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Argument and Authority in the Climate Fight

by Michael Levi
February 3, 2012

I had planned to ignore last week’s awful Wall Street Journal op-ed in which sixteen “concerned scientists”, few of whom do any climate science research, flimsily slammed basic climate science and invented some pretty specious energy economics. But a response from thirty eight climate scientists that the Journal published this week made me think twice. The climate scientists, after making it clear that they speak from relevant authority, rightly slam the “concerned scientists” for using a patina of scientific credibility to substantiate their empty arguments. Then they explain what the vast majority of those who spend their professional lives picking through the data actually believe.

But, in the final sentences of their piece, they go a step further:

“In addition, there is very clear evidence that investing in the transition to a low-carbon economy will not only allow the world to avoid the worst risks of climate change, but could also drive decades of economic growth. Just what the doctor ordered.”

“Very clear evidence”? Perhaps someone can point me to that. There are certainly frequent claims from politicians and advocates along these lines. There are even some papers (invariably controversial) that offer suggestive arguments. But there is nothing remotely approaching “very clear evidence” – certainly not the sort of evidence that the letter writers would (rightly) expect in the climate science literature where they themselves publish.

What was that that they were saying about authority and expertise?

I know, like, and genuinely admire several of the authors of both pieces. But both dangerously use earned authority in their areas of expertise as a substitute for careful argument in other fields. (To be clear, at least two of the thirty eight letter writers are economists; that said, the typical reader will simply see thirty eight “authorities” endorsing the statement.) The original authors do this far more egregiously that the respondents, but both succumb to the same unfortunate temptation.

This phenomenon doesn’t only show up when climate scientists lecture on economics or particle physicists assert that only they know how the atmosphere works – it appears all over the climate debate. Clean energy entrepreneurs regularly assert that because they’ve created solar jobs, they know that more solar energy is good for the U.S. economy. Oil barons are similarly authoritative in asserting that their industry experience tells them that a transition away from fossil fuels would be economically ruinous. Too many economists will assert that this or that policy won’t affect investors’ and consumers’ behaviors, since that’s what their theories tell them, even if investors and consumers themselves can tell you from experience (and hence some authority) that that is dead wrong. Other economists will tell you that they know that cutting emissions will be cheap, when smart political scientists can readily point out that real world politics will likely lead to considerably more expensive policies.

This isn’t an argument for why people should only write in areas where they have PhDs. After all, if that were the standard, I’d be out of a job. But if people want to invoke authority (something that should be kept as rare as possible), they ought stick to areas where they’ve earned it, rather than sliding into ones that seem closely related to uninformed readers but that actually aren’t all that similar. Otherwise, they’d be well advised to stick to careful argument. This would leave the writers of the original Journal op-ed without much to say on an opinion page (save their observations about the unpleasant culture in some university departments), this week’s respondents focusing on climate science, and everyone better off.

Post a Comment 13 Comments

  • Posted by Marlowe Johnson

    While I largely agree with your basic point, I’d also point out that some of the scientists in the group do in fact have legitimate expertise in climate/energy economics (e.g. Yohe and Jones), so the last portion of the letter isn’t as out of its depth as you seem to suggest.

    I suppose whether or not those two scientists in particular are comfortable with the statement in question depends on how big the caveat “could” ultimately is, as in “could also drive decades of economic growth”.

    [ML: Fair point -- I'll tweak. That said, the average reader is left seeing 38 "authorities" on climate issues make the assertion. There's a reason that there aren't 38 authorities on energy economics making it.]

  • Posted by WMD Blog Admin

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  • Posted by Stephen Davis

    Fair enough that 38 may have overstepped. “Decades of economic growth” implies that innovation in this space could resolve all other economic challenges facing us: debt-based money supply, resource depletion, overpopulation, etc.. It’s a small transgression, however, when compared to the original author’s attempt to attack the consensus opinion.

    It’s essential we get this right and then move decisively and without delay. The problem is, we got it right 5 years ago and we’re now moving in the wrong direction…sideways.

    The reason to stop quibbling about details is this: The consensus tells us to act decisively to avoid the worst scenarios. How likely are they? No one knows. What are they? One is a mass-extinction on a human timescale.

    Every quibble article like yours gives comfort to those who advocate doing nothing or, perhaps worse, ask disingenuously for ‘more study.’

    Our choice is this:

    1. We keep on talking and failing to act and gamble the only plausible home humanity has. (Your article only serves to increase the odds of this outcome) In this case, we’ll just hope like hell the scientific consensus is just flat wrong. I’m curious to know what you think the odds of this are.

    2. We heed the warnings and begin the massive (decades-long) undertaking of slashing the waste from our energy consumption patterns and replace fossil fuel consumption with sustainable renewables/4th-gen nuclear/etc as fast as we can. We do this knowing the likelihood that the scientific consensus just might be right. We also do this as we adapt to the warming already baked into the cake. BTW, let’s not forget about coral bleaching and reef loss due to CO2 absorption in the oceans.

    Given we have only one planet on which to run this experiment, which choice makes more sense to you? I have to ask, does listening to those that advocate business as usual seem morally serious to you?

  • Posted by David B. Benson

    Some climatologists have studied the energy alternatives. Barry Brook with his Brave New Climate blog comes immediately to mind. I don’t know how thoroughly the 38 have looked into these matters, but it doesn’t take a vast amount of study to see that Barry Brook has it about right (as do others, such as David MacKay) despite not claiming the (dubious) title of economist.

  • Posted by Methuselah

    Set aside the relative “egregious” uses/abuses of rhetoric for just a moment, and put this in perspective.

