Climate Change Denial Denial
The triumph of Trump has led to much wailing and whining in the global warming industry, as typified by a recent article from The Atlantic (achive.is link). Since the article is in the Atlantic there are no prizes for guessing that it is going to be talking about the catastrophe that is sure to unfold if we don’t immediately “PANIC” and to talk about Climate Change Denialism. Thus, normally, one would just ignore it as being more of the same, however the article is sufficiently bad that it is worth a closer examination and commentary.
It starts with the obligatory melting ice and pathetic creature stock image – a penguin instead of a polar bear this time – and doom laden headline:
How the New Climate Denial Is Like the Old Climate Denial
Both are excuses for inaction.
As noted above, one can pretty much write the article on automatic from here. Climate change is bad. The world isn’t doing enough to stop it. Bad people say it isn’t happening. Evil Trump, ExxonMobil etc. Brave scientists speaking truthiness to power. Spend lots of money on things we like. But one is curious about the details. What, for example, is “New Climate Denial”? Are we denying a new climate to millions of disadvantaged Africans?
There has been a subtle shift recently in the rhetoric of many conservative pundits and politicians around climate change. For decades, the common refrain has been flat-out denial—either that climate change is not happening, or that any change is not caused by human activity. Which is why viewers might have been surprised to see Tucker Carlson of Fox News nodding along thoughtfully on January 6 as climate scientist Judith Curry, a controversial figure in climate science, explained, “Yes it’s warming and yes humans contribute to it. Everybody agrees with that, and I’m in the 98 percent [of scientists who agree]. It’s when you get down to the details that there’s genuine disagreement.” Carlson immediately turns to the camera and moots a multi-part series: “What do we know? What don’t we know?”
Aha. So the “New Climate Denial” is some form of Lukewarmerism (a.k.a there is some climate change happening but it probably isn’t too disastrous). This is instead of the Old Climate Denial strawman which is that the climate isn’t changing at all. Congratulations to the Atlantic for finally noticing that the old strawman was so pathetically bad that it needed an update to something slightly more credible. Well of course they can’t have the wrong sort of scientist (e.g. Dr Curry) asking inconvenient questions about the basic tenets of their religion.
This rhetorical stance—yes, climate change is real, and yes, human activity is implicated, but we don’t know how much human activity is to blame—is fast becoming the go-to position for conservatives. In confirmation hearings last week, Senator Ed Markey asked Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, if he agrees with Trump that global warming is a “hoax.” Pruitt replied that he does not. But later, under questioning by Senator Bernie Sanders, Pruitt refused to say how much change is caused by human activity. He would say only that the “climate is changing, and human activity contributes to that in some manner.” When pressed by Sanders on whether he agreed with 97 percent of scientists who have published in peer-reviewed journals that human activity is “the fundamental reason we are seeing climate change,” Pruitt equivocated. “I believe the ability to measure with precision the degree of human activity’s impact on the climate is subject to more debate.”
The key phrases in Pruitt’s testimony are “in some manner” and “with precision.” These allow Pruitt to acknowledge climate change is happening while moving uncertainty downstream, into the “details.”
Given that the details do seem to be uncertain – see the graph about the model predictions vs reality at the top of this post – if you aren’t a dogmatic believer in climate change alarmism, Pruitt’s “The climate is changing, humans may have caused some of it but how much is unclear” seems seems like a pretty reasonable approach. But of course this kind of reasonableness is interpreted as HERESY by the zealots because it suggests that the new US government may not want to perform the required religious observances
This rhetoric is out of step with the latest science. The most recent IPCC report expresses 95 percent confidence that humans are the main cause of most global warming observed since the 1950s. According to one paper summarized on NASA’s Global Climate Change website, “97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.” The list of scientists and agencies in agreement goes on and on.
And the Atlantic immediately flails into it’s own trap. Assume we grant that all the warming since 1950 has been caused exclusively by humanity. So what? How much warming is that? Are we talking boiling oceans or a couple more sunny days in May and slightly fewer snow days in February? And how long, if ever, will it take for us to get to the point where the lack of snow in February etc. means mass starvation, desertification of the mid west, flooding of Manhattan and so on? These are what are known as “details” and typically they are what competent policy makers want to have before they make decisions about what to do. 97% of scientists saying the Earth is warming is not a relevant detail. 97% of (informed) scientific research suggesting that the ice sheets will melt next Tuesday (or whenever) is relevant. Although it would help if scientist’s credibility in the area hadn’t had a few knocks: “Ice free arctic summers” and “Children never seeing snow” are just two rather infamous predictions of a decade ago that have failed to be true.
