Lessons from “How we broke the climate change debates”

Fabius Maximus has a post here commenting on the broken climate change debates, focusing on the role of climate scientists and climate change activists in causing this. It leads with the assertion that:

Climate science as an institution has become dysfunctional; large elements of the public no longer trust it

The blame for which, apparently, lies entirely with climate scientists as a group, and with those who support their findings and advocate rational policy responses.

This is pretty representative of political (unfortunately, now mainstream conservative) commentary on climate science in the U.S.

Some comments on the piece.

First, the author (per “about” page) seems to suggest that he is looking to transcend the gridlocked/polarized ideological discussion that plagues us, but unfortunately this piece is pretty typical of exactly this sort of hyper-ideological framing and posturing, e.g. from the introduction:

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 if the mainstream IPCC-type policy recommendations on climate have anything remotely to do with “abandoning capitalism”. Once we define the topic as a referendum on whether we should abandon capitalism, we haven’t polarized the topic at all, have we? As is commonly done in the genre, the author mines statements from apparent ideological enemies (in this case author Naomi Klein and Pope Francis) to fuel the framing.

As an aside, the actual economic context with global warming is that we are in fact dealing with a blindspot in capitalism – a negative externality problem on an unprecedented scale – but this is hardly inherently new, or something which proves the case for a totalitarian command economy run by adjunct earth science professors as the ideological castle defenders appear to fear. The concept of negative externalities is not a subversive Stalinist one, but a relatively well-known class of problem routinely taught in economics 101 courses. If it is cheaper for every factory to dump hazardous byproducts directly into rivers and they do so, it means that some of the costs of their economic activity (and transactions with their customers) are being passed on to others via health costs, reduced access to freshwater and so forth. Traditionally, the solution to these problems requires revisions to the rules under which market activity takes place, i.e. regulations. For example, the late 20th century smog problem in southern California wasn’t improved by unregulated market innovations or earnest exhortations to citizens to voluntarily figure out how to reduce their emissions, it was improved via the Clean Air Act. I expect a large majority of the population including many conservatives support such regulation where the evidence for health issues is clear.

FM’s piece is rife with accusations that climate scientists have brought this mess on themselves, and are the source of the bitter nature of the climate discussion. He cites Steve McIntyre’s testimony on the “defensive and self-defeating efforts of climate scientists to keep vital information secret”, referring to a relatively extreme incident as if it is indicative of a pervasive pattern in the field. McIntyre of course is a quite polarizing figure in the climate science debate, sarcastically referred to as the auditor by some scientists for his approach, with a controversial history of anti-AGW activism and attacks on climate scientists.

There are thousands of pages of internet content dedicated to rehashing McIntyre’s disputes with climate scientists, so not a useful exercise here. Clearly, the real (and only) ‘scandal’ in the ‘ClimateGate’ event on the side of the scientists was in fact the defensive and combative behavior of Jones and others, who received ample condemnation within and outside science for this. While it is fair to reiterate that we expect scientists to maintain a higher standard of decorum than their political critics, and we do, it is also fair to note that scientists are human, and that it’s not incredibly surprising that they respond defensively when repeatedly and baselessly accused of fraud. It’s also worth being fair and noting that these incredibly overhyped “fraud” accusations consistently fall flat, e.g. that the ‘ClimateGate’ participants were consistently cleared of scientific misconduct by eight different international scientific, political and legal inquiries.

Casually citing the decade-old ClimateGate affair and McIntyre’s impression that he found his targeted ‘audits’ to be defensive is hardly compelling evidence that the blame for the state of the climate debate rests primarily with climate scientists. FM further supports his case by stating that climate scientists responded more defensively to his personal inquiries than have any other scientists that he’s dealt with. The only possible explanation for this, apparently, is some character flaw shared by thousands of climate scientists in every nation of the world.

But how many scientists in other disciplines are routinely vilified publicly in major media outlets as frauds, despite being cleared by high-profile investigations? How many are hauled before Kafkaesque (often shockingly ignorant) Congressional inquiries to answer for research that has been repeatedly validated and reproduced by other scientific teams and techniques? How many battle baseless but recurring accusations that they have participated in “purges”, or fraudulently “adjusted” data? Perhaps there are a wee few other political and ideological forces at play here adding fuel to the fire, aside from the “defensive” tendencies of a few climate scientists?

