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Consensus as the New Heresy

Filed under: — group @ 3 January 2007

Gavin Schmidt, Michael Mann, David Archer, Stefan Rahmstorf, William Connolley, and Raymond Bradley

Andy Revkin, who’s one of the best journalists on the climate beat, wrote a curious piece in the NY Times discussing the ‘middle stance’ of the climate debate. It’s nice to see news pieces on climate that aren’t breathless accounts of a new breakthough and that take the time to point out that the vast majority of relevant scientists take climate change extremely seriously. To that extent, the message of this piece was a welcome one. The curious part, however, was the thread running through the piece that this middle ground is only now emerging, and even curiouser, that this middle ground can be characterized as representing some sort of ‘heresy’.

Heresy, is commonly defined as ‘an opinion or doctrine at variance with the official or orthodox position’. So where does this idea come from, and why is it now ’emerging’?

It has often been remarked upon that scientists and academics make their reputations by breaking down orthodoxies and by challenging previously widespread assumptions (but it will only work out well if they’re right of course!). Nobody makes much of a name for themselves by agreeing with all previous thinking. Indeed, to be thought of as a radical new thinker, one must assume the role of the heretic, challenging the stale orthodoxies of the past. And given some of the scientific iconoclasts in our pantheon (Galileo, Einstein, Wegner etc.), we see this as a completely natural state of affairs.

However, there is a big difference between really challenging the majority opinion and simply stating that you are. We are all often ‘contrary’, but here at RC we also generally find ourselves firmly in the mainstream on many of the central scientific points: e.g., our views on the most probable value of the climate sensitivity (around 3C), the likelihood of the imminent Gulf Stream reversal (zero), or the possibility of Venusian-style runaway greenhouse effect happening this side of a billion years (extremely small). That these positions are in line with conclusions drawn by IPCC is no surprise, because those reports result from intense discussion and peer-review involving a large fraction of the community, thus they reflect the views of the climate science community very well. Most scientists present these widely shared conclusions when speaking to the public, and where their own views diverge from it, they make it clear that these are their own conclusions rather than a generally accepted view.

In reading about the new ‘heretics’ then, one might have expected that associated with them would be statements that would contradict IPCC or that we (as mainstream scientists who do not claim to be heretics) would otherwise find objectionable. So let’s consider the specific tenets of the ‘new heresy’ mentioned in the article:

  • From Carl Wunsch: ‘It seems worth a very large premium to insure ourselves against the most catastrophic scenarios. Denying the risk seems utterly stupid. Claiming we can calculate the probabilities with any degree of skill seems equally stupid’. Agreed.
  • “Many in this camp seek a policy of reducing vulnerability to all climate extremes while building public support for a sustained shift to nonpolluting energy sources”. Sensible.
  • There is “no firm evidence of a heat-triggered strengthening in storms in recent years” (our emphasis). Well, what the WMO statement to which this assertion is attributed actually said was (first bullet point): “Though there is evidence both for and against the existence of a detectable anthropogenic signal in the tropical cyclone climate record to date, no firm conclusion can be made on this point.” We agree with that statement – this particular subject is definitely in a state of flux.
  • “Recent increase[s] in the impact of storms was because of more people getting in harm’s way, not stronger storms”. Again, the WMO report did not state this. What it stated was (third bullet point of statement; emphasis added): “The recent increase in societal impact from tropical cyclones has largely been caused by rising concentrations of population and infrastructure in coastal regions”. These are not quite the same. Once again, we agree with what the WMO actually said. Interestingly, the second bullet point of the WMO statement, not mentioned in the article, “No individual tropical cyclone can be directly attributed to climate change” was voiced by us more than a year ago.
  • “Global warming is real, it’s serious, but it’s just one of many global challenges that we’re facing,”. Of course.
  • From Mike Hulme: “I have found myself increasingly chastised by climate change campaigners when my public statements and lectures on climate change have not satisfied their thirst for environmental drama,” he wrote. “I believe climate change is real, must be faced and action taken. But the discourse of catastrophe is in danger of tipping society onto a negative, depressive and reactionary trajectory.” Agreed. And we said much the same thing when commenting on the ‘Climate Porn’ report.
  • “It is best not to gloss over uncertainties”. Duh!
  • “efforts to attribute recent weather extremes to the climate trend, though they may generate headlines in the short run, distract from the real reasons to act”. We couldn’t agree more, and have stated as much before.
  • “‘An Inconvenient Truth’ may push too hard”. Perhaps at last, there is a (moderate) difference of opinion. We agree with Eric’s review of the movie earlier this year, i.e. while there were a few things to quibble with, Gore got the science basically right.

The only substantial disagreement, then, is over a movie review. On all other points of substance the ‘heresy’ and the old orthodoxy are the same.

We’ve emphasised over and over that the science that should inform policy should come from thorough assessment processes like the IPCC and the National Academies. The views of individual scientists (including us) should carry less weight – partly because of our specific biases (due to the field we work in or our personalities), and partly because a thorough discussion and peer review process (like that leading to IPCC reports) will lead to more considered, informed and balanced statements than any individual could muster. Media representations of what individual scientists supposedly said should not be used for policy at all!

Much of the sensationalist talk in the public discourse (and to which the scientists in the piece, and we, rightly take exception) are not the pronoucements of serious scientists in the field, but distorted and often out-of-context quotes that can be further mangled upon frequent repetition. We have often criticised such pieces (here, or here for instance) and it is important to note that the ‘shrill voices of doom’ referred to by Mike Hulme were not scientists, but campaigners.

John Fleck suggests that Revkin’s point was that the middle stance is only now being reflected in the media coverage, which for the highly polarised US discussion could be a valid point – although Revkin’s own work in the New York Times argues against it. So does the fact that all of the scientists discussed in this piece are veterans in media coverage of the issue; their view of things can hardly be called “just emerging”.

Perhaps the real background to Revkin’s piece simply is that some like to use the age-old debating tactic of labelling other views as “extreme” in order to position themselves in the “middle”. If you divide the world into ‘alarmists’ and ‘deniers’, you can then nicely present yourself as the ‘heretic’ who wants to break the mold. But this is a false distinction.

The plain fact is that the vast majority of scientific judgement on this issue – as outlined in the IPCC documents including the AR4 coming up in February- does indeed cover the ‘middle stance’, which we would state as being in agreement with the statement of the National Academies of the G8 last year that ‘the scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action’. As Jim Hansen states in his quote – it’s still surprising that there are some people who don’t know this yet.

Further discussion on this piece is available: Matthew Nesbit, John Fleck, Roger Pielke Jr, David Roberts and Andrew Dessler. Also Joseph Romm.

259 Responses to “Consensus as the New Heresy”

  1. 1
    Joseph O'Sullivan says:

    I think this NYT article is another example of trying to add a little drama to the story. Use of Roger Pielke Jr’s provocative but tongue-in-cheek term “non-skeptical heretic” was a way to draw attention to the story.

    My take on it is the point of the story was to say that the public discourse is dominated by political advocates on both sides that want to build up or tear down the science/policies of AGW, but the calmer voices are getting more attention in the public discourse.

    Andy Revkin has replied to David Roberts on gristmill linked in the post.

  2. 2
    Ike Solem says:

    When I read the article, I was struck by the fact that the author made no mention of what type of mitigating steps could be taken to prevent the outer envelope of climate predictions from becoming a reality. Instead, there is the above quote:

    “I believe climate change is real, must be faced and action taken. But the discourse of catastrophe is in danger of tipping society onto a negative, depressive and reactionary trajectory.”

    Well, there’s no reason to take that approach. Instead, there are many positive and proactive steps that can be taken – for example, a thorough review of coastal areas along the southern Atlantic and investment in infrastructure aimed at preventing disastrous flooding – if the levees in New Orleans in 2005 had been built as well as the Dutch build their levees, the damage would have been far, far less. The rationale thing do do would be to plan for more Katrina-strength hurricanes, not to completely ignore the issue. Tidal wetlands can also absorb a lot of hurricane energy – building on them is not a good idea for numerous reasons.

    I was also disappointed in that the article didn’t discuss the need for comprehensive observations from space and in the oceans, which would remove much of the uncertainties from many different areas of climate science.

    Similarly, the article never discussed carbon-neutral energy technologies, their current state of development, and never mentioned photovoltaic or wind energy as replacements for fossil fuels. This really is the heart of the problem – there is no way we can put all the accessible fossil fuel in the ground into the atmosphere over the next century and expect anything other then a continuing trend of rapidly increasing temperatures.

    What’s needed is a Marshall Plan-scale renewable energy program designed to meet US energy demand, and it will have to include energy efficiency as a major part of the plan. This will mean switching taxpayer subsidies away from fossil fuels and industrial agriculture and towards renewable energy companies and research programs. This isn’t a job for climate science, but for energy physicists, engineers and chemists – but they can’t do the work without funding. The existing technology is actually pretty good, but there’s a big difference between a 10% efficient solar panel and a 30% efficient one.

  3. 3
    John L. McCormick says:

    The public debate of global warming and media account of same are evolving into substantive opinions and news accounts that it is a looming problem, coming at us faster than earlier imagined and likely will affect the poor nations the hardest. Progress there, if slow.

