Understanding Climate Risk

Science, policy and decision-making

Trolling. It’s more important now than ever.

with 10 comments

When contrarian commentator Bret Stephens was hired by the New York Times as a columnist, there was an immediate outcry from climate scientists and the pro-climate policy community. Some cancelled their subscriptions:

Stephens had been on record as describing climate change as an ‘imaginary enemy’. The timing was odd. NYT has just hired a high-profile climate team and was selling itself with the slogan “Truth. It’s now more important than ever.”

Credit: Think Progress for the link. Ad from The New York Times’ marketing campaign. Credit: The New York Times via AdAge

The hire was defended by James Bennet, editorial page editor:

“The crux of the question is whether his work belongs inside our boundaries for intelligent debate, and I have no doubt that it does. I have no doubt he crosses our bar for intellectual honesty and fairness.”

So Bennet has given us the criteria by which Stephens’ columny can be judged:

  • It needs to contribute to intelligent debate,
  • It needs to be intellectually honest, and
  • It needs to be fair.

On Friday April 28, the NYT published Stephens’ first column “Climate of Complete Certainty”. Yep, in his first outing he has gone for the hot spot. So, how does he do?

The first thing he does is to ‘bait’ and ‘frame’.

The bait

The bait describes the recent US election. Stephens describes how the Clinton camp was overconfident of winning the election and lost, giving examples from a couple of the main players and recent books. This is setting us up for a decision with two outcomes where the odds-on one lost. Now the switch. It must be time to talk about scientific consensus, where there is some odds-on scientific theory.

The frame and anchor

The frame is mixed in with the bait. Climate science and policy is reduced to a yes/no decision based on science being 100% correct. Stephens says rhetorically, “Why? The science is settled. The threat is clear. Isn’t this one instance, where 100 percent of the truth reside on one side of the argument?” This drops an anchor at 100% certainty of the science, or else.

Dog whistle

Time to introduce some uncertainty. His job from here is to emphasise the inherent uncertainty in science and argue that it is being overstated. The implication is that if the science is not 100% right, a strong policy response may not be justified.

Straw man

The question should be one of risk. Stephens says that much of what passes as fact is really a matter of probabilities. More dog whistling, because that is how climate change and its consequences is being communicated right now.

If we factor in all the probabilities, including that of the science being wrong, a strong policy response is merited. The do-nothing case or slow, cautionary policy response position needs to admit that adapting to a 3–5°C warmer world without fragmenting governance and wrecking the global economy is a huge risk. The odds of succeeding with a net economic benefit are worse than the science being wrong. The science provides the evidence, but the policy position is based on risk and that is where most of the uncertainty lies.

This would be the honest and responsible position – but by reducing this to a binary decision tied to 100% certainty in the science, Stephens has created a straw man. Because, as he says, no science is 100% certain.

Concern trolling

“None of this is to deny climate change or the possible severity of its consequences. But ordinary citizens have a right to be skeptical of an overweening scientism”, Stephens writes. Sure, they do. They also have the right to be skeptical of overweening strawmanism.

Littering is wrong

“They know – as all environmentalists should – that history is littered with the human wreckage of scientific errors married to political power.”

What on earth is he talking about? Where is this litter? Coal-fired domestic heating? Nuclear weapons? Perhaps he means computer science, space science and electronics bringing in universal surveillance. But none of these are scientific errors per se – I cannot think of an instance where science was wrong and where those errors were aligned with political power except in Stalinist Russia. If we are looking for examples where science was right and ignored by political power, there is plenty of litter. If we are looking to where risks were overlooked, again there is plenty of detritus.

“Perhaps if there was less certitude about our climate future”, he writes. What does this mean? The last IPCC report did not even provide temperature ranges for 2100, beyond those tied to specific emission futures. Again, presented in terms of risk.

There is a world outside America

The rest of the world, save some backpedalling by Australia and to a lesser extent the UK, are getting on with addressing climate risk. They don’t appear to have been buffeted by the massive scientific hubris Stephens is so concerned about. They seem to be able to accept the science, as imperfect as it is and formulate policy, as imperfect as it is. Perhaps the real problem is cultural rather than scientific, with Stephens presenting himself for the moment as Exhibit A. But, just at this moment in the US, there is plenty of competition for that position.


So we come back to Bennet’s criteria. Did Stephens’ first column:

  • Contribute to intelligent debate? Not even close.
  • Was it intellectually honest? Are you kidding?
  • Was it fair? No, but there was lots of straw.

Bennet of NYT Editorials had no doubt that Stephens would meet his criteria. Perhaps Stephens should have a chat with his boss and warn him about the risk of overconfidence leading to overstatement.

Stephens responds (update May 1st)

Question: do I need remedial education?


Written by Roger Jones

April 29, 2017 at 8:53 pm

10 Responses

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  1. Nicely put. I was waiting to see how Stephens and NYT management would act before deciding whether or not cancel my subscription. I didn’t think I’d be doing it so soon.


    April 30, 2017 at 12:48 am

  2. Nice analysis. I hope that the editorial staff read some of the analysis of Stephen’s column. Since he is already controversial, I had expected that he would show a better understanding of how scientists treat variability. He seems to ignore the fact all essentially all climate projections, including those of the IPCC, are presented as probability functions.

    Bill DeMott

    April 30, 2017 at 3:52 am

    • Well, variability or probability is one factor, the elephant in the the room is the magnitude of the associated outcome.

