Climate Scientists Out in the Cold

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

In the current economy, it’s not surprising that many countries are reducing funds for scientific research. It’s necessary to cut spending across the board these days. However, North American governments are singling out climate science as a victim – and not just reducing its funding, but, in many cases, eliminating it altogether.

Climate change research is largely supported by government money, as there aren’t many industries that recognize a vested interest in the science. Pharmaceutical companies often fund biomedical researchers, and mining companies fund geologists, but there’s no real analogue for climate scientists. Additionally, many global warming studies are particularly expensive. For example, transporting researchers and equipment to the North Pole via helicopter, and building climate models on supercomputers that stretch the limits of our data storage capacities, cost quite a bit more than injecting rats with chemicals in a lab.

In Canada, where I live, the federal government recognized these unique characteristics of climate science, and, in 2000, set up a special foundation to fund research in the field: the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences (CFCAS). Over the past decade, it has spent $118 million supporting most of Canada’s university-based climate research, and it was assumed that it would be continually renewed as the country established itself as a leader in the field.

However, since the Conservative Party formed a minority government almost five years ago, it has only extended the foundation’s lifespan by a year, and refuses to consider long-term funding commitments. The CFCAS only has a few months left before it will run out of money and close its doors. Many of Canada’s premier climate research projects and laboratories will have to shut down as a result, as they have always relied on CFCAS, and general federal funds such as the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) simply won’t be able to fill the gap. Some researchers are leaving the country to pursue more fertile academic ground, and as an aspiring climate scientist, I am wondering whether I will have to eventually do so as well.

If it seems cruel to abandon funding for researching the greatest threat to our future, rather than simply reducing its budget until the economy recovers, take a stroll south to what my sociology professor likes to refer to as “that wild society”. The U.S. House of Representatives is becoming dominated by politicians who hate the idea of government, and wish to tear most of it down in anger. Add to that mindset a staunch denial of climate science, and you can see where this is going.

The House of Representatives just passed a bill that not only prevents the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases that cause climate change, but also repeals a great deal of clean air and water protection. Other cornerstones of the bill include repealing the new American health care system and cutting off funding of Planned Parenthood.

Since not a single Democrat Member of Congress voted for this bill, it is unlikely to pass the Senate, where Democrats hold a majority. However, Republicans have threatened to take away all federal funding, effectively shutting down the entire U.S. government, if the bill is not passed into law.

An amendment to this bill, which also passed the House of Representatives, completely cuts off federal funding to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC, a scientific organization of the United Nations, doesn’t do any original research, but writes extensive summary reports of the academic literature on climate change. It’s hard to overestimate how important these reports, published every few years, are to governments, scientists, and citizens alike. Instead of having to dig through thousands of scientific journals and articles, with no idea where to start, people can simply read these reports to find out what science knows about climate change. They are painstakingly reviewed, are offered in several levels of technicality, and include carefully organized references to the multitude of studies whose conclusions contributed to the text. For a field of research that is quickly expanding, these reports are absolutely vital, and it’s hard to imagine how they could carry on without support from the American government.

Blaine Luetkemeyer, the Republican Member of Congress that proposed the amendment, justified cutting off the IPCC by asserting the oft-debunked, but disturbingly popular, meme that climate science is some kind of worldwide conspiracy. If the IPCC really is “corrupt” and “nefarious”, as Luetkemeyer claims, then why can’t they afford to pay any of the scientists that write the reports – not even the IPCC president? Why do they allow anyone to help review the draft reports? Why do they permit their Summary for Policymakers to be watered down by policymakers? And, most importantly, why is climate change progressing faster than the IPCC expected?

We shouldn’t have to spend time addressing paranoid conspiracy theories like Luetkemeyer’s . Sadly, the government of the most powerful country on Earth is being taken over by people who buy into these conspiracy theories, and who want to punish climate scientists as much as possible for crimes they haven’t committed. Countries like Canada, even if they refrain from public accusations, are following suit in their actions.

“It’s quite clear by their actions [with CFCAS] and its lack of funding that [the Canadian government is] basically saying ‘We don’t want your science any more’,” Andrew Weaver, Canada’s top climatologist, told the Globe and Mail.

“[Cutting off the IPCC] is like putting our heads in the sand, denying the science, and then stopping the scientists from working – because they might come to a different conclusion from the Republican Party’s ideology,” Democrat Member of Congress Henry Waxman argued.

Is this really a wise move?

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35 thoughts on “Climate Scientists Out in the Cold

  1. with the deniers’ assetts one would think they could have payed someone enough to betray the ‘conspiracy’. the thing is, how you rate your lands after scorched earth tactics and losing them to an enemy, which is something I’d like the southstate US people to consider.

  2. The Republicans in the US Congress, and not just in the House, are ideologues who cannot or do not think for themselves. They have become automatons of the Libertarians and John Birchers, like the billionaire Koch brothers (David and Charles) who are funding the Tea Partiers and related know-nothings. The Kochs know exactly what they are doing. They are anti-government, anti-tax, anti-union, anti-middle class, and therefore anti-American. If they win the world loses; and idiots like the climate change deniers join forces with people like the Kochs and their ilk and continue to pollute the Earth and its people.

