Fighting the Wrong Adversary on Global Warming

Are climate skeptics paid undue attention and given too much credit for their efforts? Or are they merely convenient scapegoats?

Earlier this year, during a talk at the UK’s Royal Society, NASA climate scientist James Hansen asserted that climate skeptics “have been winning the argument for several years, even though the science has become clearer.”

This is an oft-stated refrain in climate-concerned circles: That a noisy minority of climate skeptics, their voices amplified by partisan political communicators and lobbyists for fossil fuel interests (the Koch brothers are the new Exxon Mobil in this storyline), have succeeded in sowing disinformation on global warming. Recent books, such as Merchants of Doubt and Climate Cover-Up, discuss the influential players, think tanks, and techniques that advance the climate skeptic campaign. The argument is that the combined efforts by climate skeptics and their representatives have made people — on the whole — less concerned about global warming. And that this, in turn, has significantly contributed to the lack of political action on climate change.


But in a recent Financial Times column titled “Squabbling while the world burns,” Simon Kuper argued that all the attention lavished on climate skeptics has created “a one-dimensional argument about climate change: do you believe it’s real or not?” Kuper says he’s found that “many people can only read articles about climate change as statements of either belief or skepticism. This obscures better questions, such as what exactly we should do about climate change.”

Duking it out with skeptics is “pointless,” Kuper goes on to assert, “because what most people believe about climate change has little to do with science.” He quotes Mike Hulme, a professor of climate change at the UK’s University of East Anglia, who says: “We disagree about climate change because we have different belief systems.”

Roger Pielke Jr., a University of Colorado political scientist, picks up on this theme and Kuper’s argument in a recent blog post, in which he archly writes:

If it wasn’t for the alleged risks that skeptics pose to our future, we’d have to instead be arguing about things like values, goals and priorities, which are messy and carry with them none of the imputed authority of science. It is in the interests of both skeptics and their opponents to argue about science, because it suggests that their debate is somehow directly relevant to policy action. It is not.

Pielke suggests that climate scientists and their spokespersons fail to recognize that they can declare victory and move past all the hamster-wheel arguments about science: “The debate over climate science is over and has been won by those who assert a human influence on the climate system.”

At the end of his piece, Kuper makes a notable observation that might serve as a template for those looking to advance the climate debate:

The skeptics and the apathetic will always be with us. There’ll never be full consensus on climate change. But if governments could only act when there was unanimity, no law on anything would ever be passed. The U.S. invaded Iraq, bailed out banks and passed universal healthcare with much less consensus than exists over climate change. In short, the skeptics are not the block to action.

Do you agree? Are climate skeptics less important and less influential than they — and their counterparts in the climate-concerned community — would have us believe?

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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22 Responses to Fighting the Wrong Adversary on Global Warming

  1. Vinny Burgoo says:

    You made Simon Kuper’s FT column seem intelligent and well-informed, and there can be no higher praise than that.

    • Kevin Hearle says:

      Sceptics are an important part of the debate as they attempt to keep the science honest. Scientist in the climate field have been less than frank with themselves and the Public. The Climategate 1-2 emails verify for the public that scientists are not gods immune from corruption both within their field of science or politically.

      The science of climate is in its infancy it is not settled, the equations necessary to link AGW with CO2 are not yet determined. The ramifications politically and economically of giving policy over to alarmist green scientific politicos has been shown to be an economic,political and environmental disaster.

      Currently WWF and GP are trying to get a tax on bunker C fuel agreed at Durban. Taxation is a preserve of the governments of individual nations not Green NGO’s. This type of world government by political lobby groups must stop. The UN must itself stop promoting this world government approach if it is to remain a credible organisation worthy of respect.

      The IPCC has been totally discredited by the action of sceptics and for very sound reasons. Their scientific, administrative and political structures and processes have been shown to be corrupt. (see The Delinquent Teenager… by Donna Laframboise, McKitricks latest paper on IPCC processes) This is all due to scepticism long may it endure to protect the world from corruption!!!!

      • Shawn Otto says:

        Actually, the National Academy of Sciences says that anthropogenic global warming is “supported by so many independent observations and results” that it should be “regarded as settled facts.”

        Regarding your comment about “world government” the problem right now is that we have a world economy with no world government. So we have economic feudalism – a wild west state. This is not the fault of multinational corporations; they are victims in some sense like everyone else; they have an uncertain playing field of a patchwork of changing regulations. We have created a global economy without a global regulatory structure, and so corporations have been forced into a race to the bottom, seeking the cheapest labor and the most lax pollution standards to maximize quarterly performance or they get punished in the marketplace. Not their fault. This harms the US economy by exporting jobs and importing volatility, while undermining environmental standards we all value because they improve quality of life.

