The Latest News on Global Warming; Weirdness Still Prevails

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The U.N. is holding its big annual conference on climate change in Durban, South Africa. For those of you still paying attention to global-warming news, you may want to add a couple of links to your reading:

+ There’s been a second round of “ClimateGate” e-mails, (the first preceded the U.N.’s climate-change Copenhagen conference in 2009); the Times‘s  Andy Revkin becomes a more prominent character this time around, for which he is attacked, against which he promptly defends himself.

 + A new study in Science argues with the accepted wisdom on climate sensitivity. From the website of Oregon State University, home to lead researcher Andreas Schmittner:

A new study suggests that the rate of global warming from doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide may be less than the most dire estimates of some previous studies – and, in fact, may be less severe than projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 2007.

Authors of the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation’s Paleoclimate Program and published online this week in the journal Science, say that global warming is real and that increases in atmospheric CO2 will have multiple serious impacts.

However, the most Draconian projections of temperature increases from the doubling of CO2 are unlikely.

+ And in the Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens raises hell by not only arguing that global warming is akin to a religion but that the religion is dying:

As with religion, it is presided over by a caste of spectacularly unattractive people pretending to an obscure form of knowledge that promises to make the seas retreat and the winds abate. As with religion, it comes with an elaborate list of virtues, vices and indulgences. As with religion, its claims are often non-falsifiable, hence the convenience of the term “climate change” when thermometers don’t oblige the expected trend lines. As with religion, it is harsh toward skeptics, heretics and other “deniers.” And as with religion, it is susceptible to the earthly temptations of money, power, politics, arrogance and deceit.

Also, fwiw, our latest podcast (“The Truth Is Out There … Isn’t It?”) examines how we make up our minds about the risks of climate change, and reports the surprising finding that higher levels of scientific knowledge are correlated with greater polarization on the issue:

Greater scientific literacy and numeracy were associated with greater cultural polarization: respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive, and those predisposed by their values to credit such evidence more concerned, as science literacy and numeracy increased.

In other words: the more you know, the more you know that what you know is true — even when it’s not.


Nominee for quote of the year:

"The more you know, the more you know that what you know is true — even when it’s not."

Mike B

Apart from a few Religious wingnuts I believe that the mast majority of people know that the basic element of climate change are real, but a large group will never admit it because they feel that conceding the point will cost them money, their burgers or their motor vehicles. It's exactly what the Tobacco industry did for decades to avoid regulations that would cripple their industry. One would think that the act of inhaling smoke would bound to have some negative health consequence, but the industry's denial machine was able to fog the issue for decades. A lot more people have a lot more to lose from current climate change solutions so they simply man the barricades and deny that burning billions of tones of Carbon based fuels in a closed system could have any impact.

The way to fight this is to have an honest debate about how much people are willing to sacrifice to prevent climate change and disconnect "belief" in climate change with any sort of remedy. The pro-environmental movements has basically equated belief in global warming with owing small electric scooters and eating tofu dogs and surprise surprise we're getting a popular backlash. If the majority of people prefer to pay for flood walls instead of higher electric bills then that should be on the table.



While I strongly agree with your general argument, I would argue that the cost of business-as-usual is a great deal more than just building some flood walls. Because people see this as an ideological argument, they don't think in terms of risk management. When you consider that if climate change is real, there's a high likelihood of
- large-scale desertification resulting in displacement of communities; loss of agricultural land and the need to relocate crops leading to dramatic (even if temporary) increases in food prices;
- increased extreme weather events causing economic instability and raising insurance costs, as well as being disastrous for some individuals;
- spread of tropical diseases leading to greater medical costs
- loss of biodiversity and collapse of many tourist industries
And as well, a relatively low but still significant probability of a catastrophic event such as sudden release of large methane stores from melting Arctic permafrost, resulting in a global ecological collapse.
When you add all of this up, even if you are pretty sure that global warming isn't real, doing nothing about it looks crazy. I'm pretty sure I'm not going to crash my car next time I drive to the shops. But I still strap my baby into her expensive, uncomfortable infant seat - because I don't gamble with her future, even when I think the odds are in my favor.


