Is It Time to Start Countering Climate Denial at the Local Level?

By Chris Mooney | November 2, 2010 8:55 am

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is teaming up with Scholastic (which makes bajillions off textbooks and Harry Potter) to produce an “energy” curriculum–one that neglects environmental consequences and climate change, at least in the materials presented so far (PDF).

Scholastic also offers the “United States of Energy,” another lesson plan/educational program “brought to you” in part by the American Coal Foundation.

Meanwhile, in state after state, anti-evolutionists are arguing not only that we should “teach the controversy” around evolution, but that the same goes for other controversial topics as well–and then global warming inevitably gets roped in. And the strategy has been working.

In the most infamous case, legislators in South Dakota called for “balanced teaching” about global warming in their state. In one version, their bill justified this assault by noting, “there are a variety of climatological, meteorological, astrological, thermological, cosmological, and ecological dynamics that can effect world weather phenomena [and] the significance and interrelativity of these factors is largely speculative…”

Yeah. They did write that.

Is it time for the creation of an organization, like the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), that will be capable of countering these many and varied attempts to torque what children learn about climate and energy? Doesn’t sound like a bad idea to me. Here’s Eugenie Scott, of NCSE, discussing the idea:


Comments (42)

  1. Why do we need a separate one? Why not NCSE itself?

  2. Rob Koci

    You are well within your rights to try to “torque” the information that is being diseminated to children. What you don’t have a right to do, is to limit to your view the information children receive. The public education system is not yours to torque. It really, fundamentally, belongs to the parents who send their children there. If at a local level, they want to teach their children, with their tax dollars, that climate change is not a settled science, you must step aside an allow it.

  3. FUAG

    @2 – I agree. Selling AGW as a settled science is indoctrination and nothing less. Teach the kids science that we know so they can make informed decisions.

  4. In my home town, Morgan Hill, CA, the local Chamber of Commerce is teaming with the City Government to provide guidance to companies that are working to deal with climate change and other environmental problems. Still we have a mayoral candidate who views climate change as a hoax. I have a monthly local newspaper column and made attitudes toward climate change as the deciding factor in choosing local office holders. Yes, we take local action because there is little hope for anything but gridlock at the Federal level. In fact, one analyst on Nightly Business Report suggested the gridlock would be good for business….. they would know how to plan for the future.

  5. If at a local level, they want to teach their children, with their tax dollars, that climate change is not a settled science, you must step aside an allow it.

    Actually, parents don’t have the right at a local level to demand that teachers cater to their specific worldview.

  6. Mark

    @#2 – If at a local level, they want to teach their children, with their tax dollars, that there is a thriving civilization on Mars that is trying to invade the earth, that astrology is proven science, and that immunization is a government plot to harm our children, must we step aside and allow it?

  7. -you must step aside an allow it

    Yes, as long as that means allowing parents to homeschool the (unfortunate) children. Climate change denial and creationism have no place in a public school classroom, just like astrology, crop circle science and psychokinesis physics.

    I always say that if you don’t want to use your sacred tax dollars to subject your kids to what you think is indoctrination, you also don’t have a right to benefit from the positive consequences of that ‘indoctrination’. Thus, no antibiotics against ‘evolved’ resistant bacteria for you for instance.

  8. FUAG

    @7 – I dissagree on a couple of points.

    1. Creationism should be tough. But not as a science, it should be tough as part of social studies curriculum. I recall being tough about the greek gods when I was in school. Do you also think we should do away with that?

    2. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that we should be teaching denialism. The issue is that AGW climate change cannot be taught as curriculum since we don’t fully understand it. Teach the bits of it we do understand. Such as:

    CO2 is a greenhouse gas, but it’s a significantly less powerful greenhouse gas than water vapor.

    Tech that temperatures and CO2 are rising, but that in the history of earth temperatures and CO2 have risen and fallen constantly and that we are currently in a time where both should be rising.

    Long and short, if you don’t want opposing ideology forced on your children, don’t expect the other side to accept yours.

  9. Nullius in Verba


    If the federal state wanted to teach children that Martians were invading, astrology worked, or that immunisation was dangerous, and you as a parent wanted schools to teach proper science; if they not only taught your children nonsense but also forced you to pay for the privilege, do you think that would be right and just?

    There are two separate issues here: state versus parent, and science versus superstition. (And in the latter, who decides which is which.) An argument for science does not generally work as an argument for the state – you’re relying on the contingent fact that you happen to agree with the state about what is science. But if an anti-science party won power and the state mandated astrology lessons for everybody, would you change your position on the state/parent question?

    It’s exactly the same philosophical problem as underlies free speech. Obviously it would make everything so much simpler if you banned false beliefs and ideologies. But the problem has always been that people disagree about which ones are false. So who decides which ones the law is to ban? Whoever happens to be in power at the moment? A committee of bureaucrats? A vote by all the nation’s certified ‘experts’? (And who hands out the certifications?) And what if they’re wrong?

    That’s why they chose to reject all such bans, and allow individual freedom of belief – even of false beliefs. The individual has the right to hold and express beliefs as they choose, and to learn or not learn them as they choose – and parents exercise individual rights on behalf of their children. Unless all children formally become wards of the state, parents retain that responsibility.

    Individual rights and government make an uneasy mix. The government policy is decided collectively, to which individuals have to give way, but at the same time the government is not permitted to intrude on the individual’s rights. So they way they deal with it is to make participation in government services such as education voluntary. They provide an education service available to everyone, so nobody has to go without, but parents can choose an alternative.

    Everybody has to pay taxes, even for services that they themselves do not use. Parents cannot tell the state what to teach in state controlled schools. And that includes if the state chooses to teach pseudo-science and nonsense. But you don’t have to go. And if parents choose to teach their children nonsense at home, then the state must indeed step aside and allow it.

    Of course the state – not being at home to liberalism and free speech – does everything it can get away with to make that difficult; but states are like that.

  10. Sean McCorkle

    FUAG @8

    Teach the bits of it we do understand. Such as:
    CO2 is a greenhouse gas, but it’s a significantly less powerful greenhouse gas than water vapor.

    … and how about teaching that while amounts of water in the atmosphere vary wildly with weather, atmospheric CO2 content has been climbing steadily for several decades, and therefore also its contribution to heating.

    … and while we’re at it, how about teaching the evidence which shows that the net climb in CO2 in recent years is entirely attributable to humans burning fossil fuels.

    Tech that temperatures and CO2 are rising, but that in the history of earth temperatures and CO2 have risen and fallen constantly and that we are currently in a time where both should be rising.

    … and how about teaching what the rates of those changes were compared to what’s been observed in the last 50 years or so, and while we’re at it, teach the principle of Conservation of Energy and explain how even the historical changes have to be explained in the long run by balances/changes in the net radiation budget, and whether or not those effects are at play currently, and if so, what rates of change would be expected from them.

    … and how its possible for runaway effects to occur, that increased heating could lead to increased water vapor which leads to increased heating

    … and that the Solar luminosity has been monitored from space for the last couple of decades and has been constant to with 0.2% during the increased heating trends during that same time.

