DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

Climate Skeptics v. Climate Deniers

By David Brin, Ph.D.

Among the many battlefronts in culture war, few have raised a specter of worry among scientists more than the great big imbroglio over Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW). Especially in America, positions are staked and fiercely held, by parties who claim they are evidence-based while their opponents are portrayed as either conspiratorial deniers or the gullible "koolaid-drinking" tools of a propaganda machine. An especially vexing aspect of this polarization is the near perfect correlation of the sides with an ancient and largely unrelated left-right political axis.

Trained as a scientist, and knowing many who research planetary atmospheres, I lean toward listening to expert advice on this complicated issue, especially since most recommended policy endeavors are things we should do anyway, for other reasons (e.g. to attain energy independence, to reduce the influence of foreign petro-oligarchs, and to increase economic efficiency). Perhaps because my graduate work included cellular fluidics models, I appreciate folks who do such things well, propelling (for example) spectacular advances in weather forecasting. My first instinct is to give such people the benefit of the doubt.

Not every person who expresses doubt toward some part of this complex issue is wedded to shrill, Fox News anti-intellectualism. Nor do they all parrot nonsense, e.g. that winter snowstorms refute general atmospheric warming. You are likely to know individuals who claim to be rational, open-minded "AGW-skeptics."

Indeed, I too find some parts of AGW theory unclear, ill-supported, or poorly explained. Any complex field contains gaps. For example, the oceans are evidently drawing more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than anyone can explain. Will this fortuitous extra-absorption reach a limit, soon? Might some of the stored CO2, or the hydrated methane now locked in sub-sea ices or in permafrost, reach some temperature tipping point and suddenly flood forth, quickly transforming the greenhouse warming effect from sub-linear to runaway super-linear? Also, as a contrarian-modernist, I have some affinity for geoengineering proposals that are unpopular on the left. Finally, as coiner of the term "Age of Amateurs," I've long held that elites and experts will have to adapt to a 21st Century filled with eager, savvy, question-asking citizens.

Hence, I have some sympathy for people who make the "Denialist-Skeptic" distinction. (I'll group "climate agnostics" with the Skeptics for this discussion.) They deserve a chance to show they are motivated more by curiosity than partisan fever. Among those who convincingly fit into the Climate Skeptic category, I include several engineers, fellow science fiction authors and the famed physicist Freeman Dyson.

Alas, a much larger number use the term "skeptic" as a re-labeling trick, while wallowing in the standard narratives of distraction and delay, exhibiting patterns described in Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things and Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World. Only now, as more recently related in Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science and in Denialism, by Michael Specter, the trend toward dismissal of science has gone into overdrive, propelled by forces that are intensely political.

So here is the problem: What discrete characteristics distinguish a rational, pro-science "climate skeptic" who has honest questions about the AGW consensus from members of a Denialist Movement that portrays all members of a scientific community as either fools or conspirators?

[image from DeSmogBlog.com]

Who is an Expert?

Climate Skeptics first admit that they are non-experts in the topic at hand. And that experts tend to know more than non-experts. Since the Neolithic, human civilizations have relied on specialists, a trend that accelerated in the 20th Century. Reasonable people begin their paradigm -- dissent by stipulating respect for the decades that intelligent people invested in complex realms like radiative transfer, ocean chemistry, or microcell computer modeling.

This does not mean experts are always right! But this simple admission separates a Climate Skeptic from the Climate Denialist who partakes in the modern notion that vociferous opinion is worth as much as spending 20 years studying atmospheric data and models from eight planets.

[image from ThinkProgress.org]

The News I Need from the Weather Report

Next, the Climate Skeptic is keenly aware that, after endless jokes about hapless weathermen who could not prophesy accurately beyond a few hours, we recently entered a whole new era. Meteorologists can now forecast three days ahead fairly well, and more tentatively as far as 14 days, based on a science that has grown spectacularly adept, faster than any other. Now, with countless lives and billions of dollars riding on the skill and honesty of several thousand brilliant experts, the Climate Skeptic admits that these weather and climate guys are pretty damn smart.

(Side note: There is a distinction between weather and climate. Both deal in the same oceans, vapors, gases and sunlight, using almost identical basic equations and expertise. Both are extremely complex, and deal with that complexity with simplifying assumptions and boundary conditions. Clearly, climate modeling is more primitive, right now. Perhaps it is even rife with errors! Still, the overall tools, methods, community and eagerly-skilled people overlap greatly.)

