The guilty ones preventing good policy about climate change

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by Fabius Maximus 

Summary: Yesterday I proposed that we try new ways to end the climate policy gridlock. Today I explore why we have not yet done so, and probably won’t do so. The reason why reveals something important about America.

“When I was sixteen, I went to work for a newspaper in Hong Kong. It was a rag, but the editor taught me one important lesson. The key to a great story is not who, or what, or when, but why.”
— Elliot Carver, in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).

Climate science marching into the future.

Girl Marching Off Cliff - Dreamstime-51961474
ID 51961474 © Rangizzz | Dreamstime.

The public policy debate about climate change first caught my attention as an example of America’s ability to see the world, evaluate what we see, and collectively make decisions (our national OODA loop). An effective OODA loop is necessary for our prosperity amidst the hazards of the 21st century. Perhaps even for our survival. What I found is all bad news.

Yesterday’s post recommended that climate scientists try new ways to break the three-decade-long gridlock in the climate change policy debate – and gave a specific suggestion. Today’s post asks why we won’t do that and why the policy debate has run in circles for so long – as participants on both sides repeated tactics that consistently failed. It is an immense story of failure by key groups and institutions across America. This posts hits a few of the high spots.

(1) Phase one: tit for tat, not science

“A genuine expert can always foretell a thing that is 500 years away easier than he can a thing that’s only 500 seconds off.”
— From Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

There are some obvious but shallow answers. We have seen this situation many times in books and films since the publication of When Worlds Collide in 1932. Scientists see a threat to the world. They go to the world’s leaders and state their case, presenting the data for others to examine and question. They never say things like this …

“In response to a request for supporting data, Philip Jones, a prominent researcher {U of East Anglia} said ‘We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it?’”
– From the testimony of Stephen McIntyre before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce (the July 2006 hearings which produced the Wegman Report). Jones has not publicly denied it.

This happened repeatedly during the long debate since 1988. Questioners (and later critics) were rebuffed and insulted, a mind-blowingly counter-productive tactic that screamed “climate scientists have much to hide.” In reaction to this rose the legions of denialists. Not skeptics, but people denying the “greenhouse” effect and anthropogenic warming. The mainstream skeptic community contributed to the poisonous gridlock by embracing deniers (handling fringe elements is a challenge for all political movements).

(2) Phase two: playing politics while the world warms

Once the climate policy debate fragmented into two opposing teams, inevitably they become adopted by the major political parties.

The Left saw climate policy as a means to gain the power to restructure the US economy and society to their liking (e.g., journalist Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate and Pope Francis’ fiery speeches condemning global capitalism). This was the climate debate in miniature. I and others pointed this out in 2015. Leftists denied it and mocked us, until the Green New Deal made it explicit. Then their denials went down the memory hole. Journalists for the major news media concealed this story, from start to end.

Much of the Right easily incorporated denialism into their worldview, along with creationism, denial of Keynesian economics, and belief in faux history about the Civil War and Thanksgiving.

The reaction of both sides is pitiful, but that of the Left is also weird. Thirty years of playing politics and nothing to show for it. I discussed yesterday’s post with a physicist, whose rebuttal to my recommendation for more sciencewas No, we need more politics – vote for Bernie! That was the thinking of WWI’s generals. There was always one more “over the wire into battle” before victory. There was no need to work together with their foes to find solutions. Now we see them as madmen who brought disaster on Europe. Future generations might see us as crazy people for the same reason if the climate wars end badly – either from climate change or a repeat of past extreme weather (the policy gridlock prevents preparation for either).

That is not only bad tactics, but it is also bad politics – if you care about climate change (vs. just cynically using it as a cover story). Politics in a successful society (e.g., not Somalia) is the search for agreement. That means finding steps that can gain majority support. Climate change is unlike slavery, as it offers many opportunities for everybody to work together. There are two obvious ones. First, preparing for the repeat of past extreme weather (which resilience also helps for climate change). Second, testing the models (both sides are confident of the result, and so should be willing to support funding for the test).

But we live in ClownWorld, so climate debate resembles a food fight in a grade school cafeteria.

(3)  Why not test the models?

Model validation is a well-established field, since computer models are used in thousands of critical applications. Climate scientists ignore most of this, instead giving us endless backtests – a weak form of validation due to tuning.

Some of the evidence given as validation would be funny, if we were discussing something other than the future of humanity. Perhaps the best-known attempt at model validation concerns the forecasts in “Global climate changes as forecast by Goddard Institute for Space Studies three-dimensional model” by Hansen et el. in the Journal of Geophysical Research, 20 August 1988. Its skill was evaluated in “Skill and uncertainty in climate models” by Julia C. Hargreaves in WIREs: Climate Change, July/Aug 2010 (ungated copy). She reported that “efforts to reproduce the original model runs have not yet been successful”, so she examined results for the scenario that in 1988 Hansen “described as the most realistic”. How realistic she doesn’t say (no comparison of the scenarios vs. actual forcings); nor can we know how the forecast would change using observed forcings as inputs. Sorry world, the dog ate my model.

Another equally weird example is “Evaluating the performance of past climate model projections” by Zeke Hausfather et al. in Geophysical Research Letters (in press). They use complex mathematics to avoid re-running the models, as Dr. Hausfather explained in a Tweet.

“Our implied TCR approach effectively accounts for mismatches between models and observations without the need to dig through punch cards and FORTRAN 77 code.”

With the fate of the world at stake, they did not want to bother “digging through” old records. But such shortcuts do not work, as Paul Krugman said in “What have we learned since 2008“ (2016).

“Some annoying propositions: Complex econometrics never convinces anyone. …Natural experiments rule. But so do surprising predictions that come true.”

Where have the skeptics been in this debate? Lots of mockery (imitating their opponents), bickering about the accuracy of the global temperature datasets (which are dilapidated, but not substantially), and complaining about the IPCC (deeply flawed, one of the best science institutions ever, and better than we deserve). The few skeptics (they often dislike that label) with meaningful challenges to the science (e.g., Roger Pielke Sr. and Jr., Judith Curry) get applause but little support.

The most common response to my proposal

“It won’t work because of XXX or YYY or ZZZ.”

This is the most common response to Every Single Reform Proposal on the FM website, from people on both Left and Right. This confident defeatism is the fun easy path to national disaster. We are a successful nation because the Americans before us tried and tried and tried again, defying the odds. Most of our problems are like climate change: building a consensus about how to use our fantastic national power to solve our problems. If we cannot relearn how to do this, we are finished.


In military theory, the key to victory is understanding the schwerpunkt – the key point at which the battle is decided. Breaking the climate policy gridlock requires identifying that point and focusing relentlessly on it. I believe that is model validation. Others will have different ideas. We need to try as many of them as possible as soon as possible. It is up to us to demand action.



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