        Regulation tends to become burdensome when those in power regulate to advantage their pet interests. The way around this is to base regulations on knowledge. As Milton Friedman pointed out, the goal of regulation is to maximize efficiency in the market by internalizing externalities so they are built in to the price. The best driver of this is scientific knowledge, because it works against the powerful imposing regulation (or not) for their own interests.

        In this case the knowledge of every national academy built up over 50 years by thousands of scientists all points generally in the same direction: man-made global warming.

        Regulation, when properly done, does not reduce freedom – it increases freedom. It increases your freedom from me as a factory owner being able to dump my factory waste into the river running along the back of my property, as we all used to do. A running stream cleanses itself every twenty miles, the saying went. Now that seems ridiculous. If I do that I am imposing a tyranny on you – taking away your freedom to clean water, the health of your children, and ability to enjoy an unpolluted environment. And truth be told, I would have lost the same thing. As David Hume defined it, freedom is the freedom to choose. By polluting, I deprive you of choice, and so I take from you – I exact a tyranny over you. If I let my dog sh** on your lawn it’s the same thing. It externalizes my costs, making my life easier but making yours worse. That’s precisely what CO2 emission is doing, and once we become aware of the problem, we are obligated to act. Thus we now see those who are aware claiming that the science is not settled. Friedman argued that once we become aware of a problem where an externality is being dumped on the public, regulation is our obligation to restore efficiency to the marketplace and the highest good to all. The alternative is tyranny.

      • Tony Duncan says:

        I think very few of the skeptics are trying to keep scientists honest. In fact the deliberately one sided and deceitful attacks on scientists from many skeptics is what has led to the polarization on the issue we have today and is what led to the most damaging climategate emails.
        the emails show the scientists being quite frank about the belief by climate scientists that skeptics were uninterested in the science but only trying to tear down ACC, and willing to distort any science to do so. The scientists were understandably defensive and resentful of this, and responded in ways that were sometimes not in the interests of clear science but certainly understandable.
        the rest of your post is just a series of ideological assertions that are not worth rebutting in detail.
        I DO agree that the skeptic arguments HAVE resulted in much more care in focus in researching the numerous factors related to ACC. Many of this research might not have been attempted if there had not been so much focus on trying to discredit the science. On the other hand the skeptics have completely poisined the issue and as you so clealry show have made it an ideological battle of good and evil. The right invents its own science to try to shoot down ACC, and demonizes the scientists as part of a vast attempt to destroy western democracy and impose socialism on the world. And the Left demonizes the right wing as being anti science and ignoring the biggest threat in human history, often exaggerating facts to paint as bad a picture as possible on the degree and effects of temperature change.
        The real skeptics, who are caught in the middle are mostly scientist who accept the real science and are trying to tease out both the likely consequences and reasonable economic policy to deal with it.

  2. Alexander Harvey says:

    The Kuper quote continues:

    “Rather, the block is that the believers – including virtually all governments on earth – aren’t sufficiently willing to act. We could do something. But shouting at sceptics is easier.”

    Yes, why not do something, perhaps something useful.

    One of the blessings of the internet is that no author can predict their audience. A link on a page can bring almost anyone winging in from anywhere with almost any background, mindset, or world view.

    One may be fairly certain that those with the actual pink rag in their mitts will be “people like us” understand the customs and tribal rituals. Those who know little and nothing of the FT, not even its idiocyncratic coloured pages will read according to their disposition.

    “The skeptics and the apathetic will always be with us.”

    Kuper is of course on the “us” and the “We” above. Others are skeptic or apathetic.

    Call me old fashioned but, unless the epiphet “apathetic” is core to, and not a throw away in, the argument. There are words more calculated to embark those that winged in from afar.

    It seems that tiring of “shouting at sceptics” he has lapsed into a bit of whinge about it with his mates, all “people like us” doncha know.

    Mercifully the article ended with a link to a Gillian Tett piece. One can read her pieces with unexpected interest, you may not even notice that she is a brilliant journalist, and very very clever. She likes her subjects which are pretty varied and the characters at play in them. She can also be brutal but not make the innocent reader whince at the pain caused.