The Climate Skeptic further avows that this rapid progress happened through a process of eager competitiveness, with scientists regularly challenging each other, poking at errors and forcing science forward -- a rambunctious, ambitious process that makes Wall Street look tame.

Climate Denialists also share this utter reliance on improved weather forecasting. They base vacations and investments on forecasts made by the same guys they call uniformly lazy, incompetent, corrupt hacks. Miraculously, they see no contradiction.

[image from The Green Market]

A Little Humility

Climate Skeptics go on to admit that it is both rare and significant when nearly 100% of the scientists in any field share a consensus-model, before splitting up to fight over sub-models. Hence, if an outsider perceives "something wrong" with a core scientific model, the humble and justified response of that curious outsider should be to ask "what mistake am I making?" before assuming 100% of the experts are wrong.

By contrast, Climate Denialists glom onto an anecdotal "gotcha!" from a dogma-driven radio show or politically biased blog site, whereupon they conclude that all of the atmospheric scientists must be in on some wretched conspiracy. Uniformly. At the same time.

[image from Daily Kos]

Is it Really Close to 100%?

At the 2008 Future in Review Conference, Harvard professor James McCarthy, former co-chair of the IPCC, was asked how many of the world's top 1000 climate experts would disagree with the basic scientific consensus that the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations over the last 50 years to levels not seen in 650,000 years is primarily anthropogenic and is the cause of an increase in global temperatures. He replied, "Five."

This fits with my own anecedotal experience, asking the same question of about a dozen top atmosphere experts over the years. But the smoking gun, again, is the "dog that hasn't barked in the night." Despite publicly bruited offers of jobs, publicity and lavish rewards from fossil fuel companies and neoconservative media, very few qualified experts in climate have stepped forward to object to the overall consensus on AGW, and those who have done so couch their doubts very specifically, so as to be almost useless to the Climate Denial Community.

[image from The Swash Zone]

The Young Guns of Science

We cannot say too often that, just because nearly all of experts in a field share a consensus, that doesn't absolutely prevent their paradigm from being wrong. Still, the Climate Skeptic admits this is rare in science history. Moreover, a steep burden of proof falls on those who claim that 100% of experts are wrong. The Climate Denialist, by contrast, cares little about the history of science, and especially has no understanding of how the Young Guns in any scientific field -- the post-docs and recently-tenured junior professors -- are always on the lookout for chinks and holes in the current paradigm, where they can go to topple Nobel laureates and make a rep for themselves.

This is a crucial point. For the core Denialist narrative is that every single young atmospheric scientist is corrupt or a gelded coward. Not a few, or some, or even most... but every last one of them. Only that can explain why none of them have "come out" and admitted to the conspiracy. One Denialist narrative claims that the experts are suborned by "millions pouring into green technologies" without showing how a space probe researcher, studying Venus at JPL, profits from a contract going to a windmill manufacturer in Copenhagen. But we'll return to conspiracy theories in a bit.

I am not proclaiming that all young scientists are noble, brave, insightful and incorruptible. On average, most scientists are propelled by adventure, curiosity, and macho-competitive guts. But yes, I've known some who weren't. Still, after working with scientists in dozens of different fields, I know that the best of the Young Guns have the knowledge, tools, and ambition to start screaming when they spot "holes in the consensus." If all the post-docs and junior-tenureds in atmospheric studies have timidly laid down, then this is the first time it happened in any large scale field of science. Their acceptance of the AGW model means something.

How does a Denialist imagine that all the Young Guns are either cowed by authority figures or perverted by greed for measly five figure grants? Perhaps because that is how things work in the Denialist's own field? It is a natural human mistake to assume that others are like yourself.

In sharp contrast, the Climate Skeptic takes the absence of Young Gun dissenters into account, adding it to the burden of proof borne by the other side.

[image from Citizen Action Monitor]

Who are the More Likely Conspirators?

Alas, still fizzing with questions, the Climate Skeptic hasn't finished "admitting things" yet, in order to have her curiosity taken seriously. For example, she openly affirms who the chief beneficiaries of the current status quo are: those who spent two decades delaying energy efficiency research and urging us to guzzle carbon fuels like mad. But let's have it out, in the open.

The guys who benefit from keeping us on the hydrocarbon-teat are... foreign petro-princes, Russian oil oligarchs, and Exxon. That is where the money flows.