      It is extremely misleading to talk about probability without associated risk when questioning decisions regarding CO2 pollution. It puzzles me that even the simplest punter understands the concept of a jackpot in gambling, but the reverse is elusive to a well educated and credentialed journalist and editors.

      It would appear the NYT and this Bret Stevens character are just desperate enough to make a quid by pandering their misleading fares to gullible populists.


      May 1, 2017 at 11:49 am

  3. […] Links: Ken Caldeira: Climate of Risk and Uncertainty. Greg Laden:Out of the gate, Bret Stephens punches the hippies, says dumb things. Sou: Bret Stephens lowers the bar for intellectual honesty and more @NYTimes. Tamino: Cancelling the New York Times, because truth is now more important than ever. Roger Jones: Trolling. It’s more important now than ever. […]

  4. “There is a world outside America”

    I’m not so sure about that, and I live in Canada. 😉


    April 30, 2017 at 12:53 pm

  5. Why I cancelled my climate science subscription: “forcing”.

    When I learned that “forcing” is not a force, not heat, not work, not anything in physics that is used outside the greenhouse theory, I realized that here we have a 2000-century “creation of energy”. Which is fascinating in itself, that someone would fall for it. Just think about it for a minute:

    A “forcing” is something acting on the system earth, it has no energy on its own, it gives no input of heat, it performs no work, it is not a force. The system is supplied with constant, limited energy from the sun, and without adding any form of energy, just heat absorbers, it is claimed to increase the energy in the system. This means “forcing” adds energy without adding energy. First law comes crashing in like the Hulk in that moment, saying that “energy cannot be created”, and the greenhouse theory is killed by the greenman.


    May 7, 2017 at 8:08 pm

    • All rubbish, I’m afraid. GHGs trap heat energy in the climate system, putting it out of balance at the top of the atmosphere. First law of thermodynamics – the atmosphere has to warm until energy out equals energy in. The heat also has to be distributed through the climate system from the equator to the poles. The added heat means the ocean-atmosphere system does more work. Second law of thermodynamics. Quibble about words, but the physics stands.

      Roger Jones

      May 7, 2017 at 8:57 pm

      • “Rubbish”. Good argument there. If you read a little more thermodynamics (yeah, the laws as well), you learn about heat transfer.
        ” First law of thermodynamics – the atmosphere has to warm until energy out equals energy in.”
        Yes, and it is accounted for in heat transfer. The radiative unicorn “forcing”, is by climate science itself observed as decreased emission from the atmosphere, as -W/m^2. If the surface emit 390W/m^2 and the atmosphere 240W/m^2, and the atmosphere decrease to 238W/m^2, it plays out like this:
        a decrease of -2W/m^2 ,means equally lower temperature.

        Heat transfer happen according to difference in temperature, so heat transfer from the surface will increase with 2W/m^2. Heat transfer is something that is ADDED to the emitted intensity, so the surface then emit 390W, and it also transfer 390W-240W in the first situation, and then 390W-238W when the unicorn has done it´s job. Your idea of the first law is entirely wrong in relation to your unicorn. I am really surprised to see that the entire climate society, and a lot of people overall, carry this deep lack of knowledge about thermodynamics. You should question why you need analogies with blankets to explain cold air. No one need analogies for what cold air does to a hot surface, even kids know that. It cools. And yes, the atmosphere is freezingly cold. -18C average. Your claim, that adding more of a heat sink, co2, would increase temperature, is ridicolous and a violation of all thermodynamics. Decreased emission is equal to decrease in temperature. You can´t increase temperature by dropping the temperature. Only crazy people would say that, and even kids know better.

        Answer this, if the unicorn “forcing” is not a force, it is not work, it is not heat, it is not energy, it doesn´t have any energy on its own, and the system is supplied with limited and constant energy from the sun, how can the energy in the system increase without adding any energy?

        Do you realize that you claim that the energy increase by “forcing”? Do you realize that you say that the unicorn “forcing” adds no energy by its own? Are you aware of the fact that energy is limited and constant in the system? Where does your extra heat come from? Are you hiding heat pumps somewhere in the clouds?

        No, you claim that a unicorn named “forcing”, a concept not seen anywhere else in physics, especially not physics which explain heat and temperature, creates that extra heat with magic.

        I post this link everyday somewhere:
        “Thermal insulation provides a region of insulation in which thermal conduction is reduced or thermal radiation is reflected rather than absorbed by the lower-temperature body.”

        It effectively kills your argument by using old and proven 100% consensus physics. Absorption, which you claim is heating earth, in a colder body(which the atmosphere is), is exactly the thing you avoid when you want to “trap” heat or avoid heat loss. Your exact argument about heat is the exact opposite to what physics say. Your entire theory is a violation of physics, and yes, the first law of thermodynamics as well.

        On my blog there is a model explaining all temperatures in the system with heat transfer and simple geometry. Combined with the flaw of unicorn-argumentation with made up terms like “forcing”, the greenhouse is dead. And climate change has been a rotten corpse since it reared its stinking head.


        May 7, 2017 at 10:07 pm

      • Wait a minute, “more work”? You don´t even know that delta U=Q-W? If more work is done, then there is less heat. Come on now, you climate changers needs some serious physics education. Regarding the poles, they are low temperature. That means that most heat is transferred to them, and yes, it means work is done, seen as wind and other turbulent activity, but since work means less heat, where is the warming?


        May 7, 2017 at 10:15 pm

  6. lifeisthermal

    publish it – yer obviously a gemenious

    Roger Jones

    May 7, 2017 at 11:26 pm

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