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Contrarians and consensus: The case of the midwife toad

Filed under: — gavin @ 7 December 2008

I recently came across an old copy of Arthur Koestler’s “The Case of the Midwife Toad”. Originally published in 1971, it’s an exploration of a rather tragic footnote in the history of evolutionary science. Back in the early years of the 20th Century (prior to the understanding of DNA, but after Mendelian genetics had become well known), there was still a remnant of the biological community who preferred the Lamarckian idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics over the Darwinian idea of natural selection of random mutations. One of the vanguard for the Lamarckian idea was Paul Kammerer whose specialty was the breeding of amphibians that apparently few others could match. He claimed that he could get his toads and salamanders to acquire characteristics that were useful in the new environments in which he raised his specimens. This was touted loudly (in the New York Times for instance) as proof of Lamarckian inheritance and Kammerer was hailed as a ‘new Darwin’. It all ended very badly when one toad specimen was found to be faked (by who remains a mystery), and Kammerer killed himself shortly afterwards (though there may have been more involved than scientific disgrace).

The details of the experiments and controversy can be read online (with various slants) here and here, and a more modern non-replication of one of his experiments is described here. However, the reason I bring this up here is much more related to how the scientific community and Koestler dealt with this scientific maverick and the analogies that has for the climate science and its contrarians.

There are (at least) four points where the analogies with climate science are strong: First, there were clear philosophical motives for supporting Lamarckism (as there are for denying human effects on climate change) (see below). These are strongly articulated in Koestler’s book, and it is obvious that the author feels some sympathy with that argument. Second, there is idealization of the romantic notion of the scientist-as-hero, sacrificing their all (literally in Kammerer’s case) for the pursuit of truth in the teeth of establishment opposition (cf Svensmark). Third, there is the outrage at the apparent dirty tricks, rumours and persecution. Finally, there is the longing for a redemption – a time when the paradigm shift will occur and the hero will be proven right.

Enough time has passed and enough additional scientific evidence has been gathered however to show that Kammerer’s ideas are never going to be accepted into the mainstream. Therefore, we can use this episode to highlight how people’s misunderstanding of scientific process can lead them astray.

So let’s start with the non-scientific reasons why Kammerer’s ideas had resonance. Martin Gardner in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1952) puts it well (p143):

Just as Lamarckianism combines easily with an idealism in which the entire creation is fulfilling God’s vast plan by constant upward striving, so also does it combine easily with political doctrines that emphasize the building of a better world.

The point is that without Lamarckianism, none of the striving and achievement of a parent impacts their progeny’s genetic material. That was a depressing thought for many people (what is the point of striving at all?), and hence there was a clear non-scientific yearning for Lamarckian inheritance to be correct. I use the past tense in referring to these almost 100 year-old arguments, but Koestler’s book and more recent attempts to rehabilitate these ideas tap into these same (misguided) romantic notions. (Odd aside, one of the most positive treatments of this “neo-Lamarckianism” is by Michael Duffy, a frequent climate contrarian Australian journalist). Note that I am distinguishing the classic ‘inheritance of acquired characteristics’ from the much more respectable study of epigenetics.

The scientist-as-hero meme is a very popular narrative device and is widespread in most discussions of progress in science. While it’s clearly true that some breakthroughs have happened through the work of a single person (special relativity is the classic case) and someone has to be the first to make a key observation (e.g. Watson and Crick), the vast majority of scientific progress occurs as the accumulation of small pieces of new information and their synthesis into a whole. While a focus on a single person makes for a good story, it is very rarely the whole or even a big part of the real story. Thus while Koestler can’t be uniquely faulted for thinking that Lamarckianism rose and fell with Kammerer, that perspective leads him to imbue certain events with much more significance than is really warranted.

For instance, one of the more subtle misconceptions in the book though is how Koestler thinks that scientific arguments get settled. He places enormous emphasis on a academic tour that Kammerer made to the UK which included a well-documented talk in Cambridge in which the subsequently-notorious specimen was also in attendance. In fact, Koestler devotes a large number of pages to first-hand recollections of the talk. Koestler also criticises heavily the arch-protagonist in this story (a Dr. Bateson) who did not attend Kammerer’s talk, even though he presumably could have, while continuing to criticise his conclusions. The talk is in fact held up to be the one missed opportunity for some academic mano-a-mano that Koestler presumably thinks would have settled things.

Except that this is not how controversial ideas get either accepted or rejected. Sure, publishing papers, giving talks and attending conferences are all useful in bringing ideas to a wider audience, but they are very rarely the occasion of some dramatic denouement and mass conversion of the skeptical. Instead, ideas get accepted because of the increasing weight of evidence that supports them – and that usually comes in dribs and drabs. A replication here, a theoretical insight there, a validated prediction etc. Only in hindsight does there appear to be a clean sequence of breakthroughs that can be seen to have led inexorably to the new conclusions. At the time, the landscape is far more ambiguous. Thus in focusing on one specific talk, and on its reception by one particularly outspoken opponent, Koestler misses the wider issue – which was that Kammerer’s ideas just didn’t have any independent support. The wider community thus saw his work (as far as I can tell) as a curiosity: possibly his findings were correct, but his interpretation was likely not, and maybe his findings weren’t all that reproducible in any case?

This remains the issue, if Lamarckian evolution were possible, it should have been viewable in hundreds of other systems that were much easier to replicate than Kammerer’s toads (nematodes perhaps?). Absent that replication, no amount of exciting talks will have persuaded scientists. In that, scientists are probably a little different from the public, or at least the public who went to Kammerer’s more public lectures where he was very warmly received.

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that Kammerer’s more vocal opponents would occasionally give vent to their true feelings. Koestler is particular critical of Bateson who, in retrospect, does appear to have gone a little far in his public critiques of Kammerer. However, Koestler perhaps doesn’t realise how common quite scathing criticism is in the halls of academe. This rarely gets written down explicitly, but it is nonetheless there, and forms a big part of how well some people’s ideas are received. If someone is perceived as an exaggerator, or an over-interpreter of their results, even their most careful work will not get a lot of support.

