A Climate Convert Roils the Waters

By Keith Kloor | June 20, 2011 7:12 am

This is an interesting and peculiar “conversion story” of a climate skeptic who is

now persuaded that anthropogenic global warming is real.

The piece offers some excellent advice to the left and right sides of the debate, but it also contains standard conservative hyperbole about Al Gore (“He’s clearly looking to ride global warming to greater wealth and power”), the supposed climate change stalking horse  (“The Left has seized on it as an opportunity to dismantle free markets and grow government”), and a certain flawed global institution (“The UN is a systemically-corrupt, left-wing political organization”).

Forget the climate change conversion, what does it take for a “skeptic” to realize he is viewing the world through an exaggerated ideological lens?

All in all, the piece is a mixed bag for those who would co-opt it for their side in the climate wars. Right now, it seems to have mostly rankled climate skeptics, for obvious reasons. Regarding the larger climate change debate at hand, this commenter helpfully reminds us what we should strive to do more often:

To clarify discussions about AGW, separate the topic into (at least) three parts:

1. The scientific evidence “” what has been measured up until today “” and the AGW scientific theory to explain this evidence.

2. Projections, predictions and scenarios of the future. This is based on the evidence and theory, but has not yet happened.

3. Debate, proposals and decisions about what we will do about AGW. This is the legitimately political part. It is, and will be, based on parts 1 and 2, but is distinct from them.

The AGW discussions I’ve seen that get most confused are those where the moderator/initiator has not taken care to clearly make such a division and/or doesn’t try to persuade commenters to do the same.

I’d say that much of the acrimony in the climate debate owes to these distinctions willfully not being made.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change, climate skeptics
  • http://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com Bart Verheggen

    Thanks for the pointer; very imporant and informative piece.

    I don’t agree with everything, notably I think his remark on the IPCC is way off the mark and a direct consequence of the author’s conspiratorial mindset. But for the most part I think his recommendations to both sides of the debate make a lot of sense.

    An important one for the “left” (and “right” as well if I may be so bold) is to untangle the politics (and one’s own opinion about what we should do) from the science.

    And for the “right”, ore at least those not trusting mainstream science:

    “Don’t confuse consensus with consensus.
    This one had me confused for a long time. Like the word theory, which has a drastically different meaning in science than it does in the vernacular, consensus can mean two very different things. In politics a consensus is an aggregate expression of opinion. It’s only as valid as the majority agrees it is. In science it is a description of where the science has led. As Dr. Gleick put it, the consensus is not what gives power to the conclusion, the science leads to the conclusion.”

    Hear, hear!

  • http://ecologicalsociology.blogspot.com/ Gary Bowden

    Keith,
    I think it’s important to distinguish between situations where, as you say, the distinctions are WILLFULLY being ignored and the general idea that you can gain consensus about issues by separating the facts (science) from the values (politics/policy).

    There is no doubt that significant numbers of individuals in the AGW debate on both sides are more interested in winning arguments than in having a real discussion and, as a result, intentionally conflate things in order to present what they see as a more compelling case.

    But, on the other hand, it is optimistic to believe that the process of separating evidence, model projections and policy discussion into three clearly distinct piles will get rid of all the acrimony. The attempt to separate facts from values is an idea with a long heritage — tracing back at least to Arthur Kantrowitz’s 1960′s suggestion of a ‘science court’ — that hasn’t ever worked particularly well. It turns out that the way people interpret facts is typically through the lens of unstated/unrecognized values.

    People interested in the history of the idea can consult this article by Alan Mazur (one of the original proponents): http://law.unh.edu/risk/vol4/spring/mazur.htm or the bibliography put together by Jon Cavicchi: http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?collection=journals&handle=hein.journals/risk4&div=20&id=&page=
    Gary

  • Pascvaks

    FWIW -
    4. Personanities – People are people.  Some people don’t like other people.  If Al Gore or Anthony Watts (or whoever) are in support of something, there’s going to be a viseral reaction by many to the issue under discussion.
    NOTE: #3 includes $$$MONEY$$$, this can cause a bar room brawl at the mention of the word ‘tax’.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Gary, good point. I am, by nature, optimistic. :)

    You write: “It turns out that the way people interpret facts is typically through the lens of unstated/unrecognized values.”

