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‘Alternative Facts’: Ted Nordhaus explains how extreme events came to represent climate change contrary to an overwhelming scientific consensus


Excerpt: …[A]n excellent new essay by Ted Nordhaus of The Breakthrough Institute2 published today by The New Atlantis, titled — Did Exxon Make it Rain Today?. Nordhaus does a nice job explaining that disasters occur at the confluence of an extreme event and an exposed and vulnerable society, but most attention these days is paid to extreme events, and climate change in particular:

What determines whether hurricanes, floods, heat waves, and wildfires amount to natural disasters or minor nuisances, though, is mostly not the relative intensity or frequency of the natural hazard but rather how many people are in harm’s way and how well protected they are against the climate’s extremes.

Infrastructure, institutions, and technology mediate the relationship between extreme climate and weather phenomena, and the costs that human societies bear as a result of them. . .

The implications of this point will be counterintuitive for many. Yes, there are many types of disasters, like hurricanes and floods, that are causing greater economic costs in many places than they used to. But this is almost entirely because the places that are most exposed to weather disasters have far more people and far more wealth in harm’s way than they used to. Even if there were no global warming, in other words, these areas would be much more at risk simply because they have much more to lose.

However, what I find really interesting about Nordhaus’ essay is his discussion of how we got to a point where leading journalists and scientists are seeking to deny these rather obvious conditions and instead, to focus obsessively on human-caused climate change, and specifically on the fossil fuel industry as bearing responsibility for increasing disaster costs, contrary to an overwhelming scientific consensus.

Nordhaus explains that climate advocates have a long history of trying to tie disasters to climate change, dating back decades:

Those efforts intensified after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, with Al Gore using it as a centerpiece in An Inconvenient Truth.3 A few years later, in 2012, the Union of Concerned Scientists convened a gathering of environmental advocates, litigators, climate scientists, and opinion researchers in La Jolla, California. Their explicit purpose was to develop a public narrative connecting extreme weather events that were already happening, and the damages they were causing, with climate change and the fossil fuel industry.

The proceedings from that gathering, which were subsequently published in a report titled “Establishing Accountability for Climate Change Damages: Lessons from Tobacco Control,” are revealing.

The IPCC, over decades of reports, has not concluded with high confidence that a signal of human caused climate change can be detected for most types of extreme weather, and especially those that result in the greatest impacts. That remains the case today.

For those wanting to promote climate action using contemporary disasters as a reason to act, the IPCC’s consistent conclusions — no matter how deeply buried in its reports — present a problem.

In a 2018 survey of environmental journalists … Seventy-one percent reported that they never or rarely included opposing viewpoints in their coverage of climate change.

So alternative facts needed to be created. Nordhaus explains:

Myles Allen, the climate scientist who is credited with creating the field of “extreme event attribution,” is described in the report as lamenting that “the scientific community has frequently been guilty of talking about the climate of the twenty-second century rather than what’s happening now.” Yet, he and other scientists at the gathering also acknowledged how difficult it is to identify the contributions of climate change to current extreme weather events. “If you want to have statistically significant results about what has already happened,” another scientist, Claudia Tebaldi, noted, “we are far from being able to say anything definitive because the signal is so often overwhelmed by noise.”

While much of the convening was ostensibly focused on litigation strategies, modeled on campaigns against the tobacco industry, the subtext of the entire conversation was how to raise the public salience of a risk that is diffuse, perceived to be far off in time and space, and associated with activities — the combustion of fossil fuels — that bring significant social benefits.

Nordhaus explains that a three-pronged strategy emerged from the 2012 meeting — lowering scientific standards (from those of the IPCC) to enable stronger claims, redefining the attribution of causality differently than the IPCC, and emphasizing the villainous nature of fossil fuel companies to give people an enemy:

During the meeting, Naomi Oreskes, the Harvard historian of science who popularized the connection between climate and tobacco, argued that scientists should use a different standard of proof for the relationship between climate change and extreme weather events. “When we take these things to the public,” she argued, “we take a standard of evidence applied internally to science and use it externally.” But, she continued, the 95-percent confidence standard that scientists use “is not the Eleventh Commandment. There is nothing in nature that taught us that 95 percent is needed. That is a social convention.”

Others suggested that reframing the attribution of extreme weather to climate change could allow for stronger claims: rather than looking at whether there was any long-term detectable trend in extreme weather, scientists might instead focus on the degree to which climate change increased the likelihood of a given extreme event. And others believed that focusing legal strategies on a villain — fossil fuel companies conspiring to mislead the public about the danger of their product — would result in greater public acceptance of the claims that climate change was the cause of extreme weather.

As it happened, environmental advocates would pursue all of these strategies.

Nordhaus further explains that broader changes in the media occurred at a perfect time to boost these strategies aimed at creating a new narrative:

Not so long ago, news coverage needed to be credible to multiple audiences whose politics and values spanned a relatively broad spectrum of worldviews and values. But the proliferation of media outlets and platforms in recent decades, first with the rise of cable news and then the Internet, has increasingly fragmented media audiences.

Today, media outlets large and small compete in a far more crowded marketplace to reach much narrower segments of the population. This incentivizes them to tailor their content to the social and political values of their audiences and serve up spectacles that comport with the ideological preferences of the audiences they are trying to reach. For the audiences that elite legacy outlets such as the New York Times now almost exclusively cater to, that means producing a continual stream of catastrophic climate news.

I suspect that the only place that most of you reading this will encounter Nordhaus’ essay is right here at THB.4 Reporters on the “climate beat” know very well that acknowledging the existence of Nordhaus’ essay or the arguments he makes might offend the politics of their employers, readers, and colleagues.

Nordhaus explains that a large majority of environmental journalists refuse to engage narrative-challenging viewpoints (emphasis added):

Reporters and editors at these outlets are also well-aligned ideologically with their audiences. A national survey of political journalists and editors working for newspapers at the state and national level conducted in 2022 found that those identifying as Democrats outnumbered those identifying as Republicans by 10 to 1. A 2018 survey of environmental journalists by George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, meanwhile, found that 70 percent reported trusting information from environmental advocacy organizations versus fewer than 10 percent from business groups. Seventy-one percent reported that they never or rarely included opposing viewpoints in their coverage of climate change.