Koestler ends his book with the familiar refrain that since modern science is incomplete, alternative theories must continue to be pursued. He states that since “contemporary genetics has no answers to offer to the problem of the genesis of behaviour”, the replication the key experiments (which he clearly expected to vindicate Kammerer), would very likely make biologists ‘sit up’ and have a long-lasting impact on the field. This notion fails to take into account the vast amount of knowledge that already exists and that makes certain kinds of ‘alternative’ theories very unlikely to be true. The link between this optimistic expectation and discussions of climate change is persuasively demonstrated in this pastiche.

There is one additional characteristic of this story that has some modern resonance, and that’s the idea that once someone starts accepting one class of illogical arguments, that leads them to accept others that aren’t really connected, but share some of the same characteristics. Some people have called this ‘crank magnetism‘. In Kammerer’s case, he was a great believer in the meaningfulness of coincidences and wrote a book trying to elucidate the ‘laws’ that might govern them. Koestler himself became a big proponent of parapsychology. And today there are examples of climate contrarians who are creationists or anti-vaccine campaigners. Though possibly this is just coincidence (or is it….?).

Of course, the true worth of any scientific idea is whether it leads to more successful predictions than other theories. So I’ll finish with a 1923 prediction that Kammerer made while he was on a speaking tour of the US: “Take a very pertinent case. The next generation of Americans will be born without any desire for liquor if the prohibition law is continued and strictly enforced” (NYT, Nov 28).

703 Responses to “Contrarians and consensus: The case of the midwife toad”

  1. 151
    Phillip Shaw says:


    I just want to add to Hank’s comment. I encourage anyone involved with selecting plants for biofuel production, reforestation, or even home landscaping to consider the ‘Dark side’ many plants exhibit when they are introduced to ecosystems they are not native to. The list of well-intentioned, but ecologically disasterous, plant introductions is a long one.

    My wife and I contributed more than a $100K towards preserving a tract of old growth native forest near Austin, Texas, and many of my weekends are spent clearing invasive non-native plants from the tract. The major culprits are Chinaberry, Wax-leaf Ligustrum, Chinese Tallow tree, Nandina and Johnston Grass. Thank goodness we don’t have bamboo or kudzu to deal with. Presently I’m shredding the waste and scattering the mulch to compost, but I’d like to try converting it to agrichar to improve the thin, alkaline soil. If anyone knows of plans for a bioreactor, preferably cheap and solar powered, I’d appreciate any information you can point me towards.

    Regards – Phillip

  2. 152
    truth says:

    Jim Eager: I assure you I said nothing insulting to or about you—I merely noted your anger at me—and gave a factual answer to your remarks (116), about agribusiness in Brazil.

  3. 153

    WRT biomass, a 2006 report (Wang, Grushecky and McNeel), available at:

    states: “The total annual biomass production potential is 3.32 million dry tons in West Virginia
    (Figure ES.1, Table ES.1), which could produce 47.06 trillion BTUs.”

    And: “In 2001, the state of West Virginia consumed 1,255 trillion BTUs of energy,
among which only 1% was produced from biomass (EIA 2006).”

    This equates to about 3.75%, broadly consistent with an older study showing about 4% of urban electrical demand could be potentially supplied by urban wood waste.


    The percentage is not large, but it is interesting that it is as large as it is, given that no new agricultural production whatever is involved.

  4. 154
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Ricki, I look at the Anderson and Bows paper, and it is indeed worrisome. There will be some denialists who use this to say that all our efforts are for naught. However, I think we need to look at the difference in consequences between 450, 550 and 650 ppmv, and indeed higher. I think the crucial unanswered question at this point is when do natural feedbacks (e.g. CO2/CH4 from oceans, thawing permafrost, etc.) render all our efforts moot. That’s the level we must avoid at all costs. Other than that, it is a matter of how low we can hold emissions, how much mitigation we will need and how much geoengineering will be needed to meet that need.

  5. 155
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Off topic, but newsworthy: Obama plans to name Steve Chu–1997 Nobel Laureate in physics–as energy secretary. I believe this represents the first time a scientist has achieved cabinet level representation. This is a tremendous victory for the reality-based community.

  6. 156

    Speaking of reports, here’s an interesting one, from June of this year, on sustainability and economics, comparing the Club of Rome “limits to growth” model output to observed history since then.

    Of particular interest in the current context is this paragraph:

    “Despite these major contributions, and dire warnings of “overshoot and collapse”, the Limits to Growth recommendations on fundamental changes of policy and behaviour for sustainability have not been taken up, as the authors recently acknowledge (Meadows et al, 2004). This is perhaps partly a result of sustained false statements that discredit the LtG. From the time of its publication to contemporary times, the LtG has provoked many criticisms which falsely claim that the LtG predicted resources would be depleted and the world system would collapse by the end of the 20th Century. Such claims occur across a range of publication and media types, including scientific peer reviewed journals, books, educational material, national newspaper and magazine articles, and web sites (Turner, unpublished). This paper briefly addresses these claims, showing them to be false.”

    (Captcha gets poignant: “hoped for”)

  7. 157
    Jim Eager says:

    “Truth” is damned right that I’m angry at him and all those like him that are bent on obstructing and delaying any meaningful reductions in CO2 emissions.

  8. 158
    Ike Solem says:

    Great essay. However, in the early 20th century no one knew what the structure of the genetic material was, or how it operated.

    The structure of DNA was famously determined by Watson and Crick, but it could just as easily have been Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins. Franklin had the X-ray scattering photograph of DNA that she had taken after years of careful work, and Wilkins was friends with Crick and both knew how to use mathematics to interpret the X-ray scattering pattern to recover the structure of DNA. However, they apparently seriously disliked one another, and were unable to collaborate. Watson then got his hands on Franklin’s photograph, took it to Crick, and that’s why it’s Watson-Crick and not Franklin-Wilkins. Academic science is a very social affair.

