Nierenberg, part II

My post on Nieremberg has generated lots of interesting comments. I still don't have the report, so for now I'll focus on on issue that came up: who commissioned the N report?

Oreskes says: In 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected president... Reagan commissioned a third report about global warming from Bill Nierenberg. To be fair, she says that in the Times; the same assertion doesn't appear in her more scholarly work.

But its not true.

Atmoz has appendix 3, and the report was commissioned on June 30, 1980. Which is presumably the date of the signing of the official papers; the actual spadework of setting things up must have been earlier.

Ronnie Ronnie Reagan (he loves a Kagan) was prez from January 20, 1981 - January 20, 1989. The election was on November 4, 1980. Ergo, Ronnie didn't commission the report.

So thats NN 1, Oreskes 0?

Well not quite. Since Oreskes herself says "a committee was already in place by October 1980, with Nierenberg as its chair". So its more like Oreskes duffing herself up :-). More likely the Times piece is ghost-written by "Jonathan Renouf" (who he?) and he fouled it up.

Poking around in From Chicken Little to Dr. Pangloss: William Nierenberg, Global Warming, and the Social Deconstruction of Scientific Knowledge I also find:

One member of the JASON committee responsible for its 1979 report recently recalled briefing some members of the U.S. government, one of whom asked, "So when will these effects happen?" When the scientists replied, "Well, maybe in 40 years," the official replied, "Get back to me in 39".

Which fits my view of the world. The reports weren't going anywhere, no matter what they said. Their time had not yet come.


While the formal charge to the new committee was not formulated until June of the
following year, a committee was already in place by October 1980, with Nierenberg as its chair... Academy records do not reveal how or why Nierenberg was chosen for the job. John Perry, the staff member who was intimately involved in all aspects of the study, has no recollection, but suggests that both Nierenberg's overall stature and his well-known conservative politics would have been viewed as assets.

Well that's an odd thing to say. Why would his conservative politics have recommended him to a Carter administration? And it continues In 1981, Nierenberg joined the transition team of the new Reagan administration, advising on candidates for positions at scientific agencies; Academy leaders likely viewed that as an asset, too. Which is even weirder. Academy leaders, when selecting the committe in 1980, correctly predicted the results of the election, and that N would be appointed to the Raygun administration, and therefore viewed him favourably?


That warming, by thermally expanding the ocean and by causing the transfer of ice and snow resting on land to the oceans, should raise sea level substantially faster than the rise that has taken place during the past century... A global rise of 144-217 centimeters by the end of the twenty-first century was likely, and as much as 345 centimeters could not be ruled out.

I've slightly lost track of who that came from, but it *wrong*. Not too surprising, really, since the science of the time wasn't in a very advanced state. But an indication that if the N report advised caution about the state-of-science of the time, it was right to do so. Similarly,

Revelle's chapter on sea level rise, for example, noted that "[a] collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would release about 2 million km3 of ice before the remaining half of the ice sheet began to float. The resulting worldwide rise in sea level would be between 5 and 6 m[eters]."

Again, the N report would be quite right to downplay this - IPCC AR4 does so too. Oreskes paraphrases the various chapters as saying:

Fundamentally the conclusion was the same as before: CO2 has increased due to human activities, CO2 will continue to increase unless changes are made, and these increases can be expected to have significant adverse impacts on weather, agriculture, and ecosystems.

but I'm not at all sure I believe her. To be clear, its the bit I've bolded I don't believe, by analogy with IPCC. CO2 inc? Sure. More in the future? Sure. Impacts on climate: warming, etc? Sure. Adverse impacts... well hold on. Where is that coming from? The economists then come in and predict CO2 doubling by 2065, and Oreskes disses them for not believing in it before 2050. But they were "right". They continue:

A significant reduction in the concentration of CO2 will require very stringent policies, such as hefty taxes on fossil fuels... Moreover, these taxes must be global [to be effective]. To the extent that such an approach can offer guidance, therefore, it suggests that there are unlikely to be easy ways to prevent the buildup of atmospheric CO2.

And they were right.

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Thank you for your post. I am getting ready to post a much more extensive critique of the Oreskes et al article.

However I think you are giving her way to much a free pass on the committee commissioning issue. She just makes it up as she goes along.

In congressional testimony (which is when I first noticed her activities) in December 2006 she had this to say.

"In 1983, the National Academy formed a committee chaired by physicist William Nierenberg to look in greater detail at the issues raised by the JASON and Charney reports. The Nierenberg committee accepted their scientific conclusions, but declined to view global warming as a problem, predicting that any adverse effects would be adequately remedied by technological innovation driven by market forces."

When I pointed out to her that nowhere in the report, the summary or the synthesis did it say anything about technological innovation driven by market forces, or that the problem would be remedied in this manner she just blew me off by saying that she had "other documents." There is nothing in anything that she has produced to date to back up the statement that she made to the congress.

