State Narrows Scope of Study Based on 'Cyclical' Language

Scientists Forsake a Nebraska Climate Study Mum on Human Influences

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A proposed $44,000 state-funded study of climate impacts in Nebraska precludes consideration of humans’ role, so University of Nebraska-Lincoln scientists shun the approach and plan their own independent study.

Earth scientists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, UN-L, are balking at, and avoiding identification with, a state-funded study of climate change in the Cornhusker State. Their reason: The study will ignore impacts of human activities and focus only on “cyclical climate change … only natural external forcings such as volcanic eruptions and solar variations.”

The UN-L scientists say such a study will be meaningless and unscientific, so the university is initiating its own independent study and timing release of it to coincide with that of the state-funded $44,000 effort.

Defining ‘Cyclical,’ Left Undefined by Legislature

The fracas between UN-L and the state arose recently at a meeting of the Nebraska’s Climate Assessment and Response Committee, CARC, under the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, which reports to Republican Governor Dave Heineman. The issue involves the state’s definition of “cyclical,” an adjective added to — but left undefined in — the mid-2013 legislation calling for the study, which is to focus on agriculture in particular as part of the review of climate change impacts statewide.

That legislation was passed by Nebraska’s unicameral legislature after it was amended to include the term “cyclical” before the words “climate change.” That amendment was advanced by a state legislator known to be averse to evidence of human causation of warming. That state senator is Beau McCoy, now seeking the Republican nomination to become Nebraska governor.*

The bill’s principal sponsor, State Senator Ken Harr, a Democrat identified by the state’s largest daily newspaper as “the leading environmental voice in the legislature,” said he supported the “cyclical” amendment when it was being considered. But he did so “with the intention of taking ‘politics’ out of [the] bill and making the focus on science and how climate change, regardless of its cause, will impact us here in Nebraska.” Harr now has written to the other 32 state senators who voted for his bill (LB583) saying, “Unfortunately, it appears that politics may be interfering with the purpose and intent” of the study.

When the study and its “cyclical” terminology came up October 23 at a CARC meeting, the state group batted around the legislative intent behind the term.

Haar: Let’s not ‘look stupid…embrace ignorance’

Omaha World-Herald weather reporter Nancy Gaarder reported after that meeting that McCoy, during debate on the bill, had said “I don’t subscribe to global warming. I think there are normal, cyclical changes.”

In her subsequent reporting and blog posts on the “cyclical” brouhaha, Gaarder — formerly the World-Herald’s environmental reporter, but now one of the few designated “weather reporters” at a U.S. daily paper — quoted Haar saying after that meeting that a study oblivious to the science on human causation would make the state “look stupid.”

“Let’s just embrace ignorance, and let our children deal with the consequences. That’s what this sounds like,” Gaarder quoted Haar. The legislator made similar points in an October 29 TV interview he did with the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC.

Gaarder also reported rancher McCoy’s saying he “lives and dies” by the weather and saying “It’s environmental groups who have an issue with our way of life, who have an issue with farming and ranching and the way we feed the world… . They are seeking to destroy farming and ranching as we know it.”

Skeptical of the relatively small amount of funds available for the study and of a short turn-around time for doing it — but skeptical in particular about the “cyclical” wording and omission of human impacts — several scientists at the meeting indicated they would not participate in the study. Gaarder quoted well-regarded UN-L scientist Mark Svoboda, of the National Drought Mitigation Center, saying “Personally, I would not send it out” to his science peers if it excludes consideration of the role of humans.

Gaarder also quoted the climatologist and director of the High Plains Regional Center, Martha Shulski, whose group is also housed at UN-L, as saying, “If it’s only natural [causes], but not human, we would not be interested.” A National Weather Service meteorologist, Barbara Mayes, objected that the term “cyclical” is not a term of science and that “you won’t get a credible response.”

Among the concerns apparently fueling some of the critics’ opposition to the narrow scope of the state report is that those bidding to conduct the limited study might come solely from interests, including those from out of state, predisposed to maintaining that human activities do not play a substantial role in the warming over the past six decades, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.

Another issue for some is that UN-L itself in October 2013 had completed its own report on projected climate impacts across the state, and it is unclear how much the new study, for a relatively modest cost of $44,000, could add to that report. That UN-L October report concluded that:

A large percentage of the land in Nebraska is used for agricultural or rangeland purposes. An increase in temperature, especially in the summer months, can lead to an increase in evapotranspiration that can impact soil moisture. Both of these lead to an increase in irrigation demands, which could put a strain on the water resources in the region. Extreme warmth during summer is expected to increase, and this may cause more stress for human and animal comfort, as well as influence crop production with a higher frequency of hot days. With a decreased frequency of extreme low temperatures during winter, however, there will likely be less stress on humans and animals due to exposure to cold conditions.

