The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the climate debate keeps us from just letting science be science

(Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images)

This is the latest installment in a weekly column on energy and the environment — “Planetary.” This column will try to draw together major trends in this sphere and provide analysis and perspective that extend beyond our daily reporting. We welcome ideas from readers about major topics I should write about — click on my byline to email me, or tweet @chriscmooney.

Recently , the climate world received stunning news. Top National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists published adjustments to their temperature dataset that, in effect, took away what has long been the number one doubter argument the notion that global warming has “paused” or slowed down over the past 15 years or so.

It’s hard to overstate just how big a deal the “pause” argument was to those who continue to challenge mounting science on the human role in global warming. It even made its way to politicians like Ted Cruz, who has argued that global warming in effect stopped back in 1998.

But the “pause” wasn’t just touted by doubters  it was repeatedly studied, in paper after published paper, by scientists themselves, who were seeking to explain what seemed to be a major mystery: why temperatures weren’t rising as fast as expected. And “pause” or not, these studies threw off large volumes of new knowledge, including about a variety of natural factors that can slow the rate of warming, such as changes in the Pacific ocean and volcanic eruptions.

All of which underscores a recurrently thorny area in the climate debate: Issues characterized by real and deep scientific uncertainty. On the one hand, scientists are thrilled to publish papers about such topics, in areas where there’s true doubt as to what’s actually happening. That’s where reputations are made. It’s also where research is most intellectually interesting and challenging.

But on the other hand and as a recent paper on the exaggeration of the “pause” by University of Bristol psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky, Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes and a team of other scholars notes skeptics and doubters often use uncertainty very differently. They seized on scientific statements about the “pause” and took them to mean something they really didn’t. For instance, even if there really had been a “pause,” it would never have meant that we shouldn’t worry about global warming only that its rate was proceeding a little slower than anticipated, over a relatively short period of time.

Just consider how a major scientific body the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  treated the “pause,” compared with how a major politician (Ted Cruz) did. The IPCC noted in 2013 that while temperatures over the last 15 years had indeed risen more slowly, “Due to natural variability, trends based on short records are very sensitive to the beginning and end dates and do not in general reflect long-term climate trends.”

By contrast, Cruz remarked that “many of the alarmists on global warming, they’ve got a problem cause the science doesn’t back them up. And in particular, satellite data demonstrate for the last 17 years, there’s been zero warming. None whatsoever.”

Lewandowsky and Oreskes and their colleagues even suggest that scientists have been in a sense empowering skeptics through their publications on the “pause.” Their paper argues that some studies of it actually represented a “seepage” of skeptic argument into the mainstream scientific literature, as scientists were subtly swayed by a broader public discourse that featured widely blazoned skeptical claims.

I think that’s probably true, but I also think many scientists are lured in by uncertainty in another way —  through simple fascination. They are, to put it bluntly, thrilled when exploring the unknown. And they want their research to be unique and insightful — which means taking on the biggest, most prominent challenges.

In any event, the era of the “pause” — not just its temperatures but its media visibility — may now be ending. A new temperature record was set in 2014, and 2015 has started out even warmer — and many scientists suspect that strong El Nino conditions could drive it to a new record.

But never fear: Another case of politicized scientific uncertainty is rapidly emerging in the climate debate.

While it drew nothing like the attention that the “pause” story did, the National Snow and Ice Data Center recently  reported that, yet again, the sea ice surrounding Antarctica set a record — its May 2015 extent was greater than any other May since 1979, when records began. We’re not in the season yet when this ice peaks, but we may see a new all-time high here as well when September rolls around (last September is the current record).

This oddity in the climate system — expanding sea ice at the South Pole on a warming planet — is something scientists are still struggling to fully explain. And more and more in recent years, skeptics have been seizing on it, and often blowing it out of proportion.

After all, growing Antarctic sea ice is no reason not to worry about polar regions. Arctic sea ice is plummeting. Greenland is losing enough ice annually to contribute a millimeter per year to global sea level. And Antarctica, according to a recent estimate, is contributing roughly another third of a millimeter per year through the loss of land-based ice. In sum, Antarctic sea ice is running in the opposite direction from three other major indicators.

Furthermore, Antarctica is, well, complicated. Gigantic East Antarctica has seen no trend of rising temperatures, although West Antarctica and the Antarctic peninsula have. Meanwhile, warm water traveling from other parts of the world is lapping at the base of Antarctic ice sheets and melting them — throwing huge volumes of fresh water into the ocean. Finally, there are changes to atmospheric circulation patterns in the region that may be tied to global warming. In sum, it’s an intriguing scientific puzzle in a remote, dangerous, and frankly sublime place — precisely what attracts scientists to studying it.

That’s why it’s so sad that we’re once again barreling into an area where there is considerable scientific uncertainty, and debating it in a political way.

If this keeps happening, it’s because so many people still have their political identities implicated in the climate issue. They need to argue about it. So they seize on anything they can, even esoterica like Antarctic sea ice.

Someday, to be sure, this pattern will cease — just as soon as the issue is resolved on a political level and there’s less motivation to argue over it. At that point, scientists will be able to pursue their curiosity with considerably fewer pitfalls. They’ll be able to go back to being just scientists again. (And I know some of them will relish it.)

But in the meantime, we should all contemplate why we can’t just take a deep breath and let mysteries be mysteries — even as the people actually capable of sorting them out, the researchers, get to work.

Also in Energy & Environment:

Why green spaces are good for your kid’s brain

The world is off course to prevent 2 degrees C of warming, says energy agency

Want to fix the world? Start by making clean energy a default setting

For more, you can sign up for our weekly newsletter here, and follow us on Twitter here.