The Fog of Uncertainty and the Precautionary Principle

From the Wall Street Journal, Dec. 2/09:

The Science and Politics of Climate Change

Science never writes closed textbooks. It does not offer us a holy scripture, infallible and complete.

“I am a climate scientist who worked in the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in the 1990s. I have been reflecting on the bigger lessons to be learned from the stolen emails, some of which were mine.


“The central battlegrounds on which we need to fight out the policy implications of climate change concern matters of risk management, of valuation, and political ideology. We must move the locus of public argumentation here not because the science has somehow been “done” or “is settled”; science will never be either of these things, although it can offer powerful forms of knowledge not available in other ways. It is a false hope to expect science to dispel the fog of uncertainty so that it finally becomes clear exactly what the future holds and what role humans have in causing it. “

Former CRU scientist Mike Hulme [Apparently he’s still there – hro Dec. 8]

I, for one, am not convinced that the emails were necessarily “stolen”. But I do believe Hulme raises a very valid point. However, in matters of “risk management”, how can one arrive at an appropriate policy if the “risk assessment” has been conducted by those who seem to be considerably less than unbiased scientists (regardless of whether or not science can “dispel the fog of uncertainty”)?

Like many others, I have been perusing the climategate emails. Speaking of Mike Hulme, I found the following:

On Nov. 11/97, Tim Mitchell (a CRU “climate change evangelist” if ever there was one, but that’s another story!) circulated an E-mail with the subject line: “ATTENTION, Invitation to influence Kyoto”

Mitchell’s missive appears to have been sent to “all cru staff” and a list of 204 other people with U.K. E-mail addresses “on behalf of Mike Hulme and Jo Alcamo”, the co-signers of a request for endorsement “on behalf of 11 formal sponsors”.

Hulme and Alcamo, albeit perhaps inadvertently, offer remarkable insight into how scientific “consensus” can be … uh … built:

“Reference: Statement of European Climate Scientists on Actions to Protect Global Climate

Dear Colleague,

Attached at the end of this email is a Statement, the purpose of which is to bolster or increase governmental and public support for controls of emissions of greenhouse gases in European and other industrialised countries in the negotiations during the Kyoto Climate Conference in December 1997. The Statement was drafted by a number of prominent European scientists concerned with the climate issue, 11 of whom are listed after the Statement and who are acting as formal sponsors of the Statement.

[list of 11 sponsors -hro]

After endorsements from many hundreds of other European climate-related scientists are collected (and we hope that you agree to be one of these), the Statement will be brought to the attention of key decision-makers (e.g. EU Kyoto negotiaters and Environment Ministers) and other opinion-makers in Europe (e.g. editorial boards of newspapers) during the week beginning 24th November. The UK and other European WWF offices have agreed to assist in this activity, although the preparation of the Statement itself has in no way been initiated or influenced by WWF or any other body. This is an initiative taken by us alone and supported by our 11 Statement sponsors.


We would very much like you to endorse this Statement. Unfortunately, at this time we can no longer take into account any suggested modifications. Nevertheless, we hope that it reflects your views closely enough so that you can support it.” […]

Recipients were asked to send their reply (if they agreed with the Statement) to Mitchell no later than November 19. And to “FORWARD THIS MESSAGE to up to three colleagues in your country who are working in climate-related fields, who you think may support the Statement and whom we have not targeted.’ [emphasis in original]

Now I understand how scientific “consensus” is built: good old-fashioned virtual chain-letters – and a minimum amount of time for any independent verification! But I digress …

A little too late for the above deadline, on Nov. 25, In response to Mitchell’s missive, Tom Wigley (a former CRUdite and, at that point, “Senior Scientist, National Center for Atmospheric Research” in Boulder, CO) wrote to the Eleven sponsors (and cc’d Hulme and Mitchell):

“Dear Eleven,

“This is a complex issue, and your misrepresentation of it does you a dis-service. To someone like me, who knows the science, it is apparent that you are presenting a personal view, not an informed, balanced scientific assessment. What is unfortunate is that this will not be apparent to the vast majority of scientists you have contacted. In issues like this, scientists have an added responsibility to keep their personal views separate from the science, and to make it clear to others when they diverge from the objectivity they (hopefully) adhere to in their scientific research. I think you have failed to do this.

“Your approach of trying to gain scientific credibility for your personal views by asking people to endorse your letter is reprehensible. No scientist who wishes to maintain respect in the community should ever endorse any statement unless they have examined the issue fully themselves. You are asking people to prostitute themselves by doing just this! I fear that some will endorse your letter, in the mistaken belief that you are making a balanced and knowledgeable assessment of the science — when, in fact, you are presenting a flawed view that neither accords with IPCC nor with the bulk of the scientific and economic literature on the subject.

[Wigley continued:]

“Furthermore, since there has been no credible analysis of the benefits (averted impacts) side of the equation, it is impossible to assess fully the benefits differential between the Sxxx and WRExxx stabilization profiles. Indeed, uncertainties in predicting the regional details of future climate change that would arise from following these pathways, and the even greater uncertainties that attend any assessment of the impacts of such climate changes, preclude any credible assessment of the relative benefits.

[and Wigley concluded:]

“When scientists color the science with their own PERSONAL views or make categorical statements without presenting the evidence for such statements, they have a clear responsibility to state that that is what they are doing. You have failed to do so. Indeed, what you are doing is, in my view, a form of dishonesty more subtle but no less egregious than the statements made by the greenhouse skeptics, Michaels, Singer et al. I find this extremely disturbing.” [emphasis in original]

No doubt, that was then – and this is now. As far as I have been able to determine, the “complex[ities]” of the issue are no less now than they were then. Such complexities certainly didn’t stop Kyoto, did they?!

And it seems that in the intervening years “thousands of scientists”, we are told, have arrived at a “consensus”. According to the IPCC’s 2007 twenty-two page “Summary for Policymakers” [SPM] – a document that is liberally peppered with graphs containing many [surprise!] “hockey-stick” facsimiles – the “consensus” is: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and that “most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-twentieth century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations” and that Carbon Dioxide is the “primary” culprit.

Very little evidence of any “fog of uncertainty”, that I was able to find in the SPM. Although I certainly did see a fair amount of what could be called “fog” surrounding the few and far between findings of “uncertainty”.

However, now that the science is evidently no longer “settled” there’s a new, improved mantra making the rounds: invocation of the “Precautionary Principle”. (Has anyone told this to Al Gore, Ed Begley, David Suzuki, President Obama and his designated “climate change” pushers, not to mention all the other pro-alarmist celebrities and media mavens?)

Climate science now has a newly-revealed “fog of uncertainty” which dictates that one must unquestioningly follow the yellow-brick road dancing to the tune of the “precautionary principle“.

This is science?! Sounds more like unmitigated pure post-modernist poppycock to me.

One thought on “The Fog of Uncertainty and the Precautionary Principle

  1. Does “post-normal” science allow for the precautionary principle? I don’t think so based on what I saw.

    AGW is 110% politics/totalitarianism and 0.000000% science.

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