Paul Krugman shows why the climate campaign failed

Summary: Like all of Krugman’s work, we can learn much from his latest column about climate change. See this annotated version to see how he shows why 30 years of climate crusading has produced so little policy action in the US.

Burning World in Gloved Hand


The Axis of Climate Evil

“Bad faith may destroy civilization”

Paul Krugman’s op-ed
in the New York Times, 11 August 2017.


Krugman is a brilliant economist, with a knack for explaining technical details to the general public. He is also an insightful political analyst, albeit of the left-wing hack kind. In yesterday’s column he shows us the latter in action — and why three decades of climate activism has accomplished so little.

It’s Not Your Imagination: Summers Are Getting Hotter.” So read a recent headline in The Times, highlighting a decade-by-decade statistical analysis by climate expert James Hansen. “Most summers,” the analysis concluded, “are now either hot or extremely hot compared with the mid-20th century.”

Krugman starts with a look at the past. Hansen’s graphs in the New York Times are what Edward Tufte calls “chart junk” in his classic work about graphics — they lack a scale for the change in temperature. All we know is that summers have grown warmer. How much? The article does not say.

For a wider perspective see this graph from the Executive Summary of the Third Draft of the Climate Science Special Report, part of the Fourth National Climate Assessment. (CCSR of NCA4). Oddly, it is not in the current Fifth Draft. It shows the hottest day in the 48 contiguous US States by year. The line has been rising since the 1960s, but remains below the levels during the long Dust Bowl. The real message here is that individual graphs can look spectacular, but no one graphic — no matter how animated — can capture the complexity of climate change.

“Extreme Hot Days Dominated by 1930s Dust Bowl.”

Hottest days in the 48 States by year - draft 3 - CCSR- NCA4

A still wider context shows another picture. America and Europe have been warming for two centuries, since the Little Ice Age ended. The IPCC’s AR5 Working Group I describes the anthropogenic part of that long warming: “It is extremely likely (95 – 100% certain) that human activities caused more than half of the observed increase in global mean surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 {link}.”

So what else is new? At this point the evidence for human-caused global warming just keeps getting more overwhelming, and the plausible scenarios for the future — extreme weather events, rising sea levels, drought, and more — just keep getting scarier. …

It’s fun to see climate activists make menacingly vague statements and support them by pointing to a voluminous reports, as Krugman does here — pointing to the 673 page-long draft CCSR. Let’s see if we can do better. The key relevant section is “4: Climate Models, Scenarios, and Projections.”

Climate nightmares

“Over the next two decades, global temperature increase is projected to be between 0.5°F and 1.3°F (0.3°–0.7°C) (medium confidence). This range is primarily due to uncertainties in natural sources of variability that affect short-term trends. In some regions, this means that the trend may not be distinguishable from natural variability (high confidence).

“Beyond the next few decades, the magnitude of climate change depends primarily on cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosols and the sensitivity of the climate system to those emissions (high confidence). Projected changes range from 4.7°–8.6°F (2.6°–4.8°C) under the higher RCP8.5 scenario to 0.5°–1.3°F (0.3° 1.7°C) under the lower RCP2.6 scenario, for 2081–2100 relative to 1986–2005 (medium confidence).”

So the report does not prophesize doom with the certainty Krugman implies. In fact, it does what activists seldom do — explicitly state the certainty of its conclusions (the IPCC’s reports also do this). We might get tolerable rise of 0.5°–1.3°F under RCP2.6 — the most favorable of the four scenarios in the IPCC’s AR5 report (it might be easy to do; see these details). On the other extreme, their worst-case RCP8.5 scenario is nightmarish but unlikely.

Paul Krugman
Paul Krugman. From Wikimedia Commons.

What becomes clear to anyone following the climate debate, however, is that hardly any climate skeptics are in fact trying to get at the truth. I’m not a climate scientist, but I do know what bogus arguments look like — and I can’t think of a single prominent climate skeptic who isn’t obviously arguing in bad faith.

A sensible person would stop reading with this pitiful attempt to delegitimize scientists who disagree with him. Only hard-core hacks write like this. Climate activists describe prominent climate scientists like Roger Pielke Sr. and Judith Curry as “skeptics”. Krugman’s description is quite mad applied to them.

Take, for example, all the people who seized on the fact that 1998 was an unusually warm year to claim that global warming stopped 20 years ago — as if one unseasonably hot day in May proves that summer is a myth.

With this science denial Krugman shows the brotherhood of the far-right and far-left. Here he vaguely refers to what climate scientists call the “pause” or “hiatus”. Hundreds of papers in peer-reviewed journals and reports have discussed this since the early ones in 2009. Scores discussed evidence showing the pause. After that was well-established, scores discussed possible causes of the pause (a debate still not resolved). Some discuss when the pause will end (with the 2015 El Nino either making a pause in the pause, or more likely ending it). Those links go to posts with citations, abstracts, and links to a sample of 150 papers about the pause.