    However, natural systems don’t care at all about academic struggles for prestige and priority. Perhaps Franklin should have got the Nobel as well, but then she did die early from cancer (probably from exposure to the heavy metal salts used in X-ray crystallography).

    The structure of DNA changed the Lamarkian debate. Any alterations in the DNA sequence of cells that give rise to further generations will be passed on to those generations. We also know now that DNA and RNA are not static holders of information – they also play active roles in cell regulation.

    One example is dioxin, a byproduct of organochlorine synthesis and combustion, and a common contaminant. Agent Orange, a plant hormone-based herbice used in Vietnam, was heavily contaminated with dioxin (cheap and sloppy synthesis).

    Dioxin interferes with basic cellular regulation – if one’s DNA is a library full of cellular instructions, then dioxin kidnaps all the librarians – requests go unfulfilled. The effects are cell death – the notorious case of the 2006 poisoning of Ukraine’s president shows what happens.

    Dioxins can also lead direct damage to the DNA itself, by insertion into the stacked DNA base pairs. This has been known for a while: 1978: A review of the genetic toxicology of chlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins. Men and women exposed to such mutagens will then pass on the genetic damage to their offspring, often with terminal results. NY Times 1991:

    Each year in the United States, at least 250,000 babies are born with physical birth defects while thousands more develop behavioral and learning defects that appear to have a genetic component. The cause of 60 to 80 percent of birth defects is not known, although many scientists suspect that environmental toxins play a role in a sizable number of them. The male contribution may be substantial, researchers now say.

    Another example of Lamarkian inheritance involves microorganisms, not humans. This is the transfer of plasmids between unrelated microbes. These small loops of DNA usually contain a handful of genes that code for protein toolkits for purposes such as heavy metal and antibiotic resistance. A microbe (such as a hospital Staph infection) can acquire a penicillin-resistance plasmid, and then hand it on to all descendants.

    The entire Lamarkian-Darwinian debate took place in an era when the mechanisms of evolution and inheritance (DNA and a whole lot more) were not understood. Mendel actually made greater contributions than either, as he conducted experiments that tracked genes, and saw reproducible patterns in the frequency of gene inheritance. The whole debate is built on the difference between genotype and phenotype, but modern molecular knowledge shows that the distinction is blurred. RNA is now known to play important physiological roles, and it is copied directly from DNA, more or less. Physiology is phenotype, but it is also genotype.

    This all has some practical consequences which relate back to fossil fuels, namely particulate fossil fuel pollution:

    2005: 2,3,7,8-TCDD equivalence and mutagenic activity associated with PM10 from three urban locations in New Zealand.

    In the real world, people are exposed to complex mixtures of toxins, hormone mimics and carcinogens, which is what particulate aerosols are made of. Many of those components are due to dirty fossil fuel combustion from coal, ship bunker fuel and diesel, while others come from chlorine-based industrial chemistry (herbicide, plastic and pesticide manufacture, for example).

    Likewise, the damage that radioactive elements could do to DNA was not understood in the 1940s or early 1950s, when the structure of DNA and the mechanism of inheritance was unknown. People at the time thought that the dangers were mainly thermal burns – they didn’t realize that DNA damage would lead to cancers and birth defects.

    Dealing with such problems requires, first of all, that people have all the facts. This is the chemical and fossil fuel industry’s first line of defense: keep the facts secret. Publicly funded science programs with a mandate to investigate environmental pollution are not desirable, from this viewpoint. The amount of pharmaceutical products dumped into rivers and lakes and the ensuing effects also get little study, especially since the pharmaceutical industry is now a major funder of academic science in the U.S.

    As far as global warming goes, the real challenge here is not about personal responsibility – that’s just the tobacco industry PR line, i.e. Edelman’s PR campaign. Edelman is running the American Petroleum Institute’s PR campaign – Chevron has a nice new billboard imploring everyone to “pledge to use less energy” – while they moved ahead with adaptations to their Richmond refinery in order to handle more dirty Canadian tar sand crude.

    The real challenge is to construct agricultural and industrial systems that don’t require any fossil fuel inputs. That will require heavy use of wind, solar and energy storage systems. Once you have fossil fuel-free agriculture, then you can discuss sustainable biofuel production. Or, you can simpy do algal biodiesel, which doesn’t require arable land or massive fossil fuel inputs.

    The issue is not just global warming – there’s also the massive environmental pollution brought on by incomplete combustion and fossil fuel contaminants.

  9. 159
    tamino says:

    Re: #142 (Ricki (Australia))

    I’ve got a page of links to basic climate data sets here.

    [Response: I’m happy to outsource this, maybe a direct link from the side bar would be welcome? You might want to add a few of the visualisation/analysis tools that are available (,, as well as the IPCC AR4/CMIP3 archive? – gavin]

  10. 160
    Hank Roberts says:

    > urban wood waste

    That also raises the same issues Ike notes for fossil fuel:

    > incomplete combustion
    > contaminants

    A biomass system, given the hypothetical enzymes that could take apart stuff like lignin, might make it possible to use that material in a fuel cell and capture the toxics as well as the CO2 from the waste stream. It’ll be tricky. Nature’s protected the lignin and such pretty well — that’s why trees live so long, the fungi can’t take them down quickly.

    Imagine some biotechnician comes up with an enzyme that can degrade lignin, starts producing it in some tank of fungus or bacteria, and spills that beastie — we’d see forests rotting the way outdated vegetables rot now, once lignin became vulnerable. Scary yet?

    Even without a spill, once someone starts sellihg a cheap handy-dandy packet’o’enzymes that can be stirred into any pot full of weeds and woodchips, and turn out alcohol or biodiesel — that would be a true weapon of biomass destruction. People would chop up anything that could easily be degraded that way.