Our Climate Skeptic admits that these fellows have Trillions (with a T) staked on preserving things as they are -- on preventing America from moving toward energy efficiency and independence. He admits that a conspiracy among fifty petro oligarchs seems more plausible than some convoluted cabal to "push green technologies" -- a supposed conspiracy involving tens of thousands of diverse people, most of them nerdy blabbermouths, squabbling over far smaller sums of money.

Though a comparison of relative plausibility doesn't prove anything, it does illuminate the starkly uneven way that paranoia is allocated in the Denialist Movement.

[image from Laci the Dog's blog]

The Tobacco Connection

While looking at this aspect of things, consider some eerie parallels in methodology with the Great Big War over Tobacco. Some of the very same consulting groups who formulated Big Tobacco's "deny, delay, and obfuscate" strategy-providing that industry with nearly four decades in which to adjust to growing societal awareness of its problems-are working on the Climate and Energy Denial Front today, with precisely the same agenda.

As one analyst recently put it:

"I think that the main driver for this movement is that when you compare the US economy 'before' and 'after' acceptance of human-induced warming contributions, one of the most significant differences will be the value of owning particular stocks. It's impossible to dump onto the market a trillion dollars or more worth of stocks in industrial sectors that generate much of the CO2, without those stock prices dropping through the floor. But with enough smokescreens raised to delay public acceptance, there is far more time to gradually unload stock, and perhaps even reposition the companies in the most vulnerable industries.

"This strategy became especially crucial for them, when their earlier gambit -- investing Social Security trust funds in the stock market -- fell through. This would have allowed brokers to unload half a trillion dollars in failing assets on millions of naive new stockholders. We now know retirees would have lost hundreds of billions."

This parallel with Big Tobacco is creepy in the short term, but in the longer view it actually gets puzzling because in the end the tobacco industry faced severe public ire and prodigious liability judgments as punishment for these very tactics-judgments that they escaped only through fast-footed political maneuvering. This raises a fundamental issue: If the Denialist Movement's knowing and deliberate obstruction of climate remediation can someday be plausibly shown to have contributed toward vast losses of real and intangible property and the displacement of millions of refugees, will the top-most Denialists then be liable for damages, under common and tort law, as well as precedents set by the tobacco judgments?

This appears to not have been discussed anywhere that I know of. But neither was the possibility of tort penalties against Big Tobacco, back when the cancer findings were new. The relevance to our Skeptic/Denialist distinction is crucial: Those who merely ask scientific questions, while simultaneously helping push for energy independence, will be safe enough. Differences of opinion, over science, won't be actionable, whichever side proves right. On the other hand, those who directly, deliberately and conspiratorially obstructed reasonable precautions and progress toward efficiency may face an angry and litigious world, if the expert forecasts prove to have been right, all along. Preventing action that, upon expert advice, might have staunched or curtailed harm, is legally culpable.

Are they so very sure that they will be able to control politics and the courts next time the chickens come home to roost? In effect, the topmost promoters of Denialism are betting everything they own.

[image from greenfyre's]

The 1% Precautionary Principle

Shifting from a legalistic to a polemical point, Denialism demands that "no rash measures should be taken until there is proof of danger." That paraphrasing sums up the reasonable-sounding surface premise.

The rash measures to which they point are typically draconian carbon taxes, slapped as a burden across the entire economy. If one assumes that the world and American economies would be severely affected by such taxes, then the picture is of a zero sum game, a tradeoff between two grievous harms. And since the harm wrought by taxation is considered concrete and that from climate change is still abstractly nebulous, any shift to concerted AGW remediation requires extreme justification. In other words, this reasoning alone shifts the burden of proof onto the shoulders of those urging action, a burden that cannot be met even with 99% scientific consensus.

But there are several logical problems with this argument. First, economists generally have less than expected fear of diversionary taxes-levies that are applied consistently and predictably, to permanently shift markets over to a new equilibrium position, where costs that had been intangible are now made tangible and where it is deemed in society's interest to encourage a shift to alternate spending. History shows that markets adjust to such alterations of the playing field, so long as consistency is maintained. For example, "sin" taxes on alcohol, and especially tobacco, had the desired social effect of gradually shifting consumer habits, while incorporating many of the formerly intangible costs of smoking into the purchase price. Predicted devastating impacts upon whole farming regions did not materialize, as markets and producers adapted. But this portion of the argument is a bit arcane and complex. It merits a completely separate discussion.

