31 August 2011

Comment of the Day: The Wrong Side of History, Science and Policy

This delightful and revealing comment, apparently offered as a defense of Governor Pete Shumlin's remarks that I discussed yesterday, provides a nice capsule summary of my experiences in the climate debate.
Verbose and prolific (and cleverly snarky), most of the views expressed by this blog author are on the wrong side of history, climate science, and climate policy. I understood from multiple posts not so long ago that Dr. Pielke was going to transition to discourse on the subject of technology policy on this blog rather than climate policy. Like a moth to a flame, the content authored here remains mostly climate-based, a testament to the seduction of the defense of past positions. While the influence of environmental factors does not alone explain the causality of any individual event, most scientists agree that smoking causes cancer. You just can't pin it down to the individual cigarette. Similarly, this blog's on-going attempt to disprove linkages between GHG accumulation in the atmosphere and weather events misses the forest for the trees. The industries that require free dumping grounds in the earth's atmosphere for their profit margins must be grateful for Dr. Pielke's support, much as the tobacco companies tobacco companies loved their captured academic champions in the 1980's.
Nowadays, climate is not as much a scientific or policy issue, as it is a cultural phenomenon (read your Mike Hulme). For years I have advised my students that there is little point in doing a policy analysis of the abortion issue, as the topic was entirely political.  Perhaps one day I'll be saying the same about climate.


  1. It appears that the Gov. is using the old set of talking points. To be up-to-date, he needed to have accused you of being racist.

  2. The tobacco analogy is becoming very boring. Perhaps, it is time for power companies to offer "green service", which would only turn on electricity, when the wind is blowing in selected locations. I would also love to see some sort of simulation of the envisioned offshore wind turbines along the East coast in a scenario when real hurricane (unlike Irene) sweeps through the Atlantic shores and knocks them out as a prelude to hitting land.

  3. Sam is smuggling the conclusion. There is a scientific consensus for smoking causing cancer, and for AGW. There is no consensus for GHGs causing an increase in extreme weather events.

    It really isn't analogous to abortion though. The abortion issue is intrinsically religious -- when does a human life begin? It will never be resolved scientifically, because it's not a scientific question. The question of how GHGs affect extreme weather will be solved, eventually. It just isn't solved yet, and the handwaving arguments for it aren't particularly persuasive.

  4. -3-Gerard Harbison

    Thanks, though I am becoming doubtful that the GHG issue can be resolved empirically either ... see:

    Which leads me to:


  5. "The industries that require free dumping grounds in the earth's atmosphere for their profit margins"

    Hmmmm. So I guess when I breathe I am also using the earth's atmosphere as a free 'dumping ground'? Putting out all that nasty stuff that makes trees and plants grow?

  6. RPJ - fyi you were dragged into a Keith Kloor blog on Justin Gillis's "harbinger" nonsense if you weren't already aware.

  7. I am pleased that my post was 'delightful and revealing' and flattered that it was featured. I do not recall saying the end was near (nice photo), but the blog author has the megaphone and the prerogative.

    Values inform politics. Science validates physical causality. The science of atmospheric dynamics is complex, but the consensus is in on GHG causing warming over time, as well as ocean acidification. GHG effects on severe weather events are not as settled, but there are causal pathways described by credible scientists raising alarms that those effects could be substantial as well. It is similar to the development of the theory of evolution - debated by scientists for a period, then settled and only 'debated' by know-nothings. The details of that theory are still being filled in, but it is not scientifically controversial.

    The 2002 publication that Dr. Pielke used to berate Shumlin with has the following passage in it: "Today, in the face of natural climate shifts and enhanced greenhouse gas effects, understanding the role played by climate variability becomes critical." It is nearly 10 years later now, and a lot more is understood about GHGs and climate. When policymakers, such as the governor of Vermont, take note of changing weather patterns in their location, they are noting facts. According to the Northeast Climate Impacts Assessment of 2006: "Since 1970, the Northeast has been heating up at a rate of 0.5°F per decade. Winter temperatures have been rising even faster— 1.3°F per decade between 1970 and 2000." The report notes other changes in weather over the last 40 years, including snowpack duration.

