Extract from Steve Koonin's climate science book “Unsettled”. My personal view is: The Science is almost settled on the changing Sun and Sun-Earth relationship as the cause of almost all climate change; with the greenhouse gas effect being, essentially, fake science.
WHO BROKE “THE SCIENCE” AND WHY, Steve Koonin
Chapter 10, of “Unsettled”, by Steve Koonin, 2021.
If crucial parts of the science really are unsettled, as we’ve seen over the past chapters, why is the narrative of The Science so different? Can it really be that the multiplicity of stakeholders in climate matters—scientists, scientific institutions, activists and NGOs, the media, politicians—are all contributing to misinformation in the service of persuasion? And why has The Science gained such prominence over science?
Observing this scene over the years, I’ve given a lot of thought to how the communication of climate science works. I’m no expert on human behavior, but I have seen this process up close, and my direct experiences, along with some universal truths about humans, suggest not some secret cabal, but rather a self-reinforcing alignment of perspectives and interests. Let’s look at the most important players in turn.
When I moved to the UK in 2004, I naturally began reading the British newspapers. I was struck by how much more international coverage there was than in the US, no doubt because the smaller UK necessarily has more foreign interactions, as well as ties to the rest of Europe and historical relationships with Commonwealth countries once part of the British Empire. And of course, soccer—that is, football—got many more column inches. But what surprised me most wasn’t only a matter of content, but tone. The British papers were often overtly partisan, not just in their editorials, but also in their reporting. Although I had read widely among US national newspapers, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, it was a revelation to see the stark differences in what was covered, and how it was covered, among the UK’s Guardian, the (London) Times, the Telegraph, and the Financial Times.
In the years since, US media outlets have developed more explicit and more differentiated points of view themselves, and those have likewise seeped from their editorial pieces into their reporting. Most notably, as the age of the internet advanced, headlines became more provocative to encourage clicks—even when the article itself didn’t support the provocation. Today, the shift toward the alarming—and shareable—has traveled well beyond the headlines. That’s especially true in climate and energy matters.
Whatever its noble intentions, news is ultimately a business, one that in this digital era increasingly depends upon eyeballs in the form of clicks and shares. Reporting on the scientific reality that there’s been hardly any long-term change in extreme weather doesn’t fit the ethos of If it bleeds it leads. On the other hand, there is always an extreme weather story somewhere in the world to support a sensational headline.
Changes in staffing also contribute to the media miscommunication of the science. Many newsrooms are shrinking, and serious in-depth reporting is becoming less common. Many people reporting on climate don’t have a background in science. This is a particular problem because, as we’ve seen, the assessment reports themselves can be misleading, especially to non-experts. Science stories are almost always stories of nuance; they require time and research. Unfortunately, the pace of the news cycle has only become more frantic, and reporters and editors have less time than ever. The diversity and ubiquity of modern media have increased the demand for fresh “content” and the competition to be the first to post a story. And as with scientists, a professional code that calls for lack of bias doesn’t mean none creeps in.
As I interact with journalists, I realize that, for some, “climate change” has become a cause and a mission—to save the world from destruction by humans—so that packing alarm into whatever the story is becomes the “right” thing to do, even an obligation. This has been compounded by the rise of a new job category: “climate reporters.” Their mission is largely predetermined; if they don’t have a narrative of doom to report, they won’t get into the paper (whether digital or print) or on the air.
Here’s an example. A recent front-page story in the Washington Post reported that the Biden administration’s climate policy would aim “to rapidly shrink the nation’s carbon emissions,” explaining that “a warming planet has made the issue increasingly hard to ignore, as the litany of climate-related catastrophes has grown with each passing year.”1
Of course, as you have already read, the data does not at all support that “climate-related catastrophes” are growing “with each passing year.” There’s much factual reporting in the full-page story that follows about plans for the new administration. But without those initial alarm bells, would the story have made it to the front page?
In short, the general lack of knowledge of what the science actually says, the drama of extreme weather events and their heart-rending impact on people, and pressures within the industry all work against balanced coverage in the popular media.
Politicians win elections by arousing passion and commitment from voters—by motivating and persuading. This is not new. H. L. Mencken’s 1918 book In Defense of Women noted:
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.2
The threat of climate catastrophe—whether storms, droughts, rising seas, failed crops, or economic collapse—resonates with everyone. And this threat can be portrayed as both urgent (by invoking a recent deadly weather event, for instance) and yet distant enough so that a politician’s dire predictions will be tested only decades after they’ve left office. Unfortunately, while climate science and associated energy issues are complicated, complexity and nuance don’t lend themselves at all well to political messaging. So the science is jettisoned in favor of The Science, and “simplified” for use in the political arena, which allows the required actions to be portrayed simply as well—just eliminate fossil fuels to save the planet.
