The Five Points on Climate

Emeritus Prof. James Brey is American Meteorological Society education program director. In a recent talk he summarized the climate situation in five simple points.

  • Climate change is real.
  • It’s caused by us.
  • It’s mostly going to be bad.
  • Climate scientists agree.
  • There are solutions.

This is a very useful formulation. Each of the points is simple, unambiguous, informative, and defensible without caveats.



  1. Without caveats? The third point has a sort of caveat - mostly - why is it necessary there but not in the others?

    I can see a 'sceptic' seeing this as an easy opportunity to pretend that they are more sceptical than those of us who sound alarm. And I can see someone who wants to believe that being easily convinced. I quite like caveats....

  2. Yes, my point. The caveat is in the third point, but not the others - the not in the others part is where I foresee the problem being.

    Climate change is real -> tiresome point about climate has always changed.

    It's caused by us -> inevitable tedium about certainty in science.

    Climate scientists agree -> give us strength, we all know what rabbit hole this leads down.

    There are solutions -> any solution that means actual change in our behaviour is too expensive to envisage, better that those affected adapt. Grow up if you think otherwise.

  3. Wit's soul:

    "Mostly" is a qualifier, not a caveat.

    I can defend any of those points.

    They are easy to understand and true.

    They tell the story.

    This is ground we can defend when we stand our ground.

  4. Is 'mostly' really so different from a caveat there? It could be written as something like 'It's going to be bad, although some areas will likely see some localised and probably short term benefits'. 'Mostly' seems to substitute for the caveat, and with brevity.

    Of course you can defend those points, but in doing so you would include some caveats. These don't make the points untrue, just open to deliberate and malicious misinterpretation.

    I was talking from the viewpoint of a 'sceptic' when responding to the statement 'There are solutions.' Others can tell stories loudly and plausibly. I just wonder if this is too easy a frame for them? Of course the alternative I envisage means ceding some ground to them by default. The caveats become louder than the far more significant truths. So should we pre-empt them or not?

    I'm aware I'm being witless, or soulless.

  5. I don't think the 3-4 combination is defensible without caveats. Scientists agree that GW is real, and will continue in the future. I don't think "[All? or even Most?] scientists" would sign up to "It’s mostly going to be bad" without caveat.

  6. You like drought, floods, invasive species, ecological decline, coastal inundation and agricultural failure, then?

    We'll count that as one vote.

    I will happily stand this ground - the anticipated physical changes which most climate scientists agree to will mostly be bad. This is what 4 coming after 3 allows me to defend.

    This is a slightly weaker claim than that most scientists agree that it will be bad, which would be implied as you suggest if there order were reversed. In my experience that is also true, but admittedly it is harder to defend.

  7. Of course the points will be attacked. That is the opposition's mission in life and often their day job as well.

    It's nice to have a simple formulation that people can understand to be defending. Our scientific training and culture encourages us to "bury the lede" and put the caveats first, to protect our claim of scientific turf by understatement.

    The enemies of sensible policy prey on this.

    Brey's talk makes it clear to me that we need to start with clear, simple statements that we can feel comfortable making. Then when the quibbling starts, we can avoid being lured down the rabbit hole of nitpicking and qualification. We can always return the conversation to the simple, defensibe assertion after formulating the defense.

  8. Just to be clear, I feel the list is excellent. Given a choice between making fun of myself and making fun of others, you may assume the default is the former. I just can't resist a play on words.

  9. No - that's not right. This version:

    1. Climate change is real.
    2. It’s caused by us.
    3. Climate scientists agree.
    4. It’s mostly going to be bad.

    Is more defensible. That doesn't directly imply that CS agree with "its going to be bad". Your version (swapping 3 and 4) means you're implying that CS agree that its going to be bad. I disagree that CS agree on that - many of them know enough to realise that they don't know.

    I don't understand why you think your version is weaker. Your version is:

    It’s mostly going to be bad.
    Climate scientists agree (with all the above).

    Your version is stronger, and (in my view, depending on what how you caveat "CS") wrong.

  10. OK, let's work on the solutions part. Not changing the list, and I don't care about the order of 3 and 4, though Stoat has a point.

    My despair about a turnaround is not about the possibility, but the likelihood. How likely is it that people who believe in the rapture and think Obama might be a Muslim, and that compassion is socialism, which they equate with communism, are likely to adopt a solution involving agape, enlightenment, and sharing, as well as stopping looting by those who regard the metaphorical diamonds they can give their trophy wives (or the millions they can use to control DC) as more important than a future of humankind which they regard as disprovable.

  11. Ah, you are saying the claim is that "climate scientists agree with all of the above" while I read it as "climate scientists are in broad agreement about the prognosis". Anyway, I agree that proving that there is agreement about "it is going to be bad" is hard. I think that there is such agreement regarding business-as-usual (BAU), though how near or far the bad consequences are is debated.

    Another simple formulation is the Texas Consensus that

    • The global climate is changing.
    • Human activities produce heat-trapping gases.
    • Heat-trapping gases are very likely responsible for most of the warming observed over the past half century. No one has been able to propose a credible alternative.
    • The higher the levels of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, the higher the risk of potentially dangerous consequences for humans and our environment.

    and that

    The entire faculty of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M as well as the Climate System Science group at the University of Texas have issued their own statements endorsing these views. In fact, to the best of our knowledge, there are no climate scientists in Texas who disagree with the mainstream view of climate science.

    It's the last bit that constitutes the best evidence I know of for a consensus - not just that the claim was publicly and prominently made but that nobody at all stepped up to object.

    So perhaps, inspired by this remarkable declaration, we should go with:

    1. Climate change is real.
    2. It’s caused by us.
    3. There are significant substantial risks.
    4. The longer we delay the worse the risks get.
    5. Climate scientists agree.
    6. There are solutions.

  12. I'm glad you added "4. The longer we delay the worse the risks get."
    I think that's the single biggest problem with the common understanding of climate change, among the majority of the population who do accept the science. They don't understand the effects of delay, because nobody talks about the various kinds of inertia in the physical and socio-political systems.

  13. Sorry I've been a bit over the top lately. But could you enlarge on how "strict climate policy is an achievable goal."?

    I'd agree that my idea that idealism is the only way is off the wall. But I'm not sure anything else will work. My feeling is we might as well shoot for the moon and try to invoke the heart. At the moment we appear to be encouraging sociopaths, and I cannot believe they are as common as the news makes them appear to be.

  14. Susan, some fraction of conventional economic theory does seem a lot like organized sociopathy. Many people are trained to think like that and to treat any broaching of alternatives as suspicious or even subversive.

    One hopes they aren't as numerous as they seem. For the present they are remarkably influential, but it's easy to see why. They provide a self-serving mythos for the likes of the Koch brothers. There has always been an ideology of power - compare "divine right" of kings who thought themselves appointed by the Almighty...

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