The collision of climate science and politics, part 2 – lecture at American University, November 2011


“If we were to continue on a long-term trajectory that continues the trajectory we’re on now, then – unless the leading scientists have everything wrong that they’ve been saying, which I doubt – we’re facing a huge problem of sustainability of the system that we have now. …” Second of a two-part transcript from a talk at American University in Washington, DC.

On November 9 I spoke with Dr. Erich Vogt’s undergraduate class on International Environmental Politics at the American University’s School of International Service. The general subject of this one-shot guest appearance was the current state of climate policy and politics. The transcript, slightly edited but mostly left in its conversational form, is from a portion of the 75-minute session.

Earlier post:  The collision of climate science and politics, part 1

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[continued from part 1}

And that’s where we are today.  If we were to continue over the long term on the trajectory we’re on now, then – unless the leading scientists have everything wrong that they’ve been saying, which I doubt – we’re facing a huge problem of sustainability of the system that we have now.  What it implies is that over a period, within your lifetimes, you’ll be experiencing something that’s very different than what we have now, in terms of the habitability and environment of the planet, and what’s happening with sea level, and what is happening with various sorts of extremes.

The implication is the need for a major, I’d say pretty radical, transition in how we use energy, and what energy sources we use.  Sometimes people who are pushing from a ‘green’ perspective say, ‘clean energy will be good for the economy and will create a lot of jobs’ and so forth, and that’s true, but in fact if it was going to be easy, we would be doing it.  It’s not easy. This is just my personal bias – it’s going to be a hassle to change the energy system. It’s not something you would just do for fun. You would only do it because the consequences of not making the changes are worse.

But it implies that we’re building buildings and roads and transportation systems and putting in place power plants and digging stuff up out of the ground, that all seems to assume that we’re just going to go on using coal and oil and natural gas as far as the eye can see into the future. There’s nothing about the way the system is operating to suggest that it has any intention of getting off of these fuels. And yet the implication of this analysis for sustainability is that anything that we’re doing now that is contingent on using energy sources that alter the atmospheric composition to heat the planet is not sustainable. I mean unless it could be shifted over and done very efficiently with renewable energy. Or possibly nuclear energy, if all of those problems can be dealt with.

So we have a real ‘how do we get from here to there’ problem, and I don’t think it has any one simple straightforward answer. It seems to require a lot of different things to happen on a number of different fronts. And I suppose if one wants to see it as the glass half full, since you will be moving into many different parts of the system as your own careers develop, it is going to create a range of opportunities to do things.

For one thing, it seems to me that there’s no way to successfully confront a problem of the magnitude of climate change without high-level leadership from political leaders and from economic leaders.  It’s not something that’s so close to home for the average person that they’re likely to feel tremendous pressure from the public. It’s one of those issues, like national security issues, where the leadership has to say, “this is what the best experts are telling us, this is how they’re diagnosing the problem, this is what we’re hearing, this is what we’re looking at, this is what we think we need to do, this is what we’re agreed that we need to do.” And over a period of years, and really to implement it over a period of decades, bring the public along to support it.

We don’t have that now – climate change has become such a political hot potato, for a politician to bring it up is immediately to be pounced on. ‘You’re going to kill jobs, the science is so uncertain, you’re going to cost us trillions of dollars,’ whatever.

Even those who understand the problem, like the President, to take the most prominent example. His science adviser, John Holdren, who is a Harvard professor, has a long record of articulating what the mainstream science community understands about climate change, and he talks directly to Obama. I mean Obama understands what the science says, he understands what the National Academy of Sciences says in his reports.  You can read them yourself, they’re not that technical. But he won’t talk about it. It’s like, how does it help him get re-elected? It doesn’t help him get reelected. It’s just a problem. They can’t find any way to make it a political winner in the short term. It’s too complicated, it’s too controversial, it’s not what they want the election to be about.  It’s not what voters are pushing them on, which is perfectly understandable given the state of the economy. I would hardly expect voters to be pushing on too much other than getting this economic disaster behind us somehow.  So it kind of falls off the radar screen. It doesn’t get talked about in Congress, there’s no legislation. Nobody talks about the climate summit conference coming up.  Nobody gives a talk to the people and says, ‘this is what the problem is.’

