university has now become.
    From what I can gather from friends still in the system, this innovation has resulted in these business managers recruiting far more foreign students (they pay more) and they have also brought in the enormous salaries and pay scales from the finacial sector for themselves. Many university heads are now paid significantly MORE than the Prime Minister of the government!

  2. Thanks. Please, steal the ideas. That is why I write them.

    I gather the weather forecast models are at least similar to the climate GCMs.

    The atmospheric part of climate models is nowadays the same as the global long-term weather prediction models. Also the limited area high-resolution short-term weather prediction models are often used as regional climate model as well.

    There used to be differences. Climate models put more value on mass conservation and weather prediction more on speed, but as far as I know global climate and weather prediction models are nowadays in most cases the same models. In Germany they are currently still different models, but the work on a common model (ICON) is progressing.

    Climate models need to be able to change the atmospheric composition. File formats are different in climate and prediction for historical reasons. Such small differences, but the heart of the atmospheric models is the same.

    For climate models you also have to model the ocean. They often have better vegetation models. Climate models need to model sea ice. The most comprehensive climate models have many more of such additional climate systems in their models. For the weather prediction models you can just take these as fixed from the last observations you have.

    Recruiting foreign students also happens more and more on the continent, but it is not as important as in the UK. I guess, most students want to learn English as well.


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