Climate Extremists Shrink the Space for Reasoned Debate

By Keith Kloor | October 30, 2013 10:58 am

Yesterday, in a Forbes article repurposed at the Chicago Tribune, a Heartland Institute staffer (who was not identified as such by the Tribune) wrote that,

we should thank global warming for making hurricanes less frequent and less severe. Indeed, Hurricane Sandy may well have been much more deadly in the absence of global warming.

This led climatologist Ryan Maue (who was mentioned in the piece) to tweet:

As it happens, Maue is someone who regularly calls out overstated–yes, alarmist–claims by climate advocates, and I’d venture to say that climate skeptics think of him as one of their own. So kudos to Maue for calling BS on the extremists in his camp. This kind of straight talk is necessary to keep the flame-throwers on both sides in check. We’ve seen, for example, NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt, push back repeatedly on the silly Arctic methane bomb proponents.

After the Heartland staffer’s piece in the Chicago Tribune was published, I had some mild fun on twitter:

This prompted indignant climate skeptics to complain that I was painting with a broad brush. One responded:

Well, anybody who has followed this blog long enough knows that my own views on climate issues are in fact pretty subtle and that this has not been appreciated by partisan enforcers.

To reiterate, I think it’s fairly evident that the loudest (and some of the most influential) climate-concerned voices have a catastrophic tone, just as it’s fairly evident that the loudest (and some of the most influential) voices in the climate skeptic sphere have an Alfred E. Neuman take on climate change.

MAD

I do not share the sunny “what–me worry?” position on the risks associated with global warming, despite my well-chronicled spats with climate doomers. At the same time, I have little tolerance for the disingenuous game played by many in the climate skeptic sphere, an element of which was recently captured by Robert Wilson at his Energy Collective blog:

Uncertainty. Those skeptical about whether climate change is occurring and that we should do something about it are rather fond of it. Uncertainty of course goes in two directions and the rather one sided interest of many of these so called skeptics betrays their lack of genuine skepticism. We are now being told that we should relax a little because the sensitivity of the atmosphere to the carbon dioxide we are dumping in it might be slightly lower than we previously thought. Even if this is true, to relax would be to ignore the whole equation.

At a fundamental level, climate skeptics who play down the effects and risks associated with global warming are just like climate advocates who hype them. Each side has an agenda and the loudest, high-profile voices of the two sides often use selective evidence and freighted polemics to advance their respective agendas. If reasoned heads continue to call out the disruptive antics of both sides, perhaps that will widen the space for a more nuanced and constructive dialogue.

  • Buddy199

    I don’t know which to worry about more. The possible effects of continued warming. Or the fixes proposed by the same people who are in the process of “fixing” health care.

  • willard

    Goldilocks wins again.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      That is too cryptic for me. Care to elaborate?

      • willard

        Not too hot, not too cold, just right, Keith.

        Do I get more klout If I declare you’re in my tribe while I throw you under a bus?

        In fact, aren’t we supposed to be above tribes?

        • Matt B

          Unfortunately when discussing climate change it’s tribes all the way down……..

        • NiCuCo

          “Not too hot, not too cold, just right, Keith.”

          The increasing rate of AGW, which would be raising sea levels more in the future, even if no more CO2 was put into the air, is a problem no matter how fast the increase in the rate of temperature rise is.

        • willard

          > The increasing rate of AGW [...]

          My “not too hot” was not related to temperature but to the Rule of three, narrated here as two extremisms which should be denounced by all those who’d rather seek some kind of Laotzian middle way.

          See also “omne trium perfectum”:

          http://neverendingaudit.tumblr.com/post/21784016674

  • http://orach24463.wordpress.com/ CJ

    Obama ideology in a nutshell: in order to save people from Global Warming/The Health Care plans they like and can afford we must destroy the economy by shutting down coal that generates 40% of our energy and the Health Plans governmement has deemed as sub par. Resistance is futile.