    Quite true, and a huge impediment to finding common ground in the climate debate. I’m of the mind that we should try shifting part of the debate to those values, in order to see if we can bridge them.

  • Pascvaks

    People are like Pure Gold, 99.999 percent can’t tell the future.  Another FWIW -
    http://nofrakkingconsensus.com/2011/06/19/two-population-predictions/#wpl-likebox

  • http://skepticalscience.com grypo

    “I’m of the mind that we should try shifting part of the debate to those values, in order to see if we can bridge them.”

    In a sense, the entire debate needs to be shifted to values, if we are to make any decision that will have effect in the future.  This is what we base our laws on, our policy debates are always based on values even though we don’t realize it.  At this point, we have a good idea of the risks we are incurring, and we have a good idea of where we are headed.  This includes decisions on the risk we need to adapt to in the short term, and how we plan to deal with the mitigation needed to stabilize climate for the next few generations.  Whether or not we take these steps will depend on how we interpret those risks through our own value lens.  This is where Jonathan Gilligan has made a contribution to the blog.  But there is a time where the ethical debate needs to leave the blog world, where everyone is already decided on how far they are willing to go with policy, and enter the public.  I can tell you that people are completely unaware of the ethics involved in the debate.  Ironically, in light of the past week, one of the best people at communicating this, that I know of, is Mark Lynas.

  • Chuck Kaplan

    The most basic difference is not just values. Those who agree with the consensus want to talk about #3. Skeptics want to debate #1, and the lack of validation of #2.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Via email, David Ropeik, whose latest book is definitely worth checking out, writes:

    “Too bad disagreement about the facts is really just a cover for disagreement about deeper tribal worldviews. The battles are about the issues of the day but the war is for which kind of society we prefer: Cultural Cognition groupings.

    If this is indeed the case, the solutions must be found not by trying to convince the other side, to change their minds, to get them to see the facts they way we do. That is impossible. Rather we should look for actions that help resolve the problem in ways that are consistent with the values of each of the warring tribes. For example, there are a lot of other reasons besides climate change to do many of the things that will also help mitigate and adapt to climate change.”

  • harrywr2

    2. Projections, predictions and scenarios of the future. This is based on the evidence and theory, but has not yet happened.
    Sure it has, on Sept 17th, 1969 Richard Nixon’s senior staff was advised that Global Temperatures could rise by 7F by the year 2000 as a result of CO2 emissions and the cities of New York and Washington could be under water.

    The memo is at the Nixon Library-
    http://nixonlibrary.gov/virtuallibrary/documents/jul10/56.pdf

    The climate debate doesn’t suffer from a lack of projections based on ‘best available science of the time’…it suffers from the fact that the ‘best available science of the time’ has repeatedly been proven to be incomplete and inadequate.
    New York and Washington are not underwater. The World didn’t warm by 7F.

    Why should I believe the projections currently being made Dr James Hansen of NASA anymore then the projections made in 1969 by Dr Robert White, head of the US Environmental Sciences Service Administration.(renamed NOAA in 1970)
     

  • Dean

    A couple of years ago I ran into this piece:

    http://network.nationalpost.com/np/blogs/fullcomment/archive/2009/12/14/jonathan-abrams-on-climate-change.aspx

    which also describes a former AGW non-believer and how his opinion was changed.

    The thing that is most important about the piece that Keith links to here is the role of skepticalscience.com. For whatever reason, Realclimate is almost a dead blog. Almost no posts on it any more. Maybe they are busy getting papers ready for the next IPCC report, or maybe they have burned out.

    But it seems to me that skepticalscience is one of the dominant blogs pushing the science and doing a good job of avoiding politics. Other have their value as well, but skepticalscience seems to hew to the non-emotional message that might woo open-minded true skeptics, and has avoided getting flooded with junk. I would be interested to see what skeptics on this blog think of it.

  • Sashka

    @ 1
    Consensus in science is a red herring. There is no such thing, really, in hard sciences. Climate scientists invoked this concept for lack of evidence.

    @ 6
    In a sense, the entire debate needs to be shifted to values, if we are to make any decision that will have effect in the future.
    There we go. No need to talk about facts anymore, I suppose.

    At this point, we have a good idea of the risks we are incurring, and we have a good idea of where we are headed.

    No we don’t.

