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Two months ago, I participated in the Science-Engineering-Technology Congressional Visits Day (SET-CVD) in Washington, DC.  It’s organized by a bunch of scientific organizations, and I learned about it through the American Geophysical Union.

Basically, it’s a day when ~200 scientists are on Capitol Hill, and this year, our goal was to ask Members of Congress not to cut basic science funding.  In the past, our “ask” was to increase spending on basic science, but given the economy and the political situation, it seemed more practical to ask for the level of funding to stay the same than to ask for more.

I ended up talking only with congressional staffers instead of the Members of Congress (which is pretty normal), and it was a great learning experience.  Here’s a quick overview of what I learned:

  • Every single day, there are hundreds of people on Capitol Hill all asking for something from Members of Congress. On the day I went, there were people in military uniforms, people with purple Alzheimer Disease banners, people with large cowboy hats and Southern accents (ranchers?  Texans?), and a lot more people in costumes/outfits I didn’t recognize.  Every day, Members of Congress (or more often, their staffers) have to meet with constituents all day who are asking for one thing or another.   If you want to get the attention of a Member of Congress, it helps to show up and ask in person.
  • There are a fair number of scientists working on Capitol Hill.  A number of scientific organizations (AAAS, AGU, SSSA, GSA, etc.) have science policy fellowships for folks with Ph.D.’s in science so there are some really smart people working on Capitol Hill, trying to solve problems.   The problem, according to some of the more experienced staffers, is a decrease in collegiality between Members of Congress in recent years.  More on that in the next bullet.
  • There’s a lot less socializing going on between members of different political parties.  Historically, members from both political parties would live in DC when congress was in session, usually in the same neighborhood.  Now, being a “Washington insider” is a bad thing so people tend to go back to their home states on the weekends or commute back during the evenings if they live in nearby states.  I suppose it’s easier to treat members of the other party as the enemy when you don’t have to worry about those awkward moments when you run into them at the local coffee shop or the gym.  There’s also the whole issue about compromise = you’re a traitor to the party (although that seems to be the case more in one party that another — I’ve heard of more discussions of RINOs than DINOs).  I’m sure there’s a lot more to the dysfunction going on in U.S. Congress than these two issues, but they seem to be relatively important contributors to the dysfunction.

I also talked to staffers from the Committee of Foreign Relations, and I was so happy to chat with them.  This committee works with other countries on issues like the Kyoto Protocol and other international policies.  We talked about strategies for how to deal with climate change and reframing the situation to be more about resilience: resilience to unpredictable weather, to problems with energy security, to changes in crop yields, to increased air pollution from smog, etc.  Politicians from all parties seem to be a lot more open to conversations about resilience than climate change so I would like to think that there’s hope.

If you’re a scientist, I highly recommend going to a CVD if you ever have the opportunity.

The AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) is currently holding their annual meeting at Vancouver, B.C., and their plenary talk definitely gave me a lot of food for thought.

The longer I’m in academia, the bigger the gap between the scientific community and the general public seems to be.  It’s frustrating that doing good science simply isn’t enough.  At the same time, the publish or perish culture of academia makes it really hard for scientists to find time to communicate with the general public and decision makers.  It’s one of the reasons why I’m not sure that academia is the right fit for me because for me, publishing peer-reviewed articles isn’t as invigorating as talking about science with non-scientists.

Most of the time I read something in the news about climate change, I cringe a little (or a lot, see Ventilation: Freeman Dyson), but this article by Michael D. Lemonick is excellent.  It’s about Thailand, where my parents and a lot of my relatives live, and about the recent flooding that caused a LOT of damage so it was really fortunate that my parents and my relatives were okay.

The intro of the article does an excellent job of explaining the relationship between climate change and extreme weather events:

An obese, middle-aged man is running to catch a bus. Suddenly, he clutches his chest, falls to the ground and dies of a massive heart attack. It turns out that he’s a smoker and a diabetic, has high blood pressure, eats a diet high in saturated fat and low in leafy green vegetables, pours salt on everything, drinks too much beer, avoids exercise at all costs and has a father, grandfather and two uncles who also died young of heart attacks.

So what killed him? Most people are savvy enough about health risks to know this is a trick question. You can’t pick out a single cause. His choices and his genes all contributed to the heart attack — but you can say with confidence that the more risk factors that pile up, the more likely it is to end badly.

Somehow, though, people think that it makes sense to ask whether a given extreme weather event — a devastating heat wave or a punishing drought or a deadly torrential rainstorm — is caused by climate change.

