Debunking Shellenberger and Nordhaus, again.

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus are names that may be familiar. They are the authors of The Death of Environmentalism – a notorious critique on the tactics of the green movement that attempts to address environmental goals from a radically different perspective. Most recently, the two penned a withering attack on environmentalists and climate scientists.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus re-state a plethora of half-truths, misrepresentations and outright fantasies that have lately become almost canonical in the public sphere.


It is an extraordinary account in many ways, re-stating a plethora of half-truths, misrepresentations and outright fantasies that have lately become almost canonical in the public sphere. The pair provide minimal evidence and misrepresent what they do provide, cobbling the whole together with decidedly faulty reasoning. In order to correct some of these major miscues – sadly not confined to this article alone – it is worth examining their claims in more detail.

Demonising campaigners

The pair begin by casting recent attacks on climate science and the IPCC as a backlash against campaigners’ “[e]fforts to use climate science to threaten an apocalyptic future” and “to characterize present-day natural disasters as terrifying previews of an impending day of reckoning”, which have allegedly “undermine[d] the credibility of both climate science and progressive energy policy”. The denial lobby has little to do with the current media meltdown, the pair seem to imply: environmentalists have only themselves to blame.

It’s worth acknowledging what Shellenberger and Nordhaus get right here. Campaigners have often presented areas of climate science with excessive certainty, and been clumsy in handling uncertainty and risk. Some promote apocalyptic scenarios which might not be realistic; or present a simple, cause-and-effect relationship between climate change and present-day weather events – a practice with highly dubious scientific merit. This has in turn allowed the denial lobby to seize on irrelevant cold spells to “prove” that climate change is a myth.

But this indictment is vastly exaggerated. The denial lobby and associates might have had a marginal role in the current crisis, but this is far from self-evident – especially given their clearly discernible influence on the media – and the authors provide no evidence supporting alternative conclusions. In a world bristling with assorted weapons of mass destruction on a 5-or-6 degree trajectory, apocalyptic scenarios are a real threat. The denial lobby would undoubtedly fixate on cold snaps irrespective of the green movement’s messaging – as in turn would the media. And what exactly is wrong – as the pair suggest – in using natural disasters in the present to underscore the potential for devastating impacts in the future?

The denial lobby would undoubtedly fixate on cold snaps irrespective of the green movement’s messaging – as in turn would the media.

The political efficacy of campaigners’ flawed appeals may partly explain why they are made. But this is also simply a matter of the environmental movement’s inevitably imperfect grasp of the science. Campaigners’ understanding of this major field has been fairly rough and sketchy, but has also been steadily improving. The film The Age of Stupid, for instance, deliberately includes a note of caution from former Government climate science adviser Sir David King on connecting particular extreme weather events directly to climate change. Other advocates have increasingly demonstrated a similar degree of care in handling the science. If campaigners used this tactic simply because “it has worked so well for them”, why would such advances happen?

Shellenberger and Nordhaus also take aim at some thoroughly implausible targets. They slate campaigners for “underestimat[ing] the economic and technological challenges associated with rapidly decarbonizing the energy economy”, though the most frequent analogy such advocates employ is with the Second World War – hardly “underestimating” the challenge, however vital addressing it may be. “In 2006,” we are told, “Al Gore used his “Inconvenient Truth” slide show to link Hurricane Katrina” to climate change. In reality, this charge has already been debunked. As climate scientist Gavin Schmidt pointed out:

“Gore talked about 2005 and 2004 being very strong seasons, and if you weren’t paying attention, you could be left with the impression that there was a direct cause and effect, but he was very careful to not say there’s a direct correlation.”

Fellow climate scientist Eric Steig noted the same thing:

“As one might expect, he uses the Katrina disaster to underscore the point that climate change may have serious impacts on society, but he doesn’t highlight the connection any more than is appropriate”.

This has obviously not stopped the denial lobby’s attacks on Gore for this alleged falsehood. But it is something else to see purported environmental advocates repeating the same canard. If Shellenberger and Nordhaus downplay this lobby’s influence, it is perhaps because they themselves are so thoroughly susceptible to it.

Smearing climate science

It is in dealing with the science, however, that the most seriously damaging misrepresentations enter this account.

Campaigners’ “ever-escalating set of demands on climate science”, the pair suggest, have consequently left it tainted.

“Greens pushed climate scientists to become outspoken advocates of action to address global warming. Captivated by the notion that their voices and expertise were singularly necessary to save the world, some climate scientists attempted to oblige. The result is that the use, and misuse, of climate science by advocates began to wash back into the science itself.”

Of course, there is nothing inherently blameworthy in scientists becoming “outspoken advocates of action” in the public sphere. If public advocacy automatically entails “misuse” of the science, we should conclude that Martin Luther King shamelessly distorted the facts underlying the civil rights movement simply by communicating them. Nor are scientists such other-worldly beings that they should be expected to respond to profoundly alarming findings with a shrug of the shoulders, before getting on with other business. This may be how many, even most, scientists do behave; but should it be encouraged? Indeed if the threat is severe, should keeping one’s head down and staying silent even be acceptable?