    • Anthony Amore

      Have you seen pictures of China lately?
      7 year old with lung cancer?
      Read more.
      Now he’s not just saying take three awful toxin pollution spewing strip mine fueled hellpits offline and start issuing sundials again. However, there are other (better) options out there.
      We could build a couple new nuke reactors, non pressurized to prevent blowout, use waste of gen 3 reactors as fuel, passive safety features to prevent meltdown, even in cases of power/water loss.
      Coal kills way more people than nuclear, true statistic.
      Coal sucks, but environmentally minded people are working on ways to turn out into oil, which sucks slightly less.
      So there’s that.

      • http://orach24463.wordpress.com/ CJ

        China is why it makes no sense for the US to shut down our much cleaner coal plants. Industry will just move to China to escape the high cost of energy prices here in the US and go to China where there are very few regulations on coal burning plants. Pollution will go up not down which is the opposite outcome of what people in the green movement are trying to achieve by shutting down coal here. All Pain For No Gain in a futile effort to control the climate by impoverishing and killing poor people by skyrocketing fuel prices. http://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/03/15/james-hansens-policies-are-shafting-the-poor/

  • highly_adequate

    The reality is that the typical believer in Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming asserts something complex, as the very complexity of the term CAGW suggests.

    That is, they believe:

    1. The world has warmed over the last several decades

    2. A significant cause of that warming is man, through the generation of CO2

    3. The future warming will go up to a high level

    4. The effects of that future warming will be catastrophic

    Now the point of the complexity here is this: someone who disputes what the CAGW believer asserts may be disputing the certainty of any one or more of the component assertions 1-4. Thus, one can be called a skeptic if one doubts any of those 4 assertions.

    It is fairly standard procedure for the ideological hacks on the CAGW side to pretend that if a skeptic doubts, say, 3 or 4, then they must also doubt 1 and 2. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. There are any number of skeptics who believe that the world has warmed, and a good number who believe that CO2 has played at least some part in that warming, but don’t believe that future warming will rise to a very high level, or that such warming will be catastrophic (Lindzen of MIT would be an example).

    What is also worth noting about the structure of the belief in CAGW is that the probabilities effectively get multiplied as one goes from one assertion to the next. That is, 4 can’t be true if 3 isn’t true, 3 can’t be true if 2 isn’t true, and 2 can’t be true if 1 isn’t true. The likelihood may be quite low that all might be true even if the likelihood is not small that each might be true given that its predecessor is true.

    If one believes that the sensitivity of the climate to CO2 is much less than previously thought, then the uncertainties that attach to those new lower levels must be compounded with the uncertainties that those levels are actually damaging on balance. This can and should have an impact on policy.

    I suppose there exist some number of believers in Anthropogenic Global Warming who don’t believe that the future warming will be catastrophic, but they seem to be pretty small in number, or at least not very vocal. So for the skeptic side to act as though believers in Anthropogenic Global Warming are believers in CAGW is not often unfair.

    There is, in short, a lot more nuance and variety on the skeptic side in their beliefs than on the “warming” side.

    • peter whitehead

      ‘believe’ is not a ‘science word’

      using it suggest you need to go back to the basics of the scientific method

      • jh

        Well, then, I guess that proves a point, because most of the people supporting action on climate aren’t scientists. They’re non-scientist believers.

    • Anthony Amore

      It never ceases to amaze me how many anti-science people are on the forums for discover, popsci, etc.

      You can be skeptic all you want, however, the OVERWHELMING. scientific consensus is that…
      1. AGR is happening.
      2. Vaccines do not cause autism
      3. GM foods are as safe as non-gm
      4. The earth is round
      5. The US did land on the moon

      When any of that changes, I’ll be sure to let you know.

      • jh

        I agree with all of your points, but offer one caveat:

        AGR (AGW?) is pretty much universally accepted. But acceptance of AGW isn’t the issue.

        The issue is how and to what degree it will impact society. Along those lines there is much well reasoned dissent from the view supported by most scientific societies, which is that AGW is likely to be catastrophic and demands massive and immediate remedial action.

