Friday, March 19, 2010

The Economist gets it wrong, ... and right

As many readers will know, The Economist for quite some time did not embrace environmental concerns, climate policy included. After it decided this was a worthy cause, Climategate and failure in Copenhagen could have suggested that it reverses gear. It did not. Here is the conclusion of an article published in this week's edition:

Insuring against catastrophe

Plenty of uncertainty remains; but that argues for, not against, action. If it were known that global warming would be limited to 2°C, the world might decide to live with that. But the range of possible outcomes is huge, with catastrophe one possibility, and the costs of averting climate change are comparatively small. Just as a householder pays a small premium to protect himself against disaster, the world should do the same.
As we have seen on the recent thread by Richard Tol, considerable uncertainty remains about this aspect as well. Especially the claim that 'costs  of averting climate change are comparatively small' is wrong, for two reasons. One, we cannot avert climate change (assuming the authors mean anthropogenic climate change) because we are committed to it through past emissions. This means adaptation is imperative (and maybe remediation as well, i.e. geoengineering). Second, the costs of mitigation are not likely to be small. But then the article carries on and it arrives at sound conclusion (I think):
This newspaper sees no reason to alter its views on that. Where there is plainly an urgent need for change is the way in which governments use science to make their case. The IPCC has suffered from the perception that it is a tool of politicians. The greater the distance that can be created between it and them, the better. And rather than feeding voters infantile advertisements peddling childish certainties, politicians should treat voters like grown-ups. With climate change you do not need to invent things; the truth, even with all those uncertainties and caveats, is scary enough.
This captures an important insight. In order to re-establish trust in scientific assessments about climate change, these should be freed from inter-governmental interference and diplomacy.


Tobias W said...

"Plenty of uncertainty remains; but that argues for, not against, action." You got to love this logic.

"With climate change you do not need to invent things; the truth, even with all those uncertainties and caveats, is scary enough." No it really isn't, thats why the IPCC et al has to invent scary scenarios that will never come to be.

Zajko said...

I agree with much of the above, and about having greater distance between the IPCC's science and political dimensions (purity is ultimately impossible, there will always be a blend) but I'm not really sure if that would help address the public's trust in the light of Climategate etc..
I don't read these recent scandals as having been much portrayed as the politicians getting to involved in the IPCC's work. It's not like anyone is talking much about how the SPMs are drafted in the mainstream media. It's the science people have become confused and upset about.

Anonymous said...

The post wrote In order to re-establish trust in scientific assessments about climate change, these should be freed from inter-governmental interference and diplomacy.

I have 2 questions:

1. Why do we want "to re-establish trust in scientific assessment about climate change?"

2. If we do want "to to re-establish trust in scientific assessment about climate change" what should the mechanism be for scientific assessessment. Should the UN be involved?

I have my views on climate change, but I am undecided about how I would answer the questions.


Werner Krauss said...

to anonymous #3

These are interesting questions. Why re-establish public trust? And what does 'public trust' mean at all? In my opinion, public trust is just another argument in this controversial debate; it is a political construct which is used by both sides to make their respective claims. There is always an institute which will deliver the respective surveys which show what you need, that is, the current degree of public trust. But these surveys indeed have a high degree of uncertainty! (just think of the polls before elections!)
Seen from this perspective, 'to re-establish public trust in science' can also be interpreted as an attempt to keep politics out of the climate debate; but what if climate indeed has become already a eminent political question?
For the political debate, science is only of relative importance. Politics will solve climate problems, not science. Climategate etc and its effects on public trust serve as a (often cheap) argument in these political debates, but I doubt that it really affects the implementation of climate politics. Climate politics means for example clean energies, smart grids, maybe carbon sequestration, and the indeed Herculean task of adaptation of infrastructures to the changes in climate. Instead of focusing on 'public trust', one should ask coastal inhabitants, farmers, tourism managers, mayors, engineers and other real people in a real world who have to deal in their everyday lives with desertification, droughts, flooding, dikes, infrastructures etc. I am sure, their answers will be more interesting than the results of surveys on something imaginary such as 'public trust'.

Richard Tol said...

Note that I do not disagree with: "But the range of possible outcomes is huge, with catastrophe one possibility, and the costs of averting climate change are comparatively small."