That’s a trick question too. Scientists know that the increasing load of greenhouse gases we’re pumping into the atmosphere doesn’t “cause” extreme weather. But it does raise the odds, just as a diet of triple bacon cheeseburgers raises the odds of heart disease.

There was also a wonderful series of public service announcements about the flooding done by a non-profit group in Thailand.  It’s scientifically accurate, accessible, and it even includes cute whales:

There is hope for science journalism/communication!

1) Dogs are awesome.

I’ve always wanted to own a dog: play frisbee with it, go hiking in the woods with it, snuggle up next to it while I’m watching David Attenborough documentaries, and all that good stuff.  Now there’s a study that found that dogs can detect early and late-stage lung and breast cancer so I can add “have it sniff my breasts if I develop cancer” to the list.  Yay, dogs!

2) Walking > Crossword puzzles in terms of brain functioning and memory (!)

I know that longevity has a lot to do with genetics, but I wonder if part of the reason why my 88-year-old grandfather is still pretty alert and healthy is because he lives in Hong Kong (which is a very walkable city with a great transportation system) and walks with my grandmother (who’s 77 and also very alert) every day to have dim sum and tea.

Also, I know I should be careful not to extrapolate too far from the original study, but I am going to make sure that I go on a walk every single day of my life so that my mind doesn’t turn into mush and I unthinkingly elect a person who thinks that it is important to use valuable taxpayer resources to declare that climate change is awesome for the economy.  (It’s not about completely ignoring hundred of scientific and economic studies of climate change impacts or anything.  It’s just that I personally think that crisp autumn days are awesome, but do we really need a bill to declare how mindblowingly wonderful they are?)

Two weeks ago, I was hanging out at a bookstore (because I like to live on the wild side) when I noticed that this year’s Best Science and Nature Writing collection was edited by Freeman Dyson.  I really like this particular collection: the essays are often accessible and scientifically accurate even though they’re not very technical.  (My favorite is the one that was edited by Natalie Angier in 2002.)  I couldn’t help feeling disappointed that they had picked Freeman Dyson as the editor this year though so I’m going to have to vent.

I first learned about Freeman Dyson when the New York Times magazine devoted an 8-page article on him last year and that article bothered me in many ways, but I’ll just highlight two.

1) Freeman Dyson might want to retake Intro to Biology or review basic biological concepts. I’m sure he’s an absolutely brilliant physicist, but his biology is a bit rusty.  He’s one of those skeptics who think that planting a bunch of “carbon-eating trees” is going to mitigate climate change.  First, it doesn’t matter if you plant a gadzillion hectares of forests that suck up a gadzillion tons of carbon from the atmosphere.  Forests eventually die and all the carbon that they store ends up back in the atmosphere when they decompose.  And it’s back to square one.  It is called the carbon cycle for a reason.

So, what if we harvested the wood from these forests and found some way to store the carbon so that it doesn’t decompose and end up back in the atmosphere (like turning the forests into biochar)?  Well, plants need more than carbon dioxide to grow.

First, where is the land for planting all these trees?  World forest cover has been declining for decades, and deforestation is still a major environmental problem.  As human population and consumption habits continue to grow, we’re demanding more food (more meat, specifically) and more roads, which requires land that doesn’t include trees.  So how are we going to convince people that trees are just as or more important than food and roads?  This is actually a question that I think is really important to answer.

Second, plants, and trees especially, need a lot of water to grow, which limits them their range to very specific areas of the world.  Sure, we could irrigate and fertilize in unsuitable habitats, but I think Freeman Dyson is seriously underestimating how energy and labor intensive and expensive his idea can be.

(For a more thorough critique of Freeman Dyson’s views on climate change, check out David Archer’s post on RealClimate.)

2) Freeman Dyson got 8 pages.  Jim Hansen got a paragraph. Aside from hearing biologically-uninformed statements from Freeman Dyson, it really bothered me that the New York Times spent so much time covering Freeman Dyson’s views on climate change and only a paragraph on an actual climate scientist’s views on climate change.

I can’t imagine that the New York Times would ever come out with an 8-page article about an eminent physicist who thinks that chocolate will cure cancer and then spend only a paragraph on a world-renowned oncologist who thinks the physicist doesn’t know what s/he’s talking about.   Hundreds of people would be writing in to say that it’s completely irresponsible to report that sort of information in such a skewed manner.  But somehow they can get away with this sort of stuff when it comes to climate change.  Boo to that.

