How We Broke the Climate Change Debates. Lessons Learned for the Future

By Larry Kummer – From the Fabius Maximus website.

Summary:  This, my 305th post about climate, explains what I’ve learned so far. I believe that climate science as an institution has become dysfunctional; large elements of the public no longer trust it. The politics of climate change are polarized and gridlocked. The weather will determine the evolution of US public policy. All we can do is learn what went wrong so we can do better next time, and wait to see the price we pay for our folly.

Scientists tell the UN about the coming disaster in “When Worlds Collideclip_image001” (1951)


  1. Why doesn’t America lead the fight against climate change?
  2. How do scientists alert the world to a catastrophic threat?
  3. Case study: the pause.
  4. The most incompetently conducted media campaign ever?
  5. My personal experience.
  6. The broken climate debates.
  7. For More Information.
(1)  Why doesn’t America lead the fight against climate change?

Why does climate change rank at the bottom of most surveys of what Americans’ see as our greatest challenges? (CEOs, too.) Since James Hansen brought global warming to the headlines in his 1989 Senate testimony, activists for action on this issue have had almost every advantage. They have PR agencies (e.g., Hansen’s new paper, the expensive propaganda video by 10:10. They have all the relevant institutions supporting them, including NASA, NOAA, the news media, academia, lavish funding from foundations and charities, even funding from the energy companies (also 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 favored those wanting action. Public policy in America should have gone green many years ago. Why didn’t it?

(2)  How do scientists alert the world to a catastrophic threat?

“Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.”
— Harsh but operationally accurate Roman proverb.

We have seen this played out many times in books and films since the publication of When Worlds Collideclip_image001[1] in 1932 — A group of scientists see a threat. They go to America’s (or the world’s) leaders and state their case, presenting the data for others to examine and answering questions. 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).

They don’t destroy key records, which are required to be kept and made public. They don’t force people to file Freedom of Information requests to get key information; the 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}

The burden of proof rests on those warning the world about a danger requiring trillions of dollars to mitigate, and perhaps drastic revisions to — or even abandoning — capitalism (as in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climateclip_image001[2] and “In Fiery Speeches, Francis Excoriates Global Capitalism“).

Steve McIntyre has documented the defensive and self-defeating efforts of climate scientists to keep vital information secret, often violating the disclosure policies of journals, universities, and government funding agencies. To many laypeople these actions by scientists scream “something wrong”. It’s not how people act when they have a strong case, especially with such high stakes.

(3)  Case study: the pause

Starting in 2006 climate scientists began to notice a slowing in the rate of atmospheric warming. By 2009 there were peer-reviewed papers about it (e.g., in GRL), and the pace of publications accelerated (see links to these 29 papers). In 2013 the UK Met Office published a major paper about the pause, which shifted the frontier of climate science from the existence of the pause to its causes (see links to these 38 papers). In the past few years scientists have forecast the duration of the pause (see links to 17 forecasts).

During this activists wrote scores, probably hundreds, of articles not only denying that there was a pause in warming — but mocking as “deniers” people citing the literature. The leaders of climate science remained silent, even those writing papers about the pause. 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.

Eventually the tension grew so great that public mention of the discrepancy became acceptable, such as this mild note in Nature Climate Change (August 2014)…

“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.”

Referring to the “so called pause” is typical message discipline, use of scare quote despite the scores of papers using the term. Another example of message discipline is the successful effort to conceal from the public that most forms of extreme weather have not increased during the past decade (data here, and here).

(4)  The most incompetently conducted media campaign ever?

“Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.”
— True when journalist Charles Dudley Warner said it in 1884. Still true today.

A kerfuffle occurred over claims that 2014 was the “warmest year” on record, with harsh denouncing of people pointing to substantial qualifications of that claim in the NOAA and NASA presentations (“it was more unlikely than likely”). Equally successful was the massive media campaign that convinced the public that California’s drought results from anthropogenic climate change, despite numerous studies showing that it is a minor factor. These are two in a long list of information operations by climate activists (see section 7 here).

The goal is always the same: keep the message simple, crush dissent (no matter how well founded). These propaganda successes required the complicit silence or active participation of scientists. This does not mean that the climate change threat is a Potemkin Village. It means that many climate scientists behave as if it is one. Hence the public policy gridlock.

Now many climate scientists and activists are doubling down on these failed tactics. Stronger denunciation of critics. More extreme headlines such as “The beyond-two-degree inferno“ in Science and “Halfway to Hell” in New Scientist. I doubt these change any minds.

(5)  My personal experience

I first wrote about climate change 7 years ago, and have written 305 posts since. Most defended the IPCC against Left and Right (see my recommendations here). I found the climate a subject of interest as an important public policy issue and a test of our ability to see and respond to severe but long-term challenges.

In my 35 years in finance I’ve often relied on scientists for advice (in both the physical and social sciences), and developed methods for successfully engaging with them. These failed with most climate scientists. First, they were more reluctant to engage than in any other field I’ve worked with — including those doing secret work in defense and biotech.

Second, and more important, their responses were unlike anything I’ve seen before. A few responded in typical fashion. For example, I ask Roger Pielke Sr. a question and receive a full package of citations — which he’ll explain in detail, if asked. It’s the usual practice of scientists.

But in climate science a more common response is a probe to determine my tribe — us or them? Oddly, either way I often get snark (friendly or hostile, depending upon the how they ID my tribal identity). Probing, however careful, meets with empty rhetoric or outright hostility (i.e., classification as “foe”). The conversations often quickly became strange, and do not build confidence in their institutions.

(6)  The broken climate debates

“The time for debate has ended”
— Marcia McNutt (editor-in-Chief of Science, next President of the NAS) in “The beyond-two-degree inferno“, editorial in Science, 3 July 2015.

I agree with McNutt: the public policy debate has ended. Climate science as an institution is broken, the larger science community applauds its dysfunctionality, and a critical mass of the US public has lost confidence in it. As a result, the US will take no substantial steps to prepare for possible future climate change, not even preparing for the inevitable re-occurrence of past extreme weather.

The weather will determine how policy evolves. All that remains is to discuss the lessons we can learn from this debacle so that we can do better in the future.

(7)  For More Information

For more information see The keys to understanding climate change and My posts about climate change. Especially see these…


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