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2011 AGU Conference Day One

Posted on 8 December 2011 by dana1981

I was fortunate to be able to attend the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting in San Francisco for the first time this year, albeit just for the first day.  It's a very impressive event, with over 20,000 attendees, from what I heard.  Although the AGU includes a wide range of scientific fields, a large fraction of those are climate-related.

Sunday Schmoozing

There were some small talks on Sunday in a nearby hotel before the conference officially began, including one by John Cook, but unfortunately those were booked up quickly before I was able to sign up.  But after his talk was over, I was able to meet John in person for the first time, as well as SkS' Tom Smerling.  This being John's first trip to San Francisco (and North America, and the Northern Hemisphere, and outside of Australia - climate bloggers don't get out of their dungeons very often), I took him out to a spot overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge Sunday night for a bit of touristy fun.

Monday Morning Poster Session

Monday morning was mainly devoted to a massive poster session.  There were literally thousands of posters on the wide variety of topics included in the AGU, ranging from Atmospheric Science to Volcanology.  Despite sticking mainly to the climate-related subjects (Atmospheric Science, Global Environmental Change, and Paleoclimate), it was a bit of information overload.  It was a very informative and interesting session though.  One poster in particular caught my attention - Levy et al.'s The Future Impact of Aerosols on Climate Change

Levy et al. examined the effects of projected human aerosol emissions changes over the 21st Century in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) new emissions scenarios on modeled global temperature and precipitation changes.  They compared an IPCC AR5 mid-range emissions scenario (RCP4.5) to a scenario in which human aerosol emissions are held constant at 2005 levels (which they call 4.5star).  Their main conclusion:

"Projected RCP4.5 aerosol emission reductions result in 1°C  additional global warming and 0.1 mm/day additional global precipitation by the end of the 21st century."

Levy 2011

It's a rather concerning result that reduced aerosol emissions - which will inevitably result as countries like China continue to take steps towards clean air, and as we transition away from our reliance on fossil fuels - will result in additional warming and precipitation.  This is Hansen's "Faustian Bargain."

Effectively Communicating Climate Science

After the morning poster session, I attended two oral sessions Monday afternoon.  The first was called Effectively Communicating Climate Science.

The first presenter was Susan Hassol, who discussed study results showing that people are less likely to accept scientific evidence if it's presented in a pessimistic (i.e. we're headed towards catastrophic climate change) as opposed to an optimistic (i.e. we can achieve the necessary emissions cuts, and we've already taken some steps in the right direction) fashion.  While it's important to discuss the science and the threat it poses, people are more likely to accept that evidence and threat if they know there's something they can do about it. 

While climate change poses an urgent threat, it also poses an opportunity with major potential benefits (i.e. cleaner air, domestic security, energy independence, job creation, etc.).  If we present the issue as a challenge we need to rise to as opposed to a catastrophic path we're on, people are more likely to accept the scientific evidence.  This is a very important message, because it's very easy to focus on the dire consequences of business as usual (I know I often do), but this sort of message can actually prevent people from absorbing the scientific evidence if not also tempered with the fact that climate change is a solveable problem, and the solutions have a number of major benefits.  Overall Susan's presentation was excellent and very informative.

John Cook spoke second, and did SkS proud with a very good presentation.  He focused on the immensely-popular Debunking Handbook and how we can accidentally reinforce myths in peoples' minds if we don't watch out for the various backfire effects, such as The Overkill Backfire Effect (a.k.a. the less you say, the more the audience hears):


Read the handbook if you haven't already - it's a great succinct summary of how to effectively debunk any type of myth.

Ed Maibach of George Mason's Center for Climate Change Communication spoke third.  He discussed study and survey results finding that those Republicans who accept climate science do so for two main reasons - they realize that there is a scientific consensus, and they trust the scientific experts.  Unfortunately, a large fraction of Americans are unaware of the consensus - they believe climate scientists are divided on the issue.  Ed's main point was that the most effective form of communication involves simple, clear messages, repeated often by a variety of trusted sources.  Thus climate scientists need to become both trusted, and find ways to clearly and simply communicate basic climate science to the public (and to other various leaders who can communicate the science to the public).  Ed recommended that climate scientist  and other communicators to the public repeat five main points:

John Reisman was the final speaker on this panel.  He focused on the fact that Republicans tend to reject climate science because they oppose the solutions, so we need to make the point that mitigating climate change will have less impact on the economy than adaption

John Abraham spoke in the following session called Shapers of the Debate: What Happens to Science in the Hands of Stakeholders, and made many of the same points as the presenters in the previous sessionIn order to be effective communicators, climate scientists need to be trusted.  While advocating for climate solutions is important, climate scientists must distinguish between when they are speaking about science, and when they are advocating.  As Abraham put it, climate scientists must "wear two hats" and be very clear when they are wearing each, so that advocating for solutions does not detract from their scientific expertiseAbraham presented what he believes are the four key points to communicate to the public:

  • we know we're causing climate change, and have known for a long time
  • we can solve the problem with today's technologies
  • doing so will have many benefits (i.e. job creation, national security)
  • there is a cost in delaying action

Many of those who oppose climate solutions (and thus reject climate science) only look at the costs of action while ignoring the costs of inaction.  If we can convince them that climate solutions will have less impact than inaction (which is true), they will be more likely to accept climate science.

Skeptical Science Shindig

After these excellent and informative presentations, a number of us attended a gathering hosted by SkS's own Rob Honeycutt.  The attendees included:

The shindig was great fun and probably the highlight of my trip.  All attendees were great and brilliant people.  Another hour or two and we probably would have had all the world's problems solved.  Alas, the hour grew late and we had to call it a night.

