by Judith Curry
Nature has just published an editorial on the Heartland Conference entitled “Heart of the Matter” with subtitle “The Heartland Institute’s climate conference reveals the motives of global warming skeptics.”
Heart of the matter
Nature, 475, 423–424 (28 July 2011) doi:10.1038/475423b
It would be easy for scientists to ignore the Heartland Institute’s climate conferences. They are curious affairs designed to gather and share contrarian views, in which science is secondary to wild accusations and political propaganda. They are easy to lampoon — delegates at the latest meeting of the Chicago-based institute in Washington DC earlier this month could pick up primers on the libertarian writings of Russian–American novelist Ayn Rand, who developed the philosophical theory of objectivism, and postcards depicting former US vice-president Al Gore as a fire-breathing demon. And they are predictable, with environmentalists often portrayed as the latest incarnation of a persistent communist plot. “Green on the outside, red on the inside,” said one display. “Smash the watermelons!”
So why does Nature this week devote two pages to such absurdities? We now have more than two decades of evidence that closing our eyes will not make the climate sceptics go away. Instead, in the United States at least, they have cemented their propaganda into a broader agenda that pits conservatives of various stripes against almost any form of government regulation. The sceptics like to present the battlefield as science, but, as the News Feature on page 440 makes clear, the fight is, in fact, a violent collision of world views.
Does the following sound familiar? “They distort science, ignore reality and will not tolerate opinions or facts that conflict with their beliefs.” “Cynical manipulators or simple pawns, their purpose is only to keep funds flowing to a corrupt few who profit from the status quo.” Those are the kinds of words scientists use, often correctly, to describe the sceptics, many of whom would have the financial interests of today continue their dominance tomorrow. Yet this is also how sceptics characterize climate scientists, whose careers and reputations they claim are intertwined with protecting the science of anthropogenic global warming.
Scientists can only carry on with their work, addressing legitimate questions as they arise and challenging misinformation. Many climate scientists have already tried to engage with their critics, as they did at the Heartland event. The difference, of course, is motive. Scientists work to fill the gaps in human knowledge and to build a theory that can explain observations of the world. Climate sceptics revel in such gaps, sometimes long after they have been filled.
It is scientists, not sceptics, who are most willing to consider explanations that conflict with their own. And far from quashing dissent, it is the scientists, not the sceptics, who do most to acknowledge gaps in their studies and point out the limitations of their data — which is where sceptics get much of the mud they fling at the scientists. By contrast, the Heartland Institute and its ilk are not trying to build a theory of anything. They have set the bar much lower, and are happy muddying the waters.
I know that many of you will yawn, this is the same old, same old stuff. But I have an interesting angle on this article. On Jul 8, I received an email query from the person who wrote this article, I asked him to email me some questions, to which I replied to. I thought the questions were quite good, and I spent some time on this to provide a thoughtful reply.
JC’s response to Nature reporter’s query:
What do you think about Heartland? Have you been to one of their conferences?
I have not attended any of their conferences. I was invited to present at the 2009 conference but I declined. However, I have spent a considerable amount of time going through the videos and powerpoint presentations of several of the Heartland climate conferences. The Heartland Institute has become a focal point for organized climate change skepticism, although I will add that much climate change skepticism does not associate in any way with the Heartland Institute.
How does the NIPCC fair in summarizing the science? They are reviewing the same scientific literature as everybody else, so what is it that differs? My assumption is that most scientists would disagree with most of the overarching conclusions, but many might less to argue about in the minutia. If that’s true, what does that say about the scientific literature/community?
There is an enormous body of scientific literature related to climate change and its impacts. A comparison between table of contents of the IPCC and NIPCC assessment reports shows a substantial difference in emphasis and selection of topics. The NIPCC chapters 1 and 2 are quite weak, and provide the source for most of the criticism that the report has received. However there are several chapters in the NIPCC Report that are substantially more thorough and comprehensive than the IPCC treatment, including
5. Solar variability and climate cycles
7. Biological effects of carbon dioxide enrichment
8. Species extinction
9. Human health effects.
Further, the NIPCC’s regional approach to analyzing extreme events and historical and paleo records of temperature, rainfall, streamflow, glaciers, sea ice, and sea level rise is commendable and frankly more informative than the global analyses provided by the IPCC.
While there is much good material in the latter chapters of the NIPCC report, the report suffers from drawing sweeping conclusions that don’t seem supported by their analysis. This is particularly evident in the Executive Summary, but also in the summary paragraphs for each subsection. The IPCC is more careful in drawing conclusions from its analysis, but also tends to be overconfident in many of its conclusions.
