What happens to the losers of the public debate about climate change?

Summary: Liberals believed that 2017 would mark a new start for US public policy to manage climate change. Now Conservatives agree, in a different sense. Both are wrong. The weather will determine who will win. The stakes for both sides are large (as are the possible effects on the world). The consequences for the losers will be severe. Just as we are unprepared for climate change (even repeat of past extreme weather), both sides are unprepared for defeat. This is an update and expansion of a post from March.

Cover of "Turning the Tide On Climate Change" by Robert Kandel
Cover of “Turning the Tide On Climate Change” by Robert Kandel (2009).

“The future is not what is coming at us, but what we are headed for.”
— Jean-Marie Guyau in Le Genèse de l’idée du temps, translated by Astragale.

The US public policy debate about climate has run for 28 years, from James Hansen’s famous Senate testimony to Trump’s threat to cut NASA’s climate research. This is one of the largest publicity campaigns in American history. Many people assume that US politics will determine the eventual winner, skeptics or alarmists. I disagree: the weather will determine who wins the public policy debate.

So far the weather has sided with the skeptics, with little of the extreme weather activists predicted. No surge of hurricanes after Katrina (despite the predictions). No sign of the methane monster; little evidence that we have passed the long-predicted tipping points. So, despite the efforts of government agencies, academia, and many ngo’s, the public’s policy priorities have been unaffected (see yesterday’s post). As a result, activists are going thru the 5 stages of grief for their campaign.

Global surface temperatures, flattish for 14 years (except for the 2015-16 El Nino).
October 2016 shows the El Nino spike, but exaggerates the recent flatness.
Warming is concentrated in months of May, June, & July.

NOAA Global temperature anomalies: October
From NOAA. Temperature in October of each year. Reference period is the 20th century.

Skeptics have made equally bold claims about climate change, or the lack of it.

The result resembles a geological fault in US society. Massive forces are locked together; the stress accumulating year by year. People live on faults, complacent since nothing has happened. Then …boom. Similarly the public climate change debate has run to the point of public boredom. But this equilibrium looks unstable. Eventually we will get severe bouts of extreme weather that discredit the skeptics — and their conservative allies). Or the present boring weather will continue, with tiny increases in global air and sea temperatures — eventually discrediting the alarmists — and their liberal allies and climate science.

Ocean heat content, the best measure of global warming, rising slowly since 1970.

Mean ocean temperature anomaly: 0-700m
From NOAA. Temperatures are shown vs. the reference period 1955-2006.

The alarmists win if we get several bouts of extreme weather

“Men will seem to see new destructions in the sky. … O! marvel of the human race! What madness has led you thus!”
— From The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci.

There are always bouts of extreme weather, such as the California drought now running with no end in sight. But public opinion might change if the US gets hit by several at once, or some of unusual intensity, or they hit vulnerable areas.

For example, we have had no landfalls by major hurricanes since 2005 — the longest such period on record. Cities from Miami to New York are absurdly vulnerable (we’ve spent our infrastructure money in Afghanistan and Iraq). Imagine if they are hit. No matter what the the scientists of NOAA say (e.g., time needed for study, attribution of weather is difficult), on the next day journalists’ microphones will go to activist scientists announcing their insta-verdicts — CO2 is responsible.

A series of US or global weather disasters might affect us like 9/11, or even the 1950’s “Red” panic. The former produced changes in US domestic security and global military policies, changes that endure today — with no signs of fading.  The latter, sparked by the unexpected Soviet atomic blasts and the fall of China to the commies led to mass hysteria, “witch hunts” of suspected communists, and loyalty oaths.

The same might happen to US climate policy after a “weather 9/11”.  The skeptics probably would become enemies of America in the eyes of the American public. The consequences would be ugly. Loss of reputation, loss of funding, loss of jobs, The Left is eager to start the persecution. They talk about banning them from the news media and suing them. In their fantasies they imagine killing them.

Are you now, or have ever been, a climate denier?

Burning of Anne Hendricks as a Witch in 1571. Engraving by Jan Luyken (1685).
“Burning of Anne Hendricks as a Witch” in 1571. Engraving by Jan Luyken (1685).

The skeptics win if nothing happens

Climate scientists have staked the reputation of their field on an increased occurrence of extreme weather during the next few years. We have read about future climate apocalypses (amidst other certain forecasts about climate change), the end of snow, the looming monster methane apocalypse, more and bigger hurricanes, and nightmarish futures illuminated only by burning coal (based on RCP8.5). Plus the sixth great extinction (since supposedly 30 thousand species go extinct every year).

As a result Leftists frequently speak casually of our certain doom. What if most of these predictions fail to happen before the pubic loses confidence?  We might get continued slow warming, but without a devastating increase of extreme weather and disruption of the biosphere. There are two likely outcomes.

Perhaps people will forget the decades of doomster predictions — mostly unsupported by the IPCC or peer-reviewed literature, but seldom contradicted by scientists or the major science institutions. Climate scientists will reclaim their bets without consequences.

Or perhaps the public will remember and lose confidence in liberals and (worse) in climate science (anti-intellectualism has deep roots in US history). Such a crash in their reputations would have large effects. Government and ngo funding for climate science might vanish like last years’ snow. Climate scientists will rebrand themselves as “meteorologists” and “earth scientists” to avoid public mockery. The old joke will take a new form…

What do you call a climate scientist? Waiter!

Climate victory council


Liberals and climate science institutions have bet on extreme weather. Now conservatives can make similarly large bets, as their control of the White House and Congress gives them the ability to smite the climate scientists with whom they have fought for a quarter-century. That would be a gamble because the weather, not voters, will decide who wins. Slashing funding of climate research will look suicidal if we have a weather 9/11. Afterwards the GOP would play Santa Claus to climate scientists to minimize public retribution.