FM then wades into the “pause” – for the uninitiated a somewhat unphysical, not-terribly-rigorous claim popular among anti-AGW activists that global warming has stopped due to flatter surface (and especially upper air) temperature readings in the early 2000s. The most popular media/internet versions of the claim are rooted in cherry picking a temperature index (one indirect, microwave-based and model-driven measurement of upper air temperature in particular, RSS) and on thin/misleading statistical significance interpretations (i.e., shorter temperature trends that neither provide significant evidence that the larger multi-decade warming trend has changed or that warming is affirmatively happening are offered as evidence that global warming in its entirety has stopped.)

FM references the genuine scientific investigation into the short-term causes of the flatter surface/air temperature trends, and writes:

During this activists wrote scores, probably hundreds, of articles not only denying that there was a pause in warming — but mocking as “deniers” people citing the literature

A fairly typical anti-AGW framing of this particular micro-debate. In reality there was a lot of wrangling about semantics here. Scientists never actually associated the “pause” with an assumed cessation of global warming itself as a process, but the anti-AGW camp continually insisted on this. FM’s comment is typical of the debate:

Referring to the “so called pause” is typical message discipline, use of scare quote despite the scores of papers using the term

I put “pause” in quotes above for the same reason those condemned here do – in reality, the term is not well defined, and critics want it to mean something different than what scientists actually tend to be talking about. For example, the IPCC defines it solely as a relative slower rate of observed surface warming for a short time period in specific temperature indices, but many of the references in other scientific discussions and in the online debate use different meanings.

Demanding unhighlighted use of the term “pause” – with its implication that global warming as a phenomenon has actually paused in some way – is simply a debate technique: anti-AGW activists understandably seeking to capitalize on the advantageous term, given the goal of steering public opinion away from understanding the more nuanced issues as discussed in science. (Scientists often unintentionally collaborate with this sort of pressure.)

To understand the micro-debate on this one it’s important to understand some distinct concepts in the scientific case. Global warming is rooted in the physics of earth’s energy budget (balance between incoming and outgoing radiation). This surface slowing in the early 2000s never really raised fundamental questions about the core physical processes both because of continued direct observation of the enhanced greenhouse effect and continuing accumulation of very large amounts of heat in the oceans. The investigation into the causes of the surface temp flattening over the past decade generally led to a range of short-term factors such as a cyclical tendency to bury more heat in the ocean during La Nina as well as measurement issues. And of course the “pause means global warming has stopped” shenanigans were continually debunked by a variety of arguments.

In other words, the scientific community was well-justified in evidence in resisting this political hijacking of the terminology and issue. The whole thing is fairly resolved now as the year 2014 set yet another temperature record and a larger El Nino has (after an extended slumber) now arrived driving a more dramatic new global record in 2015 (likely to continue to seep into the upper air measurements over coming months, though the contrarian blogs are confidently proclaiming the upper air temps will resist it – will be an interesting sideshow to watch.) FM, however, (still!) opportunistically casts the entire episode as a case study of how climate scientists misbehave, by resisting hostile and misleading reframing of the actual scientific issues and complexity.

FM charitably concedes that there may be something to climate science and associated scientific method (this may not sound like much, but we take what we can get in this debate), but he sees questionable intent in events like the meteorological agencies around the world declaring 2014 to be the hottest ever based on it being the hottest measurement recorded (when – gasp – these measurements are actually statistical arguments under the hood since the exact surface temperature of the entire earth is sampled rather than known precisely!) or the fact that the role of climate change in California’s drought is necessarily a complex question (not a simple question of a single cause.)

FM’s ideological point of reference appears to only allow him to see one part of the dynamic here – all of the public’s questions about this issue are laid at the feet of missteps on the part of scientists or climate change activists.

What’s the missing elephant here? Well there is an astounding and continual media deluge (yes, often funded by political and industry interests, we can hardly ignore) of misleading, conspiracy-themed and often outrageously dishonest anti-AGW arguments (that last is one of my personal favorites, Forbes’ reporting of a psychological survey of petroleum workers in Alberta as proving “Majority Of Scientists Skeptical Of Global Warming Crisis”). This entire part of the story seems almost completely invisible to FM. A number of research papers have looked into the sad state of climate debate and come to relatively different conclusions.

