Misleading Questions About Climate Change

By David L. Brown

The climate change deniers are in full bay these days. It seems I can’t read a blog or even a news article without seeing the phrase “global warming hoax.” Somehow this phrase has “gone viral,” as they say. Whether it is merely a social phenomenon or part of a deliberate campaign funded no doubt by the usual suspects, ExxonMobil et al., remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, the drumbeat of denial is growing louder with each day, and seems particularly strident now that the incoming Obama administration has made at least some promising moves in the direction of taking climate change seriously. The appointment of John Holdren as director of the Office of Science and Technology is particularly noteworthy. He is one of the leading voices on the subject of global warming, over-population, and energy dependence.

Dr. Holdren is an eminent scientist, but that does not mean that some newspaper columnist who probably never took a college-level course in science and wouldn’t know a quark from a quart of gin can’t tear into him as if he were some empty suit such as a U.S. Senator.

One Jeff Jacoby, a writer for the Boston Globe, has written a piece titled “Questions for Obama’s Science Guy” (you can read it here). In true Yellow Journalism style (the only kind we seem to have anymore), Mr. Jacoby sets forth a series of “gotcha” type questions. Thanks to his own ignorance or unwillingness to research his subject, Jacoby fails to recognize that there are good answers to his questions. This reminds me of the “journalistic” technique of asking embarrassing but ill-founded questions, then shouting down the subject when he/she attempts to answer. In the medium of a newspaper column, of course, the victim doesn’t even have a change to respond—at least, not the way “journalism” is practiced today.

Many years ago when I studied journalism at what was then acknowledged as the world’s leading J-School, we were taught things like “check your facts, then check them again;” “always get both sides of the story;” and boring stuff like that. Gee, journalism was sure lacking in entertainment value back in those days, wasn’t it? Oh, wait, we didn’t classify journalism as entertainment back then, did we?

Anyway, since Dr. Holdren was not given the chance to answer the “gotcha” questions, I will attempt to answer for him. To conserve space I will condense the questions from Mr. Jacoby’s diatribe, which are in italics. Go to the link above to read the questions in their entirety. Here goes:

1 — You were long associated with population alarmist Paul Ehrlich, and joined him in predicting disasters that never came to pass. What have you learned from the failure of these prophecies to come true?

My response: We have learned that it is very difficult to predict future time scales. The population “bomb” did not explode as early as Erlich and Holdren thought it would for a number of reasons. One of the biggest factors was the unanticipated success of the so-called Green Revolution, which increased agricultural production particularly in the Third World, allowing the populations in poor countries to continue to expand. Another factor was that America and other nations pumped up their farm production and shoveled the over-production out into the world as “food aid.” It was a sham way of rewarding farmers while appearing to be humanitarians. That, too, was unanticipated and surprising. Both these factors were temporary “fixes,” only staving off the time when the Devil arrives to present his bill. The populating bomb will explode, in fact it is exploding now. Erlich and Holdren were wrong only in their estimated timeline. Incidentally, to call the esteemed Paul Ehrlich a “population alarmist” is an unfair slander. Like Thomas Malthus, Dr. Ehrlich will be proven correct in the not so distant future.

2 — You have advocated the “long-term desirability of zero population growth” for the United States. In 1973, you pronounced the US population of 210 million as “too many” and pooh-poohed any notion that “the strain of an accelerated arms race will do more damage to the Soviet economy than to our own.” But that is exactly what happened, and President Reagan’s defense buildup helped win the Cold War. Did that outcome alter your thinking?

My answer: What? This is a nonsense question, but I will try to respond. First, look around you at the sprawling cities and towns engulfing our continent and any reasonable person must admit that we might have quite a few more people than we really need. Yes, we now have a population half again bigger than Dr. Holdren suggested. But the apparent fact that we are supporting those numbers overlooks the fact that we cannot continue to do so forever. We are rapidly using up our resources to support those excess numbers. The fact that we are now significantly above those levels is a looming tragedy for our nation’s future. Secondly, what does the Cold War have to do with this? The columnist is conflating two completely unrelated subjects. The Soviet collapse was in large part due to its inability to adequately feed its own people, a problem that we may be facing here in America before too long, particularly if we experience a particularly unfavorable growing season, an event that is past due.

4 —  [Yes, Mr. Jacoby seems to have skipped number 3. Careful fact-checking at work.] You argued that “a massive campaign must be launched . . . to de-develop the United States” in order to conserve energy; you also recommended the “de-development” of modern industrialized nations in order to facilitate growth in underdeveloped countries. Yet elsewhere you observed: “Affordable energy in ample quantities is the lifeblood of the industrial societies and a prerequisite for the economic development of the others.” Which is it?

My answer: Well, both of course. Do you think the complex problems of the world can be solved through simple, one-answer solutions? Well, Jacoby probably does. Anyone who has the least understanding of the situation realizes that we need to decouple advanced economies from petroleum other unsustainable fossil fuels and find “ample quantities” of sustainable, ecologically safe energy. Only then can less fortunate nations have a chance. They cannot follow the developed world down the blind alley of industrialization that brought us to where we are today because there are not enough resources left in the ground. Mr. Jacoby’s question is so tortured and garbled that he obviously has no understanding of these facts.