    Yeah, with big pressure/temperature treatment tanks, woody biomass can be broken down now. Costs some in fuel and materials though.

    This is why we really do need the emerging cross-disciplinary educational programs — we need the polymath, the encyclopedic synthesist, people encouraged to imagine and foresee consequences — not as an inevitable timeline of events focused on a goal, but as a branching tree of possibilities and how they might later interacting with other eventualities coming from other developments.

    The public health folks do this. Ag-energy people need to as well.

  11. 161
    Figen Mekik says:

    Thanks for your explanation. I teach Earth History almost every semester, and I always bring up the Darwin-Lamarck controversy. And I am happy to learn that my take on it is correct. With no real genetic information (DNA-based), it was a debate with basically no chance at resolution. So it wasn’t really a science-based argument countered by a faith-based argument, which is what the AGW “controversy” is. Both Lamarck and Darwin presented science based evidence and arguments, but both lacked crucial information. And we now know that if acquired characteristics affect the DNA of the parent, it can be passed onto offspring. So Lamarck wasn’t all that wrong. He was not right about the general mechanism of evolution, of course, but he wasn’t 100% wrong.
    Also, I don’t think the scientific consensus on Darwin’s side at the time was as strong as the consensus among climate scientists right now that AGW is real and our fault.

  12. 162

    #158 & “The issue is not just global warming – there’s also the massive environmental pollution brought on by incomplete combustion and fossil fuel contaminants.”

    Precisely. We need a holistic approach to both the problems and solutions. The measures that cause GW, also cause many other harms. The measures that help mitigate GW also mitigate many other environmental (pollution, finite resource depletion etc), as well as non-environmental harms. So it’s like choosing between a lose-lose-lose-lose-lose situation or a win-win-win-win-win situation.

    I consider GW to be a sort of umbrella issue. Solve it, and you solve many many other problems.

    Except, perhaps nuclear power, which has many downsides, incl death & disease of uranium miners (many 4th world people) and destruction of subsistence lands (as in Niger, where the pastoralists don’t even use electricity or benefit in any way from the mining near their lands).

  13. 163
    Anne van der Bom says:

    #148, matt

    You should check your calculations. Power consumption in the USA is around 4 trillion kWh/year, with 300 million inhabitants that is a per capita consumption of 13.000 kWh/year, not 50.

  14. 164

    RE #145 & 151. Thanks, Hank & Philip, for the heads-up on moringa being invasive. Just looked it up & it seems to be more a problem in South Pacific islands.

    Moringa doesn’t have any vectors (such as wind, animals, birds, insects), but sometimes tiny plants do sprout up around the trees. Luckily we can just pull them up by the root from moist soil (unlike some other tree-weeds in our yard, whose roots we have to cut down as deep as possible, then cap with inverted plastic containers and bury).

    We’ve gotten esperanza (a native of Latin America) from our neighbor’s yard, which we’ve transplanted, but our neighbors are pretty thorough about destroying all weeds.

    We got our moringa cutting from a Filippino in our town (I have no idea who first brought it to our area). Moringa, however, doesn’t grow in San Antonio — a friend there has a potted one he has to pull into the garage during freezing times — and I think it doesn’t even grow beyond 10 miles to the north of us (Edinburg, TX), bec another Filippino friend is unable to grow them up there. Austin should be safe.

    It seems to me IF the plant can be heavily used (for food, herbal medicine, fodder, and/or biofuel), AND the outer perimeter of its growing area monitored several times a year (and stray plants pulled up), its benefits might outweight its risks.

    I have no idea, though, whether it might be just too labor-intensive & expensive (not cost-effective) a project for a wealthy nation like ours. Commercial moringa production seems to be working out well in some poor African nations.

  15. 165
    Former Skeptic says:

    Speaking of memes and contrarians/deniers, George Monbiot has published a coruscating diatribe against the crap spewed on the InterWebs by lazy bloggers and “the outer limits of idiocy” in the Guardian’s comment forums. It’s definitely worth a read.

  16. 166
    tamino says:

    Re: #159 (me, and Gavin’s response)

    I’ll add those links soon. Any other suggestions are welcome. It may take a few days (busy busy busy!) but I find it’s convenient for me to have links to data sources in a single location.

  17. 167
    Rod B says:

    Ray (77) re (partial) “truth” (75), but bear in mind it is much relative. One of Obama’s assertions was that he would tax carbon so high that coal-based power producers would go bankrupt. (In that environment it’s ceasing business.) I’m not sure that our ingenuity to “manufacture in more energy efficient ways” like we did in the ‘70s will do the sanguine trick of maintaining our standards. At least in this scenario.

  18. 168
    Andrew says:

    CNN has reported on the current US drought:

    They quote some climatologist as claiming that it is not due to global warming. They continue that while the last three years have been drier than usual in many parts of the US, overall there’s been no shortage of rainfall and the U.S. mainland experienced worse droughts in the 12th and 16th centuries.

    First, just because there were droughts in the historical past does not prove that the current drought is not caused in part by global warming. Hopefully, most people realize that man made global warming is a recent phenonium that does not preclude past climate shifts from occurring.

    Figure 11.12 on page 890 of the following link, the IPCC projects changes in precipitation out to 2080 to 2090:

    Most of the US is projected to be within 10% of current precipitation levels, which is probably not statistically significant. However, significant drying is projected in Mexico and the southern Caribbean, with summer time drying in the Pacific Northwest. Meanwhile, the Hudson Bay and Northern Greenland areas are projected to get much wetter. Still another 92 years before all the data will be in, but it is interesting to see how the current drought compares to the long term projections.

  19. 169
    Craig Allen says:


    Your ‘Climate data links’ page is not accepting comments.

