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.
Second, accept the things you cannot change. There will be no rush to fight climate change now, no quick global agreement on binding targets and legal treaties and major climate change legislation in the US in 2010 is deeply unlikely. (Look at what happened to public support for health care in 2009; already weak support for climate change legislation will melt in much the same way once the public’s attention fully turns to it.) Unless political trends change dramatically in the US before the midterm elections, legislation will be even less likely in 2011 and 2012. The climate change movement can either spend its energies resisting the inevitable delay or using it to regroup and relaunch. My advice: take box number two.
Third, push for a massive scientific redo. Given that much of the American public didn’t accept the scientific claims of the climate change movement even before the recent scandals, the only way to build a public consensus for change is to rebuild the science from the ground up. A highly publicized effort that includes serious skeptics and has bipartisan backing is the only way to get American public opinion on board the climate change train. The issues that the serious skeptics (not the tinfoil hat crowd) raise can and indeed should be addressed and a panel of reputable scientists drawn from the majority and the minority can significantly narrow the gaps and get broader public support for their conclusions — whatever they are. This should be an open, transparent process and the scientific chips should fall where they may. No cooking the books, no stacking the deck: the public has to trust the people and the procedures involved. Nothing in a society as contentious as ours will produce a 100% consensus on anything; but a serious inquiry carried out in the full light of day will have a much better chance of getting public opinion aligned with the facts than anything else at this point. Also, and this is not a minor point, pushing for an open and thorough scientific review will help the American environmental community separate itself from the negative consequences of the international scandals.
Fourth, push for intensive new research into climate science. The consequences of the inevitable delay before serious policy steps are taken on global warming can be significantly mitigated if we achieve a better understanding of how the climate works and how it can be affected. Even the strongest advocates of aggressive policy changes to address global warming acknowledge that our understanding of climate is still limited. Learning more will both increase public confidence in climate scientists and their predictions and quite possibly open up new and more promising avenues for addressing the effects of human industrial activity on our environment. The research, like the inquiry, has to be inclusive — skeptical perspectives need to be part of the process and we have to get beyond the cliquishness revealed by the East Anglia emails. But pushing for this kind of inclusive research into the basic science will improve the public image of climate science and help ensure that the period of delay is not simply lost.
Fifth, rethink the policy approach. The decision by the ‘climate change community’ to focus on a grand global solution to climate change was unwise. The international system isn’t capable of the kind of sweeping, rapid changes and decisions that activists seek. 200 years of human rights campaigns have not eliminated slavery. Nuclear proliferation continues despite more than sixty years of efforts to control it — and the consequences of nuclear war are much more horrible than those of global warming. Piracy, terrorism, tyranny, sexual discrimination: human beings live with many terrible problems that we have not solved. Environmental degradation is one of these problems. Worse, there are signs that the international system is becoming less effective on a broad range of policy issues. The Doha round of trade talks has seized up, possibly for good; efforts to manage imbalances in international financial flows or to regularize world currency values are going nowhere. There are no signs of an international consensus to deal with the legal problems raised by enemy combatants fighting for non-state actors in terror campaigns. Meanwhile, in terms of American politics, getting a treaty through the Senate is the highest hurdle you can set yourself — it takes 67 votes to ratify a treaty. The combination is deadly. The climate change movement needs to invest some time and intellectual energy into finding a more workable agenda. Regardless of the science, the current track looks very much like a dead end.
Assuming that the review of the science strengthens the case for global warming and that the policy review helps the community develop some more feasible options going forward, the net result of all this brouhaha could be a deeper US and even global consensus for a set of actions that would mitigate if not altogether solve our climate problem. That’s the best possible outcome for the climate change community given where we now stand; let’s see what happens.
Finally, a few words on comment policy here in MeadWorld.
First, I’m grateful to readers who care enough about what I write here to take the time to comment. I do my level best to read them all with care.
Generally speaking, I believe in publishing all comments that don’t compromise the family-friendly character of this blog. I do, however, believe that the President of the United States is entitled to a certain basic respect and so a number of particularly abusive (and so far as I can determine, untrue) comments about President Obama are languishing in the cybervaults here at Mead Central. Publication of a comment in no way suggests that I agree with or approve of the sentiments or views expressed. Nor do I endorse any factual statements or charges expressed by the readers. I believe that it is important for people to know what people are saying and thinking, and so I plan to continue to allow access to as many comments as possible. If the flow continues at its current rate, I will probably have to adopt some more formal policies. The situation is evolving; I will keep you posted.
Meanwhile, thanks again to all who read and all who respond.