Putting Candidates and Others on the Spot

An open dialogue built on mutual trust may provide the best way to jump-start the ongoing serious dialogue climate change demands from those who would lead our country. The campaign season makes such a dialogue timely … and urgent.

The presence, or perhaps moreso the absence, of serious climate change dialogue in the run-up to the presidential elections could make the issue a volatile unknown: Few politicians in the national spotlight want to be caught holding strong opinions in favor of aggressive policies to slow, curb, or reverse anticipated climate change.

James Lenfestey, a former Minneapolis Star Tribune editorial writer on climate and education, recently argued in that paper (op-ed 9/17) that journalists should drill presidential candidates on six questions related to climate change, presumably to highlight those who are silent, or openly hostile, toward taking action in the face of this global threat.


The media clearly can do a better job in raising serious issues like global warming with those leading, or aspiring to lead, our country. But putting candidates on the spot is unlikely to yield what our country desperately needs: a serious, ongoing dialogue about this global issue, which has connections to nearly every aspect of our society. Such a dialogue must be built on a foundation of trust and respect for political and ideological differences, as well as different scientific backgrounds.

Lenfestey’s six questions can be boiled down to these two: Do you believe global warming is occurring? And, do you believe we should have aggressive policies to counter this threat?

Lumping together opinions about how persuaded one is by the underlying science with questions about the appropriateness of a policy response is a recipe for an unproductive dialogue. Having spent a number of years working with experts drawn from across society to describe the condition and use of our ecosystems, I learned that it is essential to separate these aspects of the conversation — especially for the more contentious issues. In other words, we collectively need to find some common ground before arguing about appropriate policy responses.

We need to build an initiative that is viewed as trustworthy to all of us, no matter our ideological and political positions, or our understanding of science. We can do that. We can run a transparent process — open to full scrutiny and input from anyone — that develops a series of questions and broadly accepted answers relevant to the issue of climate change. Not 100 questions, but rather more like 10. Each answer would be endorsed by experts drawn from across society and viewed as trustworthy by citizens and politicians from across the spectrum, both politically and ideologically.

As an example, these answers would undoubtedly include:

  • Carbon dioxide, a colorless gas present in tiny concentrations in the atmosphere, can trap radiation from the Earth that would otherwise dissipate into space.
  • There is strong evidence of a marked increase in carbon dioxide directly linked with the growth of industrialized societies across the globe.
  • Our “fingerprints” are detectable in the altered chemical nature of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
  • Long-term temperature trends indicate significant increases in recent decades.

These would be the first building blocks to a serious national dialogue.

Let’s take on this challenge. Let’s develop a robust, multimedia Web presence that brings to life the science behind the questions-and-answers for general audiences. Ideally, this effort would have its foundation on a public Q&A site, like Quora.

Circling back to Lenfestey’s questions, let’s ask each candidate if he or she would support such an open, transparent process to create robust common ground across society. Global warming, which has the potential to irreversibly alter our world, demands a serious dialogue, and now is the time to initiate it. Time is short, and there is a lot to do. Let’s make it happen.

Kent Cavender-Bares is an environmental scientist and the founder of Dialogue Earth, a nonprofit media project that has received major seed funding from the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and the Foundation for Environmental Research. The views represented are his alone and do not represent those of the University of Minnesota.

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9 Responses to Putting Candidates and Others on the Spot

  1. Michael Ioffe says:

    Dear Kent Cavender-Bares,

    I agree with you about carbon dioxide. I have disagreement with climate scientists about properties of water, on which they look as positive feedback for climate change.