    … and how and why the surface temperature of Venus is hotter than that of Mercury

    There’s quite a few bits that we know, actually. That’s just scratching the surface.

  11. Amazing: I was thinking something similar. But what I was thinking was even more grassroots; people who understand climate should invite a few people (“friends”) over for lunch, or dinner, or (gasp!) tea, and discuss climate. Let people who aren’t ideologically opposed or fully brain-altered on this issue ask questions. (It wouldn’t hurt to have a skeptic or two, as long as they can behave themselves, because they’ll ask questions that need to be answered.) Give the reasonable answers, clearly, without a lot of the research paper caveats. Let them think it over and invite them to call (or text or Facebook or whatever) if other questions occur to them.

    I had this happen to me once at my son’s T-ball game, of all places; we got to talking about
    our jobs, and I had to mention that my consultancy and my interests made me fairly well informed about climate change. So a few of the people around me started asking basic questions, like is it really happening? … what are the indicators? … what are the big concerns? … things like that. I remember that the biggest impact was the logical recognition that less sea ice means warmer waters in the Arctic, because ice reflects sunlight and dark water absorbs some of it. One guy literally said, “God, I never thought of that before.” I think I convinced a few of them that we need more nuclear power and that we should put in more CFLs in our homes (this was before CFLs were as widely available as they are now).

    One note: climate is a tougher subject than evolution, because it was pretty clear that those pushing to downgrade science education about evolution and to introduce “alternatives” were religiously motivated, which brought into play the religious no-establishment clause. The people attacking the teaching of climate in science classes are calling it a political issue, or ideology, like poor FUAG above; it’s not, but that’s what they’re calling it. And in some cases they’re succeeding. That’s why we who understand the subject should take on the talking points paraded out by the skeptics, such as what Mr. FUAG trotted out again. Why is this warming different than a natural warming cycle? Why does relative humidity in the atmosphere rise in response to the radiative forcing of long-lived greenhouse gases? If we know the answers, we should let our friends in on them, too.

  12. Nullius in Verba


    That’s a very good start! Yes, we need to talk more about the actual science, and understanding all the things that affect it. But you should be careful about giving the impression that you assume sceptics aren’t already aware of all that. As ever, there is a mixture, with many people not, but quite a lot who are. And it’s only the start of the argument – the bit you have covered so far doesn’t imply all that has been claimed for AGW.

    1. Yes, H2O varies wildly with the weather. But it’s still the biggest effect, and nobody knows whether there have been any systematic long-term trends in it, because it hasn’t been measured with enough resolution for long enough.

    2. Yes, atmospheric CO2 has increased, and hence its contribution. But nobody knows how big that contribution is. The conventional calculation says about 0.6 C plus all the other forcings, multiplied by the feedbacks, which could be anything from about 0.5 to 10.

    And beware of assuming that more heat means a higher temperature. If you have a pan of boiling water at 100 C and turn up the heat, it will stay at 100 C.

    3. It is not true that the net climb is entirely attributable to humans burning fossil fuels. In fact, the human fossil fuel contribution is about twice the total increase in atmospheric level, so half of it has disappeared somewhere. (Nobody is sure, but we think into the oceans.) The natural carbon cycle adds and removes far larger quantities continually and at varying rates, and the net change is a combination of both natural and anthropogenic effects.

    4. Globally, we do not have the data or the resolution to determine past rates of change on decadal time scales. However, we do have local records, and these include many examples of temperatures rising further, faster, and peaking at about the same level as the current warming. (e.g. HadCET 1680-1733.)

    5. We know about the principle of conservation of energy. But there is a lot more to the climate than the radiation budget, and there is more to the radiation budget than insolation and greenhouse gases. Convection and clouds, for a start.

    6. What you describe there is not a runaway effect, it’s positive feedback. With a feedback factor f, the effect is to multiply by (1 + f + f^2 + f^3 + f^4 + …) = 1/(1-f). For feedback factors between -1 and 1, the total increase is finite. But if f equals or exceeds 1 then you get a runaway feedback, in which the temperature rise causes the oceans to boil, which increases both atmospheric pressure and the greenhouse effect, and it doesn’t stop until the oceans have completely boiled away. There is absolutely no way that we’re going to get a runaway – the average temperature on Earth has been up to 20 C warmer in the past without this happening. There is a certain amount of empirical evidence that the feedback factor f is in fact negative, in which case we have even less to worry about.

    7. A couple of decades is not a long time. But the main problem with this is that it assumes the sun’s only influence on climate is via direct insolation. There are other factors, such as the balance between visible and ultra violet, solar wind, and the magnetosphere. You are also assuming that your instruments are accurate.

    8. Yes, we know why Venus is hot. (We also know why Mars is even colder than Earth, even though it has more CO2 in its atmosphere.) Venus is hot because it has thick, opaque, high level clouds 50-80 km above the surface that reach equilibrium with incoming radiation, and a 8 C/km convection-driven adiabatic lapse rate to the surface. 50*8 = 400 C temperature difference between the two. Fundamentally, Venus is hot because it has an atmosphere nearly 100 times thicker than Earth’s, with a pressure at the surface of 92 bar. If you go to the level where the pressure is the same as Earth’s, the temperature on Venus is about 30 C.

    What we don’t know is how it got like that.

    Discussing the science and the reasons you believe is definitely the way to go. But make sure that what you’re telling people is the real science, don’t assume that you know everything, and take scepticism seriously – don’t assume they’re necessarily stupid or ignorant or dishonest just because they hold a different opinion about AGW. (Or if you can’t help yourself, it’s good tactics to hide it.) Convey an appearance of being open-minded, curious, cautious, and interested in the details. There are sceptics around who know quite a lot of climate science too, and you may learn a few things as well as teach them.

  13. Bobito (formerly FUAG, I'm over it now...)

    @10 – I agree with most of the points you posted. I accept that human activity has some affect on global warming. My AGW stance is that it’s very difficult to factor how much influence we are having. This is primarily based on the fact that temperatures and CO2 have risen and fallen every 100k years (approx) in lock step. We are currently at a time when both SHOULD be rising given earth’s history. So, to say that it’s all due to burning fossil fuels is just wrong. And it would actually be correct, given earth’s history, to assume both will go down in lock step after we peak. Now, this is not to say we should burn fossil fuels willy-nilly, but I think this fact is commonly overlooked and it is the driving force behind the current warming trend.

    Now, you said “net climb in CO2 in recent years is entirely attributable to humans burning fossil fuels”. If by net you mean “CO2 levels above the natural increase due to the natural warming of the earth” then yes, of course we are responsible. But if by net, you mean that the increase each year is all on us, historical data shows that is not correct.

  14. Bobito (formerly FUAG, I'm over it now...)

    @11 – AGW is certainly a science issue, but the science is far from absolute. The politicians (including the one my former name was based upon) are responsible for the politicization and over exaggeration of the science that we do understand. They took scientific terms like “allows for” and “theoretically” and turned them into “will happen”.