By Nicolas Nierenberg (not verified) on 11 Sep 2008 #permalink

I've been reading the "Synthesis", also called chapter 1. It's about 80 pages, so I'm not entirely confident about scanning it all given that it's copyright and not yet in the public domain. I particularly like this quote:

"For the year 2000, the most likely [CO2] concentration is 370 ppm".

And they were right.

Atmoz, among other reasons, if it's copyrighted by the NAS/NRC reproducing it isn't a problem.

Appendix 3 is just the federal statute requiring the report and doesn't in itself get us to the substance of who appointed whom and when. Technically Congress "commissioned" the report, but that doesn't tell us that Reagan didn't jump into the driver's seat at an early stage. Per the statute, at some unknown future date OSTP and NAS inked an agreement (which was the beginning of the formal spadework and clearly happened later), and at some point (possibly at the same time but perhaps subsequently) it was determined who would be writing the report. The fact that the statute called for it to happen by the end of 1980 doesn't mean that it did, BTW.

Note also that under the circumstances that prevailed in late 1980 it's completely plausible that the Nierenberg appointment could have been made to please Reagan at a point after the election (very early November) but before the regime change (January 20th). Even prior to that (answering William's question as to why N's conservative politics might have recommended him to a Carter administration), this sort of thing is done all the time in order to please the opposite faction in Congress.

So there are many unknowns here. IMHO somebody (JM?) should just email Naomi and ask her for the details.

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 11 Sep 2008 #permalink

With all due respect Mr. Bloom you need to keep up. Oreskes' own paper says that everyone was in place including the chairman by October 1980. These things don't happen in an instant, the committee was being put together by the NAS during the Carter administration.

Now what you should ask yourself is why Dr. Oreskes, knowing all this, deliberately fabricated the story on the Times web site.

[Please don't get carried away. You're right to say that the times gets it wrong; we don't know how that occurred. I don't think Oreskes would deliberately fabricate this, especially as its not that hard to check, in her own writings! More plausible I think is that she didn't actually write the article: that its an interview result, not properly checked -W]

By Nicolas Nierenberg (not verified) on 11 Sep 2008 #permalink

W: I must ask:
why did you choose to quote only the second half of this sentence?

P.22 says:
"While the formal charge to the new committee was not formulated until June of the following year, a committee was already in place by October 1980 with Nierenberg as its chair."

p.28, footnote 15, says:

"On June 15, 1981 the NRC formally charted the new committee with the task of reviewing and updating the conclusions of the Charney report, "in light of subsequent research and independent studies of similar scope," under the provisions provided by the Energy Security Act.

P.32 mentions a Second meeting of the committee, April 3, 1981.

Hence, the committee was certainly set up under Carter, but by the time it really got going, and got its final orders, it was under Reagan, under someone who worked in the Reagan administration.

[Because the point at issue is, who appointed N to chair it. And the Answer is, not Reagan. Whether the Reagan administration influenced the final outcome of the report is another question -W]

"Commission" may not have been the right word, but there is certainly some ambiguity in this, and it certainly seems accurate in the detailed version.

"Academy leaders, when selecting the committe in 1980, correctly predicted the results of the election, and that N would be appointed to the Raygun administration, and therefore viewed him favourably?"

W: you may not be into American politics, but Reagan crushed Carter, and anyone who didn't expect that was an idiot (electoral = 489 to 49). Picking someone known to be a Carter supporter would seem rather silly, given that all the actual work would be done under a Reagan administration and have to be accepted by it.

[Could be. We both agree I don't understand US politics -W]

By John Mashey (not verified) on 11 Sep 2008 #permalink

Oops, more: you really should reread the ChickenLittle report in detail, especially p22-23. Why do you think Carter or anyone in his staff actually picked Nierenberg, as opposed to the Academy?

Oops, I see you did the half-quote one place, and the full one the other.

By John Mashey (not verified) on 11 Sep 2008 #permalink

The 1983 report was issued by an entity referred to as the Climate Research Board, but Atmoz in the other thread has this passage:

"In response to the congressional mandate, the Carbon Dioxide Assessment Committee (CDAC) was formed under his [Nierenberg's] leadership to develop a plan to accomplish the requested study.

"With support from OSTP, the Committee developed a preliminary plan, which was provided to OSTP [the Office of Science and Technology Policy] for comment in January 1981."

This seems to be pretty strong support for my surmise above. To all appearances we're talking about two different committees here, the second one of which (the CRB) wouldn't have been appointed until after January 1981, possibly many months later since the "preliminary" review leading to appointment of the CRB was just getting underway in January 1981. If that's correct, the timing is right for the fingerprints of the Reagan regime to be all over the thing. Nierenberg having chaired both entities would explain some of the present confusion.