The sentence (and indeed the whole piece) is short on specific detail.

Staying below two degrees (with a 50% chance) is probably not possible. Staying below three degrees is doable, probably affordable, perhaps not justifiable with a cost-benefit analysis. Staying below four degrees is affordable and probably justified.

Reiner Grundmann said...

klee, werner:

if climate science assessments are not perceived as containing credible information by the public they lose their usefulness and might just as well be scrapped. There is the danger that the basics are swept away by the scandals (the basics being: there is observed temp rise which is partly due to human activities). Gov't interference will provide more suspicion (it has not yet become clear to most people that governments are involved).
Yes, we need the involvement of people 'on the ground' -- but interestingly, many of these will want to know what 'the science' says about changes they observe.

Many people do not want to believe that there is a problem if and when they realize how hard it is to do something about it. But if you take short cuts to get round this problem (by misrepresenting knowledge) you set yourself up for a fall.

As regards reform, there have been some proposals in Nature a month ago (not sure of this is available full text somewhere, this is the reference "IPCC: cherish it, tweak it or scrap it?" Nature 463, 730-732 (11 February 2010) doi:10.1038/463730a

Werner Krauss said...


a polemical answer:

I do not really understand. Is 'the science' something like 'the party'? If there are diverging opinions or scandals in 'the party', people stop to believe in the 'basics'? And, as a consequence, 'Gov't interference' will provide more suspicion? (gov't - formerly known as government). Do you really believe that gov't and science have to be streamlined in order to rule the people and make them do the right things (that is, what the Gov't / science complex considers as right)?

This sounds strange to me. In my interpretation (which might be wrong), this sounds like undemocratic top-down politics!

You write: 'We need the involvement of people 'on the ground' - Reiner, I think, it is the other way round: people 'on the ground' need the involvement of science. That's why science should come to terms with its own problems of faked assessments, short cuts, crisis of peer review etc. Science is not here to rule people; instead, it is a tool for people on the ground to improve their environment. This makes a fundamental difference, don't you think?

Of course, people can live with diverging scientific opinions (for example, Schellnhuber and von Storch); and of course, there is the 'danger' of the rise of fundamental skepticism, but this is a political problem, as Sarewitz recently argued:

"When people hold strongly conflicting values, interests, and beliefs, there is not much that science can do to compel action. Indeed, more research and more facts often make a conflict worse by providing support to competing sides in the debate, and by distracting decision-makers and the public from the underlying, political disagreement. In such cases each side will claim to have the scientific high ground."

Werner Krauss said...

to Tobias W #1

"Plenty of uncertainty remains; but that argues for, not against, action." You got to love this logic.

Right. You got to love it. Science cannot bring ultimate certainty. But too many reasonable scientists claim that there should be taken action. Maybe we cannot wait forever for the ultimate 'scientific fact'; maybe we even don't have to. There are so many reasons for mitigation and adaptation strategies: climate without a doubt should be a matter of high political concern. There is always a risk involved that we are completely wrong; that's why we have to love the uncertainties, the imperfections, and the fact that the blind are leading the blind.

"With climate change you do not need to invent things; the truth, even with all those uncertainties and caveats, is scary enough."

Right, I completely agree, it is ridiculous to invent scary scenarios. But I would suggest to change the quote from the Economist: it is not 'the truth' that is scary enough, it is 'reality'. Climate effects such as desertification, droughts, flooding, hurricanes etc etc are already a real danger for many people; 'reality' indeed is already scary enough (even though more often than not these problems are the consequence of bad politics and not of climate; that's why we need indeed better climate-politics).

Reiner Grundmann said...

nowhere do I say (or mean) what you suggest. There has been too much streamlining and top down attitudes. And re. 'people on the ground' and their relation to science -- read again what I wrote!

Werner Krauss said...


Obviously, I mis-used you as my crash test dummy. Sorry for mis-reading your contribution! I just wanted to make clear that I do not like governance ideas and the respective rhetoric like 're-establishing public trust'.

eduardo said...

The briefing article in the same printed edition of The Economist is worth reading. I think it is one of the best summaries of the state of climate change science I have ever read in a main stream medium.