What can be established more compactly is that carbon taxes are an extremum, a worst case bogeyman, especially since the political wing that incorporates Denialism has also blocked almost every other endeavor that might help society move toward efficiency, including even expansions in energy research. Hence, "rashness" has never been the criterion for opposition. Indeed, were carbon taxes the core villain, conservatives who were otherwise sincere about "energy independence" would have been vigorous in promoting alternative means of remediation, offering them as vigorously plausible substitutes. This has not happened. (Indeed, the recent push for renewal of nuclear power has come largely from the left.)

But let's now return to the basic matter of burden of proof. A widely-touted notion called the Precautionary Principle holds that some kinds of danger call for preventive action, even if the peril in question has not yet been proved. This principle is not just a lefty nostrum. It was put forward most insistently by that icon of the neoconservative right, former Vice President Dick Cheney, who explicitly proclaimed the Precautionary Principle, over a matter far less threatening than AGW. As he said, "If there's a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response." Cheney went on to state that even aggressively peremptory acts of war, leading to great pain and cost, are justified if there is a small likelihood that greater pain and cost can be averted.

So, how much more compelling is it to act on AGW, if the potential overall harm to both planet and nation is vastly worse than a couple of dirty bombs? Are we to believe that 99% of the experts are so discredited that there is less than a one-percent chance that continuing to pump anthropogenic carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would cause catastrophic climate change?

Clearly, the Climate Skeptic accepts that some things ought to be done, urgently and with full force of national and public will, even-though and even-while he nurses doubts about the likelihood of the full Global Warming scenario. She does not arm wave vaguely against "rash actions," but actively engages in negotiation over which urgent efficiency measures to promote. Even if only as a precaution.

[image from ClassWarfareExists.com]

The Role of Propaganda Media

The Climate Skeptic admits something pretty darned creepy and suspicious-that the main "news" outlets pushing the Denialist Movement are largely owned by those same petro-moguls who have benefited from delayed energy independence. (Just one Saudi prince holds 7% of Fox, while other princes own smaller shares, plus a lot of Rupert Murdoch's debt, stock and commercial paper. Russian oligarchs and international oil companies own other portions.) Because of this, the Climate Skeptic has moved away from getting any of his news or sense of "reality" from propagandists who are paid to keep America divided, weak, passively addicted to dependence, respectful of aristocracy, and mired in "culture war."

The Climate Denialist, by contrast, suckles from the Fox-Limbaugh machine. He shrugs off any notion that sheiks, oligarchs or Exxon could possibly have any shared agenda, or ever connive together. They are pure of heart... compared to weather and climate scientists.

Elaborating a bit: the Climate Skeptic has noticed that the Denialist Movement is directly correlated -- with almost perfect predictability -- with a particular "side" in America's calamitous, seditious and self-destructive Culture War. This is the same side that includes "Creation Science," the same side that oversaw the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, based on mythological asset bubbles, magical "financial instruments," and an economic theory that is completely free of a single predictive success. This is the same side that promised us "energy independence" then sabotaged every effort in that direction, including all of the energy-related research that might have helped us get off the oil-teat. (And that research gap is a bigger smoking gun to pay attention to than carbon credits.)

While the Denialist sees this association of parallel anti-intellectual movements as a good thing, one that enhances the credibility of the Denialism Movement, the Skeptic has the mental courage to be embarrassed by it. Even while remaining a conservative, she is pulling herself away from all that.

[image from TheGreenMiles.com]

Why it's Hard to Get the Scientists to Answer

Having admitted all of those things, the Climate Skeptic now feels sufficiently distanced from madmen, oiligarchs and reflex-puppets to express legitimate curiosity about a scientific matter much in the news. Moreover, he knows that this is his perfect right!

We do not live in a society where elites are gods. Not the rich, nor even scientists. The Skeptic refuses to get caught up in the reflex anti-intellectualism being pushed by the faux-right. But he also knows that amateurs can be smart, and that curiosity was God's greatest gift to man.

Moreover, our Skeptic feels like a smart guy! He's generally pretty well-educated and good in his own field. Above all, he is a free citizen of the greatest and most scientifically advanced Republic ever! And so, by gum, having admitted all that stuff he now wants his curiosity satisfied! He wants the atmospheric experts to answer hard questions about some things that seem contradictory between the data and the model.

Fair enough.