    The Australian Bureau of Meteorology climate change data page is another top notch site to add to your list.

    The data is from the Australian Reference Climate Station network, which are the 100 or so best of all Australia’s climate stations, which have been selected to

    * have long high quality climate records,
    * be located in places away from large urban centres, and
    * have a reasonable likelihood of continued, long-term operation.

  20. 170
    Rod B says:

    Lynn (78), again I respect your personal endeavors. But 1) it is unrealistic to extend a small sample to an entire populace with a mere wave of the hand, and 2) one ought to take with an extremely cautious view the estimates, even by learned experts, of how great and unobtrusive mitigation is going to be. For example, try to realistically envision for the moment all 300,000,000 persons in the U.S. living within one mile of their work, school, and shops. You and a few hundred or thousands, probably so; 300,000,000, not a chance in hell. Also, I wish I had a dollar for every business commercial project (just to pick a similar example) that was put together by learned experienced experts and proved a total bust. New Coke, anyone?
    Push hard for wind and solar? I fully agree a very good idea, but it is not a panacea .

  21. 171
    JCH says:

    “What I’ve said is that we would put a cap and trade system in place that is as aggressive, if not more aggressive, than anybody else’s out there.

    I was the first to call for a 100% auction on the cap and trade system, which means that every unit of carbon or greenhouse gases emitted would be charged to the polluter. That will create a market in which whatever technologies are out there that are being presented, whatever power plants that are being built, that they would have to meet the rigors of that market and the ratcheted down caps that are being placed, imposed every year.

    So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can; it’s just that it will bankrupt them because they’re going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.

    That will also generate billions of dollars that we can invest in solar, wind, biodiesel and other alternative energy approaches.

    The only thing I’ve said with respect to coal, I haven’t been some coal booster. What I have said is that for us to take coal off the table as a ideological matter as opposed to saying if technology allows us to use coal in a clean way, we should pursue it.

    So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can.

    It’s just that it will bankrupt them. …” – Obama

    It’s obvious he is saying a new plant that elected to not mitigate CO2 would be forced into bankruptcy. A position I think is somewhat like that of the other guy. On the flip side, a new coal plant that fully mitigates CO2 would be free to get just as rich as pie.

  22. 172
  23. 173
    Rod B says:

    Jim (83), to be clear, are you saying there was not, in the past, a large body (chorus) of AGW proponents (realists) that strongly supported ethanol?

  24. 174
    SecularAnimist says:

    Rod B wrote: “One of Obama’s assertions was that he would tax carbon so high that coal-based power producers would go bankrupt.”

    That’s not what Obama “asserted”. What Obama actually said, speaking to the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle in January 2008, was: “So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can, it’s just that it will bankrupt them because they’re going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.” [Emphasis added.]

    Obama was saying that charging power producers for GHG emissions — presumably through a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system — would make it unprofitable to build new coal-fired power plants. Obama has never, ever expressed any intention or plan to “bankrupt” existing “coal-based power producers.”

    These sorts of distortions and disinformation are common in the partisan right-wing media.

    Personally I would prefer a more straightforward approach:

    First, institute an outright ban on the construction of any new coal-fired power plants.

    Second, set a date on which burning coal to generate electricity would become illegal, by which date all existing coal-fired power plants must be shut down.

    These proposals are founded on the libertarian aphorism that “your right to swing your fist ends at my nose.” Burning coal is an act of aggressive violence against me and all other human beings. It is a moral crime and should be treated as a crime under law.

  25. 175
    Lawrence Brown says:

    Re #165
    Thank you for the link.Just when you thought you’ve heard everything- a wind turbine on Teletubbies is sumliminal advertising? How credible is someone who watches the Teletubbies!

  26. 176
    Craig Allen says:

    Mark, #118.

    “A bushland that was tree covered until humans turned up.
    Always nice to keep that in mind when people go on about how the natives live in harmony with nature. They have to since they stuffed it up big time when they arrived and now have the two options of live with nature or die.”

    You are being a bit disingenuous there.

    While it is true that it is likely that the Australian aborigines and their dingos pushed many of our mega-fauna to extinction, and through the use of fire changed the ecology, they were infinitely more kind to this continent than European settlers have been. At settlement Australia’s temperate regions were covered by bush and forest. No most of that is gone and we are rapidly striping the remainder.

    A society that develops giant machinery that allows a single man to strip hundreds of hundreds of acres of native vegetation per day can hardly justify it’s behaviour by pointing out the unsustainable lifestyles of hunter gatherers ecologists who successfully lived in the same landscape for thousands of years without modifying it’s essential character.

    Aborigines modified the ecology and then settled into a relationship with it that left most of it intact. Given our current land management practises, much of Australia’s once hyper-diverse ecosystems will look like the Iraqi desert within a generation (as much of it does already).

  27. 177
    Rod B says:

    Ray (87), I agree with you and Andrew that the real concern is, at the core, economic. You imply this is a “baddie”, but economic, political, or philosophical motivations, per se, are NOT bad. Neither are scientific motivations. But the crux is, IMO, that because mitigation is potentially globally and so strongly disruptive (the seers saying, “Hey! No problem. I’ll fix it by morning!” aside) that the science requires a much higher level of certainty – which is more than a bunch of scientists getting together and trumpeting, “We agree” (though there is nothing wrong per se with that either). I think, that as long as the skepticism or questioning is reasonable (which I’ll define since you all freely define unreasonable ;-) – and I admit some are not reasonable ) it is perfectly proper and appropriate. There ought to be something between “they ran another model” and “another $400 trillion please.”

  28. 178
    Paul Middents says:

    Ref. Ike Solem # 158

    Ike, that is a model for contributions to this blog. It is well written, with cites to the literature, on topic and I learned from it.

    Would that some of our young, enthusiastic, scatter gun posters could take it as a model.