    We know that evaporation take energy, which released in process of condensation.
    To evaporate 1 kg of water we need 539 kcal of energy, condensation of 1 kg of water vapor released the same amount of energy.
    What is difference?
    In my opinion huge difference is in molecular weight of water vapor. It is lighter than most gases in air.
    We must pay attention, that only methane (CH4) is lighter than water vapor.
    Nitrous oxide (N2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen (N2), oxygen (O2), are heavier than water vapor.
    It property of water vapor helps convection forces to mix air with height.
    “The temperature falls with height precisely because most of the atmosphere is convecting, which leads to a fall of temperature with height because of pdV work.”
    Fall of temperature with height helps condense some water vapor and create water droplets.
    This process released heat, which increase temperature of surrounded gases.
    Hotter air recreate convection forces, which bring some of air higher, where again some of water vapor will condensed and released additional heat.
    It dynamic process of partially condensation with height will repeat many times till upper troposphere (around ten kilometers high), where so cold that 99% of water vapor will condensed to water droplets.
    It process helps all gases in air bring energy 10 km close to space, where energy will go to space easy, than from oceans level.
    If we collect 1 kg of water from rain and take 1kg of water, perhaps from lake we know difference between them. RAINWATER RELEASED 539 KCAL OF ENERGY TO SPACE IN PENDULUM LIKE PROCESS OF EVAPORATION AND CONDENSATION, on it way to upper troposphere and back to ocean (land) level.


    Mankind activity not only reduces evaporation of water from continents by deforestation, tilling land, growing the crop on huge area.
    Mankind activity decreased reflection of direct sun radiation, by soot, roads, homes, cities, etc.
    Mankind activity correlate with energy, which we use. Most of energy, used by mankind increased carbon dioxide, which is ease use as coefficient in climate models.
    In reality carbon dioxide is playing not so significant role in climate change, as reduction of evaporation on continents and decreasing reflection of direct sun radiation.

    I am asking you, please explain to me and to possible candidates your opinion about properties of water and their role in nature.

    • Dear Michael,

      Thank you for your comment on my piece. If I understand your comment correctly, you are advocating for more discussion about the role of water vapor, especially in relation to other greenhouse gases (GHGs) like carbon dioxide. I can easily imagine that the role of different GHGs would be included in a “short-list” of key topics to be included in the Q&A-based conversation I’ve proposed.

      You request that I “please explain to me and to possible candidates your opinion about properties of water and their role in nature.”

      Two comments: one is that the dialogue I’m envisioning would work best if we can focus questions as much as possible, so something like the following might be a good alternative question: “What is the importance of water vapor compared to carbon dioxide in greenhouse warming?”

      Second, and more importantly, this process necessarily needs to include a bunch of qualified voices drawn from across society. I see myself serving more as the “glue” that holds a process like this together, rather than one of the experts who will work collaboratively to answer these questions.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  2. Jeffrey Levine says:

    I agree that candidates for public office need to be pressed regarding their views on climate change. I also agree in principle with subdividing the issue into two categories, relating to a) climate science and b) potential response and remediation.

    Your two questions, as stated, however, play into the hands of AGW Denialists by conflating “climate change”, which can be driven by natural processes, and “anthropogenic climate change”, which is driven by human activity(s), especially emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Moreover, you’ve avoided confronting the most important facet of the problem, which is the seriousness of projected future climate change. For all the impact we’ve experienced so far, it can be argued that, “You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet!”

    I recognize that the goal of your questions is try to pin politicians down on whether they consider this problem to be serious enough to warrant establishing a “dialog”, and attempting to reach a consensus as to what, if anything, ought to be done about it.

    It has to be taken into account that a substantial subset of the American electorate has a fundamental mistrust of both the scientific “establishment” as well as the efficacy of governmental leadership on this (or any other) issue, and that some politicians attempt to use this to their advantage to gain support.

    Thus, the simplest set of questions to adequately define their positions should be something like:

    1) Do you accept the broad international scientific consensus, including that of our own National Academy of Sciences, that current climate change is being driven primarily by human activity, especially through the uncontrolled release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases? If not, which scientific authorities are you relying on?

    2) Do you accept the conclusions of the international scientific community that projected future climate change is likely to have much more serious adverse impacts than we’ve seen so far, both on human populations and natural ecosystems?

    3) Do you agree that this situation is potentially serious enough to warrant trying to reach a national consensus regarding possible response and remediation? If so, what specific measures would you endorse to attain this goal?

    • Hi Jeffrey, thanks for your comment!

      As a clarification, I’m not advocating that we ask candidates these two questions: Do you believe global warming is occurring? And, do you believe we should have aggressive policies to counter this threat? This was my re-statement of what the author Lenfestey wrote in his op-ed for the Star Tribune.

