Climate Change: Views from an Environmentalist and a Skeptic (Part II)

We’re BACK people! Meryl Gibbs and Robert Wilkes continue their debate on the impacts and responses to Climate Change as part of our Political Pen Pals series. You can see Part I of their debate here. And if this doesn’t quench your thirst for discourse, you can find more Political Pen Pals debates here. 

Hi Robert,

Alexis de Tocqueville once said, “The public will believe a simple lie rather than a complex truth.” Unfortunately, this is true of the public debate on climate change. I disagree with most of your points, but will only address the perception of scientists, the origins of the Global Warming (GW) controversy, the cost-benefit of mitigation, and why we must act on the information we have.

The core question at the heart of this debate is “who should I trust, scientists or fossil fuel interests?” The clear answer is scientists. 

It is flabbergasting to assert that climate scientists (CSs) are exaggerating GW to get grants. The math doesn’t add up: grant growth in the environmental sciences has been ~0 since 1990. By now, CSs would have abandoned that strategy after seeing it continuously fail. If climate scientists desire more money, then they have more attractive prospects in Petroleum research or Data Science, where jobs are growing at 11% (compared to 3% for environmental sciences). They would get paid 60-100K a year, which beats toiling 6 years for a PHD for 30K/year. Some CSs already take this path because of the better pay.

You cite leaked emails from the researchers at the University of East Anglia, but independent investigations found no misconduct in either the personal behavior of the researchers or in their scientific methods. The scandal arose from misunderstanding and mischaracterizing the researcher’s emails. 

You attack Michael Mann, whose data and methods are public. His studies have been replicated repeatedly with improved data and statistical techniques. They have all reaffirmed his conclusion. His work was not perfect: it was built off of and improved. This would be equivalent to condemning the global auto industry for the shortcomings of the Model T. 

Recently, PAGES2K, a cohort of over 70 scientists, worked over several years to produce the most sophisticated reconstruction of paleoclimate data to date. Their conclusion: the “hockey stick” stands. At the request of Congress, the National Academy of Sciences evaluated the data and methods used in Mann’s paper as well as other paleoclimate reconstructions. To quote them directly, “The basic conclusion of Mann et al … was that the late 20th century warmth in the Northern Hemisphere was unprecedented during at least the last 1,000 years. This conclusion has subsequently been supported by an array of evidence that includes the additional large-scale surface temperature reconstructions and documentation of the spatial coherence of recent warming.”

Why is there a public cloud of doubt? Follow the Money, indeed. GW had bipartisan support until the oil and gas (O&G) industry began lobbying against international climate negotiations. In 1970, The Clean Air Act was passed unanimously in the Senate. Nixon founded the EPA. Bush Sr. launched the UN Framework on Climate Change. However, once the Kyoto Protocol talks began, O&G interests launched a plan to spend millions of dollars generating doubt, with a written memo to prove it. So far in 2018, O&G has donated 10X more to Republicans than Democrats. In total, they have spent ~$400m since 1990 on Republican campaign donations. It is also telling to note that O&G outspends renewable energy and environmentalists 10:1 on climate change lobbying. 

O&G continues to spend millions of dollars funding denialist research despite their own internal scientists determining GW is real. When scientists failed in the past, it was usually because industry sources with incentive to sew doubt funded biased studies. The papers pushing denial, such as Willie Soon’s debunked papers proposing that sunspots cause GW, were funded by O&G. Mr. Soon (who isn’t even a physicist or CS) failed to disclose the source of funding for nearly a dozen of his studies, in violation of the publishers’ policies.  He received about $1 million in funding over a period of 10 years from Exxon, the API and Texaco. It is ok to take money from unconventional sources, but not to hide it. Furthermore, his scientific reasoning was flawed due to his use of outdated data and “spurious correlations between solar output and climate indicators”.  Soon also ignores the evidence that contradicts his theories, such as the warming of lower layers of the atmosphere compared with cooling of the upper layers, or the observed lack of increasing heat from the sun.

More recently, O&G companies have realized that their case against CS is so weak that they have admitted that GW is real, anthropogenic, and requires action in a recent lawsuit. Nonetheless, O&G lobbying efforts have succeeded. The number of people who indicated that they questioned scientists exploded from 7 to 23% as a direct result of their efforts. 

Overall, who stands to gain from lying: scientists peddling false evidence of GW for 0 grant growth, or O&G companies protecting their billions of dollars of income a year? 

