Yesterday’s Climate Debate of the Decade: a summary from an attendee

Yesterday’s Climate Debate of the Decade: a summary from an attendee

Summary of the event Conversations on Climate Change held in Charleston, WV, Geary Auditorium, on June 12th, 2018.

By Brian Lindauer

“Our premise was this: Climate change is undeniable, but there is disagreement as to whether human activity is causing it, and if so, to what degree.”

So states the informational material provided by Spilman Thomas & Battle to the attendees of their privately organized forum on climate change. It’s quite curious that the evening was put together by, of all things, a law firm. One might expect this sort of event to have been put together by a university’s science department, or perhaps one of the national scientific organizations, such as our own David Middleton’s favorite, American Association for the Advancement of Science in America. In this case, however, it was a confluence of interests that prompted Spilman Thomas & Battle to organize the evening.

They describe themselves as a super-regional law firm based in the mid-Atlantic, but given that they’re headquartered in Charleston, their client base includes businesses in the energy sector, manufacturing, and related industry. As such, climate change and its potential regulatory impacts are of deep concern to them. Adding to this, several of the partners hold a personal interest in the subject. So when it came time for the firm to choose a subject for one of their periodic public forums, climate change seemed an obvious choice.

So the organizers arranged for two sides to be represented, with Dr. Michael Mann and Dr. David Titley on one side, and Dr. Judith Curry and Dr. Patrick Moore on the other.

The event was held at University of Charleston’s Geary Auditorium, but just to be clear, was not actually an official university event.

With Spilman partner, Nicholas Preservati, moderating and introducing the topic and speakers, the attendees were informed that the position of the organizers was simple: it’s not IF there’s climate change, but rather, how much has man contributed to it through the addition of CO2 into the atmosphere. This was to be the framework under which all the presenters agreed to speak.

The format for the evening’s discussion was simple. Each speaker would have fifteen minutes to present. After the four presentations, a question and answer session would follow, in which the moderator would present previously vetted questions to the speakers. The speakers each addressed three questions during this phase. Finally, the speakers were provided with the opportunity to give a final comment, limited to two minutes each. The order of speakers for the presentations was Mann, Curry, Titley, Moore, with this order being maintained through each of the phases.

What was promised was a collegial discussion, “a fascinating and enlightening conversation” between world-renowned scientists on an issue that has been divisive, and at times, vitriolic. This was largely what was delivered. Not a debate. But rather the presentation of a diversity of viewpoints.

Now, in the interest of completeness, I’ll offer a synopsis of each speaker and their main points below. But before I do, I think it might be useful to offer some overall thoughts regarding the event. Going in, I think it’s unlikely that anyone would find an event such as this sufficient to change a mind that’s already made up. What it can do, however, is introduce a topic, or suggest an idea, that might lead an individual to do some deeper exploring. I know this was the true hope of the organizers. And listening to the information presented, I do believe there was enough there for a curious mind to be intrigued.

The forum presented information ranging from Mann’s hockey stick to the paleoclimate record. We heard claims of induced ice melt causing irreversible sea level rise, as well as a counter-claim showing a completely natural explanation that has nothing to do with CO2 driven warming.

National security concerns were discussed related to a potential “500 million people in play,” migrating due to sea level rise. (As a point of reference, we were reminded of the staggering impact on Europe that one million Syrian refugees had, with it being left up to us to infer the impact of 500 times this number.) And extreme weather events, such as droughts and flooding were repeatedly referenced.

In the end, I think Dr. Curry was most accurate when she described the CO2 control knob theory as “overtly simplistic.” The idea that man is responsible for permanently harming the climate is an easy thing to believe. We burn fossil fuels. This releases CO2 which warms the atmosphere. This warming makes all these other bad things inevitable. It’s simple. Direct. And there’s enough evidence easily available to convince an unwary scientist of its veracity.

It’s only when you dig deeper though, and eschew the seductive easy explanation, that you begin to note that the evidence might not be so easily explained by your theory after all. This can be hard for people to accept, though, and there’s no telling what will trigger it for each individual. Did people walk away from the event believing Dr. Mann’s claim that there’s “no worthy debate to be had” on the science? Or did they hear Dr. Curry’s scientific questioning and Dr. Moore’s unfettered passion and wonder, if there’s no debate to be had, how is it these two incredibly intelligent individuals, and noted scientists in their fields, don’t agree?

No one can answer this for sure, but we can certainly hope…after all, besides wanton destruction of the earth’s climate, isn’t hope what we humans do best?

Speaker Summaries:

Dr. Michael Mann, at ease and confident at the podium, led off the evening by stating his hope for “a robust conversation” on how to address climate change. His presentation was based around the idea that the only debate to be had is on what to do about man-made climate change. Indeed, he stated this position several times, reinforcing it by clarifying that there’s no worthy debate to be had on whether there’s a problem, or that man has caused it. As a justification for this, Dr. Mann explained that the science behind anthropogenic climate change is verifiable fact. Incontrovertible. Well known and agreed upon for over a hundred years.