The existence of two assessment reports that draw conclusions that are diametrically opposite from each other and selects reference lists that are nearly mutually exclusive provides evidence of both disagreement and uncertainty in the climate debate. Not just over specific details, but in how to frame and analyze the overall problem.
There has been talk – and even legislation, I believe – about using this red team-blue team approach to analyze the science, and that’s essentially what these guys are doing. In this case, this document is largely ignored by people like me but probably very influential in certain small circles. But from a more theoretical standpoint, could this exercise be useful if the two sides actually paid attention to each other? Roger Pielke Jr. says would we be better off with a more comprehensive assessment from the IPCC that doesn’t try to draw conclusions but instead summarizes the evidence/debate in its entirety.
I have argued in several venues for parallel evidenced-based analyses for the competing hypotheses of anthropogenic versus natural variability as the cause for recent climate change. Because of the complexity of the climate change problem, reasoning about uncertainty in the context of evidence-based analyses is not at all straightforward.
How to implement something like this in a practical way is not at all straightforward. One strategy would be to use a legal model, whereby the IPCC bears the burden of proof, and the opposition is more in the manner of critiquing the IPCC’s report and articulating reasonable doubts. Another strategy would be to have two separate teams in red team/blue team approach. Particularly for the latter strategy, it is difficult to establish a level playing field. Richard Tol has argued that the IPCC has established itself as a knowledge monopoly, and it is very difficult for competitors to become established without encouragement from policy makers. Some excerpts from Richard Tol’s paper:
While it would be hard for a single organization to compete with the entirety of the IPCC, competition on specific aspects is much easier. The World Meteorological Organization could review atmospheric science, the World Health Organization the health impacts of climate change. The World Bank and the OECD could review the emission reduction policies and their costs, while national institutions could assess the impacts of climate change. While such activities are ongoing, they often draw on the same people as the IPCC and are frequently not even intended to be independent.
Self-organization is the third, potential new entrant that could threaten the IPCC’s monopoly. Wikipedia is the best known example, and it already covers all the topics that the IPCC does. Wikipedia, however, lacks focus and it does not have the credibility and legitimacy of the IPCC. . . Wikify AR4 and a few good textbooks. By way of experiment, this should be done by an IPCC-controlled wiki, a quality-controlled wiki (e.g., Scholarpedia), and an open wiki (e.g., Wikipedia).
You’ve advocated more engagement with the skeptical community, but I guess I wonder what that means in this context. Exchange of scientific ideas? Just being less antagonistic? Does the NIPCC/heartland represent an opportunity for real exchange? And is it in anybody’s interest to do so? Or is this a case where both sides are perfectly happy pointing the finger? I was amazed at the extent to which everything the skeptics said about mainstream science I’ve heard mainstream science saying about the skeptics.
In the context of science, skeptics should be regarded as legitimate or even vital partners in the search for scientific truth, exercising their right to remain unconvinced and require more information, point out perceived contradictions and flawed reasoning, and emphasize alternative hypotheses.
Unlike the group of scientists that comprise and support the IPCC consensus, the skeptics are very diverse collection of individuals that for the most part are unorganized, with the blogosphere supporting substantial diversity. For example, one group of skeptics, called the Skydragons, are mostly rejected by the broader community of skeptics because they reject the existence of the atmospheric greenhouse effect. Individual skeptics may focus on a particular element of the IPCC’s argument, rather that on the argument in its entirety. The problem with Heartland as an organizing group for this is that Heartland is an advocacy group identified with a particular political agenda. In my opinion there are two different ways to go: a government sanctioned and organized group (perhaps parallel to the IPCC), or an open knowledge initiative in blogosphere. The latter is already happening at some level with the technical climate blogs auditing aspects of the IPCC reports (e.g. Steve McIntyre at ClimateAudit, the Blackboard, The Air Vent, and more recently my blog Climate Etc.)
In terms of getting both sides to interact with each other, that is indeed a challenge, see my discussion on talking past each other. The skeptics want to debate the science, while the convinced, consensus scientists want to discuss solutions, and think that debating science with the skeptics is a waste of time. And I continue to see examples where skeptical scientists have substantial difficulty in getting their papers published.
For a comprehensive discussion on the issues you raise, see my blog post on the Lisbon workshop on climate reconciliation, some excerpts:
The first issue is what exactly is meant by reconciliation, and who actually wants it? Reconciliation is defined (wikipedia) as re-establishing normal relations between belligerents: re-establish dialogue, reinstate balance, restore civility. It is not clear that there has ever been normal relations between, say, the mainstream IPCC researchers and the skeptical climate blogosphere. Consensus building was not seen as having any part in a reconciliation. Rather there was a desire to conduct impassioned debates nonviolently, and to create an arena where we can fight a more honest fight over the science and the policy options.