  3. Kate,

    Please explain “that wild society” to me. I am very curious.

    My prof’s term, not mine! Apologies if it offends you, but that’s really the way it seems to someone on the outside. -Kate

  4. As a Brit I hope that the Europeans and the rest of the world outside North America will step up to the plate and fund IPCC if this happens.

    • Mark, the science will go on even without the IPCC… perhaps even faster without the distraction and drain on scientists’ time.

      Perhaps it is indeed time to find something better for the science/policy interface. But what?

  5. A nit: it’s the House of Representatives, not the House of Congress. “Congress” generally refers to the bicameral legislature–the House and the Senate– as a whole.

    (For the sake of completeness, Representatives are often referred to as “Congressmen”, but Senators never are. Consistency has never been our strongest point here in the wild society.)

    Thanks. I will make that change. -Kate

  6. Trips to the Arctic are one thing. But if supercomputers have been purchased, then presumably they are still in service. Do they draw that much power?

  7. MikeN. Yes. I just read that the power infrastructure around one system is being upgraded because it takes in so much power that brown-outs occur in the town (sorry–can’t find that reference now…maybe Nature?????).

    However, did find this reference on the UK Met Office supercomputer which draws 1.2 megawatts of power per year, which is apparently enough to power a small town.

    metoffice.gov.uk/corporate/pressoffice/anniversary/computers.html

      • In biology one of the more recent calculation intensive areas is the modelling of ribozymes. Protein-folding is another: given the amino acid sequence what three-dimensional structure will a protein form? I understand we are making some progress on theoretical grounds there. Modelling materials (e.g., metamaterials) prior to creating them is computation intensive. Just modelling the properties of water under different conditions took a lot of computing power.

        The analysis of particle collisions takes a great deal of computing power. The big stuff will take months even with today’s computers. So does the modelling of the universe’s expansion, such as when they are trying to identify the nature of dark matter given the galaxy formation and shapes and distributions of the superclusters. Geology, whether it is in terms of analyzing earthquake faults or mineral deposits, is fairly computation intensive.

        But the big one for quite a while was the modelling of nuclear weapon detonation. I hope there is less call for that nowadays. Come to think of it the plasma studies that go into the modelling of nuclear fusion reactors is undoubtedly another. In fact, I am under the impression that currently just about any advanced field of science uses modelling of one form or another, and typically modelling is computation intensive.

        However, I would also keep in mind that the people going after climatology have been more than happy to mothball a satellite that was ready to go (Triana) even after it had been renamed (DSCOVR) and the French had offered to put it into space no charge — simply because they didn’t expect to like what it found. But repurposed towards solar studies it might still get off the ground.

    • A standard 150w light bulb is 1.2 megawatt hours per year. 1.2 megawatts of power per year is not a valid measurement. Does the supercomputer just draw 1.2 megawatts?

      • MikeN:

        Hmm, I agree… this needs clarification. (If you ask me, I’ll guess that they meant the supercomputer was running at 1.2 MW over the whole year, which makes the energy usage over an entire year [1.2 MW x number of hours per year], i.e. about 10 GWh.)

      • Having had a look around, it appears that the 1.2 megawatts isn’t for the year. So the consumption would be 1.2 megawatts per hour.

        A lot more than a light bulb!
        Although about 2 reasonably sized wind turbines would cope with that demand.

        There are figures in the top500 super computer list for typical power consumptions.

    • Ken:
      1.2 megawatts per year??
      Do you actually understand what that means??

      It’s a tiny amount as far as electricity used is concerned.
      Actually giving figures in megawatts or kilowatts is often pointless and misleading. The public often misunderstand these numbers and what they mean.

      When it comes to generation, megawatts per hour and kilowatts per hour are units that are sensible. Most people have their bills worked out based on kilowatt hours (sometimes referred to as units, at least in the UK).

      And finally what is your point?
      This work has to be done whether it’s cooling, warming or doing nothing. Knowledge is what is required, not specific results.

      • The Ville–I’m just quoting the MET office…hence my use of the word “apparently”, as in “apparently enough to power a small town”. I should have put a !? after it to express my puzzlement as it seemed very low to me too. Not knowing a lot about it though I assumed I was wrong and the MET was right. Thanks to you (and Frank) for clarifying.

        And my point was simply answering MikeN’s question, about supercomputers which was “Do they draw that much power?”.

        Answer: Yes.

        Anything else you appear to have read into it is wrong as your subsequent response seems completely non-sequitur to me.

        All I can come up with is that you thought I was criticizing the use of large amounts of power for climate work because you’ve run into that meme before from deniers. It happens–we sometime over-react to innocent questions/statements because we’ve seen the same question/statement coming from concern trolls and deniers.

      • Okay…just looked it up. It *is* a meme used to criticize the MET office. I think I understand where you are coming from now. It even made it to this side of the pond at the standard antiscience sites.

        Guess I stepped onto that landmine.

  8. “My prof’s term, not mine! Apologies if it offends you, but that’s really the way it seems to someone on the outside. -Kate”

    As it does to many of us on the iinside.