It also seems to me that it’s going to be difficult to address the problem without very strong and sustained communication from the science community. And I do believe that many of them have already made heroic efforts in this direction. They don’t have the power to solve the problem – they only have to power to understand the problem, and to educate.  But somehow, what they are finding has to be communicated in some way to their fellow citizens. Like scientists saying, ‘We’re citizens who have a particular type of expertise, and we’re stepping into this debate to tell you what we know and what we think needs to happen.’ And I think that needs to come through more clearly somehow.

The media coverage…I don’t know how to make it better, but it really has been seriously inadequate in how it deals with climate change. For a long time the media coverage fell into the old thing of balance.  You have to have both sides, like it was a debate about some kind of social issue. So there might be a huge report out by a lot of scientists, they would have to find some professor at Oregon State or someplace who didn’t agree with it, and quote him so that you would have ‘balance’. And it basically created the notion that there was some big division in the science community, this kind of fake balance.

But even when they get past that sort of lame type of coverage, it’s not an easy issue to cover because a lot of it has to with analyzing long-term trends. It’s not something the media is usually that good at. They’re good at conflict narratives, you know, and stories that unfold day by day. Something like the long-term effects of our system and its impacts on the planet is difficult to turn into stories that really work in the media. So people for the most part who depend on the media as their intermediary between them and the science community – and most people don’t know any scientists, or couldn’t even name a scientist, and don’t understand science very well – don’t really get the kind of education from the media on the substance of the issue that would enable them to be informed participants. So that’s a problem.

Somehow there needs to be an effective counter to the global warming denial machine, there needs to be effective pushback.  Part of that I suppose is the job of the leading scientists, by calling down Presidential candidates who just say things about the science that are completely inaccurate. That needs to be challenged effectively.

And then I think, finally, and its something that I’ve been giving more thought to, there needs to be effective bottom up pressure, citizen action, grassroots action. The politicians need to feel something more than pressure from the wealthy and powerful industry interests not to do anything, they need to feel a push in the opposite direction. From citizens, from their supporters.

What we see at this point in terms of community-level action tends to be organized around people trying to defend their communities against the impacts of the energy sources that we have now, the dirty energy. Mountaintop removal coal mining. You know, the coal mining method of choice now is to blast the tops of mountains in Appalachia. They’ve done that with hundreds of mountains now, to create this kind of moonscape to get the coal out, and then dump the top of the mountain into the valleys and streams below. And this has been allowed to go on for years now essentially unregulated.  And if the federal government steps in where the state government won’t and makes even the slightest effort to regulate this activity, there is tremendous industry pressure. ‘Oh, you’re going to kill jobs.’  So people in communities in Appalachia are organized to try to save their mountain. You know, the March on Blair Mountain and so forth. It doesn’t get much national attention.

The aftermath of the oil blowout disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year, the BP Deepwater Horizon. People down there in the Gulf Coast region are experiencing the aftermath of that, and there are still ecosystem impacts. And one problem is that BP has a lot of the scientists under contract, they made sure to put the top experts on their payroll immediately, have them working for the company. They control the funding for analyzing the impacts, and it interferes with the integrity of understanding what’s going on. And now there are hundreds of people in the Gulf Coast region who are experiencing really odd health effects.  People who rode on the boats, participating in the effort to pick up the oil.  People in coastal communities. And it’s very hard to focus attention on that.

And this Keystone Pipeline issue that we talked about earlier is another example. So I don’t know what that all adds up to, but those particular kinds of things seem to be what is most possible to organize around if you’re a community organizer at the grassroots. But even there, it can be difficult to translate that into something that makes a demand on the government with reference to climate policy.  Like, a lot of those landowners in the Great Plains whose land the pipeline is going to pass through are very conservative politically. They don’t want to talk about windmills and greenhouse gases.

So there’s a lot of different things that need to happen and each of them is problematic. And I guess I’ll conclude with this: It seems to me that … the scientists fondest wish, I think, would be that if something like this could be dealt with on its own terms. Not in a partisan way, not in a political way. ‘These are the projected impacts on climate from this emissions trajectory, that emissions trajectory,’ and just have the leaders of society discuss it as a practical problem. What are we going to do about it?  Intelligent, practical problem solving. Not political.

But it just doesn’t appear to happen that way. In fact, we’ve gone in exactly the opposite direction. The climate change problem has become heavily politicized. It’s become part of partisan polarization. What you think about the issue is liable to be very different, depending on whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican. It’s gone completely into the political system, it’s for some people become part of the culture war. It gets swept up into the whole battle in American politics about what kind of government do we want to have, what is the philosophy of government and what direction do we want the country to move in.