        • Anthony Amore

          So are we playing Russian roulette we one bullet or three?
          Honestly, what does it matter?
          Even if there was only a 1% chance global warming would result in the extinction of humanity, I’d still rather play it safe.

          There is literally no downside to investing in clean energy, New technology, New understanding of how the environment operates.

          Skeptics is a disingenuous label, because skeptics would want MORE studies done to fully understand. Most of the deniers just say it’s a myth/scam/conspiracy and we shouldn’t waste out time/money/money on it and categorically ignore ANY evidence that contradicts their biases.

          Bottom line, we need to be preparing for a world with 20 billion people, not 10. Along the way, we will discover technologies that allow us the efficiency to live in space and on other planets. That’s how humanity DOESN’T go extinct.

          Deniers live to bring up how environmental investment (somehow) restricts the economy.
          (kinda like how the GOP are saying that investing in infrastructure will hurt the economy)
          You want to bring up the economy?
          Consider the future where energy can be provided so cheaply and so cleanly, we can create as much of it as we want, to the point it is almost or completely free. What would that do for the world?

          We have to adapt or we die, we are UNsustainable as we are anyway, whether it’s global warming or eventual global wars for oil.

          • jh

            “Even if there was only a 1% chance global warming would result in the extinction of humanity, I’d still rather play it safe.”

            There is a 0% chance that AGW will result in the “extinction of humanity”.

            There is literally no downside to investing in clean energy, New technology,

            Huh???? Most investments in new technology fail! Have you ever put your own money into a company developing an unproven technology?

            Look up DNDN or AMSC on Google Finance. Not everything that’s technically feasible succeeds. There is extraordinary risk in blindly investing in “new technology”.

            “Consider the future where energy…is almost or completely free”

            That’s a great theme for a fantasy trilogy. In the real world, it will never happen.

    • OWilson

      You missed point No. 5, which may be the biggest false assumption of all, namely:

      That transferring some 1 $trillion of wealth from developed nations to third world tin pot dictators, through the corrupt U.N. can prevent climate change.

      When in reality the U.N. has failed miserably at the job it was originally formed to do, namely: end wars, political corruption and nuclear proliferation.

  • bobito

    What we need is nuanced and constructive dialog in Congress, UN, and major media outlets. Dialog in those arenas are very much “nothing to see here” vs “we are all going to die”.

    A tweet distancing one from an article in a major newspaper doesn’t have the audience, nor indoctrinating power, of biased and agenda driven reporting / policy making.

  • http://www.americansecurityproject.org/ Andrew Holland

    Yes – risk and uncertainty are the appropriate lenses through which we need to look here. Politics needs to work better at managing risk: we shouldn’t ever be 100% certain about something before acting – that means its too late.

    • Buddy199

      True, but the less precise our understanding is of the nature of a problem, any problem, the more likely any fix will be useless, if not actually more destructive in unintended ways. If a patient is very sick, you don’t rush to treat him with cancer drugs because “we have to do something”, nor do you brush him off as a hypochondriac. You perform a thorough examination to determine an accurate diagnosis. That’s the only rational starting point, for any problem really.

      • NiCuCo

        “True, but the less precise our understanding is of the nature of a problem, any problem, the more likely any fix will be useless…”

        The uncertainty is not in what the major fixes are, it is in how quickly things will get bad and where on Earth various problems will happen.

        • Matt B

          If I may ask; if it is certain we need “major fixes”, what exactly are they?

  • David Skurnick

    I took that comment as sarcasm or snark, rather than extremism. It’s a fact that we’re in a record-setting lull for “serious” hurricanes. (Saffir Simpson <=3). It's a fact that the UN report said that there's no evidence that climate change has caused an increase in hurricane frequency or severity. However, many people nevertheless claim that climate change has worsened severe storms. I took the quoted comment to be a criticism of those who hold this false belief.

  • jh

    “At a fundamental level, climate skeptics who play down the effects and
    risks associated with global warming are just like climate advocates who
    hype them.”

