The Real Debate on Climate is Happening in San Francisco

By Stephan Lewandowsky, University of Western Australia

The latest climate talks in Doha are unlikely to yield a breakthrough. Instead, the can will most likely be kicked further down the road, at considerable future cost.

The Doha meetings are also accompanied by signals from the fantasy world of climate denial, as usual expressed not in the peer-reviewed literature but as an “open letter” by purported climate experts to the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon. The letter claims that current scientific knowledge requires no action on climate change.

To understand why climate denial inhabits a fantasy world we need to look no further than a few of the purported luminaries who sign such letters.

For example, there is retiree Nils-Axel Mörner whose psychedelic intuitions include the claim that sea levels are not rising. Never mind that the horrendous damage caused by Hurricane Sandy was undoubtedly made worse by the fact that sea levels in New York are now 20 cm higher than they were a century ago. Mörner probably missed out on that because he was distracted by his famed paranormal abilities to find water by dowsing. Or perhaps he was distracted by his earlier “research” which located the Hong Kong of the Greeks in Sweden?

Then there is retiree and former scientist (among other things) Oliver Manuel, who believes that climate science is the result of “secret, fear-driven agreements by the winners of the Second World War in 1945.” Those agreements also somehow involve “Kissinger, Zhou En-Lai, Chairman Mao, Brezhnev and Nixon in 1971” — oh yes, and 9/11 was also part of the climate conspiracy.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Those are the characters who tell the UN and the public not to worry about climate change.

No point in wasting time on the other signatories — suffice it to say that most of them belong to the same troupe of cranks straight out of central casting.

So what is the real state of the science being presented at the AGU meeting in San Francisco? What do the geophysicists tell us about the state of the climate and of our planet?

The program for a single day of this meeting consists of a 50-page broadsheet that lists literally thousands of events: you can follow along online here. Talks, workshops, scientific posters, keynote addresses, all running in multiple parallel sessions in three buildings. Even with the help of the daily program booklet and the AGU iPad app it takes an hour every morning simply to navigate the smorgasbord of science and to select interesting sessions to attend.

There was the session on The Climate of the Common Era, or the presentations of the New Atmospheric Sciences Fellows. Then there was the particularly interesting session on Construing Uncertainty in Climate Science (maybe that one was particularly interesting because I chaired it).

There was the keynote address by Sir Robert Watson, who explored the implications of our current emissions path, and the fact that we are likely heading for a world that is 4 or 5 degrees warmer by 2100 than it was before industrialisation, with consequences that are alarming rather than alarmist.

There are thousands and thousands of talks, posters, discussions, and workshops.

Science is debate, and the AGU meeting is the biggest annual debate of climate scientists in the world. It is a debate that extends over five days, each filled with 12 hours or more of non-stop science.

There is, however, one issue that is not being debated: Nowhere is there a debate about the fundamental facts that the globe is rapidly warming and that human greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for that warming.

That scientific debate ceased decades ago.

It is only in the fantasy world of climate denial that ignorant chatter about those physical fundamentals continues, to the detriment of the public which would be better served without such distracting noise.

Among the 20,000 geophysicists and scientists from other disciplines in attendance at the AGU meeting, there is no mention of the denialist troupe of cranks who do “science” by writing letters to the editor.

With one exception.

Dr. Jim Hansen, one of the world’s foremost climate scientists, who first alerted the world to the risks from climate change decades ago, gave a presentation on Tuesday night. A patrician figure, he was greeted with a standing ovation even though the message he had to deliver, based on the latest available science, was far from encouraging. Decades ago, Dr. Hansen predicted events such as Hurricane Sandy, and he has been warning about the implications of climate change ever since.

Dr. Hansen expressed the view that the professional dis-informers who facilitate and encourage climate denial, and who obstruct and delay a solution to the problem at great cost in dollars and human lives in support of their own short-term greed or ideological agenda, ought to be tried for crimes against humanity.

Stephan Lewandowsky does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.


  1. AGU Fellow Richard Lindzen, speaking at an ex-officio meeting in the House of Commons, London, earlier this year:

    "The evidence is that the increase in CO2 will lead to very little warming, and that the connection of this minimal warming (or even significant warming) to the purported catastrophes is also minimal. The arguments on which the catastrophic claims are made are extremely weak – and commonly acknowledged as such. They are sometimes overtly dishonest."