    That is miles apart from the message of hired, fringe denialists who, at one extreme, equate carbon dioxide with life and to a lesser extreme that global warming will probably have to be confronted (though not by stringent governemtn regulations). That latter perspective is one elected officials want to believe while they fear the public will demand action without understanding the real costs of mitigation options.

    When corporate interests wake up to the reality of their assets being on the line as feedbacks come into play, action will be driven by investor demands that long-term equity investments be protected; e.g., petrochemical, transportation infrastructure, real estate and agriculture/timber. Those are the middle ground voices legislators will hear more clearly.

    Andrew Revkin is on point when he said, “Many in this group also see a need to portray clearly that the response would require far more than switching to fluourescent light bulbs and to hybrid cars.”

    Corporate leaders, among them, CEOs of major electric power generating companies have accepted the inevitable control of climate-forcing gases. They need prime time because they will make news that motivates political action.

  4. 4
    cat black says:

    Well. Since the media have made a big deal out of the so-called “disagreements” in the scientific community about AGW, which disagreements by and large do not actually exist in the field, they can’t exactly come back and say “most scientists hold mainstream views about the science involved.” That would come off as some kind of deus ex machina resolution to all that “disagreement” that was gumming up progress on treaties, legislation and regulations. Gumming that the media were too afraid to report, and now their collusion is about to be revealed. Time to act!

    First you march out the heretics, with whom you grudingly find some common ground. Then you march out the reformed denialists, who admit that the heretics (though still insane) have a point if you squint just right. Then you run an editorial about how great is the need for leadership to bring us all together over this important issue. Then you march out some sainted senior statesman (too bad Ford just died, I guess they’ll recruit Carter) to spread his hands in all encompassing embrace and say that the reformed denialists have it right, and we should just Get On With It(tm). Then you win.

    It’s not about reforming the heretics, who remain useful as a foil. It’s about reforming their message into something the senior statesman in question can embrace without looking like a heretic himself.


  5. 5
    D.F. says:

    It seems to me that the ‘heretical’ position is the one that is not the caricature of climate change science made by the climate change deniers. That is, in order to make their denials seem more reasonable, the climate change deniers have manipulated the debate so that the radical position appears to be ‘orthodox’.

    It’s a trap the media falls into far too often.

  6. 6
    Jim Redden says:

    Very pleased to see Revkin’s piece as a topic here (and other spaces) in more lucid examination.

    Regarding the oxidation of fossil fuels, after considering the greatest possible downside to humanity, and taking a critical broad view at comprehensive evidence amassed over the years, and in turn, exploring more specific means of mitigation, such as delineated by Pacala and Socolow, one is left to wonder why the game of “Russian roulette” continues at breakneck speed; in sum, the conundrum engendering business as usual is founded on the quicksand of ignorance.

    Those who deny anthropogenic climate change have accused those who warn of future events as a new form of religious zealousness. Again, one can suggest wishful thinking on the part of denialist, and I again point to ignorance, since a most likely projected conclusion is that at some point of carbon emission, we will have altered the atmosphere beyond repair. This enterprise rests entirely on the projection of causal chains and abstract reasoning. One could only hold it to be ‘religious’ if the notion of belief was the sole glue holding climate modeling together and serves to point out an inability for someone to understand the step by step construction of opponent process relationships found in climate

    Stepping outside of positivist evidence, and moving to realms of intuition, my most strong and fervent suspicion is that there are surprises of biogeochemical cycles that await us – of apocalyptic magnitude–forcing a rethinking of the entire process of living a meaningful human life. These potentials include disruption of the photosynthetic plankton driven carbon cycles and food chains, fostered by an already weakened net of established ecological nutrient energy exchanges.

    The scientific literatures abounds with similar conjecture, and of course, proof will only be found in letting the Global human climate experiment run course – which is not a sane option. I have heard it said that “it’s not what we know about the climate, it what we don’t know that really scares us”. Heated agreement on that point.

    Thus, Carl Wunsch’s sentiments, of rational risk management, are how I would (do) build a framework for consensus; yet in private spirit, hold hope that the next few decadal years will not realize the emergence of new equilibrium points of the Earth’s hydrologic cycle, leading to social unrest and the end of the more noble aspects of civilization as we know it.

    We can engage the principals of economic forces to fiscally manage our behavior, and engender a much more prudent (and ostensibly, conservative) approach. The folks at the Apollo Climate project seem to hold the most pragmatic approach. Now we just need access leadership and vote them into office implement an approach based on the realities – as presented by the physical universe–as we understand it today and tomorrow.

  7. 7
    SecularAnimist says:

    This seems to be an article where the writer felt he had to come up with some “angle” or “theme” or “storyline” on which to hang the article, so he invented one. That it doesn’t make much sense and doesn’t have much to do with reality isn’t that important to him, obviously. He could just as easily have written the same substantive article around the theme, “OK, what is the consensus opinion of the scientific community about the potential seriousness of climate change and the urgency of taking action?” but that would not have been as dramatic as the “new heresy emerges!” theme.

    Having said that, I disagree with the comment from Mike Hulme that the “discourse of catastrophe” is counterproductive. The potential for a global ecological catastrophe far beyond anything that the human species has experienced since long before the dawn of civilization is real, and is growing.

    Every new report of the observed effects of global warming indicates that the changes are more extreme, and more rapid, than had been previously thought possible. An article published last week in The Independent outlined the various self-reinforcing global warming feedbacks, which have only relatively recently begun to be understood, and which are not accounted for in earlier predictions about the probable rapidity and extent of warming and resultant climate change.

    And meanwhile, anthropogenic CO2 emissions continue not only to increase every year, but are accelerating, and the human species remains far from reversing that trend. Realistically, would anyone care to make a prediction about what will be the first year in which global CO2 emissions are lower than the year before? Do you think that will happen soon enough, and emissions thereafter continue to be reduced rapidly enough, to avoid the worst extremes of climate change in the current predictions — or the much worse consequences that predictions which take into account the full effect of all the feedbacks will give us?

    I understand, appreciate, and am very grateful for the role of scientists such as those who run in being objective, careful, and cautious in what they say about this. But the dangers are huge, and entirely real, and there is no basis for disdaining “campaigners” who emphasize the very huge and very real dangers of not taking very large steps, very soon, to reduce GHG emissions.

  8. 8
    David Wilson says:

    excellent! thanks. I am one of those who have frozen like a deer in the headlights, staring into this issue. your measured and balanced words are a blessing. be well.

  9. 9
    Steve Sadlov says:

    The middle ground is ground that is not as extreme as that occupied by “Secular Animist” and some others (but not all) who post here. Also, I would add that, although by and large the actual operators of this site are not in that sort of territory, some scientists whose papers have been posted or referenced here are in that arena.

    As one moves toward (but does not reach) the other extreme, and I can speak from experience here since I frequent certain circles among the so called “right wingers,” I think you will find that there is not the extent of out and out so called “denialism” that many who frequent this site believe there is. There is a vast continuum ranging from views similar to those of Pielke Jr, clear on over to views that are utterly doctrinaire in their assertion that no perceived or real environmental downside would ever justify any regulation or other controls asserted upon purely short term economic considerations. To hear it told by some at the “Secular Animist” extreme, everyone who is the slightest bit skeptical is at the opposite extreme – nothing could be further from the truth.

    As for myself, I am what is known as a “crunchy con” – I have serious environmentalist tendencies, yet do not follow the “Green” orthodoxy either. I am completely open to the possibility that AGW is a serious issue, but want to drive better practices around modelling, measurement and analysis of data. As I see it, it is a quality issue. Better quality will help all involved. It will silence the truely extreme anti-environmentalists, and will provide better answers to the remaining legitimate questions and better characterize error terms, biases and causals that are not at this time 100% understood.

    Ultimately I would expect there to emerge a less GHG-full mode of existence, but also, far less political distortion influencing how we choose to deal with climate related policies and issues. Somewhere between a 19th century rape-the-Earth robber barron paradigm, and, a radicalized quasi Marxist hard core global income redistribution “Ecotopia” paradigm, lies a road that avoids many evils. Take it. I urge you all. Take it.

  10. 10
    David Roberts says:

    It seems the one thing all parties in this big debate can agree on is that those guys — those extremists, those … campaigners — deserve all the contempt Revkin or anybody else can throw at them.

    Of course, pretty much everyone, including the so-called “heretics,” agrees that global warming is an unprecedented danger that will wreak great human and economic damage in our children’s lifetimes. But the people who go out and try to get the public worked up over it, the ones out putting their asses on the line trying to break through the apathy and get real change started, those people … they’re so shrill.

    The most important thing, when unprecedented global danger approaches, is that nobody raise their voice. It’s unseemly.

  11. 11

    Nice post.