    @ 8

    we should look for actions that help resolve the problem in ways that are consistent with the values of each of the warring tribes

    Impossible. You need to know what the problem is before you resolve it.

     

  • Hector M.

    Keith,
    Most skeptics (as distinct from “deniers”, if this derogative word is allowed in this context) do accept that greenhouse gases warm the planet, and also accept that GHG emissions have increased GHG concentrations. Their discussions are NOT about accepting these basic facts (though there are indeed some who do not believe it to be true). These basic facts include that CO2 concentrations have increased and at the same time instrumental measurements of temperature have also increased in recent decades.

    The actual points debated by skeptics (paradigmatically represented by Steve McIntyre among others) are quite different and much more nuanced and specific. It is not about “whether” GHG emissions warm the planet, but about other subtler questions: how much, when, with what feedbacks.

    The following are some of the points more intensely debated:

    1. Is the instrumental temperature record flawed by urban heat islands, bad siting of stations, selective choice of stations and other such defects?
    2. Is climate sensitivity to CO2 overstated by poor understanding of feedbacks (especially the balance of negative and positive cloud feedbacks)?
    3. Are current temperatures unprecedented? (cf the Hockey Stick debate). If not, what were the consequences of previous warm periods? (e.g. did the seas rise dangerously? did people starve?)
    4. Is the science faithfully represented by the IPCC, or it is slanted towards ignoring contrary evidence due to lack of transparency in the IPCC process?
    And so on.

    Some outstanding “skeptics” are not concerned about the reality of climate change due to GHG emissions, but about the policies proposed to cope with it (e.g. Roger Pielke Jr). Can those policies be expected to be effective? What are the costs, in relation to benefits? What is the priority of this problem as compared with other problems facing Mankind? Some other “skeptics” (notably McIntyre) are extremely careful not to commit themselves to ANY view about climate change, concentrating instead on “auditing” the soundness of the procedures followed by scientists and by the IPCC to arrive at their conclusions.

    That a libertarian or otherwise right-wing person, mostly lacking any familiarity with scientific matters, changes her mind from negating to accepting the warming effect of GHG is as immaterial as somebody changing his/her opinion about the efficacy of homeopathy, or the merits of Ben Bernanke’s policies. These “opinions” carry some weight in the electoral arena or in the formation of public opinion, but the main “orthodox vs skeptic” debates in matters climatic is at a higher level of sophistication.
     

  • Tilo Reber

    Kieth: “The piece offers some excellent advice to the left and right sides of the debate, but it also contains standard conservative hyperbole”

    What makes you think that it’s hyperbole?

    “The next world climate summit in Cancun is actually an economy summit during which the distribution of the world’s resources will be negotiated.”  - Ottmar Edenhofer

     “We redistribute de facto the world’s wealth by climate policy.” - Ottmar Edenhofer

    “Nobody is interested in solutions if they don’t think there’s a problem. Given that starting point, I believe it is appropriate to have an over-representation of factual presentations on how dangerous (global warming) is, as a predicate for opening up the audience to listen to what the solutions are, and how hopeful it is that we are going to solve this crisis.” “” Al Gore
    “What we’ve got to do in energy conservation is try to ride the global warming issue. Even if the theory of global warming is wrong, to have approached global warming as if it is real means energy conservation, so we will be doing the right thing anyway in terms of economic policy and environmental policy.” ““ Timothy Wirth, former U.S. Senator (D-Colorado)
    “Climate change (provides) the greatest chance to bring about justice and equality in the world” “No matter if the science is all phony, there are still collateral environmental benefits” (to global warming policies) ““Christine Stewart (former canadian environmental minister)


    “To capture the public imagination, we have to offer up some scary scenarios, make simplified dramatic statements and little mention of any doubts one might have. Each of us has to decide the right balance between being effective and being honest” ““ Stephan Schneider 1989 (lead the 2007 UN IPCC report)

    “1. The scientific evidence “” what has been measured up until today “” and the AGW scientific theory to explain this evidence.”
    Unfortunately it is idealistic to think that there is this body of pure information called “The scientific evidence”.  The science and the politics are intimately mixed in this debate.  Think of Mann’s proxy reconstructions.  Some might want to call that part of “the science”.  But then ask yourself: why did Mann use proxy series upside down – twice? Why does he continue to use data that cannot be reproduced?  Why do all of his “mistakes” benefit the arguments of AGW?  Why does he never correct his mistakes after they have been made manifest?  While Mann may be a poster boy for political science, there is evidence that the political aspect of climate science is everywhere.

