Thirteen approve, with one official and very vocal dissenter:  Roger Pielke Sr dissents as AGU adopts new statement saying ‘urgent action’ needed on climate.

It was a pull-no-punches American Geophysical Union revised climate change statement that drew the support of all but one of the 14 AGU members chosen to rework the update prior to its release.

But that one, Roger A. Pielke Sr, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, in his dissent threw some pretty sharp elbows at the panel and its chairman.

It was inevitable from the start, and Pielke Sr’s resistance and opposition came as no surprise to the other panel members. He had been raising a fuss throughout the whole process — “incredibly persistent” is how one participant described him. And all the committee members except he clearly reflected the “consensus” climate science views, including in particular those concerning the preeminent importance on risks posed by mounting CO2 emissions and concentrations.

Leaning Too Far from Science…and Into Policy?

The pointed headline of the AGU statement — “Human induced climate change requires urgent action” — held nothing back and prompted some criticisms that it veered too far from science and into policy.

AGU logo “In hindsight, I wonder if it’s too strong,” committee chair Gerald North of Texas A&M University later allowed, insisting the overall statement had steered clear of value judgments “except for the headline and the first sentence.” [The first two sentences, italicized and centered under the headline on the AGU website, read: “Humanity is the major influence on the global climate change observed over the past 50 years. Rapid societal responses can significantly lessen negative outcomes.”]

“Extensive, independent observations confirm the reality of global warming,” the statement reads at one point, and “the changes are inconsistent with explanations of climate change that rely on known natural influences.”

“In addition, human-induced climate change may alter atmospheric circulation, dislocating historical patterns of natural variability and storminess,” the statement reads.

‘Surprise Outcomes’ Foreseen…but not ‘Inconsequential’ Impacts

“While important scientific uncertainties remain as to which particular impacts will be experienced where, no uncertainties are known that could make the impacts of climate change inconsequential. Furthermore, surprise outcomes, such as the unexpectedly rapid loss of Arctic summer sea ice, may entail even more dramatic changes than anticipated.”

To diminish threats posed by a warming climate, the AGU statement points to “substantial emissions cuts” and adaptation, but it does not mention or advocate a particular strategy — such as carbon taxes or cap-and-trade. “The community of scientists has responsibilities to improve overall understanding of climate change and its impacts,” it continues. It encourages scientists to go beyond just pursuit of research needed to better understand climate change.  Climate scientists in addition should work with stakeholders to identify key information, and convey their understandings “clearly and accurately, both to decision makers and to the general public.”

Pielke Sr Asserts Deck Was Stacked From the Start

Pielke, considered an outlier by those in the so-called “mainstream” climate science consensus community, used the climate.etc site headed by Georgia Tech climate scientist Judith Curry (also considered an outlier) to blast the process and what he felt was a predetermined result. He said group leaders “had a course of action in mind even when we were appointed.”

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Pielke complains considerations focused too much on CO2 and other GHGs.

Under the chairmanship of Texas A&M University climate scientist Gerald North, Pielke wrote, the panel considerations were “dominated by consideration of CO2 and a few other greenhouse gases,” and “other views were never given an opportunity to be discussed.”

The North-chaired panel, appointed by AGU’s Council leadership team, last November had published a draft of the updated statement in AGU’s weekly EOS newsletter. That draft statement — with Pielke Sr dissenting then too — contained some wording that is omitted from the final statement. Some of that earlier-included terminology appears to have been included to reflect some of Pielke Sr’s preferences:

At the regional and local level, other human influences, as well as short-term natural variations, can modify the large-scale warming caused by heat-trapping-gas increases. Thus, warming is not expected to be smooth over space or time. Deforestation, urbanization, and particulate pollution can have complex geographical and seasonal effects on temperature, precipitation, and cloud properties.

Regional vs. Global Perspective

It’s that kind of reasoning that appears, judging from the statement he posted at Curry’s site, likely to appeal to Pielke Sr. But the following sentences from that draft document better reflect the other panelists’ views, and that wording too is omitted from the final statement along with the text indented above: “On the global scale, the net effects of land surface changes are small relative to the warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels, but particulate pollution offsets a significant part of this warming.”