    The difference is that doing nothing costs nothing. Doing something is sure to cost something, as the Germans know all too well, but how much we have no idea because we can’t know how much climate will change or what all the benefits/problems arise from it.

    My POV is that we should be doing something, but everything we do should have a large beneficial effect regardless of the outcome of climate change. It makes sense to research and develop new energy technologies. It doesn’t make sense to deploy them widely when they’re not economic or not close to economic. It makes sense to make cities robust to storms. It doesn’t make sense to plan for “megastorms” of the future that may never occur. It makes sense to work toward greater water security and/or improve and regulate technologies that impact water security (eg fracking). It doesn’t make sense to abandon readily available energy over paranoid fears that it might, someday, contaminate a small part of groundwater because of the ignorance or incompetence of one or two operaters (eg fracking). It makes sense to increase energy efficiency in a cost-effective way.

    But the reality is that most of these things are already being done through the incentives of the market, with occasional modest help from governments.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      You make many good points. But the reason to deploy new and proven energy technologies when they get close to being economic is to help them scale up.

      • jh

        Thanks, Keith. Yes, agreed. But “close to economic” is the key.

    • Harold McFarland

      You make good points, but you seem to have drunk the Kool-Aid with respect to fracking water usage. If we were really concerned about water usage, we might restrict golf courses, which each use more water than drilling a new well in just one summer month. They have been steadily reducing water requirements for fracking, but current stats show a typical well uses about 4 million gallons of water: about 1.3% of the amount used in car washes daily, or the outflow of the Mississippi each second, or about 0.005% of Coca Cola’s annual water usage. Granted, there have been a lot of wells drilled, and in toto, fracking used in 2011, its peak year so far, about as much water as Coca Cola. Still, even in dry Texas, that amounted to only about 1% of water withdrawals. The water thing is a red herring drug by those who want to raise the cost of all fossil fuel energy by reducing its availability.

      • jh

        “you seem to have drunk the Kool-Aid with respect to fracking water usage.”

        Not at all. The water usage by fracking doesn’t concern me at all. I am, however, slightly worried that some 3rd rate *hit-head operator will eventually manage to contaminate a few cubic meters of ground water and give environmental groups a tool to provoke fear about fracking.

  • Mark Power

    Global warming is a proven fraud and those who believe in this new religion are fools.

    • bobito

      Certainly a great way to start a reasoned debate…

    • peter whitehead

      I love this ‘climate science is a religion’ stuff.

      I always ask those, such as your good self, a simple question:

      What other areas of science do you think are a ‘religion’?

      How about the search for exoplanets?

      The discovery of the Higgs Boson?

      Antibiotics?

      So far I have had no coherent reply to this , but perhaps you can surprise me.

      • David Skurnick

        Lysenkoism. Under Stalin this was something like a religion. Anyhow it’s a good parallel for some already falsified climate beliefs today. Lysenko had Stalin’s support, so it behooved Soviet scientists to espouse that false theory.

        • peter whitehead

          that was never part of global science – try again – an example from global, peer-reviewed science, not fringe stuff

          I did hope for a better effort

          • David Skurnick

            peter, you just added a new requirement: global. Here are two questions for you:
            1. Exactly what do you mean by the term “climate science”?
            2. In what sense do you think climate science is “global”?

          • peter whitehead

            so you have no problem with other areas of science, yet climate science works in just the same way – ie (to simplify it) research leading to peer-reviewed publication.

            as to ‘global’ – all science is global, in the sense that there are peer-reviewed journals that form the basis of what we mean by ‘science’. climate science is part of that.

            looks like you can’t answer

          • David Skurnick

            peter — you may be unaware, but articles in peer-reviewed journals point in a great many directions. Many of them dispute other peer-reviewed articles. I could give many examples, but here are a few:

            1. There are peer-reviewed articles pointing to widely different climate sensitivities to CO2. They range from as high as 6 degrees C to less than 1 degree C.

