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Freeing energy policy from the climate change debate

By Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger - posted Wednesday, 14 April 2010

The 20-year effort by environmentalists to establish climate science as the primary basis for far-reaching action to decarbonise the global energy economy today lies in ruins. Backlash in reaction to “Climategate” and recent controversies involving the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s 2007 assessment report are but the latest evidence that such efforts have evidently failed.

While the urge to blame fossil-fuel-funded sceptics for this recent bad turn of events has proven irresistible for most environmental leaders and pundits, forward-looking greens wishing to ascertain what might be salvaged from the wreckage would be well advised to look closer to home. Climate science, even at its most uncontroversial, could never motivate the remaking of the entire global energy economy. Efforts to use climate science to threaten an apocalyptic future should we fail to embrace green proposals, and to characterise present-day natural disasters as terrifying previews of an impending day of reckoning, have only served to undermine the credibility of both climate science and progressive energy policy.

The endless weather wars

The habit of overstating the current state of climate science knowledge, and in particular our understanding of the relationship between global warming and present-day weather events, has been difficult for environmentalists to give up because, on one level, it has worked so well for them.


Global warming first exploded into mass public consciousness in the summer of 1988, when droughts, fires in the Amazon, and heat waves in the United States were widely attributed as warning signs of an eco-apocalypse to come. Former US Senator Tim Wirth held the first widely covered congressional hearing on the subject that summer and admits having targeted the hearing for the hottest day of the year and turned off the air conditioning in the room to ensure that the conditions would be sweltering for the assembled media.

Such tactics have only intensified over the past two decades. In the run-up to UN climate talks in Kyoto in 1997, the Clinton Administration recruited Al Roker and other weathermen to explain global warming to the public. In 2006, Al Gore used his Inconvenient Truth slide show to link Hurricane Katrina, droughts, and floods to warming. And some environmental groups have routinely implied that present-day extreme weather and natural disasters are evidence of anthropogenic warming.

But it turned out that both sides could play the weather game. Sceptics also started pointing to weather events like snowstorms as evidence of no warming. While environmental advocates frequently criticise opponents such as Senator James Inhofe for conflating weather with climate, the reality is that both sides abuse the science in the service of their political agendas. Climate change models, created in an effort to understand the potential long-term effect of global warming on regional weather trends, can no more tell us anything useful about today’s extreme weather events than last month’s snow storms can inform us as to whether global warming is occurring.

Climate science disasters

For more than 20 years, advocates have simultaneously overestimated the certainty with which climate science could predict the future and underestimated the economic and technological challenges associated with rapidly decarbonising the energy economy. The oft-heard mantra that “All we lack is political will” assumes that the solutions to global warming are close at hand and that the primary obstacle to implementing them is public ignorance fed by fossil-fuel-funded sceptics.

Environmental advocates - with help from pollsters, psychologists, and cognitive scientists - have long understood that global warming represented a particularly problematic threat around which to mobilise public opinion. The threat is distant, abstract, and difficult to visualise. Faced with a public that has seemed largely indifferent to the possibility of severe climactic disruptions resulting from global warming, some environmentalists have tried to characterise the threat as more immediate, mostly by suggesting that global warming was already adversely impacting human societies, primarily in the form of increasingly deadly natural disasters.

The result has been an ever-escalating set of demands on climate science, with greens and their allies often attempting to represent climate science as apocalyptic, imminent, and certain, in no small part so that they could characterise all resistance as corrupt, anti-scientific, short-sighted, or ignorant. Greens pushed climate scientists to become outspoken advocates of action to address global warming. Captivated by the notion that their voices and expertise were singularly necessary to save the world, some climate scientists attempted to oblige. The result is that the use, and misuse, of climate science by advocates began to wash back into the science itself.


Little surprise then, that most of the recent controversies besetting climate science involve efforts to move the proximity of the global warming threat closer to the present. The most explosive revelations of Climategate involved disputed methodological techniques to merge multiple data sets (e.g., ice cores, tree rings, 20th century weather station readings) into a single global temperature trend line, the “hockey stick” graph. Whatever one thinks of the quality of the data sets, the methods used to combine them, or the efforts by some to shield the underlying data from critics, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that those involved were trying to fit the data to a trend that they already expected to see - namely that the spike in global carbon emissions in recent decades tracked virtually in lockstep with a concomitant spike in present-day global temperatures.

Other faulty or sloppy claims in the IPCC’s voluminous reports - such as the contention that global warming could melt Himalayan glaciers by 2035 - followed the same pattern.

Perhaps most problematic of all, with some environmentalists convinced that connecting global warming to natural disasters was the key to climate policy progress, researchers felt enormous pressure to demonstrate a link. But multiple studies using different methodologies and data sets show no statistically significant relationship between the rising cost of natural disasters and global warming. And according to a review sponsored by the US National Science Foundation and Munich Re, researchers are unlikely to be able to unequivocally link storm or flood losses to anthropogenic warming for several decades, if even then. This is not because there is no evidence of increasing extreme weather, but rather because the rising costs of natural disasters have been driven so overwhelmingly by social and economic factors - more people with more wealth living in harm’s way.

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First published in Yale Environment 360 on March 29, 2010.

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About the Authors

Ted Nordhaus, with Michael Shellenberger, is the co-author of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility and a recent collection of energy and climate writings, The Emerging Climate Consensus, with a preface by Ross Gelbspan, available for download at

Michael Shellenberger, with Ted Nordhaus, is the co-author of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility and a recent collection of energy and climate writings, The Emerging Climate Consensus, with a preface by Ross Gelbspan, available for download at

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Ted Nordhaus
All articles by Michael Shellenberger

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