And global warming is not a problem that can be solved just by changing out your light bulbs personally, it requires action on a large scale. It requires proactive government problem solving and international agreements, making binding agreements with other countries, and regulating energy companies, and so forth.  There is a very substantial percentage of the American public and various political interests who just don’t want to go in that direction. And they’re willing to bend their interpretation of the science out of shape in order to suit their philosophy of government. ‘No, we want to shrink the government. No, we don’t want to have spending.  No, we don’t want to have government regulations.  No, we don’t want to be participating in some United Nations treaty. No, No, No.’ And everything that would be pointed to as a step for dealing with the climate change problem is just ideological anathema to large numbers of people and powerful factions in US politics.

So climate change has been swept up into that. It can’t be carved out and dealt with as a separate issue all to itself, it has to be addressed in this larger context of what I call the crisis of American democracy – which is partly the extent to which corporate power and wealth dominate the system, and partly the polarization and the difficulty of moving forward on policies.

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13 Responses to The collision of climate science and politics, part 2 – lecture at American University, November 2011

  1. This argument is right on. Many are aware. We, as a species, are going to have to grow up quickly.

  2. Forest says:

    It is sad that the ideologies of greed, ‘corporate’ citizenship, short term gain, and concentration of wealth at the top, can trump what is in both national and global interests. These ideologies are even trumping biological planetary survival. It is sad that evidence-based decision making, integrity, intellectual curiosity, and critical thinking, all components of science, are considered irrelevant in such survival decision-making. I used to think that an impending disaster would enlighten those who are’ in it for themselves’; that they would get it. But then how is it that former leaders of Iraqi, Libya and Egypt, could have walked away with their lives in-tact and billions, yet chose be terminated with nothing. Their ideology trumped their own personal survival. We need a ground swell of the 99% and certainly of credible natural and political scientists to shake the media and politicians from their comfort zones.

  3. MC says:

    Your entire article is based upon false premises. Catastrophic AGW is not a fact. In treating it as such you make excellent points. But your points are worthless in light of the reality that we are on no position to forecast a catastrophic result of AGW. The models have not been accurate. There has been no warming in over a decade. There is more evidence that points to natural forcing. You are not only embracing an unproven theory but are actually refusing to accept the notion that the theory is wrong even though numerous studies and recent satellite data point to the plausibility that AGW is nor only not catastrophic, but almost so insignificant thAt ANY action taken to fight it is a wSte of resources that could be better allocated to address real environmental issues.

    • Rick - Climate Science Watch says:

      Re: There has been no warming in over a decade:

      Re: Models are unreliable:

      You’re basically repeating skeptic talking points that have been dealt with and refuted by the science community. “Catastrophic AGW is not a fact” is a simplistic straw man formulation. Anthropogenic global warming is pretty well-established. What the impacts will be is a complex set of scientific issues, with varying degrees of confidence and uncertainty. It’s a widely shared conclusion among the leading climate scientists that unchecked global warming, over time, with its implications, for example, for sea level rise, ocean acidification, and terrestrial ecosystem impacts, is potentially ‘catastrophic’.

      • Tony O'Brien says:

        If your view of global warming is alarmist what do we call my view?

        • Rick - Climate Science Watch says:


          How would you describe it?


          • Tony O'Brien says:

            If you are an alarmist I am a doomsayer.

            There is no paleo equivalent for how fast we have changed the forcing, therefore we will see an unprecedented rate of change. The Eemian, had a much lower level of CO2 than we do today, let alone stuff that never existed in nature such as CFCs and sulphur hexafluoride, we are going to blow through the Eemian type climate like a whistle stop.

            We assume that carbon from the permafrost will be CO2, but we know the karst that falls into water and remains submerged will likely produce methane.

            We assume that nature will absorb a constant proportion of our emissions, but we know it won’t. The significant increase in wildfires is turning some land into a net source. The changes in marine ecology means a higher proportion of carbon remains available. As the deniers are so fond of pointing out CO2 lags temperature.

            In time these questions will be answered by scientists, but I am pretty sure the news will be bad. Just how bad? I have no idea.

