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Climate Caution Is About the Policies, Not the Science


Every few years the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change publishes a report that attempts to assess the state of climate science, as well as other technical and economic issues related to global warming policy. The last major report, the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), generated perhaps more controversy than was usual.

FT has an excellent profile on the IPCC, which is now gearing up for publication of the next report, AR5. The profile reveals a group with a rich diversity of personalities and opinions. It also shows that the scientists heading up this latest report are acutely aware of the need to say something about the warming slowdown of the past decade or so:

There is one thing the final version must include when it is published next month, according to Sir Bob Watson, the British scientist and climate action advocate who chaired the IPCC for nearly six years up to 2002. “I think the current Working Group I report must address in detail the slowing down in the last 10 years,” he said, adding that although the past three decades were probably the warmest in 1,000 years, “there is also no question that it would appear that the rate of change in the last decade or so is definitely slower than the previous two decades.”

“The IPCC must address this because the climate deniers are linking on to this as a reason to say we’ve got all the science wrong. So I think one of the very most important issues is indeed for them to address this issue absolutely head on.”

We disagree with the way Watson is framing the issue here. The problems that serious critics of the IPCC have had with its work isn’t about getting “all the science wrong.” To be sure, there were some flaws and errors of scientific fact in the last IPCC report, and there will certainly be errors (though hopefully fewer and less tendentious ones) in this report. But errors aside, the pattern seems even clearer now than it did a few years ago: the overall, long-term trend, notwithstanding with a more recent “hiatus” or “pause” as climate researchers are calling it, points to rising temperatures ahead. There are lots of ways this basic understanding still needs to be fleshed out, and it should be fleshed out in an environment of open, vigorous and contentious debate among scientists, without one side trying to throttle the others. The tendency in any establishment to suppress or marginalize dissent needs to be resisted. But as we’ve repeatedly said, it seems clear to us that the fundamental case for global warming is solid.

What isn’t solid, however, are all of the “fiddly bits.” How fast is warming happening? Will it speed up, and by how much? What the economic and environmental impacts be? What other factors besides anthropogenic ones might be contributing to the warming?What complex little mechanisms might slow the process down, or speed it up? And so on. It’s inherent in the nature of a system as complex as climate that these questions will be hard to pin down.

Because the uncertainty is about these “fiddly bits,” and not about the fundamentals, the worry is not about what the science says but about what the policy should be. The process by which greens dream up and then implement policies to address the problem of global warming makes the sometimes messy IPCC process look like a finely tuned, well-oiled machine by comparison.

Global greens develop stupid, horrible, expensive, counterproductive climate policy agendas, and then try to use the imprimatur of “science” as a way to panic the world into adopting them. All too often, in other words, they fall prey to the temptation to make what the science says “clearer than truth” in Acheson’s phrase, in order to silence debate on their cockamamie policy fixes. A favorite tactic is to brand any dissent from the agenda as “anti-science.” It is not only a dishonest tactic; it’s a counterproductive one, generating new waves of skepticism with every exaggeration of fact.

We need a deep rethinking on the policy front. The problems of climate science need to be disaggregated. How do we help China and India move from coal to less carbon-intensive forms of energy use. How do we accelerate the US shift from coal to cleaner natural gas? How can we accelerate the shift from an industrial economy to an information economy in ways that allow the economy to grow and living standards to rise without making the environment worse off.

Environmental policy thinkers almost always begin with statist, top-down fixes, and quickly embrace crony capitalist ideas that involve subsidies for certain types of energy production, such as the ethanol abomination. Powerful economic lobbies then run with these ideas, perverting them until their environmental benefits take a back seat to their usefulness as tools of wealth capture.

This leaves environmentalists increasingly frustrated, increasingly panicked, and with increasingly little to show for it. More than anything else on the energy front right now, the world needs some out of the box thinking about energy policy.

[Earth image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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  • Corlyss

    “Climate Caution Is About the Policies, Not the Science”

    If the author seriously thinks that, the author is scientifically illiterate. The science on warming is not settled by a long chalk.