    Etc. Lindzen proceeds to trash work performed by many of his AGU "fellows" in ways distinctly unscientific, frequently referring to dishonesty and fraudulent behavior without actually naming names. "Those people, they're dishonest and can't help it; it's in their blood" is the general theme. As is so frequently the case with unhinged prejudice the victims are painted with a broad brush.

    Tolerating Lindzen as a Fellow of the AGU is a bit like the NAACP accepting a Grand Dragon of the KKK as a continued member due to feelings of nostalgia. However there's little doubt the NAACP would swiftly end its association with a person who had forgotten himself so badly, or at least would refuse to endorse the offender by allowing its own name and reputation to be used in bolstering the credibility of attacks on its mission.

    The AGU is a deeply confused and confusing organization.

  2. Science works like that. You can't take away a Doctorate, no matter how fuddled a person gets in their dotage, except for a Doctorate obtained fraudulently. The same goes for even higher honors such as Fellowships.

    In fact this points to a key part of the problem. Science internally knows whom to ignore - the process is less harsh due to its informality. But nowadays such people can have influence by appealing to the press and/or the political sector.

    It may be arguably necessary to explicitly disown such people, but it's a threat to scientific comity.

    As for Lindzen specifically, the way Ray Pierrehumbert treated him in the Tyndall lecture is by scientific standards remarkably harsh; the rest of the world would hardly even notice. Ray's lecture is worth watching in any case, but this aspect of it is germane to the present conversation.

  3. I wish we could see your talk, Michael.

    Alastair, AGU wouldn't have anything to do w/such a trial. Try to focus on the topic at hand.

    Steve, do we have time for attrition? How many tons of CO2 are emitted as a result of each sentence Lindzen utters with the imprimatur of the AGU behind him?

    I suggest that AGU could respectfully request of Dr. Lindzen that when he's on a mission to shape public policy by misrepresenting science he may simply leave AGU's name out of the script and as well ask those who've invited him to speak to also respect that request.

    Or he can introduce himself as "ex-AGU Fellow."

    As a thought experiment try placing Dr. Lindzen on a continuum of behavior and ask again if the honorific "AGU Fellow" should always apply. If Dr. Lindzen started each day with a hearty breakfast of nuns and orphans and never even mentioned his status as AGU Fellow, what would happen? If Dr. Lindzen speaks of science to the public in ways that will help ensure mortally horrific dislocation of dense populations such places as Bangladesh, how is that more acceptable than dining on nuns and orphans?

  4. Pingback: Another Week of GW News, December 9, 2012 – A Few Things Ill Considered

  5. There are roles in this situation and that wholly confuses what AGU's role can and should be.

    In any case, Lindzen probably manages to believe he is doing good work. On what basis should he be tried. Scientific error? Most people make scientific errors far more elementary than those that Lindzen does on a regular basis. I saw a debate between him and Bill Nye on global warming once, and Nye came in with the common "climate change will shut down the gulf stream" confusion. Lindzen eviscerated him for it.

    The thing is, Lindzen was right and Nye was wrong - nothing short of freezing the ocean or boiling it off, or stopping the rotation of the earth, will literally stop the western boundary currents. Should Nye be sentenced to life in prison for this?

    You will argue that Nye's baseless alarmism is more ethical than Lindzen's tightly argued if somewhat contrived insouciance.

    Well, I think so too, but how do we give that the force of law? If we simply judge people by whether they are on the side of the angels, how do we protect ourselves from a theocracy?

    Global warming is an existential threat, but it is not the only existential threat. Let's try not to come up with proposals that bring us to ruin in some other way.

  6. Michael: "You will argue that Nye’s baseless alarmism is more ethical than Lindzen’s tightly argued if somewhat contrived insouciance."

    Not me. I'll argue that if you're one of the ~3M persons living in the Ben Tre and Long An provinces of Vietnam situated on the Mekong Delta, unsupported claims such as Lindzen's "The evidence is that the increase in CO2 will lead to very little warming, and that the connection of this minimal warming (or even significant warming) to the purported catastrophes is also minimal" is hardly a tight argument and is ethically extremely dubious, aimed as it is at paralyzing the public policy response necessary to protect those people at risk.

