Revkin on the nonskeptical heretics

Andrew Revkin does a nice job in this morning’s New York Times in characterizing those scientists that Roger Pielke Jr. has described as the “nonskeptical heretics”:

A third stance is now emerging, espoused by many experts who challenge both poles of the debate.

They agree that accumulating carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping smokestack and tailpipe gases probably pose a momentous environmental challenge, but say the appropriate response is more akin to buying fire insurance and installing sprinklers and new wiring in an old, irreplaceable house (the home planet) than to fighting a fire already raging.

“Climate change presents a very real risk,” said Carl Wunsch, a climate and oceans expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It seems worth a very large premium to insure ourselves against the most catastrophic scenarios. Denying the risk seems utterly stupid. Claiming we can calculate the probabilities with any degree of skill seems equally stupid.”

Update: The discussion is underway in earnest over on Dr. Pielke Jr.’s blog.


  1. Actually I found this quite curious. Why is this ‘only now emerging’? – it sounds just like the mainstream view all along. While I understand the desire to be seen as going against the grain (scientists are by nature contrary), and given that Galileo is a scientific hero, it’s only natural to want to be seen as a ‘heretic’ – but I don’t actually see what’s heretical here. The scientists quoted in the piece are hardly radical new thinkers – they are basically the same people who are quoted all the time. Is it now ‘heresy’ to say that single weather events don’t a climate change make? or that the Gulf Stream isn’t about to reverse? or that we’re not on a fast track to Venusian conditions? Well if so, there would appear to be a consensus on these ‘heresies’ – which seems to be a bit of an oxymoron if you ask me.

  2. Gavin –

    Thanks for the comment. I think your comment applies to the scientific discussion, but not to the public debate, which has been dominated by the poles. The premise of Revkin’s piece is not that this centrism is new, but that exponents are becoming less passive and more visible/vocal. Revkin telegraphs that point in his lead. I agree with that premise.

  3. Gavin-

    I am sure that people from both extremes of the debate will respond to Revkin’s article by saying “we are already in the middle!” in order to try to preserve the two-sided debate. Both sides have an interest in preserving this pairing, as a third distinct perspective will make the politics far more complicated (especially one that makes this much sense;-)

    There is indeed a third way perspective emerging to be more of a political force. In the article Jim Hansen is characterized as rejecting such a middle way, which helps to define it more clearly as distinct. And your website RealClimate routinely avoids discussing such middle way perspectives (e.g., RC appears to have completely ignored the recent WMO report on tropical cyclones and Mike Hulme’s BBC op-ed, both cited in the NYT article) in favor of drawing attention to the political extremes (such as in your recent skeptic-obsessed year-in-review post).

    Revkin’s article says, “These experts see a clear need for the public to engage now, but not to panic. They worry that portrayals of the issue like that in “An Inconvenient Truth,” the documentary focused on the views of Mr. Gore, may push too hard.” In contrast, what did RC say? “For the most part … Gore gets the science right.”

    Is there an emerging third way perspective on climate change? Yes. And it can’t get here soon enough.!

  4. This was the appropriate response about 5-15 years ago. At that time it was stressed that early action could be no or low cost or even a net benefit, but the expense of meeting a problem would grow strongly with delay. The simile that was used is that it was best to start turning an ocean liner early.

    Although net costs for such a strategy would be neutral or small, that did not mean that everyone would benefit. Those who would lose, the fossil fuel industry principally and those opposed to necessary government regulations, funded public relations efforts centered on a small group of denialists. They claimed there was no problem, no need to take out any “insurance”. They succeeded. Time has moved on, the threat is more certain. Roger would have us listen to those who were wrong. I would suggest that the middle now lies between those who would take low cost ameloriative actions and those who would take stronger actions. There is, as always, a loud fringe.

    In interesting ways Revkin taps into the discussion between Stern and Nordhaus. Stern thinks there is an urgent problem of the first priority, Nordhaus thinks that there is yet time to meet the challenge, but would start ramping up now.