For all who missed the conference, I highly recommend trying to attend next year.  I'll certainly try to do better than just one day myself.  It was very informative, interesting, and fun, and we will undoubtedly repeat the SkS shindig next year.

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Comments 1 to 20:

  1. Dana: I personally find it a tad disconcerting that the AGU Fall Meeting is being held att he same time as the COP17 meeting in Durban. Has this scheduling conflict been discussed?
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  2. Not that I'm aware of, John. But one is policy (Durban) while the other is science (AGU). Scientists wouldn't generally attend the former, and policymakers wouldn't generally attend the latter.
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  3. Te scientific community had better wake up and smell the roses then. It's not wise to let policymakers deal with climate issues on their own.
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  4. If you are not already aware, Monckton and his cronies dropped into Durban -- quite literally dropped in. See for yourself by going to "The Sky Is Falling! Climate Deniers Parachute Into COP17" posted today on DeSmog Blog. Click here to access.
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  5. Not really a surprise John. They don't have anything to present at AGU, and they're not interested in being forced to sit through proper science. Much easier to just pick out of context bits that you can spin later on...
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  6. MarkR: I would not expect policymakers to attend the AGU Annual Meeting for the reasons that you cited. I would, however, expect prominent climate scientists to attend COP17 in Durban.
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  7. I attended John's Tuesday morning panel. He did a great job, and the panel discussion with the audience was excellent.
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  8. AGU is the same week every year in San Francisco. 20,000 earth scientists. Tough to just re-schedule it so a few of them can go to Durban. Plus, I think they have all the science they need. The tough part is crafting any kind of solution that anyone--particularly the U.S.--will agree to.
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  9. I think the bigger scheduling error is holding the policy meetings every winter (Northern Hemisphere, that is). From a press coverage standpoint, that's a total disaster.
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  10. "If you are not already aware, Monckton and his cronies dropped into Durban -- quite literally dropped in." Yep, the cheap stunt was worth a comment on my own blog;
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  11. I have yet to see any articles in the national media about what transpired at the AGU. Have I missed some?
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  12. John H: Articles in national media about a geophysical conference? Not gonna happen. See this piece from an SF TV station, which is about the extent of 'coverage.'
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  13. “The latest research shows that climate talks must lead to more aggressive action to avoid the catastrophic effects of global warming.” Source: “Climate Negotiations Fail to Keep Pace with Science” by David Biello, Scientific American, Dec 7, 2011 To access this timely article, click here. PS – Tell me again why the world’s leading climate scientists should not be present en masse in Durban.
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  14. muoncounter: If climate change is the biggest challenge to ever face mankind, an organization like the AGU should have developed mechanisms to get its members' findings into the hands of the national and world press. The only way that governments will agree to take meaningful and timely action on climate change is if their citizens demand it. Citizens will not demand action until and unless they are convinced there is a clear and present danger. If the scientists, who are the experts on what's happening now and what's likely to happen in the future, do not communicate their knowledge base to the general public, who will?
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  15. John H: "an organization like the AGU should have developed mechanisms to get its members' findings into the hands of the national and world press." Agreed. But go to the AGU media webpage: A dozen or so 'press conferences;' do you expect there was much in the way of attendance beyond a few science writers? It would be nice to hear from an attendee if the press conferences actually attracted much attention. With the exception of NASA, big science in the US is not good at capturing media attention - until there is a disaster and everybody wants an instant analysis.
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  16. Muoncounter: Most of the media that cover climate change were in Durban, not San Francisco this year. News confernces are only one tool in the tool box.
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  17. John H: Doesn't that fact that there is such pitifully poor media coverage of climate change issues suggest that the 'tool box' has no actual tools? Perhaps your question is better addressed directly to the AGU's public affairs contacts.
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  18. John H@13 "Tell me again why the world’s leading climate scientists should not be present en masse in Durban." Because Durban's civic organisation couldn't handle the waste disposal problems of all those melted, fractured, exploded irony meters? But really, there are already >10,000 people there. Their job is to use the science to inform policy. Unfortunately, the policies in question excite all kinds of nationalistic, economic, short-sighted, selfish, ham-handed, ... any wrong headed notion or feeling you can name. And the negotiations move on, haltingly, from there. Not very far and not very fast. But we have to remember. Negotiations of this sort always take a long time and a lot of argy-bargy. The reason this is all so frustrating is that we didn't roll up our sleeves and get anything useful done before Rio, after Rio. We could have got moving then instead of accepting pious hopes as plans for action.
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  19. As documented below, at least one Argentine scientist is attending the climate talks in Durban with the objective of educating policy-makers. However, it’s still not a well-explored concept outside the scientific community. At the COP climate talks in Durban, for example, there is endless talk about atmospheric carbon and about how to control terrestrial carbon emissions through deforestation programs like REDD+. But there are still very few mentions of oceanic carbon. “Hopefully, by exposing the science to higher level decision makers, we will bridge a gap of communication for that necessary understanding” of the role that oceans play in climate change, said Alberto Piola, an oceanographer with the Naval Hydrographic Service in Argentina, speaking at a side event on Blue Carbon at COP 17 this week. The above two paragraphs are excerpted from "Blue Carbon: the role of the oceans in climate change" posted today on Climate Progress. To access this informative article, click here.
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  20. I'd like to suggest an SkS article about the COP17 negotiations as well. I hope there will be some positive news on that front, which is turning out to be a surprise for my low expectations.
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