    You spoke about sea ice, which is similar to the retreating glaciers (yes, I understand that warming oceans will affect sea ice and not glaciers, but same ballpark). We are constantly finding artifacts from beneath these retreating glaciers from ancient civilizations? One thing they have yet to find is an ancient coal plant or SUV…

  15. Nullius in Verba


    100k years is the cycle of the ice ages. We passed the peak about 8000 years ago and are now on the long, slow 20k year decline into the next ice age. Ice ages are relevant in terms of what’s possible in climate, but they’re not an explanation for the current short-term changes.

    What you may be thinking of is the interstadial cycle every ~1500 years. During the ice age they were known as the Dansgaard Oeschger events, and post the ice age they’re known as Bond events. The Minoan warm period, the Roman warm period, and the Medieval warm period were past examples, and now we have the ‘modern’ warm period, right on schedule.

    Note, I’m not saying that’s necessarily what’s causing the current warming, but it may be a factor.

  16. @8: Yes, creationism can be taught in a class about the history of ideas (by the way you mean “taught” and not “tough”, right?) and not in a science class

    -CO2 is a greenhouse gas, but it’s a significantly less powerful greenhouse gas than water vapor.

    That may be true but this argument has been repeatedly answered by pointing out that unlike CO2, H2O has a very short lifetime and simply falls out of the sky as rain when in excess. A molecule like CO2 has an average lifetime of 12 years so it sticks around longer. Check this out:

  17. Sean McCorkle

    @13 – I think you need to compare the slower rates of geo-historical trends (both T and CO2 fraction) with the much more rapid climbs observed in our lifetimes.

    @12 –

    And beware of assuming that more heat means a higher temperature.
    of course, its all about the heat (energy)

    If you have a pan of boiling water at 100 C and turn up the heat, it will stay at 100 C.

    if it gets to that level, oh boy are we in trouble. But I note the boiling water won’t last long in that state and that the vapor it becomes has no such limit and can get much hotter still.

    3. It is not true that the net climb is entirely attributable to humans burning fossil fuels. In fact, the human fossil fuel contribution is about twice the total increase in atmospheric level, so half of it has disappeared somewhere.

    Thats just making the point more strongly. That various CO2 sinks respond to increased levels with increased uptake doesn’t seem that surprising.

    5. We know about the principle of conservation of energy.

    In recent years I’ve come to the conclusion that the bulk of the American public does NOT understand or even know this principle, which has helped lead us into potentially disastrous circumstances. (not just global warming)

    But there is a lot more to the climate than the radiation budget, and there is more to the radiation budget than insolation and greenhouse gases. Convection and clouds, for a start.

    A spherical boundary can be drawn around the Earth at which the energy budget is purely radiative. All the complicated atmospheric, oceanic etc effects either affect that balance (albedo, more IR absorption) or they redistribute the energy.

    Regarding Venus – if it had a completely transparent atmosphere at all wavelengths, the atmosphere would be heated strictly by thermal coupling at the planet surface, which itself would achieve a temperature due to radiation balance with incoming sunlight. That temperature would be less than the temperature of Mercury because Venus receives less sunlight than Mercury. That the massive atmosphere (mostly CO2) is optically thick at some level merely moves the greenhouse effect argument up to that altitude – the layer where sunlight gets absorbed would also reach a temperature less than the Mercury surface temperature. Venus is much hotter than a blackbody (a perfect absorber!) would be at its position from the Sun, despite having an albedo of 0.67 (think of how bright the planet is in the evening sky) compared to Mercury (0.14). Its high temperature is due to the greenhouse effect. The radiative output is severely inhibited, which causes it to rise to a higher temperature until it achieves a balance with incoming radiation. If that were not true, where would it be
    getting its extra energy from?

    BTW that Mars is cooler than Earth, despite more CO2, shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, due to lesser sunlight and near absence of water vapor. As many folks here like to repeatedly point out, water has huge absorption bands around 10 microns and is a major greenhouse gas on Earth.

    There are other factors, such as the balance between visible and ultra violet, solar wind, and the magnetosphere.

    I think solar wind & magnetosphere are non-starters in this. The incredibly huge Coronal Mass Ejections are estimated to deliver maybe 1e12 Watts at most to the Earth, which comes to ~1e-2 Watts per square meter at most, over the entire earth, during one event (which are not that common). Pretty small potatoes. The regular solar wind delivers far far less energy.
    Pretty small potatoes. (BTW It had been argued that Cosmic rays (non-solar) might induce cloud formation but its been shown recently that there’s no real correlation between the two)

    You are also assuming that your instruments are accurate.

    A necessary risk in Science. Thats what calibration procedures are for. Thats also why multiple independent measurements and methods are a good thing.

  18. Bobito

    @15 – Thank you, Nullis. I was incorrect on the 100K cycles. After doing a bit more research I see where I was flawed. I had taken a couple of facts and joined them incorrectly.

    End point is the same though, as you stated, warming periods (along with CO2 rise) is something that happens naturally. To put it all on AGW is not considering all of the facts.

  19. Adam

    “..Astrological…factors…” Not astronomical? Hm.

  20. D.B. Cooper

    @12- Nullis. Your admonition to keep an open mind (and potentially learn from skeptics) is duly appreciated. As your post and #17 indicate, it is possible and extremely helpful to have reasoned discussion about the state of the science and remaining uncertainties. The real issue, though, becomes what should policymakers be doing – if anything – given the current state of the science?

    Most so-called “skeptics,” I think it’s fair to say, believe we shouldn’t be doing anything to limit greenhouse gas emissions. This despite projections – as you note in your second point – that global average temperature may rise anywhere from 0.5 to 10 C by the end of the century! An increase of 0.5 C would be eminently tolerabe. A 10 C increase would be catastrophic. The policy-relevant question, then, is why so-called skeptics seem so supremely confident that action on climate change is unwarranted. There is a *huge* difference pointing out the uncertainties in the science (healthy skepticism) and concluding that we don’t need to act (which you may only honestly conclude if you cling with foolish certainty to the notion that the outcome will be at the lower end of the projected range).

  21. Bobito


    I am a skeptic, as I am skeptical about the claims of impending doom. I think that politicians have cleverly spun a partly natural and partly AGW warming trend into a means to get higher taxes, and in many cases, political and financial gain.

    I am absolutely a believer that filling our atmosphere with carbon is not a good thing. And I absolutely support the greening of our energy.

    My issue is that the “solution” most talked about is taxing carbon emissions. Why is this the solution? Seems dubiously political to me…

    Regardless of what we do to green our energy, we will still be addicted to fossil fuels for many years. There is no “tear the bandage of quick so it won’t hurt” fix here. We have an infrastructure dependent on fossil fuels. We can work toward greening our energy and industry without penalizing the use of fossil fuels.

  22. Nullius in Verba


    “That may be true but this argument has been repeatedly answered by pointing out that unlike CO2, H2O has a very short lifetime and simply falls out of the sky as rain when in excess. A molecule like CO2 has an average lifetime of 12 years so it sticks around longer.”

    That’s true, but why is it relevant? How does it answer the point?


    We don’t know that geo-historical trends were slow. That’s due to the limitations of the data we’ve got, and the way it is plotted. Very short periods of warming and cooling get smoothed out, and the error bars are wide.

