Indirectly through an article sent me by a friend I just came to John Murdock’s “Bret Stephens and the Climate Change Center,” the whole of which should be helpful to many people in understanding the “lay of the land” in debates over climate change/global warming. I missed the article back in May when it was published but wish I hadn’t. Murdock is a friendly acquaintance stretching back to shortly after the Cornwall Alliance’s founding, an evangelical Christian who disagrees with our position that climate change/global warming, though real, is largely (but probably not exclusively) natural, not likely catastrophic, and not something to which we would be wise to respond by spending $Trillions in a rapid transition from fossil fuels to wind and solar. Murdock discusses the disconcerting reaction of many climate alarmists to former Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens’s move to the New York Times, his interest stemming from the fact that Stephens’s skepticism didn’t conform to the Times‘s longstanding embrace of the more alarmist perspective.
Here are a few points I think are particularly salient:
- Insight into the “97% consensus” claim: “Stephens was offering something of an olive branch, conceding that ‘the modest warming of the Northern Hemisphere since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming.’ These assertions are about all that the chronically overstated ‘97 percent’ of climate scientists have reached consensus on.”
- On the tendency to depict everyone as at the extremes rather than recognizing nuanced positions along a spectrum: “Climate blogger Joe Romm went full ‘Holocaust’on the Times and its newly employed ‘extreme climate denier.’ (Romm is so rabid that one can do little more than note Godwin’s Law and move on.)” [I added the link to Godwin’s law for those who aren’t familiar with it.]
- On the tendency to concede that one’s opponent is factually correct but still insist on vilifying him because he doesn’t embrace one’s policy goal: “His argument against ‘an overweening scientism’ is convincing, Matthews grants, ‘because the institutions he mentions can make mistakes’ and ‘[s]ometimes our biases do get in the way.’ Well, this does sound horrible! [Note Murdock’s irony.] Matthews acknowledges that ‘technically, he doesn’t get any facts wrong’—but this type of ‘denialism’ is actually ‘all the more insidious,’ precisely because ‘it doesn’t outright reject the facts.’ OK, got it. [Again, note the irony.]”
- On the tendency to brand as nefarious any acknowledgment about uncertainty in the case for dangerous-to-catastrophic anthropogenic global warming: “Stephens’s basic call is for ‘less certitude about our climate future.’ It is possible, as Matthews claims, that his move to the middle is just a ruse to cover his sowing of ‘epistemic uncertainty.’ Then why not call his bluff, rather than call him names? True, uncertainty has been used as a smokescreen to slow action on everything from cigarettes to CO2. But as Mike Hulme [former director of the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Institute and one of the most learned and respected of scientists long associated with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] notes in his ever more relevant Why We Disagree About Climate Change, ‘Certainty is the anomalous condition for humanity, not uncertainty.’”
- On the need not only for more people to be willing to occupy positions along the spectrum rather than at the extremes but also for more people to recognize those along the spectrum and show them respect rather than caricaturing them as occupying the opposite extreme of one’s own: “We need a dialogue in which the alternatives are better than ‘It’s a hoax’ and forced capitulation to an illusory ‘consensus’ about the science, impacts, policy, and priority of climate change. Currently, those who venture into the middle can expect fire from both sides, but a few do nevertheless.”
- On the need for people all along the spectrum to correct those whose positions are close to their own when they make errors: “Kerry Emanuel (stepping in from the ‘consensus’ side) will acknowledge problems with models and even out himself as a ‘small government conservative.’ His MIT colleague Richard Lindzen will also occasionally buck the skeptics who lionize him by calling out their tropes—like the supposedly dastardly switch from ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change,’ a canard perhaps as misused on the right as ‘97 percent’ is on the left.”
- On the reality that funding from fossil fuel interests, like the Koch brothers, doesn’t necessarily entail compromised integrity: “The Berkeley Earth Project, staffed with skeptical scientists and funded with Koch dollars, is shifting people from their initial assumptions in response to data, as good science should.”
- On the climate-Left’s demonization of anyone from “its perspective” who ventures to treat other perspectives with respect: “Andrew Revkin, the longtime science writer at the Times whom Stephens quotes in his debut, reflects in his moving post-stroke career retrospective ‘My Climate Change’ on the ‘digital sledgehammer’ that hit him when he dared to describe Bjorn Lomborg’s book Cool It as occupying ‘the pragmatic center.’ Revkin probably should not have been surprised. Lomborg, who thinks that warming is happening, significant, and manmade but questions the usefulness of global treaties, was still far enough off the ‘consensus’ reservation to merit the evil eye and, once, a pie to the face in protest.”
Andy Revkin’s “My Climate Change,” to which Murdock refers, is by a veteran environmental journalist who recognizes some ways in which he himself contributed to needless polarization:
- On the tendency for new discoveries to be taken at face value, especially if they entailed catastrophe, though later study would tone down their findings: “That pattern would pop up again and again in weighing environmental perils: newly discovered, they were stark and vivid, but in most cases, more science only led to more nuance and more questions—not a good mix for media thriving on stark drama.”
- On the tendency to portray the whole thing as good guys versus bad guys, white hats versus black hats, angels versus demons: “Stories that had villains and heroes, the empowered and the powerless—those were (often appropriately) news.”
- On the realization that reality tends to be far more complex than we first think: “Empirical studies and a batch of surveys pointed to a set of biases, reflexes, and cognitive filters that almost guaranteed failure in trying to galvanize broad action on global warming given the long time scales, enduring uncertainties, geographic spread, and lack of quick fixes.”
- On the realization that alarmists didn’t have a monopoly on scientific understanding: “I looked into the ‘cultural cognition’ research of Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale, who has the animated mannerisms and wardrobe of Quentin Tarantino. Among a host of sobering findings, he showed that scientific literacy abounded at both ends of the spectrum of beliefs on global warming. So I tried a little experiment: I sifted for Nobel laureates in physics who’d expressed strong views on global warming. It turned out there was one to suit just about anyone’s argument, from deep worry to total unconcern.”
- Or this: “As a journalist in my fifties, pondering how to make the most of the rest of my productive years, this was a more profound blow than that stinging e-mail from former fans years earlier.”
- And related to the tendency of climate alarmists to commit “the is/ought fallacy” by thinking policy flows obviously from facts about the surrounding world: “Here’s the other problem: science doesn’t tell you what to do. The climate scientist Ken Caldeira, who studied philosophy in college, likes to paraphrase the 18th-century philosopher David Hume when describing the line between values and data: ‘You can’t get an ought from an is.’”
- And by the way, Revkin, though by no means agreeing with us overall on climate change, recognizes us and the reality of our scientific case. See here and the comments under it, where he and I interact a bit.
An encounter recently with some young film/journalism students who came to my office to interview me led me to think how important the lessons above from both Murdock and Revkin are. The temptations to commit the kinds of errors Murdock and Revkin identify are strong, especially for journalists just starting out and wanting to make a splash to get noticed, but not to rock the boat lest they be forced to walk the plank.
We need journalists with courage to stand against the tide.