01 March 2010

A Blast from the Past

I wrote the following analysis of the climate debate on 7 February 2009, about 13 months ago, and posted it on Prometheus. I think that the analysis not only held up pretty well, but remains fairly current. The dynamics I describe may also help to explain the resurgent scattershot vitriol that has gripped the activist wing of the climate blogosphere which they have targeted at the media, old school skeptics and everyone else that they disagree with in small or large part .

The Collapse of Climate Policy and the Sustainability of Climate Science

February 7, 2009

The political consensus surrounding climate policy is collapsing. If you are not aware of this fact you will be very soon. The collapse is not due to the cold winter in places you may live or see on the news. It is not due to years without an increase in global temperature. It is not due to the overturning of the scientific consensus on the role of human activity in the global climate system.

It is due to the fact that policy makers and their political advisors (some trained as scientists) can no longer avoid the reality that targets for stabilization such as 450 ppm (or even less realistic targets) are simply not achievable with the approach to climate change that has been at the focus of policy for over a decade. Policies that are obviously fictional and fantasy are frequently subject to a rapid collapse.

The current shrillness that has been put on display by many politically-active climate scientists and the feeding-frenzy among their skeptical political opposition can be explained as a result of this looming collapse, though many will confuse the shrillness and feeding-frenzy as a cause of the collapse. Let me explain.

If you think that the current consensus on climate politics rests on a foundation called the scientific consensus, you might see signs of weakening in the political consensus as prima facie evidence that the scientific consensus must be itself weakening, or if you’d prefer, that people are making it look to be weakening, regardless of the reality. Thus, like the apocryphal boy from the Hans Brinker story (pictured above), the politically active climate scientists are actively trying to plug holes in the dike, as the skeptics try to poke more holes. The climate scientists (and their willing allies) have taken their battle to the arenas of politics, waging a scorched earth campaign of bullying, name calling, threats, and obnoxiously absurd appeals to authority. The skeptics participate in similar fashion, and the result is an all out brawl that we see escalating still before our eyes. The skeptics think they are unraveling a mythical scientific consensus imposed by an evil elite, while the climate scientists think they are waging an all out battle of righteousness against know-nothing hordes. They are both wrong.

Has climate science changed since the publication of the IPCC AR4? Not appreciably. Has the acceptance of the IPCC consensus changed among those who make decisions and advise them? Not at all. Does it matter for current commitments among policy makers whether or not, for example, Antarctica has been warming or cooling? Not at all. Or if, to pick another example, whether the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapse might be 4, 5, or 10 meters in Washington, DC in hundreds of years? Not in the least. Battles over climate science are a side show, increasingly looking like a freak show, observed simply for the spectacle.

Climate politics is collapsing because of political realities, and not real or perceived changes in how people see the science. As I have often argued, in the ongoing battle between climate scientists and skeptics there will be disproportionate carnage, because the climate scientists have so much more to lose, and not just as individuals, but also for the broader field, which includes many people simply on the sidelines.

The collapse of the political consensus surrounding climate could well be an opportunity to recast decarbonization of the global economy and adaptation to climate impacts in a manner that is much more consistent with progress toward policy goals. If climate science can be saved from itself, that would be a bonus. However, for climate science I fully expect things to get worse before they get better, simply because the most vocal, politically active climate scientists have shown no skill at operating in the political arena. The skeptics could not wish for a more convenient set of opponents.

I don’t expect everyone reading this to accept my assertion that the political consensus surrounding climate is in collapse. So I’ll spend some time in the coming weeks making this case. At the same time, I will spend very little additional time on the self-destruction of the politically active subset of the climate science community, even though I know that many won’t accept my assertion that debates putatively about climate science are largely irrelevant to the current state of climate politics. And for those fighting to address the sustainability of climate science in this mess, good luck, you will need it to avoid getting pushed onto one side of the Manichean battle and becoming part of the carnage. However, if you really do want to learn more about my views on scientists in politicized debates, pick up a copy of The Honest Broker and then send me an email.