    Don’t take the boiling water example too literally. The point was simply that you can have non-linear effects in which an increase in heat input does not result in an increase in temperature. In the case of the pan of boiling water, more heat at the bottom of the pan increases the rate of convection, carrying it away faster. If there were effects in the Earth’s atmosphere that increased convection (say) in response to extra heat, a similar effect is logically possible.

    This is not to say that it doesn’t result in temperature increase, just that you have missed steps out in your logic. You can’t jump from demonstrating an increase in heat input straight to concluding that the temperature must therefore rise.

    “That various CO2 sinks respond to increased levels with increased uptake doesn’t seem that surprising.”

    Be careful again. We don’t actually know that this is a response to increased level of CO2. It might, for example, be a response to ocean eutrophication. I would agree that a response to higher CO2 is quite likely, ‘not surprising’ as you say, and it is indeed the sceptics’ favoured argument, but it makes a big difference with regard to projections of future levels and recovery time once emissions reduce.

    Perhaps more Americans would know what ‘conservation of energy’ meant if it wasn’t continually used as a slogan for turning off the lights?

    It is true that a spherical boundary may be drawn across which the energy transfer is purely radiative. But that’s outside the atmosphere, which is where all the climate happens. I repeat, there’s more to climate than the radiation budget, and there’s more to the radiation budget than insolation and greenhouse gases.

    “Venus is much hotter than a blackbody (a perfect absorber!) would be at its position from the Sun”

    When you talk about ‘the temperature of Venus’, do you mean the temperature of the solid surface, or the temperature of the clouds tops (the visible ‘surface’) or the temperature of the tropopause, or the top of the actual atmosphere, or what? Venus has more than one temperature.

    The black body temperature for Venus would be 328 K = 55 C. Because of the high albedo, this is reduced to 255 K = -18 C. The bottom of the cloud layer is actually at about 70 C. The top of the clouds is at about -40 C. So the answer to the question of whether Venus is warmer or colder than a black body would be is a little unclear!

    Yes, on physical grounds, I agree. At the altitude of unit optical depth, I would expect Venus to be warmer than the corresponding grey body due to the CO2 greenhouse effect. But it’s a very different, and much more complicated conclusion than people are thinking about when explaining ‘why Venus is so hot’.

    I agree that the solar wind does not supply the energy directly – nobody to my knowledge has ever seriously suggested it. The mechanism will be something indirect, such as thermosphere height, stratospheric heating, the vertical electric field gradient, or cloud nucleation. I’m not aware that anyone has shown that there’s no real correlation between the two, although I do know of some papers that have made the claim, by cherrypicking short time intervals and testing for more than was claimed. The relationship between weather and solar cycles was first noted by the astronomer William Herschel in 1801. Did he make a mistake in his calculations?

    The solar hypothesis is still far from being proved – I’d say that it currently had less evidence going for it than the CO2 hypothesis – but I’d also say that it is a long way from being falsified too. Such hypotheses develop as more is learnt, and I would expect the theory to change over the coming decades. We are currently at the same stage that the CO2 hypothesis was in during the days of Arrhenius. They were similarly dismissive of Arrhenius in his day.

  23. D.B. Cooper


    Generally I can understand your suspicion about taxation and politics, but the solution to put a price on carbon emissions comes straight out of economics and market theory, not a politician’s playbook. Quite simply, burning fossil fuels imposes costs on society (in the form of climate change) that renewable energy doesn’t. The idea behind taxation (or cap-and-trade, for that matter) is to internalize those costs, so that when you pay for a megawatt-hour of electricity you’re paying for the full cost of producing it (i.e., the cost of mining, transporting, and burning the fuel, *plus* the cost to society of adding CO2 to the atmosphere). Without some kind of tax, we’re essentially getting a free ride every time we consume fossil fuels, which means we will consume too much of it relative to non-polluting alternatives. The point of tax is to level the playing field so that everyone sees the full costs of various energy sources and can choose how to produce and consume energy accordingly.

    The alternative is “command-and-control” regulation, i.e., dictating the kinds of energy and fuels that can be used, which is not only anti-market and anti-free choice, but ends up costing a whole lot more to achieve the same results.

    You’re right to be suspicious of taxation proposals, given the track record of legislators in appropriating funds for all manner of different purposes. But a revenue-neutral policy that raised taxes on carbon and used the revenue to reduce payroll taxes, for example, could be not only good for the environment but good for the economy. Designed correctly, people would more than make-up for increased energy prices through having more disposable income.

    The issue isn’t whether taxation (or other market-based policies) are a good solution here; it’s holding the legislators accountable to make sure they design the policy in the right way. God forbid that we wake up 20-30 years from now and realize the only way we can deal with the problem is through draconian technology mandates. But unless the price of fossil fuels starts to reflect their full cost to society, that’s exactly where we’re likely to end up.

  24. Nullius in Verba


    Policy and impacts are a separate question, on which there is also much to be debated.

    For example, it is often said that 10 C would be catastrophic. But would it? The temperature on Earth varies by more than 10 C from equator to poles, summer to winter, sometimes even from one day to the next. We have seen 3 C temperature increases in 40 years in England before (1695-1733). The Earth has experienced the Holocene optimum 5 C warmer than today only 8000 years ago, and during the last inter-glacial 120,000 years ago, there were Hippopotamus swimming in the Rhine and the Thames, and forests extended all the way to the Arctic circle. From what we can tell of the fossil evidence, life did rather well.

    Is there more diversity near the equator or the poles? Does life flourish more in summer or winter? Why do we put crops in greenhouses, if the warmth will reduce yields? Why do so many of us fly to warmer rather than colder areas for our holidays? Are we sure that warmth is bad?

    Certainly, if it rose 10 C suddenly, like over 50 years, we might struggle to adapt. But I have little doubt that we could. Our recent prosperity makes adaptation far easier.

    The precautionary principle is logically equivalent to Pascal’s Wager. But from my point of view, the best precaution one could take in the face of uncertainty would be to remain flexible, and to gather as many resources as one can ready to jump fast when you know which way to jump. The first priority would be to get the developing world prosperous enough to cope with whatever is coming. (Turning Bangladesh into The Netherlands, in effect.) The second would be to start looking for (but not yet switching to) viable alternatives.

    And if you was really serious about reducing CO2 emissions right now, the very first thing you would do on becoming President is to order the building of about 400 fast-breeder nuclear reactors within the next ten years.
    (If you think nuclear power is more dangerous than climate disaster, then you don’t really believe in climate disaster.)

    Emissions limitation implies an awful lot of wealth to spend on a maybe, and is going to hurt an awful lot of people in the developing world whatever the weather does. We’ve also seen ‘scientific’ predictions of imminent environmental doom fail to materialise before. (“By 1985 enough millions will have died to reduce the earth’s population to some acceptable level, like 1.5 billion people.” “By 1980 the United States would see its life expectancy drop to 42 because of pesticides, and by 1999 its population would drop to 22.6 million.”) But even if you think action is necessary, the actions they’re proposing are the wrong ones.

  25. Bobito


    I understand the principle you are talking about with “the cost to society of adding CO2 to the atmosphere” but I’ve seen nothing that proves there is any cost associated with adding CO2. I’ve heard this exact premise mentioned many times, but never a “this is what CO2 is costing us and why”.

