Tag Archives: Andy Revkin

Hurricane Sandy and the Climate Hens

Image courtesy of NASA, used under Creative Commons

Hurricane Sandy is one for the record books in a number of senses, and as New York and the world struggle to grapple with its enormity, some discussion has turned to climate change. A topic that has been damningly absent from discussion in the U.S. Presidential election.

It is inevitable that when anyone anywhere tries to talk about climate change in relation to things in the here and now rather than some murky, distant future, a particular group descends to cluck their tongues and admonish everyone that climate change can’t be tied to any individual event (a proposition that is not true, and grows increasingly less defensible as the field of fractional attribution matures). This group includes many who also fall into the camp of those who style themselves as non-partisans or above the “tribal” nature of climate debates. The parallels with Jay Rosen’s larger media critique of the View from Nowhere have been noted by Michael Tobis among others.

Dave Roberts has a thoughtful piece about this phenomenon. He refers to this group as climate “scolds” in contrast to climate hawks (and yes, I do have my own problems with the latter moniker). And while I do think that “scold” captures a lot of the flavor of the group Roberts is describing, I think the hawk vs. “___” setup favors a different term for the group: climate hens.

Image courtesy of Flickr user “Ann Blair”, used under Creative Commons

Climate hens by and large acknowledge the human perturbation of the climate system. But they are very, very hesitant to highlight (or are even downright resistant to) the idea that humans are shaping the present climate in ways that are affecting the public now. This may be because it doesn’t jibe with what they learned about climate years ago. It may be because they view erring on the side of making climate change seem more serious than it is to be as bad or worse than denying that it’s a problem. It may be because they don’t really understand climate science very well- Eric Berger and Roger Pielke Jr., for instance, are two climate hens that have displayed a remarkable ignorance about basic aspects of climate science pertaining to natural variability in a warming world. (Pielke Jr. is also infamous for playing bait and switch by turning conversations about human contribution to extreme events into discussions about an economic signal in normalized disaster losses.) Whatever the reason, climate hens are just plain uncomfortable with people attempting to tie extreme events to our increasing influence on the planet’s climate.

Roberts points out, correctly and convincingly, that the climate hens are clucking about a problem that doesn’t really exist- at least not the one that they’re ostensibly worried about. When the general public sees something like the record US heat, the summer drought, or a hurricane like Sandy, and they start asking about global warming, they don’t really want a belabored lecture on fractional attribution or paleoclimatic precedents that the climate hens think should determine the answer. What the public is looking for is some way to connect this thing- that scientists are telling them is real and a real problem- to their own experiences of the world. That’s what we humans do. Climate hens are, by mistake or by design, frustrating one of the best avenues of facilitating public recognition of climate change as a problem they need to take seriously. Roberts frames it this way:

That’s the key missing ingredient on climate change: not a technical understanding of stochastic modeling, forensic attribution, and degrees of probability, but a visceral, more-than-intellectual sense of what climate change means. Most people simply lack a social and ethical context for it, so they end up jamming it into other, more familiar contexts (“big government,” “environmental problem,” “liberal special interest group”).

A storm like Sandy provides an opportunity for those who understand climate change to help construct that context. It provides a set of experiences — a set of images, sounds, smells, feelings, experiences — that can inscribe climate change with the cultural resonance it lacks. That’s what persuades and motivates people: not the clinical language of science, but experiences and emotions and associations. Of course communicating scientific facts is important too, but it’s not the primary need, nor the standard by which other communications should be judged. What scolds often do is interpret the language of emotion and association through the filter of science. That’s neither helpful nor admirable.

And this perspective has supporters amongst those studying climate communication. Elke Weber (2010) makes this point:

Behavioral research over the past 30 years strongly suggests that attention-catching and emotionally engaging informational interventions may be required to engender the public concern necessary for individual or collective action in response to climate change… To the extent that time-delayed consequences of our actions do not attract the attention or generate the concern ex-ante that they would seem to warrant ex-post, behavioral research provides some corrective actions. The concretization of future events and moving them closer in time and space seem to hold promise as interventions that will raise visceral concern.