    Kieth Briffa:”I know there is pressure to present a nice tidy story as regards “˜apparent unprecedented warming in a thousand years or more in the proxy data’ but in reality the situation is not quite so simple.

    So what do we know that is real science?  We know that the earth has warmed in the last 100 years and we know that this kind of warming has happened many times before.

    We know that a physics lab experiment shows that you get 1C of warming every time that you double the amount of CO2 in a tube.  We have no idea what happens in the real atmosphere because we are not even certain that the feedback is positive.  So from the perspective of settled science, there is no reason for alarm of any kind, because all of the science that seeks to raise the alarm is dubious.

  • Tilo Reber

    Sashka:  “Impossible. You need to know what the problem is before you resolve it.”

    Actually, we could largely resolve the problem, if it exists or not, by going nuclear.  We could do this gradually over the next 150 years with little economic or social fallout.  It’s something that most skeptics will not oppose.  But the problem with nuclear, from the warmer point of view, is that it does not create “social justice”, “climate justice”, redistribute wealth, create a global government, put carbon money into the UN’s pocket, restrict personal freedom, control personal behavior, make the rich guilty, etc.

    People like smokin Joe Romm like to invent arguments against nuclear; but his problem is that a feasibility study has already been performed.  It’s called …eh, France.

  • http://www.veteransfreedomfarm.org steven mosher

    1. The scientific evidence “” what has been measured up until today “” and the AGW scientific theory to explain this evidence.
    2. Projections, predictions and scenarios of the future. This is based on the evidence and theory, but has not yet happened.
    3. Debate, proposals and decisions about what we will do about AGW. This is the legitimately political part. It is, and will be, based on parts 1 and 2, but is distinct from them.


    Yup

  • Sashka

    @ 14

    I still don’t think one can solve a problem that doesn’t exist. Otherwise I agree.

  • EdG

    So a blogger changes his mind.

    So what?

  • http://www.veteransfreedomfarm.org steven mosher

    re 17.
    It shows it is possible. The other night I had dinner with a friend. He of course didnt believe. Since he was a friend I didnt insult him. I explained why I thought the theory warranted my assent. I talked him through several issues and he left the dinner accepting the theory. He still had doubts about policy and costs and ‘what the hell was this climategate stuff” but presented in the right way, it’s not that hard to get people to change their minds. IN PERSON. on the internet, not so much.
    The internet can open minds or close them. interesting topic.
     

  • charles

    I think you may be a bit confused. I am a climate skeptic and I am convinced that agw is real – I just think it is a small effect that has been exaggerated and will not have any significantly bad consequences. No ‘conversion’ required.
    I agree though that most of what skeptoid says makes sense.

     

  • Foxgoose

    I’m a bit confused by the attention this guy has managed to grab.
    We’re continually told not to pay attention to the likes of McIntyre – because “they’re not proper peer-reviewed scientists”.
    Now, everybody’s hanging onto the opinion of a blogger whose CV says he’s a one-time janitor who evolved into a talented animation cameraman – and who points everybody to the blog of a one-time physics student turned cartoonist.
    Animation cameraman?    Cartoonist?
    Hang on a minute…………… could climate science be migrating to Second Life?
    “Virtual Climatology” – could be an improvement.

  • EdG

    re 18 – #20 expanded on my point. This is not significant, at all.

    That said, I do agree with your point that people change their minds when presented with convincing evidence. That is what real science is about. The opposite is ideology or faith, as expressed by the ‘debate is over’ fundamentalist mantra once so popular among the AGW faithful – which confirmed for me, early on, that there was something very wrong with the alleged ‘science’ supporting this social engineering project. And the more I looked, the less evidence and more blind faith (not to mention extreme exaggerations and outright lies) I saw.

    So, based on the evidence, I see no ‘climate crisis’ or ‘climate disruption’ or ‘Planetary Fever.’ I look at Vostok and see another minor blip. And I see a climate crisis research-financial-industrial complex using the same fear-mongering model that has proven so successful for the military-industrial complex.

    The AGW gang just wants to protect us, right?   

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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