It seems to me that that The Economist has indeed veered a bit, now highlighting more the existing uncertainties, but trying to argue that nevertheless it is necessary to take action. Not long ago, another special report on climate change it was peddling as certain many aspects that are not, e.g. hurricanes and climate change, etc.

Concerning public trust, I think it is a very important objective factor. In the end governments would have to agree on an international treaty that can be painful economically. If the voters are not convinced, those governments would be voted out.

We have to recon that the final incontrovertible proof that anthropogenic climate change is real will not occur soon, even in the case that AGW is true. Any policy will have to be based on probabilities and uncertainty, and this requires voters' trust.

Another strategy that I hear very often exposed by climate researchers is that it would be much more effective to wrap the 'climate change package' with other garments, such as energy security and other geopolitical reasons that which are more certain.

Marco said...

I do not recommend reading the comments, though. Plenty of repetition of long-debunked issues.

Hans von Storch said...

Thanks, Eduardo, this is indeed an remarkable piece in THE ECONOMIST. While details may be debatable, I find the general situation really well described.

Anonymous said...

I think several people feel that is important to "to re-establish trust in scientific assessment about climate change". However I haven't heard any suggestion about how to create the mechanism for creating the scientific assessment.

I like Eduardo's suggestion of a way advocate mitigating AGW by wrapping the 'climate change package' with other garments, such as energy security and other geopolitical reasons that which are more certain. This avoids the need to create public trust which is very difficult to do now, IMHO. The skeptics won't support a program based on what they think is junk science, but they will, IMHO, be amenable to other reasons.


Reiner Grundmann said...

Eduardo, Hans

regarding the article you mention, I stumbled upon this passage
'...consciously or unconsciously, aerosols are used as counterweights to sensitivity to ensure that the trends look right. This is not evidence of dishonesty, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. Since the models need to be able to capture the 20th century, putting them together in such a way that they end up doing so makes sense. But it does mean that looking at how well various models match the 20th century does not give a good indication of the climate’s actual sensitivity to greenhouse gas.'

Can you shed some light on this please? The words 'consciously' 'unconsciously' and 'dishonesty' seem peculiar in this context.

eduardo said...


for some reason I suspected you were going to pose that question :-)
It is a subtle question, which speaks for the quality of this report. The story starts in a paper by the NCAR scientist Jeffrey Kiehl, published in Geophysical Research Letters.

As you know the aerosol forcing has a cooling effect. Its magnitude over the past 20th century is quite uncertain and so it almost represents a tunable parameter which the different modelling groups could modify within a certain range to obtain a better fit of the simulated global temperature to the observed temperature.
In principle, the amount of aerosol forcing used in the different simulations should reflect an estimation by each of the modelling groups about what they think was the real strength of this aerosol forcing. That these estimations may be different is no surprise. Actually the aerosol forcing should vary randomly about a mean value, reflecting the existing uncertainties. So far so good. What Kiehl, however, found was that the groups whose models have higher sensitivity to CO2 also used stronger aerosol forcing, and those whose models have a lower sensitivity used a weaker aerosol forcing. It seems therefore that the modelling groups were trying to compensate for the different climate sensitivities in their models and so obtain a result closer to the observed temperatures. This is one of the reasons why all models closely follow the global mean temperature in the 20th century (although having different climate sensitivities,they shouldnt), thus conveying an impression of certainty which is, in part, artificial.

This question was almost simultaneously addressed in a comment by Schwartz in Nature Reports and a response by some leading IPCC authors, followed by counter-response. Schwartz et al argued that the IPCC simulations for the 20th century should have been conducted with a pre-agreed aerosol forcing common to all models.

I would agree that this is not per se evidence of dishonesty, but it is evidence of external pressure to obtain a predetermined result

Anonymous said...

Now the time has come to take responsibility - Everybody who takes action in form of mitigation or adaptation measures should be rewarded by insurance benefits with regard to possible climate change impacts. Anybody who thinks climate change is not an issue, i.e., the so-called deniers, should stick to their own words and should resign all future insurance claims while taking responsibility for possible climate change impacts.

plazamoyua said...

Thank's, quite interesting all your comments.