Of course, this isn’t a climate-specific problem, and the electorate— which abhors a gray area—bears part of the blame. It’s hard to rally the base with uncertainty. There would surely be less support for, say, promoting renewable energy sources if they were more realistically portrayed as a possible way to mitigate a possible future problem instead of an essential solution to an imminent crisis. And uncertainty can be a political weapon. Politicians on the right who deny even the basics that science has settled— that human influences have played a role in warming the globe—are not above exploiting climate science uncertainties, offering them as “proof” that the climate isn’t changing after all.
Politicians on the left find it inconvenient to discuss scientific uncertainties or the magnitude of the challenge in reducing human influences. Instead, they declare the science settled and label anyone who questions that conclusion “a denier,” lumping conscientious scientists advocating for less persuasion and more research in with those openly hostile to science itself.
Some politicians have gone far beyond name-calling, brazenly attempting to undermine the scientific process. Two billionaire politicians, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, whose goal was “making the climate threat feel real, immediate, and potentially devastating to the business world,” conspired with some scientists and others to produce a series of reports mischaracterizing the extreme emissions scenario RCP8.5 as “business as usual” (that is, a world without further efforts to rein in emissions).3, 4 The reports were accompanied by a sophisticated campaign to infuse that notion into scientific conferences and journals.5 Those who seek to corrupt the scientific process in that way are playing the same game as the anti- science crowd they loudly decry. Fortunately, the deception is now being called out in leading scientific journals.6,7
Finally, it is standard practice to suggest that many of the politicians on the right who promulgate the idea of a “climate change hoax” are influenced by ties to industries negatively affected by restrictive environmental regulation. Alas, as the alternative energy industry grows, there is financial incentive for politicians to hype climate catastrophe as well. Science should not be partisan, but climate science’s intersection with energy policy and politics all but guaranteed that it would become so.
Trust in scientific institutions underpins our ability—and the ability of the media and politicians as well—to trust what is presented to us as The Science. Yet when it comes to climate, those institutions frequently seem more concerned with making the science fit a narrative than with ensuring the narrative fits the science. We’ve already seen that the institutions that prepare the official assessment reports have a communication problem, often summarizing or describing the data in ways that are actively misleading. In the next chapter, we’ll delve a bit further into how this happens; I won’t belabor the point here.
Other scientific institutions, or their leaders, have also been overwilling to persuade rather than inform. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) is a private, nonprofit institution chartered by the US Congress in 1863 to advise the nation. To quote from their website:
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are the nation’s pre-eminent source of high-quality, objective advice on science, engineering, and health matters.8
The Academies provide that advice largely through written reports sponsored by federal agencies. Some two hundred reports are published each year, dealing with a great range of topics in science, engineering, medicine, and the societal issues associated with them.9
Academies reports undergo an extensive authoring and review process. I know that process well, having led two Academies studies and reviewed the reports of several others, along with for six years overseeing all the Academies’ report activities in Engineering and the Physical Sciences (including several in Energy, but none in Climate Science). This process does indeed result in reports that are almost always objective and of the highest quality. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, their reviews of the National Climate Assessments (they don’t write the assessments themselves) in 2014 and 2017/18 didn’t quite meet that standard.
On June 28, 2019, the presidents of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine issued a statement affirming “the Scientific Evidence of Climate Change.” The sole paragraph dealing with the science itself read:
Scientists have known for some time, from multiple lines of evidence, that humans are changing Earth’s climate, primarily through greenhouse gas emissions. The evidence on the impacts of climate change is also clear and growing. The atmosphere and the Earth’s oceans are warming, the magnitude and frequency of certain extreme events are increasing, and sea level is rising along our coasts.10
Even given the need for brevity, this is a misleadingly incomplete and imprecise accounting of the state of climate science. It conflates human-caused warming with the changing climate in general, erroneously invokes “certain extreme events” while omitting the fact that most types (including those that pop most readily to mind when one reads the phrase “extreme events,” like hurricanes) show no significant trend at all. And it states that “sea level is rising” in a way that not only suggests that this, too, is solely attributable to human-caused warming, but elides the fact that the rise is nothing new.
I’m quite sure that this personal statement issued by the presidents in a news release was not reviewed by the usual Academies procedures; if it had been, its deficiencies would have been corrected. The statement therefore carries the weight of the Academies’ name without being subject to its customary rigor. Ironically, the statement goes on to say the Academies “need to more clearly communicate what we know.” Which in this case they didn’t.