The final version of the AGU statement does include language discussing those issues, however. For instance, it changes “warming” to “climate change” in saying it “is not expected to be uniform over space and time” and that deforestation, urbanization, and particulate pollution can have complex effects. The final statement also says that “some areas may experience cooling,” but it adds that “this raises no challenge to the reality of human-induced climate change.”

Complimenting Pielke Sr as an AGU Fellow and as a “very good scientist,” North in a phone interview said “Roger is an expert on the mesoscale, on weather,” and “we all see this problem through our own lens.” He said Pielke Sr’s focus on “the regional scale” rather than global tends to downplay most climatologists’ perspective that over the next century CO2, in particular, “just keeps on going, is something that’s growing and by 2100 will dominate everything.”

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Gerald North chaired AGU panel revising climate statement and defends panel focus on CO2 and not issues like land use or urbanization.

Asked about Pielke Sr’s comments that the panel in effect had predetermined its emphasis and outcome and that it was not receptive to broader discussion, North said the committee had been “kind of charged with dealing” with those issues it addressed in the final statement. While saying he does not disagree in major ways with Pielke’s preference of a full statement, posted at the Curry site, North said “I believe he [Pielke Sr] has an agenda.” (Pielke [did not respond  to a request] could not be reached for comments or reactions.)*

Calling his own approach “more balanced,” Pielke’s alternative statement is one that Curry said she would “vastly prefer.” In commenting on the matter on her site, Curry wrote that she thinks the revised AGU statement “is one of the worst I’ve seen from a professional society on this topic,” and she singled-out the headline, quoted above, for particular scorn, calling it “an explicit statement of advocacy.” But she mistakenly objected that the subject of uncertainty was not used in the statement, which in fact pointed to “important scientific uncertainties” as noted above. (Pielke Sr’s affiliation is also incorrectly stated on the Curry website.)

None of which, it turns out, is likely to have come as a surprise to North and his other committee colleagues, many of whom are well known to have taken positions on climate science substantially different from those supported by either Pielke or Curry.

The AGU weekly newsletter to members, EOS, is expected in its August 20 edition to carry a report on the report and also on Pielke Sr.’s dissent.

The full AGU committee charged with preparing and reviewing the new statement includes, in addition to Pielke Sr. and North:

  • Amy Clement, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, University of Miami
  • John Farrington, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute
  • Susan Joy Hassol, Climate Communication
  • Robert Hirsch, U.S. Geological Survey
  • Peter Huybers, Harvard University
  • Peter Lemke, Alfred Wegener Institute
  • Michael Oppenheimer, Princeton University
  • Ben Santer, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
  • Gavin Schmidt, Goddard Institute for Space Studies, NASA
  • Leonard A. Smith, London School of Economics
  • Eric Sundquist, U.S. Geological Survey
  • Pieter Tans, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

North told The Yale Forum he had had no role in naming panel members but had been asked to review and approve them when AGU asked him to chair the panel. He said he had suggested that Leonard Smith of London School of Economics be added to the panel, but otherwise accepted it as presented, fully anticipating likely challenges from Pielke Sr.

Under AGU policies, such position statements expire in four years if they are not reviewed and updated as needed. The North committee was charged with reviewing and updating an existing one dated 2012 and first published in 2007.

Climate policy statements such as those from AGU, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and the American Meteorological Society (AMS) are often seen as barometers of the collective “pulse” of the science community on issues having public policy significance. But they often are known also to generate controversy among some elements of their memberships.

No major scientific society having expressed a policy statement on climate science has moved to temper its statement in the face of withering objections from climate “contrarians” and others within or beyond their own membership. The skeptical blogosphere will no doubt erupt should that ever happen.

North said the panel had received only about two-dozen member comments on the draft when it was published for comment last November. He said also that “it was amazing to me” that in the initial weeks since adoption of the new AGU statement he had received so few “hate mails” compared to his prior experiences with such statements. He said he wonders if there is “a tapering off” among climate skeptics, particularly with the passing of some prominent and skeptical engineers. But he also said he personally does not read blogs or other postings where such rants and criticisms continue to run rampant.

* Editor’s Note:  Dr. Pielke is correct in challenging this statement as initially published. Efforts to contact him ran afoul of his voice message suggesting callers use e-mail to reach him or his assistant. The original article should have made that clear.) Updated 8/23/13.

Topics: Climate Science