    Your other point “a revenue-neutral policy that raised taxes on carbon and used the revenue to reduce payroll taxes” I could absolutely go for. But somehow, that cutting one tax to add another never makes it into a clean energy policy. Which, is also, quite dubious… If it were really that big of an issue that really needed immediate action surely someone would suggest a revenue neutral tax solution in order to get it passed.

  26. Sean McCorkle


    Perhaps more Americans would know what ‘conservation of energy’ meant if it wasn’t continually used as a slogan for turning off the lights?

    More likely this is due to the abysmal failure to provide kids in the US with even a basic knowledge of physics. In other civilized countries, physics is a required course in high school, but is only optional (and often ducked) in the US. Another consequence that comes to mind after driving in the rain today is the failure of most drivers to comprehend the principle of Conservation of Momentum or even the concept of friction (or lack thereof).

    Turning out the lights, when they’re not really needed, is a good idea. That would give us a better view of the night sky. And as Mr Spock might say “Waste is illogical”.

  27. #14, Bobito, FUAG, whatever…

    We are constantly finding artifacts from beneath these retreating glaciers from ancient civilizations?

    Constantly? I think a couple of planks were found when one retreating glacier retreated a couple of years ago. Despite general trends, a few glaciers go their own way, because glacial mass balance results from accretion AND ablation. And their have been periods that were warmer than the periods before or after, when an advancing glacier could have covered up a settlement building or two. So artifacts exposed by retreating glaciers basically indicate that glaciers advance and retreat, and aren’t static. We pretty well knew that.

  28. D.B. Cooper

    @ 25 – Nullius, there is a big difference between regional and seasonal temperature variations and a *global* increase in the average temperature of the earth’s atmosphere. You can easily have a 20 C temperature difference between summer and winter temperatures in the same geographic region. That doesn’t mean that if you increase the entire temperature band by 10 C it won’t have catastrophic results. We’re already witnessing accelerated melting of glaciers and ice sheets worldwide. A 10 C increase would lead to higher sea levels and changing climatic patterns to which most life on earth would have an extremely hard time adjusting. The Holocene optimum you mention was in fact a regional increase in northern hemisphere temperatures – global average temperatures during the Holocene have been stable and quite close to current levels.

    As for the cost of reducing emissions, I think you overstate the case. Most studies suggest stabilizing CO2 concentrations would require shifts in energy production that would lead to a reduction in global GDP of a few percentage points by 2100. Hardly a steep price to pay for insurance against the worst outcomes. I fully agree with the need for adaptation measures like you suggest, but an intelligent policy response requires more than just adaptation. It’s more than just sea level rise, it’s water availability, the ability to grow crops, ecosystem sustainability, etc. – all things that will have direct and disproportionate material impacts on developing countries. By all means, let’s build those nuclear reactors (no argument from me there), but why try to pick the technological winners? Put a price on carbon, fund R&D, and let the market figure out the best way to invest.

    Your contention that past environmental “doomsday” predictions haven’t come true may be instructive, although the examples you cite appear to be contrived? If such predictions were made they were certainly out of the mainstream – even Paul Ehrlich didn’t predict a global population of 1.5 billion by 1985. Most scientific assessments of global environmental problems have been far more sober, and far more accurate. Cf. the history of the effects of CFCs on stratospheric ozone. Unfortunately, the more we’ve learned about CO2 and global warming, the harder it has become to dismiss the risk of potential serious disruption. I hope you’re right and most of the scientists studying this are wrong, but I’m not ready to wager on it. Somewhat like Pascal’s wager indeed, but in this case basic physics and empirical evidence tip the scales!

    @26 – Bobito, to give just one example, rising CO2 levels are likely already causing global temperature to increase, which will cause sea levels to rise. Among other things that will force people living in some coastal areas to relocate during this century. There’s a huge potential cost to that, especially given the percentage of the world’s population that lives in coastal areas. That’s but one cost associated with CO2. What is the total cost in terms of dollars per ton of CO2 emissions? Awfully hard to say with precision, but it almost certainly is not $0, which is what CO2 is effectively priced at right now. “Surely someone would suggest a revenue neutral tax solution in order to get it passed”? Surely they would – and have. The Cantwell-Collins bill introduced in the Senate last year was just such a solution. Too bad it didn’t get passed.

  29. Nullius in Verba


    I agree that there is a big difference between local and global changes in climate, but for the most part, it’s only the local ones that people actually experience. If the average temperature in England increased 3 C in less than 40 years, what does it matter to the English if it went the other way in Tasmania? When you are talking about impacts on the way people live, local is what counts.

    But even supposing that the entire temperature band was to increase by 10 C everywhere (which I don’t think is what is being proposed), it still isn’t obvious that this would be catastrophic – certainly you would have to provide some argument to explain why. In a sense, it happens every year, and life somehow survives it.

    Glaciers aren’t a good example. They’re too complicated, their flow depends on many things besides temperature, and too few of them have been measured for very long. It seems more likely that many of the changes observed are more to do with precipitation changes, and in any case the straight-line (not accelerating) trend started nearly a century before anthropogenic CO2 increase was significant. Ice sheets most definitely aren’t going anywhere – Antarctica is typically at a temperature of about -40 C, and even a rise to -30 C isn’t going to melt it. In fact, there are current predictions that ice sheets should grow as a result of global warming because of increased precipitation.

    There’s quite a lot of evidence for the Holocene optimum from the Southern hemisphere, too. Data from Chile, Tasmania, Antarctica, and so on. But even if you was right and it was purely a Northern hemisphere thing, the point is the Northern hemisphere survived it. The Greenland ice sheet survived it. Polar bears survived it.

    Same goes for sea level. If you look up meltwater pulse 1a, you will see how sea level rose 200 m in a period of 200-500 years, and all the corals and coastal critters survived it fine. We’re talking today about a rate of rise more than a hundred times smaller. In fact, a rate of rise we’ve experienced already for the past century, and that I think most people haven’t even noticed. The coastline is eroded and deposited continually anyway, the land rises and sinks naturally, and river deltas and coral atolls are kept close to sea level by the way they are formed. It is a long-standing fact of geography 101 that we are already well-adapted to.

    My point is, you can’t just assume that a rise in temperature must be catastrophic. If there’s something different about this warming compared to previous warmings that makes it so, you have to say what it is and why it makes a difference.

    On the economic forecasts, the studies I think you allude to have often been criticised for making over-optimistic assumptions, double-counting benefits, ignoring indirect costs, and using controversial discounting methods. But even leaving that aside, a few percentage points does make a significant difference.

    The reason is that wealth accumulates. Over the past few centuries, our average wealth has increased about 2% a year. Over a century, this has given us a 1.02^100 = 7.2 fold increase in wealth. Take a look at the history books to see how people lived a century ago – things have changed because we are around 8 times wealthier in absolute terms than they were. And in another 100 years, the world will be 8 times wealthier than we are today. The developing world will have developed. Starvation will have ended as a major problem. Disease will have receded. Life expectancy will have climbed. And our great grandchildren will have resources and technologies that we cannot imagine today that will enable them to cope easily with problems that we would struggle with.

