Climate Outsourcing

By Keith Kloor | March 19, 2012 2:39 pm

A couple of weeks ago, Megan McArdle managed to hit the climate blogogphere jackpot with a post entitled, “Why We Should Act to Stop Global Warming–and Why We Won’t.”  Her post triggered simultaneous eruptions at the polar ends of the climate landscape.  I was rather jealous. It’s quite a feat when you get the Morano/Romm wings frothing at the same time.

But aside from the histrionics from the usual suspects, it was also quite an interesting piece. As it happens, I have zeroed in on only one of the particular aspects (which dovetails with the main criticism leveled by the Romm wing) of it, in a post at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.

In a comment over there, McArdle has taken me to task for the inference I make. We also had a bit of a Twitter exchange over it, which ended with me eventually crying uncle (sorta) and also me making sure she knew I was a fan of her blog (which is true).

Anyway, go over there and have a read and then tell me if I’m off base or not.

  • jeffn

    meh, Why wouldn’t you place more trust in people you generally trust? Why wouldn’t you place more emphasis on the opinions of people who are generally skeptical rather than the political advocates who can be counted on to accept any eco scare story without question?
    The three she cited don’t have to be the most knowledgeable about the issue, they just need to be willing to examine it in detail with a skeptical eye. In other words, they’re her honest brokers.
    Which makes this post very interesting- why wouldn’t you want folks like Megan to find their own honest brokers on this issue? I’ll put it another way- some unknown but large number of libertarian leaning folks probably agreed with her- hey if these guys say it’s so, it’s probably so. You just told that crowd the new honest brokers are worthless and they should  go back to doubting.

  • Keith Kloor

    I didn’t say they were worthless. I just noted they were all from the same political tribe. That jumped out at me, but apparently for the wrong reason.

  • harrywr2

    #2 KK,
    All she is basically saying is that if the ‘Doubting Thomas’ says something is true…it’s a good bet that it is true.
    Every business I have ever worked for that didn’t have a ‘Doubting Thomas’ on the Board of Directors went bankrupt.

  • grypo

    Keith, you are still obviously correct in your initial assessment here.  Why does it take supposed skeptics admitting something to get a mainstream journalist to admit it?  You’re allowing false logic to get you to give in on a point that you shouldn’t.  Romm blew it out of proportion, with the outsourcing science comment, but the main point is that people like Micheals can’t be put as the final straw when the rest of the science should be the guide for mainstream journalism.

    As an aside, Alder proposes the same tax as Hansen as the ethical and reasonable libertarian solution. 

  • grypo

    And the reason we can not wait around for Micheals, is that Micheals has not been “willing” to admit other parts of the science (not just that the world is warming) that the rest of field considers true.  If people begin to follow in McArdle’s mold we’re in trouble.

  • jeffn

    #5, you can’t “wait around for Michaels”? So instead you “wait around” for what- windmills to become effective, giant tax hikes during a global recession?
    All you guys have ever done is “wait around.” You’ve spent 25 years waiting on a pipe dream. Waiting for an international treaty to keep China and India in perpetual poverty. Won’t happen. Waiting for the rebound effect to stop working. Won’t happen. Waiting for a politician dumb enough to jack up the price of energy. Won’t happen. Waiting for everyone to agree that climate sensitivity is, well, something within a broad range that has a pesky habit of decreasing over time and study.
    Based on the “concerned’s” approach to nuclear, we seem to have plenty of time to wait.


  • John Callender

    I think your take on what she meant is an easy interpretation to have made, but at least for me I thought the actual point she was trying to make was pretty clear, and that Joe Romm’s response was kind of cheap. She wasn’t saying that she outsources her climate opinions to those folks because they are libertarian, but rather, that she assumes that if they, as liberterians, have investigated and concluded that yes, global warming is real and human-caused, then it’s not worth arguing over any more.

    Now, there’s an obvious question raised by her saying that. If she is basically acknowledging that her go-to libertarian sources are so heavily weighted in the direction of resisting acknowledging the reality of human-caused climate change that for them to admit to it means the debate is clearly and decisively over, then isn’t she also admitting that there was an interval during which a preponderance-of-evidence standard favored that position, but because of their ideologically-driven biases her preferred sources were still holding out? So that, if she’s going to outsource her judgement on these kinds of questions to these kinds of people, doesn’t that mean that there are going to be many, many questions where the evidence is clear enough to objectively favor one position, but she’s going to be misled into holding the opposite position due to her having outsourced her views to biased sources?

