Lessons from the failure of the climate change crusade

Lessons from the failure of the climate change crusade

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Summary: Despite thirty years of efforts by most of the elite institutions of America, US governments have done little to fight climate change. While a bout of awful weather might panic America into enacting activists’ wish list, as of today this is one of the great political failures of modern American history. It is rich with lessons for when scientists warn of the next disaster. The 21st century will give us more such challenges. Let’s try to do better.

Climate change choices - dreamstime_50990297Climate change choices - dreamstime_50990297

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The puzzle of the climate change crusade

Since James Hansen brought global warming to the headlines in his 1989 Senate testimony, scientists working for aggressive public policy action have had almost every advantage. They have PR agencies (e.g., the expensive propaganda video by 10:10). They have most of America’s elite institutions supporting them, including government agencies, the news media, academia, foundations, even funding from the energy companies. The majority of scientists in all fields support the program.

The other side, “skeptics”, have some funding from energy companies and conservative groups, with the heavy lifting being done by a small number of scientists and meteorologists, plus volunteer amateurs.

What the Soviet military called the correlation of forces overwhelmingly favored those wanting action. Public policy in America and the West should have gone green many years ago. But America’s governments have done little. Climate change ranks at the bottom of most surveys of what Americans’ see as our greatest challenges? (CEOs, too.) In November, Washington voters decisively defeated an ambitious proposal to fight climate change.

And not just in the USA. Climate change policy toppled Australia’s government. The Yellow Vest protests in France are the death knell for large-scale action in France. What went wrong?

The narrative gives answers

The usual answers use the information deficit model, in which the public’s skepticism about the need for radical action results from a lack of information. Thirty years of providing information at increasing volume and intensity has accomplished nothing. Pouring more water on a rock does not make it wetter.

“Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.”
— Ancient adage of Alcoholics Anonymous. More about that here.

Others give more complex explanations, such as “Between conflation and denial – the politics of climate expertise in Australia” by Peter Tangney in the Australian Journal of Political Science.

“This paper describes an ongoing tension between alternative uses of expert knowledge that unwittingly combines facts with values in ways that inflame polarised climate change debate. Climate politics indicates a need for experts to disentangle disputed facts from identity-defining group commitments.” {See Curry’s article for more about this paper.}

There are simpler and more powerful explanations for the campaign’s failure. Lessons giving us useful lessons for dealing with future threats.


Lessons learnedLessons learned

Lesson #1: Standards are high for those sounding the alarm

“Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.”
— A harsh but operationally accurate Roman proverb.

We have seen this played out many times in books and films since the publication of When Worlds Collide in 1932. A group of scientists see a threat. They go to America’s (or the world’s) leaders and state their case, presenting the data for others to examine and answering questions. There are two levels to this process.

First, the basis for the warnings must be evaluated by an interdisciplinary team of experts outside the community sounding the alarm. Climate models are the core of the warning about climate change. They have never been so examined. Perhaps we can end the climate policy wars by a test of the models. Whatever the costs of such reviews and tests, they would be trivial compared to the need to establish public confidence in these models.

Second, questions from the public must be answered. Of course, such warnings are greeted with skepticism. That is natural given the extraordinary nature of the threat and vast commitment of resources needed to fight it. Of course, many of the questions will be foolish or ignorant. Nevertheless, they all must be answered, with the supporting data made publicly available. Whatever the cost of doing so, it is trivial compared to the need.

Scientists seeking to save the world should never say things like this…

“In response to a request for supporting data, Philip Jones, a prominent researcher {U of East Anglia} said ‘We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it?’”

– From the testimony of Stephen McIntyre before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce (the July 2006 hearings which produced the Wegman Report). Jones has not publicly denied this.

Scientists seeking to save the world should not destroy key records, which are required to be kept and made public. They should not force people to file Freedom of Information requests to get key information. And the response to FOIs should never be like this…

“The {climategate} emails reveal repeated and systematic attempts by him and his colleagues to block FOI requests from climate sceptics who wanted access to emails, documents and data. These moves were not only contrary to the spirit of scientific openness, but according to the government body that administers the FOI act were ‘not dealt with as they should have been under the legislation.’” {The Guardian.}

Steve McIntyre has documented the defensive and self-defeating efforts of climate scientists to keep vital information secret, often violating the disclosure policies of journals, universities, and government funding agencies. To many laypeople these actions by scientists scream “something wrong”.

Yet these were common behaviors by climate scientists to requests for information by both scientists and amateurs. This kind of behavior, more than anything else, provoked skepticism. Rightly or not, this lack of transparency suggested that the scientists sounding the alarm were hiding something.

The burden of proof rests on those warning the world about a danger requiring trillions of dollars to mitigate, and perhaps drastic revisions to – or even abandoning – capitalism (as in Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate and “In Fiery Speeches, {Pope} Francis Excoriates Global Capitalism“).

Lesson #2: don’t get tied to activists

Activists latch onto threats for their own purposes. They exaggerate threats, attack those asking questions, and poison the debate. Scientists who treat them as allies must remember the ancient rule that “silence means assent.” Failure to speak when activists misrepresent the science discredits both groups.

For a sad example, look at “the pause.” Starting in 2006 climate scientists noticed a slowing in the rate of atmospheric warming. By 2009 there were peer-reviewed papers about it (e.g., in GRL), and it was an active focus of research (see links to these 29 papers). In 2013 the UK Met Office published a series of papers about the pause, which shifted the frontier of climate science from discussion about the existence of the “pause” to its causes (see links to these 38 papers). Some scientists gave forecasts of its duration (see links to 17 forecasts) – since a pause is, by definition, temporary.

During this period activists wrote scores, or hundreds, of articles not only denying that there was a pause in warming – but mocking as “deniers” people citing the literature about it. For example, see Phil Plait’s articles at Slate here and here. The leaders of climate science remained silent. Even those writing papers about the pause remained silent while activists ignored their work.

While an impressive display of climate scientists’ message discipline, it blasted away their credibility for those who saw the science behind the curtain of propaganda.

Learn from mistakesLearn from mistakes

Conclusions

“The time for debate has ended”
Marcia McNutt (then editor-in-Chief of Science and now President of the NAS) in “The beyond-two-degree inferno“, an editorial in Science, 3 July 2015.

I agree with McNutt: the public policy debate has ended. A critical mass of the US public has lost confidence in climate science as an institution (i.e., rejecting its warnings). As a result, the US probably will take no substantial steps to prepare for possible future climate change, not even preparing for re-occurrence of past extreme weather. The weather will determine how policy evolves, and eventually prove which side was right.

All that remains is to discuss the lessons we can learn from this debacle so that we can do better in the future. More challenges lie ahead in which we will need scientists to evaluate risks and find the best responses. Let’s hope we do better next time.

For More Information

For more information about this vital issue see the keys to understanding climate change and these posts about ways to end the climate wars…

  1. Important: climate scientists can restart the climate change debate – & win.
  2. Thomas Kuhn tells us what we need to know about climate science.
  3. Daniel Davies’ insights about predictions can unlock the climate change debate.
  4. Karl Popper explains how to open the deadlocked climate policy debate.
  5. Paul Krugman talks about economics. Climate scientists can learn from his insights.
  6. Milton Friedman’s advice about restarting the climate policy debate.
  7. A candid climate scientist explains how to fix the debate.
  8. Roger Pielke Jr.: climate science is a grab for power.

 

 

Superforest,Climate Change

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