          • Snorbert Zangox says:


            Continuing my response to your criticism of my post:

            You say that you and John Cook insist that “those seeking to refute the science presented, one needs to address the peer-reviewed papers where the science comes from.” I would like to make two points about that. One is that the ClimateGate emails make it abundantly clear that the insiders at CRU, NCAR and apparently Penn State Univ. controlled the peer review process. Apparently, they were able to conspire to make sure that only friendly reviewers, often from among their ranks, reviewed their papers and that hostile reviewers evaluated papers submitted by anyone who expressed skepticism. That certainly attenuated my faith in the peer review process, at least insofar as climate science is concerned. Secondly, John Cook was among those whose emails are online; it appears that John Cook is one of the insiders. Once again, my confidence attenuates.

            You conclude by saying that this is not a science blog it is an educational blog. You then go on to accuse me of cherry picking arguments from skeptics and contrarians rather than adhering to the science. I think that you will find that I have cited data for my conclusions and usually do so. I have not cited any contrarians. I would think that before you start educating you should pause to ensure that the science that you are touting is actually accurate and supported by measurement data. When you fail to do that you wind up with posters like Tony O’Brien, believing that the rate of temperature rise in the 20th century is unprecedented in all of history. In fact, we cannot compare the temperature rises during historical eons to the last 40 years of the last century because those historical measurements all consist of data points with 100 to 1,000-year averaging times. The reason that we take large numbers of samples is that by so doing we reduce the variance around the mean. In other words yearly average data vary more rapidly than century average data. Furthermore, the slope of the temperature data during the last 40 years of the last century is not significantly different from the slope of the temperature data during the first 40 years of the 20th century. Note that the carbon dioxide was not likely to have caused the early century warming; its concentration and rate of increase were both too low.

            One other point: You say that some revisions to the ocean temperature data in response to the finding of errors because of unaccounted pressure effects. You do not point out that those data may have shown a small increase in ocean temperature, an increase with a slope far less than the slope of the increase that for the preceding 40 years. That seemed somewhat disingenuous to me, because, even if that small increase were real, it would not refute point that the models are wrong when they claim that heat is accumulating somewhere and that this error is an important variance of the hypothesis from reality.

          • Rick - Climate Science Watch says:


            I’ll make this one last point before we part company:

            RE: “ClimateGate emails make it abundantly clear that the insiders at CRU, NCAR and apparently Penn State Univ. controlled the peer review process. … That certainly attenuated my faith in the peer review process, at least insofar as climate science is concerned.”

            Come on, get serious. You don’t get rid of the peer-reviewed climate research literature on the basis of a selective reading of a few old emails. The emails most often cited to support that denialist argument express the frustration among a few scientist colleagues that one (of the numerous) journals had a new ‘skeptic’ editor who had opened the pages to a bunch of inferior work. In fact, they were on the right track with their criticism in that particular case, and in fact the problem was more one of cronyism on the other side.

            The climate research community is made up of thousands of scientists at hundreds of research institutions around the world, publishing in more journals than I can count. You can implicitly accuse that whole community of bad faith, Snorbert, but don’t expect to get shown much consideration here if you do. There is simply no comparison between the integrity of that community and their politically motivated critics. The mainstream climate science community engages in continuous internal debate and quality-control over an extraordinary range of issues. You don’t see this on the ‘skeptic’ side – the ‘skeptic’ work, looked at as a whole, does not hang together coherently as an alternative framework of scientific explanation (which is really what they should produce if they want to be taken seriously), but you don’t see them criticizing or quality-controlling each other.

            Denialists (people who know better, or should be expected to) would just love to get away with saying, ‘we don’t have to pay attention to the science journals because they’re corrupt, we don’t have to pay attention to the IPCC because it’s corrupt, we don’t have to pay attention to all the reports coming out of the National Academy of Sciences because that’s just a political organization, we don’t have to pay attention to the assessment reports of the U.S. Global Change Research Program because that’s the federal government, etc. I don’t share this view, and I’m not into burning up my time and energy arguing with those who do, nor am I into giving it free space on this website.

            We’ll just have to agree to disagree.

  4. Snorbert Zangox says:


    You accuse MC of quoting skeptics talking points and then refer us to a warmist web site to prove that MC is wrong. The facts are that the tropospheric hot spot does not exist, Briffa’s discredited paper to the contrary, the diving buoys and satellite temperature data show that there has been no heat accumulation in the oceans since 2001 and no signficant temperature change in the atmosphere since 1997. Sea level rise has stopped. The Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are not melting. The temperature today is lower than it was when the Danes farmed in Greenland. No IPCC model has ever made an accurate forecast and their current predictions are about 2 Celsius degrees higher than even the CRU temperature record.