            2. Even the IPCC models that arrive at similar climate sensitivities, get there via different (and contradictory) assumptions.

            3. There are pra’s showing that the sun has a major impact on climate change; others say it doesn’t.

            4. The IPCC says that substantial heat may be stored in the deep oceans. Yet, none of the pra’s underlying the IPCC conclusions reflect heat being stored in the deep oceans.

            peter — It’s impossible to believe in all these peer-reviewed articles, since they’re so contradictory. So, I ask again, what do you mean by believing in “research leading to peer-reviewed publication”?

  • Thomas Fuller

    Nice points (and nice tweets). We can just consider this phase of the debate as rehearsal of talking points for the next edition of the climate wars. I just can’t figure out if this part of the interregnum is the Roaring 20s or the Depressed 30s. Either way, the 40s are coming.

    • Mister Science

      Welcome to the new Dark Ages. Brought to you by David Koch and Rupert Murdoch and their army of dupes.

      • jh

        People who call themselves “science guy” or “mister science” usually aren’t.

  • peter whitehead

    We may be lucky, but – the climate has switched in the past more quickly than we might imagine.

    One of the first palaeoeclimatologists and palaeoecologists (about 60 years ago) was Russell Coope (G.R.Coope) who studied ice age beetles. They turn out to be excellent temperature proxies.

    He showed that climatic shifts – recorded in changes in the beetle communities layer by layer in glacial and interglacial deposits – can happen much faster than had ever been realised. He was as surprised by this as anyone. Glacial became interglacial within a few decades.

    I had the privilege of being in his palaeontology course at University over 40 years ago – a great teacher.

    Look up G.R.Coope if you want to find more of his work – he published over 200 papers in a long academic career.

    His discovery was not confirmed for some decades – but ice core data shows he was right. Recent work on varves now suggests that some of these ‘switches’ happened in 3 to 5 years; beetles could not refine to that level of precision.

    And newly published research on the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum 55 million years ago suggests a 5 deg C rise in global temperatures happened in 13 years.

    Now of course our current situation is not a carbon-copy (sorry) of these events, and the probability of catastrophic climate change may be low – but is not zero.

    In 2011, Coope put it bluntly: “We are messing around with the trigger that causes climate change. We don’t know what the consequences will be but they are likely to be fairly ferocious.”

    There is something called the Precautionary Principle. Time to remember that. We are instinctively ‘uniformitarian’ in our heads; let’s hope we don’t get caught out.

    • jh

      “newly published research on the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum 55 million years ago suggests a 5 deg C rise in global temperatures happened in 13 years.”

      Well, I’d love to see the geochron technique that resolves 13 years at 55ma. Color me skeptical.

      Your comment ignores the fact that a) climate change can be intense locally; and b) if natural processes drove such wide swings in climate in such short time frames, why isn’t that becoming worse with more CO2 like it’s supposed to according to the Climate Intelligentsia?

      • peter whitehead

        The geochron technique involves rhythmic sedimentary couplets (a bit like varves)

        Calcium carbonate and carbon isotope records from the rhythmically bedded Marlboro Clay, show that the massive release of isotopically light carbon was ‘instantaneous’.

        “Evidence for a rapid release of carbon at the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum” (James D. Wright, Morgan F. Schaller) – May 2013

        • jh

          Thanks for the ref. I’ll check it out. Geochronological problems, particularly in undatable sequences, are usually difficult to crack.

          • peter whitehead

            you may have seen this:

            NASA released global temperature data showing that September 2013 tied with 2005 for the warmest September on record.

            That’s doubly impressive since 2005 was warmed by an El Niño and accompanying warm Pacific ocean temperatures, whereas 2013 has had cooler Pacific temperatures all year.

          • jh

            So what?