So who actually wants some sort of reconciliation or an increase in civility? One perspective was that the alarmists shooting at the deniers, and deniers shooting at the alarmists, with a big group in the middle, with both the deniers and the alarmists ruining the situation for reasoned debate about the science and the policy options. Another perspective described the fight as entertaining theater. One perspective was that there is no incentive for conciliation by either side; both sides like the “war.” In the context of the “war,” the hope was expressed that more moderate voices would emerge in the public debate.
And this leads me into the issue of “consensus.” We tend to talk about it as a black and white issue, and maybe it is on the most basic questions (are humans influencing the climate). But obviously there many shades of gray once you start digging into details. Do we need to rethink how we redefine consensus? Or is the very fact that we are talking about consensus the problem? I know you’ve gotten some flack for your positions. Have things settled down?
I wrote an essay entitled “no consensus on consensus” which addresses these issues. Yes, talking about consensus is a big a part of the problem. Consensus isn’t necessary, and isn’t desirable on topics where there is substantial disagreement and uncertainty.
I have taken plenty of flack from a segment of the community that supports the IPCC consensus, but I hope that my arguments are being increasingly discussed by the mainstream consensus community.
Here is an excerpt from an in press paper:
Here I argue that the IPCC’s consensus approach enforces overconfidence, marginalization of skeptical arguments, and belief polarization.
The consensus approach being used by the IPCC has failed to produce a thorough portrayal of the complexities of the problem and the associated uncertainties in our understanding. While the public may not understand the complexity of the science or be culturally predisposed to accept the consensus, they can certainly understand the vociferous arguments over the science portrayed by the media. Better characterization of uncertainty and ignorance and a more realistic portrayal of confidence levels could go a long way towards reducing the “noise” and animosity portrayed in the media that fuels the public distrust of climate science and acts to stymie the policy process. An improved characterization of uncertainty and ignorance would promote better overall understanding of the science and how to best target resources to improve understanding. Further, improved understanding and characterization of uncertainty is critical information for the development of robust policy options.
Scott Denning on Heartland
The Yale Forum has a very interesting post entitled “Atmospheric Scientist Scott Denning Shares Lessons from Dialog with Skeptics” that provides Denning’s reflections on the two Heartland Conferences that he has attended. Some excerpts:
“I didn’t pull punches” in pointing out the “gravity” of climate challenges, a Colorado State professor says of his exchanges with a Heartland Institute conference of climate doubters. He would do it all over again and hopes his “like-minded” colleagues will do so too, and he offers lessons-learned.
“I was treated with respect and even warmth despite my vehement disagreement with most of the other presenters,” Denning wrote, expressing thanks for prominent platforms he was provided during the conference, including an hour-long keynote debate with contrarian Roy Spencer of the University of Alabama, Huntsville.
Asked if he had accepted the Heartland Institute speech invitation with the idea of “changing some minds,” Denning paused before responding, “Yeh. I guess I did. I hoped to change some minds,” but he added that “a lot of people” at the conference were “not so open-minded.” At the same time, he said he was gratified by the number of conferees who later told him that his remarks “really made me think.” He pointed to a long dinner discussion he had with a former New Zealand environmental minister and “hard-core climate denier” who asked “really insightful questions.”
“These were not a bunch of brain-washed idiots,” Denning said of the conferees, rebutting an impression many in the science community might have. He said his real goal in making his remarks, rather than changing minds, was more along the lines of “diffusing the angry rhetoric on both sides” through, for instance, what he called the “rhetorical tricks” of beginning on “common ground” and of emphasizing facts “that are not in dispute.”
Prior to making his remarks at the Heartland meeting, Denning said he had been getting a ratio of three-to-one comments from fellow scientists that his planned presentation to such an audience would likely backfire. Since posting his UCAR Magazine piece, he said, comments from his “like-minded” science peers have been overwhelmingly favorable and upbeat.
Denning in his article dismissed claims of many scientists that avoiding such head-to-heads with committed climate contrarians amounts to the “high road.” Citing polling showing increased public uncertainties about climate change, he wrote that he fears “the high road to ruin.”
Dozens of participants “told me they’d needed to hear this ‘other side’ of the story of climate change.”
An example of “what doesn’t work” in speaking with audiences such as those at the Heartland conference, Denning wrote, “is the condescending argument from authority that presumes that the Earth’s climate is too complicated for ordinary people to understand, so that they have to trust the opinions of experts.”
“Appeals to ‘overwhelming scientific consensus’ are more likely to confirm the audience’s suspicions of some kind of nefarious conspiracy than to change minds,” Denning wrote, and “even the concept of peer review can sound sinister.”
Kudos to Scott Denning.