    Perhaps she would take a look at tribalism and rivalries in the climate field. Her talents at being journalistic tour de force, a Doctor of social anthropology, a wit, and engagingly witty could shine a little light into that world and convey her insights to those that are not from that world.

    I think it fair to say that she managed to explain the risks, dangers and complexities of the arcane financial instruments at the core of the banking collapse to those that had little interest in such things, which was almost everybody including most of the staff on the FT, and did so before they wrecked havoc and destroyed the dreams and the savings of so many.

  3. fighting the wrong adversary???
    ~ ~ ~

    Seems to me the adversary is a ‘willful ignoring society’s impacts’.
    The adversary being most folks devotion to the latest movie or video game
    or social scandal or sports game or shopping event . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    seemingly devoid of any interest in what’s actually happening upon our physical planet.

    How to deal with that apathy?

    As for the politicians,
    they are owned by the rich masters-of-the-universe,
    you know the movers and shapers. . .

    >>> How does science and earth’s physical realities crack into those armored skulls?

  4. Pediatrician says:

    The intention to misinform always there, there’s the business of fees for warming the planet … there is a Jewish saying that says if all push to the same side, would tip over the world.

    No one has the absolute truth, so we’ll have to listen to everyone to finally … not believe anything.

    • None of the independently reproduced, peer-reviewed results, from labs from all over the world that have no connection to one another or pollution marketers is based on belief. Its based on evidence and empiricism. The opposite of making decisions based on belief.

  5. RickA says:

    It is just easier to blame the skeptics or the politicians, than accept that:

    1) We really don’t know what the temperature increase will be by 2100.
    2) We really don’t know what the sea level rise will be by 2100.
    3) We really don’t have a solution to provide enough non-carbon power – so there is no action that can even be taken, which will actually address the problem.
    4) As the FOIA leaker points out – the long term solution to this problem are to hurt the third world – by slowing their rise to middle class and a 1st world standard of living – and making food, energy and fuel more expensive.

    Before we spend trillions to no effect I want to actually know the problem really exists. Lets wait until 2050, measure the global temperature and the sea level and see how they actual observations compare to the projections for the 1st half of the century and see if they are under the projections (which I suspect they will be).

    Also, it will take that long to even develop solutions which we can actually enact.

    • I think its easier to accept the conclusions of 99 out of 100 climate scientists, the US National Academy of Sciences, those of Russia, China, all of the EU, Brazil, and other major industrialized nations, the American Physical Society, the American Chemical Society, the Stanford Solar Center, all the universities of Scotland and so on, than engage in the false pretense that, as the US NAS puts it that global warming is manmade and should be regarded as “settled facts.”

  6. Shawn Otto says:

    From my experience on the front lines of the science/politics interface this is largely correct. The reason the skeptics have any power at all is not because what they say is credible, because based on the facts it is not, but because policymakers don’t want to have to do anything and the skeptics supply an excuse for inaction. In the case of Iraq, for example, the policymaker motivation (and public sentiment) was in the opposite direction: the direction of action. Thus, the inverse equivalent of a climate skeptic, the gadfly Ahmed Chalabi, though apparently equally without data-driven evidence, was equally listened to because he provided an excuse for action.

    • Susan says:

      Shawn, that’s spot on.

      There are few governments with industrial economies and especially those who have fossil fuels to sell – like Canada for example — that really want to tackle global warming due to the complexity it poses and the costs they see in limiting CO2.

      Given that lack of motivation, the policy maker looks for excuses not to act – to continue to benefit from the sale of fossil fuels and development of resources like shale oil. Overblown uncertainty provides that excuse.

      The so-called skeptics like McIntyre and his ilk overblow uncertainty, misrepresent its importance and raise doubt about the science. Hence, they provide the policy maker who doesn’t really want to act the fodder they need in order to delay. One can always point to uncertainty when one wants to delay action, but there is always uncertainty in science.

      Overplaying it is a ploy.

  7. Nullius in Verba says:

    The reason for inaction in Durban is not the sceptic-believer argument, or sceptics’ influence on politicians, but that nobody has resolved the original and more fundamental political dispute about how to address it, as set out by the Byrd-Hagel resolution in 1997. That has nothing to do with sceptics, but they talk about sceptics getting in the way of action because nobody wants to talk about the Byrd-Hagel issue. Doing so would risk people understanding the UN’s actual intentions in all of this.

