Summary: The advocates for a massive public policy response to climate change have overwhelming political power, far greater than that of conservatives and skeptics opposing them. Temporary factors have prevented their victory, but weather or politics could change the situation quickly and soon. The illusion of winning keeps skeptics disorganized and ineffective. Skeptics have the ability to influence the debate now, and should use it while they have it.
Who is winning? That determines your strategy.
The histories of politics and war have many sad examples of people believing that their side had won — before a shattering defeat. In June 1863 many in the Confederacy believed they were winning the war; then came their defeats at Vicksburg and Gettysburg. In May 1942 the Japanese believed they were winning WWII; then came Midway. In 1952 the French believed they were winning the Vietnam War; then came Dien Bien Phu. In 1967 Americans believed they were winning; then came the Tet Offensive (a devastating 4GW attack against US morale at home). In all these cases events revealed that the “correlation of forces” was against them.
False belief in a superior position leads to sloppy planning, weak organization, and failure to aggressively seek allies. It turns a weak position into a losing one. As it has done with the skeptics in the debate over America’s public policy response to climate change. The skeptics have almost every imaginable positional weakness, yet most believe they are winning.
The world’s major institutions of all kinds oppose them, seeking policy action. Almost every science institution. Major governments, as seen in their dedicated websites: Canada, Australia, the European Union, and the United States (the EPA, NASA, DoE, and many more Federal, State, and local units). The major international agencies, such as the UN (and its many agencies) and the World Bank. The major news media, such as the New York Times and The Guardian — and alternative media (e.g., Take Part. A large fraction of the West’s non-governmental organizations push for climate policy actions such as environmentalists (e.g., the WWF, the EDF, and Greenpeace) and science-related institutions (e.g., science museums, such as the American Museum of National History). Many of the world’s churches, such as Roman Catholic Church.
It’s an endless list, source of the massive flow of funds advocating climate policy action.
Relative to this the skeptics have a trickle of funding from conservative think tanks and foundations plus corporations (who tend to financially support both sides, as they do both parties, although unequally). The skeptics’ websites look (and are) amateurish, supported by advertising and donations — unlike those of activists (glossy, well-staffed, often professionally written). They’re astonishingly effective (especially Anthony Watts’) despite the lack of funding, but they reach only the tiny sliver of the public closely following this issue.
Where have the vast sums gone supposedly funding the skeptics movement? The most visible evidence (and perhaps the best use of the funds) are the Climate Depot website (daily links) and conferences to plan and coordinate their work (e.g., those by the Heartland Institute).
Why has the US taken so little action to fight climate change?
The obvious answer: because there is little public support for such intrusive and costly programs. While a slim majority of the public says they “worry” about climate change — polls show that they consistently rank it near or at the bottom of their policy concerns (also see this asking about “concerns about national problems”, and this asking about the “most important problem”).
Many factors have contributed to this failure in one of the most intensive and longest (28 years, dating from James Hansen’s famous Senate testimony) political campaigns in modern America. Americans are properly skeptical, having been consistently lied to about major policy issues (see these about foreign affairs). Our confidence in America’s institutions has been falling for 40 years. The Republicans have controlled some combination of the Presidency and one or both houses of Congress. The public policy campaign has been conducted incompetently, marked by exaggerations and misrepresentations beyond that supported by science (e.g., using RCP 8.5 to predict nightmares). — allied with doomsters who have a near-perfect record of being wrong.
Probably the most important factor: the weather has supported the skeptics during the past decade. The rate of warming has slowed since roughly 1998. Also, most kinds of extreme weather have diminished in frequency or intensity — or both (see the IPCC’s AR5, this by Prof Botkin, and testimony to Congress).
Public opinion can change quickly
The big battalions pushing for policy action have a slow but relentless effect, as shown in the latest Gallup poll (following a record warm wet winter in the US). The somewhat contradictory data shows a confused public, with the skeptics’ support slowly eroding. The key third graph suggests that it might be eroding fast. The climate policy debate might not remain deadlocked forever.
What might decisively change public opinion?
Skeptics fail to understand the first rule of insurgency: defenders of the status quo need to win every day while insurgents only need win once. Public policy measures are difficult to enact but are also difficult to reverse. What might defeat the skeptics?
First, we might get one or more major extreme weather events (not just a fraction of a degree rise over several years in the global average temperature). For example, a few large hurricanes hitting cities on the US East Coast, or East Asia — of course attributed to CO2 (whether scientists’ analysis eventually concurs is politically irrelevant). It could stampede public opinion into supporting new laws and regulations.
A second scenario of a decisive political change is a realignment election in the US that put the Democrats in power. This could happen in November, with major public policy action on climate change following in 2017.
What skeptics could do while they still have strength
Skeptics should use their political strength while they still have it. The 2016 campaign provides an opportunity that might not come again.
Their political supporters have only weak answers when asked about climate change. They give half-understood technobabble (any technical reply is babble to the general public), mumble about a conspiracy of scientists, and wave the uncertainty flag. Senator Inhofe tossed a snowball on the Senate floor to show that the Earth is not warming. These are pitifully weak rebuttals to the well-polished arguments of those advocating climate change.
There are clear, powerful answers that skeptics could give their political allies. For example, they could advocate for a fair test of the climate models (models are the basis for the predictions of climate catastrophe). This would force their opponents to explain to the public why the models should not be tested. Here is a description of such a test; this explains why it is needed under the norms of science and by the words of major scientists.
Or they can continue on their present course, and probably lose.
Effects of skeptics’ defeat after bouts of extreme weather
Political defeat following an election might change little for the skeptics. Defeat following weather-related disasters — billions in damages, perhaps deaths — might change skeptics’ lives for the worse. The insults and demonization from their foes that they experience today are like Spring rains compared to the thunderstorms of massive public blame and condemnation.
The damage might extend to conservatives and the Republican Party. That possibility is worth avoiding. For more about consequences see Imagine the horrific fate of the losers after the climate policy debate ends.
Who is right about the public policy response to climate change?
It’s an irrelevant question when forecasting near-term political events. We have no way to answer that now, and my experience suggests that both sides in the policy war are confident and intransigent — and so uninterested in research to answer it. It will become an important question for future generations of historians and political scientists.
This question will only become politically important if we force it into the debate. Congress can require NOAA or the NSF to test the models with independent oversight (i.e., a neutral multi-disciplinary team of experts). The results would tell us much.
Or we can wait for the weather or politics to decide the policy debate.
This is my 350th post about climate, ending this long series (as usual) with a prediction and recommendation. This post goes on my Forecasts page, and will eventually move to the list of hits or list of misses. My success rate is quite high, and I am confident this will add to that list.
My thanks to those who reposted these articles, especially Anthony Watts and Professor Judith Curry, and to the many climate scientists who generously assisted me — especially Professor Roger Pielke Sr.
Other posts about the climate policy debate
This post is a summary of the information and conclusions from these posts, which discuss these matters in greater detail.
- How we broke the climate change debates. Lessons learned for the future.
- My proposal: Climate scientists can restart the climate change debate – & win.
- We can end the climate policy wars: demand a test of the models.
- There will be little public policy action by the US to fight climate change – until the weather decides the debate.
- How climate change can help the GOP win in 2016.
For More Information
Please like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter. For more information see The keys to understanding climate change and My posts about climate change. Also see chapter 9 of AR5: Evolution of Climate Models. See citations and links to climate scientists’ websites and studies about testing models at my proposal.