Pielke Jr.: How Billionaires Tom Steyer & Michael Bloomberg Corrupted Climate Science – ‘Climate politics’ pursued by ‘corrupting the scientific literature’
By Dr. Roger Pielke Jr.
This is a story of American democracy. In one sense, it’s a noble story. People with shared values have come together to petition the government and the public on their political aims, just as envisioned by James Madison in Federalist 10.
In another sense it’s a story of privilege and conceit – the privilege in American democracy that accompanies being mindbogglingly wealthy and the conceit that climate politics could be best pursued by corrupting the scientific literature on climate change.
Before proceeding, let’s make a few things absolutely clear. There is no doubt that climate change is real, and is significantly influenced by our activities, particularly through the emissions of carbon dioxide. I have long advocated for aggressive action on carbon dioxide emissions as well as to improve adaptation to climate variability and change. At the same time, I have also long argued that maintaining scientific integrity should go hand-in-hand with effective climate action.
At the center of the corruption of climate science discussed here a highly technical scenario of the future (called Representation Concentration Pathway 8.5 or RCP8.5). Over the past decade this particular scenario has moved from an extreme outlier to the center of climate policy discussions. You can read more about how that happened and its consequences in my previous columns here and here.
Today, I will add further details to this incredible story by explaining the important roles played by Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, both billionaires and current Democratic presidential candidates. (Disclosure: I have endorsed publicly one of their Democratic opponents, Amy Klobuchar, but I will vote for whomever the Democrats select this November, including Steyer or Bloomberg.)
At the kitchen table meeting, Steyer was focused on the question: “How do you make climate change feel real and immediate for people?” He was convinced by attendees that the best way to answer this question was through people’s pocketbooks, through economics.
Following this meeting, Steyer invited two collaborators and co-funders to join him, to give the appearance of being non-partisan. One was Michael Bloomberg, then a political independent who was completing 12 years as the mayor of New York. The other was Hank Paulson, a Republican who was a former CEO of Goldman Sachs and who had also served as Secretary of the Treasury under George W. Bush.
Each of Steyer, Bloomberg and Paulson contributed $500,000 to the initial project, which was focused on “making the climate threat feel real, immediate and potentially devastating to the business world.” The initial aim was to produce a series of reports, drawing on several young academics and the expertise of external consultants at the Rhodium Group and Risk Management Solutions.
The first report was published in June, 2014 and was titled “Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States.” The Risky Business approach was a smart if flawed way to place economics at the center of climate policy. The approach focused on characterizing the extreme RCP8.5 scenario as “the closest to a business-as-usual trajectory” and centered its economic analysis on that scenario: “we focus on RCP 8.5 as the pathway closest to a future without concerted action to reduce future warming.” In this way they guaranteed that the economic impacts would be eye-poppingly large.
But in generating large economic impacts, the approach of the Risky Business report made two significant methodological mistakes. First, they improperly characterized the extreme RCP 8.5 scenario as “business as usual” reflecting a world without future climate policy. Second, they improperly presented the scenarios of the IPCC as representing different policy outcomes, suggesting that we could “move” from one scenario to another: “Moving from RCP 8.5 to RCP 2.6 (as well as RCP 4.5 and RCP 6.0) will come at a cost.”
Both of these methodological choices were contrary to the appropriate use of the scenarios, according the modeling experts who created them: “RCP8.5 cannot be used as a no-climate-policy reference scenario [”business as usual”] for the other RCPs because RCP8.5’s socioeconomic, technology and biophysical assumptions differ from those of the other RCPs.” The scenarios are completely independent from each other, and policy cannot “move” us from one to another. Consider that RCP2.6 represents a world with 3 billion less people than RCP8.5. The Risky Business methodology ignored such critical details.
Dodgy science published by climate advocacy groups is certainly not uncommon and it is usually not that interesting. But the genius of the Risky Business project was that it did not stop with a flashy report aimed at the daily news cycle. It undertook a far more sophisticated campaign focused on introducing its methods into the mainstream scientific literature, where they could take on a life of their own.
For instance, soon after the initial Risky Business report was released in 2014 the Steyer-Bloomberg-Paulson funded work was the basis for 11 talks at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, which is the largest annual gathering of climate researchers. The next step was to get the analyses of the project published in the scientific literature where they could influence subsequent research and serve as the basis for authoritative scientific reviews, such as the U.S. National Climate Assessment.
For instance, a 2016 paper published in the prestigious journal Science from the Risky Business project introduced the erroneous notion of moving from one RCP scenario to another via policy, comparing “business as usual” (RCP 8.5) and “strongest emissions mitigation” (RCP 2.6). That paper has subsequently been cited 294 times in other academic studies, according to Google Scholar. Despite the obvious methodological flaw, the paper passed peer review and has received little or no criticism.
