The Climate Post: Melting ice makes slippery slope
First things first: Several high-profile exits from the climate conversation — Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) from the Senate; BP, Caterpillar, and ConocoPhillips, from USCAP; and chief climate negotiator Yvo de Boer from the U.N. — were widely reported this week. None of these stories carry as much long-term significance as the under-reported-on difficulty of many major English-language public information sources to communicate both that potentially dangerous climate change is underway and that professional researchers have enough confidence, despite uncertainties, to attribute it to human activity.
This problem is giving leaders an opportunity to shut down climate policy discussions.
Climate science and the policies designed to address it will never be understood and appreciated by the public quite as well as, say, pairs figure skating is. It’s for the best, really. But, if verifiability and accuracy are qualities that we would like to see in leaders from every sector of civic life, then — as consumers and producers of public information products — maybe we should set a baseline, and point out when something smells funny. So, for today, I’d like to loosen Climate Post‘s standard format, and share my own reaction to this WSJ piece.
It smells funny.
This next section, this second one, here, is fake; I made it all up: The spate of recent controversies about climate research has given fresh voice to a group of scientists who question the mainstream view on two points: that human activity is warming the planet at a slow, imperceptible pace; and that human societies and institutions will be able to adapt. James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said in his occasional emailed newsletter, “At the rate world policymakers are chasing Titanic-like policies down to the bottom of the rising Atlantic ocean, our grandchildren, perhaps even our children will curse our generation as the most murderous and selfish of any in the four billion year history of life on Earth.”
Hansen’s is one voice in a coordinated chorus who are taking advantage of recent climatological observations — rising average ocean temperatures, retreating mountain glaciers, earlier spring blossoms — to promote to a wider audience the same criticisms of what they call “mainstream, slow-warming suicide science” that they have advocated, with great difficulty, in smaller circles for some time.
In the economics and policy sphere, Hansen’s concerns are echoed by the Anti-Refrigerator Forum of the American Renewables Foundation (ARF-ARF), a group of liberal economists from prestigious institutions who want to outlaw residential and commercial refrigeration in the U.S. because cooling chemicals, hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs, are powerful heat-trapping gases and refrigeration causes high carbon emissions. “It’ll be the refrigerators that march us up nine degrees Celsius,” said Akaky Akakievich, chairman of the ARF-ARF …
Okay, back to ‘reality,’ however defined, and non-fiction, here: That’s what an article might look like that attempted to take ideas from the (left) fringe of climate policy and pump them up into a credible movement claiming to know something no one on Earth knows: How and how quickly industrial emissions and land-use changes might change the planet’s life-support systems. It would be a disservice to write an article like that, at least without emphasizing where the critics’ extreme predictions for the future deviate from the consensus expectation: something in the vicinity of three degrees C of warming, from a doubling of pre-industrial CO2 levels, over several decades.
To be charitable, what the Journal has done is overlook the likelihood that its readership doesn’t understand the first thing about manmade global warming: that there is manmade global warming. This is understood at a much higher confidence level than newspaper reporting on external security threats to the US. Even if that’s still not nearly as high as we’d like.
The article is a novelty story, but is not presented as such.
What seems to be the problem?: The problem seems to be that credibility-killing IPCC errors and the University of East Anglia emails easily cause confusion among things that should not be confused. Climate science, most visibly in the IPCC reports, might be thought of as cascading tiers of knowledge, arranged from scientists’ high to low confidence in it. It is a vast enterprise, and not all observations have equal weight. The Journal gives equal weight to all things climate science. This sounds like a benign mistake, but given what these misunderstandings (disunderstandings?) are doing to our ability to have a rational policy discussion, it’s potentially dangerous.
The WSJ piece looks at four familiar voices — Bjorn Lomborg, John Christy, Richard Lindzen, and Willie Soon — plus a retired Columbia University climatology professor whose last name means “puppet” in Russian. They each dispute either that global warming is mostly manmade or that cutting emissions is a way to respond. (Lomborg, the only person quoted who is not a research scientist, says, “It’s important to say that the scandals we’ve had don’t change the fundamental point that global warming is man-made and we need to tackle it.”) The story is pegged to Texas’ decision to challenge the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s move to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
The article’s logical fallacy is the hasty generalization, with a smattering of the slippery slope, and some straw men thrown in for good measure. Now don’t get me wrong. The IPCC’s error about the Himalayan glaciers is horrifying generally and to an extent personally embarrassing. An elementary mistake about Dutch geography undermines the IPCC’s credibility on other unfamiliar simple things. The UEA emails have shown that there needs to be more openness in scientific research. But check out the key line in the article:
It’s too soon to tell whether the critics’ views will force the scientific community to revisit the prevailing view of man-made climate change. Many of their colleagues remain resolute in their stance that global warming is caused mainly by humankind.
It’s fallacious to construct an article on the premise that Lomborg, Christy, Lindzen, Soon, and Kukla have data or ideas that could wipe out the basic physics and environmental science that underpin manmade climate change. The question is wrong. There are no dumb questions, perhaps, but there are wrong questions and this is one of them. The reason that “colleagues remain resolute” is because they have so much data to support their arguments. Could they be wrong? Of course they could be wrong (kind of … ). Is that a Mack truck accelerating toward us on the highway? Of course it might not be. But let’s get out of the way until whatever it is passes, shall we?
The media privileges virtually anything anyone says over what the data say. But the data matta! This creates a stylistic conundrum for writers. No sane publication would ever start an article on this topic thusly: “This week in Washington, atmospheric carbon dioxide absorbed and emitted electromagnetic radiation at wavelengths between, roughly, 12 to 15 microns. That’s the reliably demonstrated fact from which science’s robust understanding of manmade climate change flows, an understanding challenged by the same four people whose views are contradicted by the evidence in geophysics … “
Zzzzzzzz. The media’s bias isn’t against a political faction, but against boredom.
Punchline: The headline of the story is correct: “Climate-research controversies create opening for critics.” They are creating openings. It’s true-but only because editors and reporters are showing at best a lack of rigor.
Winds of Change at Wall Street Journal?: The Wall Street Journal‘s ownership has transferred to News Corp., which owns and operates Fox News and other politically charged news outlets in the U.S. and other parts of the Anglo-speaking world. The paper recently shut down its “Environmental Capital” blog, for the stated reason, one WSJ staff member told me, that it wasn’t getting enough page hits.
There are still, thankfully, at least a handful of prominent reporters who understand climate change from soup to nuts. Their work, and quite frankly, their jobs, becomes more significant as widespread, impoverished mass communication dramatically and rapidly undermines climate policy of any kind at home and abroad.
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
Get Grist in your inbox