    When I first presented the idea of a third “tribe” in the climate debate, partly tongue-in-cheek, I did so to recognize a another political position on climate change. Not science. That political position is characterized by people who accept the IPCC (hence, non-skeptic, i.e., “skeptic” as a noun, as often used in derogatory fashion on this site) but reject the targets and timetables approach that is codified in the Framework Convention. This includes a variety of different, even mutually inconsistent approaches proposed by people as diverse as Steve Rayner, Bjorn Lomborg, Dan Sarewitz, and Gregg Easterbrook. (And inn some quarters — maybe here — simply mentioning the name Lomborg is enough to be labeled a heretic, ;-) )

    Now, as far as I know you guys have no views on the Framework Convention one way or the other, or at least that is what you say. So this political debate has nothing to do with what you present here, and this third way should not be relevant, right? The reality is that if climate policy is going to move forward, it has to break out of (a) positioning everything in terms of science, and (b) framing everything in terms of alarmists and skeptics/contrarians. And like it or not, RealClimate is a big player in keeping this Manichean view alive, such as with your recent “year in review” and incessant skeptic obsession.

    I don’t care if this third way on climate policy is called the middle, top, bottom, left, or right. And I have no affinity for the NSH tag. What I do care about is that people engage in serious discussions of actual policy options in manner that is far more diverse that has existed to date. If that is something that RC wants to venture into, we’d all benefit.

    Happy 2007!

    [Response: Roger, Thanks for your comment. I think however that Andy’s text belies your words. The article barely mentioned policy options and the Framework Convention not at all and since we don’t discuss policy much here, the issue we were addressing was the the middle ground on science issues. You have frequently railed against the misrepresentation of science in political debates and have stated that it is clearly incumbent on scientists to call out those who misrepresent their work – you have done it yourself on the hurricane damage issue multiple times. When asked why you don’t correct the mis-representations of the contrarians, you stated that you didn’t have the necessary expertise – well we do, and in line with your own actions on the damages issue, we try and point out when our science is misused – by all parties, regardless of any policy being advocated. Bad arguments are bad arguments whatever they are used for.

    I’m not sure why you charaterise RC as perpetuating the alarmist/skeptic dichotomy when we go out of our way to provide nuance and context when relevant science issues come up (see previous discussions on climate sensitivty, ocean circulation, aerosols or mid-latitude storms etc.). But we are not shy in calling out rubbish when it comes along – and I can assure you that is not evenly balanced on ‘both sides’.

    You ask that RC becomes part of the climate policy discussion. We have said many many times that our expertise is on science, not policy – we are not qualified to assess the economic effectiveness of cap and trade versus carbon taxes versus subsidies or the Clean Development mechanism. All we can do is tell you what the climate consquences might be given changes in emssions. Expecting anything else is foolish.

    Finally, I would point out that the ‘year in review’ was supposed to be lighthearted, and frankly, the sceptics provide more fodder for amusement than discussions about policy. I make no apology for that, but I’m slightly concerned for your sense of humour. Furthermore, expecting a comment put in at 10:30pm EST to a moderated forum to immediately appear is probably a little hopeful – we have lives outside the blog too you know. Thanks! – gavin]

  12. 12
    Andy Revkin says:

    Glad to spark such constructive back-and-forthing.

    Too many notions to respond to, but I’ll say a couple things.

    Inspired by an earlier exchange with Dave Roberts on Huffingtonpost and Gristmill over the story, I got our Web folk today to subtly change the headline online from “Middle Stance Emerging in Debate Over Climate” (writer’s bane remains headlines written by copy desks) to “A NEW Middle Stance Emerges in Debate over Climate.”

    You can see the updated story and our whole long, ongoing list of energy-environment pieces here:

    The change is subtle but significant, and hopefully helpful. It better implies (particulary for the majority of readers who are not nearly as attuned to this discourse as you all are) that the ‘middle’ has shifted toward the “hotter,” more dangerous side, that almost everyone of substance sees the need for prompt action.

    But there is a very significant difference between the more popular, mediagenic stance out there right now (not just in the movie) and the stance of the folks in my story — and most of the realclimate gang, too.

    The orthodoxy described on TV, in movie theaters, enviro campaigns etc is that AGW is a realtime crisis that is momentous and huge and terrifying, but can be solved with existing technologies. Anyone disagree with that being the general public image of the climate ‘problem’ right now?

    That is not the orthodoxy Gavin et al described above. They’re talking about IPCC, which is barely mentioned these days (altho that’ll change in 3 weeks of course) in favor of Stern Report, UK report on avoiding dangerous climate change, and the like, and some speculations about thermohaline and Greenland instabilities that many (dare I say most) people actually studying those phenomena up close don’t see as very plausible.

    AGW is still mainly portrayed (outside of your rarefied circles) as a problem to be fixed (a raging fire to put out), not a risk to be cut. That is your quiet, almost-private orthodoxy, perhaps, but not the one being sold to the public.

    That’s why I had to write about this new middle — Hulme on BBC, the pushback from hurricane experts on ‘hotter’ interpretations of the state of that science, and the like. I didn’t invent the cutesy “heretic” line, but it does help insure that no one can interpret this new middle as having anything to do with the old contrarians.

    And, sure, we journalists always have to frame our stories in a form our editors can identify as “news.” Believe me, that’s hard enough with ANY climate story (AGW still is the antithesis of news as we know it), but was even harder with this one.

    Best wishes for 2007, and a stable climate to all in 2107.


    [Response:Andy, you wrote: “AGW is still mainly portrayed (outside of your rarefied circles) as a problem to be fixed (a raging fire to put out), not a risk to be cut. “I think this is accurate, and you’ve said it very well. But in your article you tend to conflate what scientists say with what the mass media says that climate scientists say. The implication is that scientists are now finding the “third way”. This just isn’t accurate. I’d be delighted if the media is finding the third way though — changing the way it talks about this issue! That’ll put them right where the scientists have been for a long time. [This is not to deny that some scientists have gone overboard in what they say, but individuals are individuals. They don’t speak for the community as a whole.] — Eric Steig ]

    [Response: Hi Andy, good to get your further thoughts here. It appears to me that you are mainly making a point that John Schellnhuber and I made in our book published last year: namely that it is time that the media stop spending so much space on pseudo-issues like whether global warming is caused by humans, which scientifically has long been settled. Instead they should properly cover what the real discourse is now: namely what to do about it. E.g., whether the emissions trading scheme in operation in Europe is adequate and functioning well. I’m glad to see that this is now happening. Over the past weeks, German media have been full of the discussion over the amount of CO2 emission quota that is allocated to German industry for the next years: whether the reductions are enough, and whether part of the quota should be auctioned off by the government rather than given to industry for free. Last time round, a couple of years ago, this was a topic for a small note in the back of the paper, now it is discussed on front pages. Of course, these are topics of debate where we as natural scientists are not the experts.
    Nevertheless, I want to ask you what you mean exactly when you state that the climate crisis cannot be solved with existing technologies. It is certainly true that we need major investments in further technological innovations to decarbonise our energy system. Yet, I am convinced (by what energy engineers etc. tell me) that major emission reductions over the next couple of decades are possible by widespread application of existing technology. E.g., studies show that Europe could be supplied to 100% with electricity from renewable sources using existing technology (mainly wind power) and at current electricity prices. To achieve this, we need to build the infrastructure (including the pan-European supergrid currently discussed by the European Commission), but we do not need to wait for some magic new technology being developed. Likewise, we all know that cars can run at half the fuel consumption compared to what the average car is using today, and houses can cut their energy needs by at least 70% by good insulation, all with existing technology. The problem with, say, low-energy refrigerators is not that they don’t exist or that they cost too much (computed over their life span including energy costs, they actually are cheaper than regular ones, at least at German electricity prices) – the problem is that they only have a few percent market share. That is a problem for politicians to tackle by proper incentive schemes, not one for the engineers. -stefan]

  13. 13
    Tim Jones says:

    Regarding the author’s comments:
    “There is “no firm evidence of a heat-triggered strengthening in storms in recent years” (our emphasis). Well, what the WMO statement to which this assertion is attributed actually said was (first bullet point): “Though there is evidence both for and against the existence of a detectable anthropogenic signal in the tropical cyclone climate record to date, no firm conclusion can be made on this point.” We agree with that statement – this particular subject is definitely in a state of flux.”

    Monsoons may be poor relatives of tropical weather events, but an increase in frequency and intensity is identified here.
    From AAAS Science Roundup:

    “More Indian Monsoons?

    “Extreme rainfall events like monsoons can have devastating consequences including landslides, flash floods, and crop destruction. Even more alarming, most climate models have predicted that extreme rainfall events will become more common as global surface temperature increases, though observational evidence of this trend has been scarce. In a Report in the 1 Dec 2006 Science, Goswami et al. ( ) analyzed a daily rainfall data set for central India and showed that there has been an increase in the frequency and intensity of heavy rain events (greater than or equal to 100 mm/day of rain), and a decrease in the frequency of light to moderate rain events (greater than or equal to 5 mm/day, but less than100 mm/day) during the monsoon seasons from 1951 to 2000. Interestingly, the seasonal mean monsoon rainfall in India has been relatively stable for the past half century. But the researchers point out that this is because the increasing contribution of heavy rain events is offset by the decreasing contribution of lighter rain events. The findings suggest that severe rain events over central India may become more common if global warming continues as expected.”

  14. 14

    I also blogged on this here. Comments welcome.

