How we broke the climate change debates. Lessons learned for the future.

Summary:  Climate science as an institution has become dysfunctional; large elements of the public no longer trust it. The politics of climate change are polarized and gridlocked. The weather will determine the evolution of US public policy. All we can do is learn what went wrong so we can do better next time, and wait to see the price we pay for our folly.

“The time for debate has ended”
— Marcia McNutt (editor-in-Chief of Science, next President of the NAS) in “The beyond-two-degree inferno“, editorial in Science, 3 July 2015.

Scientists tell the UN about the coming disaster in “When Worlds Collide” (1951)

Presenting at the UN. From "When Worlds Collide" (1951).

Contents

  1. Why doesn’t America lead the fight against climate change?
  2. How do scientists alert the world to a catastrophic threat?
  3. Case study: the pause.
  4. The most incompetently conducted media campaign ever?
  5. My personal experience.
  6. The broken climate debates.
  7. Other posts in this series.
  8. For More Information.

(1)  Why doesn’t America lead the fight against climate change?

Why does climate change rank at the bottom of most surveys of what Americans’ see as our greatest challenges? (CEOs, too.) Since James Hansen brought global warming to the headlines in his 1989 Senate testimony, activists for action on this issue have had almost every advantage. They have PR agencies (e.g., Hansen’s new paper, the expensive propaganda video by 10:10. They have all the relevant institutions supporting them, including NASA, NOAA, the news media, academia, lavish funding from foundations and charities, even funding from the energy companies (also here), They have support from the majority of scientists.

The other side, “skeptics”, have some funding from energy companies and conservative groups, with the heavy lifting being done by volunteer amateurs, plus a few scientists and meteorologists.

What the Soviet military called the correlation of forces overwhelmingly favored those wanting action. Public policy in America should have gone green many years ago. Why didn’t it?

(2)  How do scientists alert the world to a catastrophic threat?

“Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.”
— Harsh but operationally accurate Roman proverb.

We have seen this played out many times in books and films since the publication of When Worlds Collide in 1932 — A group of scientists see a threat. They go to America’s (or the world’s) leaders and state their case, presenting the data for others to examine and answering questions. They never say things like this…

“In response to a request for supporting data, Philip Jones, a prominent researcher {U of East Anglia} said ‘We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it?’”

– From the testimony of Stephen McIntyre before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce (the July 2006 hearings which produced the Wegman Report). Jones has not publicly denied it.

They don’t destroy key records, which are required to be kept and made public. They don’t force people to file Freedom of Information requests to get key information; the response to FOIs is never like this…

The {climategate} emails reveal repeated and systematic attempts by him and his colleagues to block FoI requests from climate sceptics who wanted access to emails, documents and data. These moves were not only contrary to the spirit of scientific openness, but according to the government body that administers the FOI act were “not dealt with as they should have been under the legislation”.  {The Guardian}

The burden of proof rests on those warning the world about a danger requiring trillions of dollars to mitigate, and perhaps drastic revisions to — or even abandoning — capitalism (as in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate and “In Fiery Speeches, Francis Excoriates Global Capitalism“).

Steve McIntyre has documented the defensive and self-defeating efforts of climate scientists to keep vital information secret, often violating the disclosure policies of journals, universities, and government funding agencies. To many laypeople these actions by scientists scream “something wrong”. It’s not how people act when they have a strong case, especially with such high stakes.

Earth Burning

(3)  Case study: the pause

Starting in 2006 climate scientists began to notice a slowing in the rate of atmospheric warming. By 2009 there were peer-reviewed papers about it (e.g., in GRL), and the pace of publications accelerated (see links to these 29 papers). In 2013 the UK Met Office published a major paper about the pause, which shifted the frontier of climate science from the existence of the pause to its causes (see links to these 38 papers). In the past few years scientists have forecast the duration of the pause (see links to 17 forecasts).

