What is a climate scientist? Indeed, are there any?

We hear the term frequently, but what qualifies some people and not others to be classed as climate scientists?  You might think it is just someone who studies things that affect the climate. But very many people do that, not just those who call themselves climate scientists. The term actually seems to refer solely to a group who have commandeered the term for themselves and share a particular viewpoint, with partly overlapping skills in a subset of the relevant disciplines. In recent times,it seems that to be an official ‘climate scientist’ you must believe that the main thing that counts is human interference and in particular, CO2. All other factors must be processed from this particular bias.

To me, the climate looks like it is affected by a great many influences. Climate models produced by ‘climate scientists’ have been extremely poor at predicting changes so far, and one reason for this is that they exclude many of the relevant factors.

I am struggling to think of any scientific discipline that doesn’t have something to say about some influence on climate. Many branches of chemistry and physics are important in understanding how the atmosphere works, and the oceans, and glaciers, and soil. We have some understanding of some natural cycles, but far from all, and far from complete. We need biologists and chemists and physicists to tell us about soil, and forests, and ocean life, and how species and entire ecosystems react and adapt to changing circumstances, with migrations or adaptation or evolution for example. We need to understand how draining bogs or chopping trees to make room for biofuels affects the climate. How using bio-waste for fuel instead of ploughing it into the ground affects soil structure, plant growth, and carbon interchange. We need to understand how cosmic rays interact with the earth’s magnetic field, how this is affected by solar activity, how sunspots form, and even gravitational interactions with the planets that affect solar cycles. We need to understand glacial melting, how glaciers move differently as temperature changes, how black carbon from diesel engines affects their heat absorption, how clouds form, how they act to warm or cool the earth according to circumstances. We need to understand ocean cycles much better, as well as gas and heat interchange between layers, how this is affected by weather and so on. I could go on, endlessly. We need to understand the many different ways we could make energy in the future, the many options for capture and containment of emissions or pollutants, or positive effects some might have on plant growth and animal food chains.

But it doesn’t stop with science, not be a long way. We also need people skilled in anthropology and demography and sociology and human psychology, who understand how people react when faced with choices of lifestyle when presented in many different ways with different spins, or faced with intimidation or eviction because of environmental policies.  And how groups or tribes or countries will interact and distribute burdens and costs and rewards, or fight, or flee. And religious leaders who understand well the impacts of religious pressures on people’s attitudes and behaviours, even if they don’t subscribe to any organised religion. Clearly environmental behaviour has a strong religious motivation for many people, even if that is just as a crude religion substitute.

We even need people who understand animal psychology, how small mammals react to wind turbine flicker for example, and how this affects the food chain, ecosystem balance and eventual interchange with the atmosphere and the rest of the environment.

And politicians, they understand how to influence people, and marketers, and estate agents. They can help predict behaviours and adaptation and how entire countries may or will interact according to changes in climate, real or imagined.

And we need economists to look at the many alternatives and compare costs and benefits, preferably without ideological and political bias. We need to compare strategies for adaptation and mitigation and avoidance. Honestly and objectively. And we need ethicists to help evaluate the same from human perspectives.

And we need loads of mathematicians, especially statisticians. Climate science is very complicated, and a lot of measurements and trend analyses need in-depth statistical skills, apparently lacking in official climate science, as evidenced by the infamous hockey stick graph. But we also need some to model things like traffic flows so we can predict emissions from different policies.

And we need lots of engineers too, to assess likely costs and timescales for development of alternatives for energy, transport, entertainment and business IT. We need a lot of engineers!

And don’t forget architects, who influence energy balance via choices of shapes, materials and colour schemes as well as how buildings maintain a pleasant environment for the inhabitants.

Ah yes, and futurists. Many futurists are systems thinkers with an understanding of how things link together and how they may develop. You need a few of them too.

I have probably forgotten lots of others. The point is that there are very many factors that need to be included. No-one, and I mean no-one, can possibly have a good grasp of all of them. You can know a bit about a lot of things or a lot about a few things, but you can’t know a lot about everything. I would say that there are no people at all who know about all the things that affect climate in any depth, and therefore no group deserves a monopoly on that title.

So, if you only look in any depth at a few interaction in the oceans and atmosphere and ignore many of the rest of the factors affecting climate, as ‘climate scientists’ seem to, it is hard to see a good reason to continue to hold the title any more than anyone with another label like astrophysicist, or politician. ‘Climate scientists’ as we currently classify them, know a bit about some things that affect climate. So do many other groups. Having skills in a few of the relevant areas doesn’t give any right to dismiss others with skills in a different few. And if they consistently get it wrong, as they do, then there is even less reason to trust their particular viewpoints. And that’s before we even start considering whether they are even honest about the stuff they do talk about. And as Donna Lamframboise has pointed out recently, they don’t deserve to be trusted.


5 responses to “What is a climate scientist? Indeed, are there any?

  1. You are clearly a good writer and you make some valid points about specialisation but I must correct you in a couple of things. First, your assertion that the models are frequently wrong. The fact is, most of the models where we now have enough data to hindcast have actually underestimated the results. The corrections that have been needed to recalibrate them, be it mathemamtical or the inclusion of new data as it comes to hand is actually starting to turn out quite accurate results. James Hansen’s modelfromthe 70’s has proven remarkably accurate.
    Secondly, your question as to honesty…..I certainly hope you aren’t referring to “climategate”. The dozen or so independent investigations into that well and truly put that to bed, but if you want to talk about dishonesty, lets discuss the corporate funded utterings of non-experts like Monckton, Ian Plimer, James Inhoffe and Lamframboise.