Of all the claims made throughout the evening, this is the one I found to be the most personally problematic. Clearly scientists such as Curry and Moore aren’t, to borrow a tired phrase, “denying” the basic science of atmospheric and radiative physics. To claim otherwise, or even to imply through omission, that they do so is unfair, untrue, and frankly, does nothing to increase the credibility of the presenter.

At any rate, moving on, as anyone familiar with this subject could guess, Dr. Mann’s presentation centered on his “iconic” hockey stick graph, noting that this year marks the 20th anniversary of its publication. The point he made sure to emphasize with the hockey stick was the “warming spike” of the late 20th century is unnatural, and unprecedented in tens of thousands of years. He noted that 2014, 2015, and 2016 were each record-breaking years for global temperatures, and cited his 2017 paper which ostensibly demonstrated there was only a 1 in 3000 chance that three consecutive years of global warming would be due to natural causes. In the course of his presentation, Dr. Mann made two specific claims: temperatures were now likely to rise by 4 to 5 degrees Celsius and sea levels by 6 to 8 feet.

Dr. Judith Curry’s careful and precise approach was an interesting contrast to Dr. Mann’s. Whereas he spoke engagingly, but quickly, Dr. Curry never broke stride from her measured and deliberate pace. I’m not sure how much lecturing she did during her tenure at Georgia Tech, but she certainly seemed practiced and poised at the podium during her presentation.

In it she systematically described how she moved from agreement with the IPCC to a skeptic position. She noted the areas where there is agreement between scientists: that global temperatures have increased, that humans have contributed to the rise in CO2, and that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. She also pointed out the crucial point of disagreement was not related to these basic scientific premises, but rather, was in how much of the temperature increase can be attributed to CO2. She pointed out that upon deeper investigation, many of the observations used by scientists, such as Dr. Mann, to support the man-made climate change theory had natural explanations, and needed no help from CO2 to understand. Seal level rise made its second appearance for the evening, when Dr. Curry used it as a specific example that had natural explanations.

She also presented a clear delineation between the two competing understandings of the climate: CO2 Control Knob versus Natural Variability. If you were interested in summarizing Dr. Curry’s general position on from this one brief presentation, you would conclude that she strongly believes “you get what you get” with the earth’s climate, and that’s it’s unlikely that mankind has forced any significant perturbation.

It’s interesting to note that Dr. Curry took the time in her short presentation to describe the madhouse effect, and how it’s being played out in the climate science community. I found her most scathing critique of the night summed up in her first point on this: a “rampant overconfidence in an overly simplistic theory of climate change”. Without claiming to know her personally, I would describe this as classic Curry. Precise. Sharp. And to the point.

Dr. David Titley, was next, and was clearly a gifted speaker, with light jests and humor sprinkled throughout his presentation. Interestingly, in this crowd his jokes seemed to miss more often than they hit, despite it being what he described as a “target rich environment”. All I can say is, tough crowd doc! Keep at it and you’ll find your groove eventually.

In all seriousness, Dr. Titley, like Dr. Mann, attempted to conflate the uncontested scientific premises of John Tyndall and Svante Arrehnius with the claims of man-made climate change. In doing this, he drew an analogy between a three-legged stool and the three bases for his scientific convictions: fundamental theory, observations, and predictions. In Dr. Titley’s estimation, we have a fundamental theory that matches our observations, and as for our predictions, if anything, they’re too conservative.

As evidence, Dr. Titley showed a graph which purported to demonstrate Dr. James Hansen’s analysis from 20 years ago (apologies for the vague description…my notes are a bit unclear here) and how it had fared against observations. In the analysis presented by Dr. Titley, Hansen actually under-predicted the warming (or sea level rise…again, I’m unsure what the chart actually was). With this three-legged stool thus secured comfortably beneath him, Dr. Titley was able to focus on the implications for national security, as well how we as society can alleviate the economic stress our mitigation efforts will necessarily cause.

On this point, credit is given where due; Dr. Titley expressed a clear and unambiguous concern for those whose livelihoods might be impacted due to policy choices and increased regulations. His conclusion, though, was that we have the capacity to help those impacted, and should not let it stand in the way of moving away from fossil fuels.

Dr. Patrick Moore was the final presenter, and spoke with passion about the increase in CO2 being a wonderful boon to all life. If you ever wondered why or how he got into environmental activism, you understood immediately upon hearing him speak. This is an individual who feels strongly, and believes fervently, in his message. His presentation began with some pictures of himself from the heady days of free love, cheap drugs, and…Russian whaling? Yes. Our dear Patrick Moore, in his life on the edge, has pictures of himself in an inflatable boat pulling a Tiananmen Square with a Russian whaler. Oh, and he also had hair…but that’s a different topic.

With regards to his actual discussion, Dr. Moore began by running through what we know of paleoclimate history, showing charts that indicated temperatures and CO2 were not in sync throughout the record. It was a whirlwind tour through some five hundred million years of the earth’s climate history, with his basic premise being that CO2 has never been the cause for the earth’s many, and significant, climate fluctuations, so there’s no reason to assume it is today either. Furthermore, he clarified that despite the warming of the last 150 years, it’s still colder than during the peak of the last five interglacials. Neither had there been any single climate or weather events that were out of line from those experienced in the last ten thousand years.