Some conservatives have introduced uncertainty by suggesting climate change might be driven by “natural” global cycles. But according to Maureen Raymo of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, we know why climate changes naturally, and non-human activity can’t explain the rapid changes observed in the past century. “The Ice Ages happen due to subtle changes in the sun-earth distance that unfold over thousands of years, and which can lead to sometimes rapid climate change, when thresholds are crossed.” These cycles are still happening, but “the same factors that cause these huge Ice Age swings could not possibly be invoked to explain the warming we now see.” In fact, Raymo said, “left to its own devices, right now Mother Nature would be making the climate colder.”
The planet has warmed by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 19th century. “You can quibble about tiny bits,” said Raymo, “but the vast majority of what we observe is that it’s because we’ve been combusting fossil fuels.”
Oh so hang on a sec here. If it wasn’t for burning all those fossil fuels the earth would be colder than it is now and trending cooler? Why exactly is having the earth not return to an ice age – even a small one like the 17th century – a bad thing?
As Gavin Schmidt, Director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Principal Investigator for the GISS ModelE Earth System Model, put it, “In science, nothing is ever known perfectly. Is there remaining uncertainty in the exact value of gravity? Yes. But to something like the fourth decimal place. It doesn’t matter. So the question is: Is the remaining uncertainty relevant to any policy decision anyone would want to make? And the answer is: no.”
Gavin Schmidt is being a tad ingenuous here. It is true that Newton’s gravitational constant (G) is known with an accuracy of 4.7 x 10-5 but that value hasn’t changed for decades. However the precision of global temperatures is barely at the one significant figure level and it varies drastically from year to year. Witness the brouhaha about the Karl “pausebuster” paper which introduced (irreproducible) adjustments in prior temperatures compared to other sources of data. Is the recent average decadal warming 0.01, 0.1 or 0.5°c? We can be pretty sure it isn’t the latter. But the uncertainty is such that we can’t rule out either of the other two and the difference in terms of long term impact between 0.01 and 0.1°c/decade (or for that matter 0.2°c/decade – also not ruled out AIUI) is enormous.
Uncertainty has proved a reliable tool to manipulate public perception of climate change and stall political action. In 2015, the Union of Concerned Scientists released The Climate Deception Dossiers, which describes a 1998 memo from the American Petroleum Institute that, according to the dossiers, “mapped out a multifaceted deception strategy for the fossil-fuel industry that continues to this day—outlining plans to reach the media, the public, and policy makers with a message emphasizing ‘uncertainties’ in climate science.” The UCS authors write that the memo (included in the report) states “victory” would be achieved “when ‘average citizens’ and the media were convinced of uncertainties in climate science despite overwhelming evidence of the impact of human-caused global warming and nearly unanimous agreement about it in the scientific community.”
Another “victory” listed on the API memo’s bullet-point list would be when, “those promoting the Kyoto treaty on the basis of extant science appear to be out of touch with reality.”
The problem here is that every scientist, engineer or other technically/mathematically competent person who looks at the current state of the art in climate science can see that the uncertainties are yuuuge. Bigly even. See note above about the Karl paper vs everyone else or just take a look at the difference between the satellite and surface data over the last 38 years:
Simply comparing the peaks of 1998 to 2016 in the green and the red shows about 0.3°c difference over the last 18 years and the trend lines are lines are clearly divergent by about 0.2°c over 38 years. Even a journalist ought to be able to see that the difference is significant. And hence the statement about the Kyoto protocol pushers being out of touch with reality, their predictions 20 years ago of the catastrophes they expected in 2015 are almost as far out as the ones predicted by Paul Ehrlich in the 1970s.
The new climate-denial rhetoric dovetails with longstanding tactics used by conservatives and fossil fuel companies to sow doubt about climate change, even as they publicly recognize its reality. In a 2006 Letter from ExxonMobil Vice President of Public Affairs Ken Cohen to the Royal Society, the corporation acknowledged that “the use of fossil fuels is a ‘major source’ of carbon dioxide emissions” and tied emissions to climate change: “Given the important role fossil fuels play in providing energy for the global economy, the issues of global economic development, future energy supply, and climate change are closely linked.” This past November, ExxonMobil even endorsed the Paris Agreement in a carefully-worded statement that balanced the need to reduce global emissions with the statement that, “access to affordable and reliable energy is critical to economic growth and improved standards of living worldwide.” Despite this acknowledgement, ExxonMobil has, since November, launched a suite of massive extraction projects in Nigeria, Mozambique, Liberia and Texas.