    We have an ongoing catastrophe today, called ‘poverty’. We need to bring all our resources to bear – including and especially cheap energy – in solving it. For us to divert those resources to deal with something else, you need to be very sure that it really is more urgent.

    Both quotes I gave were in fact from Paul Ehrlich. Those particular quotes were from the extreme end of the spectrum, but the general idea was mainstream enough to set US international aid policy. I remember those times myself, and the idea that overpopulation was going to cause global disaster was not considered controversial. The few people who openly claimed that overpopulation wasn’t a problem were looked at the way people look at CAGW-sceptics today. (This Malthusian line of thinking is even still popular today.)

    I honestly don’t know whether I’m right. All I can say is that the physics isn’t ‘basic’, the evidence (if they’ll let you see it!) isn’t clear, and the methods used by those scientists do not inspire confidence. (As seen in the Harry_read_me file, for example.) I am not asking or expecting anybody to convert to scepticism. I don’t think it is unreasonable for people to believe in AGW, given all that has been said on it. I’m just trying to develop a bit of mutual understanding – that sceptics are not necessarily being unreasonable or “anti-science” for doubting, and that it is not beyond the pale to take the possibility that there might be a big problem with the science seriously. It is a point on which opinions can legitimately differ.

  30. Sean McCorkle


    When you are talking about impacts on the way people live, local is what counts.

    Its not always possible to cleanly partition things into local vs. global. For example, large numbers of refugees from high density coastal areas may overwhelm their own countries ability to house them. A situation where large numbers of Bangladeshis are displaced to other countries is not implausible. What would be the costs to those host nations, which may not be nearby at all? At a national level, if low-lying coastal communities in the US are inundated, we’ll all pay more through insurance and emergency relief. Port cities are major hubs for goods going inland – if they become dysfunctional, the effects could be felt throughout the US. If Manhattan were inundated, what would happen to Wall street? What would be the costs to investors far away from NYC?

  31. Nullius in Verba


    “For example, large numbers of refugees from high density coastal areas may overwhelm their own countries ability to house them.”

    Over what time scale? A week? A year? Fifty years?

    How often do people build new houses, and move house, anyway? Coastal erosion has always happened, and has necessitated a gradual shift of towns. As the global population expands, we will have to find new houses for a couple of billion more people as part of business as usual. And we have seen mass migrations and population shifts in the past even on short time periods (like with the creation of Bangladesh/Pakistan through partition), and global civilisation has survived it. Poverty, politics, and wars already cause all that, and one of the things we are hoping to get from economic development is a reduction in that sort of thing. It’s not a new thing that we have to adapt to, it’s arguably something that we might not end as soon as we had hoped.

    As it happens, it’s extremely unlikely to happen to Bangladesh, because it’s mostly built on a river delta. Silt collected from all over the Ganges river basin is transported downstream until it reaches the sea, when it fans out and slows down, depositing the silt to form new land. River deltas are very flat and very close to sea level because the processes that form and maintain them keep them that way. As sea level rises, so will the land. The current coastline is already in equilibrium with the past century of sea level rise, with no more than small variations around the constant mean, and indeed at the moment the area of Bangladesh is increasing. Unless sea level rise accelerates dramatically, Bangladesh will be unaffected, and even if it does accelerate, it will reach a new equilibrium with a slightly smaller area. It isn’t going to vanish.

    The same applies even more to developed nations, who have land reclamation technologies to use. The biggest risk to such communities is not sea level rise, but the short-sighted use of flood prevention technologies that break the cycle of the land formation process without putting anything in its place. The soft silt is always being compressed under its own weight, and without new silt from floods to restore its level, it sinks slowly below sea level. But again, this is an already existing problem that we have the means to address. It’s not something new.

    And all of this is assuming that sea level rises more than the 1-2 foot predicted from a continuation of the current trend, which not even the IPCC are willing to claim.

    Here’s an interesting map of Manhattan. I think it makes the point admirably.

  32. Sean McCorkle


    Ice doesn’t need to melt to raise sea level -it can just slide in and cause the same displacement. Looking at accelerating losses of glacial and sea ice, catastrophic or near-catastrophic ice slides don’t seem all that unlikely. Sub-glacial meltwater lubrication is now being implicated for acceleration. Its easy to imagine very non-linear scenarios. While Antartica is way below freezing, parts of the continental ice sheets are moving at hefty fractions of a km/year – only some needs to slide into the ocean to have an effect.

    Higher than average sea levels also amplify storm surge concerns – recent events in a gulf coast city in the US comes to mind. The Mississippi River Delta, itself always receiving new silt from one of the biggest rivers in the world, didn’t offer much protection in 2005.

  33. Nullius in Verba


    Interesting idea.

    The Antarctic ice sheet is about 4000 km across and 3 km thick, and its weight pushes the ground below down to make a depression in the centre in which the ice rests, and the bedrock is by no means smooth. It’s worth drawing a scale diagram to get an intuitive idea of the shape. And to try to visualise those speeds of fractions of a km per year on the same scale, too. Ice doesn’t fracture but is ductile below the plastic limit, when the pressure exceeds a certain quantity. So, looking at that scale diagram, can you say a little more about how you envisage this massive ice slide would work? What would trigger it, and what would drive it?

    I assume by glacial lubrication you mean the Zwally effect, when summer meltwater drains down moulins. I believe it has been proposed to explain some seasonality in a few particular cases, but in a lot of cases the acceleration of the glaciers doesn’t seem to be seasonal – they surge as often in winter as in summer – and so far as I know it has only been proposed for fairly fast-moving glaciers with a steep gradient and scoured-smooth base, I haven’t seen it suggested for slower-moving ice sheets proper on rough bedrock. It’s a genuine effect, but it’s unclear to me how important it is compared to other causes of changes of flow. I hear that it takes a lot of data processing to even detect it with any confidence in the noisy data, even for relatively fast-moving glaciers.

    Moulins have occurred as long as there have been ice caps, so presumably the idea here is that they occur more often, or for longer? Would that not result in the same sort of things happening a little bit longer or more often, or are we critically close to some sort of major instability? If so, of what nature?

  34. D.B. Cooper


    My point is, you can’t just assume that a rise in temperature must be catastrophic. If there’s something different about this warming compared to previous warmings that makes it so, you have to say what it is and why it makes a difference.

    This is where the medium of commenting on blog posts is probably insufficient. There are of course numerous academic studies projecting the probable impacts of a rapid global temperature increase. Cf. the book Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet by Mark Lynas for a layman’s treatment. Or, if you don’t trust model projections and informed speculation, try the recent statement from the U.K. Geological Society re evidence of the impacts of climate change from the geological record. It may be worth quoting a passage or two from this statement:

    Life on Earth has survived large climate changes in the past, but extinctions and major redistribution of species have been associated with many of them. When the human population was small and nomadic, a rise in sea level of a few metres would have had very little effect on Homo sapiens. With the current and growing global population, much of which is concentrated in coastal cities, such a rise in sea level would have a drastic effect on our complex society, especially if the climate were to change as suddenly as it has at times in the past. Equally, it seems likely that as warming continues some areas may experience less precipitation leading to drought. With both rising seas and increasing drought, pressure for human migration could result on a large scale.


