L.A. Times mischaracterizes Pielke Jr.’s arguments in such a way as to make them newsworthy
Early in this L.A. Times piece, reporter Alan Zarembo characterizes Roger Pielke Jr.’s views as follows:
His research has led him to believe that it is cheaper and more effective to adapt to global warming than to fight it.
Instead of spending trillions of dollars to stabilize carbon dioxide levels across the planet — an enormously complex and expensive proposition — the world could work on reducing hunger, storm damage, and disease now, thereby neutralizing some of the most feared future problems of global warming.
Got that? Adapt to climate change instead of attempting to lower emissions. The one rather than the other.
Then way down in paragraph 23, we hear this:
The heretics support emissions cuts too, but warn that they have been oversold as a solution to coming catastrophe.
Wait, hold on … “emissions cuts too”? Does he advocate for adaptation instead of emissions cuts, as characterized in paragraphs 7 and 8, or does he advocate for adaptation in addition to emissions cuts, as characterized in paragraph 23? It’s a world of difference.
It turns out the latter characterization is the correct one. Indeed, just yesterday on his blog, RPJr. said “it is a strawman to argue that strong support for adaptation means that one cannot also provide strong support for mitigation.”
So the lead of the piece contains an error — an error that makes it look like RPJr. is advocating against mitigation; an error that makes it look like RPJr. is taking a position radically different from most climate scientists and advocates; an error that makes it look like he is a brave heretic defying the status quo from the “radical middle.”
But by his own insistence, he’s not. He believes the case for mitigation is “overwhelmingly strong,” as most scientists do. And he believes that we should do more to adapt to the effects of climate change that are already inevitable, as most scientists do. (The piece says, “most scientists agree that adaptation should play a major role in absorbing the effects of climate change.”)
In short, the solutions he advocates are the same ones pushed by just about everyone in the climate debate: a mix of adaptation and mitigation.
His policy recommendations certainly aren’t outside the mainstream, so where does this persistent “heretic” thing come in? It seems to rest entirely on that error of interpretation Zarembo made early in the piece — the same error of interpretation that has so bedeviled RPJr., cropping up over and over again through all the many pieces written by and about him, and in reactions to those pieces. One almost gets the impression that RPJr.’s arguments are of interest to a wide audience only insofar as they are misunderstood.
In reality, his argument is twofold: first, that mitigation is not the cheapest or most direct way to reduce hurricane damage (a position with which no one disagrees), and second, that his fellow mitigation advocates should stop using hurricanes as part of their advocacy. I guess that by using hurricanes as one part of a broad case for mitigation, they are implicitly arguing that mitigation is the fastest way to reduce hurricane damage, even though none of them actually think that or intend to argue it. I guess.
Anyway, he agrees with the overall case for mitigation, just not some of the rhetorical tactics used on its behalf. Surely if he could accurately explain to reporters how modest and legalistic his true arguments are, they’d quit writing these feature pieces about him and getting him in so much trouble — why, even getting him persecuted!
While he may personally benefit from the pervasive and unidirectional misunderstanding of his work, I would never accuse him of being complicit in fostering that misimpression through sins of omission or emphasis. Indeed, I assume he will contact the L.A. Times and ask it to correct the piece.