    • Enemy Leopard

      As I read it, your comment misses the point of the post. Nowhere is it claimed that the science on warming is settled – in fact, quite the opposite: “What isn’t solid, however, are all of the ‘fiddly bits.’ How fast is warming happening? … What other factors besides anthropogenic ones might be contributing to the warming? … It’s inherent in the nature of a system as complex as climate that these questions will be hard to pin down.”

      The author does write that the “fundamental case for global warming is solid,” but this is not the same as saying that the science is settled. That global temperatures have increased, and that this increase is likely to some degree due to carbon emissions and the greenhouse effect, is not especially controversial. However, the author explicitly states that the degree to which the warming is due to anthropogenic causes is an open question.

      In fact, the author specifically criticizes those activists who claim that the science is settled and who, therefore, insist that we must enact any of a host of economy-destroying policies now, right now, in order to put off the apocalypse. Instead, the author tries to move the policy discussion in a more realistic direction, essentially by asking a single question: How can we reduce the damage we do to the environment without seriously inhibiting economic growth? For example, what research could, in time, lead to a transition away from coal? Anyone familiar with Pittsburgh in the early 20th century, or practically any city in China today, would understand why that’s important. That these policies would also have the effect of mitigating any future impact that humans may have on the climate is an added bonus, a way of hedging our bets.

      That’s how I read the whole post, anyway. So I’m somewhat more hesitant than you to raise the possibility that the author is illiterate.

      • rogerzimmerman

        I think that Corlyss has the case here: No one argues that CO2 is not a green house gas. That is certainly “settled science”.

        But, the IPCC “science” is at several levels above this. All of the IPCC predictions of global climate are based on the aggregate results of running the GCMs (global circulation models). These models claim to encapsulate all relevant dynamics of the global climate system. Then, throw in some statistical variation to capture uncertainty about input conditions, and run the models to give ranges of predictions – with confidence levels – for the output metrics, such as global mean temperature. If this is valid science, a fair experiment should correctly predict future output values, within reasonable uncertainty intervals.

        A fair experiment to test the models allows for tuning the models to optimize performance on past outputs and then running the tuned system to predict future outputs. Then, you wait for the actual measurements to come in, and compare these with the predicted outputs. (The time you need to wait depends on lots of details about the models and the statistics, but in this case, it is many years, if not several decades.) These model runs are, in essence, a hypothesis about the nature of the climate system. If the data fits the model predictions, then this would tend to validate the hypothesis. If the data disagrees, however, then the scientific method demands that the hypothesis be revisited. In this context, it means the models must be modified to account for whatever phenomena the scientists believe would explain the discrepancy (e.g. ocean heat sinks, atmospheric particulates, whatever), and then the experiment needs to be rerun. But, rerunning the experiment at that point demands _waiting_ long periods of time (again, on the order of decades) to collect the new validation data. It is not a fair experiment to tune the new model based on the failed prediction data and then to run it to ensure that it predicts this very same data. That is what is known in the art as “cheating”.

        WRM’s post points out that the IPCC is grappling with its presentation of the hiatus in warming over the past decade or so. But, this is not the crux of the issue. The crux of the issue is that the actual global mean temperature is trending outside the 95% confidence interval of the latest/greatest model predictions. It would not matter for the science, by the way, if global temperatures were rising, but were outside this reasonable confidence interval. The models would be just as wrong. To be valid science, they must predict a particular range of output values and only when they are within this range can they be said to have scientific validity.

        The recent global temperature measurements mean, basically, that the models are failing as hypotheses about the nature of the system. We should have little confidence in their ability to predict future temperatures, and therefore any policy prescriptions which are based on the current models are arbitrary. To make a single person poorer based on the current state of the science is immoral. And, as may of us know, immorality on this issue has already run rampant in our political class.

  • TheCynical1

    In the mid-1970s, scientists were warning about the coming “Ice Age,” and that was reported in Newsweek and on television — but I guess it’s about the policies and not the science.

