Rocket City: John Christy Keynote

By Nora Parker

Dr. John Christy of the University of Alabama-Huntsville, and the Alabama State Climatologist, gave the keynote presentation this morning at the Rocket City Geospatial Conference in Huntsville. Dr. Christy received (along with the other scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore) a Nobel Peace Prize last week.

Dr. Christy is a terrific and engaging speaker, but his presentation left me confused. I was hoping to gain clarity on a difficult and complex subject but did not. He started out by quoting Lord Kelvin's famous statement that "all science is numbers" and if you just stick to these numbers you'll learn the truth. His presentation focused on providing data (numbers) that refute what other scientists, also presenting data (numbers), have said on the topic. Why the difference? According to Dr. Christy, it has to do with what data (numbers) you put in to your models. For example, daytime temperatures and upper air temperatures represent a better proxy for what's really happening with climate. Most modeling activity is using an average of day and night temperatures. If you use those better proxies, you find that other scientists' findings are providing inaccurate numbers.

Here are some of the other statements Dr. Christy made during his presentation.

- Alabama's getting colder, not warmer, and it's precipitation is increasing.
- The Antarctic ice cap is thickening.
- Worldwide, the number of tornadoes is declining, the number of hurricanes is about the same and there are now fewer droughts and those are shorter.
- We have people demonizing energy, but without energy, life is brutal and short.
- A more rational approach to climate change is to adapt to what's happening, instead of trying to change what's happening.
- There is very little we can do to change trends in global climate change.

In response to a question from the audience about what he made of Al Gore as a member of recipient team for the Nobel Peace Prize he responded: "I found it so annoying that somebody speaks with such certainty about something that is not understandable, and without any results to show. It's [the prize going to Gore] designed to affect next year's election outcome." That was really confusing, because I thought Christy spent the previous 45 minutes being pretty certain about something that he felt was abundantly understandable, and he showed lots of results of models he'd run. Ouch, now my brain is starting to hurt.

I've gained no more clarity than I had before the presentation. I figured I better check in with other people who heard Dr. Christy's presentation. We have a lot of bright people here at the conference and so I took an informal poll of 10 of them after the presentation. Eight thought he was just terrific and didn't elaborate further - my sense is that they were members of the choir to which he was preaching. The ninth person said she thought he was a wonderful speaker but she totally disagreed with everything he said and was disappointed that he obviously had an ax to grind and had used our conference to grind it. Person Number 10 in my poll said that we need to be smart about what we do in our own lives, and he cited the mitigation and cleanup efforts at Huntsville's neighbor, the Redstone Arsenal, as an example that we need to be cautious of scientists with numbers running amok. He also brought up DDT, saying he imagines there were scientists with lots of numbers back in those days telling people that "without DDT, our lives will be brutal and short." I suppose we can only say that time will tell.

Published Thursday, October 18th, 2007

Written by Nora Parker

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