Climate Cluster I: Thinking Through the Technical Fix

The scope of climate change science has expanded from projections of long-term weather trends to include proposals to technically “fix” the climate, such as geoengineering and carbon mitigation strategies.  Like climate modeling, proposals for technical remediation contain scientific uncertainties that translate awkwardly in the political sphere.  This situation compounds the difficulties in planning for future climate conditions.  The Climate Cluster’s fall panel discussion will explore several interrelated themes that arise in discussions of technical approaches to climate change including consensus, uncertainty, indeterminacy and model downscaling.  We will also focus on the possibilities of creating, integrating and communicating climate change research through mechanisms such as climate modeling and geographical information systems (GIS).

Panelists:
Andrew Mathews, Assistant Professor, Anthropology (Technopolitics & Environmental Institutions)
Michael Loik, Associate Professor, Environmental Studies (Plant & Ecosystem Responses to Climate Change)
Barry Nickel, Lecturer & Director of the Center for Intergrated Spatial Research, Environmental Studies (Spatial Ecology & Geospatial Tool Development)
Bruce Daniels, PhD Candidate, Earth & Planetary Science (Science of Climatology & Hydrology)

Moderated by Tiffany Wise-West, Ph.D. Student, Environmental Studies.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010 | 4:15 p.m. | E2 Room 599

“Thinking Through the Technical Fix”
A Panel Discussion Presented by the Climate Cluster
SJWG Rapporteur Report
10 November 2010
Uncertainty
The panelists began by discussing ways to improve the predictive power of climate models and other tools that scientists use to predict the impacts of climate change in habitats and species. Some of the challenges that were identified by Barry Nickel, Michael Loik and Bruce Daniels for improving climate change predictions were 1) improving the resolution of climate models which at the moment fail to capture important local variability 2) capturing variables in dynamic systems. Andrew Matthews raised the concern that “more knowledge doesn’t necessarily make the uncertainty go away, sometimes it makes even worse.” With this comment, Prof. Matthews is referring to the political uncertainty that surrounds scientific issues such as climate change that have widespread implications for a variety of stakeholders.

The panelists proceeded by discussing some of the sources of uncertainty and how they affect their respective work.

Barry Nickel stressed the distinction between uncertainty in measurements and uncertainty in understanding. He referred to the chain of uncertainty that is created when GIS models incorporate and combine various global climate models (GMCs). He concluded by saying that “his world is filled with uncertainty.” He also stated that that uncertainty is not necessarily a bad thing as it can lead to new forms of knowledge.

Michael Loik explained how the biogeochemical models, which he uses in his work are driven in part by GCMS to which they incorporate biological functions to find out, for example, whether changes in precipitation would lead to increased vegetations in a specific area. In his work, one of the great challenges stems from matching the ‘simple’ results of the biogeochemical models with the complex matrix of biological and ecological found in-situ. Loik stated that him and his lab embrace uncertainty in their field design by often testing opposing hypotheses as they relate to climate change
predictions.

Bruce Daniels discussed how most models are parameterized (i.e. averaged) to reality. He also reframed the conversation by emphasizing the importance of trust over that of scientific certainty. He explained that trust has a lot to do with knowing what scientists are actually doing and developing relationships over time.

Andrew Matthews then asked about the credibility of trust and whether we can trust a scientists based on their academic accomplishments and affiliations. He concluded by saying that modeling is concerned with the technical side of imagining futures, but not concerned enough with how these futures are taken up by politics and social system.

Collaboration & Communication
Tiffany Wise-West asked the panelists to talk about the type of collaborations that they have been involved in and the publics with whom they communicate.

Bruce Daniels, Michael Loik and Barry Nickel all talked about collaborating with and communicating their findings to professors in various departments on the UCSC campus and other non-academic groups in Santa Cruz and the Bay Area.

Bruce Daniels talked about the importance of seeing the needs of our surrounding communities, even needs that they don’t know they will have yet.

Andrew Matthews talked about the importance of using ways to communicate findings that the public can use in the way they use information (e.g. a poster can be better than an article). Andrew Matthews expressed his opinion that social scientists are sometimes “poorly socialized” and don’t cooperate as much as natural scientists. He spoke of forced collaborations and the ethical questions they raise.

IPCC Scandals & Consensus
Tiffany Wise-West asked the panelists their opinions regarding the recent IPCC scandals dubbed ‘climategate.’

The panelists talked about how politics play an important role in the IPCC.

Michael Loik emphasized that sloppiness was at the root of the scandals and that the IPCC is the best climate change science that we have. He also said that framing and portrayal are ultimately key as the scientific process must go through political filter.

Andrew Matthews asked: What kind of institutions would be able to make better use of the facts hat we do have? He also argued that really good data has often come out of really sloppy processes and that nobody would have picked up on the IPCC sloppiness if they hadn’t been looking for ways to discredit the IPCC as a knowledge-making institution.

Bruce Daniels stressed the difficulty of reaching a consensus that threatens vested interest.

The panelists concluded by suggesting that the IPCC should perhaps include a media section in their assessment reports that would facilitate communicate their findings to the public.

Michael Loik also brought up some examples of successful science-policy collaborations such as the Montreal Protocol.

When panelists were asked how each of them reached consensus with their colleagues, they spoke of comparing various models as well as comparing models to past and present climate and conditions.

Michael Loik also spoke of using synthetic meetings for people to bring their data from their field studies and use meta-analysis to quantify common themes. Andrew Matthews that in his field consensus seems to be reached when others can relate to the story you are telling.

Shadow Politics
Tiffany Wise-West asked Andrew Matthews to explain his use of the term ‘shadow politics.’ Matthews explained that when you create a model, you also create, consciously or not, an imagined institutions/actor that can use that model.

Barry Nickel added to that by remarking that the unintentional creation of the politics around “what we do” actually has ramifications for “the work that gets done.”

Science and the Public
The conversation then shifted to talking about the importance of how climate change science is presented to the public and about the dangers of the public misusing scientific tools when these become too accessible to non-experts.

A person in the public brought up the idea of multiple publics and the importance of focusing on those publics that are most worth communicating to. He also talked about the difference between ethos, logos and pathos, and about how pathos is the real challenge to tackling the challenges of global climate change.

Bruce Daniels proposed the idea of creating a public forum to take climate change science on the road and to the general public. Another member of the public brought up the importance of literacy and science literacy in particular.

In conclusion, Karen Barad asked about the kinds of uncertainty that should we care about and about the ways in which we can deconstruct the word uncertainty to make it helpful to us.

Bruce Daniels compared the uncertainty around climate change to the uncertainty of investing in market stocks – an uncertainty which doesn’t freeze people.