  • TheRadicalModerate

    Policy shouldn’t be guided by science; it should be guided by engineering. You may or may not conclude from the current science that warming is a problem, but it’s completely irrelevant to policy unless there’s an engineering solution that can be executed.

    If you’re wildly optimistic, you might get away with describing CO2 reduction as engineering, but only if you’re willing to call something that’s massively expensive and has an unknown (probably small) benefit engineering. In most tech companies, we’d call something like that grounds for dismissal.

    Let’s get some data on some real geoengineering solutions and then we can talk about policy interventions.

    • Corlyss

      Research and thought before policy-making!

    • cubanbob

      As Carl Sagan once said ” extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”.

  • stanbrown

    Much of the science is corrupt. Far more is simply incompetent. The biggest problem with science today is the utter lack of any quality process. No one checks anyone else’s work. Peer review is a joke. When Steve McIntyre served as a reviewer and requested the data and code underlying a paper, he was told by the editor that no one had ever made such a request before. And that’s how so much garbage gets incorporated in IPCC assessments.

    If the scientists ever want to be taken seriously, they should clean up their act. Site instruments in accordance with basic scientific standards (90% in the US flunk, the US is better than most countries). Require all data and code to be available for the public to review. If you insist on imposing trillions in costs on billions of people, it would be nice to observe the most basic of civil rights by allowing the people to cross-examine the supposed ‘evidence’ used against them. Stop with all the bogus “adjustments” that ALWAYS make warming look worse by cooling the numbers for the past and warming the present.

    A little honesty and transparency would help. Hiding the ball and smearing all who disagree isn’t the way to establish trust.

  • Russ Stoll

    I really wish the Greens would promulgate their Goldilocks temperature. Are we not still cooler than the Holocene Warm Period?

    We are probably, hopefully, halfway through an interglacial period. Over the last 3 million years we have had some 30 ice ages with interglacials running from 15 to 30,000 years.

    Just how cool do they want it to be?

    • Spiny Norman

      Goldilocks temperature. I love it.

      I have a hard time believing the “catastophists” anymore. No matter what the latest crisis in the environment may be, their solution is always the same: massive taxes/fines/financial burdens on the industrialized West, and almost exclusively on the USA.

    • Jacksonian_Libertarian

      I read somewhere that the interglacials ranged from 11k-14k years, and that we were already nearly 14k years into this one making it very long in the tooth. Do you remember where you got the 15k-30k years numbers?

    • Orson OLSON

      Bob Roberts avers that the “past three decades were probably the warmest in 1,000 years….” is certainly a poorly founded claim. It is contradicted by about 180 time series in paleoclimatology showing that it isn’t. The data he claims are too cherry picked to support his foundational alarmism. Were it otherwise, I’d be happy to join in the chorus of grave concern – but it ain’t.

  • Ken Moon

    The policy prescriptions championed by the “greens” always seem to depend on a lowering of the standard of living for the middle class.

    But, there are policies that could raise the standard of living and also lower carbon output. One of these would be a much higher subsidy than the current $300 for upgrading residential HVAC systems, which typically cost from $5k to $10k including installation.

    A 50% federal incentive, with a max of $5k, to upgrade a residential HVAC system, paid directly to the system installer, would alleviate the need for many new power plants, put thousands of HVAC installers to work (and be a good job for many returning vets), and actually lower the electric bills of homeowners.

    Instead, the current administrations feels that carbon emission mitigation policies must “necessarily” cause electric rates to “skyrocket”, and wonders why the public doesn’t wholeheartedly agree.

  • ljgude

    When GW was first mooted it seemed a logical consequence of widespread industrialization. That pollution resulted from human activity was directly visible. But these millennialist apocalyptic manipulators and their er…running dogs in the press, have turned my heart stone cold to their assertions and appeals. I am not ‘in denial’ about it I am just emotionally used up. Finished.

  • rlhailssrpe

    The two irreducible climate change policies which have been ignored, but must be reinstated are:
    Thou shalt not lie,
    Thou shalt not steal.

