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Analysis: Andrew Dessler: ‘Climate Alarmist as Energy Expert’ (Part I)

By Robert Bradley Jr. — May 27, 2020

The idea of presenting both sides of the debate in the name of scholarship is a non-starter with Andrew Dessler because the science is ‘settled,’ climate models have the correct physics, and he knows all he needs to in regard to climate economics, political economy, and public policy.

The Houston Chronicle‘s favorite climate scientist, Andrew Dessler of Texas A&M’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences, fancies himself as an energy and public policy expert. And so the Chronicle takes Dessler at face value well, even when he is outside his area of expertise.

Part II tomorrow dissects Dessler’s latest opinion piece for the ChronicleA Just Transition from Fracking to Renewable Energy is Possible (February 28, 2020); this post looks more broadly at a climate alarmist swimming deep in the political soup. The question “can you trust him” inevitably arises given his anger toward dissent, his emotional public pronouncements, and his aggressive association with the Progressive Left.

I have criticized Dessler in more than a dozen posts at MasterResource. Here are some of his problems, personal and intellectual.

1. He is the alarmist’s alarmist.

Dessler’s pessimism, not unlike that of Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren of yesteryear, is blatant. Consider his statement:

If ‘some humans survive’ is the only thing we care about, then climate change is a non-issue. I think it’s certain that ‘some’ humans will survive almost any climate change. They may be living short, hard lives of poverty, but they’ll be alive. (November 20, 2018)

Other examples from “an angry scientist letting off steam via stormy tweets“:

Future humans, as they live in a climate dystopia: ‘I thought he cared about the environment.’

I find the path we’re on now — the rich world survives (if lucky), but abandons everyone else — to be morally problematic. [November 20, 2018]

2. He is certain he is correct, and the rest of the us, being dumb or having bad motives, are not.

“Dessler knows he is right,” as I have previously written:

And I do not doubt that he believes himself, being a nature-is-optimal-and-fragile ecologist at heart and not acknowledging important contrary arguments outside of his field of specialization….

Professor Dessler is certain that man-made climate change will be steep and wreck the ecosphere and economy. He attributes bad motives to those who disagree with him. And he downplays contrary argument and evidence. Sum it up and you get … an angry scientist.

3. He goes low, notoriously low, against his expert critics.

Consider this hit to the esteemed, level-headed climate scientist Roy Spencer.

… let’s not forget Roy Spencer’s window into the denial machine. You can be a scientist that no one takes seriously and national TV will come to you so you can mislead the audience. Pretty nice gig — and pretty easy. (December 18, 2018)

Insults are heaved at Judith Curry, Richard Lindzen, and just about every other skeptic of climate alarmism/forced energy transformation. He refers to yours truly as a “free-market jihadist” for recommending adaptation to climate change, such as warmer weather, with such conveniences as air conditioning.

He keeps bad company with Michael “Hide the Decline” Mann by constantly retweeting Mann’s extremism and joining him in popular print. Bad weather? Heat waves? It’s human-related from our CO2 emissions. Good or normal weather? Just wait until the next bad thing. And don’t look at the statistics of human well being and adaptation. Can’t do that as a deep ecologist.

4 . Dessler cannot take what he gives.

His opponents are “deniers,” but he is not an “alarmist.” Consider this email exchange between us (February 16, 2020):

I don’t feel like talking to someone who insults me on their widely read blog. When you publicly apologize for calling me an “alarmist”, then I’ll consider answering….

I answered:

I did not understand your offense with being called an alarmist. What would you describe yourself as in the sense of seeing a dire future of climate and the need for short-term forced energy transformation? Can one buy into “the existential threat” and not be labeled an alarmist?

I assume you would call me a “denier” (those who view the future of climate optimistically under BAU).

He ended the exchange with this:

You’re absolutely a denier, Rob.  The difference between us is that I don’t call you out about it.  If you want a civil discussion with someone, don’t begin it with an insult — you apparently never learned the golden rule.  So a public apology on your blog is absolutely in order.  If not, then I won’t be continuing any discussion with you. Completely up to you.

I have invited Dessler to debate me in print or in person. He will not do so. He knows (and I know) that while I will argue that CO2 is not a pollutant but a greening agent, and the statistics of human well-being contradict a ‘worsening’ climate, he will have to argue that climate physics are known and properly incorporated into models (no and no). With climate feedback effects in open dispute, and a variety of other variables subject to investigation, I have the advantage that will come out in debate.