  29. 179
    tamino says:

    My “climate data links” page won’t allow comments (it’s a “page” rather than a blog post), but suggestions for additions to the link list can be left on the latest “open thread” at my blog.

    I may not include them all, because I want to keep the page simple. But all suggestions will be considered, and appreciated.

  30. 180
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Rod B., So, let me get this straight: we’re going to have a different standard of scientific truth for those facts we don’t like? Well, then, by all means, let’s throw open the whole first and second laws of thermo. Those cost us trillions! How about the cosmic speed limit of c? Don’t you just hate that! Makes it so difficult to live out our Star Trek fantasies. And what standard shall we insist on, if 95% confidence isn’t good enough for you? 99%? 99.9999%? How about if we require the inerrant word of God? That will please the fundies in their attempts to get creationism taught in the schools.

    Sorry, Rod, physical reality doesn’t change depending on how much we like it or how much it costs us. Science has revealed cogent evidence of a real and credible threat. Where we need to demand high standards of evidence is in the cost-benefit analysis for various mitigation schemes being considered. But then it’s no longer a science problem, but a political/economic/engineering problem. We won’t solve those by denying good science.

    ReCAPTCHA gets grim: estate Tombs

  31. 181
    Jim Eager says:

    Rod (173), to be sure, there were many who accepted the science on AGW and climate change and also supported the development of biofuels, but that sort of means that they were not really AGW realists, dosen’t it? And in any case, they hardly had the influence and power to sway corporate interests to invest in the schemes and pressure lawmakers to craft policies and legislation that enabled the boondoggle, did they?

    The rush to biofuels was overwhelmingly spurred by the desire to make a lot of money quickly, period. Without the massive public subsidies it simply would not have happened.

  32. 182
    Dale Park says:


    I am a farmer in the South West land division of Western Australia and have been reading Real Climate for about six months. This has improved my understanding of topics from polar ice melts to how temperature is measured around the globe.

    What has struck me about most of the comments which are posted on your web site are that Global Warming is very much a theoretical subject. Not many seem to living with the consequences yet.

    As a farmer farming in an area that is predicted to be one of the worst affected by climate change in the world, we are already seeing changes in runoff, changes rainfall patterns and a less predictable Mediterranean climate.

    In this thread there has been some discussion about agriculture producing less carbon and there seems to an assumption that most agriculture uses irrigation where, the truth is that most farming in the world uses natural irrigation – rain.

    I am working with Ag scientists at the moment on using bio-char, to reduce the fertilizer use, nitrous oxide emissions, increase soil health and aiming to make farming carbon negative.

  33. 183
    Eli Rabett says:

    Myles Allen had a good response to the personal responsibility troll

    “I came of age in Mrs. Thatcher’s Britain. And under Mrs. Thatcher you applied the principle that you paid for what you wanted to do. And that’s essentially all we are saying here if we want to use fossil fuels we need to pay to make sure that we can use them in such a way that doesn’t impose risks on other people who haven’t chosen to take those risks.”

  34. 184
    Hank Roberts says:

    > machinery that allows a single man to strip
    > hundreds of hundreds of acres of native vegetation
    > per day

    Called the “Bushman plow” – Cute name. Kind of a streetsweeper for natives.


  35. 185
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Well, Matt, I’m also partially responsible for the immense carbon footprint of the US occupation forces in Iraq, but we have to start somewhere.

  36. 186
    Fernando Magyar says:

    Clean Coal!

    Am I missing something here? Wasn’t finding a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking supposed to be a bad thing back in the day!

    I have absolutly no idea how organizations like the Onion, who supposedly make their living by satirizing the status quo can have even the slightest hope of continuing to survive. This is just way funnier than anything they have ever come up with.

  37. 187
    Andrew says:

    For all the Australians on board; pages 896-901 of the following link describes projected climate changes for Australia.

    Southwestern Australia is expected to be hit the hardest during the winter. But not all regions are expected to receive less precipitation with eastern Australia expected to receive more precipitation in summer. However, with generally higher temperatures, evaporation is expected to rise and in almost all cases the moisture deficit becomes larger.

    Quote from IPCC summary page 850:

    Warming is likely to be larger than that of the surrounding
    oceans, but comparable to the global mean. The warming is
    less in the south, especially in winter, with the warming in
    the South Island of New Zealand likely to remain less than
    the global mean. Precipitation is likely to decrease in southern
    Australia in winter and spring. Precipitation is very likely to
    decrease in south-western Australia in winter. Precipitation
    is likely to increase in the west of the South Island of New
    Zealand. Changes in rainfall in northern and central Australia
    are uncertain. Increased mean wind speed is likely across the
    South Island of New Zealand, particularly in winter. Increased
    frequency of extreme high daily temperatures in Australia and
    New Zealand, and a decrease in the frequency of cold extremes
    is very likely. Extremes of daily precipitation are very likely to
    increase, except possibly in areas of significant decrease in mean
    rainfall (southern Australia in winter and spring). Increased risk
    of drought in southern areas of Australia is likely.

  38. 188

    RE #170 & “For example, try to realistically envision for the moment all 300,000,000 persons in the U.S. living within one mile of their work, school, and shops. You and a few hundred or thousands, probably so; 300,000,000, not a chance in hell.”

    Most people I know could live a lot closer to work; there are homes with their specs closer to work, but the realtors keep showing them houses far away. The farther houses may seem like better deals (more house for the buck), but people may not have factored in all the other costs, incl fuel, car repair, stress, harm to health from car fumes, lost family/recreation time.

    Also, there are many other solutions if one cannot live within 2 or 3 miles of work. For instance, both my husband & I were working in the same place (part-time for me), but when I got a full-time job in another town, some 35 miles away (it was suburb to another suburb over back country roads, so no public transportation), I inquired into who also commuted from my home town to my work town. I found a person, and we carpooled together over 90% of the trips, saving us gas, car repairs, and perhaps saving us from accidents, since driving alone after a hard day’s work makes me sleepy, and the conversation kept me awake. Then when comparable jobs for both myself and my husband opened up at the same university in Texas (where I knew we could also get on Green Mountain 100% wind energy) we made the move.