This contamination of the science, Shellenberger and Nordhaus allege, is demonstrated by CRU’s hacked emails. Really? In at least one obvious case (only a selection of the emails was ever made public) a senior scientist manifestly resented being used to support campaign statements and objectives, and said so, forwarding his objections to colleagues. Anyone familiar with climate scientists will be able to cite countless similar examples. This recalcitrant bunch, we are to understand, are simultaneously engaged in deliberate corruption of the science for their green movement overlords – as though the staff of Greenpeace were able to peer constantly over their shoulders?

Nevertheless, the authors seem determined to demonstrate their fundamental ignorance of the science at every opportunity. Here, for instance, is what they have to say about the so-called “hockey stick” graph:

“The most explosive revelations of Climategate involved disputed methodological techniques to merge multiple data sets (e.g., ice cores, tree rings, 20th century weather station readings) into a single global temperature trend line, the “hockey stick” graph. Whatever one thinks of the quality of the data sets, the methods used to combine them, or the efforts by some to shield the underlying data from critics, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that those involved were trying to fit the data to a trend that they already expected to see – namely that the spike in global carbon emissions in recent decades tracked virtually in lockstep with a concomitant spike in present-day global temperatures.”

It is difficult to know where to begin with a passage like this. The CRU emails do reveal a disagreement – subsequently resolved – over whether current temperatures might have been matched around 1,000 years ago. But this is entirely irrelevant to the question of the current spike in global temperatures, its relationship to carbon emissions, or any putative manipulation of data.

Moreover, the idea that scientists tried to ensure trends in carbon emissions fitted “in lockstep” with present-day global temperatures is simply bizarre. Firstly, it is not carbon emissions but all greenhouse gases that produce a warming effect. Secondly, this is not the direct result of emissions but of the cumulative concentrations collected in the atmosphere. Thirdly, all manner of further complexities permeate this picture: the effect of aerosols and other pollutants that dampen down warming; the uptake and release of carbon by the biosphere; the various “lags” in the climate system; natural background fluctuations that offset warming in the short- and medium-term; and so on. Accusing scientists of manipulating data to show emissions and temperatures changing “in lockstep” is thus profoundly, bewilderingly idiotic. Any scientist attempting such a ludicrous fabrication would inevitably (and rightly) be torn to shreds by her colleagues. Even then, the “hockey stick” graph does not attempt to show anything of the kind.

Accusing scientists of manipulating data to show emissions and temperatures changing “in lockstep” is thus profoundly, bewilderingly idiotic.

So where does this alleged attempt “to fit the data” to a preconceived conclusion come from? The authors don’t make it clear. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that they are thinking of Phil Jones’ “trick to hide the decline” – a contrived scandal debunked almost as soon as it was raised in November 2009. The “trick” refers to the redaction of post-c.1960 tree-ring data – established as divergent from the late-20th-century temperature record – from a graph of global average temperature trends. This is not “disputed”: the “divergence problem” is acknowledged across the relevant scientific literature. Nor is it “fit[ting] the data” to a preconceived conclusion. Late-20th-century records derive from direct temperature readings, yielding a very high degree of confidence – a very strong yardstick in assessing the comparative reliability of “proxy” records. Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s case here, it turns out, is founded on thin air.

Slinging mud at the IPCC

“Other faulty or sloppy claims in the IPCC’s voluminous reports”, we are told, “such as the contention that global warming could melt Himalayan glaciers by 2035 … followed the same pattern” – of “efforts to move the proximity of the global warming threat closer to the present.” Again, no evidence is provided. Perhaps the authors are thinking of lead author Murari Lal’s quote to the British gutter press, that “[w]e thought that if we can highlight it, it will impact policy-makers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action”? But this quotation was reported by a journalist known to be strongly sympathetic to the denial lobby, and subsequently exposed as a fabrication. Once again, Shellenberger and Nordhaus are promoting falsehoods that have already been debunked.

Other “researchers felt enormous pressure to demonstrate a link” “connecting global warming to [recent] natural disasters” we are told – without evidence. Consequently,

“in its 2007 report, the IPCC — ignoring evidence to the contrary — misrepresented disaster-loss science when it published a graph linking global temperature increases with rising financial losses from natural disasters.”

This is simply a bundle of egregious misrepresentations. The graph in question was provided to the IPCC by Robert Muir-Wood, a researcher for Risk Management Solutions (RMS) – a group which publishes analyses of disaster-related trends for the insurance industry. The IPCC included this (accurate) graph not in the main body of the text, but among its “Supplementary Material” – which, RMS point out, “were not published” (my emphasis). This would seem an entirely reasonable way of handling submissions of this kind without giving them undue prominence. It is hardly – to put it mildly – alarmist scaremongering.