During this activists wrote scores, probably hundreds, of articles not only denying that there was a pause in warming — but mocking as “deniers” people citing the literature. The leaders of climate science remained silent, even those writing papers about the pause. While an impressive display of message discipline, it blasted away the credibility of climate science for those who saw the science behind the curtain of propaganda.

Eventually the tension grew so great that public mention of the discrepancy became acceptable, such as this mild note in Nature Climate Change (August 2014)…

“Climate science draws on evidence over hundreds of years, way outside of our everyday experience. During the press conference, scientists attempted to supplement this rather abstract knowledge by emphasising a short-term example: that the decade from 2001 onwards was the warmest that had ever been seen. On the surface, this appeared a reasonable communications strategy. Unfortunately, a switch to shorter periods of time made it harder to dismiss media questions about short-term uncertainties in climate science, such as the so-called ‘pause’ in the rate of increase in global mean surface temperature since the late 1990s.

“The fact that scientists go on to dismiss the journalists’ concerns about the pause – when they themselves drew upon a similar short-term example – made their position inconsistent and led to confusion within the press conference.”

Referring to the “so called pause” is typical message discipline, use of scare quote despite the scores of papers using the term. Another example of message discipline is the successful effort to conceal from the public that most forms of extreme weather have not increased during the past decade (data here, and here).

Know your place

(4)  The most incompetently conducted media campaign ever?

“Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.”
— True when journalist Charles Dudley Warner said it in 1884. Still true today.

A kerfuffle occurred over claims that 2014 was the “warmest year” on record, with harsh denouncing of people pointing to substantial qualifications of that claim in the NOAA and NASA presentations (“it was more unlikely than likely”). Equally successful was the massive media campaign that convinced the public that California’s drought results from anthropogenic climate change, despite numerous studies showing that it is a minor factor. These are two in a long list of information operations by climate activists (see section 7 here).

The goal is always the same: keep the message simple, crush dissent (no matter how well founded). These propaganda successes required the complicit silence or active participation of scientists. This does not mean that the climate change threat is a Potemkin Village. It means that many climate scientists behave as if it is one. Hence the public policy gridlock.

Now many climate scientists and activists are doubling down on these failed tactics. Stronger denunciation of critics. More extreme headlines such as “The beyond-two-degree inferno“ in Science and “Halfway to Hell” in New Scientist. I doubt these change any minds.

Difficult Chess Decision

(5)  My personal experience

I first wrote about climate change 7 years ago, and have written 305 posts since. Most defended the IPCC against Left and Right (see my recommendations here). I found the climate a subject of interest as an important public policy issue and a test of our ability to see and respond to severe but long-term challenges.

In my 35 years in finance I’ve often relied on scientists for advice (in both the physical and social sciences), and developed methods for successfully engaging with them. These failed with most climate scientists. First, they were more reluctant to engage than in any other field I’ve worked with — including those doing secret work in defense and biotech.

Second, and more important, their responses were unlike anything I’ve seen before. A few responded in typical fashion. For example, I ask Roger Pielke Sr. a question and receive a full package of citations — which he’ll explain in detail, if asked. It’s the usual practice of scientists.

But in climate science a more common response is a probe to determine my tribe — us or them? Oddly, either way I often get snark (friendly or hostile, depending upon the how they ID my tribal identity). Probing, however careful, meets with hostility (classification as “foe”). The conversations often quickly became strange, as in the following examples. I could cite dozens more, many longer and odder.

(a)  Climate scientist Bart Verheggen said my finding of a 47% consensus in his paper results from “creative accounting”. He suggested that I consult his paper (from which I extensively quoted). I asked for an explanation. No answer from Bart; vituperation from others. This is the most common pattern of conversation.

