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Analysis: ‘Climate science is yet another American institution in decay’

Why we do nothing to prepare for climate change

Summary:  The results are meager from thirty years of debate about a public policy response to climate change. There is little support in America for action, the IPCC’s AR5 has disappeared from the news, much of the public no longer trust climate scientists, and debate has almost stopped. The weather will determine future policy, not our foresight. But we can see what went wrong and so do better next time – while we wait to see the price we pay for our folly. This is a drastic, and much darker, revision of a post from 2015.

“Thus an extraordinary claim requires ‘extraordinary’ (meaning stronger than usual) proof.”
— From “Zetetic Ruminations on Skepticism and Anomalies in Science“ by Marcello Truzzi in Zetetic Scholar, August 1987.

Scientists tell the UN about the coming disaster in “When Worlds Collide” (1951).
They put forth the data and allowed debate about it.

Presenting at the UN. From "When Worlds Collide" (1951).

Why doesn’t America lead the fight against climate change?

Why does anthropogenic climate change rank low on the list of public policy priorities in most surveys (e.g., these by Gallup and Pew Research) Since James Hansen brought global warming to the headlines in his 1989 Senate testimony, climate scientists have had almost every advantage. Their warnings are broadcast with large marketing budgets (e.g., the expensive propaganda video by 10:10). They have all the relevant institutions supporting them, including NASA, NOAA, the news media, academia, foundations, charities, and even funding from the energy companies (and here), They have support from the majority of scientists.

The other side, “skeptics”, have some funding from energy companies and conservative groups, with the heavy lifting being done by volunteer amateurs, plus a few scientists and meteorologists.

What the Soviet military called the correlation of forces overwhelmingly favors those wanting strong action. Public policy in America should have gone Green many years ago. Why didn’t it?

The burden of proof rests on those warning the world about a danger requiring trillions of dollars to mitigate. That is even more so for remedies proposed by activists, such as a massive decrease in our incomes (e.g., a 9-hour work week) and drastic revisions to – or even abandoning – capitalism (e.g., journalist Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate and Pope Francis’ fiery speeches condemning global capitalism). How have climate scientists met this challenge? Why have activists, building on their work, not convinced the public to support radical action?

This is not about the validity of scientists’ predictions about climate change, but why America has ignored them.

How did scientists alert the world to a catastrophic threat?

Know your place

We have seen this played out many times in books and films since the publication of When Worlds Collide in 1932. Scientists see a threat. They go to the world’s leaders and state their case, presenting the data for others to examine and question. They never say things like this …

“In response to a request for supporting data, Philip Jones, a prominent researcher {U of East Anglia} said ‘We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it?’”

– From the testimony of Stephen McIntyre before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce (the July 2006 hearings which produced the Wegman Report). Jones has not publicly denied it.

The public has been told that most forms of extreme weather increased in magnitude or frequency during the past three decades. That is false (data hereand here), a fact well-documented by the IPCC’s reports. (I recommend Judith Curry’s new essay about extreme weather.) Steve McIntyre has documented the efforts of climate scientists to keep vital information secret, often violating the disclosure policies of journals, universities, and government funding agencies.

In these films, scientists don’t destroy key records, which are required to be kept and made public. They don’t force people to file Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to get key information. Their response to FOIs is never like this…

“The {climategate} emails reveal repeated and systematic attempts by him and his colleagues to block FOI requests from climate sceptics who wanted access to emails, documents and data. These moves were not only contrary to the spirit of scientific openness, but according to the government body that administers the FOI act were ‘not dealt with as they should have been under the legislation.’”  {The Guardian}

In these films, leaders of science-related institutions state the facts and welcome debate. In climate science they have exaggerated the threat and worked to suppress debate.

“The time for debate has ended.”
— Marcia McNutt (former editor-in-chief of Science, now President of the NAS) in “The beyond-two-degree inferno“, an editorial in Science, 3 July 2015. We are already one degree over pre-industrial temperatures. A rise of another degree would not be an “inferno.”