The science of tropical cyclogenesis in a warming world is undoubtedly complex and uncertain- a point I’ve been making for years. But when the public starts asking questions about climate after an event like Hurricane Sandy, they aren’t looking for navel-gazing about ensembles of modeling runs, wind shear, and overwash sediment coring. They are asking for a way to connect something they keep hearing they are supposed to care about to things they already do. The proper response to such questions is not, as the climate hens would have it, to shut them down and turn them away. And it should go without saying that nor is it a reason to overstate the connections between our increasingly heavy influence on the climate and extreme events like Hurricane Sandy. Rather, the appropriate response is to treat the questions for what they are: an invitation to talk about climate change in a way that is meaningful to a curious but decidedly lay public. Climate change means sea levels rising, it means storm surge increases, it means heavier precipitation events (Schaeffer et al., 2012; Sriver et al., 2012; Shepard et al., 2012; Min et al., 2011). If Hurricane Sandy makes these threats more concrete, if it moves them closer in time and space, if- in Roberts’ words- it provides “a set of images, sounds, smells, feelings, experiences”, we should absolutely be talking about it. And perhaps something good will come of this disaster. Clucking from the climate hens be damned.


  • Min, S.-K., X. Zhang, F. W. Zwiers, and G. C. Hegerl (2011), Human contribution to more-intense precipitation extremes, Nature, 470(7334), 378–381, doi:10.1038/nature09763.
  • Schaeffer, M., W. Hare, S. Rahmstorf, and M. Vermeer (2012), Long-term sea-level rise implied by 1.5 °C and 2 °C warming levels, Nature Climate Change, doi:10.1038/nclimate1584.
  • Shepard, C., V. Agostini, B. Gilmer, T. Allen, J. Stone, W. Brooks, and M. Beck (2012), Assessing future risk: quantifying the effects of sea level rise on storm surge risk for the southern shores of Long Island, New York, Natural Hazards, 60(2), 727–745, doi:10.1007/s11069-011-0046-8.
  • Sriver, R., N. Urban, R. Olson, and K. Keller (2012), Toward a physically plausible upper bound of sea-level rise projections, Climatic Change, 1–10, doi:10.1007/s10584-012-0610-6.
  • Weber, E. U. (2010), What shapes perceptions of climate change?, Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 1(3), 332–342, doi:10.1002/wcc.41.

The conservative face of science and the role of consensus

[I realize that this has already been covered at Climate Progress and elsewhere, I am doing this more or less for archival purposes. -TB]

Image courtesy of Flickr user Scott Ableman, used under Creative Commons

The year 2011 started off with something of a surprise- George Will seemingly supporting science! Yes, this George Will. I wasn’t the only one taken aback.

Will’s journalistic colleague Andy Revkin was likewise surprised by this seeming about face from someone who all too readily attacked science when it conflicted with his conservative ideology, writing:

I think it’d make sense to devote at least as many column inches to this vital issue as you’ve expended trying to undercut decades of scientific study pointing to a growing human influence on the climate system.

This summer, Revkin again called upon Will to show how serious Will actually is about supporting science (and again at the end of August) by penning “a fresh column… building on [Will's] January rebuke of Republican lawmakers seemingly seeking to lead a charge away from federal support for science.” At the time, Revkin pointedly noted that Will was preoccupied with other topics.

Well, it appears Revkin now has Will’s response. GOP Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman recently had the gall to side with the scientific community on the issues of climate change and evolution. Today’s Republican party is infamously unique in its rejection of the scientific reality of man-made global warming. That a top-tier Republican candidate like Jon Huntsman would unabashedly stand with the scientific community was a welcome surprise.

Such apostasy was apparently sufficient to rouse Will’s attention where Revkin’s pleas to stand up for science were not. Will took to the pages of Fred Hiatt’s Washington Post to join his fellow Republicans’ assault on science.

Will sneered:

For Jon Huntsman: You, who preen about having cornered the market on good manners, recently tweeted, “I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” Call you sarcastic. In the 1970s, would you have trusted scientists predicting calamity from global cooling?

Gee, Will sure does love recycling!

Setting aside the fallacy of believing that because science got something wrong in the past it follows that it’s incorrect now, Will is actually engaging in revisionist history.

Despite repeated claims by Will and others to the contrary, there was no consensus predicting cooling in the 70s. Rather predictions of warming “even then dominated scientists’ thinking” (Peterson 2008):

Had Huntsman listened to the balance of the scientific evidence in the 1970s, he would be looking pretty good 30 plus years later. Contrast that with Will, who manages to still get what was said then wrong today, even with the benefit of hindsight!

Will continues:

Are scientists a cohort without a sociology — uniquely homogenous and unanimous

I will freely stipulate that true unanimity is seldom achieved on any subject, no matter how well-established scientifically. That being said, on the question of the reality of man-made warming of the climate, it’s pretty darn close. Surveys of the primary literature show virtually no opposition (Oreskes 2004). Survey data also show that 97-98% of scientists with relevant expertise/who are actively publishing in relevant fields likewise support the consensus (Doran 2009, Anderegg 2010).

without factions or interests

On the contrary, climate science is necessarily an interdisciplinary field. And it’s precisely this patchwork, factious nature of the field that makes the aforementioned consensus all the more striking.