Sam Morrill

I would like to preface this comment by saying that I am a big fan of Freakonomics. I’ve read your work, I listen to your podcast (somewhat obsessively) and I follow your blog via Twitter. Generally speaking, I love the way you hack away at conventional wisdom and find new angles to approach tired solutions to old problems. However, I take serious issue with your approach to the issue of climate change.

In your most recent podcast, you cite Pew research that shows that scientists consistently rank as the most trusted professionals in the United States. In general, this may be true, but keep in mind that the scientists that Americans have the most direct contact with are their physicians. Since physicians are primarily tasked with keeping us alive, we as their patients have a vested interest in trusting them and following their advice. Climatologists and other environmental scientists, on the other hand, do not provide this sort of vital service to us. On the contrary, their advice is often opposed to our immediate interests since human comfort and convenience often comes at the expense of the environment. Therefore, I suspect that if you were to take a closer look at the numbers (rather just lump all scientists together), you would probably find significantly less trust of those scientists who do not necessarily serve our direct and immediate interests like physicians do.

Furthermore, I found it particularly offensive when you interviewed Steven Levitt and had him liken (albeit indirectly) the fear of climate change to some of our less rational fears--spiders, sharks, earthquakes and so on and so forth. This analogy makes a huge omission: Whereas our fears of animals and natural disasters are largely rooted in our fear of bodily harm to ourselves, the fear of climate change is largely rooted in a fear of the havoc that it may wreak on our children and our children’s children and society as a whole. In other words, the fear of climate change is a more selfless fear than it is a selfish fear.

This brings me to my final point—the issue of selfishness versus selflessness. Considering that the credo of Freakonomics is the "study of incentives - how people get what they want or need,” I’m surprised that you spent no time discussing the incentives that drive each side of the climate debate. On one hand, you have climate science deniers who are largely driven by the fear of their tacit understanding that any sort of action to combat climate change would likely require changes to their lifestyle. On the other hand, you have those of us who are greatly concerned about climate change, full well knowing that we may need to make sacrifices to offset the threat, but are willing to because it is the right thing to do. I take no issue with Freakonomics throwing climate science under a microscope, but it is truly regrettable to grant (false) equivalency to those who have their head in the sand to professionals who are dedicating their lives to seeking a real solution to a real problem. You would do us all a better service by dedicating thirty minutes to discussing why some people are able put aside their immediate self-interests and why others, sadly, are not.



I guess obtaining political power and dedicating your life to earning your paycheck are selfless endeavors. Typical liberal demagoguery of assuming evil motives to the other side and pure altruism on theirs.

Sam Morrill

The notion that fighting climate change is politically expedient is a complete falsehood. Jimmy Carter learned this the hard way when he asked Americans to wear sweaters. It is also a falsehood to say that there is more money to be made promoting climate science than there is to be made by environmentally devastating industrial practices.

Please note that I made no mention of politics in my original post. Science is not a political matter. Unfortunately, it has been politicized by certain elements (be they religious or economic) who are not suited by scientific consensus.

John B

"Scientific consensus" has been used over and over again to justify global warming (oops: climate change).

The fact that more and more scientists do not follow the standard line is ignored and the word "consensus" is used as a club, not to convince others as to the merits of their position.

The world is flat; the sun and planets revolve around the earth; etc. etc., were all part of scintific consensus at one time. And their consensus was a lot greater than the present one. They were proven wrong by science. Open the inquiry up to scientific review rather than relying upon "consensus".

Kevin McKague

If 98% of oncologists said that you had cancer, would you ask for a 99th opinion from a chiropractor, or FOX commentator?

98% of climate scientists believe climate change is real, and I don't know enough about what they study to dispute them. I just know that there aren't many things that 98% of any given field agrees on, so I'm with the scientists on this scientific issue.