Climate science’s leaders crush dissenters (no matter how well-founded the objections). In this they have the enthusiastic support of activists in the media and other institution (some, not most, climate scientists are activists). Eminent climate scientists such as Roger Pielke Sr. and Judith Curry have had their reputations smeared. For an extreme example, see the campaign against Roger Pielke Jr. in response to his article in 2015 at Nate Silver’s “538” about findings of the peer-reviewed literature and the IPCC about costs of weather-related disasters. These were inconvenient facts and so had to be suppressed. Which they were. Four more years of data further validated the IPCC’s conclusions, yet journalists still report fake news about increased costs of weather disasters. Ross McKitrick tells this sad history in the Financial Post: “This scientist proved climate change isn’t causing extreme weather – so politicians attacked.“

Perhaps worst of all was the deliberate misrepresentation of the policy debate. Activist scientists said that skeptics “denied” the existence of climate change (which is false, and mad), or that they “denied” the existence of anthropogenic global warming and climate change (true only for an extreme fringe). The key questions were and are about the timing and magnitude of anthropogenic climate change – and its future. On those factors depend the nature of the appropriate policy response. This determined smearing of skeptic’s questions short-circuited the policy debate, and eventually poisoned it.

During the past few years, many climate scientists and activists have doubled down on these failed tactics. Stronger denunciation of critics. More extreme headlines such as “Halfway to Hell” in the New Scientist.

These actions by scientists erode trust in their work. This is not how people act when they have a strong case, especially with such high stakes. The warnings about climate change are not a Potemkin Village. But many climate scientists act as if it is one. The resulting gridlock in the public policy machinery is a natural result.

775 degree warming

Case study of a dysfunctional debate: the pause

Starting in 2006 climate scientists began to notice a slowing in the rate of atmospheric warming since the 1997 – 1998 El Niño.

By 2009 there were peer-reviewed papers about it (e.g., in GRL), and the pace of publications quickly accelerated (see links to these 29 papers). In 2013 the frontier of climate science shifted from debate about the existence of the pause to its causes (see links to these 38 papers). That year the UK Met Office published a major paper: “The recent pause in global warming.

From 2008 to 2016, many scientists gave forecasts for the duration of the pause (see links to 17 forecasts). The pause ended with the El Niño warming spike in 2014 – 2016.

While scientists investigated this unexpected phenomenon, activists wrote scores – probably hundreds – of articles not just denying that there was a pause in warming, but mocking as “deniers” people citing the peer-reviewed literature about it. See these by astronomer Phil Plait at Slate (hereherehere and here). The leaders of climate science, even those writing papers about the pause, remained silent while activists lied. While an impressive display of message discipline, it blasted away the credibility of climate science for those who saw the science behind the curtain of propaganda.

There were rare and mild exceptions, such as this in Nature Climate Change, August 2014. Note the scare quotes around pause, referring to is as “so-called” despite that term’s frequent use in the literature. Also, note that scientists “dismiss” journalists’ questions about the pause, despite the hundreds of papers about it.

“Climate science draws on evidence over hundreds of years, way outside of our everyday experience. During the press conference, scientists attempted to supplement this rather abstract knowledge by emphasising a short-term example: that the decade from 2001 onwards was the warmest that had ever been seen. On the surface, this appeared a reasonable communications strategy. Unfortunately, a switch to shorter periods of time made it harder to dismiss media questions about short-term uncertainties in climate science, such as the so-called ‘pause’ in the rate of increase in global mean surface temperature since the late 1990s.

“The fact that scientists go on to dismiss the journalists’ concerns about the pause – when they themselves drew upon a similar short-term example – made their position inconsistent and led to confusion within the press conference.”

Climate Change Couture
By Catherine Young and The Apocalypse Project.

The decay of climate science

Qui tacet consentire videtur ubi loqui debuit ac potuit.
– Roman adage: silence means assent when he ought to have spoken and was able to.

To convince people to fight climate change, they must trust climate scientists. While events during the first 25 years of the campaign made some people skeptical of the need for action, events in the past five years drastically polarized public opinion so that compromise became impossible.

The IPCC’s Working Group I reports (the physical sciences) are the “gold standard” description of climate research and the most reliable statement of scientists’ consensus. But by 2011 activists were saying they were “too conservative.” This became a widespread response by activists to the release of AR5 in 2013 (e.g., Inside Climate News and Yale’s Environment 360). Now activists explicitly attack the IPCC’s integrity, advocating it twist the science to support activists’ agenda. For example, see this March 2019 paper in Bioscience. (Here is a technical, if narrow, look at the issue from a risk management perspective.)