      I may have misinterpreted what you stated, but felt that this clarification was needed.

      I totally agree that language is very important. Similarly, I agree that an important part of the conversation need to be about potential impacts and policy responses–I’m just not sure we’re collectively at a point where those discussions can be taken seriously by enough people.

      This leads to your point about many not trusting the science community and government leadership. That is exactly why I believe we need a fundamentally new approach that is based on trust. This trust is built by having subject matter experts drawn into the process from across society–not just academia. This is an approach that we found to be powerful in the Heinz Center’s State of the Nation’s Ecosystem [link: http://heinzcenter.org/Indicators project on which I worked for many years. Then, someone who identifies with the business sector, for example, has reason to trust the outcome of the process because they see business leaders and experts who are a part of the process.


  3. Nullius in Verba says:

    “We need to build an initiative that is viewed as trustworthy to all of us, no matter our ideological and political positions, or our understanding of science. We can do that.”

    It’s an excellent idea. A number of people on the other side of the debate have been calling for something similar.

    “We can run a transparent process — open to full scrutiny and input from anyone — that develops a series of questions and broadly accepted answers relevant to the issue of climate change.”

    Even better! That would answer a lot of the principle objections and complaints of the sceptics. Releasing data, publishing algorithms, showing your working would be a fantastic step forward.

    How would we start? We can look at your examples as an example.

    “Carbon dioxide, a colorless gas present in tiny concentrations in the atmosphere, can trap radiation from the Earth that would otherwise dissipate into space.”

    You should list “water vapour, carbon dioxide, and other gases” rather than just CO2 when discussing the mechanism of the greenhouse effect. The water vapour is the most important component of both the greenhouse effect and the predicted changes in it.

    It would be better to say “absorb and re-emit”. The term “trap” suggests a permanent retention, which is not how it works. As much energy is dissipated into space now as previously, but because it comes from higher up in the atmosphere, the temperature distribution within the atmosphere will change.

    Incidentally, I’m sure you would agree that the same principle must apply to liquid water in the oceans as much as to water vapour in the air. Sunlight passes through many metres of water before being absorbed, but then when the water radiates it gets immediately absorbed and re-radiated by each layer of the water above it. One might say that water, a colourless liquid present in huge concentrations in the oceans, can trap radiation from below that would otherwise dissipate into space.

    “Our “fingerprints” are detectable in the altered chemical nature of atmospheric carbon dioxide.”

    That should be “isotopic” rather than “chemical”. And while it is a true statement, you need to be careful about what the “fingerprints” imply. The isotopic change shows that some of the CO2 in the air is anthropogenic, but it does not say anything about whether that is the cause of the increase. That requires detailed modelling of the carbon cycle, and the feedbacks within it.

    “Long-term temperature trends indicate significant increases in recent decades.”

    This can be interpreted in many ways, some of which are true, and others less so. For example, what do you mean by “long-term”? Years, decades, centuries, or millenia? What do you mean by “trend”? The linear least-squares fit that everyone plots, or estimates that compensate for autocorrelation, possible unit roots, long-term climate oscillations, and highly uneven measurement/sampling errors? Do you include or exclude urban heat islands, bucket adjustments, instrumentation changes, etc. in your trend? What do you mean by “significant”? Is that in the statistical sense, and if so against what statistical model null? Or do you mean it in the sense of its impact, in which case how do you extend global trends to the far more variable regional climates that people experience directly? For roughly a third of the world, the trend has been cooling over the long term, while for two thirds it has been warming. The spread of natural variation is wider than the signal, and the changes the global trend is measuring are not necessarily uniformly distributed. So how do you go about attributing the contribution of multiple causes to local impacts to say where the global trend is significant?

    It’s a worthwhile endeavor – but as you can see, it’s not going to be easy.

    • @Nullius in Verba: Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I will respond in more detail, but probably not until Monday…

    • @Nullius in Verba (whoever you are): Thanks for your comments. Here are some thoughts.

      I’m sorry if you (and others) misinterpreted my bullet points as more than they were–simply a few points that I feel should be included in a larger conversation.