That scientists whose life’s work is focused on solar influence on climate are broadly in agreement with those who focus on the ocean’s role, and with those who study climatic changes in the geologic past due to orbital variation, volcanism, or plate tectonics, etc. that anthropogenic warming is driving the present climatic change is quite amazing, especially if one is as cynically-minded as Will. Self-interest (which we will see Will believes is quite the powerful motivator) is poorly served by the various alternative drivers of warming being exonerated by the scientists that study them.

and impervious to peer pressures or the agendas of funding agencies?

This is a rather pathetic appeal to motive. And it fails for much the same reason that the previous comment does. If one were interested in prolonging and maximizing the amount of funding one could receive for one’s own corner of the scientific community, swiftly and virtually unanimously reaching consensus on something is probably the worst possible way to go about it.

But if Will is genuinely interested in how scientific consensus can be reached and trusted, he could always consult an expert on the subject. Naomi Oreskes literally wrote the book on this topic as it concerns the triumph of plate tectonics (Oreskes 2001). For the truly concerned like Will, she’s also written an accessible primer on the consensus on global warming (Oreskes 2007).

Alas, given Will’s track record (e.g. here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here), the likelihood of him bothering to actually educate himself on the subject appears to be about as slim as Huntsman’s chances for the Republican nomination.

As a parting shot, Will cannot resist twisting the knife in Huntsman over his science-affirming campaign’s poor reception by today’s GOP voters:

Your chief strategist, John Weaver, says the “simple reason” the GOP is “nowhere near being a national governing party” is that “no one wants to be around a bunch of cranks.” … Although you say the country is “crying out” for a “sensible middle ground,” you have campaigned for three months on what you say is that ground and, according to the most recent Gallup poll, your support among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents is 1 percent.

The folly of codifying anti-science beliefs into a technologically-rooted nation’s political platform would seem self-evident, a “no brainer” as it were. Will and his fellow conservative elites would do well to reconsider their present course,  which is a “no brainer” of an altogether different kind.

Image courtesy of Flickr user saucy_pan, used under Creative Commons


  • Anderegg, W., et al. (2010): Expert credibility in climate change. Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (USA), 107, 27, 12107-12109, doi:10.1073/pnas.1003187107.
  • Doran, P.T., and M.K. Zimmerman (2009): Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change, Eos Trans. AGU, 90(3), 22, doi:10.1029/2009EO030002.
  • Oreskes, N., ed. (2001): Plate Tectonics: An Insider’s History of the Modern Theory of the Earth. Boulder: Westview Press, with Homer E. Le Grand.
  • Oreskes, N. (2004): Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change. Science, 306, 57021686, doi:10.1126/science.1103618.
  • Oreskes, N. (2007): The scientific consensus on climate change: How do we know we’re not wrong? Climate Change: What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren, 65-99, DiMento and Doughman eds., MIT Press.
  • Peterson, T.C., et al. (2008): The Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Scientific Consensus. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 89, 9, 1325-1337, doi:10.1175/2008BAMS2370.

[UPDATE: I see Phil Plait was having similar thoughts today.]

A test for establishment climate journalists

Image courtesy of Flickr user just.Luc

Over at Keith Kloor’s blog, I wrote:

Keith, respectfully- either you can acknowledge that [Bjorn Lomborg] engages in blatant misrepresentation of key indicators of climate change like [sea level rise] and [temperature] trends, or you cannot.

If you can’t, I’m not particularly interested in whether it’s a refusal to do so due to adherence to some imagined journalistic allegiance to neutrality or out of a lack of ability to understand that he’s doing it.

If climate journalists either can’t see what he’s doing or refuse to acknowledge it, then we’re in far worse trouble than I ever imagined.

I’ve submitted a similar question to Dot Earth. Can establishment climate journalists acknowledge what Lomborg does? If not, what hope is there that the general public can make an informed assessment of his credibility?

Untold gallons of figurative ink have been spilled over the efforts of climate “skeptics” to discredit Michael Mann and colleagues’ paleoclimatic reconstructions on the grounds of bad statistics. Republicans even went so far as to get “statistics expert” Ed Wegman to put an official seal on the supposed discrediting, and we can see how that’s all working out for them. Meanwhile, the overall conclusions of the Mann et al. papers have been upheld by independent reviews, other multiproxy reconstructions, and independent lines of paleoclimatic evidence, even though some of Mann’s initial statistical choices could have been better.