    If she’s aware of the bias (which her explanation seems to imply), then isn’t this an admission on her part that her views are not strictly rational, but are instead biased by ideology? As a rational person, shouldn’t she be working to identify and remove such biases, rather than glibly acknowledging their existence while (apparently) seeing no problem in having her views distorted by them?

    It might have been interesting to have that discussion with her. The discussion actually prompted by Joe Romm’s piece was less interesting, since all he did was to willfully misconstrue what she said (or at least, I tend to suspect it was willful misconstruction) in order to cast it in a negative light. Which is unsurprising; Joe Romm is an activist, and activists consider such behavior to be normal and appropriate. Someone nominally on the “other” side said something that can be construed in a way that makes it look ridiculous, so respond as if that ridiculous interpretation is what the other party actually intended, and make a big show of your shock and outrage, rather than giving the other side the benefit of believing them to be rational and intelligent, and merely wrong.

    I’m not saying Joe Romm started this, or is worse (or even as bad as) much of what goes on on the “other” side. But behavior like this means I can’t view him as a reliable guide.

  • Steve Fitzpatrick

    I think she has reason to be a bit on edge about this.  I read the comments, and she did make clear why she had selected that list… even if she could have made it more clear in the original post.
    I liked the original post; a healthy dose of realism is needed for all involved.  The warming is real, it is almost certainly mostly due to GHG’s, it seems very far from catastrophic, most people have a long list of priorities, and impoverishing themselves to reduce global warming is not high on their lists.  Pretty well sums up the situation.
    IMO, the only thing that will change this is clear (impacting people’s lives) evidence of impending doom.  I would not count on it.

  • jeffn

    #2 KK- ok, they’re from the same political tribe. Why is this a bad thing? You would want, for example, Republicans to serve much the same purpose to their tribe that Megan finds in her honest brokers amongst the Libertarians, right? For Romm-ulans, I think the answer is no- they value the politics of the issue more than the issue.
    Of course, the fact is that the reality-based components of all the tribes are already aligning. Trouble is the new political consensus in the US- from Obama to Inhofe – seems to be to do nothing about climate change. The consensus in Europe and Canada seems to be to pull back on what they’ve done.
    Oh, Grypo #5, now I see what you’re waiting for:
    “This requires fundamental reorientation and restructuring of national and international institutions toward more effective Earth system governance and planetary stewardship,”
    They’ll all fly to Rio to discuss it. Again. You see it’s urgent to fly to trans-oceanic resort destinations to discuss it because of the damage done by… er… trans-oceanic flying to resort destinations. If we have time to wait for the “fundamental reorientation” of all our governments and economies, then we have much. much time to wait.

  • Steven Sullivan

    Without the Tweets, it’s hard for me to see what McArdle was complaining about, and hard to see what was wrong with your critique of what she initially wrote, Keith.  As I wrote in comments to your Yale post:
    “It’s sad that Megan McArdle thinks Pat Michaels is a ‘credible expert’, and that his opinion carries so much dispositive weight for her.  If that’s what it took to convince her of what the vast number of more credible scientists had already long accepted, then so be it.  Just don’t expect *them* to respect *her* for it.”

  • Michael Larkin

    Good grief. How many times does one have to point out that no one with half a brain doubts that increasing CO2 may have some effect on global temperatures? The principal  issue is whether feedbacks are positive or negative.

    All McArdle has established is what the point of common agreement is. Some want to conflate the opinions of idiots like the skydragon crew with more informed sceptics, just as others want to conflate the opinions of catastrophists with more sober voices.

    Nobody but nobody actually KNOWS the real truth. Not even “experts” in what is a very young area of scientific interest. We ALL have to base our opinions to some degree or other on a mixture of such of the science as we understand, plus the opinions of those we most respect or those who seem most rational to us.

    The irrational are the convinced in the absence of adequate knowledge. The only rational position given the fact of inadequate knowledge is to reserve judgement. Ideology and politics are irrational, only existing because of lack of knowledge. The very fact that they play such a large part is an obvious flag that it’s all FUBAR.

    Few are thinking straight among politicians and journalists, even among some scientists. It’s a sobering thought that ordinary people may well be the ones with the highest proportion of individuals who can think straight. They are lions led by donkeys.

