Climate bloggers belong to one of the more politically relevant subcultures in the blogosphere. It’s hard to quantify to what degree they influence the public discourse on climate science and policy. Suffice to say: they matter.
But I would argue that only the two opposite ends of the climate spectrum in the blogosphere are represented in the media and the public debate. That, in my view, has contributed to an oversimplification of climate issues and helped exacerbate polarization of the public dialogue. As a journalist who sometimes reports on climate change, I bear my share of responsibility.
But one of the benefits of having my own blog is that I can do my (small) part to rectify this blind spot. So in the last year, as I’ve dived deeper into the climate blogosphere, I have discovered a rich array of thoughtful voices and perspectives that are located across the climate spectrum. They deserve greater appreciation and exposure.
So last week, I reached out to two climate bloggers I have come to admire for their nuanced views and the way they conduct themselves. They occupy a nebulous middle ground in the spectrum, and while their blogs defy simple labels, I would have to say that their peers in the climate blogosphere probably place them on opposite sides of the climate debate, based on where they think their sympathies lie.
My objective here was to push back against such one-dimensional categorization (including my own), which is often reflected in the impolite comment threads of any blogs that delve into climate science or climate policy. I figure that if there is common ground to be established in the climate debate, perhaps two climate bloggers who are known for their civility and who, perception-wise, are considered to be on opposite sides, can help pave the way.
Bart Verheggen is a Holland-based atmospheric scientist, who is unfailingly polite and often quite insightful. In addition to his own blog, Bart is a frequent commenter at many climate blogs, where he often raises the level of debate.
Chicago-based Lucia Liljegren is a mechanical engineer who has worked at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (on projects related to remediation and storage of radioactive nuclear waste) and as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at Iowa State University. Judith Curry, a climate researcher at Georgia Tech, calls Lucia “probably the least controversial person in the climate blogosphere, because of her cheerfulness and sense of humor, honesty, and open mindedness.”
Several days ago, I chatted with both Lucia and Bart via Skype. After editing the transcribed hour long conversation, I asked both of them to look over my edit of the transcript and make any necessary clarifications. They made minimal changes. Below is part one of the exchange.
Keith: Stanford University’s Jon Krosnick has a new poll out this week, which he says reaffirms that a “large majority of Americans” believe that man-made global warming is happening, and that something should be done about it. Taking note, Roger Pielke Jr. wrote:
As I have said for many years”¦the battle for public opinion on climate change has been won by those who argue that there is a profound human influence on climate and action is warranted. This has been the message of opinion polls for as long as 20 years.
Yet in the climate blogosphere, there continues to be this highly charged battle between two sides, the skeptics of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and those who belong to that “large majority.” So why is there this endless warring if the battle for public opinion has been won?
Bart: I think the [climate] blogosphere is dominated by the extremes of either side, of those who very much downplay the [climate change] problem and those who are very much convinced of the problem and indeed in some circumstances overplay the problem.
Lucia: Definitely in terms of composition, you get both of those groups. My blog gets people who do think that there is either so little warming as to not matter at all, or that the warming we have is all natural. I don’t think they’re a majority on my blog, but there are some. And I know there are other blogs (such as wattsupwiththat) where there’s a lot of people who either think there is no warming or admit that there’s warming in the record but don’t believe it’s caused by people.
I think people on both ends just want to talk more.
Bart: Do you think so? I have the feeling that a lot of people on both ends are actually quite content talking to their own, because they each consider the other side””or at least the more extreme ones on either side””they feel that the more extreme ones on the other side are lunatics.
Keith: In a recent post, Andrew Freedman wrote that, “climategate”
helped foster the notion that climate science is controlled by a tight-knit cabal of experts determined to rig the science to suit their best interests.
Lucia, do you believe that?
Lucia: All of climate science, certainly not. The emails do show some people trying to control certain publications, and exerting a lot of influence in some of those discussions back and forth. There are many, many climate scientists doing research without regard to any sort of notion of what the right answer is. But I think there is some tendency for what Judy Curry called tribalism, and attempts to block certain types of information”¦maybe not block it, but at least make it very low visibility. So it can never be all of climate science, it just wouldn’t even happen. But things can happen that sort of make things lean in one way or the other and that’s kind of the way I see things. What do you think Bart?
Bart: I would express myself maybe slightly differently, but I don’t have a big issue with what you’re saying. I do think, indeed that climategate spread “the notion that climate science is controlled by a tight-knit cabal” who rig the science in a preconceived direction far and wide. And I do think that that notion is a very implausible conspiracy theory, which Lucia alluded to, and for which there is no evidence at all, neither in the emails or anywhere else.