In another example, a more comprehensive study from the Risky Business project was published in Science magazine in 2017, where the abstract brazenly announces its methodological error: “By the late 21st century, the poorest third of counties are projected to experience damages between 2 and 20% of county income (90% chance) under business-as-usual emissions (Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5).” The most extreme conclusion of this analysis was that the United States would see a 10% hit to its economy under the most extreme version of RCP8.5 (specifically its 99th percentile), projecting an incredible 8 degree Celsius temperature change from 2080 to 2099. This paper has been cited 285 times in other studies, according to Google Scholar. The 10% GDP loss figure would become the top line conclusion of the U.S. National Climate Assessment the next year.
Publishing papers in the academic literature based on the flawed methods was a formula that would be repeated time and time again. Like the introduction of a virus, the misleading reinterpretation of climate scenarios has subsequently expanded throughout the climate science literature and into leading assessments. Many experts well know that such methods are fatally flawed, but only a few have raised concerns.
The flawed methods have spread beyond the academic literature and into policy and scientific assessments. According to Gary Yohe, the Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies at Wesleyan University and active in climate assessments for many years, the methodology used in the Risky Business project has caught on: “states and urban areas have adopted this approach, as well as the National Academy of Sciences and the National Climate Assessment of the United States.”
The 2018 U.S. National Climate Assessment offers a particularly notable example. The work initiated by the Risky Business project was cited almost 200 times in that report, including direct references to the project’s reports as well as the work of its lead consultant, the Rhodium Group. One of the lead researchers for Risky Business was also a lead author of the NCA. His research supported by Risky Business (and that of his main collaborator), was cited more than 150 times in the NCA. Yet, nowhere that I have seen has it been disclosed by the US government that this NCA lead author is under contract with the Rhodium Group from 2015 to 2022.
Imagine the reaction if a lead author of the U.S. National Climate Assessment with funding from a Republican billionaire and working with consultants opposed to climate action had their research, that of their funder and their colleagues cited some 200 times in the NCA – and that research was fatally flawed and the researcher’s financial connections with the consultants was undisclosed. I’d wager that it would receive some attention.
More recently, the work begun with Steyer-Bloomberg-Paulson initial investment has been taken up by a group called the Climate Impact Lab. This effort involves the project leaders from the Risky Business report and is a collaboration of several universities and the continued involvement of the Rhodium Group. It is unclear if Steyer-Bloomberg-Paulson continue to provide funding via the Rhodium Group.
The Climate Impact Lab has thrived on exploiting RCP8.5 to generate a steady series of media-friendly studies focused on projecting extreme climate impacts. Among them:
All of these reports are based on the misuse of scenarios, and especially RCP8.5.
Just last month the co-director of the Climate Impact Lab testified before Congress and argued that the “social cost of carbon” was far higher than previous estimates. In doing so he introduced a further methodological error by improperly pairing the extreme RCP8.5 scenario (again used as a baseline scenario in the underlying analyses) with the most pessimistic socioeconomic pathway (called Shared Socioeconomic Pathway 3).
Let me be clear about what is going on here. There is no hidden conspiracy, all of this is taking place in plain sight and in public. In fact, what is going on here is absolutely genius. We have a well-funded effort to fundamentally change how climate science is characterized in the academic literature, how that science is reported in the media, and ultimately how political discussions and policy options are shaped.
This effort has been phenomenally successful.
According to my search of academic citations (using Web of Science) about 12,000 academic papers have cited papers that mistakenly refer to RCP8.5 as “business as usual” and many improperly compare RCP scenarios as policy options. Of those 12,000 papers about 2,000 of them (involving just the two Risky Business lead researchers) refer to work originating in the investments of Steyer-Bloomberg-Paulson and continuing at the Climate Impact Lab.
Further, not only has the USNCA adopted the flawed methodology of the Risky Business projects, but so too has the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, most notably in its 2019 Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. There can bee little doubt that climate science has been profoundly influenced by this campaign.
Of course, the Steyer-Bloomberg-Paulson investments are not solely responsible for the misuse of scenarios in the scientific literature, but they are clearly a significant part of the story.
The corruption of climate science has occurred because some of our most important institutions have let us down. The scientific peer review process has failed to catch obvious methodological errors in research papers. Leading scientific assessments have ignored conflicts of interest and adopted flawed methods. The media has been selectively incurious as to the impact of big money on climate advocacy.
This is a story of how wealth and power have corrupted science in pursuit of political goals. Climate change is important, there is no doubt. But the importance of climate change does not mean that we should abandon high standards of scientific integrity. We are going to need good science in the future — so it is best to keep it that way, no matter what cause it is enlisted to support.
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