Considering the relative benefits of mitigating GW, I agree that reducing poverty and disease is a worthy goal. However, addressing GW must be part of that strategy, otherwise poverty and disease will only be exacerbated as GW continues. Another Copenhagen Concensus (CC) report acknowledges this, saying “taxing pollution damage from energy”, “phasing out fossil fuel subsidies”, and “cut[ting] indoor air pollution” are 3 of the 19 sustainable development targets, “so effective… that focusing on them first would effectively quadruple the aid budget without any extra spending”. 

The other CC figure you cited inadequately estimates the returns of addressing GW. Eventually, the costs of GW will reach between 5 and 20% of Global GDP annually. This means between $3.75 and $18.75 trillion dollars will be saved by mitigating GW, returning between 6 and 32 dollars per dollar spent. This number only improves when you add eliminating O&G subsidies into the plan.

I agree that national security is worth spending on. And according to the Pentagon, GW is an issue of national security. The government’s role is to protect its citizens from harm. Emitting CO2 harms life on earth immediately and long term. Comprehensive, collective action will be the only thing to stop it. 

You mentioned that climate models are limited by our current understanding. This is true, but our ability to make any decision is always limited by our best understanding. We are obligated to make our decisions based on the best available information, and our information is excellent. There is only one earth. There is no option for running repeatable, controlled experiments at scale. 

We have followed the advice to “sit and wait” for impossibly high degrees of certainty before, resulting in senseless deaths from cancer and black lung. The scope of GW’s impact will be beyond smokers and coal miners, reaching everyone on the planet. We are entering a new era, yet you are advocating that we do nothing to prepare. Even if there were the amount of uncertainty you seem to think there is, refusing to hedge against any of the potential negative outcomes would be irresponsible.

A healthy dose of skepticism forces us all to think critically and rigorously evaluate our conclusions and methods, as long as skeptics have a truly open mind. Blind denial in the face of all the evidence presented, on the other hand, is dangerous and counterproductive. We must face this complex truth together and act now. 

My best, Meryl

Dear Meryl,

Thanks for the quote. Alexis de Tocqueville was a man for the ages. I’ll repeat the quote here for the convenience of our readers: “The public will believe a simple lie rather than a complex truth.” The context of this quote was his preference for private charity over government aid to assist the poor. In his day he was called a liberal. Today that is a conservative position. How things have changed! (An aside: de Tocqueville’s The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution explains why Trump is our president. But that’s for another discussion.)

To round the circle of references, I offer a definition of Occam’s Razor: Occam’s Razor is the problem-solving principle that the simplest solution tends to be the correct one. 

These quotes put our debate on a more productive footing, that is, the “meta debate,” or the debate about the debate. Let us rise above graphs of the temperature of the world a thousand years ago and ask how much faith we should invest in science, especially climate science, a new field for which there is wide uncertainty. Are there situations from the past that offer perspective? And the main question: what is the appropriate response to the data as we know it? 

One example from the past is the notion prevalent in the late 1940s and 1950s that infant formula was better for babies than breast milk. (That may have affected me, but my memory is as faulty now as it was unformed then.) The extant literature, much of it generated by the infant formula industry, convinced doctors to tell mothers that formula was better for their babies than their own breast milk. Of course, it was a disastrous idea that, among other serious problems, robbed babies of natural immunities transmitted through mother’s milk. 

Science was on a pedestal in those days, accelerated by the mechanical wonders of the war years. Doctors were held in such high esteem they were almost gods. I caution you against uncritically defending the god of “Science,” especially when scientific opinion is backed by political power and presented as uncontestable by our media. Rather, science is a process, a relentless forward march of new facts and new theories. The present state of climate science fails to give me confidence that a wholesale transfer of national wealth will end well. 

I’ll return to the meta debate, but first I’ll address some of the points in your recent rebuttal. I concede we’re in a warming period. I concede that the presence of increased levels of CO2 makes it likely that some (no one can say how much) of the warming is anthropomorphic. I concede your point that studies commissioned by the oil and gas industry may be tainted and biased. Some may be reliable, but I am not in a position to judge and I share your skepticism. 

I am not convinced of three things:

  1. That scientists have the ability to predict climate change in the next 50 to 100 years. 
  2. That another degree or two of global warming will be catastrophic. 
  3. That decimating the economy through carbon taxes will reverse or suspend global warming.

The climate science industry

Allow me to offer a personal anecdote. My wife is a bird watcher, or “birder.” As a dutiful husband I attend lectures with her. Ten or twelve years ago a professor from a major southern university gave a talk reflecting his research on the movement of nesting grounds of a particular species due to climate. He found that nesting grounds moved to higher elevations of mountain slopes, reacting to warmer climate by going to cooler levels. 