By contrast Lomborg takes a metric like temperature or sea level rise and then cherry-picks an interval to get the lowest possible trend out of it. If it’s an interval of two years at the time of press, so be it. If he needs to write another article and using the same interval no longer gives the lowest possible trend, he’ll use four. It’s inarguable that using his own intervals from previous claims completely contradicts his current ones, and that there is no physical, statistical, or logical justification for doing so. He is just cherry-picking. Period.

But you’d never know it reading Andy Revkin’s or Keith Kloor’s blogs. Why not? What good is climate journalism if it must slavishly attend to largely unfounded claims of “skeptics” but can’t identify clear-cut cases of misrepresentation by people like Bjorn Lomborg?

Stop the Presses! Climate journos think the emissions-reduction issue looks an awful lot like a narrative problem. No word yet on just how “nail-shaped” people wielding hammers see it

Cartoon by Tom Toles

Keith Kloor, Andy Revkin, and Tom Yulsman appear to have bought into the meme that in order to really combat climate change, what’s really needed is a New Narrative. For too long, Keith tells us, people have framed the problem of climate change as… a problem of climate change.

So, I’ll bite. After all, I care about the end success, not about any particular road to it. So what’s this “new” narrative, and what’s the underlying plan to limit climate change? Apparently it goes something like this:

  1. Fund clean energy technology!
  2. ???
  3. Climate disaster averted!

Longtime participants in the climate blogosphere will note that, far from being a “new” narrative, this is just another iteration of the technology trap. Moreover, there isn’t actually anyone in favor of averting disruptive climatic change opposing clean energy technology investment- we’re all big, big fans.

Why are Kloor and Co. so hot for a master Narrative game changer? This meme plays straight into two key occupational prejudices: narrative primacy and conflict. People who make a living painstakingly creating stories from ideas tend to overvalue the importance of narrative. Additionally, people who have been brought up on journalistic crutches like forcing events into artificial frames of conflict are predisposed to view systematic and process-based events and outcomes in terms of individual actors and thus winners and losers. This is almost comically evident Kloor’s piece “Who’s got game?“:

Well that ball is dead. There’s no longer a game. There’s not even the pretense of a game on the global stage. So all those progressive steps that were promised by the legislation’s supporters are not going to happen. Where does that leave them?

Well, why not try a new ball with some life in it and get another game going? For that, let’s go to one of the willing players…

… Here’s the way I look at it: there’s no game in town right now. Norris and his team see an open court and are starting their own game, with their own ball. Some people are starting to come by and watch what unfolds. The other guys who held the court before don’t like that. Well you lost and got kicked off. What are you going to do now? Hurl insults from the stands, or take on the new guys?

In response, I and a whole host of others have pointed out that the flawed assumptions implicit in Keith’s framing of this issue in the comments section of that post. My chief objection is that it’s a little absurd to “challenge” people to adopt a “new narrative” to prevent climate change problems when said narrative is neither new nor explains how it will- even in theory- actually prevent climate change problems.

Keith has responded several times telling us all that we just don’t get what he’s saying (guilty as charged!)- he isn’t going to debate the actual merits of the “new narrative” in terms of its viability as a strategy to combat climate change. Rather, he’s interested in why people seem so unwilling to adopt this new narrative before being informed about its viability as a strategy to combat climate change. I point out the implicit, problematic assumptions in doing so, Keith complains that I’m missing the point, and on and on.

Did I mention that this New Narrative meme is being pushed by the same people who are arguing against any sort of meaningful emissions pricing? They wouldn’t have a vested interested in framing emissions legislation as a dead, would they? I mean, it’s not like they would ignore that for the first time in US history, climate legislation actually passed in the US House of Representatives.

Look, as I’ve said before- pursuing clean energy on its own isn’t going to keep coal in the ground. What is the proposed mechanism by which the “breakthrough” scheme accomplishes this? If they don’t have one, they should just explicitly acknowledge it. If they have a mechanism, they should articulate it, so that people like me will become evangelicals for them. I’m ripe for conversion, “breakthrough” people. Help me help you. How, absent a price on carbon or obscenely distorive subsidies does a clean energy fund keep coal in the ground?

It’s nice that you have a meme. It’s nice that some journalists bit. When you feel like getting around to actually hooking some grassroots support, give us a reason to support your Narrative besides an appeal to novelty.

Meanwhile, there has been early signaling that any dreams of a post-partisan big clean energy push will be dead on arrival. In a Politico story framed in terms of compromise- precisely the mood that the “breakthrough” people assure us will make their scheme viable whereas emissions pricing is not- GOP insiders have showed their hand on energy plans in a Republican-led 112th Congress: drilling in ANWR, some tax breaks for coal and nukes, with a token nod to renewables. Same old, same old. What of a transformative investment in clean energy breakthroughs?

