A Surprising Side-Effect of Climate Change: A Fog of Confusion

Climate change entails significant social impact not least of which is induced by changes in the global water cycle: more precipitation here, less there, more droughts in dry areas, more floods in wet areas, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, changes in cloud cover, etc… Another side-effect is also apparent: a thickening fog in the public discourse that obscures the significance of irrefutable environmental change to human society.

The Eiffel Tower, symbol of human achievement at the turn of the ninetenth century, is obscured by a thick fog.

The Eiffel Tower, an icon of human achievement, is obscured by a thick fog.

Climate skepticism is attracting greater attention by news and social media networks. A disturbing undercurrent entails the perception that climate change is an invention forged by climate scientists. Such distortion is another example of the “conspiracy theories” of recent years, “theories” that argued: Darwin’s theory of evolution is satanic; concentration camps and gas chambers did not exist; Neil Armstrong never walked on the Moon; the World Trade Center was not destroyed by terrorists; etc… Now a few climate change contrarians are refuting the work of thousands of technicians, engineers, and researchers around the world who are dedicated to understanding what is indeed a very complex system. Understanding climate requires the combined efforts of experts in diverse scientific disciplines because understanding climate involves physical, chemical, biological, and socioeconomic interactions and feedbacks. Contrarians contribute to the confusion in the general population by shedding doubt on the validity of numerical model projections, whereas, there already exists a preponderance of empirical evidence that the rapid growth of human population over the past century has resulted in deleterious environmental change with significant societal impact. Indeed, there is no Climate Skeptic Observing System. Scientific instruments provide evidence of the global temperature increase near the surface and decrease in the stratosphere, of changes in atmospheric composition, of sea level rise, sea ice and glaciers melting, deforestation, etc.

The knowledge a person possesses is a very strong determinant of what information is perceived and the value of its importance. Could climate skepticism simply result from unsophisticated epistemological beliefs preventing acceptance of evidence that conflicts with a flawed mental model of how the climate works more than from a conspiratorial attitude? Learning often involves modifications in core knowledge and beliefs, which at times can be strongly resisted and an obstacle to conceptual change. Providing solid and comprehensive education based on sound Earth observations is an important step forward to alleviating the fog of confusion about climate change and human interaction with the Earth’s environment.

There remain large uncertainties in our understanding of the climate and greater uncertainty in the impact of climate change on human civilization. Addressing these uncertainties requires hard work and more observations, scrupulous attention to data calibration and validation, data examination, inter-comparing model projection and quantifying their uncertainties, understanding the differences, criticizing results. We believe that GEOSS, the Global Earth Observation System of Systems, has the potential to provide the observations and infrastructure needed for climate monitoring, understanding and prediction. The serious message sent by the climate research community is disturbing to most people; powerful interests are at stake that will entail drastic reorientation of energy sources and economic development. But an even higher interest is at stake: that of our children and of future generations. Our descendants deserve as clear a sky as we can bequeath to them.

About The Authors Jean-Louis Fellous and Catherine Gautier

Dr. Jean Louis Fellous, executive director of COSPAR (ICSU Committee on Space Research), Paris, France

Dr. Jean-Louis Fellous

Jean Louis Fellous is the Executive Director of COSPAR (ICSU Committee on Space Research) in Paris, France. An atmospheric scientist by training, Dr. Fellous was program manager of the U.S.-French ocean satellite TOPEX/Poseidon launched in 1992. He led Earth Observation programs at CNES until 2001 and ocean research at IFREMER until 2005. He was elected co-president of JCOMM (the WMO/IOC Joint Commission on Oceanography and Marine Meteorology) in 2005. In mid-2005 Fellous was seconded by the CNES to the European Space Agency, and later appointed as the Executive Officer of the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS), a position he held through 2007.

Dr. Catherine Gautier

Dr. Catherine Gautier

Catherine Gautier, an Earth System scientist, is professor of Geography and principal investigator of The Institute for Computational Earth System Science (ICESS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara campus. Dr. Gautier works in an environment in which Earth and computer science are strongly coupled. Her focus is on research and graduate education in Earth system sciences (the science of climate change), with emphasis on processes governing the radiative processes of the Earth. Previous appointments include serving as director of the Institute of Computational Earth System Science, 1996-2002, chief executive officer of Planet Earth Science Inc., 1994-2004, and associate director and associate research meteorologist, California Space Institute, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego from 1982-1990.

Fellous and Gautier are co-authors/or editors of three recent books on climate change. Gautier is sole author of one.

Gautier and J-L Fellous, 2008: Eau, Petrole, Climat: Un Monde en Panne Seche, Book, pp 320, Odile Jacob, Paris, France.

Gautier C. and J-L Fellous, 2008 (co-editors): Facing climate change together, Book, pp 257, Cambridge University Press.

Gautier C., 2008: Oil, Water and Climate: An Introduction, Book, pp 366, Cambridge University Press.

Fellous J-L and C. Gautier, 2007 (co-editors): Comprendre le changement climatique. Book, Odile Jacob, Paris, France.

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