    Frankly I do not believe it is possible.

    In the run up to every N+1 secret advanced release of the latest UN report, we are buried with propaganda, pro and con. This next release will not be different. Every global conference degenerates within an hour to screaming about the retribution of wealth. This is the issue, not academic debates on CO2 ppm.

    It is inevitable, and beginning to be understood by those who do not read eclectic technical reports: Climate change is the end of the world. Those nations who eschew carbon combustion must become poor; there is no cheap alternative. The three billion whose only energy is based on very inefficient carbon combustion will continue to exploit this fuel, or die. There is a tiny elite whose bread and butter rests on pushing this agenda.

    Technical people like me ( a score of nukes, two score fossil fueled power plants, decades assessing advanced technology) knew this a long time ago. As the lawyers say, we are at issue.

  • Sencho

    You miss the key point here…environmentalists only care about environmentalism and the treasure they can amass through their malfeasance. Environmentalists have never cared about the environment except as a front for their greed.

    The devastating corruption to the sciences is just a side effect of the rampant greed of these ‘activists’.

    • dwpittelli

      Not all environmentalists are hypocritical greedy dirtbags like AL Gore. There are all sorts of idealistic environmentalists, and a few of them aren’t fools, either. Overstating your opponents’ weaknesses isn’t the way to defeat them.

      • AlexInCT

        Many of those environmentalists also think that it would be a great thing if half of the world’s population died, because the problem is people that don’t think like them. I have found very little to like in the environmental movement unless I am dealing with hunters. Their motives at least are clear and easy to understand.

        • dwpittelli

          As it happens, I expect to hunt deer for the first time this fall.

          • AlexInCT

            Bow or rifle? Venison rocks if you know how to prepare and cook it.

          • dwpittelli

            Rifle, or shotgun in the Southern part of the state (New Hampshire).

          • pneville

            I had a friend who was a bow and arrow hunter. At a party a lady congratulated him on giving the deer a sporting chance. He replied that he hunted with a bow and arrow because the season began earlier and if they had a club season that started earlier he would be out there to beat them to death.

          • dwpittelli

            Part of me wants to say “that’s awesome!” But given all the opposition to hunting in the world, I don’t think talk like your friend’s is helpful to the cause.

  • rhhardin

    I’ve had a career in science, albeit a checkered one.

    Two things I know conflict with AGW.

    1. There’s no theory for AGW. We can’t solve the Navier Stokes equations, which govern the atmosphere. (In three dimensions, flows go to shorter and shorter scales, meaning that no resolution whatever is good enough to represent the solution. But the small flows affect the large ones by way of a sort of ersatz viscosity, so you can’t leave them out.) So the AGW people substitute an equation that they can solve for it. That isn’t science and it won’t work. Hence no theory.

    2. There’s no data for AGW. You can’t distinguish a trend from a cycle with data short compared to the cycle. (The eigenvalues of the distinguishing matrix explode, making every observation completely useless.) So there’s no data.

    So the climate scientists do not know what they claim to know.

    If two random points of connection with climate science are wrong, how much more is likely wrong as well.

    Sociology and research grants might go a long way to explaining things.

  • Cory Atkin

    Nice summary of the current debate. It’s not the science we don’t trust. It’s you we don’t trust.

  • Mysticbeetle

    “Environmental policy thinkers almost always begin with statist, top-down
    fixes, and quickly embrace crony capitalist ideas that involve
    subsidies for certain types of energy production, ”

    None of the “fixes” have been a fix. All are fraud, lies, and the banksters and their political hores reaping millions in “crony” tax dollars.

    Burn it down, the mental disease of the .01% and the progressives can’t be fixed.

  • lukelea

    Here’s a fresh new voice:

    She trained as a physicist I notice.

  • lukelea

    “How can we accelerate the shift from an industrial economy to an information economy . . .”

    People don’t live on information.

    • Moneyrunner

      But you see, academics, government employees and the media do. It’s what they produce and in return for this they take food and drink which appears magically from bits and bytes.