Or all the people who cited out-of-context quotes from climate researchers as evidence of a vast scientific conspiracy.

I agree with Krugman on this, and have written several posts about it (for example, here).

Or for that matter, think of anyone who cites “uncertainty” as a reason to do nothing — when it should be obvious that the risks of faster-than-expected climate change if we do too little dwarf the risks of doing too much if change is slower than expected.

This is a creative use by Krugman of the false dilemma logical fallacy to mischaracterize his opponents. The alternatives are not a binary do nothing or something. The world faces many serious threats in addition to climate change (details here and here). We have limited resources and must allocate them wisely among these threats. Krugman does the usual climate activist trick of focusing on the fringe that denies the reality of global warming — and ignoring the serious debate about how much warming, when, with what effects. Understanding those is necessary for effective policy action.

Ministry of Propaganda


This is propaganda, characteristic of how activists have conducted their campaign to build support for massive public policy action to fight climate change. They’ve been at it since Hansen’s 1988 Senate testimony. It has not worked.

It is not too late. Climate scientists can restart the climate change debate – & win. For more information about this see putting this proposal in a wider context of science norms and the climate science literature.

For More Information

Hat tip to Michael Bastasch at the Daily Caller for locating the Third Draft of  Climate Science Special Report at Internet Archive.

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, posts about the insights of Paul Krugman, and especially these with good news about the climate…

To learn more about the state of climate change…

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

… see The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change by Roger Pielke Jr. (Prof of Environmental Studies at U of CO-Boulder). From the publisher…

“In recent years the media, politicians, and activists have popularized the notion that climate change has made disasters worse. But what does the science actually say? Roger Pielke, Jr. takes a close look at the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the underlying scientific research, and the data to give you the latest science on disasters and climate change. What he finds may surprise you and raise questions about the role of science in political debates.”


25 thoughts on “Paul Krugman shows why the climate campaign failed

  1. “It is not too late. Climate scientists can restart the climate change debate – & win.”
    Why would we want just the climate scientists to win?
    Would it not be better if truth and common sense won, regardless of declared loyalties, so everyone was a winner?


  2. There is no real debate about the climate warming and that it is man made. A handful of scientists who work for oil companies are not credible. This is well known and obvious.


    1. Darwin,

      “There is no real debate about the climate warming and that it is man made.”

      I suggest you read the article rather than just comment on it (that comment shows that you didn’t read it). I’m sure you are a nice person, but it looks trollish.

      If you have a question or concern about something in it, please post a comment.


  3. Sorry, skipping this. I’m a Friedman Man! LOL

    Oh and FM, ya know I love your site. I am getting tee shirts made and spreading word. There has gotta be an uptick in hits.

    Lastly I leave this thought. It can be a tweet, a bumper sticker ir tee shirt.

    The thought hit me this morning. It’s inspired by the authors on FM Site.

    The Problem is not POLITICS, IT’s CHARACTER!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Longtrail,

      “Sorry, skipping this. I’m a Friedman Man!”

      Friedman is entertaining; Krugman is not. But the former is brass, the latter gold.

      “The Problem is not POLITICS, IT’s CHARACTER!”

      That’s brilliant. All-time best comment ever. I’ll use that as the tagline for future posts about US politics. It’s consistent with the Founders’ thinking!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting that all the discussion is about summers. Actually winter (and presumably spring and fall) are equally important in understanding the whole system. Nobody complains (or worries) too much when winter weather is warm and comfortable

    I live in the mid-south. Most summers here include some hot days. Some years include VERY hot days. The current summer is pretty mild with lots of highs in the 80’s. I’m sure Fabius would agree that neither observation is relevant to climate analysis, but the cool summer might well affect some local public perception on the reality of global warming.

    What seems to be missing from all this discussion is the rapid cost reduction in solar technology. In the financial community both solar and wind have now moved from “doesn’t work without subsidies” to serious technologies that are already at cost parity with coal and even gas in many situations. The deployment curve is moving rapidly, not only in the U.S. and Europe, but in China and India as well. My guess is that the IPCC has not adequately into accounted for the increasing speed of this transition to fossil fuel alternatives in its estimates. Fabius do you know the answer?

    As a political aside, I am very confused as to why the current U. S. regime is so intent on favoring a fossil industry that is likely at or near its peak consumption levels, rather than the new technologies that will increasingly replace fossil fuels over the next few decades.


    1. John,

      “What seems to be missing from all this discussion is the rapid cost reduction in solar technology.”

      It is not missing. It is not relevant to the subject. A brief op-ed can only discuss one subject in reasonable depth.