    About 55 million years ago, at the end of the Paleocene, there was a sudden warming event in which temperatures rose by about 6ºC globally and by 10-20ºC at the poles. Carbon isotopic data show that this warming event (called by some the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM) was accompanied by a major release of 1500-2000 billion tonnes or more of carbon into the ocean and atmosphere…. CO2 levels were already high at the time, but the additional CO2 injected into the atmosphere and ocean made the ocean even warmer, less well oxygenated and more acidic, and was accompanied by the extinction of many species on the deep sea floor. Similar sudden warming events are known from the more distant past, for example at around 120 and 183 million years ago. In all of these events it took the Earth’s climate around 100,000 years or more to recover, showing that a CO2 release of such magnitude may affect the Earth’s climate for that length of time.

    The point is this is nobody is just “assuming” that impacts will be severe at the upper end of the expected range of warming.

    As for the economic costs, you note that we should “bring all resources to bear – including and especially cheap energy” in combating poverty. Fair enough, but if the “cheap” energy we are using today is in fact going to impose severe costs and hardship on future generations, then it is hardly “cheap.” Assuming it is cheap is to engage (consciously or not) in a devil’s bargain. The economic forecasts of the cost of reducing emissions may be based on uncertain assumptions (they could hardly not be), but the reason the impacts would not be severe – and a couple percentage points off global GDP is hardly a large opportunity cost when you consider that global GDP in 100 years is likely to be far more than is needed to satisfy basic human needs – is that we are talking about a shift over time in the world’s energy-production and distribution infrastructure. It’s not as if we need to tear out every coal plant overnight – at least not today. But the longer we wait to put a price on CO2 so that we can start to internalize its potential adverse effects (and very real costs), the more drastic and costly it will be for us to reduce emissions and adapt to the effects in the future. Even Bjorn Lomborg now supports investments of around $100 billion per year to start the transition.

  35. Sean McCorkle


    can you say a little more about how you envisage this massive ice slide would work? What would trigger it, and what would drive it?
    Gravity driven, triggered by increasing lubrication that overwhelms angle-of-repose stability. Or, perhaps rapid disappearance of sea ice which serves to block downward slides, as was discussed when the Larson B shelf disintegrated. The Columbia Glacier (AK) and in Jakobshavn in Greenland can clearly be seen sliding into the water in James Balog’s time lapse films: and discussion at

    I’m not arguing that this would happen to the great ice sheets, just the parts on downward slopes with clear paths to the ocean. While that may be a small fraction of the total ice, its not negligible shows a lot of fast moving ice, which has to be going someplace. I suspect that it could cause noticeable spurts in sea level rise against a slower background from meltwater. At some point, all potential sliding material would be exhausted once the glaciers no longer reach the sea directly. Then it would be back to melting and surface runoff rates, which would presumably be slower.

  36. Nullius in Verba


    I don’t go much for just trusting experts. As you might have gathered from my name.

    “With the current and growing global population, much of which is concentrated in coastal cities, such a rise in sea level would have a drastic effect on our complex society, especially if the climate were to change as suddenly as it has at times in the past.”

    I mostly dealt with that in #33. The only thing I’d want to add is to say that our complex society is not fragile. Our complexity is because we adapt locally to suit the circumstances, to take advantage of opportunities, and to solve problems. Those are the benefits of prosperity. Five hundred years ago we would have struggled – and did, with famines common. Virtually everybody worked in agriculture, and even then could not guarantee enough to eat. Two hundred years ago with the industrial revolution in full swing, we coped a lot better, with more secure food supply, collected over a wider area and hence more robust, life expectancy going up, effort devoted to agriculture going down. An then in the 20th century things really accelerated, life expectancy and population rocketing, famine a distant memory for the west and far less common elsewhere, very little of our resources now needed for pure survival, and the resources and technology to respond quickly. We are far less vulnerable than we were. And the extension of that prosperity-fuelled adaptability is surely the best precaution we could take against whatever the future might hold.

    The Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum is not understood. It is true that it injected a lot of carbon into the system, although since CO2 levels were previously around 1000 ppm it didn’t make as big a proportional difference as you might think. Mentioning CO2 in that way gives the impression that it had something to do with the cause of it. This is indeed one hypothesis, but so far an unproven one. It certainly doesn’t tell us what the effect of a 10 C warming would be today. And while a lot of species moved habitat, there were relatively few extinctions, apart from certain classes of deep sea plankton.

    That said, it does show that climate has changed throughout history and will undoubtedly happen again – whether CO2 has any effect on it or not. Being ready for it is a good idea.

    “Fair enough, but if the “cheap” energy we are using today is in fact going to impose severe costs and hardship on future generations, then it is hardly “cheap.””

    The cheap energy we are using will make our great grandchildren eight times wealthier than we are today, just as we are eight times wealthier than our great grandparents were. So that’s like everything we have today, multiplied by seven, that we’re going to take away from those future generations if we stop development. Like if our ancestors had believed Jevons and stopped burning coal, so we would all live today like they did in 1800. The only thing that is going to “impose severe costs and hardship” on future generations is cutting back on growth.

    Bjorn Lomborg edited a book in which invited experts wrote essays, some of which proposed $100bn/yr investment. You say “even” Bjorn says so, but Lomborg always did go along with the official position on AGW. It’s always been a matter of principle for him, that he used in his books, that he went with whatever the official science and statistics said – his position always was that the official science and the statistics generally didn’t say what the environmentalist doom-sayers claimed they said. He would open himself to a charge of hypocrisy if he was to reject the official story as soon as he didn’t like the conclusion, so he doesn’t.

    But for what it’s worth, I would also be sympathetic to the idea of significant investments in starting the transition, so long as they are genuine investments in the sense of giving a positive return on the money. If you was to propose developing nuclear power to get to the next generation of reactors, for example, I’d be right along side that idea. Moreover, I’m quite confident that we will invest, when the time is right and the technology is ready, and I would be frankly astonished if we were still using the same energy generating technologies in 50 years time.

    The problem arises when you try to rush it, and make the jump too early. It would be as if the people of a century ago had predicted that the… ahem… ‘pollution’ produced by their horse-powered civilisation would overwhelm their cities in a few decades time, filling the streets nine foot deep, and had therefore instituted a campaign to immediately ‘ban the horse’. But their predictions never came to pass, and nobody had to ban anything.

    Lomborg’s economists calculated a few years ago that the optimum time to take action on global warming would be around 2040-2050. At that point, further delay would cost as much as one would gain by waiting. I don’t buy economic models any more than I do climate models, but as Lomborg claims, that’s what the ‘official’ science actually says.


    Did you try that scale drawing? Because I have a feeling that if you had, you wouldn’t have put it quite that way.

    Let’s scale it down a millionfold. Now you have a sheet of ice about 4 metres across, and 3 mm thick. Imagine a big slab of flat concrete, 12 foot across and lay a 3 mm thick sheet of ice across it. Now try to imagine gravity causing it all to slide off. Those fast flow rates correspond to movements of about 1.5 mm/year in our scale model compare that to 4 metres. Does it seem reasonable?