  • derfelcadarn

    This issue like all issues is about power and control, the actual facts have no baring in their arguments. There is a discrepancy in the facts/data because they did not care the decision had already been determined, you knew this from the instant they claimed the science was “settled”. They freely admit they have NO concept of what science means. As long as there is a tomorrow the science will never be settled there will always be more to be learned. To conclude otherwise these charlatans prove themselves to be willfully ignorant liars.

  • koblog

    1. Follow the money. Any “science” that make Al Gore a billionaire is suspect to me.

    2. The same Authorized White Lab Coat scientists told me a few decades ago we needed to warm the earth or face an ice age.

    3. Based on the well-documented Medieval Warming Period that preceded our most recent mini-ice age that ended around 1800, warming brings good things, not bad, and should be welcomed.

    But just accepting today’s weather doesn’t transfer trillions of dollars to the useless, corrupt bureaucrats of the UN and the EPA.

  • effinayright

    The fact that temperatures appear to be rising long-term offers warmistas little theoretical comfort, since the overall trend ever since the last Ice Age has been upwards.

    The question is, is there anything unusual in the warming we see today? So far, the answer is NO.

    In the US we’ve had 130 years of record-keeping, and there is absolutely no evidence of

    “extreme weather”: the incidence of floods, tornadoes, drought, winter storms, heat waves are all remarkably unchanged. For hurricanes, we’ve had an unprecedented (in terms of the historical record for the past 200 years) dearth of Cat 3 or greater hurricane landfalls. Katrina was the last one.

    I would ask Mr. Mead when he thinks the “ideal” climate occurred? Or does he think the current one is? If so why?

    If the latter, would he trust government to create controls that would end at a certain well-defined point, once we had the situation under control?

    I wouldn’t.

    What if anything we did was negated by China and India? Should we doom hundreds of millions of Americans to poverty in order to protect Gaia?

  • JosephSomsel

    As a nuclear engineer, I was almost gleeful when AGW bubbled up circa 2000. They’ll beg us to build more nukes now! However, in boning up on the issue, I see it as having no scientific certainty worth a new tax or compelled behavior change. But the AGW people refused to even discuss nuclear – see if you can find it in “An Inconvenient Truth.”

    Suddenly, the environmental movement wants to endorse nuclear power, a position notable absent in earlier discussions.

    I am VERY skeptical of forging an alliance between nuclear advocates and the climate change movement, as discussed here:

    Sincere environmentalist support is of course welcome – my career decision was made up to my tail in an oil spill when I was 19.

    But this johnny-come-lately support seems just a bit too cynical to be believable.

    • rlhailssrpe

      Should the reactor manufacturers weigh in on climate change? No.

      Your reasoning (which aligned with mine for years) is flawed. The leaders behind climate change seek two things: power and money. They are anti corporation; want to break these powerful organizations into servants (not destroy, but control). This is done by regulating the enemy and subsidizing the ally.

      Their root axiom is that the US golden goose will forever produce wealth. It is against their religious conviction that any force can destroy America. Off shoring, chronic unemployment, the rise of powerful competing nations, are wholly unrelated to their conduct, in their ideological eyes. They will not change even when the grid collapses. They will blame it on the Tea Party via scholarly studies.

      Yes, it does make many johnny- come-lately types appear irrational. You presume people are rational.

      • JosephSomsel

        I certainly agree that what you say is true about the motivations of the core climate change crowd. There is plenty of evidence in support. However, one has a difficult time winning a policy debate on that basis. Even Al Capone had his public supporters. Your line of argument will come down to their evil guys vs our “evil and greedy” guys.

        However, the reactor vendors are trying to sell to organizations that own expensive fossil fueled-generation so being anti-fossil is not going to be popular with their customers.