      Solar is an important part of the discussion about which path — which IPCC scenario (RCPs) — we will follow. Here are two posts discussing this:

      Solar is an interesting subject in another sense. Leftists tend to simultaneously hold two beliefs.

      • Solar (and more generally, renewables) are becoming a cost-effective (i.e., economical) source of electricity. With improved battery tech, they will provide a meaningful source of future energy to both future grids and transportation.
      • Without massive government action we are doomed to follow the worst-case scenarios. Such as RCP8.5, in which the fuel of the late 20th century is coal.

      It’s fun to point this out to Leftists and watch their brains go tilt. Cognitive dissonance in action.


    2. I think you can make a case that government policy has made solar/wind/batteries/etc. more economical, both with tax credits and subsidies and with furthering research. But “Policy” is a wide area and in a lot of cases it just gets presented as “Government Bad. Bad Liberal wants More Government!”

      As for the fossil industry being appealed to: I think that it is purely because of where the decisive fulcrum of national electoral politics sit. You notice how all the talk about coal miners is in Ohio, PA and WV? Even if I gather the majority of actual coal comes out of Wyoming? If Texas and Iowa were swing states, we’d be hearing about the need to make a secure rugged economy out of ethanol and wind power.


    3. SF,

      “in a lot of cases it just gets presented as “Government Bad. Bad Liberal wants More Government!””

      Yes, but far-right wackos with rocks for brains. Government funding played a large role in building most of this nations’ key transportation, communications, and power infrastructure. That investment in America is one reason we’re the world’s major power.


    4. On the topic of fusion, and it’s a little behind the times now, but I’ve thought this was a great answer to “we’ll never have fusion!” people:

      I’m honestly surprised that China or Japan didn’t pony up, but I suppose it’s got the scary Nuclear word on it.


    5. SF,

      Some background to that graph from 1976. Robert L. Hirsch was in charge of the DoE’s fusion program. He was the “father” of the Tomak Fusion Test Reactor and coinventor of the Farnsworth–Hirsch fusor.

      As that 1976 graph showed, many of those working on the fusion program believed that effective fusion was 20 or max 30 years away. Hirsch disagreed, saying that the current programs had little change of doing more than very slow incremental progress — no breakthroughs — for many decades. Here we are 41 years later — and Hirsch has been proven correct.

      It is possible that today, with a new generation of tools — including computer models that we sci-fi in 1976 — fusion is on track for a breakthrough in the next fewyears.

      “I’m honestly surprised that China or Japan didn’t pony up”

      Because they were smart. Compare spending in 2008 dollars on the US mega-R&D programs (per a 2009 CRS study):

      • Manhattan Project (1942-46): $22 billion
      • Apollo Project (1960-1973): $98 billion
      • DoE New Energy project (1874-2008): $118 billion.

      Two of these produced great accomplishments. The third produced little of note.


    6. FM: Interesting stuff! Thanks for the link. Though my eyes flew out of my head for a moment; I think you typoed the cost a little there…


  5. What is tragically missing is input from geologists who know earth’s past As a geoscientist I find too much hype from individuals who are not qualified to say anything. The easiest way to get rich is to scare people needlessly.


    1. Allan,

      I strongly agree. The climate science frat house has too many scientists writing about matters outside their expertise. Hence the second of my six recommendations about fixing the climate policy debate is (bold empahsis added)…

      “A review of the climate forecasting models by a multidisciplinary team of relevant experts who have not been central players in this debate. Include a broader pool than those who have dominated the field, such as geologists, chemists, statisticians and software engineers.”


  6. Krugman: “At this point the evidence for human-caused global warming just keeps getting more overwhelming, and the plausible scenarios for the future — extreme weather events, rising sea levels, drought, and more — just keep getting scarier. …”

    This quote tells it all. It’s quite masterful as a piece of propaganda—mixing as it does, something that can be argued (evidence for human-caused global warming just keeps getting more overwhelming) vs something that isn’t even wrong (plausible scenarios for the future… just keep getting scarier).

    What the hell does it even mean for “plausible scenarios to keep getting scarier”?

    Maybe he meant to say that the scarier stories are getting more plausible, but that’s not what he said.

    What he said is we appear to be telling ourselves ever scarier stories like kids at camp passing the flashlight one to another in order to see who can give shape to the most frightening bogeyman.


    1. Andy,

      Krugman is making two statements.

      “At this point the evidence for human-caused global warming just keeps getting more overwhelming”

      I guess that’s true in a technical sense. But the evidence was already overwhelming. Pouring more water on a rock doesn’t make it wetter. People who are not yet convinced aren’t going to be convinced.