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 11 Sep 2008 #permalink

Re The Times piece, it may not have been an interview, or ghost written. It's quite possible that Jonathan Renouf was asked to shorten a longer piece (maybe even the original work) to a specific word count and he, or a sub-editor making further reductions, formulated the mistake in the précis. You see/hear this complaint about newspaper articles all the time - the original author rarely (it seems) sees the final draft.

Anyway, the basic point, already made, is the same.

Mr. Bloom,

I really enjoy your idle speculation. There was only one committeee called the Carbon Dioxide Assesment Commiteee. It was formed under the Climate Research Board which was part of the NAS.

Dr. Mashey,

Letters dealing with the formation of the CDAC went back at least to mid 1979, this didn't happen at the last second, I feel you are really reaching here. The Reagan administration had nothing to do with the congressional act authorizing this review or the selection of Dr. Nierenberg as its chair. Oreskes et al present no evidence to this effect in a very long paper.

As a side note on American politics and science. It seems very far fetched that academy leaders in October 1980 were reading polls on the general election, and deciding that Reagan was likely to be elected selected a different chair for the CDAC then they had been planning on. They tend to be a pretty independent bunch anyway.

As to the committee "working for" someone in the Reagan administration, that just isn't in the record in any way shape or form. Oreskes et al don't try to make this case either.

As you point out the committee already had met twice before June 1981. I believe they only met four times in total (but I may not be recalling that correctly). It seems fairly clear that the date of the "formal charge" from the OSTP is not particularly important.


The version in Oreskes et al at least as to dates is accurate. The version with Dr. Oreskes name on it on the Times web site is completely wrong, and is deliberately misleading. It is idle speculation to say that Oreskes wasn't responsible for it. She certainly hasn't taken any steps to correct it as far as I can make out.

By Nicolas Nierenberg (not verified) on 12 Sep 2008 #permalink

Well, I'd be surprised if she's done a Giles Coren. :)

Steve Bloom,

I wasn't aware that NAS publications could be reproduced without limit; the copyright page says differently. It's a moot point though, because I have no means to scan it.

The foreward to the report makes clear that Nierenberg was chosen to lead the committee before Reagan was president (Jan 1981).

I would encourage everyone to try to find a copy to read. I'm through 45 pages (total 81) of the synthesis, and there are very few places that vary substantially from the IPCC reports. At this point, from reading the actual report, I'm finding it hard to believe that the whole "denyer" movement sprang from this one document.


You are in no position to comment until you read the actual report.

By Nicolas Nierenberg (not verified) on 12 Sep 2008 #permalink

A critique of Oreskes et al 2008 has been posted

Without any facility for feedback, a standard feature of the web for at least 13 years.

[Are you criticising NN, or Oreskes? If you have any feedback, you may feel free to leave it here -W]

Neither the Oreskes article published on line, or her peer reviewed article provided any mechanism for feedback. I don't notice you criticizing that. We would have been happy to publish on the site where Oreskes et al published and had all comments directed to either publication.

I was somewhat rushed into posting the article by two events. First Oreskes published her paper without notifying me as she had promised to do. Second the article in the Times, which is contradicted by her own paper was published and widely blogged about.

Nevertheless I am planning to add a blog to my site shortly, and you will get your chance.

By Nicolas Nierenberg (not verified) on 13 Sep 2008 #permalink

Re: feedback

Neither the Oreskes article published on line, or her peer reviewed article provided any mechanism for feedback. I don't notice you criticizing that. We would have been happy to publish on the site where Oreskes et al published and had all comments directed to either publication.

Times, online or in print, the standard method with a newspaper is a letter to the editor. If you don't get an answer then there's always the Press Complaints Commission. That said, there is also a limited "Have your say" (300 words limit) immediately below the online article.

And I don't know where the peer-reviewed article is (haven't looked), but all reputable journals (all the ones I've seen anyway) will be happy to receive letters to the editors about aspects of published research.

I wasn't referring to the Times, although they failed to publish the comments that I put in the feedback area while publishing other comments. They also did not respond to an email to the editor.

I was referring to the site which posted the Oreskes et al 2008 paper "Chicken Little..." which declined to allow us to post a response of any kind.

By Nicolas Nierenberg (not verified) on 14 Sep 2008 #permalink

> declined to allow us to post

Google Scholar ought to pick up your comments as long as you've properly cited to the original paper, wherever you post them, within a few days; you might want to check that it has.

Remember rule one of database management: one record, many pointers. Your particular issue here is becoming a really visible example of why trying to have the same argument in many different places is often self-defeating. Admittedly posting only a pointer rather than an essay is an exercise in self control many of us find challenging.

But really, this illustrates why one of the greatest problems of blogging science is comments getting widely spread over many different sites and threads, and it rapidly becomes impossible for almost* anyone to keep track of all of them and write summaries that address the whole discussion while it is stampeding off in all directions.
* except John Mashey (grin)

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 25 Sep 2008 #permalink