A new paper* just out today has focused its attention on the hiatus. But this study isn’t joining the throng of papers exploring the hiatus in terms of its causal mechanism. Instead, the new research is looking at the idea of ‘seepage’, or how climate denial has influenced the scientific community. This study focuses on the ‘hiatus’ as an example of the inadvertent intrusion of memes that arose outside the scientific community into scientific discourse and thinking.
In 2013 and 2014, coincident with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) handing down their fifth assessment report, discussion of the hiatus reached fever pitch. There was heated public discussion about the recent observed slow down in the rate of global warming at the Earth’s surface – the ‘hiatus’ or ‘pause’. Some contributors were adamant that this providing unequivocal proof that the world is not warming at all.
Prior to 2013, a few scientific papers identified this as an area of interest and interrogated the physical causes behind the change in the rate of observed warming. But suddenly the number of comments and papers on the hiatus ballooned. It seemed like every month, a paper from a Nature subsidiary Nature Geoscience was published and countered rapidly by Nature Climate Change, or vice versa. So far, the hiatus has been categorically attributed in the scientific literature to just about everything, including deep ocean processes, aerosols, measurement error and the cessation of ozone depletion. The flurry of hiatus papers has not slowed.
Throughout that period, the state of the climate system was publicly discussed and intensely debated. In responding to feisty public comments that the hiatus disproved global warming, many scientists countered that we never claimed that the rate of global warming would be linear, with the same increase in heat recorded in each successive decade. Rather, complexity should be expected within the climate system. In addition, a Nature Climate Change editorial from February 2014 reminds us that the “average rate of warming at the Earth’s surface is only one piece in the climate change puzzle”. I also argued as such in a couple of newspaper commentary pieces in the lead up to the IPCC report release in 2013.
But if the hiatus is so unsurprising, then why did it precipitate a blizzard of high-profile research papers? Who decided it was a new and exciting avenue of research that should be covered in depth? Of course, this discussion was being influenced and directed from multiple locations, including sceptic blogs, the mainstream media, and scientists, as well as these high profile journals.
I believe that the predominance of discussion within these prestigious publications, whether through editorials or expert comment or research articles, was an important driver of this research agenda and started a bandwagon rolling. Perhaps the hiatus was a bandwagon worth setting rolling and by studying it’s characteristics, we will elucidate important aspects of the climate system. But it’s not clear at all who decided as such and why.
The new paper instead attributes this research direction to contrarian ‘seepage’. Hence, the hiatus provide us with an interesting case study of internal and external power in and on the scientific academy. While we like to think of scientific research as a democratic institution with no clear governance, it is clearly a deeply flawed idea. Within science, the capacity to influence is clearly not equitably distributed – a Professor has greater influence than an Honours student. There are clearly also important sites of power outside of science – publishing houses, government ideologies, society’s whims and interests, amongst others.
Science, amongst other academic pursuits, invests deeply in the process of exclusion. We erect and fortify barriers that exclude other forms of knowledge, and that resist this ‘seepage’. We insist of a dichotomy between true science and pseudo-science. True science is conducted by trained scientists and is peer reviewed, while pseudo-science is not and can be dismissed.
This new hiatus paper raises some excellent questions about the intellectual legitimacy of the concerted research focus on the hiatus. I agree that the uncritical acceptance of our interests in the hiatus is problematic. What happens when a single editorial group has the power to encourage large groups of researchers to lurch into new directions? Or what happens to our own research agendas when we respond so emphatically to contrarian memes?
The new paper goes on to recommend strategies to help climate scientists stay strong and resist seepage. I disagree. As a climate scientist working in Australia it can be easy to feel as though we are under attack. A senior colleague of mine has been called a prostitute. She has been told her children should be taken away from her. My mentor has received death threats. I have been called morally bankrupt, a liar, a hypocrite, a Nazi. As a community, we often respond to this besiegement by pushing back, by proclaiming our greater expertise and shouting our relevancy louder.
Climate science represents a new type of science, where the stakes are high and everything is highly politicised. Climate change is no longer a purely scientific problem, it is as much a social problem as a physical one. And just as the climate system is in flux, so to is climate science. Societal expectations of science and its boundaries are changing. Our academy is now, more than ever, expected to be a responsive, public institution.
We can resist this ‘seepage’ or alternatively, we can respond. I do not suggest we react and throw open science, fundamentally altering our production of knowledge. Rather, we can recognise that science provides society with one important form of guidance for decision-making and that this “contract” with society is important. We can recognise the value of both multiple sources of knowledge and the value of scientific knowledge derived from non-experts. We can recognise and reward scientists for engaging with the public. We can explicitly ask society what questions it wants science to answer.
Personally, I’m not that interested in the hiatus (and not simply because I’m amongst the minority of climate scientist who have failed to achieve a high profile hiatus paper). In 10 years, the hiatus might be an interesting phenomenon worthy of thorough investigation, which could reveal important model biases or physical process. But for now, while we are still experiencing it, I think we can provide society with limited insight into the hiatus.
This new paper asking why we interested in the hiatus is very much needed. This gives us a chance to step back and think about who drives our research agenda. Our lab managers? Our funding bodies? Our powerful journals? Our contract with society? Or our response to murky contrarian influences? However, the hiatus itself does not indicate that we need to be wary of seepage. Rather, climate science has far more to gain than to lose by rejecting strict boundaries and arbitrary dichotomies of expert and non-expert.
* I’m basing this on the excellent executive summary, as there are currently some problems with the link to the full paper, which I look forward to reading in detail.