    Whether one likes the tobacco analogy or not, it is fairly apropos here - Dr. Pielke stands on his head to point out 'exaggerations' made by the media and policymakers that are merely paraphrases of what some credible climate scientists are describing. Similar behavior was on display during the tobacco/cancer debates, and some science policy brokers (no matter how well-meaning) were slowing policy actions by giving the tobacco companies 'credible' reasons for doubt. From reading The Climate Fix, I understand that Dr. Pielke believes that GHGs are a problem. I also understand his desire for small-ball fixes - the only possible ones in his view. While I agree with the small-carbon-tax-for-research approach, I also think much more can be done more quickly with current technology and the right policy tools. Dr. Pielke's constant carping at every perceived 'exaggeration' like Shumlin's is distracting and ultimately harmful.

  8. Sam,
    Your smug reliance on consensus for your view on global warming and OA is reminscent in no small way of the smugness of the early 20th century eugenics supporter.
    Time and time again as the weather events fail to show any trend in extreme frequency or strength, believers in AGW fall back on their 'consensus' as a sort of rosary.
    Your post simply demonstrates this rather well.
    Nothing the AGW social movement has accomplished has either impacted CO2 ppm in the atmosphere or weather/cliamte in any way.
    And, just like eugenics of the last century, the only on going good asociated with it will be by groups that studiously disavow their AGW roots.
    Your essay of course skips over that in its arm waving call for doing 'much more with current technology'.

  9. Sam -- you say yourself that "GHG effects on severe weather events are not as settled", so why do you berate Roger for pointing this out?

    See Gerard Harbison at #3 above.

  10. Only somebody interested in misrepresenting temperature trends in the NE would chose 1970 as a starting point. The report you cite is seriously flawed on that count alone. Why not chose 1920 or 1930? There certainly is sufficient data to warrant the earlier dates.
    Badly done, Sam.

  11. It is amazing how Shumlin's obvious error in claiming tropical remenants never used to hit Vermont (when they have now done so fourteen times during Shumlin's life alone) disappears for Sam's worldview. This is what comes of allowing children to see Peter Pan. Some people believe, just like with Tinkerbell, all you need to do is believe in something to make it so. You want to believe tropical remants never have hit Vermont before? Well, just wish with all your heart (and don't look closely at any facts on the matter) and VOILA! There it is!!

    Oh, happy day.

  12. -7-Sam

    Thanks for the comments, a few replies ...

    1.The picture is a direct reference to your comments, I am sure you can figure it out ;-)

    2. I'll play along, please walk me through how it is that my discussions of the science of extreme event attribution (and presumably my peer reviewed work in this area) is "harmful"?


  13. -12- Roger,

    I'm obviously not Sam, but I suspect that you're displaying postjudice.

  14. Roger are you familiar with the concept of 'useful idiot'?

    I would suggest that there is a widespread perception by many climate blog readers (e.g. Sam) that your asymmetric criticisms of mitigation advocates, scientists, institutions, and politicians do more harm than good. I'll leave it to others to decide whether or not this is fair and/or accurate...

  15. I always find quotes like this enertaining

    The industries that require free dumping grounds in the earth's atmosphere for their profit margins

    Capital is for the most part 'free flowing'. It will flow to whatever product or service produces the maximum profit.

    Capital doesn't care what the rules of the game are, only that the rules of the game are modified in a manner that protects the value of past investments for their full useful life.

    As such...Capital doesn't require anything other then a stable set of rules to play by to remain 'profitable'.