    Taken to its logical, irreducible conclusion, the science indicates that our activities, left unchecked, now have a real possibility of resulting in the potential extinction of human society as we know it and catastrophic consequences for all life on the planet.

    Seriously, in this light, the focus on “cheap” seems rather ridiculous.

    So tell me: Do you feel lucky?

  • Posted by jim karlock

    You wrote—“Very clear evidence”? Perhaps someone can point me to that

    JK—– Please ask that same question of those claiming that the climate is changing and is in danger. (I have asked a number of times and never have gotten clear evidence. Instead I got correlations, climate models and what amounts to “we can’t find any other cause, so it must be man’s CO2.”))

    Thanks
    JK

  • Posted by jim harvey

    Stephen Davis writes:

    “The reason to stop quibbling about details is this: The consensus tells us to act decisively to avoid the worst scenarios. How likely are they? No one knows. What are they? One is a mass-extinction on a human timescale. ”

    You’ve completely missed the point. Climate science tells us NOTHING about what to do. That, my friend, is in the realm of economics and politics.

    Clean energy is an investment. Seasoned investors don’t dump all their resources into one investment at one time. They know that’s a recipe for disaster. They average in to several investments over years, shifting allocations as prospects for those investments change.

    Panic spedning is the worst option.

  • Posted by David Noble

    Your point is well taken: on both sides of the debate, individuals, organizations and coalitions sometimes overreach their authority. That said, in this case, the statement that there is very clear evidence that investment in a low carbon economy *could* drive decades of growth is probably fair.

  • Posted by Tom Fuller

    If this episode of the ongoing argument now becomes a he said/she said exchange, nobody’s interests are served.

    Both sides in this exchange have a kernel of truth around which they have woven an appeal for support of positions that are frankly political.

    The consensus error is to continue to bind tightly together two propositions about which there are vastly different levels of confidence–one, saying that increasing concentrations of CO2 will warm the planet and that we are contributing to exactly that, with which even the 16 signatories to the WSJ letter would agree, and two, that the atmosphere is highly sensitive to increased concentrations and that positive feedback from several sources will greatly amplify the heat rise from our emissions of CO2. The second proposition is very weakly supported, if at all, by data from observations.

    The skeptic errors are to conflate uncertainty with ignorance and to ally themselves with political forces who have every reason to demand policy paralysis until all uncertainty is resolved.

    There is a third position–the Lukewarmers’ way. Neither consensus-holder nor skeptic wants to confront lukewarmer arguments, for differing reasons, but a centrist position exists and has been articulated.

    It should be clear that both consensus and skeptic are entrenched and dug in for a decades-long battle. Acknowledgement of a third position would be useful.

    As Paul Kelly is fond of putting it, ‘for a variety of reasons, moving away from fossil fuels is in our best interests. We are living in an age where this is becoming technologically feasible.’

    You accurately note in your post that clean energy entrepreneurs exaggerate claims for their ability to substitute for fossil fuels. Keep those exaggerations in mind–but remember their utility as a signalling device. If homeowners rapidly adopt, as one example, solar panels for their rooftops or back yards and use those panels to charge electric vehicles as well as lower their electric bills, they are in effect voting for one version of the future, and those votes will be counted by not just politicians, but solar manufacturers, charging station manufacturers and car manufacturers.

    When faced with two well-funded, opposing and intransigent political positions, change will have to come from the bottom up.

  • Posted by David B. Benson

    jim karlock — There are many fine introductory texts on climatology which thorughly explain why we know it is, in fact, atmospheric CO2. One place to begin is “The Discovery of Global Warming” by Spencer Weart:
    http://www.aip.org/history/climate/index.html

  • Posted by Max Tavoni

    I agree with your view. Climate scientists should be more focused on telling us about the science than about the solutions.
    The costs of climate change mitigation?
    very much unknown and difficult to quantify. But very few estimates (if none at all) project negative costs (that is benefits) when the climate policies are ambitious enough, see for example the outcome of the largest model comparison carried out on the subject (the EMF 22, Clarke et. al. 2009)

    http://emf.stanford.edu/files/res/2369/EMF22OverviewClarke.pdf

    of course a less hot climate will have economic benefits, because it would reduce the damages of too much warming. But saying that climate policies are beneficial to the economy net of the climate benefits (because of jobs, competitiveness, innovation etc.) is an argument with very little -almost non-existent- scientific validity.

  • Posted by Judy Cross

    The article and the comments posted are truly frightening. There is no connection between the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and “climate change”. It seems to me that those who continue pretending that AGW is real in spite of the disconnect between the rise in CO2 and no rise in temperature are the real “deniers”.

    There is no causation without correlation. Pretty simple! How come all you smart guys can’t see that?

    http://www.c3headlines.com/2012/01/noaas-climate-science-data-firmly-establishes-that-co2-is-not-earths-temperature-thermostat.html

  • Posted by jim harvey

    Tom Fuller,

    I heartily applaud your thoughts.

    The reason, in fact, that we have made so little progress on climate change and related energy issues is precisely because, for both groups, there is more at stake than climate change.

    For the main proponents on both sides, climate change is just a proxy for the battle between what we might call the “Gaia” and “Capitalist” (for lack of better terms) world views. Both views are held in nearly religious reverence by their leading proponents. Because each side has flogged their respective positions as morally righteous, neither side is at liberty to make even the smallest compromise in order to achieve a sensible policy.

    Until more sensible people are leading the debate – people that acknowledge the seriousness of climate change as well as the destructiveness of a dramatic, instantaneous shift in energy source, the gridlock will continue.

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