In his recent confirmation hearings, Rex Tillerson, ex-CEO of ExxonMobil and newly-minted U.S. Secretary of State, carefully avoided making any of the links that ExxonMobil’s own scientists had made by the early 1980s between fossil fuels, rising greenhouse gases, and the ability of those gases to affect climate “in potentially destructive ways.” When asked to explain his “personal view” of climate change by Senator Tom Udall, Tillerson would say only that “after 20 years as an engineer and a scientist,” he had concluded “the risk of climate change does exist,” and “the consequences could be serious enough that action should be taken.” Senator Bob Corker, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then pointedly asked, “Do you believe that human activity, based on science, is contributing?” Tillerson dodged again, saying only, “The increase in greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited.”
And gosh here we go. Evil Exxon and Evil Trump (by proxy at least). What is easy to miss in this complaint is that the Atlantic seems to think that “access to affordable and reliable energy is critical to economic growth and improved standards of living worldwide” is a bad thing if it results in more fossil fuel emissions. Allow me to translate that: the Atlantic would prefer that brown people continue to suffer in poverty rather than have access to things like washing machines, electric light and stoves that don’t cause lung damage from particulates.
Tillerson’s comment about the ability to predict that effect being limited is in fact demonstrated by all those people claiming ice-free arctic summers by 2015. See also discussion above about the rate of temperature increase. In other words he’s telling the truth according to all the scientific evidence to date.
Tillerson can make statements like these because climate research is ongoing, and climate models are inherently imprecise. According to Schmidt, “To say that science isn’t settled on things people are still researching is totally irrelevant. Does the earth orbit the sun? There’s no substantial ambiguity about the answer to that question, despite the fact that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of scientists working on gravity. There are lots of interesting things about gravity, it’s just that that is not one of them. There are lots of interesting things about climate change, and adaptation, and interactions between air pollution and clouds, but they’re just not relevant to the question, which is: Is what’s going on related to humans? And the answer is: Yes, it is.”
Gavin again misses the point. Is the climate change bad? and if so how bad? and if seriously bad, how long will it take to get there? Those are really important questions. The IPCC itself notes in AR5 that, based on work by Richard Tol, a temperature rise of 1-2°c is net beneficial to mankind. See also point made that without fossil fuel emissions the temperature would likely be falling and that would be bad.
When Tillerson was pushed by Senator Tim Kaine to admit ExxonMobil’s “history with the issue of climate change,” including the oil giant’s well-documented practice of funding work to discredit climate science and delay political action, he stonewalled until Kaine finally asked, “Are you not answering because you don’t know, or because you don’t want to?” To which Tillerson replied, “A little of both.”
I’m sure he didn’t want to go there. The man’s not an idiot. he knows perfectly well that a zillion shrieking zealots will jump on any statement he makes. Given that he was being grilled regarding his role as Secretary of State the relevance of the line of questioning is somewhat tenuous anyway
There has been a flurry of recent Republican efforts to stall action on climate policy, including a pair of bills just introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives. Bill H.R. 861, introduced by Representative Matt Gaetz, proposes “to terminate the EPA.” This bill may not even get a vote, but as The New York Times reported earlier this week, Pruitt “has a blueprint to repeal climate change rules, cut staffing levels, close regional offices and permanently weaken the agency’s regulatory authority.”Meanwhile, Bill H.R. 673, introduced by Representative Blaine Luetkmeyer, proposes to “prohibit United States contributions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the Green Climate Fund.” It’s also no secret that many Republicans want to halt funding for the UN FCCC, the international treaty system of 195 nations that produced the Paris Agreement. As the Republican party platform stated in the run-up to the presidential election: “We reject the agendas of both the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.”
And now we skip swiftly on from complaining about the science denialism to complaining about the denial of support for various organizations. Perhaps it would help bolster the argument if you explained why support for these various organizations, funds and treaties will resolve any issues to do with climate change. To me, none of the list look like things that are likely to help actually reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, which is apparently the driving desire for climate activists everywhere.