    • Thanks Mike, we all have to make our own judgements on the field since it is so politicised now. It takes a great deal of time and effort even to track the stuff at the most superficial levels – I have spent a few hours a day for several years now and don’t pretend to understand it at any depth, but my call is that there is dishonesty, not just Climategate and in the IPCC but frequent unjustified editing of historical data and that the models only work if you edit the facts to fit the predictions, and it shouldn’t be done that way. But like I said, we all have to judge it for ourselves, and I fully respect your right to disagree.

      My best guess is that because of the solar effects, we will see a long period with little or no warming and likely even cooling, but that background CO2 rises will result in about 1 degree rise in temperature and 10-15cm of sea level rise, this century. I see no need to panic, certainly not to severely damage our economy by spending on expensive and ineffective solutions now, and we should delay high expenditure on solutions until the technology is far better and cheaper.


      • I don’t wish to be rude and it isn’t my intent but all I can deduce from your reasoning is that you are either only researching denier blogs or are having a go at reading peer-reviewed literature and not really understanding it. I am a scientist, not a climate scientist, but from a closely related field. My area of expertise is ecology in general, but specifically in population ecology. I have also published a number of times. What I have, is a very good understanding of scientific conventions. Your comment tells me you don’t.
        You are essentially accusing scientists of scientific fraud. If this were the case, they would have been discovered long ago. In order for scientific fraud at the level you are insinuating to occur to be successful, it would require a conspiracy so massive, that it would involve thousands of scientists from hundreds of countries in different fields to all be in on it, and for what reason? So the USA can implement a tax? So scientists can draw massive salaries from grants? I earn $75000 a year, none of which comes from government grants. It’s illegal in my country (Australia) to use government grant money to pay salaries and it is my understanding its the same in many other countries as well.
        But back to the assertion that scientist are altering data to fit models. What evidence do you have of this? I’ve heard plenty of vague comments about homogenising temperature data. Usually a trip to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology website is enough to quell any fears about fraud as they have a very good, easy to understand write up about how and why they homogenise data. You’d be surprised to learn that they actually correct the data down for urban heat island effects and leave erroneously high readings out of any analyses. The other things I hear about is climate sensitivity being estimated as being too high, clouds are left out and half a dozen other things, all of which are debunked in various places… if you’re prepared to look….but I digress.
        You mention the cost factor. A number of economic models I have seen that examine such things all suggest that the price of renewables will reach parity with the polluting ones within a decade. China is spending tens of billions every year on research and development of renewables and India isn’t far behind. Within two decades, the USA, Canada and my country will be left behind and will be forced to import the technology from these countries as the cost will be far cheaper than the ever increasing price of ever rarer non-renewables. China is already exporting photovoltaics to your country on a fairly large scale. Even if you want to reject AGW completely, the economic argument to shift to renewables is still there.
        Anyway, good luck to you. What I’d be keen to know is at what point will you accept that the allegedly dodgy climate scientists are actually correct? Will it be for example, an ice free arctic or perhaps the collapse of the Great Barrier Reef? I’m not being flippant here. I genuinely like to see if people who are sceptical are prepared to self evaluate. I do it all the time. For me, if the temperature stops rising and the tens of thousands of species undergoing range shifts that can only be attributed to climate change suddenly start recolonising the areas they have left, I will reevaluate my understanding of the evidence.


      • Mike, your deductions are incorrect, but I am not going to reply in depth to an ad-hom attacks and I certainly don’t have time to repeat the entire climate change debate in this blog. In my defence, I am widely read, work with organisations of all views in the field, and anyone who knows me and my work will recognise my independent thinking. I know no-one who disagrees that climate change has been happening, it always has, nor that humans have some influence, of course they do. These are straw man issues, and I have never seen anyone claim anything like this. What is often in dispute is the list and relative importance of the influencing factors, the potential corruption or manipulation of data, and interpretation of results, and that is exactly what this blog entry was about: there are many people with things to say relevant to climate change other then ‘climate scientists’. When I see good science, I take it on board. When I see politicised spin, or ideological bias, I filter it. I have little patience with conspiracy theories but am well aware of the power of group think. It is a personal judgement as to which is which, and we each must use our own skills and experience to decide. My blog presents the results of my analyses, but readers have a wide range of alternative views on offer. I have no problems at all with you disagreeing with me, but please don’t insult my intelligence.


  2. With all due respect, I am not questioning your intelligence. It is extremely clear to me that you are extremely intelligent. What I am questioning however is whether you are truly qualified to understand the conventions of science. Whether you like it or not, it is obvious to me that you don’t have any formal scientific training. Being a critical thinker is all well and good but being a critical thinker and well read doesn’t mean anything. I’m a critical thinker too and have have read hundreds of medical papers specifically on the endocrine function of the human pancreas but my critical thinking skills dictate that despite this I know I’m not qualified to tell an endocrinologist how to do his job. If I had doubts about a diagnosis or recommended treatment, rather than presume to know as much, I would seek the professional opinions of other endocrinologists. Anyway, no doubt you will take personal offence again at which point I would ask you to look up the Dunning Kruger effect.


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