There will always be uncertanities, and we have to live with them, and take decisions with them. For sure. And "re-establish trust in scientific assessments about climate change" would help a lot with decision making. That's for sure too. And it seems obvious the best way to re-establish trust is reducing uncertaities. And here is where I have a big doubt.

It seems to me there is a sort of a consensus (a real one) about Ocean Heat Content as the best meausure of climate system warming. It seems the better you know OHC, the lesser "warm in the pipeline" you can have, and so the lesser uncertainity. With all the money that goes to climate research, are we putting enough money in OHC research? Are we really doing our best in reducing uncertainties, or are we instead wasting efforts in diverting (but quite "spectacular") research?

In other words. ¿Are we putting more money in reducing uncertainities (be it OHC or other meanings), or in "convincing", "making aware", and so on? What is the cheapest way to reduce uncertainities? Is this a concern for IPCC?

ourchangingclimate said...

I think the take home message of the Economist piece is both valid and important: Uncertainty (in the face of a credible threat) leads to a greater risk.

See this nice post making the same point:

"Rational behavior is risk weighted. What is widely missed is that the less confidence you have in climate science, the less the risks are constrained and thus the more you should be weighing the severe risks in your risk-weighted decisions."

In a snowstorm it is advisable to reduce speed.


(btw, I see that some of you have found the way to the statistics discussion at my blog (, where your GRL 08 was brought up (amongst many other topics) Thanks for joining.)

Anonymous said...

What an absurd false analogy.
A householder does not "pay a small premium to protect himself against disaster". He pays a premium to compensate him if disaster occurs.
Why is it that so many people lose the ability to think logically where the climate is concerned?

isaacschumann said...


I very much agree that a general trust in science and scientific findings is necessary to enact the likely painful economic measures needed to adapt and mitigate.

I would like to comment on your last point as I am a generally liberal/progressive (raised quaker) microbiologist living in Indiana, which is one of the more conservative, or "red"(a peculiar choice of color given the politics) states, and a hotbed of climate change skepticism. I live in a rural town of 800 as I like to ride my bike and despise automobile traffic. While the majority of my neighbors would consider climate change to be a nefarious, commie pinko plot to take over the world; they nonetheless are overwhelmingly excited and supportive of the massive wind farms being constructed in their backyards. Most are avid hunters and are generally supportive of conservation and have a deep abiding love for forests and wetlands and understand that these need to be protected. EVERYONE has a garden, and farmers markets are common.

It is not that I think policy makers should 'sneak' climate change legislation through under the guise of green jobs etc..., but that promoting conservation, alternative energy, and energy savings would make real progress in adapting to climate change.

I'm a long haired, quaker hippie living in conservative, rural indiana, and I can tell you, the gulf in opinion is not so wide, much of it is purely political and ideological animosity. Much important work can be done while trust is restored in science. There is also a "live and let be" attitude out here as well as a respect for humility and modesty as character traits that I feel would serve the debate well.



p.s. The Economist article was also very good, for the most part.

Anonymous said...

Speaking as a statistician, I remain unconvinced by the temperature data. In particular, I have yet to see a justification for the adjustments to raw data which is credible, let alone compelling.
I am particularly concerned about the UHI effect and the selection and "smoothing" of data.

I would be grateful for some references to statistically reputable research which addresses my concerns.

Clovis Sangrail

Hans von Storch said...

Clovis Sangrail/22 - your request is legitimate, but does hardly fit to the issue discussed in this thread. Also your question is really a bit vague.
Why not beginning a new thread with a guest posting with specific questions? A thread spelling out what you find unconvincing; maybe we can then discuss the issues step by step. Which smoothing are you referring to? Would you like to try out different strategies to calculate averages with a limited number of "observations", using the output of a climate model? Or are you concerned about inhomogeneity? -- Hans

Anonymous said...

Apologies for being O/T. I think I was mainly suggesting that a)I don't see the evidence as yet being adequate to seriously generate uncertainty yet and b)most of the commenters on this thread take it as read that AGW is real, whereas I remain unconvinced.
I am grateful for the invitation and will attempt to deliver in a week or so.
Clovis Sangrail

Zajko said...