That said, I do know there is a certain degree of defensiveness from the part of climate scientists and their supporters toward people who have criticism. (Just to also note: I have never been in any high profile climate research, and I have not been involved with the IPCC; I’m just on the sidelines here.) And that degree of defensiveness, that is what I agree with in Judith Curry’s analysis and I also feel kind of the same with what Lucia is saying here. To what extent that goes further into blocking other views, or diminishing their visibility on purpose, that’s something that I’m not so sure of and I would actually tend to think not. But to be honest, I don’t really know.
I do think that the defensive attitudes are basically the response of scientists being attacked by so many people. And a big portion of those people who have criticism””not everyone, I’d like to add””but a big portion of them do so with a totally incoherent set of arguments, like “oh, there’s no warming,” or “there’s a little warming and it’s good, and by the way, it’s due to the sun”¦”
Lucia: Well, you have to be a little bit careful when you put those all together, because there’s many different people.
Bart: Yes, true.
Lucia: Bart’s accusation is that one person individually holds many incoherent views all at the same time, and while there may be a few people out there like that, more often its one person has theory A, one person has theory B, one has theory C.
Bart: You are very right, and the criticism comes in many shades of gray. That’s absolutely correct. And I think that the climate scientific establishment and their supporters should indeed examine their sometimes overly defensive attitudes. To immediately ascribe any criticism to like, “oh, you’re a stupid skeptic or a denier,” or whatnot, well some of the criticism might actually have merit. (Even though on the internet, I think it’s a minority.)
Keith: Lucia, I know you see yourself in the middle of the climate spectrum. What blogs are closer to the far end of the skeptic spectrum?
Lucia: Obviously Anthony Watts runs posts that highlight the notion there are big gaps in the case for Anthropogenic global warming. And they’ll mostly be against the idea it’s anthropogenic. So that one is definitely more skeptical of warming than mine would be.
Keith: What blogger is on the far end of the AGW spectrum.
Lucia: I’d say Joe Romm. I would put him on the strongest AGW, advocacy/activist end of the spectrum. I do find his long, stream of consciousness screeds difficult to read.
Keith: Bart, how would you define the spectrum?
Bart: I have a different view of the spectrum than Lucia has. I remember Michal Tobis on his blog had a good characterization of the spectrum. I would say that mainstream science is in the “˜middle’, which in the blogosphere is represented by sites like Real Climate, and other scientists like James Annan, William Connolley, Michael Tobis, Robert Grumbine, SkepticalScience and others. That’s what I would characterize as the middle ground. Because it’s really a fairly good representation of what you also read in the literature.
The IPCC position is kind of the middle ground there. And then you have people who critique it with varying levels of intensity and with varying levels of evidence based, as Lucia is doing. And you have more paranoia-based ones, such as Marc Morano. That’s someone who I would put on the lunatic fringe on the skeptic side. And there’s definitely a broad range in between””including both paranoid and (more or less) valid criticisms. Of course, there is also a critique that the IPCC position is too conservative, which I discussed on my blog.
Then you have someone like Steve McIntyre, who sometimes has valid criticisms, but he packages it in such a way, that it goes against all my”¦ [searching for the right words]
Keith: Is it his tone?
Bart: It’s the hidden insinuations and accusations that he’s always putting down there. And the way he slams the climate scientists and put motives there”¦I don’t like it at all. It takes away from some things he might have a valid point in. Now I’m not actually interested at all in the hockey stick debate. So I’m not following things [at Climate Audit] in detail, but he might actually have some points there. I’m not saying he doesn’t.
And then you have on the other side [of the spectrum], you have”¦yeah Joe Romm, goes sometimes”¦he’s a tricky case to characterize. I don’t like his style of communication. I think he’s a little bit too strong with language. By and large, though, he doesn’t stray far away from the science. He doesn’t often say things that are wrong. He does, however, put out a one-sided view. If you say, he emphasizes worst cases and de-emphasizes others, yes, that is something he does sometimes.
On the lunatic fringe of the alarmist side””and I don’t like that word, alarmist, at all””there are people who claim that the world is going to end in 20 years and humanity will go extinct if we don’t put down 100,000 windmills tomorrow. For me, they would be the equivalent of Marc Morano. Joe Romm doesn’t come even close to being such an equivalent.
Keith: Lucia, what about Bart’s contention that Steve McIntyre undermines his legitimate criticism with his insinuations or the way he goes about communicating them?