The Assistant Director of the state’s agriculture department and head of the state’s drought and climate task force, Bobbie Kriz-Wickham, however, maintained at that October 23 meeting and since then that the focus of the new study is to be on cyclical weather events.

The state’s official solicitation announcement, known in Nebraska as a Request for Information, directs that would-be vendors consider only climate change resulting from “natural internal processes and only natural external forcings such as volcanic eruptions and solar variations.”

So UN-L’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources now says it will proceed with its own independent study.

“For the good of the state, we need to know the full breadth of the science,” Gaarder quoted Vice Chancellor Bonnie Green as saying. “Our scientists are absolutely correct [in objecting to a limited study] and I support them.” The university’s effort basically is to consist of a literature review and not of new research, and the university reportedly has set aside $20,000 for the effort to complement the work of its own faculty members.

The current schedule calls for the initial state report, limited to natural causes, to be completed by September 1, 2014, looking at climate projections and possible impacts on agriculture, water, wildlife, ecosystems, forests, and outdoor recreation. “Key points” and “overarching recommendations” from that initial state report are to go to the governor and state legislature by December 1, 2014.

* Nebraska is the only state in the U.S. to have a unicameral, or one-house, legislature. Its senators run as nonpartisans, but most do have specific party affiliations

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: bud@yaleclimateconnections.org).
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3 Responses to Scientists Forsake a Nebraska Climate Study Mum on Human Influences

  1. Nullius in Verba says:

    There are many causes of climate change, both human and natural. You’ve already done the science on the human causes – “the science is settled”, they say – so there’s no point in spending any more money on it. So we could do with a better understanding of the others. Detecting and attributing requires an understanding of the natural background behaviour of the climate.

    Unless of course the point is not actually to better understand the climate, but to present yet more advocacy science with a pre-determined conclusion?

    • John says:

      The point of the Nebraska study was to *preclude* any consideration of human effects. That’s not science. Your point is misleading.

      • Nullius in Verba says:

        Not *considering* any human effects is not at all the same thing as showing that there *are* no human effects. To show the latter, you would obviously have to ‘consider’ them.

        But there are a million and one things besides humans that are or could be involved in natural climate change. We had three and a half billion years of climate change going on before we ever turned up, from iceball to hothouse, all of it without human intervention. Those processes are still going on. Is science not interested in them? Have you no curiosity? Does *every single thing* in climate science always have to be built around proving the *same* conclusion over and over and over again?

        If you’ve already proved it (and I’d dispute that, but let’s say for the sake of argument) then why would you spend time and money proving it again? Isn’t that a waste of effort? You already know everything there is to know about it, so why are you looking at it *again*? Don’t you know how to do anything else?

        In any case, if the study *had* been trying to falsify global warming, that *would* be science. Science can only proceed by challenge and falsification. You try to prove your hypothesis *wrong*, and your inability to do so is what gives you confidence in its correctness.

        This is a common psychological blindspot with human reasoning, that can be illustrated with a logic puzzle. Four cards each have a letter on one side and a number on the other. You can see four cards on the table showing 3, A, 6, G. Which cards would you have to turn over to test the proposition “If a card has a vowel on one side then it has an even number on the other”?

        About 80% of people pick the A and the 6, because they are trying to find confirming instances – i.e. cards with a vowel on one side and an even number on the other. But to prove the rule, you actually have to try to *falsify* it. You have to look for a card with a vowel on one side and an odd number on the other – i.e. the A and the 3. You have to check the 3 card to confirm that there *isn’t* a vowel on the other side.

        In any scientific endeavor, you must try as hard as you can to prove your conclusion is *wrong*. You first try to construct every possible alternative explanation, then make predictions and identify cases where the alternatives predict something different will happen, and then you test them, looking for falsifying examples. If you fail to find anything wrong with the idea, despite a sincere effort, that lends support to the conclusion. (And if you *do* find something wrong, then you move science forward too, by eliminating an error.) Science that proceeds by trying to confirm the theory doesn’t prove anything, because there may be other theories that would predict the same thing.

        There should therefore be scientific funding for attempts to prove AGW wrong. Attempting it and failing would provide evidence that if there are any problems they’re difficult to find. Not attempting it would mean that you don’t know whether there is a problem, because you haven’t looked. And if you don’t know if there is a fatal problem with your idea, you cannot know if it is true.

        This is the scientific method. It’s very odd to see scientists advocating anything else.

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