  15. 15
    Arthur Smith says:

    I saw the David Roberts piece before Revkin’s actual article – and found myself agreeing more with Revkin than Roberts. Yes Andy’s article seemed a bit obvious in a way, but it also seemed helpful in presenting a strong group that is convinced of the problem and seems realistic in its appraisal. The “middle” of the headline I figured was not Revkin’s own text anyway, and the rest seemed reasonable enough.

    The problem seems to be really that the science (and the upcoming IPCC fourth report) is alarming enough in the long term, but not quite so alarming in the nearer term. Can we just muddle along a couple more decades without worries? Well, not exactly, because the challenge of going CO2-free is perhaps the largest problem human civilization has ever faced – trillions of dollars of energy infrastructure have to be completely replaced. Does it help to start sooner, or to wait a bit for better technology and a clearer assessment of the risks? What does the actual scope of the risks justify, in terms of expenses now and in future? That’s what the Stern report was trying to address, and there are some US Climate Change Science program analyses going on right now trying to get better estimates. But there is still so much unknown about the best mitigation strategies.

    Revkin is right that we don’t yet fully have the technologies we’ll need to solve the problem. Perhaps the most important question is how do we ensure those technologies are available and affordable when we really need them, because those large-scale replacements are key, no matter what little Kyoto-sized steps we take now.

  16. 16
    Hank Roberts says:

    >a problem to be fixed …, not a risk to be cut.

    Doesn’t saying the public is fooled into thinking there’s already a problem ignore both the already committed warming and the solubility change already committed of calcite and aragonite in seawater?

    Are the marine chemists and biologists the new alarmists?

    Why isn’t this changing the urgency? It’s faster and it’s definite.

    “… Ocean pH has already fallen and will continue to do so with certainty as the oceans take up more anthropogenic CO2. Acidification … has the potential to affect a wide range of marine biogeochemical and ecological processes. Based on theory and an emerging body of research, many of these effects may be non-linear and some potentially complex….”

    “… The mean pH of seawater has probably changed by less than 0.1 units over the last several million years [6, Figure 8.2]. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution (circa 1800), the release of anthropogenic CO2 to the atmosphere and subsequent flux into the surface oceans has already led to a decrease in the pH of oceanic surface waters of 0.1 unit [10, 5]. The same calculations show that the current rate of increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration (15ppm/decade) will cause a decrease in pH of 0.015 units/decade [11].”

    “… the current surface ocean pH range is nearly distinct from that assumed for the inter-glacial period and the predicted pH for 2050 is nearly distinct from that of the pre-industrial period (Figure 8. 2). In some sense therefore the marine system is accelerating its entry into uncharted territory. … the current rates of environmental change are far more rapid than previously experienced. We do not know if marine organisms and ecosystems will be able to adapt at these timescales.”

    From: Defra-08.qxd 02/11/2005 21:26 Page 65

  17. 17

    I am amazed, truly amazed about a discussion on semantics when maximum temperature records are broken everywhere on the planet at what appears to be a breath taking pace. Some journalists, along with all contrarian skeptics stay inside too much, see great value in individual expert statements which denies what is going on beyond their window pane, are they not as impressed as I am when the outside thermometer reads +10 to +15 C above normal consistently? Isn’t human experience, what drives us to consider what to do about something, especially when it happens? The heresy belongs to contrarians in this case, who attack and deny their own sense of temperature.

  18. 18

    Re: #13 (Tim Jones)

    The word “storm” in the text you quoted from the original posting does not mean just events of heavy rainfall, but some kinds of organized structures in the atmosphere. In the present context it means a tropical cyclone (hurricanes etc.) about whose trends we are uncertain. In other contexts it may also mean a mid-latitude (extra-tropical) cyclone which was mentioned in the previous posting by Rasmus. It is likely that storms accompany heavy rain events, but heavy rain events can also occur with individual cumulonimbus clouds which are not called “storms” in the contexts like the present one.

    It is plausible that the frequency of heavy rain events will increase in warmer climate in many (though probably not all) regions of the world. (In this context, I do not think “frequency and intensity” two separate things. The frequency of rain events with intensity exceeding a certain threshold will increase.) My crude understanding why this is plausible is shown at . This logic does not care whether rainfall is organized into storms or not. Also, there are many empirical studies like Goswami et al. that the increase of frequency of heavy rain events has already discernible in various (though not yet “many”) regions.

    Thus I effectively agree with the quotation from “AAAS Science Roundup”, but I am obliged to point out that the usage of the term “monsoon” in the title and the first sentence of the quotation is inappropriate. “Monsoon” is neither an extreme event nor a storm. It may mean wind or rainfall, but anyway it is a seasonal feature that appears every year. Thus, “More Indian Monsoons” is odd. It may possibly be interpreted as “more rainfall in the Monsoon season over India”, but this interpretation does not match the message of Goswami et al. saying that the seasonal average rainfall amount does not exhibit a significant trend until now.

  19. 19
    Ike Solem says:

    RE#11, Roger, the science of global warming, not the politics, is what matters. Too many people have made the claim that people who are concerned about global warming have some ulterior political agenda, and that’s simply not the case. As far as a ‘third way’, the basic predictions and concerns over greenhouse gas emissions haven’t changed mych since, what, the 1980’s? There wasn’t much data accumulated back then, but military submarines traversing the Arctic were recording thinning sea ice all through the 90’s (data that was kept secret). Back then, people claimed that temperature measurements showing increases were due to the ‘urban heat island’; they claimed that the atmosphere would engage in some dynamic behavior that would transport heat to space; they claimed that the satellites showed no temperature increase – all claims that have been debunked.

    My question for all the self-styled skeptics is this: when do you think that the record-setting temperatures will stop setting records? Eight of the 10 warmest years since 1860 have occurred within the last decade. When do you expect this trend to end, if anthropogenic global warming isn’t a reality? Also, what’s your explanation for the vanishing high-altitude glaciers and snowfields?

    While it is certain that hurricanes are not of much use for tracking global warming, the link between sea surface temperatures, ocean heat content and anthropogenic greenhouse gases is well established. Katrina would never have amplified if it hadn’t encountered a warm tounge of water as it passed over the Gulf of Mexico, and all indications are that the oceans are warming. All the hand waving in the world doesn’t change such basic physical facts.

    What I’m really tired of seeing is self-styled skeptics funded by the fossil fuel lobby who delberately misrepresent the state of the science for no other reason then to protect the fossil fuel markets from government regulations. Note that this is going on at the same time that NASA has cut funding for satellites aimed at answering some of these questions – and I haven’t heard a single member of the small group of climate scientists who claim that AGW isn’t a serious problem ever call for restoring that funding.

    Quite frankly, I think it is you and your cohort who are engaging in politics, not science. For example, in your paper with Landsea et al on hurricanes, the final statement is this: “There are much, much better ways to deal with the threat of hurricanes than with energy policies (e.g., Pielke and Pielke 1997). There are also much, much better ways to justify climate mitigation policies than with hurricanes (e.g., Rayner 2004).” Well, that’s not the issue at all. The practical issue is whether hurricane seasons like the 2005 one should be viewed as a hundred-year oddity, or as the new norm. If 2005 is now a ‘normal year’, then nothing we do now will change that for decades – and coastal cities should plan accordingly. I mean, who is it that is playing politics here?

    The science has been clear for over a decade – which is why some of us decided to go into renewable energy research (that, and it’s a fascinating topic, especially if you look at attempts to mimic photosynthesis using nanotechnology, for example), only to find that the funding and support is essentially nonexistent for such research in this country. Andy Revkin posted this link: BUDGETS FALLING IN RACE TO FIGHT GLOBAL WARMING which is a story describing what’s happened to such research (and most people don’t view nuclear as renewable, due to limited supplies of uranium as well as high nuclear life-cycle carbon emissions, and clean coal is nothing but a public relations effort on the part of the fossil fuel industry).

  20. 20
    Bob Ward says:

    An interesting contribution to the debate by the excellent Andy Revkin, but I can’t help thinking that the apparent emergence of a third way is largely an artefact of the way in which the media report controversies, seeking ‘journalistic balance’ by giving coverage to ‘both sides’. The media does seem to find it a huge challenge to represent debates that involve more than two viewpoints. In some parts of the (right-wing) media in the UK, for instance, climate change has been covered simply as a campaign waged by environmental groups, with scientists characterised merely in terms of whether or not they are on the side of environmentalists.

    Unfortunately, the job of journalists has been made even more difficult on climate change by the actions of the various players in the debate, who have often not distinguished between scientific advice and advocacy of particular policy options, and have not always been upfront about biases in their views due to particular interests.

    Another key factor is that it is relatively easy, with practice, to convey one’s views to the media in a convincing way. Many lobby groups are skilled at getting their views covered, even when they have precious little evidence to support them. Research scientists, on the other hand, can appear completely unconvincing even when they have a great weight of evidence behind them.

    The result is that many journalists have struggled to accurately convey where the weight of scientific evidence lies on climate change (as shown, for instance, through published peer-reviewed papers). This has meant that some lobbyists who are driven by an ideology or commercial interests to oppose any kind of environmental regulation (such as greenhouse gas limits) have enjoyed an extraordinary tactical success in getting coverage for their views despite the fact that they are not really based on scientific evidence. They have also successfully commandeered the term ‘climate sceptic’ to try to convey some intellectual credibility to a position that is more accurately decribed as ‘denial’. As scepticism is a fundamental skill required by all scientists in testing theories, it doesn’t seem to be a particularly useful way of distinguishing between the viewpoints of researchers.