  16. Marlowe:
    IMHO, your comment is neither fair nor accurate!

  17. -14-Marlowe Johnson

    What a funny coincidence! I think that the efforts by Joe Romm, Real Climate etc. do more harm than good ... ;-)

  18. -12-Roger,

    ...and thanks for the featured spot on your blog.

    1) The End Is At Hand. Nope, not smart enough to figure it out. Is it that I am predicting the end of the world that obviously has not come? (I didn't do that). Is it that you are on the wrong side of history? (Doubtful you think so).

    2) I would generally term your discourses on the subject of extreme event attribution as 'disputations', at least on this blog. Often you pick a quote or passage from a journalist or politician, and point out the error of their ways in believing or repeating that there is a proven link between GHG emissions and extreme weather. While I agree that the science is not settled on that link, some climate scientists claim the link exists, others explore the potential for such a link, others dispute a linkage. Regardless of whether that link can be indisputably proven, there are other reasons to be aggressive with decarbonization. (Tobacco analogy - the link between cigarettes causing certain kinds of cancer may be too tenuous for certainty, but not the link between emphysema, COPD, and heart disease). For a policy 'scholar' to spend significant effort trying to chastise each prominent person who speaks of a severe weather/GHG link when such a belief has no impact on the merits of decarbonization policies focuses the discussion on the least helpful point: yes or no on the severe weather link rather than on 'healthy' decarbonization policy approaches. (Tobacco analogy - focusing on yes or no on the cancer link in a policy context when the 'healthy' policy is discouraging smoking due to the other understood ill health effects). I do not see the positive value of your patrolling the accuracy of the Vermont governor's comments on this subject: there are so many good reasons to decarbonize that emphasis on the veracity of a less certain reason seems like a serious distraction. Opponents of any actions on climate simply take those comments as further vindication for opposing sensible precautionary measures, and the benefits of the policy delay accrue to the GHG emitters. While I understand this is all on the margins, IMO your bully pulpit is adding value when debating the merits of different decarbonization policies (even when I disagree with the scale), and largely adding noise (unhelpful, unhealthy) when chastising minor GHG/severe weather oversteps.

  19. -18-Sam

    Thanks ...

    1. Your original comments referenced the end of something, no? ;-)

    2. What you've expressed is a preference for one focus over another. I can't fault you for that, tastes differ. But if you search "decarbonization" on the left you'll surely find a large number of posts.

    Since you've read TCF, then you know that I think that the making of inaccurate comments about extreme weather actually harms the credibility of experts in this area and works against support for action. (See Chapter 8, and esp. Figure 8.1).

    Do you have any actual evidence that making accurate statements about the science of extreme events works against the credibility of expert or support for action? Much less is "harmful"?

    That said, my perspective on this topic has indeed evolved:

  20. Abortion is as much a political issue as was and is slavery.

    The issue of merit is when does society assign dignity to human life?

    The only objective measure is when life begins development (i.e., at conception) and, barring external intervention or unforeseen anomalies, will emerge as a conventional human being. Furthermore, unlike slavery, an emergent human life is incapable of defending its life or interests. This would suggest that abortion as a moral issue is a superset of slavery.

    Both slavery and abortion are preeminent moral issues. Both involuntary exploitation and deprivation of liberty, followed by devaluation of human life are principle moral issues. It is the compromise of individual dignity, which underlies politics, economics, and civilization. It is enlightenment (i.e., rejection of superior or exception dignity) which motivates realization of an optimal compromise.

    We could also describe it as a system searching for a path to increase its own fitness. This is an evolutionary principle that the vast majority of people reject, when they promote behaviors known to decrease the fitness of our species in favor of instant gratification. Although, it would explain the reemergence of policies which denigrate individual dignity and devalue human life, both of which promote corruption of individuals and society. I guess it would depend on how the fitness function is defined.

    If morality described by principles of faith is not considered, why do most people reject slavery (i.e., involuntary exploitation and deprivation of liberty) as abhorrent? Are they merely afraid that if they were to lose power, the new regime would be more likely to subject them to the same oppression?