Twitter Conversation 2

(b)  We discussed follow-up research to the PBL survey about the consensus in climate science. I suggested adding expertise in social science surveys or public opinion polling to the team. Bart pointed to a co-author of the PBL survey. I showed that he does not have those skills. No reply from Bart. There’s Physics said my comment is “condescending”, and refers to a comment at Skeptical Science about the larger issues about the PBL survey. I ask why it’s condescending. No reply.

Twitter exchange about expertise

 

Trust

(6)  The broken climate debates

“The time for debate has ended”
— Marcia McNutt (editor-in-Chief of Science, next President of the NAS) in “The beyond-two-degree inferno“, editorial in Science, 3 July 2015.

I agree with McNutt: the public policy debate has ended. Climate science as an institution is broken, the larger science community applauds its dysfunctionality, and a critical mass of the US public has lost confidence in it. As a result, the US will take no substantial steps to prepare for possible future climate change, not even preparing for re-occurrence of past extreme weather.

The weather will determine how policy evolves. All that remains is to discuss the lessons we can learn from this debacle so that we can do better in the future.

(7)  Other posts in this series

These posts sum up my 330 posts about climate change.

  1. This post: How we broke the climate change debates. Lessons learned for the future.
  2. A new response to climate change that can help the GOP win in 2016.
  3. How climate scientists can re-start the public policy debate about climate change.
  4. A story of the climate change debate. How it ran; why it failed.
  5. The 5 stages of grief for the failure of the climate change campaign.
  6. The climate change crisis, as seen from 2100 AD.

(8)  For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see The keys to understanding climate change and My posts about climate change. Especially see these…

To help you better understand today’s extreme weather

To learn more about the state of climate change see The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change by Roger Pielke Jr. (Prof of Environmental Studies at U of CO-Boulder, and Director of their Center for Science and Technology Policy Research).

The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change
Available at Amazon.

92 thoughts on “How we broke the climate change debates. Lessons learned for the future.”

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  11. The climate change media campaign has only been bad if you assume that the alarmist position has merit. If you assume that it is a pack of lies then it has been immensely successful.

    A particular point to notice is that in politics strength of view matters more than numbers. If 5% are single issue fanatics and 95% disagree on that issue but regard it as unimportant, then the 5% get their way. This is because the 5% will vote for politicians agreeing with them but the 95% will not vote against them for that reason. This is exactly what has happened for alternative energy, a small minority vote for the politicians who support it, almost without regard for their other policies, and the vast majority do not allocate their vote on the issue. So alternative energy happens.

    Granted absence of proof is not proof of absence, however; the alarmist have successfully controlled huge quantities of taxpayers’ money without providing verifiable evidence that it is necessary. I call that a huge win for them.

    On an unrelated issue, you say “not even preparing for re-occurrence of past extreme weather.”

    This is an issue when the man made climate change believers have damaged our preparations; in many cases past extreme weather is not preprepared for because it is being claimed it will never happen again. Oroville Dam is a classic case of this: The engineers who built it knew that heavy rains had occurred in the past and so built spillways to deal with them, the people overseeing the dam did not maintain the spillway because they had been told that California was in permanent drought.

    If we accept that extreme weather will continue to occur and put money into preparing for it, that is likely to be much more successful than spending money cutting CO2 in the belief that it will prevent extreme weather.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor

      Biip,

      “The engineers who built it knew that heavy rains had occurred in the past and so built spillways to deal with them, the people overseeing the dam did not maintain the spillway because they had been told that California was in permanent drought.”

      I would like to see some evidence of that. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and so followed that story a bit. From what I read, the Dam’s weakness — both the inadequate emergency spillway and weak maintenance — were just California’s typically inadequate infrastructure funding. The State’s finances are a mess, like those of so many states in America.

      “that is likely to be much more successful than spending money cutting CO2 in the belief that it will prevent extreme weather.”

      That’s pretty binary. Lots can be done with relatively low cost to increase energy efficiency and support a sensible shift to low-carbon energy mix. That has been US policy for decades, and has been quite successful. For ideological reasons neither Left or Right want to acknowledge this.