    It’s about putting forth a bit of effort to do the right thing, and if one thing doesn’t work, then there are other ways to accomplish the goal of reducing one’s GHGs. We just have to do what we can, what’s feasible.

  39. 189
    Rod B says:

    SecularAnimist: Oh. Barrack is going to kill only the 100+ GWatts (40% of) from coal planned for the next 20-25 years and leave (much to your chagrin it seems) the current 300 GWatts alone? Ought to be a breeze. I haven’t heard — when, if ever, does he plan to kill the ~95GWatts (36%) of natural gas new generators? I would assume real quickly. A couple of finger snaps and all will be copacetic. You must be ecstatic.

  40. 190
    Rod B says:

    Ray (180), I understand your (and others) conviction, but to the contrary AGW does not have the certainty of either Law of Thermodynamics, or the speed of light, etc. Also, a 95% confidence level expressed by the folks doing the predictions is interesting, but not a certainty. Finally, yes the standard is different and higher because of the potentially tremendous cost and disruption of mitigation. If a group of scientists say they’ve found a feed that can maintain a chicken’s growth but with 2% less feed than today, I don’t much care if that proves to be 100% correct or 10% correct.

    The rub is that, IMO, the standard has not met but I don’t know where it is. Because if we continue to push for greater confidence, say 6 nines to pick something, to save all of that cost and disruption until, say, it gets proven by actually happening, that too, as you know, has some pretty noticeable costs and disruptions.

  41. 191
    Rod B says:

    Jim (181), unquestionably the economic interests (farmers and processors mostly) were the prime movers for the growth of biofuels (mostly ethanol). But the fact is there was a very noticeable chorus of AGW proponents hot to trot for it. If that embarrasses you now (probably does most of them now, too — looked like a good deal until some of the second level details started to emerge), I can understand it; you can wish it away, but you can’t will it away.

  42. 192
    jcbmack says:

    Clean coal is possible, but again we must apply the science just right, if Barack is aware of this we could bring about great change with other well placed proposals currently possible, Eli has a commentary on clean coal as well. I know I posted an email to me: “clean coal a lie,” but if it were properly applied and not overly polticized we could get good cleaner energy yields and we could place wind power well; use DC!

  43. 193
    matt says:

    #188 Lynn Vincentnathan: It’s about putting forth a bit of effort to do the right thing, and if one thing doesn’t work, then there are other ways to accomplish the goal of reducing one’s GHGs. We just have to do what we can, what’s feasible

    But this doesn’t solve the problem. The US and EU need to reduce by 90+%. Doing what feels right doesn’t work, because everyone figures, “hey, this is important, and it’s hardly any CO2 in the grand scheme of things”.

    That rationale makes it easy to drive kids across town to piano lessons, and let’s you zip from state to state on a huge chartered jet to try and convince the country to elect you.

    Nobody is willing to SACRIFICE. Screwing in a CFL and driving a Prius might make you feel good, but it doesn’t solve the problem. But most think they are “doing their part” when they do it.

    It’s taking a bucket down to Katrina and bailing by hand. Yes it helps and it might make you feel good, no it doesn’t change the outcome. Kyoto is another example. Yes it helped, but it only delayed the inevitable (whatever that might be) by a few years.

    We’ll see if Obama has the gumption to go big. I’m all on board if the plan is realistic, because I believe any realistic plan includes nuclear in the near term. Excelon was a big Obama supporter, and Axelrod worked as a consultant for them too. From Obama’s Energy Fact Sheet:

    Safe and Secure Nuclear Energy: Nuclear power represents more than 70 percent of our non-carbon generated electricity. It is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power from the table. However, there is no future for expanded nuclear without first addressing four key issues: public right-to-know, security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage, and proliferation. Barack Obama introduced legislation in the U.S. Senate to establish guidelines for tracking, controlling and accounting for spent fuel at nuclear power plants.

    To prevent international nuclear material from falling into terrorist hands abroad, Obama worked closely with Sen. Dick Lugar (R — IN) to strengthen international efforts to identify and stop the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction. As president, Obama will make safeguarding nuclear material both abroad and in the U.S. a top anti-terrorism priority.

    Obama will also lead federal efforts to look for a safe, long-term disposal solution based on objective, scientific analysis. In the meantime, Obama will develop requirements to ensure that the waste stored at current reactor sites is contained using the most advanced dry-cask storage technology available. Barack Obama believes that Yucca Mountain is not an option. Our government has spent billions of dollars on Yucca Mountain, and yet there are still significant questions about whether nuclear waste can be safely stored there.

  44. 194
    Mark says:

    189. How about “Barrak is going to kill the need for 100+GWatts (40%) and so we won’t need coal powered stations and they can be mothballed”?

    After all, when the demand goes down, why spend the money on creating the need?

  45. 195
    Mark says:

    Craig, 176, that is irrelevant. Did I say the Aboriginies of Australia were worse than the white man?


    And how much of that “worse” is due to the technological advances that increase the ability of each person to increase their effects? After all, when you’re highest level tool for agribusiness is a goat and a box of matches, you’re going to have to work at it to do more damage than someone with a fleet of tractors and a long-range rifle.

    “Working with the environment” is the only option these people HAD. If they hadn’t, they wouldn’t have survived.

    And now the high-energy agribusiness is getting to a place where living with the environment is the only option. It just took longer to get there because the energy can be used to bull past the problems rather than solve them or include them.

  46. 196
    pete best says:

    The UK is experiencing a very cold late Autumn so it must mean that GW is a fib and a lie dreamed up by highly paid scientists who sit in their ivory towers of intellectual isolation and dream up left wing conspiricies to stop the worlds economy from prospering due to their petty minded jealously.