  9. What exactly was wrong with my comment about politics and science?

    Er, saying that it was climate scientists’ own fault they weren’t getting funding, because they had political motivations. Please read the comment policy in the sidebar, it will save you lots of time. -Kate

    • Just trying to point out, that I think, If you kept your science out of politics, there would be plenty of funding for your craft.

      • “Just trying to point out, that I think, If you kept your science out of politics, there would be plenty of funding for your craft.”

        Since when has science been kept out of politics?
        Is politics supposed to ignore science altogether?

        Given the nature of the science, it is inevitable that politics has to take account of it. It would be naive and irresponsible to think that the science should be ignored.

      • Agreed. While I doubt he’s a bot, he does act just like you’d expect a Noisemaker to – sending out lots of individual comments on minor details rather than focusing on the issue at hand.

        This comment here is probably the closest he’ll get to a big picture thing. And even then, it’s flawed.

        If politics were not based on science, he’d be trumpeting the need for “sound science” to guide things.
        If politics *are* based on science, he’ll insist we shouldn’t fund political science.

        In every case, it’s just an attempt to distract and delay.

        Thanks to Dave Appell for reminding me of Kim Stanley Robinson’s take on this. From Blue Mars:

        “What political parties do we support?” Sax asked.
        “I don’t know. The usual array I guess.”
        “No party gets much support. Whatever works, you know.”
        Sax knew. That was the old tech position, held ever since scientists had become a class in society, a priest caste almost, intervening between the people and their power. They were apolitical, supposedly, like civil servants-empiricists, who only wanted things managed in a rational scientific style, the greatest good for the greatest number, which ought to be fairly simple to arrange, if people were not so trapped in emotions, religions, governments, and other mass delusional systems of that sort.
        The standard scientist politics, in other words. Sax had once tried to explain this outlook to Desmond, causing his friend for some reason to laugh prodigiously, even though it made perfect sense. Well, it was a bit naive, therefore a bit comical, he supposed; and like a lot of funny things, it could be that it was hilarious right up to the moment it turned horrible. Because it was an attitude that had kept scientists from going at politics in any useful way for centuries now; and dismal centuries they had been.

  10. Kate, I am hoping that by the time you get your PhD our respective countries will have come to their senses and realize they need climatologists — if for no other reason than that it will have become obvious given the climate chaos that is setting in. The melting of the Arctic sea ice, droughts, floods, heat waves, storms and so forth. But given the rate of decline of the Republican Party — which is one of I believe two things giving the Arctic sea ice a good for its money, with the other being of course glaciers, it is quite possible that by that time in my country at least the “conservatives” will be blaming it all on the climatologists and trying them for witchcraft.

  11. “If from great nature’s or our own abyss
    Of thought we could but snatch a certainty,
    Perhaps mankind might find the path they miss …

    Look back o’er ages, ere unto the stake fast
    You bind yourself, and call some mode the best one.
    Nothing more true than not to trust your senses;
    And yet what are your other evidences?

    … my Muse by no means deals in fiction:
    She gathers a repertory of facts,
    Of course with some reserve and slight restriction,

    For too much truth, at first sight, ne’er attracts;
    And were her object only what ‘s call’d glory,
    With more ease too she ‘d tell a different story.

    Love, war, a tempest—surely there ‘s variety;
    Also a seasoning slight of lucubration;
    A bird’s-eye view, too, of that wild, Society ….”

    Don Juan
    by George Gordon Byron
    http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19895

  12. Love, war, a tempest—surely there’s variety;
    Also a seasoning slight of lucubration;
    A bird’s-eye view, too, of that wild. Society;

    A slight glance thrown on men or every station. If you have nought else, here’s at least satiety,
    Both in performance and in preparation;
    And though these lines should only line port-
    manteaus.
    Trade will be all the better for these Cantos.

    -Canto the Fourteenth, Don JUan, George Gordon Byron

  13. Another great post Kate. I was funded by CFCAS for a portion of my doctoral research, which basically would have been impossible without their support.

    A quick Google Scholar search turns up 1240 articles with “Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science”, presumably cited in the acknowledgments. There are undoubtedly more papers in the pipeline. So lets say we hit 1500 peer-reviewed contributions, and it works out to around $7900/publication. This accounts for equipment, travel, graduate and post-doc salaries, research assistants, publication fees, conferences, and network meetings! I’m not advocating that scientific productivity be framed in terms of economics, but the government can’t really ask a better ROI.

    In my mind, the great thing about CFCAS was that the funding structure forged important collaborations within and among Canadian scientists and universities. NSERC funding seems to be geared towards supporting the individual researcher, while grants for large-scale research projects are tough to come by.

  14. I can’t believe the House of Representatives voted to pass bill HR1. It is unbelievable really; I just don’t understand the logic… These politicians are real people with real children – don’t they worry about their future, don’t they care? They must be completely brainwashed – that is really the only word for it – in order to do this. I don’t UNDERSTAND.

    Sadly, the government down there is just “us” against “them”, without any apparent deep consideration of the issues. It is dividing and destroying them, and all we can do is watch. The environmental issue just gets pushed further and further down the agenda, and nothing is accomplished. :(

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