  • kdk33

    It’s a sobering thought that ordinary people may well be the ones with the highest proportion of individuals who can think straight.

    Not really, IMO.  The collective guidance of ‘the people’ is generally very, very good – at least over time.  Free markets, free speech, and free people will win in the end.

    They are lions led by donkeys.

    And elephants.

  • Sashka

    Here’s my take-away:

    1. She doesn’t understand the subject she writes about.
    2. She writes in such a way that an intelligent and sympathetic person misunderstands.

    Sorry, not a my type of a journalist.

  • Steven Sullivan

    “Free markets, free speech, and free people will win in the end.”
    Isn’t it pretty to think so.


  • Tim Lambert

    Par for the course for McArdle.  If she writes something wrong, it’s your fault for misunderstanding her.  See, for example, the 2×4 incident.

  • Tom Fuller

    McCardle makes sense, unlike many debating this. Perhaps she hasn’t had the opportunity to become… immersed. Or submerged.

    I personally think that we should and could prepare for warming this century of 2 degrees C. It would be affordable and the path for successful accomplishment is more or less charted.

    I personally think we won’t because any time the idea of preparing for 2 degrees C is brought up, members who have been either immersed or submerged get frantic because we are not preparing for 4.5 degrees C. 

  • JamesG

    The big problem is that people like Joe Romm are even listened to in the first place. He and his fellow catastrophists would surely have believed the ice age scare, the millenium bug disaster, the BSE scare, nuclear winter, avian flu pandemic and all the rest of the media hyped nonsense that is now conveniently forgotten. The message is even mixed ‘it’s already too late but we need to spend huge amounts of money now anyway’. And yes, none of them seem to walk the walk by actually being greener than the rest of us. Self-righteously berating the unconvinced as anti-science flat-earthers seems to be the limit of their efforts. Yet there is a great deal to be unconvinced about; most especially that the cures will likely be far worse than the disease.

    I am not a libertarian and I don’t believe markets could ever be truly free without government intervention but I at least recognise they were one of the few groups who saw the massive debt pile was going to cause a big economic crash. This is because they seemed to prefer to focus on real data rather than unsuitable and unproven computer models. As such I think they are honest brokers on this issue: Somebody, somewhere has to keep an eye on what the actual real data is telling us, because most of the “scientists” seem to prefer computer models and rampant pessimistic speculation to actual on the ground facts.

    It is the duty of both scientists and journalists to be skeptical. Unfortunately if it bleeds it leads. The latter has won out over the former. Environmental journalism used to be good. Now they ignore all the real problems in the world that we could do something about and just focus 100 percent on this thermageddon worst case scenario. Blatant lies about the terrible effects of 0.6 degrees per century (zero for 15 years) are commonplace. Yet these lie should be obvious to everyone. As a well-informed layman I can easily tell that an awful lot of people are just making stuff up and pretending that “science” has predicted it. And nearly every prediction made by these lying fools is so far totally wrong. Shamefully nobody is ever brought to task for it; they just keep garnering prizes and accolades for being wrong all the time. Because everything bad is obviously caused by global warming and don’t even question that or you are a denier. I’m saddened by this intellectual vacuum. When will real thought replace dogma?

  • Jonathan Gilligan

    You were correct, Keith. McArdle wrote one thing (she’s only paying attention to libertarians with little or no expertise on the matter at hand) and is now trying to claim that all reasonable people would interpret it as saying something entirely different (she looks at the whole spectrum, and was merely saying that when even the libertarians agree with the scientists, there’s no room for reasonable doubt). Thus, she leaves room for two possibilities: either she’s lying about what she meant originally or she is a really bad writer who can’t accurately express herself.

    If she were a good writer, she wouldn’t have had to demand that you email her to figure out what she meant. It would have been clear from the words on her blog.

    I wonder whether McArdle would agree with her own column if you substituted “federal budget deficit” for “global warming” throughout:

    I have basically outsourced my opinion on the economy to people like Paul Krugman and Dean Baker, all of whom concede that continuing budget deficits will eventually constitute a big problem for our economy. However, balancing budgets by raising taxes or curtailing services people value will be very unpleasant for most Americans, so we will never seriously try it, and that’s where the discussion pretty much stalls out.

  • Jonathan Gilligan

    My bad in my deficit analogy. Baker and Krugman are real economists. It would have been a more accurate analogy if I had written that I outsource my thinking on the economy to people like Rachel Maddow and Cornel West.