    History is littered with fresh and stale cases of scientifically oriented social organizations choosing wisely, poorly or not at all, the latter of course being a choice of its own kind. Most recently APA disavowed "gay conversion therapy" through an official spokesperson, remarks a scant step short of disclaiming APA members who insist on pursing dangerously fallacious therapeutic techniques.

    I simply suggest that on a scale of hazard and commensurate risk climate change is something of a magnitude requiring more than business as usual when it comes to demands made by society for responsible communications. It's arguable that something more than vague remarks about the importance of good communications practices is warranted.

    We're all free to speak as we please but to pretend there's never any external cost to free speech is folly; forcing a choice on whether those external costs are worth the benefits of misleading an audience could be a healthy development.

  7. (It seems that my previous posting failed. Excuse me for possible duplication.)

    A Japanese translation of Hansen's (2009) "Storms of My Grandchildren" has just been published. Before its publication, I was asked by the translator for consultation about technical terms, so I read the book again.

    I am afraid we (climate science community) need to partially (not totally, I mean) disown Dr Hansen as our authoritative expert if he has not changed the mind since he wrote the book, despite that he is still admirable in many ways. The situation is somewhat similar (though in a different direction) as in Lindzen's case.

    First, he advocates for nuclear power as one of major means to mitigate greenhouse gas emission (Chapter 9). His message sounds authoritative since he is an expert of climate change, but he is neither an expert of nuclear power technology nor one of hazards of radioactive nuclides. I am a lay person in these fields too, but not just me but many people in Japan think that his assertion about feasibility of fast breeder reactors is too optimistic. (The overwhelming anti-nuclear mood in Japan after 2011-03-11 is another issue, but I want to refrain from it at this moment.) I do not categorically reject utilization of nuclear power, but I doubt that such plant that circulate both liquid sodium and water near presence of various radioactive nuclides including plutonium can be safely operated in industrial (rather than laboratory) scale.

    Second, he considers that anthropogenic global warming may lead to a state of the planet without liquid water like Venus (Chapter 10). He does not seem to regard this scenario likely, but he seems to consider that the probability is not negligible, and this vision seems to be one of roots of his strong advocacy for mitigation. I tried to follow his reasoning for the possibility of runaway greenhouse. His discussion that climate sensitivity becomes large as climate warms (mainly because of greenhouse effect of water vapor) is reasonable. But it does not lead to infinity.

    I tried to consult Ray Pierrehumbert's (2010) "Principle of Planetary Climate". Some discussion about the condition of runaway greenhouse (Komabayashi-Ingersoll limit) is found in Section 4.6 (p. 284). The discussion there is based on 1-dimensitonal radiative transfer without explicit expression of scattering, however, and the numbers shown there cannot be directly translated to variables observable in the real world.

    So I am not very sure about this issue, but my present tentative view is as follows. We cannot rule out the possibility that anthropogenic global warming run away as "impossible". But it requires some unlikely feedbacks, for example, cloud coverage halving as the atmosphere contains several times more water vapor. I think this as tricky as the suggestion by Lindzen that water vapor feedback may be negative. As a subject of pure science, it is very interesting. But it seems (to me) absurd to be included in a scientific basis for advice to policymaking.

  8. Lindzen tries very hard to support his claims; he can't be faulted for that. I suspect he even manages to believe himself, even though his claims (per Ray's talk) keep shifting about. This is what I mean by "tightly argued". I am not disagreeing with you that his position is dubious. But the ethics of it are complex given that he most likely manages to convince himself.

    "We’re all free to speak as we please but to pretend there’s never any external cost to free speech is folly; forcing a choice on whether those external costs are worth the benefits of misleading an audience could be a healthy development." - This is an interesting point. However, there is a further question, which is how, a priori, we defend ourselves against an incorrect bandwagon effect. These issues are very difficult in the abstract, and that is what makes them intractable in concrete cases.

    I am pretty darned sure that people like Ray are right and Lindzen is contriving defenses for an essentially unsupportable position. I am, say, 99.9% sure of that. But people have been 99.9% sure of other stuff that has turned out to be wrong. Most economists, for instance, think the economic goal of social organization is to maximize growth, and that the minority opinion in opposition is extremely dangerous. As someone who publicly holds the minority opinion, am I a threat to civilization? Some people think so.

