Gregg Easterbrook's Global Warming Conversion

By Chris Mooney | May 24, 2006 2:05 pm

I am not particularly impressed by his piece in the New York Times today. The evidence on global warming was in long ago; there was no particular reason for Easterbrook to hold out this long. But that’s not what really troubles me about Easterbrook’s argument. He writes:

Once global-warming science was too uncertain to form the basis of policy decisions — and this was hardly just the contention of oil executives. “There is no evidence yet” of dangerous climate change, a National Academy of Sciences report said in 1991. A 1992 survey of the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society found that only 17 percent of members believed there was sufficient grounds to declare an artificial greenhouse effect in progress. In 1993 Thomas Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center, said there existed “a great range of uncertainty” regarding whether the world is warming. Clearly, the question called for more research.

On the contrary: Just because the science was uncertain doesn’t mean there was no basis for policy decisions. Believe me, we knew how the greenhouse effect worked in 1991; we knew that human greenhouse gas emissions were rising; and we knew what the likely consequence would be even if it hadn’t fully manifested yet. There was a justification for *precautionary* policies back then just as there is a justification for precautionary policies now; the only difference is that now we’ve waited a lot longer, and the problem is consequently bigger. With the fate of the planet at stake, I hardly think we have any compulsion to wait until every last “skeptic” is finally convinced by the evidence….


Comments (8)

  1. Mark Paris

    Of course Gregg Easterbrook’s opinion on GW counts. After all, he is a climate scientist, right? No? Some other kind of scientist? The kind that might be competent to judge the state of a complex scientific issue on its own merits? To give peer reviews to scientific articles? To decide when the science is right, regardless of what the scientists say? No?

  2. James Bradbury

    Good point. The notion that science does not dictate policy cuts both ways. And, as you suggest, many of the most prominent skeptics will likely never be convinced. Check out a few of the Fox News free videos on “Global Warming: Fact of Fiction” if you have any doubt about that!

  3. Why is it that precaution/mitigation is so disregarded by some compared with adaptation? Both are important strategies.

  4. laurence jewett

    Scientists who are genuinely skeptical of new findings and theories perform an invaluable service since they force a thorough scientific review of all the issues involved. They are simply doing what every good scientist does: ask questions and demand answers.

    When THEY are finally convinced by the data to “change their mind”, it just means the case for the science is that much stronger as a result. When they do “flip”, they should be applauded for their open mindedness. They should certainly not suffer because of it, at any rate.

    On the other hand, those who have been acting as advocates (especially paid ones) deserve to be treated with, well, skepticism, when they change their mind.

    In the latter case, it is completely appropriate to question not only the reason for their original position, but also the reason for the position change. With regard to the latter, was it primarily because denial was no longer tenable? (without simply looking foolish)

    It is also appropriate to see precisely HOW they have changed their position — indeed whether they have really changed their position at all. Is it more of a change in tactics (global warming is a real effect, but we still don’t know to what extent human activities are the cause) than a meaningful change?

    The other thing that is important to consider, of course, is how they behaved BEFORE the change. Did they belittle legitimate science and scientists by calling their findings and ideas “Myth”?

  5. Chris, you have just touched on what should be a key point in your debate with Ron Bailey over the skewing of science, namely that the real world costs of the distortion are important in measuring the degree of the distortion. In the case of climate change, the years frittered away by the US (and indeed the world, because of the reluctance of others to take meaningful action in the absence of the US due to free rider issues) as a result of the skewing of science by rent-seeking industries and their political and scientific puppets has been tremendously costly, and has made it that much more difficult to avoid dangerous climate change as opposed to merely adapting to it, as Bailey is now calling for. Is it cheaper to buy, install and use brakes on a bus before it starts heading down a mountain road, or to say “we don’t need no stinking brakes!” and just head down the mountain, careening all the way? Of course there are also present real-world costs to climate change, starting with the lost of Canada and Alasaka’s pine forests to the pine bark beetle.

