Judging by the comments, my post yesterday on the death of global warming did not make everybody happy. Some readers thought I went too far, cavalierly dismissing the work of thousands of scientists over many decades — a typical example, one reader noted, of Ivy League arrogance since without anything more than a BA in English I was making sweeping generalizations about a subject in which I have no training.A larger number of comments objected to the fact that I specifically endorsed the basic science of global warming. Some thought I’ve just been taken in by a deliberate conspiracy of fraud (either by socialists trying to destroy capitalism or by aspiring capitalist plutocrats out to get rich on the public’s gullibility). Others figured that as a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and general Establishment lackey I’m somehow in on the scam.These readers may not have gotten my motives right but they understood my position better than those who thought I was attacking the science of global warming. I don’t actually think I’ve got the science background to pontificate on the science of climate change. There is a broad though not a universal consensus among serious climate scientists that the earth is getting warmer, that human activity has something to do with it, and that unless we make some changes the warming of the earth will continue until things become unpleasant in a number of ways. At the same time, beginning last fall with the hacked emails from East Anglia, and accelerating in the last couple of weeks with a steady stream of revelations about high profile assertions in the IPCC’s reports, a flow of news stories in the UK and elsewhere makes it increasingly clear that some scientists and institutions who are prominent in the climate change debate have made some serious errors in judgment and in some cases have made claims about the impact of climate change that do not have serious scientific backing. When challenged on these matters, instead of frankly and candidly discussing the issues on the merits, they got on their high horses and denounced their critics as practitioners of voodoo science. Now they are getting a richly deserved comeuppance.I have been writing about the political impact of these revelations, not the state of the science. Scientifically, the revelations to date affect only a small number of statements and do not seriously attack the basic claims of the climate change community. (That may change if it turns out that the East Anglia data on global temperatures is flawed or if a couple of other allegations of misconduct are substantiated. But there will be time enough to analyze all that as the facts trickle out; for now, I’m going on the assumption that 90% of the scientists involved have got 90% of the science right — though I reserve my right to change my mind if the facts change down the road.) Politically, it seems to me that the errors in judgment by the IPCC and the East Anglia Climate Research Unit doom any serious action in the US on climate change for the foreseeable future. The political support just isn’t there. A failure by the US to act lets everyone else off the hook. Additionally, the high profile science scandal gives ammunition to people in places like China and India who don’t want to take action on this issue. Even before these latest revelations, I have been skeptical for some time that all the huffing and puffing about the need for international action against climate change was going to produce what environmentalists thought was required. The structure of international politics does not lend itself to this kind of action and so far the international community has missed every deadline for definitive, binding and effective agreements. It always seemed likely to me that this effort would flop; it now seems close to a certainty. As I wrote yesterday, the jellyfish isn’t going to climb the stairs.Maybe I’m right and maybe I’m wrong, but my analysis is based on politics, not science. It holds whether ‘anthropogenic global warming’ is happening in a big way, is part of the story or if it isn’t happening at all. Right now, the misconduct of leading climate change campaigners has made the unlikely impossible, and the political backing for serious international action to fight climate change no longer exists — if indeed it ever did.The climate change skeptics don’t need much advice at this point; they are rubbing their hands in glee and saying “We told you so.” They are saying some ruder things as well; for a sampling you can look through the comments on yesterday’s post.Those who believe that climate change is a serious problem and want the world to act on it are in a much tougher spot. Public confidence in the science of global warming has been falling in the United States for some time now. As the news of the current wave of scandals spreads (and it is spreading far and fast even though many major news organizations have skimped on the coverage), skepticism will increase. The perceived arrogance of the climate change movement combined with the humiliating comeuppance of some of its most prominent leaders is a devastating blow. Regaining public confidence and support will be neither easy nor quick.
A Five Step Recovery Plan
For what it’s worth, here’s how I think the movement to fight climate change could recover and relaunch.First, don’t circle the wagons. The IPCC and the East Anglia Climate Research Unit are, from a PR point of view, toast. Environmental leaders, groups and scientists in the United States need to get out front denouncing the misconduct, demanding full investigations and accounting, and disassociating themselves from the individuals, institutions and claims that threaten to drown the whole field in a wave of undifferentiated skepticism and revulsion. (more…)