    Since I do not want to be tried for treason to humanity for this minority opinion I have a hard time formulating a world which I would want to live in where Lindzen is demonstrably culpable of anything.

  9. Again I'll remind that some mild but specifically directed words of chastisement or caution or "tut-tut" from the AGU are a far cry from "tried for treason to humanity." For some reason conversations about this do tend to go from nuance to Nuremberg in the blink of an eye.

    I don't agree with Michael's thoughts on Lindzen as a paradoxically honest broker of bullshit. Lindzen's simultaneous expertise in his field and decades of concerted work on dirtying the public optics of climate change research specifically as it applies to public policy make Lindzen the naif almost impossible to credit. I'll offer that by Michael's metrics of innocence there are other much better candidates to uphold as examples of self-deluded, internally honest communicators of climate science dreck. Lindzen seems interesting as a case mostly because of the jumbo-sized can of worms the AGU opened up earlier this year by loud talk of ethics, responsibility of AGU members to the public etc., all of which seems terribly selective and strangely remote from AGU's core mission and rather silly and (safely?) irrelevant when viewed through the Lindzen lens.

  10. Kooiti Masuda --- The EBR-II fast reactor ran for 30 years without a single hitch. It also passed, on the same day, both of the 'extreme events' it was subjected to. There is a book about it entitled "Plentiful Energy". There are excerpts from it posted on
    and ample room for discussion about it in the associated discussion forum

    The GE-Hitachi PRISM is a commercialized version of the EBR-II being the same size, 311 MWe. The British are considering having a pair.

  11. Your argument is based on a low estimate of the human capacity for self-deception.

    I believe the number of genuinely dishonest people required to maintain our current quandary is small, if we allow room for the menagerie of other personality pathologies.

    I do not deny that there are some dishonest people acting. I just think it is very difficult to identify who they are, never mind "convict" them even in an institutional setting. After all, if AGU in some institutional sense accused someone in the naysayer camp of lying, that person would be on the phone to a lawyer in a New York nanosecond.

    AGU in particular contains much of the fossil fuel industry as well as the climate community. Science does what science does. It's unfair to expect more of it that it is designed to do. It's a tool in the structure of a well-ordered civilization. It can be abused and is being abused. But the solution probably isn't to push it still further.

    Anyway, in Lindzen's case as in many others I think it's likely that some other personality flaw than pure dishonesty is at work. Which means that perhaps, like Ronald Reagan, he has the advantage of genuinely believing whatever he is saying at the time he says it, no matter how incoherent it is with other things he said before.

  12. Masuda-san, are you proposing that scientists not speak until we can speak with one voice? Then we will be unable to say anything.

    It is definitely uncomfortable to say things that are unheard of. But if nobody ever says things that are unheard of, nothing new will ever be heard!

    This said, I will take Ray Pierrehumbert's side in most any scientific debate - his thinking seems quite reliably sound to me. I really do not think we should be thinking about massive physical instabilities on a short time scale. The evidence for them is much smaller than some people think.

    It is almost as if people cannot find a stable position between insouciance and hopelessness. It's odd indeed.


    Everywhere we look we can find virtual mountains of scientific research with regard to unsustainable pyramid schemes that are surreptitiously foisted upon the human community by a few deceitful people with knowledge at the expense of many too many others who are not ‘in the know’. Those with the most wealth and power buy and pay for the brightest minions and best sycophants who assume responsibilities and perform duties as ‘official’ barbarians at the gate of public awareness. In such a dishonest,unjust and patently unsustainable world order, the only humane response is to take action by doing something that increases awareness of what is sustainable on a planet with the size, limited resources and frangible environs of Earth.
    Take what is known to be real about human population dynamics, for example, that gives rise to the human overpopulation of Earth. The growth of the human population worldwide and the global political economy are the two most colossal pyramid schemes on Earth. Where are intellectually honest and morally courageous professionals with appropriate expertise in the biology, economics, ecology, politics and demography who are willing to shed the light provided by the best available science on the relentless overproduction, outrageous overconsumption and unbridled overpopulation activities of the human species: the "mother" of all global threats to future human wellbeing?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.