    Another point to argue forcefully is that the “skepticism” from the right has really been in the service of favored special interests and partisan advantage. This is one of the biggest weakeness in the debate from the point of view of a so-called “libertarian” like Ron – at least theoretically, they are acutely aware that once the government is involved, policy-making becomes a huge battle to win government-mandated spoils (“rent-seeking” behavior) at the cost of taxpayers and rivals. It is very difficult for them to deny that this is in fact what has happened on climate change; promient “free-market environmentalists” on the right have made exactly this point. See this comment by John Baden, founder of PERC (now headed by Terry Anderson) and grandfather of the “Sagebrush revolution”, who runs right-wing economics seminars for judges and others:

    Let me quote from a comment I made at Reason, where Ron Bailey is looking for help on his preparations for the debate: “I would say that it appears that with this post you are asking some of the right questions, but there is another very important observation that you’ve implied but is not explicit: why does the Administration choose to engage in what looks like a largely counterproductive war in Iraq, for purposes that appear entirely illusory, that all-in will cost us about $1 trillion or so, and has already cost us more than estimates for global implementation of the Kyoto protocol over several decades, but in case of climate change we have nothing but research and a new pact to shove subsidies at China and India?

    A full discussion of the Iraq war is off-thread, but I think it is fair to note that partisan political advantage was one factor. But for purposes of the comparison with climate change, can’t we draw on public choice theory and libertarianism to see the rich vein of public money and public resources that favored corporate interests have been exploiting through successful “rent-seeking” behavior, coupled with rampant influence-peddling inside the Administration and Congress?

    In the case of climate change, industrialists and fossil fuel producers have successfully coopted policy and spun uncertainty, getting continued free use of the atmosphere at the cost of us all and future generations, and despite the opposition of the many firms in the Pew coalition, insurance firms and the utilities who have been clamoring for rational regulation so they can invest in clean, GHG-free coal gasification technologies as opposed to dirty coal-buring facilities. Note that the firms opposed to regulating GHGs at home did not object to the use of further tax dollars to subsidize research – these dollars don’t come out of their pockets. And in the case of the now “long” “war on terror”, it is clear that a number of favored firms and industries linked to the military are making out like bandits with our tax dollars (some being shifted to our children).

    There’s nothing particularly surprising about this rent-seeking behavior by large corporations, but what is surprising is how little play it gets from libertarians when they rail at “fear-mongering” “enviros” who are also seeking a place at the public table, both on environmental issues generally and on climate change in particular. Why is it that one spin machine is slammed, while another’s is ignored? This is particularly galling on environmental issues, as environmentalists are aroused on these issues because there is either a real market failure involved, or the government is providing a handout to its friends.”

    Also note that the recent subsmissions to the Senate Energy Committee have alot of useful information in response to their proposal to regulate GHGs. In particular, note the comments of William Prindle, Deputy Director of the ACEEE about how models forecasting net costs for climate change regulation are proabbly wrong:

    My apologies for the length of this.

  6. laurence jewett

    It’s interesting that Easterbrook has to go back so many years to make his case that the “uncertainty” of the science of global warming ruled against taking action.

    “Yesterday, GW-denial was such an easy game to play,
    Now it looks as though it’s here to stay,
    Oh I believe in yesterday.” — with appologies

  7. I also think it’s noteworthy that Easterbrook relies on sources at least 13 years old to explain why he waited until yesterday to change his mind on global warming. An awful lot happened during the intervening period, most importantly the 1998 and 2001 IPCC reports. Those were really the turning point for informed skepticism. Anyone waiting until after that point to “convert” was not basing his opinion on scientific evidence or consensus.

  8. laurence jewett

    It is more than a little interesting what Easterbrook has to say about Al Gore’s new movie about Global warming:

    “The picture the movie paints is always worst-case scenario. Considering the multiple times Gore has given his greenhouse slide show (he says “thousands”), it’s jarring that the movie was not scrubbed for factual precision.” — Gregg Easterbrook

    Funny, this does not seem to jibe AT ALL with what a respected climate scientist (Eric Steig) at University of Washington (Seattle) said on the Real Climate site about the very same movie:

    “How well does the film handle the science? Admirably, I thought. It is remarkably up to date, with reference to some of the very latest research. Discussion of recent changes in Antarctica and Greenland are expertly laid out.” — Eric Steig

    You can take your choice when it comes to “whose movie review to trust” in this case: a columnist’s? (Easterbrook’s) Or a climate scientist’s? (Steig’s)


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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