5 — In Scientific American, you recently wrote: “The ongoing disruption of the Earth’s climate by man-made greenhouse gases is already well beyond dangerous and is careening toward completely unmanageable.” Given your record with forecasting calamity, shouldn’t policymakers view your alarm with a degree of skepticism?

My answer: No, but thanks to idiots like yourself they probably will. All kinds of calamities are coming, sure as the Sun will come up tomorrow. Many of them are already here. Many if not most of these predicted events will occur, not to mention  others that we haven’t even thought of yet. It’s only a question of when, not whether, and recent evidence suggests that for some of the more serious calamities it will be sooner rather than later. Climate scientists are almost unanimously agreed that the situation is extremely dangerous. Numerous studies have shown that the problem is real, and that it is accelerating. Only thanks to programs of disinformation have the ill-informed public and journalists been given reason to believe that the threat is not a serious one. The odds are overwhelming that the Earth is sliding down a dangerous path.

6 — In 2006, according to the London Times, you suggested that global sea levels could rise 13 feet by the end of this century. But the latest assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is that sea levels are likely to have risen only 13 inches by 2100. Can you explain the discrepancy?

My answer: Certainly. There is none because Jacoby is presenting an apples vs. oranges question. These are different figures presented in different frameworks. The IPCC report was extremely conservative in its estimation of sea level rise, was based on five-year-old data, and was edited by hundreds of political appointees from around the world. Even before the report was issued, participating scientists began to warn that the estimates might be too low. In recent years we have witnessed a rapid increase in the rate of melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet and Antarctic ice. Based on these facts, Dr. Holdren is correct in stating that sea level “could” (note the qualification) rise by 13 feet. It could also rise by more or less than that amount, but it is presented as a possibility. There are no certainties in predicting the future, and particularly not in the case of something as extraordinarily complex as the global ecosphere.

7 — “Variability has been the hallmark of climate over the millennia,” you wrote in 1977. “The one statement about future climate that can be made with complete assurance is that it will be variable.” If true, should we not be wary of ascribing too much importance to human influence on climate change?

My answer: The quoted statement is obviously true, but so what? This is another example of showing an apple and an orange and assuming they are the same thing. Yes, there will always be variability. There is variability on the surface of the Sun, in the honesty and intelligence of journalists, and indeed in perhaps everything in the Universe. And does that mean that we should deny human influence, when we are undeniably digging up and burning fossil fuels that took hundreds of millions of years to build up beneath the Earth, all in a flickering of historic time? This is a dishonest question, not unlike the classic “have you stopped beating your wife yet?” Since the premise has no connection to the question, the latter has no meaning whatsoever.

8. — You are withering in your contempt for researchers who are unconvinced that human activity is responsible for global warming, or that global warming is an onrushing disaster. You have written that such ideas are “dangerous,” that those who hold them “infest” the public discourse, and that paying any attention to their views is a “menace.” You contributed to a published assault on Bjorn Lomborg’s notable 2001 book “The Skeptical Environmentalist” – an attack the Economist described as “strong on contempt and sneering, but weak on substance.” In light of President-elect Obama’s insistence that “promoting science” means “protecting free and open inquiry,” will you work to soften your hostility toward scholars who disagree with you?

My answer: Mr. Jacoby seems to think that “making nice” with fools would be a good way to further scientific progress. Since when? His assumption seems to be that every opinion is deserving of equal respect. He would no doubt favor teaching intelligent design in our universities, or the acceptance of all manner of crackpot ideas. There is a mass of ill-informed opinion sloshing around in the media. I reported one example here some time back where a “Nobel prize winner” issued a statement against climate change. Turns out the individual in question was an artist who had served in the U.N. Peacekeeping Force during the year in which that organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The nature of the person’s Nobel Prize was not revealed in the news release I saw, but I uncovered it with a bit of Googling. (Just as many of these answers could have been revealed to Mr. Jacoby had he spent the effort to do so, or had the knowledge to separate the wheat from the chaff.) Bjorn Lomborg is a poster child for climate change denial (his Ph.D. is in political “science”) and The Economist is hardly a fair judge of substance. [I base that opinion on the fact that I read The Economist cover to cover each week and have done so for more than a decade, which as you can imagine indicates that I rate it above most other news sources but still take it with a grain of salt.]

So there you have my answers. I don’t know whether Dr. Holdren would agree with my responses, and claim no direct knowledge of how he might react to these questions. But what does it matter? Well, it matters a lot because many among the no-doubt fast-diminishing numbers of Boston Globe readers are no doubt inclined to take people like Mr. Jacoby seriously. If they were not, they like so many others of us would have stopped reading newspapers a long time ago. His “gotcha” questions probably appear to many readers to have real substance. Thanks in part to our media, the vast majority of Americans are under-informed and confused about science. And perhaps hundreds, perhaps thousands of those who read Mr. Jacoby’s poorly researched opinion piece will shake their heads in wonder that someone so apparently ill-qualified as Dr. Holdren (as portrayed by a journalistic hack and who is in fact one of our most accomplished scientists), could be appointed to a position of high responsibility.

That is not only an injustice but could be characterized as a crime against civilization. What it definitely is not is responsible journalism. But you don’t see much of that anymore.

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