Regarding the solution of the Green New Deal (Dessler is all in), who really wants to promote that tub of political lard against an able adversary? But there will be no debate on this either, states Andrew Dessler et al.

5. Dessler does not seriously entertain arguments threatening his pristine worldview.

In long strings of emails, I have tried to get Dessler to fairly present opposite arguments in his textbooks and lectures. He bobs, weaves, and dodges the basic “skeptic” points. He knows (and I know) that any concessions create leaks in a fragile dike. (Per usual, he dismissed Planet of the Humans one hundred percent without comment.)

The idea of presenting both sides of the debate in the name of scholarship is a non-starter with him because the science is “settled,” climate models have the correct physics, and he knows all he needs to in regard to climate economics, political economy, and public policy. (Hardly: see the Appendix below on climate models.)

Energy density (for fossil fuels), and the environmental problems of dilute, intermittent renewable energies, particularly at scale, are brushed aside. Contrary arguments outside of his field of specialization (Vaclav Smil on energy densityRobert Mendelsohn on climate benefits and free-market adaptation) are not seriously considered in Dessler’s own textbooks that he pitches as science and not advocacy.

6. A deep ecologist, he fears human change on the ‘optimal’ natural world.

As noted in my review of his science text:

Dessler states, “when it comes to climate, change is bad” (p. 146). Manmade CO2 emissions are “perturbing” (p. 87) the climate. He adds, “any changes in the climate, either warming or cooling, will result in overall negative outcomes for human society” (p. 146).

His argument is that we have adjusted to the present climate, so any incremental change is costly and disruptive. A fixation on global averages and “stable” climate naively abstracts from natural, localized, seasonal, even extreme, change that have always marked weather.

Lacking a theory of entrepreneurship, he cannot envision how wealth-is-health capitalism and dense mineral energies tame nature, not unleash it. (The work of Alex Epstein, who Dessler dismisses along with a bevy of statistics, make this point.)

7. Dessler’s policy agenda is thoroughly statist (coercive) to correct humankind’s ‘market failure.’ Yet he maintains he is not pushing politics but speaking only as a scientist.

Dessler states:

… individual actions are not going to lead to the emissions reductions necessary to stabilize the climate. Those will require collective, coordinated action at both the national and international levels. That is why the single most important thing you can do is become politically active … and vote for politicians who support action on climate. (p. 245)

But as I complained to him (without avail):

With the very unique situation of CO2 (a global externality of positives and negatives), government mitigation is doomed to fail. Sooner or later, you will have to admit that politics failed, that fossil fuels were just too good given the alternatives of non-use, renewables, nuclear.

We have not only market failure but also analytical failure (imperfect you, me, others) and government failure, which is magnified by 190 or so governments.

With this background, Part II tomorrow will critically review Dessler’s Houston Chronicle editorial, A Just Transition from Fracking to Renewable Energy is Possible [February 28, 2020]. An energy expert/realist this Malthusian is not.

Appendix: Opening the Door to Dissent on Models

Sometimes Dessler will give an inch or two–but no more. Here he goes:

Some thoughts on models in thread form: Climate models are based on physics. Their code describes the fundamental processes that we know drive atmospheric processes: radiative transfer, thermodynamics, the idea [sic] gas law, etc.

Despite what you might hear, these models have been thoroughly tested. In fact, I’ve spent much of my career looking at model output and comparing to observations and I am constantly amazed how well climate models do.

Now this doesn’t mean models do everything well. Some process are not simulated from first-principles — e.g., cloud microphysics, which occurs on too small a spatial scale for models to resolve.

Climate models handle this by parameterization: they assume these results of these processes can be described as a simple function of the quantities that the model does simulate, such as grid-average temperature and water vapor.

This is probably the weak point in climate models, and a lot of effort has gone into improving the parameterizations. While not perfect, they are good enough that the model performance is quite impressive.

Not perfect, mind you. And a determined denier can always find something that the model does not simulate well. However, for the big things that we care about, the models do well.

Wait! So models are imperfect? Models can be tested? Ahem …. Want to debate Roy Spencer or John Christy or Judith Curry or Richard Lindzen on this? Remember what your distinguished Texas A&M colleague Gerald North said about models?

Nope–dissecting the physical science of climate change is verboten to the leading alarmists. Trust us: CO2 is a pollutant and the future climate is grim.

Such is life as a deep ecologist qua scientist. It has been the Malthusian way from at least Paul Ehrlich in the 1960s.