  • Mister Science

    Those people aren’t “skeptics,” they’re deniers. To be a scientific skeptic, you have to actually understand the current state of the science. Science depends for its progress on skeptics. Deniers of physical principles and effects that have been well known for a century obviously don’t know anything about the institutions they condemn much less the business those institutions conduct. Svante Arrhenius measured the greenhouse effect of CO2 in 1896. Then he wrote a book about what an artificially (anthropogenically) warmed world might be like. You can wait a long time for the climate science deniers to explain how Al Gore’s false science conspiracy (which they heard about from Glenn Beck) got to Arrhenius.

    • jh

      ” To be a scientific skeptic, you have to actually understand the current state of the science.”

      Ohhh…you mean like the fact that we don’t know if cloud effects generate positive or negative forcing? You mean like the fact that we don’t know why the warming trajectory has flattened for nearly two decades? You mean like the fact that we’re in an extended period of low hurricane activity when AGW is supposed to increase “extreme” weather? You mean the fact that, despite hundreds of years of recording floods, SREX 2011 claimed there wasn’t enough data to tell if floods were increasing or decreasing because of AGW?

      Oh. That’s what you meant. The science part.

      • OWilson

        Maybe he means that since the empirical evidence fails to confirm the 1990 IPCC projections, they are now “more certain than ever” that their flawed models are correct.
        That’s NOT science, it is a BELIEF!

        • peter whitehead

          NASA released global temperature data showing that this September tied with 2005 for the warmest September on record. That’s doubly impressive since 2005 was warmed by an El Niño and accompanying warm Pacific ocean temperatures, whereas 2013 has had cooler Pacific temperatures all year.

          still, this could all be done better by you

          • OWilson

            And just what does that have to do with the UN IPPC failed models?

          • jh

            So what’s to fix?

    • peter whitehead

      in 10 years time al gore will build a time machine, go back and ……..

  • David Skurnick

    Here’s a theory that Climate change is a mimetic alliance:

    “Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming is a self-sustaining narrative that is living off our mental capacity, either in symbiosis or as an outright cultural parasite; a narrative that is very distanced from physical real-world events. The social phenomenon of CAGW possesses all the characteristics of a grand memetic alliance, like numerous similar structures before it stretching back beyond the reach of historic records, and no doubt many more cultural creatures that have yet to birth.”

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/11/02/the-catastrophic-agw-memeplex-a-cultural-creature/

  • OWilson

    The article doesn’t mention the major reason for we skeptics being skeptics. Why is that?

    Here it is:

    We are skeptical that hundreds of $billions of our transferred wealth to third world corrupt regimes, through the corrupt political organization known as the U.N., will actually change the planet’s climate. I mean, they’ve yet to fix wars, political corruption and nuclear proliferation, which is supposed to be their main function.
    We just don’t believe Al Gore. We are wary of doomsday predictions which have always been with us, and yet never materialized.

    Then, of course, there are the “science” issues, like U.N. failed projections, more GLOBAL ice cover today than at anytime in the last 40 years. Also less extreme weather events which are hyped as a harbinger of worse to come (see quotes on Superstorm Sandy), not to mention that is hasn’t been warming for quite a while, while C02 levels are going thru the roof.

    And the precious time remaining to “fix” all these catastrophic predictions, seems to be getting longer, not shorter.

    If you go back and examine predictions made by the warmers, and compare them to predictions made by skeptics, it may surprise you who is more on target!

    • peter whitehead

      Amazing how the real world ignores you:

      NASA released global temperature data showing that this September tied with 2005 for the warmest September on record. That’s doubly impressive since 2005 was warmed by an El Niño and accompanying warm Pacific ocean temperatures, whereas 2013 has had cooler Pacific temperatures all year.

      • OWilson

        Only if you use the base period 1950 -1980 (NASA)

        Cherry picking don’t cut it anymore.

        Here’s a new study:

        Climate Dynamics – by Professor Judith Curry of the Georgia Institute of Technology and Dr Marcia Wyatt.

        “The pause means there has been no statistically significant increase in world average surface temperatures since the beginning of 1997″.

      • jh

        “the warmest September on record.”

        Again: So what?

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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, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and 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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