        • rlhailssrpe

          I would sharpen the dialog, as aided by my economics professor, ages ago. Most people, greens, regulators, or pro-nukes, do not consider themselves as evil, or greedy. And the primary function of organizational leaders is not short term profit but long term survival. The greens hold that they will make a living, feeling good, but ignore the economic disaster they cause. Reactor vendors attempted to co-exist with those who wanted them out of business in the US. They wanted the next contract. They buddied up to clients, false allies. But lost.
          Consider those organizations that cratered within a generation. All sought short term goals. They lacked leaders. As do we.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    How can anyone trust this Environmentalist Agenda driven Science? Even in this article global warming is somehow an unassailable fact, never mind the medieval warm period when people were growing grapes and making wine in Moscow long before mankind could possibly have affected carbon dioxide levels. Since their Science and Models are so untrustworthy why should we trust their predictions of what would happen if the world did get warmer, and if plants get better fed because the carbon dioxide they require is more plentiful? Scorn and Ridicule are all these Chicken Littles deserve.

  • Mahon1

    No one who uses the term “climate denier” should be taken seriously. This is an attempt to defame and discredit opponents through analogy to “Holocaust denier.” (Individual users of the term may not intend the comparison, but that is where it comes from.) Reasonably neutral and respectful terms would be “alarmist” and “skeptic.” There is nothing wrong with being an alarmist if alarm is justified, and nothing wrong with being skeptical while doubt remains. Whether alarm is justified or whether doubt remains are open questions.

  • Orson OLSON

    WAccording to Rupurt Darwall’s new book”The Age of Global Warming: A History,” global warming science abandoned natural scientific standards for those of education policy or crime policy – in other words, for social science “standards” – as per the late Stephen Schneider of Stanford. Far from “The problems that serious critics of the IPCC have had with its work isn’t about getting ‘all the science wrong,” and the boys are all right. The methodologies are seriously all wrong. GIGO=”garbage in, garbage out” isn’t just about computer science. It’s also about how science itself gets corrupted by money thrown at institutions that therefore distort the “findings” of science to fit the policy needs of the procurers. This is the very definition of environmental science prostituted by pimps. Since this is my field, and it leaves me deeply offended and angry – no, OUTRAGED!

  • SLEcoman

    It is truly frightening to me that Mr. Mead considers the FT article an “excellent piece” on the IPCC. It telling to me, when discussing the problems with the last IPCC report, he doesn’t provide a link to the report by the InterAcademy Council (IAC) that was commissioned by the IPCC in response to the many problems with the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (AR4). It was the IAC report that said among other things:
    1. Often the best scientists were not selected to work on the IPCC report due to political considerations.
    2. There was not even an ethics requirement requiring authors and reviewers to state their conflicts of interest, much less a requirement barring people with conflicts of interest from being primary authors or reviewers.
    3. AR4 either did not rely on peer reviewed literature or incorrectly/misleadingly stated peer reviewed literature for 15% of WG1, 30% WG2, and 65% of WG3’s references.
    4. Recommended replacement of Dr. Pachauri as head of the IPCC.

    If the FT was going to do really do some hard hitting investigative journalism, they could have asked about:
    1. How much of the IAC’s reforms have actually been implemented by the IPCC, especially considering that Dr. Pachauri is still heading the IPCC
    2. Doesn’t the leak of the WG1’s SOD of AR5 on December 14 and the subsequent leak by Forrest Mims show that the IPCC is still a corrupt organization pushing CAGW (Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming) theory, not an unbiased scientific organization?

    One of ‘obvious tell’ that the FT article was a pro CAGW puff piece is the reference to record Arctic melting last summer, but no mention of the record refreezing of the Arctic or that currently total sea ice (Arctic and Antarctic) is

  • richard40

    I think we make a mistake in assuming that many of the climate science types really care about the environment. For far too many of them their real goal is statism, a toxic combination of socialism and crony capitalism, with environmentalism being an excuse for their program, rather than a real goal. A good test case is t see how many of these “environmentalists” now oppose the ethanol subsidy, which does zippo for the environment, and is merely a corporate welfare program for ethanol producers and corn farmers, that raises food prices, while doing nothing for the environment.

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