    One final point, to address an issue frequently raised by Roger Pielke Jr, is the desirability of scientists engaging in policy debate and advocating particular policy options. It is undoubtedly true that there is a danger of deliberate or unintentional bias in the way scientific evidence is interpreted and presented when researchers become wedded to particular policy options. However, I think there is also a huge danger in researchers being excluded from the policy debate. They should have no special voice in such a debate, but they can at least help to describe the evidence and to distinguish between facts and fictions about the physical world.

  21. 21
    Almuth Ernsting says:

    I am very concerned about the criticism levelled by Mike Hulme at climate change campaigners, particularly at Stop Climate Chaos, and the apparent endorsement of this by Revkin and RealClimate. (If it’s the name Hulme dislikes, I wonder what better short name he would propose).

    If Tony Blair’s statement “We have a window of only 10-15 years to take the steps we need to avoid crossing a catastrophic tipping point.” is alarmist or counterproductive (as Hulme implies), then where does that leave scientists like James Hansen?

    Going back to Stop Climate Chaos: They are the largest British NGO coalition for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Amongst climate change activists, they are probably as moderate as can be. They have so far been focussing on advising people how to cut emissions by turning appliances off standby, buying energy-efficient items, reducing transport emissions, etc. The message of their mass event in December was one saying to the government ‘we’re doing our bit to cut emissions – now do your bit’. Now, there are certain things about Stop Climate Chaos and their manifesto which I would criticise, but I would challenge anybody do show how what they say is alarmist (see

    In fact, much of what they say if probably far less alarming than some recent posts by David Archer and others here.

    If even this kind of public mobilisation is seen as hysterical then how can we possibly hope to stop the inexorable rise of emissions, with one coal fire plant after another being built (and without capturing any carbon)?

  22. 22

    Well you passed 9 out of the 10 tests to qualify as nonskeptical heretics. If you don’t like the name perhaps you should change it to nonskeptical deniers, or why not Polyanars. The whole basis of your views seems to be the Pollyannaish attitude that things are not that bad. You seem to be willing to wait until there have been ten Katrinas before you declare that hurricanes are a threat, until the Arctic Sea ice disappears before you call for action to save polar bears, and a Greenland ice sheet collapse before you claim that is a danger.

    By the time you are sure that an increase in hurricanes is caused by global warming do you really think that we will be able to prevent them getting even worse? Do you think that by the ime we are sure that the Arctic ice melt is accelerating we will then be able to stop it disappearing completely? Do you think that when we are sure the Greenland ice is melting rapidly, we will still have time to build flood defences around every port and coastal plain in the world?

    In December 2005, James Hansen delivered a tribute to Charles David Keeling entitled “Is There Still Time to Avoid â��Dangerous Anthropogenic Interferenceâ�� with Global Climate?

    He said then that we had a decade in which to stop the rise in greenhouse gases. That was over a year ago. Now we only have nine years in which to act. How long do you believe we have to act?

    One is tempted to ask when do you think we should panic? But then the answer is obvious “Real scientist never panic. It is not rational.” No doubt you will still be saying the same in nine years time when a force 6 hurricane Katrina III is smashing into New York :-(

  23. 23
    pete best says:

    This is a very relevant topic and in the light of available technologies and timelines available to humanity to combat the possible 3 degrees C of additional human induced warming it is indeed upto politicians to make the decisions in order to change climate history.

    Politicians are not talking about toning down economic growth at all because that is how the world seems to be working especially with India and China coming on board and the current world fever of free market economics.

    One other thing that concerns me from reading about all of this is the nature of climate science itself and its philisophical underpinnings. Most science works in the context of reductionism, the linear and the isloated. Hence climate science in this context maybe incomplete as it involves the interactions of a lot of parts and no single model covers it all and hence there is a lot of unknowables in the context of how the Earth is going to respond to atmospheric warming. One example seems to be the existing fact that the real world is warming (changing) faster than current climate models predict, whether this is true or not is not known to me but it seems to be what is being reported in the popular scientific press (ie, new scientist and scientific american) and hence you read, you believe.

    Is it not true as per the GAIA hypothesis of James Lovelock who seems to be a holistic/complexity scientist that the interactions between seemingly disparate part of the Earth systems are inherently far from equilibrium and non linear and hence very unpredictable once perturbed. Now when we look at the science of complexity and systemics we see that in general there is not current definition of complexity scientifically and hence climate scientists cannnot know it all about the Earth and how it will truely react to atmospheric warming.

    We hear it all the time, to monsoon or not to monsoon, how will the amazon react to warming, will all the siberian lakes melt and release methane en masse etc etc etc. Do we know and do we have all of the facts ?

    There will always be uncertainties in climate science because we have no science of the non linear like we do the linear.

    Having said all that I believe that RC have it right and chances are that atmohpheric warming will not release in apocolyptic oblivion for humanity, well not unless the earth suddenly becomes extremely non linear far from equilibrium and lovelock is proved right.

  24. 24
    pete best says:

    Re #21

    the stop climate chaos coalition are a political group and hence talk up climate change. Study the science as it stands and even James hansen does not speak to much of impending doom, just a fair bit of warming.

    Speak to James Lovelock however and you get a different answer, however Mr Lovelock is not of the consensus but more of a scientific heretic / loner who due to his systemic rationale is not part of the mainstream climate science viewpoint.

  25. 25
    sunlight says:

    This isnt a left or right wing topic.
    It effects every single beeing and when you follow the process you will find politics from both parties all over the globe who take action. With every anomaly event happening people minds change and the tipping point to actual do something emerges. But as the problem lags (There is enough potential in the pipeline waiting to increase Co2 ppm greatly already).
    Politics who do not tackle the catastrophe will be not elected.
    We faceing the biggest threat to mankind and we need to act yesterday!

    Oil companys should stop the game on playing on time for the chriest shareholder value.

    What should they do now?
    – Start their own Manhatten Project to tackle the problem.
    – Start to build an infrastructure for alternative energy flows.
    – Start to build sustainable energy generators(Wind farms, Solar panel gardens, bio fuels powerplants and on).
    – Stop growing in the classic energy market as the peak oil is reached or soon will be anyway.

    Stop providing limited energy resources and invest in renewable. This will rise profit greatly in mid and long terms.

    – Change product source.
    – The mitigating cost will be not much in compare what awaits us if we dont change our energy – our anthropogentic influence on the global climate. (See Sir N. Stern Review)
    – Im positive that tax breaks will happen when investing in renewable energy ressources.
    – Im positive the politic will help, follow and agree to the change.
    – Instead of using just image campaigns – to play on time they can actually do something.

    Everything else means riding a dead polutted horse, and dont forget the biggest empires in history ALL failed because of to conservative fews and not adobting to new circumstances.

    What will people do with their money if there is nothing they can spent it for?
    If oil companys do not change the energy source to renewable and emission less/zero, they will be suied one day (As happend to the tabbacco ind. and still happens).

    They can CHANGE and do something for the rescue of our planet – for our children – for the future of our species.

    Lets start today and take action – call your manager and tell him to hire real sintist and engeneers to work out plans to change the company 180 degree.

    Be the new Rockefeller, whatever you prefer, but act or you and all other will feel the angry beast.

  26. 26
    Karen Street says:

    It isn’t only Hansen who uses the term catastrophe. Holdren, president of AAAS, uses the term in the article and frequently in talks.

    I find it a useful concept — I asked someone in water here in California what would happen if we saw the kind of sea level increase that some are saying will be in the fourth IPCC report, and was told that it wouldn’t make sense to rebuild the levees in the Delta to accommodate, the levees that help get drinking water to more than 20 million Californians, and agriculture water to the majority of the state.

    Revkin’s explanation that many people believe that we can fix climate change would have been clearer in a different article. We can limit the damage, but not prevent all damage; Holdren says that both the coral reefs and polar bear could be at risk with a 1.5 C increase, and some say we have already seen dangerous change.

    To agree with another point Revkin makes, I hear policy people say that we do have technology that will make a difference today, but we must invest heavily in technology R&D to reduce GHG emissions 60 – 80%, even as population increases 50%. Rather than finding Gore too shrill, Gore may be too optimistic, as An Inconvenient Truth puts forth a goal of reaching 1970s levels of GHG emissions by 2050. There is much talk that this would be inadequate, and both Harte and Fung from Berkeley, for example, talk about positive feedbacks exacerbating the situation. Just one example, from Harte’s experiment in Colorado, as the Earth warms, lighter color plants are replaced by darker plants.

    Stefan mentions that we can achieve a lot at German energy prices — lots. Of course, getting Americans and Chinese and Indians to pay German energy prices, something like 18 cent/kWh, and gasoline ($?/gallon). Even so, Germany is building more coal plants, so it takes more than reasonable prices, it takes sensible politicians to stop subsidizing fossil fuels, and to mandate sensible solutions.