When communication of climate science is corrupted like this, it undermines the confidence people have in what the scientific establishment says about other crucial societal issues (COVID-19 being the outstanding recent example). As Philip Handler, a prior president of the National Academy of Sciences, wrote in the 1980 editorial I mentioned in the Introduction:
It is time to return to the ethics and norms of science so that the political process may go on with greater confidence. The public may wonder why we do not already know that which appears vital to decision—but science will retain its place in public esteem only if we steadfastly admit the magnitude of our uncertainties and then assert the need for further research. And we shall lose that place if we dissemble or if we argue as if all necessary information and understanding were in hand. Scientists best serve public policy by living within the ethics of science, not those of politics.11
This book’s introduction described Stephen Schneider’s false choice between being effective and being honest. But there are other factors that encourage climate researchers’ monolithic portrayal of the science as settled, however vigorous their internal debates might be. Feynman closes his Cargo Cult speech by wishing the Caltech graduates
the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity.
I know from experience that such institutional pressures are real; whether you’re working for the government, a corporation, or an NGO, there is a message to be adhered to. For academics, there is pressure to generate press and to secure funding through grants. There’s also the matter of promotion and tenure. And there is peer pressure: more than a few climate contrarians have suffered public opprobrium and diminished career prospects for publicizing data that doesn’t support the “broken climate” meme.
Carl Wunsch, a prominent oceanographer from MIT who has long urged scientists to be realistic in their portrayal of the science,12 has written about the pressures on climate scientists to produce splashy results:
The central problem of climate science is to ask what you do and say when your data are, by almost any standard, inadequate? If I spend three years analyzing my data, and the only defensible inference is that “the data are inadequate to answer the question,” how do you publish? How do you get your grant renewed? A common answer is to distort the calculation of the uncertainty, or ignore it all together, and proclaim an exciting story that the New York Times will pick up.
A lot of this is somewhat like what goes on in the medical business: Small, poorly controlled studies are used to proclaim the efficacy of some new drug or treatment. How many such stories have been withdrawn years later when enough adequate data became available?13
Scientists not involved with climate research are also to be faulted. While they’re in a unique position to evaluate climate science’s claims, they’re prone to a phenomenon I call “climate simple.” The phrase “blood simple,” first used by Dashiell Hammett in his 1929 novel Red Harvest, describes the deranged mindset of people after a prolonged immersion in violent situations; “climate simple” is an analogous ailment, in which otherwise rigorous and analytical scientists abandon their critical faculties when discussing climate and energy issues. For example, the diagnosis was climate simple when one of my senior scientific colleagues asked me to stop “the distraction” of pointing out inconvenient sections of an IPCC report. This was an eyes-shut-fingers-in-the-ears position I’ve never heard in any other scientific discussion.
What causes climate simple? Perhaps it is a lack of knowledge of the subject, or fear of speaking out, particularly against scientific peers. Or perhaps it is simple conviction born more of faith in the proclaimed consensus than of the evidence presented.
Leo Tolstoy’s 1894 philosophical treatise The Kingdom of God Is Within You contains the following thought:
The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.14
Whatever its cause, climate simple is a problem. Major changes in society are being advocated and trillions will be spent, all based on the findings of climate science. That science should be open to intense scrutiny and questioning, and scientists should approach it with their usual critical objectivity. And they shouldn’t have to be afraid when they do.
ACTIVISTS AND NONGOVERNMENTAL ORGANIZATIONS (NGOS)
My inbox fills with fundraising appeals from such organizations as 350.org, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. If you believe there is a “climate emergency,” have built an organization on that premise, and rely upon your donors’ continuing commitment to the cause, projecting urgency is crucial. Hence statements like “The climate crisis is immense—we must be daring and courageous in response” (from the 350.org website15) or “Climate change is one of the most devastating problems that humanity has ever faced—and the clock is running out” (from the UCS website16). It’s hardly in your best interest to tell your donors that the climate shows no sign of being broken or that projections of future disasters rely on models of dubious validity. The media tend to accord NGOs an authoritative stance. But these are also interest groups, with their own climate and energy agendas. And they are powerful political actors, who mobilize supporters, raise money, run campaigns, and wield political power. For many, the “climate crisis” is their entire raison d’etre. They also have to worry about being outflanked by more militant groups.
I have no problem with activism, and the efforts of NGOs have made the world better in countless ways. But distorting science to further a cause is inexcusable, particularly with the complicity of those scientists who serve on their advisory boards.
Fear of extreme weather events is understandable, and concerns about changes in climate are as old as humanity. Short-term weather events (storms, floods, droughts) have stressed and challenged societies, while changes extending over decades induced mass migrations or even destroyed entire civilizations. For example, repeated crop failures devastated communities in the southwest United States during the twenty-five-year-long Great Drought about 750 years ago.17
The notion that our behavior might be causing such calamities is also as old as humanity—as is the hope that we might avoid the worst of climate disasters by changing our behavior. Leviticus 26:3–4 promises regular rain (very important in the Middle East) and its ensuing benefits in return for doing the right thing:
If ye walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them; Then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.