    2. Larry

      Thank you for the response.

      I concede that my knowledge on the Oroville Dam is limited, and I am possibly assuming too much rationality by the authorities. The only reason a rational person would not prepare for past climate disasters is a belief that they will not reoccur in the foreseeable future. California had been through several years of drought, with resulting low water levels at the dam, and the authorities had made public statements that the drought was permanent due to climate change.

      You are being too binary in assuming that I am opposed to anything that reduces man made CO2. Genuine energy efficiency saves money, at least in the long term, and so I am happy for it to happen regardless of any climate change effect. My objection is to accepting inefficient solutions, i.e. spending money, in attempts to prevent climate change.

      I am aware that the USA, and others, have reduced CO2 emissions; however, the big reductions have been done for commercial reasons with CO2 reduction as an accidental bi-product.

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor

        BillP,

        “The only reason a rational person would not prepare for past climate disasters is a belief that they will not reoccur in the foreseeable future.”

        That’s clearly a false explanation, unless you assume almost everybody is irrational (which is, I guess, possible). Look at “Superstorm” Sandy. Storms of that magnitude hit the upper Northeast (from NJ north) several times in the 20th century, yet NYC was utterly unprepared for it. I doubt anyone — esp experts — believed such storms would not repeat. My guess is that nobody thought about it.

        NYC has thousands of educated people discussing future climate change. Obviously they didn’t bother thinking about the present climate. That’s why I say the debate was dysfuncational — a sadly common thing in history.

        (2) “You are being too binary in assuming that I am opposed to anything that reduces man made CO2. ”

        I said nothing like that. I described your statement: “That’s pretty binary.” Which it was. It would be wonderful if people replied to quotes, as I do.

    3. Larry

      “That’s clearly a false explanation, unless you assume almost everybody is irrational (which is, I guess, possible). Look at “Superstorm” Sandy. Storms of that magnitude hit the upper Northeast (from NJ north) several times in the 20th century, yet NYC was utterly unprepared for it.”

      There is a cost effectiveness issue; this is most obvious with snow:
      – Places where it snows infrequently can be brought to a halt by light snow because it is not worth investing in lots of equipment that will only be used one or 2 days a year.
      – Places where snow is heavy for months have extensive snow clearing equipment.

      I would not say the “NYC was utterly unprepared” although some preparations did not work correctly, e.g. plugging tunnel entrances to prevent them flooding. I doubt that you can ever prepare for something as destructive as Sandy so well that it has no effect; however, my example of maintaining a spillway is clearly a worthwhile investment, unless you are sure you will never need it again.

      (2) “I said nothing like that. I described your statement: “That’s pretty binary.” Which it was.”

      Yes my position is binary: costs money = bad, saves money = good. Before you criticise the fixation on money, I see it as a good measure of resource consumption.

      But that was not all you said, you went on “Lots can be done with relatively low cost to increase energy efficiency and support a sensible shift to low-carbon energy mix.” which I took as implying you thought I was against them. In fact I am in favour of energy efficiency and everybody is in favour of “sensible” policies we just have different ideas of what is “sensible.”

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor

        BillP,

        I can’t make heads or tails of your comment.

        “There is a cost effectiveness issue; this is most obvious with snow:”

        How is that relevant to this discussion? We’re talking about levels of preparedness far below any rational level of cost-effectiveness. Worrying about over-preparedness seems odd.

        “I would not say the “NYC was utterly unprepared”

        NYC officials said that they had little or no plans or preparations for this event.

        “e.g. plugging tunnel entrances to prevent them flooding”

        By “preparations” I mean measures taken before the event appears. Planning. Attempts to plug the tunnels were ad hoc emergency measures.

        “Before you criticise the fixation on money, I see it as a good measure of resource consumption.”

        That’s nuts. You keep misrepresenting what I am saying. I’m done here.

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