One thing is certain: Republican leaders probably won’t have to worry about being called overly ambitious.

“I wish I had some real great novel stuff, but this is all Riggins up the middle,” said a former House Republican energy staffer, referring to former Washington Redskins running back John Riggins.

The GOP isn’t interested in averting dangerous climatic changes because it as a party has almost uniformly turned its back against science. It may make token gestures towards geothermal, natural gas, and electric vehicles as the Politico article later guesses, but a party that sees no problem with GHG emissions is going to dig up the coal and either burn it, turn it into synthetic gasoline, or export it.

Rather than take serious steps to address the issue, they’re going to try to defang or coopt the relevant Congressional committees and regulatory agencies like the EPA, Department of Interior, etc. They’re going to push for tax breaks for their pet energy industries- namely oil and gas, coal, and nuclear- without regard to GHG emissions. They’re going to push for more domestic fossil fuel consumption, not less. As they whinge about government spending and deficit doom, they will close the government’s purse strings to the kind of funding that the “breakthrough” people assured us will have bipartisan support.

Clean energy developers themselves seem to have little faith in the “breakthrough” scheme, with some major players moving their projects to nations that have more aggressive clean energy incentives and low carbon requirements. Even though there is some bipartisan support for some aspects of clean energy funding in the Senate:

[T]here’s also willingness on the Republican side to resist anything constructive being enacted.

A large majority of Americans wants the government to limit greenhouse gas emissions. As such, that isn’t the narrative failure on this issue. I do agree with Roger Pielke Jr. and many others who point out that when people are given a choice between economic growth and emissions reductions, they will choose the former over the latter. But you can substitute virtually any other subject for “emissions reductions” in that proposition and it will still hold true. If there is a narrative failure on the climate issue, it has been the utter failure to communicate to the general public that there are genuine economic costs in failing to reign in emissions. People mentally compare the costs of reductions with unimpeded economic growth, not with the costs of unchecked emissions growth.

The physical science basis for the case for emissions reductions was made sufficiently back in 1979. Obviously that doesn’t mean that there are no unanswered questions or that future studies cannot meaningfully further strengthen that case. But at a policymaker-level, the focus needs to shift to the impacts and economics of different emissions trajectories. If the various “-gates” have taught us anything, it’s that the WGII and WGIII IPCC reports need to be tightened up far more than the WGI Physical Science report.

Economic models that show a mere 50% loss in GDP for a 20°C temp increase need to be rejected out of hand. On what basis should we believe that people prefer and are willing to pay for a hotter planet? That initial warming will see a large decrease in mortality?

If there was a grossly underestimated or zero cost associated with burning a house to the ground, who would insure their home against fires? How can we expect people to prefer a significant price on carbon when they believe the alternative is basically no economic cost whatsoever? Getting a more realistic handle on the cost of unchecked emissions should be a bipartisan (post-partisan, post-post-partisan, what have you) goal. Will the “breakthrough” people and climate journalists in search of a new narrative buy in? Or are they going to bet the future of ameliorating climate problems on the GOP allowing massive governmental interference in the energy market?

UPDATE: Why on Earth is anyone supposed to take claims of bi- or post-partisan anything seriously when the GOP leadership is trumpeting its plans to frustrate the current administration at every turn? Does this sound like a political party that is going to work across party lines for massive governmental funding of a clean energy “breakthrough”?

“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” — Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), in an interview with the National Journal, describing his goal in retaking the Senate.

Industry group 1995 internal memo said climate effects from GHGs “cannot be denied” while group continued to do just that

Although this probably isn’t a surprise to most people who have followed the political gamesmanship surrounding climate change, Andy Revkin has a piece in the New York Times and an accompanying post at Dot Earth providing irrefutable evidence that like the tobacco companies before them, industry groups- who spent millions of dollars trying to convince the public that anthropogenic climate change wasn’t happening and that nothing should be done to mitigate against it- were doing so against even the conclusions of their own in-house scientists.

I hope that this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of documents pertaining to the organized disinformation campaign waged against the public. Unlike the political and media pundit establishment, I don’t believe that some things need to “remain mysterious”. These revelations may not add to our understanding of the climate system or at the end of the day even provide political momentum in the US for mitigation. They will, however, allow the public to see exactly who was working in their best interests and who was working against them. This extends beyond the front groups themselves and the industries behind them. It applies as well to their fellow travelers in op-ed pages and speaking venues. Continue reading

Waiting for WaPo

[See UPDATES beneath the fold]

This isn’t a post in its own right, just a collection of the legion of links rightly and roundly spanking George Will and the Washington Post for their utter lack of journalistic integrity Continue reading