  • Andy

    So a somewhat prominent libertarian-leading writer says that global warming is real.  You’d think there would be “hosannas” and “welcome to the club” high fives.  You’d think there would be happiness after a successful “conversion” and hope that this person, who garners respect with groups historically skeptical of climate change, might convince others that global warming is real.

    But things apparrently don’t work that way in the world of climate tribalism.  The implication of the reaction to McArdle’s comments is that agreement on the basic judgments of global warming isn’t sufficient if one trusts the “wrong” sort of people or believes the “wrong” ideology. I guess the take-away is that convincing people that climate change is real is a less important goal than we’ve been led to expect.

  • Andy

    that should be “libertarian-leaning”

  • Lewis Deane

    Keith, I don’t think your being your usual, gracious self in this article. I read Megan McArdle’s piece and I immediately noted it as a sample of good sense during what was a pretty hysteric couple of weeks. (I posted about it on Ben Piles blog then). Where you honed in on her offhand comment about “˜outsourcing’, I heard her say that she was no expert in this field and would not try to “˜second guess’ such expertise, that she defers to them and from them gathers that there is a problem and she thinks that the possible answer is a “˜carbon tax’, very much in line with you. I don’t think she needs to update anything. I think, sometimes, like me, too,(but I’m no blogger!) you like to be “˜contrary’ and, more, you feel the “˜middle ground’ is your distinctive territory, so much so that when you sense (Roger Pielke Jnr, par example) someone “˜encroaching’ you have to “˜re-assert’ yourself and your ground. No matter. It’s amusing. I just hope Megan understands (another woman I have added to my Pantheon, along with J Curry and she of “˜rankexploits’ whose name escapes for the moment! ““ And our Queen!!)

  • Lewis Deane

    It reminds me of a conversation I had the other day – someone asked me why I am so ‘uncertain’ in my ideas, why I contradict myself, why I doubt myself and question myself, at such an age? But ideas are and must be uncertain. One must always distinguish between ideas and action, the ‘certainty’ of action (an ‘action’ is a fact as soon as it is enacted and is, therefore, as it were irrevocable – it cannot be gainsaid). That is to say, in all honesty and as decent human beings, our minds are never ‘right’ or certain but we act upon them and must decide how to act upon them, nevertheless. And with others help and that includes so called ‘experts’, too. Our world is meant to be uncertain – it is our freedom and our burden – but our actions, however hesitant, become indelible. Megan McArdle makes a rational, modest choice, without certainty, and we should commend her for it. Down with all dogmatists!

  • JamesG

    J. Gilligan
    Patrick Michaels has lots of experience in the matter at hand; more indeed than most and mostly at the sharp end. As you surely knew this already you leave two possibilities; either you lied or you are intensely obtuse. McArdle has no need to consult anyone else since she is not an environmental journalist afaik and has no intention of writing about the science – as she clearly stated. If she were to start writing about the science I expect she would consult conflicting viewpoints as befits a journalist. Your insults were therefore unfounded, unnecessary and rather Rommesque.

  • Roddy Campbell

    When I read her article at the time I thought the inference was pretty clear, I took it exactly as she replies to you in comments at her post.  She could have spelled that out in the article I guess, wouldn’t have taken many words, but when I read it I took it to mean:

    ‘I accept that anthropogenic global warming is real because people like Jonathan Adler, Ron Bailey, and Pat Michaels of Cato all concede that anthropogenic global warming is real, though they may contest the likely extent, or desired remedies.’

    I echo someone above, your interpretation was a bit ungenerous, esp when taken with the article as a whole in content and tone.

  • Steven Sullivan

    Why privilege the ‘concessions’ of Adler, Bailey, and Michaels, over the views of mainstream scientists in the first place?

    It’s like agreeing that evolution is real only because someone at the Discovery Institute does.  

    I would guess the science itself is secondary to such people.


  • Roddy Campbell

    That’s wilful misunderstanding of what she’s saying, in the context of the article as a whole.  If you think she shouldn’t write about climate at all, fine, say so.  But saying she shouldn’t write that the opinion of people who she would expect to challenge an issue, and instead agree, influence her non-expert judgment as to rights and wrongs of the issue (when it is taken as read that the ‘mainstream’ agree, by definition, and that is known to her readers) is just silly.


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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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