Oh, and even Andrew Revkin said: “On climate, Mr. Dyson may be right or wrong”, as if Dyson has a 50-50 chance of being right or wrong.  That’s like saying if you jump off a tall building, you may or may not live, which may be the case if, say, you’re a character from an action movie, but I definitely wouldn’t chance it in real life.

Anyway, back to the Best American Science and Nature Writing edited by Freeman Dyson.  Thanks to, I can read Freeman Dyson’s introduction for free, and it’s more of the same stuff he always says.  It’s more about the carbon fertilization effect and how “climate alarmists” are ignoring it.  If he actually talked to some climate scientists, he would realize that carbon fertilization is something that has been extensively studied for decades — just do a quick Google scholar search on “free-air CO2 enrichment (FACE)” and you can see papers dating back to the 1990s.  Or if he bothered to read this PNAS paper, he would learn why scientists are not jumping up and down about carbon fertilization.  This paper even came from a FACE site at Oak Ridge, TN, which is a place that Freeman Dyson visited in his intro.

He also says: “Nothing is said about the large fertilizing effects of carbon in the atmosphere and in topsoil upon food crops.”  If he actually talked to some soil scientists, he would realize that soil carbon sequestration has been studied for decades — there’s even a book by Rattan Lal (a renowned soil biologist) 12 years ago on that exact topic: The potential of US cropland to sequester carbon and mitigate the greenhouse effect.

One of the major reasons why scientists are not jumping up and down about topsoil is because there’s a debate on whether maintaining topsoil is actually going to lead to more or less carbon sequestration (see this and this) so again, it is a vast oversimplification to say that topsoil is going to offset all our carbon emissions.  Not to mention that if maintaining topsoil does end up sequestering a lot of carbon, topsoil erosion is one of the biggest global environmental problems facing us today, right up there with deforestation.

I wish I could be as optimistic as Freeman Dyson, but his solutions seem to exist in this alternate reality where deforestation and soil erosion are not major environmental problems and unfortunately, we need solutions for this reality.

As a scientist who is studying the effects of climate change on ecosystem functioning, I’m often reminded of the enormous gap between the scientific community and the general public.   Hearing people say that climate change is a hoax makes me wonder about the quality of science education at the primary school level, why skeptical/contrarian arguments against climate science are so convincing, and whether there are enough scientists chatting about their research with non-scientists on a regular basis.

This past Monday, my university hosted a Global Warming Forum where they invited Susan Avery (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute), Robert Socolow (Princeton University), Fred Singer (Science and Environmental Policy Project), and Kenneth Haapala (Science and Environmental Policy Project).  Because of Fred Singer’s history of misrepresenting climate science and scientists and Kenneth Haapala’s involvement in the scientifically inaccurate Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, a few graduate students and I thought it would be an excellent opportunity for us to make sure that anyone who was going to this panel would have a bit of climate science info in their hands to refute some of the common misconceptions of climate change.  (Our handout was largely based on information from and — both are comprehensive sources of scientific info on climate change.  Many of the arguments that are made by climate skeptics can be easily countered by information from an introduction to biology, ecology, or earth and atmospheric science course too.)

Because a lot of the science is already out there and many scientists who are more qualified than me have already refuted a lot of the specific claims made by climate skeptics, I just want to focus on one question that I’ve thought about a lot since the forum: what makes skeptical/contrarian arguments so convincing?  Here are some ideas that I’ve been bouncing around:

1) They inundate the audience with graphs, charts, and jargon.

Data and jargon (like “AGW”) make climate skeptics appear more knowledgeable than they really are.  When someone is showing you a graph with labels like “wavenumber (cm-1)” and “Delta Tb (K)”, they probably look like they know what they’re talking about even if they say scientifically inaccurate things like “CO2 is not a pollutant” (click here to find out why that’s inaccurate).  Oh, and they’re tricky about the scales on the graph.   For their temperature trend graphs, they use data from the 1970s (or later) to the present day.   What they don’t mention is that most climate scientists use 5- or 10-year averages when they’re talking about climate change because there’s just so much interannual variability.  Also, because climate happens on a large time scale by definition, it makes more sense to show at least a hundred years of data.

They argue that they look at the same data as the experts and just come to different conclusions, but to someone who actually studies climate science, what they’re doing is like skimming through Animal Farm and dismissing it as a silly story about barnyard animals and their adventures.  They just don’t seem to fully understand the information that they’re criticizing.