    I have to say that MC was right and that your screed was wrong.

    • Rick Piltz says:


      Dismissing John Cook’s Skeptical Science ( as a “warmist” website just doesn’t cut it. Essentially every argument you make has been rebutted in the climate science community, and Skeptical Science is a valuable one-stop site for explaining these issues for non-specialists. The science presented on Skeptical Science is taken directly from the peer-reviewed scientific literature. As Cook says, to those seeking to refute the science presented, one needs to address the peer-reviewed papers where the science comes from (links to the full papers are provided whenever possible). The site is respected in the science community. I recommend it as a well-developed, thorough, and credible source for those who – like yourself, clearly – are not among the credible experts and who could benefit from a good basic-to-intermediate-level discussion.

      Re your comment on ocean warming, for example, see: “Recent estimates of ocean heat that take a cooling bias due to Argo pressure sensor issues into account show continued warming of the upper ocean.” (
      and: “Monckton Myth #1: Cooling oceans”(

      I would associate myself with the comment by Bud Ward, editor of The Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media:

      “Skeptical Science’s broad reach across more than 20 languages, even more countries and cultures, and hundreds of thousands of site visitors each month set a new standard for responsible climate science literacy outreach. These are not my opinions alone, but rather those of many in the responsible climate change science and policy community across the United States. One need only attend and participate in the annual conferences of some of the U.S.’s leading science organizations – the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Geophysical Union (AGU), or the American Meteorological Society (AMS), for instance – to see how often Skeptical Science activities are formally and informally mentioned or cited from the podium…by panelists…by audience members. As I personally witnessed at these conferences, the site is repeatedly identified as the “essential” web resource, the one web site to be visited frequently by those wanting to be and stay informed.”

      This is also an opportunity to call attention to Cook’s book, Climate Change Denial (, and his new Debunking Handbook ( The latter is available for free download.

      Climate Science Watch is not a science education site, it’s a government accountability site. Others can take the role of explaining and debating climate science issues. We do attempt to refer to and learn from the most credible experts, and we believe public officials should do likewise — not cherry-pick arguments from skeptics and contrarians in order to conform their view of science to their political and cultural biases.

      • Snorbert Zangox says:


        I did not claim that the oceans were warming since 2001, I said that there had been no heat accumulation in the oceans since 2001. The NODC data confirm that my statement is true. The fact that there has been no heat accumulation for a decade is fatal to the carbon dioxide hypothesis because that hypothesis has no means to explain it. To try to blame the lack of heat accumulation on Pixie dust left over from the last volcanic eruption, as Jim Hansen has tried to do, is nothing more than an attempt to invoke voo doo science.

        By the way Cook’s statement “In climate discussions, the most common error is focusing on a single piece of the puzzle while ignoring the big picture. The ocean cooling meme commits this error twofold. Firstly, it scrutinises 6 years worth of data while ignoring the last 40 years of ocean warming. Secondly, it hangs its hat on one particular reconstruction that shows cooling, while other results and independent analyses indicate slight warming.” is wrong. Observing that the oceans are not warming does not ignore 40 years worth of data, it merely points out that something other than carbon dioxide probably caused the warming. Unexplored solar effects might be a logical place to look, since the cessation of warming coincided nicely with a cessation of sunspots.

        I am out of time for today.

  5. Larry Chamblin says:

    Great lecture on the challenge we face in addressing the climate crisis. As I see it (and this is in line with Rick Piltz’ lecture), the challenge derives from the following:

    –Climate change is perceived as a remote problem, with its impacts far off in time and geography (and for some strange reason, this seems so even after our long hot summer of extreme weather);
    –The consequences are just too catastrophic to face.
    –But here is the major problem we have in dealing with climate change: it will require a paradigm shift in our economic system, including our current model of capitalism. More regulation and long-term planning, giving greater power to the public sector and less to the private sector. Tax policies that incentivize clean energy and not fossil fuels. Less consumption. Recognizing the limits of all natural systems. The only way we can bring about these fundamental changes is to curb the power corporations have over our politics. So, we can easily understand why there is such strong, coordinated and persistent, denial and resistance.

    This is the challenge: to transform our Corporate (and Carbon) Nation into a nation that seeks balance with the natural world.

    I highly recommend Naomi Klein’s excellent article in the Nov. 28 Nation magazine (, “Capitalism vs. the Climate.”

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