      “the plausible scenarios for the future — extreme weather events, rising sea levels, drought, and more — just keep getting scarier. …”

      That means that the horrific sceenarios are becoming either worse in magnitude or more probable. The first is correct. But there was already massive evidence that the RCP8.5 scenario (the worst case given in the IPCC’s AR5 report) — is nightmarish (see this for links to some of the literature about this). And that evidence is still growing.

      But more important is that the second is false. The evidence shows that RCP8.5 scenario was unlikely and is becoming ever less likely. Ask any leftist! They’ll tell you that renewables are already economic in many areas, and becoming more cost-effective. Ask any conservative! They’ll tell you that fracking is allowing replacement of dirty coal with cleaner natural gas. And neither pays much attention to the work being done on more radical solutions, such as fusion. See the links in For More Info section for a discussion of this.

      “What he said is we appear to be telling ourselves ever scarier stories like kids at camp passing the flashlight one to another in order to see who can give shape to the most frightening bogeyman.”

      That is both true and an important insight. Once that I have written much about. See these posts.


  7. Hi FM and all,

    This post contains a bunch:
    * the science of climate change
    * the religion of climate change
    * climate change’s representation by both scientists and acolytes of the Church

    I want to point out just how wildly things can be misrepresented by the Ministry of Propaganda, but in a different domain, and to reflect how biased and wrong the coverage of climate change might actually be. The reason I feel I should is because I didn’t grok the fervor with which Inquisitors will go after heretics. I now see how much of the reporting on climate change is not just irritating or amusing — it’s deeply troubling. The degree to which mainstream outlets will dissemble, lie, misrepresent, make ad hominem attacks, and slander is astonishing. Hair raising! All news certainly is not fake news, but heresy gets covered in ways the events of daily life do not.

    Have you seen the dust-up caused by the memo leaked from Google titled Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber written by former employee James Damore? It was posted to an internal mailing list set up to talk about how to improve diversity inside of Google. While his science is essentially correct and some of his suggestions to help *increase* diversity (actually attractiveness of jobs to women) might be vague (Make tech and leadership less stressful) the real twin heresies he’s committed is saying that the current diversity enhancement status quo isn’t working and that an atmosphere of political correctness prevents an open conversation at Google. For this, he’s branded “anti-diversity” and was cast out. Fired.

    Having read the memo, keeping in mind it was meant to be internal on a discussion list at a company where their core values supposedly include challenging each other’s ideas openly, valuing diversity in people and ideas, and being a quantitative company that uses data to make decisions, I’ve never seen in the press a more vicious smear job and more egregious misrepresentation of what some one actually said. Conor Friedersdorf in a piece in The Atlantic said: To me, the Google memo is an outlier—I cannot remember the last time so many outlets and observers mischaracterized so many aspects of a text everyone possessed.

    The “outlets” are not just bloggers and wingnuts. It’s BBC, NYT, WaPo, The Atlantic, etc, etc, etc. Just Google it.

    The problem is it’s *not* an outlier. It’s just easier to see. Anyone can read the 10 pages and see this is a guy who actually values wants to help increase the number of women at Google. He made the mistake of saying that PC stifles the ability to freely discuss things, and that men and women, on average, are different, so maybe we have to some things to make the job more appealing to women. Forsooth! Perhaps we should have a Martin Luther award for getting excommunicated for posting proverbial 95 theses.

    So it goes with climate change. And who knows what else? It doesn’t take a conspiracy, it just takes religion — in this case the religion of big D “Diversity” — the faithful will marshal PC to take care of the rest.



    PS: For those interested in the science of the memo see this article in Quillette and this takedown of the one scientist I could find who tried to argue the science of the memo. David Brooks sums it all up nicely.


  8. FM and Pluto99, Point taken. I have been so swamped the past couple of weeks. I promise to dig for the Gold. When I made the Friedman/Krugman comment, it was kinda “tongue-in-cheek” R/D vernacular.

    Republicans quote Friedman. Democrats quote Krugman. Both are Nobel Laureates.

    When my current project is more manageable or my other is complete, I can resume my schooling on FM.

    The posts and comments are IMO, the best on the Web.

    I try to lure the Belmont Club community your way and Wretchard has absolutely no problem with it.

    I just have to be away from net for a while.



    1. Longtrail,

      “Republicans quote Friedman. Democrats quote Krugman.”

      My mistake! When you said “I’m a Friedman Man!” I thought Tom Friedman, a major source of chaff in American’s minds. Now that you point it out, Milton Friedman was the more logical inference.

      Note that there is not as much difference between Friedman and Krugman as the Right pretends. For example, many (most?) on the Right believe nonsense about deficit spending. Friedman agreed with Keynes about the value of deficit spending when the economy was running below potential. Keynes advocated burying money for people to dig up. Friedman said to drop it from helicopters (in The Optimum Quantity of Money, 1969). Details here.


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