FM has spent a bunch of time haggling over survey results with Bart Verheggen [edit: correct misspelling]. His own comments seem to confirm that this haggling doesn’t add up to much of significance. It certainly doesn’t change the fact that an overwhelming majority of publishing experts on climate support the mainstream view as articulated by the IPCC, and that the mainstream view is endorsed literally by every national academy of science and physical science organization in the world. But FM and others continue to imply that statements acknowledging this rather obvious and significant state of affairs are deeply unfair or dishonest somehow, some way, and therefore damaging to the reasoned discussion they desperately want to have.

FM concludes with:

All that remains is to discuss the lessons we can learn from this debacle so that we can do better in the future.

… and given the above, hard to have a ton of enthusiasm for the fantastic lessons we’re going to draw here.



7 thoughts on “Lessons from “How we broke the climate change debates”

  1. It seems like a pretty standard narrative at the moment. “There’s a real problem with the climate change debate, it’s all the fault of others, who I will now malign and insult”. If people were serious about improving the debate, they could do so quite easily. Stop insulting and maligning those with whom they’d like to speak.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There is so much here that is completely wrong. To take just one point:

    “Clearly, the real (and only) ‘scandal’ in the ‘ClimateGate’ event on the side of the scientists was in fact the defensive and combative behavior of Jones and others, who received ample condemnation within and outside science for this. ”

    Firstly, there were many serious issues raised. The corruption of peer review was just one. An editor wrote to a reviewer saying “Confidentially I now need a hard and if required extensive case for rejecting”
    and in another email
    “I believe I gave you one some time ago … which I think will be a rejection but I need hard justification . ”

    Secondly, there was no “ample condemnation”. The real scandal of climategate is not that one or two scientists behaved badly, but that the whole community tried to claim that nothing was wrong.


    1. The mined email quotes have been beaten to death on the internet. I won’t even bother to link to the counter-arguments as I’m sure you actually know where to find them. What we can say is that the allegations around peer review were explicitly addressed by various formal inquiries, in general finding no subversion of the peer review process. It’s fine that you disagree with the inquiries, but in my experience such disagreement tends to be based on ignoring facts found in discovery and just doubling down on the preferred interpretation of mined quotes.

      It sounds like you are referring to the discussions around Soon & Baliunas? I don’t personally think it is any great scandal that scientists had a seriously crappy attitude about a paper they didn’t like. Clearly, these scientists were not alone in believing that Soon & Baliunas was not very good research and was being used primarily as propaganda for anti-AGW activism. As a result, they thought it was being shopped to a less trustworthy journal to avoid peer review. Is this an opinion they are not allowed to have?

      In my view, science is a slugfest, not a lovefest. At some point I think it is playing into persistent anti-science narratives to pretend that science only works when scientists are behaving like angelic Vulcans, removed from petty human emotions such as, you know, worrying about the future of their grandchildren. It is *healthy* that when scientists think something is shlock, they don’t hold back. If they are unfairly attacking good research, well the scientists backing that research will find their own allies, and the affair will spill out into journal wars and other forums. I don’t think there is really an alternative that works. I recall some similar thoughts in this blog post:


      Do you really want to rally around Soon and Baliunas as an example of outstanding neglected research, unfairly attacked by the mainstream scientists? As long as we are talking about scandals, in 2015 we of course have more context about Soon’s controversial sources of funding, e.g. consistent oil/coal industry funding of research, with allegations that he violated ethical journal policy expectations around disclosing these. I assume you pay as much attention to *that* sort of scandal as you do these quotes that concern you? Like FM, your comments suggest that the entire political context of the discussion we are having is somehow peculiarly invisible to you.

      For the record, my personal view is that such funding should be disclosed, but research should not be discounted solely because of its source – again, science is a slugfest. The criteria for scientific success are the usual and timeless ones: productivity, testability, reproducibility.

      Whose work has been more consistently reproduced in the past decade, those working on that much-maligned paleoclimate reconstruction a decade ago, or those like Soon arguing against AGW? That’s the more interesting question in science and for the world, but I worry it’s not the conversation you are most interested in having.


      1. No, I am not referring to the Soon/Baliunas incident. I am referring to two instances when a journal editor abused his position, which is suppose be impartial, by telling a reviewer what his recommendation should be.


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