    As for consensus-based science, that it is antithetical to the true spirit of science. Consensus is a social construct wielded by groups and cooperatives in order to consolidate wealth and power, and, in general, to elevate their position in society over their competing interests. All scientific claims should be upheld by supporting evidence and arguments, and answer to contradictory evidence and arguments. In scientific endeavors, it only requires one individual to invalidate a consensus.

    As for policies, they should be designed to reduce risk to individuals and systems, commensurate to the quality of observed causal factors and arguments. With an incompletely characterized system, such as the Earth, any mitigating actions should be approached with great respect and consideration. We cannot accept lightly the compromise of individual dignity.

  21. The comparison of climate science with the health effects of tobacco should be made more explicit. The important point about the harm that tobacco can cause is not that greater than 99% of scientists with PhDs believe it to be the case. It is that a huge number of studies, over the last 50 years have established an extremely close correlation between tobacco smoking and a whole range of health effects. It is conclusive that, ceteris paribus, one hundred people who smoke 20 or more cigarettes a day for all their adult lives will on average live years less than one hundred people who never smoke at all.
    Climate science does not have this strong empirical position. It must carefully use a mixture of pure science and quite short periods of data to extrapolate scenarios markedly different from known experience. What makes me sceptical is that many of the publicly identified way-markers to extreme climate change have been essentially falsified. These are either from faulty extrapolations (Temperature trend after 1998 peak; hurricane trend after Katrina; Arctic Sea ice-free in summers by 2015), or poor scholarship (Himalayan glaciers gone by 2035; polar bears at risk of extinction).

  22. Sam,

    your first comment is not only odd, but factually incorrect.

    You say,

    'It is nearly 10 years later now, and a lot more is understood about GHGs and climate. When policymakers, such as the governor of Vermont, take note of changing weather patterns in their location, they are noting facts.

    What facts?

    The governor stated that flooding and tropical storm remnants weren't Vermont phenomena. That is clearly not a fact. The report Roger cites is explicitly clear on that point.

    The governor's statement is factually incorrect.

    So the governor is not 'noting changing weather patterns'. He's ignoring reality.

    On the topic of the smoking analogy, I can understand your confusion concerning the comparison. I think there is a good analogy concerning smoking that I will get to in a moment.

    But more immediately, doctors are able to show that smoking causes health issues because they can compare the health of smokers and non-smokers, holding a variety of other factors constant.

    Unfortunately, we have no other earth on which we can not emit CO2 to see how things evolve. There is no control in that sense. So while I agree there is fairly meaningful consensus on the connection between smoking and health problems, the techniques used to make that connection are much better than what we are left with trying to tie a globally averaged increase in the greenhouse effect to local/regional changes in weather effects. It's really just conjecture at this point.

    As for a meaningful (IMHO) analogy to smoking, I think most people know smoking is 'bad' for you. But it still doesn't stop people from smoking. It also does not inform the minds of policy makers in the same way. Some states have banned smoking in public. Others have not.

    So while there is a meaningful analogy between smoking and climate, it's not the one your making. And it actually shows us that we SHOULDN'T expect people to respond to the same information in the same way. The world has shown us over and over again that you'll only be disappointed with such expectations.

  23. -19- Roger,

    1) No (and just to be sure I searched the comment for the word 'end'). I did mention a transition, but then again...

    2) Be as obtuse as you would like - the guv of Vermont is not an 'expert'. Your penchant for correcting all these folks on what (as your snoozing pics point out) is essentially a side issue is indeed a matter of your own taste and use of your time and soapbox.

  24. -22-Sam

    1. Your concern with the end of my climate blogging

    2. I am a policy scholar who studies the use of science in decision making, so perhaps it is a disciplinary thing but what politicians express as justifications for policies is kind of a career interest.