    Clearly Revkin’s article will be used by those who want no action. Equally clearly this “middle” position does call for action. The way to tell the sheep from the goats is to ask what IMMEDIATE actions people would advocate for. Mine for the US include:

    1. A nuclear electricity generating program such as in France

    2. Either a higher gas tax, balanced by decreases in payroll taxes or higher CAFE standards (also applying to trucks and vans) and licensing fees based on gas mileage

    3. Subsidized mass transit with high density zoning near transit corridors and low density zoning in the exurbs.

    4. Subsidized development of renewable energy sources.

    That’s a start.

  5. Joshua-

    Glad to see you are paying attention, but it seems that you continue to have a hard time accurately characterizing my views. I have absolutely no problem supporting your 1, 2, 3, and 4. I’d even go further and add a 5th — far greater investments need to go into adaptation in parallel to actions on energy policies.


  6. My point is where is the middle? It certainly is not between Jim Hansen and Fred Singer. It might be between you and Hansen if you want to talk about a middle based on facts rather than fantasy. Economically it might be between Nordhaus and Stern. Moreover it is not clear that Hansen’s or Stern’s views are really at the reasonable extreme. That might be Lovelock.

    That I put down some relatively mild IMMEDIATE first steps is but a beginning. That you agree with them is not surprising. For example, the data shows that going nuclear for electrical generation decreases carbon emissions by about a third. Increasing fleet mileage by taxes or regulation is another obvious one as is a rational zoning and transportation policy. This accounts for most of the differences between the US and Europe.

    The test is how far are you willing to go beyond those immediate steps. The major problem with adaptation, as you advocate it is that adaptation only buys time for ameloriation. It is not a solution. This is the key point to Hansen’s alternate scenerio. Adaptation does not work in the long run against continued greenhouse gas growth. You need to confront that issue. You also need to confront some of the amen chorus you have accumulated. Your continued silence in view of their support for you based on what according to you is a false reading of your position while responding instantly to Coby or Steve Bloom makes your position very clear.

    This gives me the opportunity of telling a slightly strange Russian story. Once upon a time, when the snows were high (right away you see the relevence) a Russian hunter was riding through the forest. He came upon a small bird who had fallen out of the nest and was freezing to death. The hunter picked up the bird and warmed it in his jacket, and it began to sing. The hunter could not take the bird home, as his dogs would kill it.

    What to do? He noticed that his horse had just deposited a large, steaming pile of manure on the snow. Taking the bird, he placed it in the manure (family blog here. the story improves with the pithier word) and rode on. The bird, nice and warm began to sing, which attracted a fox who ate it. What are the three things this story tells?

    1. He who places you in the manure is not necessarily your enemy

    2. He who takes you out of the manure is not necessarily yours friend

    3. When you are in the manure, shut up.

    Have a hot new year.

  7. Joshua-

    I guess where we differ is that from where I sit, when people see merits in the arguments I advance, I see this as evidence of the compelling nature of those arguments. In fact, one of the goals of political debate is to get people who think differently to act alike, as Walter Lippmann once put it. So if people who I might otherwise disagree with find merit in my policy arguments, then that is a good thing. The climate debate is in gridlock not least because some seem to think that the point is to obliterate their opponents. not find areas where they can agree. You seem view things through the lens that one starts by judging people not ideas.

    I’ve written widely on the importance of adaptation as a component to any climate policy. Have a look, you might be surprised with what I actually say (as opposed to your misleading caricature).

    I don’t know what you are talking about re: Coby and Steve Bloom.

    By the way, you are of course welcome to join in the discussion on our blog, if you are willing to do so under your own name and to eschew the disturbing and violent imagery and abusive comments. Judging from what you have just written, it does not seem that is very likely. But hey, 2007 is a new year and maybe a chance for a fresh start!

  8. Well, let us start by saying that the climate debate is NO LONGER in gridlock, that the public policy part of it has a moved a great deal towards what I (and Benny Peiser) would describe as the ‘consensus’ position within the last year to year and a half, both in the United States and worldwide. The science is becoming more certain, those who follow the science including the scientists are becoming more assertive. The interesting current policy question is whether the US is the indispensible country anymore, and whether the new Congress will be able to change US policy.