We like to think public attitudes toward climate today are more discerning, but they still mostly involve unquestioning acceptance of wisdom handed down from on high. As around the world, most citizens in America are not scientists, and the educational system does not deliver much in the way of scientific literacy to the wider public. Most people do not have the ability to examine the science themselves, and they have neither time nor the inclination to do so. Many increasingly get their information from social media, where it is far too easy to promote misinformation or disinformation. And in my experience, people tend to believe—and trust—their chosen media in areas outside their expertise.
Michael Crichton, the bestselling author of The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park, lived near Caltech and was a prominent member of Pasadena’s extended intellectual community until his death in 2008. Crichton, who was a physician before he became a writer, was an outspoken advocate for scientific integrity, and he looked askance at the public presentation of climate science (his 2004 novel State of Fear deals with that subject). Crichton’s conversations with Caltech professor Murray Gell-Mann (the Nobel prize–winning physicist who was one of the first researchers to hypothesize quarks) led him to describe the “Gell-Mann Amnesia” effect:
You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business …
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.18
It certainly doesn’t help that, at this point, even attempting a discussion of The Science is to enter a political minefield. When I tell people some of the things the assessment reports really say about climate, many immediately ask whether I was a Trump supporter. My reply is that I was not, and that, as a scientist, I have always supported truth.
As a scientist, I’m disappointed that so many individuals and organizations in the scientific community are demonstrably misrepresenting the science in an effort to persuade rather than inform. But you also should be concerned as a citizen. In a democracy, voters will ultimately decide how society responds to a changing climate. Major decisions made without full knowledge of what the science says (and doesn’t say) or, even worse, on the basis of misinformation, are much less likely to lead to positive outcomes. COVID-19 offered a sobering illustration of this, and it’s as true for climate and energy as it is for pandemics.
- Brady, Dennis and Juliet Eilperin. “In Confronting Climate Change, Biden Won’t Have a Day to Waste.” Washington Post. December 22, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/12/22/biden-climate-change/.
- Mencken, H. L. In Defense of Women. Project Gutenberg. Last updated February 6, 2013. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1270/1270-h/1270-h.htm.
- Helm, Burt. “Climate Change’s Bottom Line.” New York Times, January 31, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/01/business/energy-environment/climate-changes-bottom-line.html.
- The Risky Business Project. “Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States.” June 2014. http://riskybusiness.org/site/assets/uploads/2015/09/RiskyBusiness_Report_WEB_09_08_14.pdf.
- Pilke, Roger. “How Billionaires Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg Corrupted Climate Science.” Forbes, January 2, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/rogerpielke/2020/01/02/how-billionaires-tom-steyer-and-michael-bloomberg-corrupted-climate-science.
- Hausfather, Zeke, and Glen P. Peters. “Emissions—the ‘business as usual’ story is misleading.” Nature, January 29, 2020. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00177-3.
- Burgess, Matthew G., et al. Environmental Research Letters 16 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/abcdd2.
- “About Us: Who We Are.” The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Accessed December 1, 2020 https://www.nationalacademies.org/about.
- The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. “Climate Change Publications.” The National Academies Press. Accessed December 1, 2020. https://www.nap.edu/.
- McNutt, Marcia, C. D. Mote Jr., Victor J. Dzau. “National Academies Presidents Affirm the Scientific Evidence of Climate Change.” The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, June 18, 2019. http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=06182019.
- Handler, Philip. “Public Doubts About Science.” Science, June 6, 1980. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/208/4448/1093.
- Wunsch, Carl. “Swindled: Carl Wunsch Responds.” RealClimate, March 12, 2007. http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2007/03/swindled-carl-wunsch-responds/comment-page-3/.
- Revkin, Andrew C. “A Closer Look at Turbulent Oceans and Greenhouse Heating.” New York Times, August 26, 2014. https://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/08/26/a-closer-look-at-turbulent-oceans-and-greenhouse-heating/.
- Tolstoy, Leo. 1894. The Kingdom of God Is Within You. Project Gutenberg, July 26, 2013. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/43302/43302-h/43302-h.htm.
- “About 350.Org.” 350.org. Accessed December 1, 2020. https://350.org/about/.
- “Climate Change.” Union of Concerned Scientists. Accessed December 1, 2020. https://www.ucsusa.org/climate.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Great Drought.” Encyclopædia Britannica, November 26, 2012. https://www.britannica.com/event/Great-Drought#ref=ref112984.
- Crichton, Michael. At the International Leadership Forum, La Jolla, CA, April 26, 2002. http://geer.tinho.net/crichton.why.speculate.txt.