2) They set up false dichotomies.

The title of both the climate skeptics’ presentations said it all: “Nature, not human activity, rules climate change”.   First, no climate scientist has ever said that climate change is caused by only one or the other.  (In fact, aren’t humans a part of nature?   It’s like saying “Nature, not photosynthesis, rules climate change”.)  As with a lot of complex processes, there are usually multiple, interrelated causes and drivers.  We know that a combination of geological and ecological processes and human activities are driving climate change.  We also know based on multiple lines of evidence (e.g., ice cores, weather station data, satellite data, our understanding of the greenhouse effect, etc.)  that human activities are the dominant ones.

Another false dichotomy they kept on reciting over and over again was that switching away from fossil fuels is bad for the economy, that a price on carbon is going to drive everyone into poverty.  I’m not sure which century/decade Fred Singer and Kenneth Haapala are living in, but they seem to have missed all the excitement about the growing green building industry that’s still going strong despite the recession, the growing renewable energy industry (especially in China), and the sustainable food movement (even Walmart is getting in on the action).  All of these industries can help us become less dependent on fossil fuels *and* they’re bringing in lots of money so economic prosperity and environmental protection don’t have to be mutually exclusive.  Not to point fingers or anything, but now who’s being all alarmist and doomsayer-y?

3) They say things with absolute certainty.

Isn’t it simpler and more comforting to hear someone say, “Cooling is bad; warming is good!” than it is to hear, “Cooling and warming can be bad or good depending on the situation”?   Scientists are trained never to say that they’re absolutely certain about any scientific fact though, because science is about probabilities.  We can have a hundred experiments that show one result, but we can never be absolutely sure that the 101st experiment will give us the same result even though it’s highly likely.  Science is an ongoing process of discovery, replication, verification, and revision because we can never be 100% sure about a given thing, but that’s not the same as saying we don’t know anything.  We just know the limits of our knowledge.  The climate skeptics at the forum, on the other hand, don’t seem to realize or acknowledge that there are limits to their own knowledge but are quick to point out scientists’ limitations (even if one of the climate skeptics has no scientific credentials).  Doesn’t that seem just a teensy bit hypocritical?  If they’re making assertions like “CO2 is beneficial and always good for plants”, where are their lines of evidence supporting that statement?

4) They appeal to the cultural values of the audience.

I can’t take credit for this idea because it actually comes from an interesting press release from the National Science Foundation.  Basically, people tend to trust scientists (or experts) who already share their cultural and/or political views so maybe Fred Singer and Kenneth Haapala’s anti-regulation, anti-government stance is appealing to some folks (and it’s a fine stance to have, but I worry that it’s informing their views on climate change more than the science itself).   Scientists can harness this tendency too, though.  Maybe one way to bridge the gap between climate scientists and the general public is to focus on the things we can agree on and go from there.  Care about clean air and water?   Let’s work together to reduce our dependence on coal because coal power plants are the largest source of mercury in the U.S. Care about national security?   Let’s work together to reduce dependence on foreign oil.  Care about the economy?  Let’s remain technologically competitive by investing in R&D on carbon-neutral energy because a lot of other countries are already doing that.  And last but not least, you like silly photos of sassy cats?  Me too.

P.S. – I just noticed that all of the “Possibly related posts” link to climate skeptic websites, which is making me wonder more about whether there are enough scientists chatting about their research with non-scientists on a regular basis.  The general public just seems to hear more from climate skeptics than climate scientists, but this post is already long enough so maybe I’ll have to save those thoughts for later.

Last semester, I went to an excellent workshop on emissions trading that was sponsored by the Purdue Climate Change Research Center.  One of the things that blew my mind was the industrial roundtable (check out the video here) where representatives from BP, Duke Energy, and Caterpillar all said that climate legislation is coming and climate change denial is the wrong strategy.   The representative from Duke Energy even criticized a report by the Heritage Foundation on the economic effects of policies to limit carbon emissions.  Whoa!

In the back of my mind, I was hoping that the manufacturing and fossil fuel industries are not a homogeneous group of climate change skeptics and deniers, and it was great to see the Monolithic Manufacturing and Fossil Fuel Industries Hypothesis falsified.  Granted, there’s still a lot of progress to be made within these industries as a whole, but at least attitudes are changing.  Now if only we could get more constructive and productive conversations about climate policy going between industry groups, environmental groups, scientists, and policymakers.  A person can dream, no?