    Gridlock was the obvious goal of the financial backers for the denialist position. It was what they wanted, and they turned down every deal that was offered them. But times are changing driven by events and science. At this point the threat of gridlock is a negotiating tactic of the denialist backers to minimize costs to them.

    Let us now talk about obliteration. The real question, which you avoid, is who poisoned the well? I have on my bookshelf a couple of books, Meltdown, and The Satanic Gases, by Pat Michaels (surely you know him pretty well), Taken by Storm by Essex and McKitrick. I have not picked up Fred Singer (you remember him, he talked to your class) and Dennis Avery’s latest. These guys are not fringe crazys. They are the intellectual core of the denialist position. They are not playing patty cake. The public relations firms and think tanks that support them never were either. The whole effort was always were oriented to destroying anyone and any science that stated global climate change was a problem. They were able to confuse the public for a long time.

    Now with things going downhill they are playing victim bullies. It is a typical tactic of someone who has been on top when they lose power and confront the possibility that their opponents will do unto them what they did unto their opponents. We see this all the time in politics. It is a fairly useful tactic, these demands for comity and working together, but for it to actually have any meaning, the sinner must show some contrition.

    So let me see if I understand the rules of your game. The Singers, Michaels and ilk can say anything they like, falsify evidence, and then if you call them on it that is trying to obliterate those who disagree with you. Roger, you claim to be balanced, but you show no evidence of it. You only make demands and criticize one side. Sorry that makes you a partisan.

    Your most kind offer is a wonderful example of this, if only Eli would be reasonable and agree to your terms it would be so wonderful. Thank you no. If I wanted to be violent and disturbing I could add to that, but this is a family blog. Actually it was a pretty funny joke.

  9. Joshua-

    We did invite Fred Singer to our class in spring, 1998, which I co-taught with Peter Webster (now at GA Tech). Our goal was to recreate as best we could the debate over climate change, and between Peter and I we had access to many of the leading voices. It was a great class coming right on the heels of Kyoto. We trusted that the students would be capable judges of the information that they heard and felt no need to hide them from certain perspectives. Not everyone was happy that we invited Singer. In fact I was told by a leading scientists that my career at NCAR would be in jeopardy if Singer came, but that is a whole different story!

    I’ve got no problem with substantive criticisms of Singer, Michaels, or anyone else, me included. Have at it. I’m as partisan as the next guy, and happy to say it, never said differently.

    When you chose to come out from behind the character and engage on substance, you are welcome to do so on our site, so the offer stands. Meantime, continued mischaracterizations, thinly veiled threats, and ad hom attacks will speak pretty loudly for themselves.

    Best wishes for 2007. See you around the blogosphere, or maybe even in DC . . .

  10. Yes, Roger, well you also said that

    ” Question: Why don’t I write about glaciers, solar variability, Fred Singer, or Pat Michaels?

    Answer: I don’t know anything special about glaciers, solar variability, or the issues which are often discussed by Fred Singer or Pat Michaels. By contrast, I do know something about disasters and climate change. In fact, I know a lot, perhaps as much as only a few dozen people.”

    IMHO that was a bit disengenuous, even forgetting that Singer and Michaels have been very important players in climate science policy for the last 15 years or so and that they have both written on disasters and climate change.

    Now as I said when this all started, it was clear to me that you had a very detailed picture of what you wanted to accomplish with your blog. Picking Prometheus as a title was brilliant for the allusions that lurk with us all from our education of the god who brought fire to mankind and suffered for it.

    It took a while to think of a counter, and that is what Ethon started as, the obvious annoyance to the great Prometheus. The most interesting thing to me (and I hope to others) about writing as Ethon, Eli and Ms. Rabett is how their characters develop. This is part of the tradition of anonymous pamphleteering.

    Your constant claims of victimization puzzle me, however, I have never made any threats against you, and my statments in opposition to you have always been rooted in a position/ statement you have taken. You set conditions to post on your blog, I decided I was not interested in posting under those conditions. If you wish to visit Rabett Run, feel free.