Either result is chance, determined by the random workings of the weather. During the next several decades the climate will tell us who was right — affected by the progress of technology, speed of economic growth, and population growth. Of course, by then it will be too late to prevent or even mitigate any ill consequences.

This is a mad way to manage critical public policy, adolescent behavior we have to outgrow to survive the many challenges of the 21st century. There are other paths. We can study how we broke the climate change debates and learn to do better. Even better, we can end the climate policy wars by demanding a test of the models.

It is all about choice.

Truth Will Make You Free

For More Information

Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see The keys to understanding climate change, My posts about climate change, and especially these…

  1. Paul Krugman explains how to break the climate policy deadlock.
  2. A new study shows why we are polarized about climate change.
  3. It’s the Anthropocene! But natural threats will still kill millions unless we act soon.
  4. A leaked memo about climate change explains why we’re unprepared.

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.

7 thoughts on “What happens to the losers of the public debate about climate change?”

  1. Any decision made on the basis of even five years of observations will be an overfit. That said, my personal forecast is that 2017 will be substantially cooler than 2016 and that this (together with the GOP dominance of the federal government in the US) will put AGW activists on the defensive until the midterm elections in 2018.

    Nature has recently published a paper suggesting the odds (under “consensus” assumptions for the magnitude of the Transient Climate Response parameter) of the “pause” continuing through 2020, 2025, or 2030 as 16%, 11% and 6%, respectively. Should we see the pause continue through 2020, the heretic scientists like Lewis and Curry who favor observationally-constrained TCR estimates substantially below the IPPC consensus will rise in status. (And this will in fact be justified, even for current AGW alarmists, in a bayesian sense.)

    In this scenario, the front lines of debate, rationally, should shift towards what have always been the most difficult scientific frontiers: (a) pushing forward our knowledge when it comes to quantifying uncertainties, e.g. by improving our cloud models and constraining various feedbacks via observational evidence, and (b) wrestling with the difficult intertemporal utility optimization problem of maximizing intergenerational social welfare in the face of uncertainty about future growth and future climate change.

    Project (b) is probably harder, because specifying the utility function correctly requires resolving difficult questions about how one should set the discount rate. Although much brainpower has been spent on this problem, I don’t think the experts in the field (e.g. W. Nordhaus) would go so far as to claim the solution is clear. Rather, my impression of the state of the art is that partisans on either side of the issue have mostly tried to argue that other considerations (e.g. on the one hand, neglected positive externalities of greenhouse emissions, like CO2 fertilization, or on the other hand, black swan risk from the righthand tail of the TCR distribution) “obviously” outweigh any subtleties that require accurately estimating the right discount rate to take into account technological uncertainties and intergenerational equity.

    Another unknown in all this is the extent to which political as opposed to scientific factors will (continue to) dominate the discourse. An interesting post from the summer arguing (in a spirit similar to Scott Adams’ analysis of Trump’s campaign and victory, but from an AGW alarmist perspective) that AGW alarmists have already lost the P.R. war for entirely avoidable reasons: https://t.co/hLEkZagLnS.

    1. sficht,

      Out of curiosity, did you read the post?

      “Another unknown in all this is the extent to which political as opposed to scientific factors will (continue to) dominate the discourse.”

      As I described in this post, I believe neither will be decisive in the public policy debate. The weather will decide in the short-term (next decade); the climate in the long term (next several decades).

      “my personal forecast is that 2017 will be substantially cooler than 2016”

      Since we’re coming off a El Nino into a La Nina, that’s almost a certainty. Don’t need to be a meteorologist to say that.

      As for the rest, I suggest your analysis would be clearer if included two things. First, distinguish the debate among climate scientists from the public debate about climate policy. Second, recognizing that there is little consensus among climate science beyond the basics (e.g., greenhouse effect, past anthropogenic warming). There is no need to guess about the degree of consensus. The IPCC’s AR5 provides this with their statements about certainty of conclusions:

      “The level of confidence is expressed using five qualifiers: very low, low, medium, high, and very high.

      “In this Report the following terms have been used to indicate the assessed likelihood of an outcome or a result:

      Virtually certain 99–100% probability,
      Extremely likely: 95–100%,
      Very likely 90–100%,
      Likely 66–100%,
      About as likely as not 33–66%,
      Unlikely 0–33%,
      Very unlikely 0–10%
      Exceptionally unlikely 0–1%,
      More likely than not >50–100%, and
      Extremely unlikely 0–5%).”

  2. An important point made by sflicht is that the correct public policy decisions ideally would be made using the best available climate science, together with economic modeling. The modeling would show the likely cost of reducing further emissions, as well as the costs of dealing with effects of the CO2 increase. Those effects include ocean acidification, as well as arctic weather, and seal level rise, in addition to weather where we live.

    Is there useful economic modeling for mitigation strategies? If there is, I would appreciate your reporting on it.

    1. Hans,

      As you note, Sflicht correctly says how public policy should be made — not just in climate-related policy, but in all policies. But politicization of climate makes rational policy making difficult or impossible.

      As for economic modeling of climate impacts, I believe that is beyond the current state of the art. Models work well for small changes in well-understood macroeconomic variables. Something poorly understand — like a collapse in housing prices — is beyond their abilities. Worse, I suspect that modeling climate impacts probably requires modeling microeconomics factors — even less well understood than macroeconomic dynamics.

  3. Pingback: Josh on Pielke Jr. and Mann-ichean paranoia in Climate Science | Watts Up With That?

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