Judith Curry, one of climate science's most vocal critics, is leaving academe because of what she calls the poisonous nature of the scientific discussion around human-caused global warming.
Curry, 63, is retiring from her tenured position as a professor at the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She's instead going to focus on growing her private business, Climate Forecast Applications Network, which provides insights into climate and weather risks for agriculture and energy companies.
The climatologist, who distinguished herself in the field decades ago with research into the Arctic and the causes of the climate feedback that have shaped the region, writes a blog called Climate Etc. It is by turns academic and inflammatory.
There she occasionally mocks what she calls "climate alarmists" who say time is almost out unless humanity weans itself off fossil fuels. In her blog and on Twitter, she has also criticized some of the scientists, including Pennsylvania State University climatologist Michael Mann and Harvard University climate historian Naomi Oreskes, who have become leading voices for climate action. She has testified in front of Congress, boosted by politicians who use her work to argue that environmental regulations and a scaling down of fossil fuel use will be ineffective. Her work is frequently invoked by climate skeptics and denialists. Congressional Democrats, displeased with her conclusions, have investigated the source of her funding.
Curry actually believes, along with the vast majority of climate scientists, that humans are warming the planet, and was even an outspoken advocate of the issue during the George W. Bush years. She was among the first to connect global warming to hurricanes, for example, publishing an influential study in Science in 2006. But where she breaks with the majority opinion is over just how much humans are actually causing global temperatures to rise.
Where many scientists say that humans are the primary cause of warming, Curry believes natural forces play a larger role. She also believes that uncertainty around climate models means we don't have to act so quickly and that current plans would do little to mitigate warming. She also questions the assertion made by a majority of climate scientists who believe humans have significantly contributed to climate change. In the Obama years, she has become a contrarian of sorts, often criticizing those who rely on climate models to prove that humans are warming the planet at an unprecedented rate.
In announcing her retirement, Curry wrote about what she called her "growing disenchantment with universities, the academic field of climate science and scientists." She said a deciding factor for leaving the ivory tower was that "I no longer know what to say to students and postdocs regarding how to navigate the CRAZINESS in the field of climate science," adding that research and funding for it are highly politicized.
In an interview with E&E News, Curry said she would like to see a greater focus on the uncertainties of climate science and a better exploration of them through scientific debate free of politics.
"Once you understand the scientific uncertainties, the present policy path that we're on doesn't make a lot of sense," she said. "We need to open up policy dialogue to a bigger solution space. So I'm just looking to open up the dialogue and to provoke people into thinking."
Curry, in general, believes that the policies undertaken by the Obama administration won't do much to reduce global warming levels. That has made her the target of scientists who accuse her of aiding the climate denialists who oppose the environmental regulations of the last eight years and are eager to dismantle them under President-elect Donald Trump. Curry is not convinced that Trump will damage the climate science field, which she said has gone in the wrong direction under Obama.
"Once we get over this little bump of activism, if the Trump administration will put us on a slightly reassuring and saner footing, that will allow all this to die down," she said. "We can always hope."
Curry's departure from academe will weaken the field of climate science, which needs people to ask hard questions that differ from the mainstream, said Roger Pielke Jr., a professor at the University of Colorado who previously worked with Curry and recently switched fields from climate science to sports governance after facing intense pressure of his own. Curry has consistently been willing to stick out her neck to ask questions that other scientists avoid for reasons of political expediency, he said. Purposely choosing a "different song sheet to sing off of" has earned her an unfair level of criticism, Pielke said.
"If you only look at her academic career, absent the glossy overlay of the climate debate, you would say this is a pretty distinguished academic who had a pretty successful career," he said. "The facts that she was excoriated by her peers, smeared and so on just illustrates having a tenured position isn't a guarantee of academic freedom."
Certainly, neither Curry nor Pielke has sat on the sidelines during the wars over climate science. Both have been accused of aggressively attacking those who critique their work. In an interview, Curry accused Mann and Oreskes of inciting what she says is a vocal minority of scientists who pressure anyone with a conclusion that breaks from the notion that extreme action is needed now to mitigate the worst consequences of human-caused global warming.
For his part, Mann said climate science would be stronger without Curry. He said she routinely engaged in character attack, "confusionism and denialism" and eroded scientific discussion.
"She has played a particularly pernicious role in the climate change denial campaign, laundering standard denier talking points but appearing to grant them greater authority courtesy of the academic positions she has held and the meager but nonetheless legitimate scientific work that she has published in the past," he said. "Much of what I have seen from her in recent years is boilerplate climate change denial drivel."
Curry has no plans to simply shrug off the fight, after publishing 186 articles and two books, and she intends to use her blog as a place to advise young scientists trying to navigate the field. She said she is looking forward to life after academe by taking her skill set into the real world, and using climate modeling to better prepare companies as well as developing nations. In her final media interview as an academic, Curry touched on where climate science is now headed and what she feels it needs to thrive in the future.