His findings were interesting, but he went further. He added slides similar to Al Gore’s scare movie including one that showed half of Florida under water by 2024. “Why?” I asked him. His unconvincing response told me he didn’t believe it either. But I’ll tell you why. Global warming hysteria helps fund people like him. He naturally wanted to publish, to enhance his importance and his credentials (ornithologists need respect) and to reach tenure if he wasn’t already there. He stood to gain from enhanced public fear about global warming, so why wouldn’t he play that card?

According to The Economist academia pays well and the competition is fierce. The number of scientists doing academic research has grown from a few hundred in the 1950s to 6,000-7,000 in 2012. 

“As their ranks have swelled…scientists have lost their taste for self-policing and quality control. The obligation to “publish or perish” has come to rule over academic life. Competition for jobs is cut-throat. Full professors in America earned on average $135,000 in 2012—more than judges did. Every year six freshly minted PhDs vie for every academic post. Nowadays verification (the replication of other people’s results) does little to advance a researcher’s career. And without verification, dubious findings live on to mislead.”

“Careerism also encourages exaggeration and the cherry-picking of results. In order to safeguard their exclusivity, the leading journals impose high rejection rates: in excess of 90% of submitted manuscripts. The most striking findings have the greatest chance of making it onto the page…Conversely, failures to prove a hypothesis are rarely even offered for publication, let alone accepted. “Negative results” now account for only 14% of published papers, down from 30% in 1990. Yet knowing what is false is as important to science as knowing what is true.”

The record is replete with stories of scientists who dispute one element or another of the IPCC climate reports but can’t get their papers published. 

The East Anglia emails and scientific fraud of Michael Mann

The conclusion one draws from reading the East Anglia emails is that Michael Mann’s original hockey stick is a scientific fraud. This is the opinion of his peers who thought they were discussing the matter among themselves. Here are samples; there are many more:

  • “Any scientist ought to know that you can’t mix and match proxy and actual data…Yet that’s what he did.” Professor Philip Stott, PhD. 
  • “A case of Michael Mann…sticking an apple on the end of a banana.” Dr. Jennifer Marohasy, PhD. 
  • “Today, most scientists dismiss the hockey stick.” Dr. Madhav Khandekar, PhD.
  • “The behavior of Michael Mann is a disgrace to the profession.” Dr. Hendrik Tennekes, PhD.
  • “We know that the hockey stick graph is fraudulent.” Dr. Michael R. Fox, PhD.
  • “The hockey stick was a sham even allowing for statistical ignorance regarding the instrumental temperature record.” Dr. Denis Rancourt, PhD. 
  • “We conclude unequivocally that the evidence for a ‘long-handled’ hockey stick…is lacking in the data.” Dr. Blakeley B. McShane, PhD and Dr. Abraham J. Wyner, PhD. 

Forecasting economics

Forecasting the benefits of a carbon tax is sublimely hypothetical. The only part of the equation that can be relied on is that it requires an extraction of capital from the most efficient wealth creators on the planet. We know with certainty that taxing wealth creators will stifle innovation. Creativity that advances scientific knowledge depends on limited government and low taxes. 

In 1913 experts predicted that the world will run out of oil in 1920. In the 1960s they said it would happen in the 1980s. Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich famously predicted mass starvation on an overpopulate earth. Predicters of world apocalypse have, thank God, been spectacularly wrong time and time again. I think they’re wrong again. 

A solution

Capitalism is the greatest engine of surprise known to man. Surprise is knowledge we didn’t have or didn’t know we didn’t have. I fully expect that if we keep the government out of it and let the free spirits of capitalism thrive in a low-tax environment, we will be surprised. Real advances will be made to reduce carbon emissions and counter global warming. Much has already been done. 

Turning the problem over to the government in the form of taxes virtually guarantees no surprises. Government just continues to do what we already know how to do. Government is not creative because the hunger for invention only exists in the private sector. Don’t tax away our creativity, and we will conquer the problem as we have conquered so many others before. 

Marx thought the revolution of the proletariat was certain and scientific. Henry Ford invented the mass production of automobiles and created the middle class. What a surprise. Marx was wrong. More surprises are coming on climate, I’m sure of it.

Thank you

As this is the end of our exchange, I thank you with all my heart for your excellent work on this topic and I respect your passionate defense of your position. If you’re ever in Seattle, I’ll buy the first round. — Robert

 

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