[image from Discover Magazine]

A Final Milestone

Only there is one more thing our Climate Skeptic has to admit, if she truly is honest and ready to start peppering the experts. She needs to acknowledge that atmospheric scientists are human. Having tried for 20 years to use logic, reason and data to deal with a screeching, offensive and nasty Denial Movement, these human beings are exhausted. Their hackles are up. They have very important work on their plates. Their time is valuable and, frankly, they see little point in wasting any more of it trying to reason with folks who:

  • proclaim that carbon dioxide is not a greenhouse gas
  • deny human-generated burning of carbon fuels has increased greenhouse gas content in the atmosphere
  • claim the increase won't affect temperatures
  • claim there's been no warming (while the U.S. Navy is hurriedly making plans for an ice-free arctic)
  • claim humans have no role in the warming
  • then admit we're causing it...
  • but claim it's already too late to do anything about it
  • and anyway they'll have a longer growing season in Alberta
  • then shout that we can't afford efforts to wean ourselves of greenhouse emissions
  • even though the best actions and endeavors that would address AGW happen to be things we should be doing anyway to gain energy independence, increase productivity, reduce the leverage of hostile petro powers, and a dozen other important things.

Mr. or Ms. Skeptic, can you see how wearing it has been, dealing with a storm of such BS? Can you admit that the professionals and experts may not, at first, be able to distinguish sincere climate skeptics, like you, from the maniacs who have been chivvying and screaming at them for years?

AGW "Skeptics" like you are saddened to see that many of the scientists are prickly, irritable and sullen about answering an endless stream of rehashed questions, only a few of which aren't blatant nonsense. A few of them (very few) may have even said or done some briefly stupid things to avoid the maelstrom. But you Climate Skeptics -- the smart and honest ones -- understand what's happened. And so, you'll cooperate about helping the experts feel safe to come out and share what they know. And maybe then they will answer some of the Skeptics' inconvenient questions.

[image from Fast Company]

What's a Sincere and Enlightened Skeptic to Do?

I suggest that the sincere and enlightened climate skeptic say something along these lines:

"Okay, I'll admit we need more efficiency and sustainability in order to regain energy independence, improve productivity, erase the huge leverage of hostile foreign petro-powers, reduce pollution, secure our defense, prevent ocean acidification, and ease a vampiric drain on our economy. If I don't like one proposed way to achieve this, then I will negotiate in good faith other methods that can help us to achieve all these things, decisively, without further delay and with urgent speed.

"Moreover, I accept that 'waste-not, want not' and 'a-penny-saved is a-penny earned' and 'cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness' and 'genuine market competition' used to be good conservative attitudes. But the "side" that has been pushing the Denial Movement hasn't any credibility on the issue of weaning America off wasteful habits. In fact, it's not conservatism at all!

"And so, for those reasons alone, let's join together to make a big and genuine push for efficiency.

"Oh, and by the way, I don't believe in Human-caused Global Climate Change! But if I am wrong, these measures would help deal with that too.

"So there, are you happy, you blue-smartypants-eco-science types? Are you satisfied now that I am a sincere Climate Skeptic and not one of the drivel-parroting Denialists? Now can some of your atmospheric scientists put on an extended teach-in and answer some inconvenient questions? (Oh, and thanks for the vastly improved weather reports; they show you're smart enough to be able to explain these things to a humble-but-curious fellow citizen, like me.)"

As I said earlier, when I meet a conservative AGW skeptic who says all that (and I have), I am all kisses and flowers. And so will be all the atmospheric scientists I know. That kind of statement is logical, patriotic and worthy of respect. It deserves eye-to-eye answers, from one citizen to another.

[image from Durango Bill]


Have I wasted my time, here? Because, while the species of sincere, conservative-but-rational AGW Skeptics does exist (I know several, and kind-of qualify as one, myself), they turn out to be rare. For the most part, those calling themselves "climate skeptics" are nothing but fully-imbibed Denialists, who wallow in anecdotes and faux-partyline talking points, participating in something that is far more insidious and devastating to our civilization than mere Energy Company Propaganda.

As I have suggested elsewhere, the real purpose of it all may be to undermine the very notion of expertise in our civilization, leaving no strong force to challenge any ruling elite.

But whatever the underlying purpose, one result is clear: Tens of thousands of Denialists egotistically assume that their fact-poor, pre-spun, group-rage opinion entitles them to howl "corrupt fools!" at the men and women who have actually studied and are confronting this important topic.

Historian Arnold Toynbee -- one of the greatest of all experts on the rise and fall of civilizations -- when asked what critical mistake seemed most often to lead to a collapse -- said it was "failure to support and believe in the society's creative minority." In our own technological, enlightenment nation and civilization, that creative minority, to a large degree, is one of science. We do not have to worship their feet, or obey blindly. But we'll be fools, treading the downhill slope followed by Babylon and Rome, if we despise them.