Lucia: Well, I’m not sure Steve does that. I can understand why Bart thinks it’s that way. It’s difficult to judge it without looking at some of the history. It’s not at all clear to me what the cause and effect of that is. It’s not clear to me because I didn’t start reading Climate Audit when the first hockey stick wars all started. But there’s a point of view out there that when Steve was presenting these things in the tone that Bart would think is the more appropriate one, he was still getting shot down and treated badly and was on the receiving end of the snide remarks and a lot of other things. So I don’t know which is the chicken and which is the egg.
Bart: I don’t know either. I haven’t followed that from the start either. I have my suspicions, but I don’t really know, I haven’t checked it out.
Keith: Bart, on your blog you once wrote:
The more relevant discussion for society is about how to deal with climate change (rather than about Siberian tree rings or other scientific details). How do we act in the face of uncertainty, but with real risks of problematic consequences?
What do you make of that Lucia?
Lucia: Actually, Bart and I interact most often at Roger Pielke Jr.’s blog. That’s the kind of topic that Roger often brings up. I don’t even bring them up, because I don’t have as many ideas as to what we can actually get through in the political process.
But it’s absolutely true that the real questions are, what sorts of actions are we going to take? I tend to take the view that, people need to talk about actions we can take that would be beneficial whether or not someone believes climate change is happening and whether or not it was caused by humans. Because sometimes the whole debate about that discussion gets in the way of some issues that have to do with energy sources we need to access that we can resolve without learning whether or not climate change is true. Or at least you can get some line of agreement. You’ll never get 100 percent.
Keith: Along those lines, there’s a new paper out from Roger and other scholars–known as the the Hartwell Paper–that argues we should decouple climate change from energy policy. And then we can move on from this war over climate science, which I’m sure both of you would agree is, to a large degree, a proxy war over policy. Should we do that, should we just get past the climate science war and stop pretending what the real fight is about?
Bart: Not entirely. First of all, I don’t think we should decouple the climate change issue from energy policy, but I do agree that we should stop pretending what the real fight is about, which is: How to respond to climate change?
Secondly, If we leave the question totally aside of whether there is climate change and whether it was caused by humans, and only do what we would otherwise also do because of declining fossil fuel reserves and other concerns (geopolitical, environmental, health), I think in a way, then, we would be giving in to the people that don’t believe there is such a thing as anthropogenic global warming.
I think on the other hand, the more rational approach””how I see it””would be to take the broad scientific view of the [climate change] problem, with associated uncertainties and risks, and out of that view, then say, well, given what we know of the uncertainties and risks, what is the prudent action to do. I sometimes characterize this situation at my blog, as if it’s bad, it’s really bad, and if it’s good, it’s still pretty bad. In other words, our current actions are actually still too little in a way, even if climate change is less of a problem than we think it is, even if climate sensitivity is 1.5 or 2 degrees rather than 3 degrees per doubling of CO2, which is deemed the most likely value. Of course, things could also turn out worse than expected.
Lucia: But the question is, what if there is a way to make decisions where we reduce the amount of reliance on carbon types of fuel without necessarily resolving the issue of climate change. The issue of climate change can still continue to be discussed. But if we’re trying to decide whether we’re gonna encourage nuclear power, whether we’re going to encourage alternate energy methods, there are other good reasons that have to do that, which have to do with energy security, peak oil and other types of reasons. Is it necessary that we must have everybody on board, agreeing with the IPCC’s view of climate change?
Bart: I’m not saying that we shouldn’t discuss climate science anymore. If people who are so inclined, like you and I, who want to discuss those kinds of details, then sure, go ahead.
But the thing is, right now, a lot of the discussion that is purportedly about climate science, is actually much more about the different ideas people have on how to respond to an issue like this: those who want to do something about the problem, and those who don’t want to do something. That’s what the disagreement is really about, I think. In a way, the debate about climate proxies is just a proxy for the debate on how to respond to the [climate change] issue.
But I think you’re right. There’s a lot of other reasons to reduce our reliance on carbon-based fuels. But a lot of those reasons don’t have the same urgency, because fossil fuel reserves are declining slowly”¦and if it’s just about fossil fuels, then people will say, “we can do a bit more innovation of new technology, and that’s really it, there’s no reason to put solar panels anywhere.” I think climate change is still an important factor besides the other factors that make decarbonization a very important issue.
Keith: Well, we should talk about this, because that sense of urgency is something that is hotly debated across the climate spectrum. Here’s the thing: there seems to be wide agreement by scientists that the worst of potential consequences won’t be felt until later in this century, decades down the road. So if the average person looks out his window and doesn’t see any urgency, and he doesn’t feel personally affected by climate change, it seems a little problematic to have a policy debate on climate change hinge on the urgency argument.
