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One characteristic of academics is that they never waste a good argument. They would give it as project to a graduate student, carve out a review article with favored colleagues as co-authors, or write a whole book on it. This brings multiple benefits: you can forever hang around making half-baked public statements to draw attention, and simply wave away questions with “The answers are in my book”. Your h-index keeps going up while your opponents waste their time figuring out your cryptic statements.

Roger Pielke Jr has been doing that for a while. There is a new post in his blog in the same vein:about those skeptics. Pielke reacts favourably to a football sports columnist Simon Kuper writing about ‘climate change’, quoting Pielke. Not the first time that’s happened either: here’s Kuper quoting Pielke Jr and saying ‘ignore the skeptics’. The reverse’s happened too: Pielke quoting occasional climate writer Kuper writing about football. You might think, ‘what’s the deal with football here?’ It’ll become obvious shortly.

I ploughed through the sportswriter’s piece: sceptics are ‘irrelevant’, there are not that ‘many of them’, and they are not blocking ‘action’ on climate change. What is blocking it? “Lack of government will”

Apparently Pielke Jr who agrees that the debate is over and the sceptics are irrelevant makes his full argument for the case. Only, as noted before, it is made in his book.

Again, I ploughed through the book. While the first two chapters are rambling one can hack away at the fluffy text and extract points for review, some which Pielke himself fortitiously identifies and some he doesn’t. These are: a) Climate change from CO2 can be ‘undesirable’ b) I cannot tell you exactly why that is, but just…just believe me c) Everyone in the world is worried about climate change and wants to do something about it d)There is an iron law

The central playground for scepticism in climate change has been in (a) and (b). Is CO2 really bad? is warming bad? how much so? is it really heating up so fast and so much like never ever before? Really? Apparently Pielke never experienced any of these questions

Perhaps it is one of the unavoidable side effects of being the son of a world-famous atmospheric scientist, but I have never questioned the climatic importance of human emissions of carbon dioxide; its importance has always been something that was accepted by my father and presented in his work.

So the young Pielke learnt everything about CO2 from his dad, you might think. However Pielke the Junior informs the reader that when his dad was writing basic encyclopedia articles on climate he was not interested in the science and was instead running behind girls and playing soccer.

For instance, in the mid-1980s, when my own interests lay far from science and policy, focused instead on soccer and girls my father wrote an annual article on the atmospheric sciences for the Encyclopedia Brittanica

Thus when Pielke writes:

“So the “controversy” over whether carbon di-oxide emissions affect climate is not a subject that holds much interest for me, …”

the situation is rather easy to understand. Here’s one more person wishing to impose that the ‘real debate’ lies away from an area he is not good at, or is interested in.

’The debate is over’?

One of Pielke’s favorite claims is that the public of the nations of the world support climate action. As before, the effect is one of stepping into a hall of mirrors of non-sequiturs. Pielke’s contention is based on opinion polls conducted by the World Bank. The “debate is over” conclusions by Pielke spring from the same source.

From the Worldbank commissioned report in 2009: “Public attitudes toward climate change: findings from a multi-country poll”

Did ‘the debate’ ever take place around the world?

Consider the recent University of Oxford study of newspaper articles, examining reporting of climate scepticism in six countries: Brazil, China, India, France, the US and UK in 2007 and 2009. The report concludes that close to 80% of all ‘climate sceptic content’ appeared in the UK and US print media, and that Brazil, China, India and France had considerably reduced coverage of ‘climate-sceptical’ content. Climate scepticism is particularly ‘an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon’, we learn.

No doubt, the Reuters Institute study wants the focus to be on the inordinate amounts of scepticism flowing through UK and US media arteries, but data that is of interest to us is available  – climate scepticism finds little to no expression in countries like India and China.

Media expression of climate scepticism is studied in the peer-reviewed literature. Consider the example of India, for which good data happens to be available. In a 2009 study published in the journal Climatic Change, Simon Billett of the Oxford University Centre for the Environment found many interesting things. Firstly, Billett asserts rightly that the print media is the predominant source of information about climate issues in India:

The media are instrumental in shaping public understanding of environmental issues in India (Chapman et al. 1997). Recent public polling suggests that the print media remain the major source of information for the literate public on climate change issues; the 2007 Global Nielsen Survey suggested that 74% of the surveyed population used newspapers as the primary source of information on climate change.

Well, what information does the Indian print media carry on climate change (for a 2002-2007 period)?

On whether global warming is real:

In comparison to the scepticism in the North American and European press, the coding results suggest that the Indian press entirely endorses climate change as a scientific reality. Based on the codes in Table 1, 100% of the 247 articles discussing
the existence of global warming argued that rapid, unusual climate change does exist today.

On what was causing it:

In addition, 98% of these articles directly attributed climate change to anthropogenic causes.

Anything about ‘climate scepticism’?