With little pushback by climate science leaders or their institutions, activists ran wild, making claims with little or no basis in science. Fear-mongering became their tool to gain public support. For example, see …

Some activist scientists endorse these claims. Journalists give even wild claims priority coverage. So we get scores of deadlines for action – climate “tipping points” – during the past 30 years, like trolleys passing by. And we get a stream of stories like those described in these posts …

  1. Weather porn about Texas, a lesson for Earth Day 2019.
  2. Terrifying predictions about the melting North Pole!
  3. The Extinction Rebellion’s hysteria vs. climate science.
  4. Daily stories of climate death build a Green New Deal!
  5. Activists hope that fake news about droughts will win.

Activists have succeeded in convincing those people who see climate policy as a means to enact their leftist agenda. They have convinced those who love doomster stories: doom from pollution (1960s), from overpopulation (1970s), from resource exhaustion (1980s), from peak oil (2000s). So the media overflow with people saying things like this …

“If we don’t fix it, then, the Earth will be uninhabitable for future generations.”
— “Early Warnings” by Michelle Nijhuis in the NY Review of Books.

Activists have terrified many young people (the young are always susceptible to simple exciting stories), as in this example of successful indoctrination of children for political gain.

“A student in Wendy Petersen Boring’s climate-change-focused class said she woke at 2 a.m. and then cried for two solid hours about the warming ocean. …Petersen Boring, an associate professor of history, religious studies, women and gender studies at Willamette University in Oregon, has been teaching about climate change for a little over a decade. In that short time, she has watched her students’ fear, grief, stress and anxiety grow.” {From CNN.}

As a group, scientists respond to these exaggerations and misrepresentations of their work with silence. Few defend the IPCC against claims of excessively conservative analysis. Rarely do scientists give even mild rebukes to activists’ climate stories (which are usually ignored by journalists who did not want to ruin the narrative). This silence allowed activists’ stories to displace the IPCC’s assessment reports, despite the vast work to produce them, and dominate the news. Scientists describing the consensus were blown off the news by the thrilling claims of activists.

This is too deep a subject to fully document and explain here. See my posts About the corruption of climate science, and the follow-up The noble corruption of climate science. Also see these articles by Roger Pielke, Jr.

  1. An example of climate activists at work that shows why they lost.
  2. An example of climate activists at work that shows why they lost.
  3. Institutional decay in climate science.
  4. More misreporting of experts’ reports.
Broken stone with "Trust" carved in it.
ID 37813605 © Lane Erickson | Dreamstime.

Consequences of a broken climate debates

“We don’t even plan for the past.”
— Steven Mosher (member of Berkeley Earthbio here), a comment posted at Climate Etc.

Largely as a result of climate scientists’ actions, the US will take no substantial steps to prepare for future climate change. This political gridlock means that we will not prepare even for the inevitable re-occurrence of past extreme weather.

The weather will determine who “wins” the political debate, and at what cost to America – large or small. All that remains is to discuss the lessons we can learn from this debacle so that we can do better in the future.

“Sooner or later, everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.”
— Attributed to Robert Louis Stevenson.

For More Information

Climate science is yet another American institution in decay. For more about this trend, see A new, dark picture of America’s future.

For an alternative perspective on these matters, see “Losing Earth” by NYT journalist Nathaniel Rich in the NYT Magazine. Expanded into a book: Losing Earth: A Recent History. See this excerpt. It is a carefully curated history, with all the inconvenient facts omitted. It is all heroes and villains, suitable for indoctrinating children.

Ideas! See my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see The keys to understanding climate change and especially see these…

  1. How climate scientists can re-start the public policy debate about climate change – test the models!
  2. Follow-up: more about why scientists should test the models.
  3. A story of the climate change debate. How it ran; why it failed.
  4. The 5 stages of grief for the failure of the climate change campaign.
  5. Let’s prepare for past climate instead of bickering about predictions of climate change – Doing something is better than nothing.