    Thats how a lot of the skeptics have it anyway. The Internet is full of deflamatory comment these days and vast swathes of opinion on this subject. Its funny that members of the public in general are not that clued up on science in general but seems to know an awful lot about the science of global warming in relation to the politics and economic consequences of cutting carbon emissions.

    Brrrrr, freezing here. :)

  47. 197
    Douglas Wise says:

    Might I suggest that Jim Eager (#181) and Lynn Vincentnathan (# 189) are possibly allowing their moral decency and natural optimism to cloud their judgements.

    Jim suggests that any proponent of AGW who advocated the use of biofuels was being unrealistic. (I am supposing that he was referring to ethanol production from soya or corn). Why? In a nation such as the USA, which can easily feed itself but lacks fuel security for transport, it is not necessarily ridiculous to manufacture a transport fuel with low ERoEI pending the development of superior alternatives. There is little compelling evidence that food costs were adversely affected but, even if they were, the major sufferers would not have been US citizens. This may sound callous and probably is. It is also true that the current state of financial collapse, leading to a precipitate but probably temporary drop in oil price, was mysteriously not envisioned and has led to ethanol production being uneconomic at the present time. That said, peak oil and excess global population suggest that we are in a mess that not all will escape from. US citizens are better placed than most to do so. I wish, as a UK national, that Britain was as well placed.

    Lynn seems to want everybody to upsticks and move closer to his/her place of work, a massively disruptive suggestion, particularly when many of the sources of such employment will disappear almost as soon as people have moved closer to them. I think it sensible first to consider what forms of employment are really essential to our basic needs. Personally, I can think of relatively few and they won’t necessarily be based in conurbations.

    For those here who have tended to concentrate solely on threats from climate change, I would strongly advocate that they read an essay by the late Dr Price ( and Google chris martenson and crash course even though it might douse their optimism. We are threatened by more than global warming and all our problems need addressing simultaneously if some of us (or our progeny) are to escape with a civilised, albeit different, life style

  48. 198
    truth says:

    Obama’s statement is ambiguous, and he contradicts himself.
    He signals that someone could build a coal-fired power station, but if they did so, the regulation and emissions imposts of an Obama administration would bankrupt them —they would be priced out of the energy market .
    The message seems to be that if they’re silly enough[ in his view], to build a new coal-fired power station at all , his policies will bankrupt them—not that if they build and don’t mitigate, he’ll bankrupt them, because the kind of mitigation that’s required isn’t available at the moment.
    That seems to be a clear signal that Obama wants an end to the coal-fired power industry forthwith, because he makes no mention of subsidising existing companies for the transition period until CCS technology is up and running—and yet it’s accepted that coal-fired power stations will have to be the providers of base load power for many years down the track—and no country is ready now for carbon capture and sequestration.
    Australia was the most advanced in the CCS technology field as of late 2007 [ I think it’s still so, but I’m not sure ], but sites for sequestration here [ in Australia] , are only generally identified, with much more information [ expensive in time and money ], required on all of them, and many countries wouldn’t have the necessary geological structures anyway.
    The technology isn’t ready to go, by any stretch, and the transport of the CO2 to the sequestration sites is worrying and mind-boggling when you think about the turmoil that will generate—legal challenges etc.
    It seems inconceivable that Obama’s administration would not be providing enormous subsidies to existing coal companies , if compliance with his scheme will be enough to bankrupt them—-and he certainly doesn’t sound inclined to subsidise.
    There are apparently more than 100 applications for new coal –fired power stations in the US at the moment, so the requirement must be there .
    How would existing companies continue to provide the power required, if they’re to be hugely penalised for emitting, to the point of bankruptcy, and yet the technology to capture emissions and store the CO2 isn’t yet available to them?
    It would surely become unprofitable to maintain existing c/f power stations, with their future so uncertain or compromised, and coal jobs would go—along with jobs ancillary to coal power generation and coal usage .
    Likewise coal mining operations— how could an industry with so many extra costs , upgrade machinery and maintain any sort of viability , safety requirements etc?
    What sort of morale levels would there be?
    Either that scenario, or they would price their electricity to the levels needed to make them profitable—and not just domestic electricity, but everything Americans buy and every service would become much more expensive.
    Obama did say that electricity prices would soar.
    What would that do to America’s export trade?
    Obama almost seems to be relying on the coal companies to build the new power stations and pay the imposts that he says will bankrupt them—and he says that will give him the funds to dole out to the renewables research projects.
    His message is very unclear, and amazingly, he was never asked to clarify it.

  49. 199
    Eli Rabett says:

    Rod, since natural gas is a) the most efficient fossil energy source for electricity approaching 80% with cogeneration and 60% without and b) emits the least carbon don’t hold your breath. The issue with gas is c) supply and d) could it be used more efficiently for other things.

    Please be sure you are in gear before drive by concern trolling.

  50. 200
    Lewis says:

    I’ve been lurking around here for some time now and this morning found this and immediately thought of this discussion.

    Republicans also bitterly opposed tougher environmental rules carmakers would have to meet as part of the House-passed version of the rescue package, and the Senate dropped them from its plan.

    In my own sphere I’ve found that the primary reason for skepticism or usually outright rejection with regards to AGW is that people would HAVE to change. Not just get new light bulbs and make fewer trips to the store change but completely switch the paradigm they use for going about their day.

    They know that they will have to be made to change and already have way to much government in their lives. Locally accepting it will be the end of the world as they know it in the Upper Ohio Valley.

    They are put in a terrible catch-22. To reject AGW means, from their POV, maybe sometime down the road when things they can’t conceptualize happen be unable to feed their families. Acceptance means they won’t be able to feed their families NOW.

    And no one is offering them a shred of hope that all of the money (that they already have to little of) acceptance will cost them will be worth it.

    To a learned scientist acceptance is self-evident. To them rejection is self-defense.