Moreover, the graph itself does not “link” global temperature increases with rising financial losses from natural disasters – though it does present them alongside one another – and no accompanying statement “linking” them was ever made. Nevertheless, presenting the graph while “ignoring evidence to the contrary” could be construed as potentially misleading – for the infinitesimal number of people scrutinising the report in its entirety, “Supplementary Material” and all.

So what is this evidence the IPCC ignor[ed]”? Shellenberger and Nordhaus flesh it out:

“[R]esearchers are unlikely to be able to unequivocally link storm or flood losses to anthropogenic warming for several decades, if even then. This is not because there is no evidence of increasing extreme weather, but rather because the rising costs of natural disasters have been driven so overwhelmingly by social and economic factors — more people with more wealth living in harm’s way.”

The IPCC, then, allegedly “ignor[es]” these details. Really? Here’s what Chapter I of the IPCC’s Working Group II has to say:

The dominant signal is of significant increase in the values of exposure [i.e. “more people with more wealth living in harm’s way”] … as has been widely acknowledged, failing to adjust for time-variant economic factors yields loss amounts that are not directly comparable and a pronounced upward trend through time for purely economic reasons.

“Global losses reveal rapidly rising costs due to extreme weather-related events since the 1970s. One study [the RMS study] has found that while the dominant signal remains that of the significant increases in the values of exposure at risk, once losses are normalised for exposure, there still remains an underlying rising trend.”

The sensitivity of these results requires a caveat, however – which the IPCC includes:

“The significance of the upward trend is influenced by the losses in the USA and the Caribbean in 2004 and 2005 and is arguably biased by the relative wealth of the USA, particularly relative to India.”

Is this an attempt “to unequivocally link storm or flood losses to anthropogenic warming” that “ignores evidence to the contrary”? Or is it, in fact, precisely the reverse: a thoroughly equivocal account that includes such evidence? RMS themselves offer an unambiguous verdict:

“RMS believes the IPCC fairly referenced its paper, with suitable caveats around the results, highlighting the factors influencing the relationship that had been discovered between time and increased catastrophe costs.”

Yet again, this is simply a fake scandal. And yet again, Shellenberger and Nordhaus not only repeat it – misrepresenting the IPCC in the process – but actually use it to demonstrate that body’s hidden agenda.

What, then, of the “evidence to the contrary” these authors themselves simply ignore? Oceanographer Stefan Rhamstorf has recently noted the IPCC’s serious underestimates of sea-level rise – exposing a degree of conservatism that would surely elicit gales of hysteria had the forecasts been similarly overestimated. Rhamstorf writes:

“I mention this because there is a lesson in it. [The] IPCC would never have published an implausibly high 3 meter upper limit like this, but it did not hesitate with the implausibly low 59 cm. That is because within the IPCC culture, being “alarmist” is bad and being “conservative” (i.e. underestimating the potential severity of things) is good.”

Unlike the spurious evidence adduced to support Shellenberger and Nordhaus’ fallacies, this evidence is extremely robust – indeed the IPCC’s sea-level models have already been superseded by observations.

Conclusions

What, then, of the proposal “to free energy policy from climate science” in public communication? The authors may at least have a case here: robust as the science may remain in reality, its perception in the public sphere may now have become irreparably tainted. Yet this claim would be considerably easier to take absent the proposition that “climate science can [now] get back to being primarily a scientific enterprise”. Climate science has been a non- or even anti-scientific enterprise, we are to understand – not superficially or in part, but primarily? Even for these authors, this is a new low.

In any case, their proposed solution is beset by major problems. Shellenberger and Nordhaus acknowledge that “any prudent strategy to minimize future risks associated with catastrophic climate change involves decarbonizing our economy as rapidly as possible.” True enough. But what plausible case for urgent and comprehensive decarbonisation – inevitably meaning real restrictions on carbon rather than “aspirational targets” – can realistically stand without climate change as the fundamental basis for action?

Concerted efforts towards political, cultural, economic and social change remain vital – and are only undermined by baseless slurs against climate scientists and campaigners.

The only conceivable possibility – and Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s own preference – is all-out investment in “low-carbon energy research, development, and deployment”, yielding an entirely speculative new energy source – available in the near-term, cheap enough instantly to displace all fossil fuels, plentiful enough to offset exponentially rising consumption, and flexible enough to heat homes, propel vehicles (including aircraft) and generate electricity, everywhere.

It is as though, struggling to prompt action on the established causes of cancer, campaigners opted instead to cross their fingers and await a once-in-a-generation miracle cure. Coming from critics of environmentalists’ “underestimat[es of] the economic and technological challenges associated with rapidly decarbonizing the energy economy”, this is a little difficult to take seriously. Pursuing such a breakthrough is an entirely laudable goal, but is simply insufficient in isolation. Concerted efforts towards political, cultural, economic and social change remain vital – and are only undermined by baseless slurs against climate scientists and campaigners.

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