On February 8, a cohort of old-guard Republicans came out in favor of a carbon tax, which they call a “conservative approach to climate change.” Rather than setting limits on emissions (as with cap-and-trade), a carbon tax would put a higher price on fossil fuel emissions and leave it to the market to curb emissions. This approach may be appealing to some voters, because as the tax slowly increases consumers receive increasing rebates. While this approach at least acknowledges that human use of fossil fuels is contributing to climate change, many experts argue this would not be a meaningful restriction, given the convulsive climate changes already under way.
This, on the other hand, is the solution recommended by economists everywhere – including Lord Stern, author of the influential UK report. Oddly a carbon tax is not a solution that activists seem to like. I assume the reason for this is “insufficient opportunities for graft” (©Instapundit) and the fact that it is boring and doesn’t allow for virtue signalling, grandstanding or other sorts of attention gathering. It is also, of course tricky to implement for industries unless it is done globally because we already know that a partial carbon tax (or cap and trade) simply results in the dirtier more carbon intensive bits of industry relocating overseas.
In September 2016, carbon-dioxide levels in the air crossed the dreaded 400 ppm threshold, and we are not likely to dip back below that level in our lifetimes. Crossing this red line signals an irrevocable shift toward an increasingly unrecognizable planet (the last time the planet’s air was consistently above 400 ppm was 16 million years ago, and the planet looked a lot different). In just the past few months, we have seen record-breaking global temperatures and a stunning decline in sea ice. A slab of ice bigger than Long Island is poised to crack off the Antarctic’s Larsen C ice shelf and the climate-stabilizing flow of the Gulf Stream, which has decreased by 20 percent in the last 50 years, may be accelerating toward full shut-down. According to the Pentagon’s 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, climate change will cause catastrophic changes to Earth’s ecosystems and wreak havoc on human populations, including famine, mass migration, and war. A carbon tax may be too little, too late, but even it would be preferable to rhetoric that fails to acknowledge scientific consensus on climate change.
And we’re back to science. We have a number – finally. Sadly, we have no context for that number other than the last time there was that much CO2 in the atmosphere was a long time ago. And then there’s some FUD about the Gulf Stream – FUD which has been debunked way back in 2002. Finally we’re back to more policy FUD. The pentagon reported that climate change would be bad. Unmentioned in this article at least is the likelihood of the Pentagon’s bad scenarios, the likely timescales of them and the assumptions regarding things like sensitivity to CO2 that underpinned its report. These are in fact important details because they impact whether we should be concerned now or let our children or grandchildren handle the problem since they are likely to be richer and have better technology than we do.
The recent shift in conservative rhetoric exploits legitimate scientific uncertainty that most scientists agree is irrelevant to crafting responsible climate policy. Despite overwhelming evidence, many conservatives are still willing to ignore scientific consensus and stall political action. But offering evidence that this rhetoric is out of step with science may not, in fact, matter when it comes to public perception. When the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology published a press release on February 5, alleging that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) “manipulated climate records,” scientists and journalists rushed to correct the statement and demonstrate how it was based on faulty information. But the damage was already done; uncertainty about NOAA and their data are now a part of the public dialogue around climate change.
Ignoring scientific consensus is not necessarily bad. Ignoring the scientific consensus in the 1920s and 1930s meant not forcibly sterilizing millions of genetic inferiors as the eugenecist scientific consensus of the time recommended. Oddly the regime that did attempt to implement that consensus is one that is roundly condemned today. Moreover, despite the claims of “journalists” and “scientists” the NOAA manipulation seems fairly well proven. If NOAA and interested scientists want to dispute this then there is a very simple way to do so: release in to the public domain the data and programs used. Moreover if the results are “robust” they will be easily replicable using other datasets and similar manipulations that are clearly explicable. The fact that this sort of independent replication has not been performed suggests that NOAA were indeed manipulating the data in underhand fashions – a practice that is common on “climate science” and a definite no-no in other more reputable fields of scientific research.
The Atlantic would do its readers (and contributors come to think of it) a favor by clearly enunciating the following
- the evidence that the climate is changing
- the evidence that this is due to humans (and specifically human caused CO2 emissions)
- the evidence that this will be catastrophic in a reasonable time frame (say 50 years or less)
- the proposed solutions
- how said solutions will resolve the problem
- how much they will cost
- what impacts they will have on the world
- why other solutions (coff Nuclear power coff) are inneffective
Currently most popular journalism fails all but perhaps the first and fourth.
The Shadow of the Olive Tree