Lucia: As a practical matter, if you’re going to persuade people about the urgency of climate change, that is problematic. When you have a democracy and you have to get people to make collective decisions, the fact that on a day to day basis, especially when you live in, say, Illinois or Minnesota, it’s hard to look out there and say, gosh, this looks urgent. Without doing extensive reading, it makes that a very hard sell.
So some of the other things would be easier sells to get things changed. People don’t like to see their energy prices going up. The notion that you could have more sustained progress and keep your energy bills down by trying to invest in alternative energy might be more attractive to some people. Of course, you’re still going to have arguments about whether or not it’s true. But urgency is a hard sell.
Keith: Leaving aside the practical hurdles that makes climate change a hard sell, what about the case for scientific urgency, which Bart was alluding to? I think what he was saying is that all these other reasons for decarbonization are important but they don’t come with that same sense of urgency as anthropogenic global warming. Do you agree with that Lucia?
Lucia: [A long pause] You see, on a blog I can just like, not answer that. I’m finding myself…I mean, I know the urgency argument is a very hard sell. There’s certainly the case, that if there is uncertainty, and the reality of AGW falls on the high side, combined with an uncertainty on the high side is correct, and heat capacity– the planet is big and responds slowly ““ then, if things are worse than we think, then there’s definitely a huge urgency and we would need to be doing stuff.
But the problem is that you have the urgency argument coupled with the uncertainty argument. [Note: In a follow-up email exchange, Lucia wrote: "I was thinking about the counter argument of what if the truth is on the low side of the uncertainty spread-- well, what then?"] I think we need to do something now, and I would really like to see us going towards more nuclear options and I like alternative energy, if we can get people to put them in [KK: Lucia is referring to NIMBYISM.] As I said, I usually avoid blogging about this, because there’s a lot of hard questions that I just don’t have very good answers for.
Bart: I don’t have real answers to that either. But I think it’s true what you say, that the urgency is a very hard sell, because it’s kind of counterintuitive to the nature of the problem. [Global warming] is pretty much a problem in slow motion. In that sense, the word urgency is very counterintitutive. And I don’t actually know if those other reasons for decarbonization, like energy independence, declining fossil fuel reserves, safety, health”¦ I say they’re not very urgent but I don’t claim to know very much about any of those other aspects. So I’m not actually so sure about that part of my statement.
But the reason why I think climate science tells us climate change is more urgent than it seems at first sight is exactly those time scales you allude to. In order to change the energy system, that takes a tremendous amount of time. David Keith made an argument along these lines in some presentations.
There’s a big inertia in the energy system, there’s also a big inertia in the carbon cycle. If you reduce your emissions, it takes a long time for the concentration to actually go down, because it’s a long lifetime for Co2. The climate system has a lot of inertia as well: It takes time for the temperature to respond to a change in concentration.
So you have a large amount of inertia in the energy system, in the carbon cycle and in the climate system, which means if you start taking actions, it’s decades into the future until they start taking effect.
If you combine that inertia in those different systems, with uncertainty of the precise effect, and with some knowledge that it could go pretty wrong with a business as usual scenario, then you have to take proactive steps, and that’s where the urgency comes from.
In my view, it’s similar to a chainsmoker who gets told by a physician, “hey, you should really be careful, you should stop smoking if you care about your heath.” And the person says, “hey I can still bike to the town and I feel fine and my grandmother lived until she was 96 and died in a car accident.”
You can postpone dealing with smoking until you’re in the intensive care unit. But that’s a little late. That’s the line of argument in which I see the urgency of climate global warming.
Lucia: But whenever you have uncertainties in that chain of ifs, that’s where it’s extremely difficult to assess how urgent is it. It’s certainly urgent enough that we should be doing something. What exactly we should be doing, I’m not sure. I’m puzzled to figure out what would actually work.
On Monday, I’ll post the second and final part of our conversation, which features an exchange on why the blogosphere is not conducive to nuanced debate on climate change.
UPDATE: Be sure to check out Lucia’s comment thread. Lots of good comments there, plus a visit from Steve McIntyre (Comment#45729), who slyly moves the pea under the thimble:
I’m puzzled as to Bart’s apparent antipathy for Climate Audit. I try to write accurately and to correct errors if they are brought to my attention. If I’ve made errors in any posts, I’d appreciate it if Bart would identify them for me so that I can make an appropriate correction.
In response, Bart lifted the pea (Comment#45749):
My issues with your writing is not in alleged errors you do or don’t make, but rather in how you package your message. It often reads as the noble detective trying to unravel some massive fraud, insinuating all kinds of things, mostly subtle (but apparently very clear to your followers nevertheless), sometimes less subtle (“try not to puke”).