  27. 27
    Alan says:

    There has been a huge political turnaround here in Australia during 2006, even politicians are starting to talk some sense. It is not the media so much that has conviced people but rather the reality of recent events. As for other extremes of weather in the last few months, we have had snow on bushfires, record heatwaves, unseasonal frost killing late spring fruit crops, half a meter of “tennis ball” sized hails stones was dumped on a town near the “sunshine coast”, ect. If your quick you can watch a bit for yourself, the sattelite loops for the last few days (1-4 Jan 2007) show a large mass of Antartic air colliding with the equally large tropical cyclone Isobel over W. Australia. The BOM are also predicting a 60-70% chance the drought will ease over the next quarter but it depends how the fickle El-Nino is feeling.

    Our national science body, CSIRO, has said for years we have the technology to be 100% renewable at a “reasonable” cost but now the immediate problem of moving our “average rainfall” back from the N & W of the country to where the farms and citys are in the S & E is portrayed as an engineering task. To be honest engineering is the only option we have with the current lack of water (we are already on permenent and increasingly harsher “rations”). However, since all that bare topsoil and most of the catchments are in the “wrong place”, renewables will be pushed down the budget list again because the squeaky wheel will get oiled first. How many squeaky wheels can we manage at once before our modern civilization collapses in a rusty heap?

    And if we do somehow halt AGW and adapt to changed conditions, is it possible that weather patterns will continue to shift and basically bounce around like a ping pong ball for centuries to come? Maybe I sound “Alarmists” to many people but AGW’s effacts on Agriculture and the oceans food chain are just a small part of the total screw up that is sometimes called the first Industrial Revolution. We are also starting to feel the impact of the “sixth great extinction” and “peak oil”. A dramatic “population correction” is imminent in a historical sense, and to borrow a term from economists, we should plan for a “soft landing” but I fear my great-grandkids are doomed to fight Eienstien’s postulated 4th world war. Hopefully we can come up with a second “enlightened” Industrial Revolution that overcomes the tradegdy of the commons.

    I don’t live in Britain but I would also like to say that no matter what you think of Tony Blair, he has done more than any other current “world leader” to promote a scientifically based global effort to tackle these problems in a manner that benifits everyone. I also belive he had a hand in getting Bush, Murdoch and Howard to all admit AGW is a “serious” problem in 2006. I also belive the attempt by the US to sticth up the nuclear fuel cycle is more about future economics than current security. ( I also belive I’m ranting and posting under the influence, but isn’t that what blogs are for? :) )

  28. 28
    Almuth Ernsting says:

    Re 24:
    1) “The stop climate chaos coalition are a political group and hence talk up climate change.” Where do they do that? You haven’t quoted a simple example. Are you just presuming that because they are ‘political’ (whatever that means) they must somehow be talking up climate change? Their website suggests otherwise.

    “Even James hansen does not speak to much of impending doom, just a fair bit of warming.” James Hansen has repeatedly warned that, with business as usual, half or most forms of life on this planet are likely to become extinct and that sea levels could rise far faster than at present. He uses the term ‘dangerous climate change’ rather than ‘catastrophic, presumably because it has a legal meaning within the UN Climate Change Convention. But most people would surely regard the chance of losing over half of all species and flooding coastal communities around the world as being ‘catastrophic’.

  29. 29
    Mark A. York says:

    “and I can speak from experience here since I frequent certain circles among the so called “right wingers,” I think you will find that there is not the extent of out and out so called “denialism” that many who frequent this site believe there is.”

    So do I and I assure you they practice out-and-out denialism. The false debate funded by ExxonMobil.

    Until this goes away for good and we can move on to the solutions the country and the world will remain in a fog.

  30. 30
    Alex Higgins says:

    I’d like to echo the concern registered here about Mick Hulme’s proposed division between mainstream climate scientists and activists trying to effect government and business policy.

    Hulme refers to activists as “climate alarmists”. What does the term alarmist even mean except as an insult implying a permanent psychological state of hysteria? Acitivists are not “alarmist” in the sesne that it is a matter of philiosophical disposition, they are alarmed by the facts as they are presented to us by climate scientists.

    Hulme criticises Stop Climate Change not for any stated difference over the science but for “militancy” (meaning what? They hold big demonstrations and request government action?). He criticises the Independent – the only British newspaper to feature climate science prominently on its front pages for “megaphone journalism”. Is that a call for them to stick the melting of the Arctic back on to page 34?

    He even criticises the very occasional piece of rhetoric on the subject from Tony Blair, a Prime Minister who has presided over rising carbon emissions and turned his back on the Kyoto Protocol.

    He also hints that his own colleagues, climate scientists, are using dramatic rhetoric for financial reasons: “the discourse of catastrophe allows some space for the retrenchment of science budgets”. Will he giving back his centre’s own funding to the Treasury then?

    He asks rhetorical questions without trying to answer them and as though no one else has:

    “Is any amount of climate change catastrophic? Catastrophic for whom, for where, and by when? What index is being used to measure the catastrophe?”

    My suggestion is that people in Tuvalu, Kiribati and Bangladesh could help provide an operating definition of catastrophe.

    And what is this meant to mean?

    “The language of catastrophe is not the language of science.”

    Really? Do events that everyone recognises as catastrophic – earthqaukes, volcanic eruptions, flu epidemics, AIDS, flooding etc. exist somewhere outside the realm of science? As metaphysical constructs? Spiritual beings? Metaphor?

    Is the statement that global warming could, for instance, cause the rainforests to become drier, more susceptible to unusually large forest fires and liable to die off, non-scientific? Were the fires in the forests and swamps of Borneo in 1998, for instance, that released a staggering amount of CO2 into the atmosphere, not catastrophic?

    Perhaps my favourite is his comparison of anxiety over climate change to unfounded claims about Iraqi weapons programmes:

    “The careless (or conspiratorial?) translation of concern about Saddam Hussein’s putative military threat into the case for WMD has had major geopolitical repercussions.”

    I’m sure he is able to spot that fact that those who were least impressed by the case for invading Iraq and those who are most alarmed about global warming are, for the most part, the same people.

    Hulme offers no scientific reason for not being alarmed by what he describes as: “The IPCC scenarios of future climate change – warming somewhere between 1.4 and 5.8 Celsius by 2100”. If there is a scientific basis for not being overly alarmed by this, please let’s hear it, as I would welcome the reassurance.

    On the whole, this strikes me as an ill-directed and weakly substantiated attack on the very people who have defended climate science against its critics for many years. I’m embarassed myself by how little I have done to help those activists – time to get started.

    I also find myself bemused by the pre-occupation on this thread with terms like “radical”, “moderate”, “extremist”, “middle of the way” etc. On a scientific website, I’d have hoped that people would appreciate the supreme indifference of the natural world to societal norms of moderation, pragmatism, radicalism or whatever.

    By all means let us talk about what is feasible, or about uncertainties and cautions, but let’s avoid discussing the polticial response to climate change as though the atmosphere gave a damn about what any of us think is a middle-of-the-road approach.

    The thing about the Earth’s climate systems is that they can be very shrill indeed. Strident and militant even.

  31. 31
    Wayne Byerly says:

    This may not be exactly on the same subject as what is above on today’s article, but I have some questions to ask.
    I’m just a former farmer, now retired, never attended high school a day in my life, so may be a bit behind the curve.
    With all the talk of Global Warming in the news, does anyone know just how much warming has occured, in particular, how much during the last 65 or 70 years? Seems to me, from a logical point of view, that unless we know how much warming has occured during some reasonable amount of time, then it will be difficult to predict just how much/how fast the warming is going to be in the future. I’m retired for a number of years now, so it isn’t likely to affect me, but naturally I have some concern for my children and grandchildren, etc.
    Does someone, anyone, know and can it be proven, just how much our climate has warmed. Real facts, not somebody’s assumption?
    If someone can answer these questions, I would like an answer at my e-mail address of: If the answer is just listed along with the long list of responders above, then I am now likely to find it. Thanks. Wayne Byerly

  32. 32
    Andrew Sipocz says:

    The same sort of debate has been ongoing regarding whether or not Louisiana is going to sink into the sea sometime soon. A host of researchers published some interesting new data that highlighted the implications of Louisiana’s coastal plain subsidence, the media picked the story up, a particular researcher got involved in some silly grandstanding to argue a point, two (mostly non-existent in the real world) sharply differing views were presented by the media, the scientists patched things up via further research and clarification to the media, the media has now declared the existence of a middle ground. Meanwhile, some really important new findings were lost in the shuffle and now no one is listening. The reporters got bored of it all. Science needs to find a better way of interacting with the purveyors of information. I think the professional societies need to play a bigger role here.

  33. 33
    pete best says:

    Re #28, Here in the UK, talksport radio had a phone in on climate change hosted by George Galloway (of all people) and he had an expert from the stop climate change coalition on the show as his expert. When I queried the term dramatic/abrupt/sudden climate change and quoted realclimate and GISS he then replied by telling everyone that the bush administration had censored their work. To me this one political point scoring and although true in part was not the whole story as realclimate has not been censored as far as I can tell. In fact some scientists may have been censored by the bush administration but that still does not the climate consensus is being.

    just another political untruth.