    Thanks John for hosting this exchange. Happy New Year to all.

  11. Eli –

    I think the scientific middle has already been nicely laid out in Revkin’s piece. I think the U.S. political middle is nicely laid out in the work of the National Commission on Energy Policy, which has gained some traction in the real world of politics where folks are trying to figure out what can actually be done.

  12. John, thanks for the pointer. I have started reading the 2004 report, and my first impression is that if this is the middle we are in big trouble. It is the classic muddle. It’s not that I disagree with you, actually I think you hit the nail on the head. I’d be curious to see if the last two years have made a difference, if among other things, this group could now agree on a number for CAFE standards. The scale of the investment they recommend ($3Bill) to encourage transition to hybrids is derisory.

  13. Eli –

    The problem your comment so neatly encapsulates is that, while the rhetorical climate wars rage in the sort of fora you frequent, people are hunkered down in the middle trying to actually do something. I think it’s instructive that someone like you, apparently attentive to the issue, was unaware of this group. That highlights the irrelevance of much of the sort of debate we climate wars types so enthusiastically engage in.

  14. the work of the National Commission on Energy Policy, which has gained some traction in the real world of politics where folks are trying to figure out what can actually be done.

    If I may, at the local level [where I am], it is much easier to do something. There is little of this blowhard rhetoric except from, say, diehard Reason readers who read little else.

    That is: I brief policymakers that I’m doing something X way because it is likely that this response will ameliorate future climate change [and makes sense for Y and Z reasons too], and I don’t get an Inhofeian/Singerian/CA shill-like response. I get some questions, I answer them, and the next item is moved to. The key isn’t about blame, it’s about adaptation and steps to mitigation; everyone at this level knows this. Shift the focus. Look down here, not at the DC blowhards.

    At this level, the vested interests that are the subtext here aren’t working as hard. But for influencing ecosystems, the opposite is true wrt land use: the Private Property Rights movement has found they can’t influence at the national level so they moved to the local level. As in AGW, they have had some initial victories but are slipping. But their gains are ecosystem losses. Natural capital is slipping away. Anyway,

    The point? Reg’lur folk are waking up. Thus the reason for S&N’s essays that are working in Matthew’s realm to reframe.



  15. I think Dano was talking about what Brian Schmidt also noticed. OTOH, I don’t see very much yet in the NCEP report that affected anything either (2 years further on). I did see many concerning lacks.

    For example, one of their recommendations that makes sense is to put standards on all truck tires. That’s easy for a bunch of comfortable folk to say, but what does that do to the average independent trucker and the recap business?

  16. John, On Deltoid today, Roger and I finally got to the root of the heated part of the exchange we had here yesterday. It was, as these things often are, based on information that each of us had that was not known to the other. Coincidence is often not anyone’s friend.

    Since there are certainly reader here that do not go there, I thought it best to note this. We still have major disagreements on substance.

  17. Pingback: » Consensus as the New Heresy

  18. It is the strangest thing, but there is a pattern I have seen a number of times that I would call flight of the sleeping beauties. When a social fight or campaign has gone on for a while, become sharply contested and even politicaly unwelcome , then achieves success, as indicated by a sudden rush of popularity, a really weird thing happens. People who showed up near the end when popularity approached suddenly start behaving as though they had just woken up and found themselves among strangers. Unlike Sleeping Beauty who awoke to see a Handsome Prince, these people seem to have found themselves looking at a big frog, their employer, the boss of patronage, or the State with accompanying security pigs. They rush out to let everyone know they do not agree with what they have been associated with, they have a separate view, they feel everyone should no longer go down the main road but off on this or that detour, and they very definitely do not want anyone to do anything declarative or certain, since all, as they will moan, is just so confusing and uncertain.