Just five articles remained unconvinced that the phenomenon  was the result of human activity, four of which suggested the causes were unknown rather than simply ‘natural’.

…many were also highly critical of so-called ‘climate sceptics’, often highlighting the US media in particular as responsible for giving voice to known contrarians.

So, most of those who get their climate fix get it from newspapers, and all studied newspapers toe the consensus line completely. Moreover, Pielke himself points out in his book: close to 35% percent of the Indian population hasn’t even heard of ‘climate change’.

‘The debate is over’ indeed! Looks more like it never got underway.

The same phenomenon is repeated in almost every UNFCCC non-annex I developing country. Either privately owned media (as in the case of India) or state-controlled media outlets fully suport and promulgate the consensus line. Data to support this are available in Billett 2010 as well (see graph). The reasons for this are not hard to discern.

From Billett 2009. Positive values on vertical axis indicate ‘positive news coverage’ of AGW and negative values indicate ‘negative news coverage’

Imagine a situation where a country’s media uniformly promotes a certain line, and the media forms the major source of information in that area. What opinions would a majority of its citizens  hold, other than what is sold to them? However it is such unanimity that Pielke Jr presents as evidence for his claim that  ‘the debate is over’. Calling it disingenuous would be going easy. Pielke Jr is not alone in this either. As he reports in his book Bill McKibben, a Pielke favourite, managed to convince ‘mostly poor’ 92 island nations about the risk of global warming. One wonders whether these poor nations had the scientific expertise to evaluate McKibben’s claims before lending him their support.

The absurd consequences of such stage-managed opinions and the resulting neuroticism is clearly evident in a paper by Max Boykoff, one of Pielke’s colleagues at his Colorado institute. Singing praises of the study above, Boykoff writes of an Indian farmer so worried about climate change that he looks for text messages on his phone:

“I can’t afford to suffer due to such frantic climate changes. I can’t predict yields any more as my forefathers could. I have to depend on the SMS (short message service)”

It is in tow of such abysmal understanding of climate change (no fault of theirs though) that Pielke claims that the debate is over.

The non-sequiturs only multiply from there in Pielke’s chapters. Public support for action on climate change is ‘strong’ as shown by polls such as those conducted by the World Bank, but apparently it is not ‘intense’. Climate change and global warming consistently at the very bottom in surveys of global concerns. What this properly tells us is that people worry about global warming but in the larger scheme of things they really don’t. In the real world this would simply mean that climate action carries little political weight, but in the hair-splitting logic of climate policymakers, ‘strong support’ has a different meaning.

Another of Pielke’s favorites is his iron law. Simply put, the ‘law’ is another reminder of the painful reality that nothing can be done in the name of climate (which Pielke gleefully points out at every turn), and its intimate link to climate scepticsm (which Pielke doesn’t want anyone to know about). To the  climate sceptic, the link between carbon di-oxide and catastrophe is tenuous or non-existent. He/she therefore may argue from principle that drastic action ought not to be taken. To the climate-neutral layperson, the link between CO2 and catastrophe is immaterial: he/she is simply willing to go along with the climate game, to a certain limit. What this means in practical terms is that the same public which Pielke Jr is counting on his side, are actually more akin to skeptics. One takes the climate issue seriously and the other doesn’t even do that. You will get nothing from them both. In other words, the so-called ‘iron law’ is an enormous non-sequitur, and just a small outcome of a more general ‘iron law of scams’.

The Iron Law of Scams dictates how much money people are willing to throw away to a cause they only marginally care for, and feel in their heart of hearts is probably a scam but will not say it out loud from politeness. If such donation-seekers showed up at my doorstep, I might feel like parting with 50 bucks a year just to keep them happy and away. This says nothing about what I feel about my economy (i.e., my income) or my concerns for the climate.  You could take the ‘iron law of scams’ and replace ‘scam’ with any cause celebré of the moment, it would work just the same.  Pielke’s iron law of climate policy is however an attempt to link economic priorities and climate ‘action’.

Climate sceptics are those who looked at the case for climate change causing ‘undesirable’ things and therefore require remedial action, and came away unconvinced. Pielke and Kuper believe that something should be done about the climate even if there is not much concern or support, and even if it costs us handsomely. I hope they don’t think something needs to be done, even if  there isn’t any need to do it. Pielke’s mistake lies in his misdiagnosis of the foundation for any possible climate action.

In the end, the numerous step-wise safety valves that have been built into the Durban climate agreement by these very countries, Brazil, China and India make one thing clear.These are a greater testimony to ‘government will’ and undercurrents of public expectation, than any monolithic wall of climate-supportive ‘political will’  that is hypothesized to exist.


[1] Billett S Dividing climate change: global warming in the Indian mass media DOI: 10.1007/s10584-009-9605-3
[2] Boykoff M. Indian media representations of climate change in a threatened journalistic ecosystem Climatic Change (2010) 99:17–25