  34. 34
    Eli Rabett says:

    If I may summarize: There is both a policy and a science issue here. They both have middles, their middles are miles apart, but, media being media, a middle is a muddle. This serves many policy and economic interests well.

    My point has always been to discuss how distorted representations of the science are being used to achieve the muddle (doing nothing serves many well) and make clear to those who are doing the science that THEY have to defend their science in the public sphere.

  35. 35
    Bryan Sralla says:

    Interesting discussion. Congratulations RC, and welcome to the ranks of the Non-Skeptical Heretics. It would be nice if Hansen might join our side however. His appearance on recent over-dramatic television programs like the History Channel’s “End of Days” Apocolypse programs does not help our cause however. By appearing in popular media situations like this, he allows himself to be cast as a “fruitcake” or “prophet of doom” and risks having all credible scientists lumped in with this type cast. Such mis-perception may be a contributing cause why hundreds of thousands of people in New Orleans choose not to evacuate from an oncoming CAT 5 hurricane (they think: We’ve heard it all before and these weather people are always crying wolf). The Non-Skeptical Heretic realizes that most of the end-member trajectories (shut down of THC, Greenland collapse, 20 foot SL rise) are not likely (most probable) to occur, and when they fail to materialize, the real risk is that the public discredits the scientific method in general (even though they never understood what it was to begin with). This would be bad news for all who advocate better environmental and energy policies, and the scientific method overall.

    [Response: You have it completely backwards. There is nothing heretical in anything you attribute to the NSH-ers and we’ve made those same points over and again. -gavin]

  36. 36
    SecularAnimist says:

    Steve Sadlov wrote in #9: “Ultimately I would expect there to emerge a less GHG-full mode of existence…”

    Regarding a “less GHG-full mode of existence”, I would like to reiterate the question that was embedded in my original comment:

    Realistically, would anyone care to make a prediction about what will be the first year in which global CO2 emissions are lower than the year before?

    At present global GHG emissions are increasing every year, and not only that, but are increasing more each year than they did the year before. As I understand it, the “new old middle ground consensus heresy position” or whatever one wishes to call it, as expressed by James Hansen, Al Gore, Tony Blair and others, is that we have somewhere around 10-15 years in which to reverse this trend and begin making substantial reductions in global GHG emissions (and of course some think we have much less time than that, and some think it is already too late due to feedbacks already in progress), if we are going to avert a genuine planetary catastrophe.

    So, when do you realistically think that the reductions will begin? Does anyone think that within the next 10 years, we will reach the year in which the trend is reversed and global GHG emissions begin declining each year?

  37. 37


    Thanks. A few short replies.

    1. You write “I think however that Andy’s text belies your words.” It was Andy’s story and I was quoted in it. Andy shared his views on the story and I shared mine on what was behind my thinking in the phrase he chose to quote, which happens to be the focus of your post. I do not see “consensus as the new heresy” as you suggest here. Suggesting that the FCCC is deeply flawed and unworkable is in many circles heretical (just ask SR;-).

    2. You write, “You have frequently railed against the misrepresentation of science in political debates . . .” No. I have railed against bad policy arguments in political debates. As we have discussed before I do not believe that it is possible to cleave off the science from political debates and focus only on science in ignorance of the political context. Once you enter a political debate, if only to correct “misrepresentations,” you are making arguments about policy, whether you admit to or not. My focus on hurricane policy is exactly along these lines.

    [Response: You have often complained about hurricane related statements that were completely divorced from policy arguments so I don’t see any consistency here. I fundamentally disagree with your statement that any correction of misrepresentations is an argument about policy. Which policy I am supporting (or advocating against) when I correct the Guardian reporting on the RAPID climate change conference AND Pat Michaels distortions of Hansen’s modelling? If your answer is that this is some subtle policy that isn’t anything to do with emisison policies then you should be clear, because everyone else reads your words and thinks you are talking about climate policy – nothing else. And just like us, you too are responsible for how your words are read and understood. -gavin]

    3. You write, “But we are not shy in calling out rubbish when it comes along – and I can assure you that is not evenly balanced on ‘both sides’.” Your invocation here of “both sides” makes my point, and indeed that in Revkin’s article.

    [Response: You should check you irony meter in for servicing.]

    4. You write, “We have said many many times that our expertise is on science, not policy – we are not qualified to assess the economic effectiveness of cap and trade versus carbon taxes versus subsidies or the Clean Development mechanism.” Well that is your choice isn’t it? There are no shortage of relevant experts who you might invite to share thoughts on these perspectives. In any case, you guys are always talking about policy anyway, and not just in stealth fashion — Stefan has a long response to Revkin on policy on this thread stating, “Yet, I am convinced (by what energy engineers etc. tell me) that major emission reductions over the next couple of decades are possible by widespread application of existing technology.” Is this assertion true? Maybe you could host Marty Hoffert (and a counter voice) for his views on this subject, rather than opining in the comments on subjects for which you are admittedly inexpert. You guys are are trying to have things both ways.

    [Response:Stefan is expressing his personal opinion which he is entitled to do -it is clearly labelled as such and he doesn’t use his climate science credientials to elevate that opinion to a ‘scientific’ consensus. That’s pretty much ideal behaviour in my book. You talk about what you know about, we talk about what we know about. ]

    5. You write, “Furthermore, expecting a comment put in at 10:30pm EST to a moderated forum to immediately appear is probably a little hopeful.” Who said anything about immediately? You guys lost my trust at some point in the past when deciding not to post some of my comments made here. I am more concerned about “at all” than “immediately.” ;-)

    Thanks for the exchange!

  38. 38
    John L. McCormick says:

    RPJr, you are not one to complain about [You guys lost my trust at some point in the past when deciding not to post some of my comments made here.].

    Your COMMENT sensorship policy is very restrictive IMHO and my reasonable comments are always blocked even after I submit them to your web master. Am I on your un-washed list? Or, do I have to join your fan club?

  39. 39
    mzed says:

    #17, wayne: the reason why you can’t get worked up about the temperature outside on a given day is because it’s just a local fluctuation, which would happen from time to time even if there were no acw. Besides, I assume you’re writing from a North American location, and right now the N. American climate is being affected by a surging el Nino. That’s why it’s important to focus on the science.

    #30: no one is suggesting that reasonable language will have an effect on the science. What people are suggesting is that reasonable language will have a favorable effect on the _politics_. It might seem like shrill language is what’s called for, but what’s being suggested is that this is counterproductive in the light of what the future will realistically bring. Probably there will be no immediate flooding of Florida. Probably civilization will continue to struggle along. Etc. Telling people that the world is coming to an end is less likely to gain their support than simply explaining what the _probable_ effects are, and then explain the different _alternatives_ for responding to those effects. What people don’t want to hear is “The world is coming to an end and Al Gore and the UN scientists must take over and tell everyone what to do about it.” Because believe me, that’s what they’re hearing.

    Catastrophic events are scientific events, sure. But the language of catastrophe–that is, words like “catastrophe”–do not. That’s the point. We can’t control scientific events, but we can control our reaction to them. It is not yet clear whether a global warming of 3C (not to mention a warming of 1.5C) would indeed be a catastrophe or not, rather than simply a very expensive mistake.

    What might put RC more firmly on the “moderate” team is if they spent more time taking the more dubious and extreme claims of global warming theory to task. There is often an attitude of “circle the wagons” here, and I think that’s what contributes (on both sides, I might add) to the sense of polarization.

  40. 40
    Dan says:

    re: 32. Numerous international Academy of Sciences and professional societies agree that recent warming is outside the likely bounds of natural variation and that climate change is likely due to CO2 from fossil-fuel burning. See

  41. 41
  42. 42
    sunlight says:

    Some phylosophic aspects about our situation.

    The bottom line what we witnessing now is in fact a fundamental barrier for evolving species inside a planets cosmos.

    I refer it as a big IQ test for an evolved species.
    Now what happens is, that the planet, i refer to it as gaia is trying to get rid of us. Similar to why we try to kill cancer cells which do not work in harmony with our organism, we need a balance a harmony with gaia. With our cosmos the enviroment, each single eco system – starting in the macro cosmos – all working together like foot chains.

    Specie growth – evolutionary, exponential growth by consumption of limited resources which emissions manipulate the natural cycles of a global climate are limited till the ressources run out or the triggered factors of runaway events stop it.

    We can see this for example when observing bacterias or viruses, this is why so often humans are refered as a virus to the planet we resident on at the moment.

    Also why is it that the most discussed topic on the planet is the weather?

    Because it is our origin our mothership and every one has his few about her, rightnow gaia is like the garden of eden.

    And why so many science fiction literature and releated visual media has the extinction of the species as topic?

    Because deep inside we know it we sense if weather patterns are not “normal”, when things are strange and anomalys occur. Even the religions are based on it.
    The bible says if we do bad armargeddon will come, the koran says the prophet will come and some doomsday withit.

    We are a part of our planet but our civilization has made his own rules by endless growth and the media is absolutly virtual, which generates an artifical simualtion of life. Which is not always comparable to the real world and the real problems.
    This is used widley as an instrument but as every force has its power we need to use it wisley.

    To downplay future dangerous problems will help nobody. People are afraid of facing the truth, they will be sceptic or optimistic till each one face problems on their own.