  19. Whoops! Pushed the wrong button.
    It seems clear that climate is now passing from a field of science contending for its place in the range of things we sort of grasp about the real world, into a series of political and economic demands. And many will reasonably intuit it is going to get a lot worse than it is, meaning both climate and doing things about it, and we are now into that part of “it”. So this is a good time for the beauties to wake up, go into their little routines, and depart. It is too bad not everyone who was persuaded for a time could or would take the next step. One of your cultural heroes, in the States, called them the “summer soldiers” (Thomas Pain, in one of his Drumhead articles written in the winter at Valley Forge).
    Look, prety soon people will have to start saying leave the coal and the oil in the ground, Cap and trade is just total BS. And here is EXXON, dropping the denialist crowd and gearing up for what? Why for cap and trade! And the next crowd of their pawns are going to be a lot harder to deal with, their ideological Praetorian guard, the ecnomists. I understand RC deciding not to get into the stuff around the Stern report, but some one has to and soon.

  20. People Get What They Deserve: Climate Change and the End of Humankind
    PIGS WANTED (PGWTD), or, “People Get What They Deserve”:

    Climate Change and the End of Humankind
    on Planet Earth

    by Charles C. Commons (c) 2006-3006

    The end of humankind’s time on Earth is coming to an end, and I welcome it. I can’t believe I wrote that, but I did. Let me explain.

    God knows, we’ve messed things up real bad, here on Planet Earth, and now it’s time to pay the piper. Oh, it’s not going to end in a nuclear armageddon, no. And it’s not going to end because of the so-called “Clash of Civilizations” going on now with our friends the terrorists. No, the end is coming because of climate change, and it’s too late to do anything about it now. Way too late.

    Our fate has been sealed.

    I should be in despair but I am not. I think we are getting what we deserve. We did our best, as a human species, but our best was not very good. We blew it. Climate change, according to the Stern Report, has already pretty much made it impossible — read that word again: “impossible” — to tackle global warming. We are done for.

    We are about to be fried, frozen, fingered. Put that in your computer file.

    As a species, we are done for. Period.

    And while I don’tdespair over this, neither am I gloating, no. We are headed forextinction, and you know something, we deserve it. We sealed our own fate by our foolish, greedy, convenience-addicted actions.

    Maybe it was in our genes from the very beginning, this coming demise. Maybe all this was meant to be, not some non-existant god or Creator Being, but by the fickle hands of fate itself. [If there really was a God, we wouldn’t be in this predicament in the first place. Think about it. We did this all by ourselves. There’s no use crying over spilled milk. We’re done for.]

    Oh, it won’t happen soon, not in this lifetime, not in my lifetime or your lifetime. Give us 15 or 20 more human generations, 30 at most, and then it’s curtains. The Earth will be fried. The die is already cast, it’s in the cards. There’s no going back. Sigh.

    As human carbon emissions continue to grow and grow, the rate of climate change will accelerate and we will experience it sooner than you can imagine.

    You think life is forever. It is not.

    Human life is about to be deleted from the surface of Planet Earth. I give it about500 years. Stretch it to 1000 years if you wish, and that’s okay with me. This is not an exact science. But it is science. We are done for.

    The simple fact, the truth, is that we are headed for the exit ramp. Our rise as a species on Earth in a long, long history of cosmic time and Darwinian evolution has been capped. And we did it to ourselves. Us. You and me.

    Cars. Airplanes. Factories. Coal plants. Massive industrialization. Oil. Technology. Convenience. Greed. We couldn’t stop.

    Our DNA, our intelligence, did us in. It’s over. By the year 2500 — okay, the year 3000 at the latest –we’re history. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. Not one bit. The cosmos does not care one iota. We came, we saw, we’re leaving.

    Because when you look at us, our history, our backstory, what did we achieve? Miracles, yes, and then some. But these miracles have done us in. Climate change cannot be unchanged. The course has been set.There’s no turning back.

    Let me put it this way: the Earth’s experiment with the human species and most of the planet and animal species that evolved even before us is coming to an end. And we humans did it. We pulled the levers, we pushed the buttons, we pulled the triggers.