    The Byrd-Hagel resolution expressed the position of every US administration – Bush’s and Obama’s included – since the beginning. It states that they believe CO2 emissions to be causing dangerous climate change, and the only response that makes sense is to place limits on all CO2 emission sufficient to actually make a significant difference to the climate, everywhere at the same time, without condition, without exceptions, without having to be bribed to do it, because you do really believe it is an emergency situation, don’t you?

    The policy prescription this is opposing is the one in which emission restrictions are placed on only the prosperous, Western, developed countries – especially the United States – and that there be a massive transfer of wealth, technology, and assistance from said developed countries to the assorted kleptocrats and looter economies of the developing world to “compensate” them for the “damage” the industrialised countries did, and to enable them to achieve the same standard of living without emitting as much. In short, they’ll only cut emissions if the West pays the entire asking price – which given the inefficiencies and corruption involved will be ten times the actual price.

    The UN bureaucrats and their NGO remoras like it because it’s a step on the road to world government and centralised economic and social planning, with them in prime position to run it. The European governments like it because it enables the same within the EU, as well as bringing down an economic rival at little cost to themselves. The developing world like it because they get paid for that for which they would otherwise have to work (or reform). What’s not to like?

    And nobody in those policy circles is seriously proposing enforcible emission cut-backs big enough that they would actually lead to any detectable change in the climate, even on the basis of their own rather iffy science. They know that the negotiations and wrangling will haggle the price down anyway.

    This is what the argument has always been about. The US says there’s no point unless China and India are on board, otherwise the emissions will simply be exported and rise just the same, and China is adamant that they are not getting on board. They’ll flirt with the idea and make supportive-sounding public statements if it might lead to the US paying them all their money in perpetuity for no cost, but they’re not stupid.

    The situation is much like – since you bring the subject up – the war in Iraq. The only reason that the rest of the world didn’t invade years previously is that France, Germany, and China had invested a huge pile of their money backing Saddam. They had him deep in debt to the Paris Club, they had assured him they could hold off the US and get the UN sanctions dropped without him having to surrender his regional military ambitions, and had the deals lined up ready for when that happened; the oil-for-food scandal there to ‘oil the wheels’. It was all about who got the money.

    Sceptics have nothing at all to do with any of that. The only thing they might achieve, and they haven’t achieved it yet, is to cut the ground from under both sides of the whole sordid, empty negotiation and stop them wasting all that time and tax money. Although that would be unlikely to have any long-lasting effect, of course. It’s all very depressing.

    • Susan says:

      The UN bureaucrats and their NGO remoras like it because it’s a step on the road to world government and centralised economic and social planning, with them in prime position to run it. The European governments like it because it enables the same within the EU, as well as bringing down an economic rival at little cost to themselves. The developing world like it because they get paid for that for which they would otherwise have to work (or reform). What’s not to like?

      That’s rather paranoid. Granted there are bound to be some bureaucrats who fantasize about world government — to deny that would be to be disingenuous. However, I think that when analysts advocate multi-lateral or global solutions it’s not because they are megalomaniacs but because it’s a multi-lateral or global problem and demands a solution in kind. A global threat has to be addressed globally and it must be binding because voluntary action will not work.

      These multi-lateral / global solutions are not going to be popular among nation states because they are used to having autonomous political systems, and see any loss of political autonomy as a threat. No one really wants to be seen to cede any authority to a global body. Yet to effectively address a global threat like AGW, such a ceding of power on some level will be necessary.

      Skeptics and their overplaying of uncertainty are merely tools used by governments reluctant to make the hard choices and lead. Politics is broken such that politicians are mostly chickenshits who are in the pockets of big business, who care only about getting re-elected aka keeping their paymasters happy, and not about being leaders or acting in the common good.

      We’re screwed and will only have geoengineering as a last resort.


    • Susan says:

      The policy prescription this is opposing is the one in which emission restrictions are placed on only the prosperous, Western, developed countries – especially the United States – and that there be a massive transfer of wealth, technology, and assistance from said developed countries to the assorted kleptocrats and looter economies of the developing world to “compensate” them for the “damage” the industrialised countries did, and to enable them to achieve the same standard of living without emitting as much. In short, they’ll only cut emissions if the West pays the entire asking price – which given the inefficiencies and corruption involved will be ten times the actual price.

      This objection always makes me smile — with gritted teeth, of course. Those who make this argument are often the very same folks who make the argument that we can’t restrict emissions because the poor nations must have more energy and emission regulations would deny them the chance to industrialize.

      We in the western developed world created the problem. We benefitted from dumping our waste emissions into the atmosphere and oceans. Now, we have to pay the price. It seems pretty simple to me.