Dr. Moore moved on from the paleo record quickly, though, and spent a good portion of the remaining time discussing all the benefits of CO2, concluding with his charge to “celebrate CO2”. (If I were in his marketing department, I’d suggest making this even more catchy by saying, “Celebrate, Don’t Regulate!”)

As Dr. Moore’s time ran out, it was clear that there were several other points he wanted to make, and my opinion is he may have tried to fit too much in.

As noted, following the presentations, there was a Q&A session and a closing comment opportunity. Here are my notes on interesting points made:


  • The Pages 2K project validated the results of his original hockey stick
  • We don’t have any confidence in the paleo climate record more than 30K – 40K years old
  • Recent warming is unprecedented in totality of known climate record (the 30K – 40K year)
  • 350 – 380ppm is ideal CO2 level
  • No honest debate can be had about the basics of the science
  • Visit for more info on how to talk to skeptics


  • Risk mitigation strategies must match the level of the risk
  • The precautionary principle is dangerous because it may set you down the wrong path
  • Beware the cure that’s worse than the disease
  • Man is not capable of controlling the climate, we will get what we get
  • IPCC set a range of 1.5 – 4.5 degrees Celsius for ECS, but GCMs seemed tuned to about 3.2C (high-end)
  • There’s too much uncertainty in our understanding to make broad sweeping claims
  • We have no idea what the optimal CO2 level should be


  • Droughts and temperatures are the specific components of climate change most attributable to CO2
  • Extreme weather events will get worse
  • Sea level rise is the single biggest concern, with up to 25′ – 30′ likely (100 – 200 years out)
  • Orlando could be the southern most point of a future Florida
  • The optimal CO2 level is the level that caused climate stability, which in turned allowed mankind to flourish (starting 8,000 years ago)…so mid-300’s ppm is ideal.


  • Consensus is a political word, not a scientific one
  • The impact of 2C increase would be equivalent to moving to Florida (insignificant)
  • Civilation began to flourish during holocene maximum, which was warmer than today (glacier advance and subsequent retreat since then demonstrates that it was warmer then that it is today)
  • Total reduction of man-made CO2 emissions is not only impossible, but it’s undesirable
  • Man’s accidental intervention into the carbon cycle may have inadvertently halted the slow death of plant life by reintroducing needed CO2 into the cycle
  • Ideal CO2 levels for plants are around 1000ppm, and there’s no reason to seek to avoid this level

Although I’ll provided expanded details for each presenter below, in the interest of keeping this digestible, I think it’s fair to provide my overall take on this up front, with a more detailed summary following at the end.

Dr. Mann’s key points and claims could be summarized as follows:

  • CO2 has now reached 410ppm, a level not seen in millions of years
  • There is now a veritable “hockey league” of graphs validating his original hockey stick graph
  • Based on current projections and “business as usual”, 4 to 5 degrees C warming is likely, and twice that in the Arctic
  • The models are wrong on sea ice…it’s melting FASTER than they projected (it’s not clear if the graph Dr. Mann displayed was global, arctic, or antarctic sea ice projections and observations)
  • The melting of the ice sheet represents a tipping point. Once it starts, it’s impossible to stop, and will represent substantial feedbacks kicking in
  • Climate change is now changing the jet stream, inducing large meanders into it
  • Sea level rise expectations have increased from 3′ – 4′ to 6′ – 8′

During the Q&A phase Dr. Mann addressed three questions:

1) Why don’t we move towards clean coal?
Dr. Mann’s position is that clean coal is not currently economically competitive against natural gas, but otherwise is perfectly acceptable as an energy source from a climate change perspective as long as it “keeps the genie in the bottle”
2) What, if anything, would he do differently on his hockey stick graph if he were doing it today?
Dr. Mann noted that his hockey stick graph was the first time this type of analysis had been attempted. And like any “seminal piece of work”, there were things to improve. However, though much has been learned in the intervening years, the hockey stick has been validated, most notably by the Pages2K project. See here for Willi’s take on it at the time it was published:
3) What is the optimal level of CO2. (Note: This last question was a general question addressed by each of the speakers.)
Dr. Mann’s original answer to this question was a bit evasive, or perhaps it’d be fairer to categorize it as equivocal. Either way, Nick (the moderator) pressed him to give a concrete answer. Upon being pressed Dr. Mann hypothesized that 350 – 380 ppm were optimal. He also stated that CO2 levels greater than 400ppm could result in up to 60′ to 80′ of sea level rise.

Footnote by Anthony:

I offer my sincere thanks to Brian for his excellent summary.

As many WUWT readers know, the live video feed yesterday was a disaster. The organizers recognized this, and to their credit, sent this email:

We are aware of technical challenges that made it very difficult to hear the live broadcast and are so sorry for the disappointment. We did have a separate professional recording made of the event and will share a copy of that with you as soon as it is available. Please accept our sincere apologies for the sound quality during the live event. Thank you for your patience as we work to get this remedied.

I hope that when the video is made available, we’ll be able to share it here on WUWT.

Superforest,Climate Change

via Watts Up With That?

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