Where is the academic discussion of climate science at this current point? Is it just so polarized that we're never going to come back from it?
The point is, and I don't know how big it is, is what I would call the nerdy middle. These are the people who focus on one little piece of the puzzle and they just focus on their own research and they feel vaguely uneasy about all this noise and all this stuff going on and they stay out of the public debate and they acknowledge as a scientist, "I really can't say anything about this because my research is just one little narrow piece and I haven't taken the time to critically evaluate some of the big issues that are out there in the public arena."
I don't know how big that pool of scientists is, but I think it's pretty big. As it becomes more polarized, we need to protect the nerdy middle, just let them get on with their work. So I'm worried that what I would call the activism, especially on the alarm side, is growing. The people on the other side tend to be the more hardcore scientists anyways who are just sticking to the science and they see how people like me are treated, so they are not going to go there.
What does climate science need in the coming decades to get to where you want to see it?
We've lost a generation of climate dynamicists. These are the people who develop theories and dig into data on the system and really try to find out how the system works. We've ceded all that to climate models, and the climate models are nowhere near good enough. The climate models were designed to test sensitivity to CO2. They don't even do a very good job at that, all the issues related to the sun/climate connections, decadal to millennial scale, circulation and oscillation in the ocean and the deep carbon cycle in the ocean. Some of these things we fundamentally don't know enough about. We need a new infusion from math and physics into our field to shore up the dwindling climate dynamics.
This is what worries me. You just need to cut the funding 80 to 90 percent, everybody go away and then start over with a new generation of math and physicists. I don't think it's that bad, but it is pretty bad. It's the older generation that tends to more skeptical. They come from the old school of climate dynamics and the real fundamental fluid dynamics. It's really hard mathematically; if you're going to major in atmospheric science or climate science, there are lots easier paths to take than that hardcore fluid dynamics path. So we're breeding a generation of climate scientists who analyze climate model outputs who come up with sexy conclusions and get published in Nature like, 'We won't be able to grow grapes for wine in California in 2100.' That kind of stuff, it gets headlines, it gets grants. It feeds our reputation. It's cheap, easy science. It's fundamentally not useful because it rests on inadequate climate models, especially when you're trying to look at regional climate change. I call that climate model taxonomy. This is where the field is going; we've lost a generation of climate dynamists, and that's what worries me greatly.
In the next few years, four to eight or even longer, what do you want to see in the field of climate science; what are you hoping happens? You do believe humans are changing the climate, correct?
Yes, but how much they're changing the climate, we don't know. Yes, they do contribute to climate change; very few people would question that. The question is, how much relatively to natural variability? Because we don't understand natural variability that well, we don't have a convincing answer for that. Better understanding of natural variability, particularly show our climate connections, but even how volcanoes both above ground and underwater influence the climate, particularly the long-term ocean oscillations and how the chaotic ocean interacts with chaotic atmosphere. That's reasonably complex, and we don't understand that.
We need to go back to basics to get the fundamental interactions between the ocean and atmosphere correct, because this, to me, is what's driving the whole thing. In climate modeling, all the eggs were put in one basket, and we've gotten as far as we're going to get along that particular path. We need to start over with a new path for climate modeling.
Do you feel people are simplifying your work to justify inaction, or to use it to attack people they don't agree with politically? I saw Larry the Cable Guy refer to you the other day on Twitter in a conversation with a New York Times climate reporter. It was him saying, "We don't know what's happening, so what are we going to do about it?"
That's not an inappropriate use of my work. We don't really understand what's happening, and it's a wicked problem. The one thing we know is that the commitments we've made, in Paris, will probably prevent about two-tenths of a degree of warming by the end of the 21st century. What is the point of that? You have to fundamentally ask, are we facing risks in the 21st century, and if they're really bad risks, what you're proposing isn't going to help, so now what?
Nobody's asking the now what to reduce vulnerability to extreme weather events and to rising sea level, trying to address those problems in ways that don't rely on humans actually changing the climate, because it doesn't seem like that is going to work at least on the time scales of the 21st century, and this is even if you don't believe the climate models. We need to rethink this problem. I'm intensely interested in trying to help developing and undeveloped countries deal with their climate vulnerabilities, but throwing money at their leaders with massive levels of corruption and where the money gets distributed to friends and relatives and never accomplishes anything. We've seen that over and over again in some of these countries.
My way of looking at it is that the evidence that we do have leads me to think that things are not as bad as what they're predicting. However, if they are right — and they could be, I acknowledge that — if they are right, the policies we've put into place are woefully inadequate. I can hope that the more pragmatic people that Trump is appointing will come up with more pragmatic ways of dealing with the vulnerabilities that we do have to climate change, whether it's caused by humans or it's caused naturally, and how we should deal with the potential risk of a lot of warming from humans.