      Those nations who aren’t responsible for the current CO2 burden want to develop as we have but if they follow our path, or worse — turn to coal to satisfy their energy needs — they will make matters go from bad to dire.

      To prevent that, we have two options: provide the developing nations with energy alternatives that are carbon-neutral or deny them the opportunity to develop. The latter is not morally acceptable to me. The former will cost those responsible for the predicament — us in the western industrial economies — money and technology transfer.

      There’s really no way around it. We polluted. Now we have to pay. We can pay now, or pay later, but if we wait, the cost will continue to increase and the solutions will be more dire.

      Sadly, I see us delaying and delaying, narrowing our possible solutions and making them more expensive and more risky.

      Sapient sapiens? So our name claims but I wonder sometimes…

  8. Paul in Sweden says:

    - catastrophic problem is alleged

    - radical and punitive policies that will not solve the alleged problem are presented

    - universal support is wanting

    Who could have imagined this outcome?

  9. Tony Duncan says:

    I do think the skeptics arguments are tremendously impacting the issue of ACC.
    Almost any article I read that has a comment section has comments by at least one, sometimes a majority of commenters who decry ACC as at best being unproven, but more likely being a complete scam. Also the argument that policy prescriptions to limit CO2 and the effects of the greenhouse effect are constantly being called part of a socialist plot to destroy our economy and take away freedoms.
    I agree that is this was 5% of the fringe right, that arguing this was a problem would just be scapegoating, but it is more like 20%-30% and the entire republican party has been almost completely taken over (one or two exceptions only remain, even Huntsman had to backtrack and make sure people knew he would do nothing about the issue if elected). the idea that Cliamte change is NOT anthropogenic has become a litmus test in the republican party, and that pretty much mean that it cannot be.
    If it wasn’t for this fact, Gingrich, Graham, McCain and Romney and other republicans WOULD have been arguing policy prescriptions as Gingerich so eloquently did in a 2007 interview with Revkin. The fact that the rest of the world knows the US is NOT going to do any serious policy regarding limiting CO2 makes the whole process nearly impossible. Certainly China is not going to do MORE than the US, and even less so India, and indonesia. Brazil and Europe might, but their contribution by itself is hardly going to accomplish much. IS Australia’s implementation going to cause a political backlash in the other major western country with a strong anti science bloc of conservatives? It is a cascading series of baffles that start with a roadblock in the US refusing to acknowledge that there actually is a problem and there is a significant possibility it could have disastrous consequences.

  10. Dean says:

    The argument that Pielke makes, and Kuper apparently agrees with, is that because polls show that a majority believes in a human impact on climate, that there is no lack of support. This leads to their (or at least Pielke’s) conclusions that it’s all the scientists and activists fault that no policy has been adopted. Pielke says in his book and elsewhere that those polls show that there is political will for a policy to be adopted.

    But that is a very shallow analysis. Polls showing belief and support for some kind of action are not the same as there being will for action. Polls in the US show majority support for gun control, but that ain’t happening either.

    Yet there is _something_ to the point about what the adversary is. If deniers were the only problem, Europe would have cut it’s emissions much more than it has, since denialism has almost no political power on the continent. But denialism is strong and powerful in the US, and to the degree that the US needs to show leadership, it has had a serious impact. If it were gone, we still would have a challenge, but we can barely even start with the Republican embrace of denialism. And – no – I won’t give in to political correctness and avoid the word denialism.

  11. Anteaus says:

    Never in any field of science has the truth been distorted so heavily by political influence. Basically, we can no longer trust any information from any organization which might have a stake in the politics or economics of climate science. Which means, most of the major players.

    In these circumstances the only recourse is to go back to the basics, and do the science ourselves. Which is probably why you see so many unqualified people posting theories on climate science. -But hey, being unqualified doesn’t make one a non-scientist. Following good theoretical or experimental practices, documenting your method and results, and showing the source of your data is what makes good science. Anyone can do this. Many have.

    As for me, I would be inclined to form my opinions on the basis of those write-ups I find which show their information sources and reasoning, and which seem to show good scientific practice. It is my observation that when a person does so, they are usually telling the truth.

    The converse situation, where a person refuses to show their reasoning and instead tries to rely on exaggeration, hysteria or emotional appeals, generally indicates untruthfulness. As does a situation where a person whose argument is shot-down then comes-up with a whole series of alternative arguments with the same outcome, each one more preposterous than the last.