    I think the meaning of life is to life in harmony and guard the earth and rightnow we are in the process to become aware of it on a bright scale. Because we dominate the planet that gives us this burdan.

    How rare is life in space?
    How many life forms triggered a climate catastrophe before they reqognized it and it was to late?

    I belive we still can fix it, but we can only make this happen if we act as 1 human species not devided into warmongering forces who will fight over the last ressources.
    Come on guys we are not that stupid, are we?
    And as Stephen Hawking warned, we need to spread out into space, for the surveival of our species, because AGW isnt the only risc we face in short-mid and long terms.


  43. 43

    Thanks Gavin- Indeed, my irony meter is pegged, perhaps off scale, that is for sure;-) Two quick responses:

    1. Your defense of Stefan opining on climate policy is hard to square with RealClimate’s own stated goal: “we will not get involved in political or economic issues that arise when discussing climate change.” Right.

    2. You want people to accept the consensus perspective in your own discipline but your feel that it is OK to ignore (or worse completely dismiss) the consensus findings of other disciplines. Harvard’s Sheila Jasanoff represents such a consensus:

    “The notion that scientific advisors can or do limit themselves to addressing purely scientific issues, in particular, seems fundamentally misconceived … the advisory process seems increasingly important as a locus for negotiating scientific differences that have political weight.”

    We’ve covered this ground before, so no need to rehash here:

    To suggest that RC as a whole, and its individual contributors, have no slant, agenda, perspectives, values, opinions on policy, political leanings is just plain old silly. We all do, lets not pretend otherwise!


    [Response: It’s a big jump from saying that we have opinions to claiming that we only comment on science to advocate for a policy and the conflation of the two issues doesn’t clarify our disagreement, rather it obscures it. We all do have opinions (though they aren’t uniform), but we do agree on scientific issues which have nothing to do with our individual policy perspectives. There are plenty of places where people debate policy options, there are very few that discuss science – we choose to do the latter because we can. We are not ‘science advisors’ in Jasanoff’s sense, we are simply scientists. -gavin]

  44. 44

    John L. McCormick (#38)- If you register with TypeKey on our site your comments go though automatically. Send me an email if you have trouble posting and we’ll get them up ASAP. Thanks!

  45. 45
    Ike Solem says:

    RE#37, you say that
    “Stefan has a long response to Revkin on policy on this thread stating,”Yet, I am convinced (by what energy engineers etc. tell me) that major emission reductions over the next couple of decades are possible by widespread application of existing technology.” Is this assertion true?”

    Yes, it is absolutely true, but why are you asking a climate scientist to comment on energy policy? Does your school have a renewable energy department? I checked your school’s website under electrical engineering and found this list of industry sponsors:

    Not a single renewable energy company in the group, though there are quite a few military defense contractors listed. I looked through the chemical engineering department as well – nothing on renewable energy whatsoever. This is the case for most schools in the US – and one of the reasons for this situation is that any school that did set up a renewable energy engineering department would find that no funding was available. Compare this to the number of petroleum engineering departments in the US.

    Why aren’t there more solar cell manufacturing facilities in the US? The initial outlay is about $100 million for such a facility; Honda just built one in Japan. The New York Times just ran a story on solar; see Plugging Into the Sun Why isn’t there a research program focused on bringing down the cost of high-efficiency solar cells (the kind used on satellites) in the US?

    Solar is only one option – wind turbines, especially the very large variety, can produce power in regions such as the Midwest or the Atlantic coast. There are a host of other small scale technologies, but solar and wind are the most promising. Biofuel production is also an area where research programs can increase efficiencies and bring down costs. For example, see the testimony of Dr. Mark Zappi, one of the leading biofuel researchers, in this senate hearing a few years back: . By the way, he also says that he could never have accomplished anything without the support of the state legislature and the governor of Mississippi (a state entirely dependent of agriculture) – the federal funding for this kind of thing is zip, as I know from personal experience.

    Here’s his final statement:

    “In closing, I deeply appreciate the opportunity to present this testimony. I am encouraged by the leadership that the members of this committee have exhibited over the past years. This is a period in world history where government leadership and technologists must work in unison to solve a pressing societal crisis literally on our horizon via the development of a fully renewable industrial economy. A reasonable investment in technology development will provide significant payback to this country in terms of an industrial infrastructure based on self-sustainable feedstocks with greatly reduced environmental threats. The strategic and economic implications of this level of independence from foreign feedstocks cannot be overstated in my opinion. The potential of bio-based fuels and products is exciting and represents an opportunity for man and the biosphere itself to finally ‘partner’ with the provision of industrial chemicals for mankind without dramatic adverse environmental impacts.”

    Notice that this would have the fairly disruptive effect of cutting into fossil fuel markets, however… which may explain this other story that the New York Times ran today: Exxon Accused of Trying to Mislead Public

    If you are going to raise the issue of politics in climate science, how about the issue of opportunistic ‘scientists’ such as Pat Michaels who manage to make a living by saying whatever it is they think the fossil fuel industry would like to hear? By the way, when do you think the ongoing trend of new record temperatures is going to end?

  46. 46
    Craig Gaydos says:

    I am reminded, in this discussion, of the progression of the Y2K movement a few decades ago. In the 1980s software experts were aware of the problem but couldn’t get senior management to get serious about it. It wasn’t until 1997 or so that large scale actions started being taken, and even then they usually were insufficient to deal with the issue.

    By 1999, however, the problem got the attention of the mainstream media and it took on a life of its own. Suddenly CEOs were willing to fork over huge sums to address perceived problems, possibly because they realized they could be personally liable given all the media attention. The result was that by December 31, 1999, the risk of severe problem was almost infinitesmal, and the few issues that did come up could have been addressed in real time by normal support/maintenance staffs. Yet, by that point the problem had received so much media attention that corporations were wasting millions on useless items such as overpriced backup power generators “just in case”.

    The moral of the story? Well, unfortunately, maybe the potential crisis has to be exaggerated in order to get attention of humans — and that humans will invariably overreact. But, the good news is the crisis gets addressed.

    By the way, Y2K was an example used by Michael Crichton of a failed prediction of disaster. What Crichton and others missed was that were it not for all the overblown media coverage of Y2K it *would* have been a disaster.

  47. 47
    Bryan Sralla says:

    Gavin: you wrote: “Stefan is expressing his personal opinion which he is entitled to do -it is clearly labelled as such and he doesn’t use his climate science credientials to elevate that opinion to a ‘scientific’ consensus.”
    When the comments are from the moderator and are marked in green, they by default are clearly labeled, and indeed carry the RC stamp of approval (intended or not). RP2 is correct that the line between science and policy is often blurred here. You’re suggestion that RC is only about the science is thinnly-vailed hyperbole, and easily pierced by evidence to the contrary. It would be better to take RP2’s suggestion, and just come out and admit that there are policy and economic preferences favored by RC.
    P.S. I happen to largely agree with Stefan’s comments about technology and energy conservation

  48. 48

    comment to Stefan’s answer to #12:
    “studies show that Europe could be supplied to 100% with electricity from renewable sources using existing technology (mainly wind power)…”
    I remain very skeptic on this. The German blind eye on nuclear energy is saddening: wind energy might be better manageable when a supergrid exists, but there is none for the moment, and the last large European black-out seemed (at least partially) caused by heavy, unmanageable German wind-power fluctuation. I would like to point to an article by 3 French Nobelists (Charpak, De Gennes and Lehn) in the Figaro, 26thDec. 2007, where they write it will be important to “limiter les combustibles fossiles (et non sortir des combustibles fossiles)” [transl: limit useage of fossil fuels, but bot step out of fossil fuels] and “engager une politique…d’economie d’energie, de developpement de l’energie nucleaire et des energies renouvelables” [transl: make a political decision to save energy, develop nuclear energy and renewable energies]. The French are surely those with the best experience in long-term nuclear energy useage: why do German scientists still stick to the (childish?) “Atomenergie, Nein Danke!” and make future carbon-poor energy politics hellishly difficult?

    [Response: I asked a leading German electricity grid specialist on this: the power outage you refer to had nothing to do with wind power. What is interesting, though, is how immediately this rumour was spread when the outage happened. -stefan]

  49. 49
    Mark A. York says:

    If the so-called slant is toward the best scientific conclusion, and it indeed is governed only by that criterion, I fail to see how this is just another slanted opinion. All opinions are not equal in value and substance. I don’t see a specific policy advocated here at RC only an evaluation of the science and what is true or false.

  50. 50
    Thom says:

    Having read Pielke’s blog for some time, it seems that he is often guilty of rather childish attacks on leading scientist to gather attention to himself and pique the interests of the media. Makes one think of a clever grad student who can’t do create anything important, yet struts around with a false confidence borne from poking holes in the ideas of others.

    At the same time, he quite obviously ignores the obvious distortions of climate change denialists and other contrarians, which gains him subtle approval from Fox News and an apparent invitation to write for Cato’s Regulation Magazine.

    If this makes Pielke a “third way” guy, then we need to think about a fourth. There’s just not much in the way of substance other than a biased attempt to define oneself as a “centrist” and continuous self-promotion to journalists who should know better.