Nature Has No Agenda

The following editorial appears in the May 19, 2009, edition of the USA Today:

Every day we are reading and hearing more about what scientists are learning about global warming. But science, politics, policy and opinion don’t necessarily live together happily ever after.

Recently the EPA determined that human contributions of CO2 endanger “the health and welfare of current and future generations.” Boy did that reignite the warming/climate change “debate.” Almost every climate science researcher believes that human activity is changing the Earth’s climate and environment, but according to Gallup, a record-high 41 percent of Americans believe the threat is exaggerated. Why is that? Is it possible to separate science and politics on such fundamental economic and philosophical -- yet ultimately scientific -- issues as global warming and climate change? Probably not. But then how can we understand the science and issues and help make the best decisions moving forward?

I discovered this dilemma firsthand after I wrote a series on my blog about global climate change that sought to focus only on the science. I noted that though I was a researcher and am now a broadcast meteorologist, I am not a climate scientist. However as someone who was trained as a scientist and believes in the way science works and discovers nature’s secrets, I came to a reasonable conclusion, shared by most every scientist working on climate change: A business-as-usual approach to global energy policy -- relying on fossil fuels -- will mean a significantly warmer world within a few generations. Warmer and perhaps more important, a future Earth with significantly different patterns of rain, snow and ice.

Scientists and journalists are skeptical. It’s an integral part of our job, and we all should ask for something to be proved. That’s healthy debate. Rigorous testing of ideas is critical to the way science works. But a number of responses to my series were cynical about climate science and the observations that confirm the long-term changes under way.

For example, Dottie (that’s how she identified herself) wrote, “How anybody can talk about global warming and keep a straight face is beyond me. It’s purely political.” In another blog, John Coleman, who founded The Weather Channel, called global warming “a scam.” Pretty cynical.

Around the same time, conservative columnist George Will created quite the stir with a series of opinion pieces about global warming, in which he confused media headlines in the 1970s of “major cooling of the planet” with what climate scientists were then actually publishing and talking about -- global warming. Will’s inference was that warming fears are overblown. However, his science research was wrong.

Yet in the face of a preponderance of evidence, climate scientists are still put on the defensive by such headline-grabbing statements. Too many people treat scientific data and political opinions as equals, thus clouding the debate. The truth is, agendas and science often don’t mix. Unlike the world of politics, opinion punditry and a cherry-picking blogosphere, science and nature have no agenda. Nature is not influenced by the hot air pouring out of Washington from interest groups, scientists or, yes, columnists who rely more on their political leanings than on scientific data.

Every day, science is unlocking nature’s secrets of global climate change. Today, we have a far greater understanding of everything from dynamic glacial changes in Greenland to ocean-atmosphere interactions (such as El Nino/La Nina) to rising sea levels, solar cycles and nearly every other physical process on Earth than we had just three decades ago when I moved from the laboratory to a TV studio.

We all know forecasting day-to-day weather a week out is an imperfect science, so how can scientists have confidence in a climate forecast decades into the future? I hear this question often. Well, we’re predicting two different things. In day-to-day forecasts, the basic chemistry of the air and oceans does not change, and the prediction is on a small scale at one point in time. But in a prediction of Earth’s temperature 50 to 100 years out, the critical chemistry of the air and oceans does change, as is now happening with the rapid increase in CO2 in the air and the rising acidity of the oceans. Scientists can’t say precisely how many degrees the Earth’s temperatures will rise, but there is increasing confidence that major changes in regional and national climates will occur within a few generations.

Interestingly, the first crude models of the climate system that made predictions 30 years ago were accurate, in that they forecast the most rapid rise in temperature to happen in the higher latitudes. The Inuit people of Alaska and Greenland know and have seen the dramatic changes in their weather and climate every day. Not one Alaskan Inuit or Finnish Sami will be writing that global warming is “a scam.”

In science, every new experiment and discovery advances our knowledge of the changing weather, climate and other Earth systems. Each idea and theory is undergoing tests. Scientists seek to duplicate results as well as look for alternative explanations. The human mind and drive to understand is turning the uncertainty over climate change into a better understanding of what we face.


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The best decisions about how we should deal with and respond to global warming and global change have to include the conclusions of the best science and the best scientists as well as the most forward-thinking leaders -- and yes, even political pundits. As we consider the critical decisions ahead -- and make no mistake, these are decisions we should all participate in making -- it’s time to retire the agendas. After all, the future always unleashes the greatest human potential. And the future has no agenda either.

Bob Ryan is the lead meteorologist at NBC4 in Washington, D.C. and past president of the American Meteorological Society.

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