There is an assumption (esp concerning the IPCC) that uncertainty is ultimately reducible. It seems for some measurements this is easier to argue than others, but with many of the facts and theories in climate science uncertainties are irreducible, indeterminate, and can even be compounded by further research (I'm paraphrasing Jeroen Van der Sluijs - feel free to correct me).

As for the importance of the public's trust. I think it is the key concept/factor in determining the public relation and evaluation of (climate) science. Trust is always important within the borders of science too, but the public (and that includes scientists looking at fields outside their expertise) doesn't have the benefit of much other means of evaluation. Worse, the way in which science is portrayed all the way up to grad school tends to be in the form of neatly packaged and certain facts, making the issue of who to trust when "the science" disagrees or we're dealing with inherently uncertain science even more difficult.
I don't think the type of trust that should be rebuilt is one that favors naive notions of truth and falsity (or as in the climate debate truth and lies), but rather perhaps one which is a little more conditional and better understands the gray areas of science.

gregor said...

Clovis Sangrail/22,

maybe you get answers to your questions on the open mind blog:

i read a couple of posts there concerning the issues you raised.

Werner Krauss said...

It is interesting to see the parallel discussions in this post; on the one hand, it is about the scientific arguments, on the other it is about public trust. But how do these questions actually relate?

Far from having an answer, I would suggest that this parallel discussion is an indicator for the hybrid nature of climate itself: it is natural, cultural, and political. I would suggest even more that climate itself is an actor in the complex network that connects science, politics and society. Each new turn in the scientific climate debate causes a shift in this network. None of these entities involved is fixed or clearly defined; instead, society, science, politics and maybe even climate co-produce each other in ever new constellations. Climate is not 'out there'; it is 'in here'; this is also one of the logical consequences of anthropogenic climate change.

To build or gain public trust necessarily implies an understanding of this permanently shifting network. The honest broker is not outside of society (nor of climate); instead, she is inside and has permanently to situate herself in relation to other forces (of nature and culture). Public trust is an activity, a situational practice, it is relational and it is fragile, to say the least. And public trust is build both inside and outside of scientific practice.

Stan said...


You wrote -- "But too many reasonable scientists claim that there should be taken action."

Yet we know too many "reasonable scientists" accept temperature data from instruments that fail to meet basic scientific standards. Too many "reasonable scientists" accept forecasts from computer models that fail to meet basic forecasting principles. Far too many "reasonable scientists" accepted the conclusions of IPCC reports that were very badly flawed (and known to be so years ago). Nearly all of your "reasonable scientists" badly misuse statistics and most of them accept the work product of badly screwed up computer code. Finally, almost none of these "reasonable scientists" demonstrated any interest in upholding the scientific method when their fellow "reasonable scientists" refused to release data.

I'm not trying to insult anyone, but there is a mountain of evidence which might support the conclusion that many of your "reasonable scientists" are incomptent, biased or both. In any event, their credibility is so badly tarnished that their opinions are basically worthless.

When they learn to site thermometers in accordance with basic scientific standards, learn to make a computer model capable of verification and validation, learn not to butcher statistics and software, and begin defending the essence of the scientific method, their opinions may begin to carry some meaning.

I'm not anti-science. I'm anti-incompetence and pro-responsibility.

isaacschumann said...

There is a more detailed and lengthy survey of climate science and politics further into the economist:

I think it does a good job of summarizing the science and politics in a balanced manner. But I am surprised that they do not comment on economic issues, as this is central to the debate and is afflicted by similar problems as the other areas(an apparently selective treatment of the literature)?

ghost said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Hans von Storch said...

ghost/30 - what would you do if somebody would make this type of insulting and un-specific claims about you? is it so difficult to show respect to other opinions. It is possible to express opposition in a polite but accurate manner. -- Next time I delete without further comment.

_Flin_ said...

You are aware that the "poor siting" of thermometers originated in the Watts project and that Menne et al. 2010 from the NOAA found that the stations that Watts found to be poor sited have actually a cooling bias?

You are aware that apart from the temperature siting argument you are actually not using a mountain of evidence but a mountain of unprecise, unfocused and insulting accusations against every scientist who ever said that there is the need to act on manmade global warming?