  37. Sean McCorkle


    Again, I’m talking about the parts on the edges, not the entire continental ice sheets. Only a small fraction of it.

    Earth’s oceanic surface area is ~4e8 km^2. Neglecting density/volumetric differences between water & ice, it would take the equivalent of a block of ice 1 km high and 4e5 km^2 in area to raise the sea level by 1 m. Antarctica has ~18,000 of coastline, so that area would correspond to 22km inland from the coast. In other words, just the outer 2.2 cm of the 4 meters, or outermost inch of the 13 feet on your scale model has the capacity to raise the global sea level by 3 ft or so.

    Is it the speeds you have a problem with? Poking around one can find many examples of rate measurements of hundreds of meters a year.

  38. D.B. Cooper

    @38 –

    First, I think you confuse prosperity with lack of vulnerability. Having more resources at your disposal may mean you can better deal with adversity when it occurs, but it doesn’t make you less prone to adversity. If your house is located in a floodplain or a region prone to wildfires, the fact that you may be wealthy does not in any way reduce the risk of losing your house. And, to carry the analogy further, if your wealth derives essentially from the fact that you live in a risk-prone area, there is no guarantee that the bargain is ultimately in your favor. It all depends on the potential benefits relative to the expected costs. Your argument is that sufficient wealth will allow us to deal with any contingency, but that equation becomes suspect if the means to obtaining that wealth itself opens us up to greater risks of negative contingencies.

    In all of this we are dealing with varying degrees of uncertainty and risk. So when you state that the hypothesis that CO2 had a role in causing the PETM is unproven, one has to take that statement in the context of the balance of evidence, possible competing hypotheses, and ultimately – for the purposes of deciding today how to respond to the prospect of AGW – the risks and potential costs of tentatively accepting one hypothesis over another (including the null hypothesis). There is a basic question of presumption here. Various experts have deliberated over the possible causes and consequences of the PETM and decided there is sufficient cause to be concerned about the risk of human-caused contributions of a similar magnitude of CO2 to the atmosphere. (The fact that CO2 concentrations were higher prior to the PETM than they are today would in fact suggest that the proportional effects today may be even greater than they were then). So with all due respect to your name, why should I take your word that the PETM event “certainly doesn’t tell us what the effect of a 10 C warming would be today”? Have you tested and confirmed an alternate hypothesis? Or are you suggesting that we should for now simply accept the null hypothesis? That may be appropriate in the context of scientific inquiry. But in an economic and policymaking context, we are again back at Pascal’s wager – in the presence of bounded uncertainty, the only rational option is to weigh the possible costs and benefits associated with different possibilities and act accordingly. In that context, I cannot so easily dismiss the opinions of the experts.

    Which brings us to the basic economic argument. Even if it were true that the “cheap energy we are using today will make our great grandchildren eight times wealthier than we are today” (a suspect assertion if I’ve ever heard one, especially since today’s energy expenditures are only about 8 percent of global GDP – I think you mean that total growth in GDP of around 2% per year would lead to that level of wealth, which is a very different assertion), that does not mean we can simply ignore the costs associated with using that energy. Risk is form of cost. As long as you accept that there is any risk in terms of disruption to human society associated with rising CO2 levels (whatever resources we may have in the future to deal with that risk), then the true cost of emitting CO2 is not zero. And as long as we continue to treat it as zero (by not taxing CO2, or imposing regulatory limits on its emission), then by definition we will be misallocating societal resources in a way that makes humanity worse off relative to an optimum mix of investments in fossil fuels and alternatives. Nobody – and I mean nobody – is advocating that we “stop development” as you say. That is a throw-away argument. The question is how to develop in an optimal way taking into account the various risks and uncertainties, costs and benefits associated with different deployments of capital and resources. To assume that that the science of climate change is “unproven” and that its potential consequences should be downplayed or dismissed (or, more precisely, not factored in any way into current investment decisions) is not a recipe for maximizing wealth. Quite the opposite. Only a fool would succumb to the temptation of building a house in the woods without considering (and insuring against) the risk of a wildfire, no matter what that house might promise in terms of future wealth and satisfaction.

    Put another way, investments (including investments in nuclear technology) make perfect sense. But those investments will not occur “when the timing is right” if we do not also take steps now to impose a cost on CO2 emissions reflecting a reasonable guess at what the future costs of climate change might be. Only by internalizing that cost will can we realize an appropriate investment response in terms of timing and magnitude. R&D investment without accompanying price signals would be pointless. As pointless as investing in technology to reduce toxic waste would be if there were no cost or penalty associated with producing toxic waste (why else use the technology?) Maybe Lomborg’s economists are right about a 2040-2050 time horizon, but in fact they have very little basis for knowing (they’re not the ones familiar with and potentially investing in the technologies we’ll need). Better to trust the actual players in the market responding to an appropriate price signal. There were many built-in incentives to finding alternatives to horse transportation – among them the fact that people were immediately confronted with its unpleasant side-effects. No such built-in incentive for CO2. And again, nobody is now calling for an equivalent to banning horses!

  39. Nullius in Verba


    You seem to have reverted to making the assumption that warming would put us at increased (rather than decreased) risk. If a warmer world might be better for humanity, and life generally, then how do you know in which direction the optimum is?

    There is a risk associated with raising CO2 levels, and there is a risk associated with not raising them. Just as in Pascal’s wager there is a risk associated with being an atheist, and a risk associated with not being. You can’t say that going to church reduces the risk because you might have picked the wrong God, and while a partisan God may be willing to give a pass to honest atheists, they’ll condemn followers of their rivals. Or maybe is forgiving enough to grant atheists heaven too. One fallacy in Pascal’s wager is the false dilemma: the assumption that the two alternatives offered cover all the possibilities. Similarly with CO2 – you don’t know whether its cost is positive or negative.

  40. D.B. Cooper


    And wouldn’t it be wonderful if raising CO2 levels resulted in a net benefit? Certainly we’re required to look at all possibilities. But where you seem to err is in assuming that all possibilities should be given equal weight. Like any any company contemplating an investment, we as a society need to consider not just what the possibilities are, but also the likelihoods of their occurrence, along with the potential impact and cost if they occur (including possible tail-end outcomes). That’s basic decision analysis in a nutshell. And in evaluating the likelihoods, to whom shall I give greater credence? The voices of a few lone skeptics like yourself, or the collected pronouncements of 32 national academies of science along with numerous other scientific organizations in the fields of earth science, climatology, oceanography, paleoclimatology, and biology? After all, these are not priests issuing proclamations about the existence of God, but scientists trained in methods of critical inquiry. Could they all be wrong and the dissenters right? Sure. But I’m not going to bet the firm on it.

    The fact is, there is nothing remotely skeptical about assuming the best case scenario is as likely as the worst case, and therefore that we shouldn’t be taking action to insure ourselves against possible negative outcomes. Making that argument makes your skepticism seem more like an affectation contrived to advance preconceived notions of what is in society’s best interest. Very little in common with the teachings of Pyrrho and Empiricus, much more like the blind optimism of Pollyanna.


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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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