    3. I am still interested in your answer this question - Do you have any actual evidence that making accurate statements about the science of extreme events works against the credibility of experts or support for action? Much less is "harmful"?

    And yes, this blog is very much a function of my own tastes and interests, occupational hazard ... Thanks.

  25. -23- Roger,

    1) 'Concern' would be your projection. Pointing out an unfulfilled declaration of intent would be my interpretation.

    2) If the policies are in line with your judgment, but the justifications are not completely correlated with yours, do you police the boundaries of the policies or justifications more diligently? From my observations, the choice seems largely situational, with the justifications the main focus.

    3)This is a silly and misdirected question from any point that I made. My strict and direct answer to your question in any case is "of course not." If all you did was make accurate statements (I presume you do not presume to this standard at 100%) with no posturing or selective quoting or point-scoring or playing to the audience, then I would not be tangling with you on this issue. When I say forest-trees-tobacco-analogy it is by way of criticizing the point-scoring over the policy critique/analysis/advocacy.

    Your blog choices fundamentally reflect your values in addition to your tastes and interests. In relation to climate policy and the future direction of our shared environment, I often find it difficult to discern your 'policy scholarship' values.

  26. -24-Sam

    1) Sure

    2) Not sure, have examples?

    3) This is what you claimed: "Dr. Pielke's constant carping at every perceived 'exaggeration' like Shumlin's is distracting and ultimately harmful" I was just asking for a substantiation of this claim on your part -- either you have it or you don't.

    4) "Your blog choices fundamentally reflect your values in addition to your tastes and interests"

    Yes, I suppose so, but versus what?


  27. Sam,
    You offer falsehoods as fact, ignore the governor's factually incorrect claims about tropical weather, and then try to shift the argument to lung cancer.
    marlowe makes a valiant effort to sutify lying by the incorrect use of the 'useful idiot' argument.
    Your continued defense of the falsehoods of the AGW community might better summed up as 'useless idiot'.
    The fact is the Governor of Vermont used a lie about the history of weather to promote the social goals of the AGW movement.
    That means whatever time he spent pursuing that lie was time he could have been doing his job to help the people of his state.
    Your support of that is rather sad.
    Your choices in supporting untruths and defending those who use those untruths speaks volumes about your tastes, interests and values.

  28. This series of posts is interesting, but mostly in the car wreck sense.

    Kudos Dr. Pielke Junior for drawing out a clear believer in the "If you're not with us, you're against us" camp of AGW.

  29. -28-Khan,

    More like a clear believer in the "If we keep dawdling and moving as slowly as we are on the problem, it's going to cause a lot of future suffering" camp of AGW.

  30. The climate change/tobacco analogy is as flawed as they come.

    If you want to play the analogy game (and all anaologies are generally weak), a better one would be climate change and salt.

    "Any medical ethicist would say that before you impose changes you have to make sure they are safe and beneficial. If the science is uncertain, then how can it be unethical to do the right studies to answer the scientific questions? If you're asking 300 million Americans and I don't know how many millions of other people around the world to change their diet so dramatically, you ought to have overwhelming evidence that it's a good idea and it's safe."


  31. From Mark Bahner by email:

    "14-Marlowe Johnson

    "Roger are you familiar with the concept of 'useful idiot'?"

    I expect he is. As am I. Here's what wonderful Wikipedia says about the term:

    "The implication is that though the person in question naïvely thinks themselves an ally of the Soviets or other ideologies, they are actually held in contempt by the Soviets, and were being cynically used."

    How do you think that could possibly apply to Roger? Here is a partial list of reasons why that phrase could not possibly apply to Roger:

    1) He pretty emphatically does *not* consider himself an "ally" of the evil party (in this case, presumably the oil/coal companies...or "climate skeptics" or "climate denialists").

    2) There is no evidence of which I'm aware that any of the afformentioned "evil" groups holds him in contempt.

    So again, how do you think this could possibly apply to Roger?"