    We burned too much coal, we guzzled too much gasoline, we used too much oil, we made too many factories to make our toys and vehicles, too many motorscooters, too many cars, too many smokestacks, too many people. We just didn’t know how to rein things in. And now it’s too late.

    Well, 500 years is a long time to plan for the end. Start planning. I’m glad I lived in the last half of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st century. It’s been a wonderful life, a wonderful ride, and I learned alot.

    But even I, a common man with no PHD or expertise in anything, even I can tell you it’s over. You don’t have to read the fine print, either.The message is in plain English for anyone to read: increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have sealed our fate. And I mean SEALED.

    By 2500 — okay, 3000, if you want to stretch it — we will be goners. The Earth will remain, of course, good old Earth, our temporary home amidst the stars. But we, the human species, will soon be gone.

    And there is not one single thing anyone can do about it. This is the sad,bare, bald, truth.

    Greedy, hungry for entertainment and travel and technology, we did it ourselves, to ourselves. The rest, now, will be a long slow decline into annihilation of our species by unstoppable global warming and climate change. You might say this is depressing. I say it’s reality, and we need to face reality. And start planning for the end. That is where our enterprise should go now: planning for the end of the human species.

    I think that, when all is said and done, we deserved this. And people usually get what they deserve. Don’t you agree?

    So goodbye Human Civilization, Human Science, Human Evolution, Human Dreaming. No more Magna Carta, no more Beethoven or Mozart or Snoopy Dogg or J-Z, no more cellphones, no more PDAs, no more United Nations, no more blogging, no more cars, no more churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, shrines. Human life is soon to be a lost chapter in the Cosmos. Because of global warming and climate change.

    Goodbye Humankind, it all its storied and multicolored and multisplendored variety! Ten billion people will soon be zero people. There will be no one left alive. There will not be one man standing. The Earth will be devoid of all human life, and most animal life and plant life as well. But some bacteria and slime will remain and continue…

    You don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way climate change is taking us. It is taking us to our end as a species. E-N-D. Period. Full stop.

    Of course, I won’t be here to witness those last pathetic years, weeks, days. Neither will you.

    I had a good life at this time in cosmic time, and it was a very interesting exercise in conciousness, and I loved every minute of my existence. I am grateful for the very miracle of being here at all. Thank you Universe, thank you Evolution, thank you DNA, thank you Genepool!

    But I’ve seen the future: come the year 2,500 (okay, year 3000 if you want to stretch it a bit) it’s bleak. Bleaker than bleak. It’s become dark at that point. The point of no return is that there is no return. READ THAT SENTENCE AGAIN SLOWLY!

    We never adequately learned that lesson. Too late now. Sigh.

    How much longer?

    15 generations of family life, 30 at the most. And then it’s over. Humankind is on its way out.

    In a way, it makes sense. We did it to ourselves. We did it ourselves. We dug our own hole, while trying to build a towering temple to the sky.

    It’s okay. We had our chance. But we couldn’t curb our appetites. Born from the swamps, we shall return to the swamps. Evolved from the void, we will return to the void. One might call it poetic justice. Celestial justice. Everlasting justice. Star life.

    We came out of nothing, and we will return to nothing. Blame it on our genes, our sharp minds, our penetrating intelligence and human brains.

    We are done for.

    NOTA BENE: Even as you read these words, the planet’s millions of engines, small and large, household and industrial, are purring, revving, singing their song — and spewing CO2 emissions into the very atmosphere that sustains us, the very atmosphere that is now hastening our demise. At this very moment — NOW! — highways around the world are clogged, smokestacks are belching, gasoline is being guzzled, oil is being burned. Even as you read these words, it is too late. Too late. Too late.

    Of course, you think 500 years is so far away, who cares? You should care. And you do. But it’s too late……..




    World at sharp end of climate change and humankind will end in 3000, warns ‘blogger provacateur’

    by LMN News Agency, New York

    The world is at the sharp end of the devastating impact of climate change and there is nothing that can be done about it, according to an American writer who calls himself a “blogger provocateur”, and says humankind will cease to exist by the year 2,500 or the year 3,000 at the latest.

Comments are closed.