      Regarding the inclusion of other greenhouse gases (GHGs) in my first bullet, I deliberately did not include them. I’m aiming for discrete building blocks. So, I’d like to see everyone understand the role of the most important GHGs separately, and then compare their roles.

      I should be absolutely clear, however, that I do not come into this with an agenda beyond trying to catalyze a productive conversation. There will need to be a collaborative process to outline the key questions. Please take my few examples as fodder for a much larger conversation.

      Of course, you are absolutely correct about describing carbon dioxide’s role as a GHG as absorbing and re-emitting long wave radiation. It is a perfect example of the type of communication challenge that will need to be debated openly. I would argue that “trap” is a term that many general audiences will intuitively grasp, and those who wish to understand at a deeper level should be directed to clear explanations of how carbon dioxide first absorbs and then re-emits long wave radiation.

      I’m not sure where you’re going with the part about sunlight in the ocean. We’d need to discuss that more. Beyond the obvious phase differences, phytoplankton play a key role in the fate of incident radiation in the ocean.

      You have a fair point regarding being specific about the isotopic signature of carbon dioxide. I was aiming for a description that would work with general audiences–more work to do, for sure.

      A good point, too, on being more specific about time frame, etc. regarding temperature trends. There will be others much better equipped to wrestle that to the ground.

      p.s. I don’t expect you to ‘take my word’ for any of this–I’m trying to describe a process rather than the outcome of such a process. I do believe that your comments would carry more weight if you identified yourself, however.

  4. Nullius in Verba says:


    Thank you for the considered reply.

    I did recognise the bullet points as simple examples of the sorts of things to include. The point I was trying to make is that achieving a resource trusted by both sides is itself an extremely difficult task, because the subject matter is complicated, and there are a multitude of tangled disputes and controversies. Even apparently simple statements raise difficulties. You have to take account of the complexities, to satisfy those that know about them that you’re not over-simplifying or misleading, but you also have to keep it simple, so that non-specialists can understand. It’s very difficult to do both.

    I used the examples you gave merely to illustrate the point. Four simple bullet points generated a whole page of requests for clarification, and in practice even more would be needed.

    That’s a hard enough job when everyone is on the same side. In the current polarised and emotional debate, it is beyond difficult.

    While I agree absolutely that this is both necessary and the right thing to do, and is exactly what some prominent voices on the sceptic side have been calling for too, the big issue about it is how difficult it would be.

    Regarding sunlight in the ocean, I just meant that liquid water is still a “greenhouse gas” as far as the greenhouse mechanism goes, only at 20,000 times the density. The oceans are a super-greenhouse; an extreme case. Thus, you can gain insight into the physics of the atmospheric greenhouse by examining how it works in the water. However, it’s another one of those controversial ideas that the two sides apparently can’t agree on.

    Regarding the name, the actual reason is that my employers don’t allow it. Anonymous and untraceable comments are OK, but they have a policy regarding anything that could conceivably be connected to their reputation, or which could attract trouble. Not everybody treats climate sceptics in such a civilised manner.

    But I would disagree that my arguments would or should hold any extra weight because of who says it. My intention is to persuade through the arguments I make; not through who I am, who I work for, what qualifications I have, what papers I’ve written, or any other extraneous matters. That message is in the name: “On nobody’s word.” It’s a foundational principle of science, and I think scientific debate has been seduced too far already down the path of relying on Argumentum ad Verecundiam.

    • @Nullius in Verba,

      Thanks for yet another thoughtful exchange. Your insights into both the need for this type of resource yet the challenge of identifying points of agreement are very valuable. Do you mean by this statement below that, while it would be a worthwhile pursuit, it is simply unachievable?

      That’s a hard enough job when everyone is on the same side. In the current polarised and emotional debate, it is beyond difficult.

      I understand your point about identification. Without debating whether your points would carry more weight, I’m curious what advice you would have about having the type of transparent conversation that I’ve proposed, which could logically be on a public Q&A site like Quora.

      While anonymous entries are possible, Quora is designed–perhaps given the principal’s origins with Facebook–to favor people who are offering up their identity. Put another way, would there be a scenario you could imagine that would encourage your employer to permit you to identify yourself within this hypothetical Q&A process?