If 98% of oncologists say I have cancer, clearly all 98% are colluding to try to get at my delicious insurance money for all the services that'll have to be rendered to treat my problem or make survival at least comfortable for the rest of my life.


Having checked out the so-called "second round of Climategate" emails posted on the Daily Telegraph blog, I'm unimpressed. I am a scientist, and these emails look like normal, robust scientific dialogue - including internal critique and discussion of whether particular results have been presented in a misleading way. They've been selectively quoted to look as bad as possible, and even then, there's nothing remotely disturbing about them.


I've always felt the "Draconian" predictions do the science a disservice. Of course, in modern American media, shock value is necessary to get someone's attention. The reality of doing any projection is you get a wide range of outcomes. Using the most extreme is generally bad practice as those predictions seldom verify: The weatherman predicts 20 inches of snow, it sometimes happens but more often we get 10. I also love the "secure in our knowledge, regardless of its truth" quote - pretty much sums up human nature, confirmation bias and a number of our cognitive weaknesses.

Kevin McKague

It always amuses me when people suggest that scientists ar
e financially motivated to "prop up" the idea of climate change as a man-made phenomenon.

If, by some implausible possibility, 98% of the scientific community were willing to go along with such a conspiracy, wouldn't it be far more profitable to take the money from those doing the polluting? Who are the wealthy climate change activists with the money and the motive to outspend the oil industry?


"Greater scientific literacy and numeracy were associated with greater cultural polarization: respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive..."

You know, I'd really like to see the evidence for this claim, and in particular the standard for what constitutes "greater" scientific literacy. It seems to fly in the face of other evidence: that 98% or 99% of climate scientists (baslcally all those not funded by Exxon or the Kochs - and even some of them :-)) who obviously have the greatest scientific literacy on the subject, the membership of just about every scientific professional organization, and so on.


I think the key moment when they lost me is when the global warming industry quietedly rebranded themselves "climate change" unassailable bet given the volatile history of the planet, where the only constant is change.

One has to remember that a hiccup ago in geological times, Chicago was under a mile of ice. I am all for pollution control, for more tangible reasons, but I think that even that laudable goal is undermined by the shrill predictions of the Global Warmi....I mean, Climate Changeistas.

I can understand the term "religion" being attached to the movement, but I think "industry" is a better term. Billions of do-gooder dollars are poured into this field, and hundreds of academicians' careers, livelihoods, grants, tenure, reputations, publishing opportunities, etc are tied to defending the scientific position. Placing strong public bets on disproven theories is a death knell to a scientific career.

To me, I have the same opinion on global warming as I do on abortion -- I have trouble respecting anyone with a strident opinion on either side. As to climate change -- yup, I'm a strong believer, along with my belief that the sun will rise in the east and scary weather will continue unabated.



I didn't know about the 2nd climate gate, but the emails cited in the first link aren't very daming at all. It paints a picture of scientists who are concerned about the credibility of their data, and don't want it to be overblown.

I saddened by your inability to critically examine primary literature. For the new science paper, look at figure 1 and ask yourself, do we live on land or ocean. This paper represents and INCREASE in the best-estimate of climate sensitivity on land, and a decrease over the ocean. This is something that is is now your responsibility to recant publicly. If you want to start a nuanced discussion after that about melting ice vs crop yields, be my guest.

The WSJ editorial is laughable, and I guess you just present it without comment, but I'd say it was a bad editorial decision. The main flaw in the argument is that climate science is falsifiable, but that such counter arguments must from from data, not rhetoric or belief.


Kevin McKague

RGJ, the continent used to be covered in ice, ya say? You should tell the climate scientists that, they might not know.

Then again, I have a feeling they took the whole climate history thingy into account.

Forgive my snarkiness, but this is why I think the opinions of those who actually study this for a living should carry more weight. I hear your argument often, and it reminds me of a caller to a sports radio show who says that the quarterback just needs to drive more runs in.


What?! The worst case scenario might not happen?! It must all be totally bogus then! Derp derp