Nierenberg, concluded: Oreskes is wrong

Really, why are you reading this? Read something of substance instead.

Last time I said I ought to read Oresekes again carefully. I have.Summary: nothing has changed. She is still wrong. Note: in all the following, I abbreviate the authors of Chicken Itza as "Oreskes". Well, she is the lead author and the only famous one, so gets to take the rap.

Oreskes central thesis is: Nierenberg was the lead author of the first major report on climate science issued by the National Academy of Sciences that challenged the emerging consensus view on global warming. It did so not by focusing on the specifics of that view, but on the interpretation of its meaning and significance for society in general. Whereas the tobacco industry deconstructed expert scientific claims by challenging the causal links, Nierenberg's deconstruction took the form of questioning whether those causal links mattered.

This is largely wrong, or overblown, but has grown up around a possible kernel of truth: that the Nierenberg report did attempt (rather like the IPCC WG II and III) to consider more than just the scientific aspects of GW - how much the world might warm by - to include economic and environmental aspects - will we notice and do we care? I think that this is an entirely appropriate thing to do, if you are interested in a policy response.

Oreskes then goes on to try to demonstrate that previously, scientists had engaged in policy-advocacy: In an interview with Time magazine in 1956, for example, Revelle stressed that sea level rise from melting ice could one day cause "salt water to flow in the streets of New York and London." I'm unsure what this is supposed to demonstrate. I would take it to mean that a sober re-examination of the issues raised in some rather over hyped press interviews was in order, but I suspect thats not what Oreskes means.

She pulls in the JASON report: The JASON scientists concluded that atmospheric CO2 could be expected to double by the year 2035, leading to mean global temperature increases of 2-3o C. Of particular concern was the effect of polar amplification: the JASONs forecasted a polar warming of as much as 10-12o C. The cause for concern became clear when one noted "the fragility of the world's crop producing capacity, particularly in those marginal areas where small alterations in temperature and precipitation can bring about major changes in total productivity." Sounds good (not sure exactly where it comes from), but JASON also says The potential changes to the world posed by altering the composition of the atmosphere appear substantial enough to justify a comprehensive research effort designed to reduce the many uncertainties discussed here (as I noted before without proposing any action). Oreskes is also wrong to put 2-3 oC at 2035: JASON is vaguer: p11 says "by the middle of the 21st century".

Orekses tries to sum up the pre-Nierenberg world as "A consensus view had emerged: global warming would happen and its impact would not be negligible." and "Climate scientists had been suggesting that the government had to do something about greenhouse gases," This is simply inconsistent with the JASON report saying: The uncertainties are great enough to suggest that now is not the proper moment to undertake far-reaching actions designed to mitigate potential effects of increasing CO2.

Oreskes again: The JASON report had emphasized the serious negative consequences of global warming, at one point even using the word "disaster." [where?] Yet it also contained this sentence: "The warming of the climate will not necessarily lead to improved living conditions everywhere." Improved conditions? Everywhere? Who was responsible for the suggestion that global warming would be mostly good? The evidence suggests that it was Bill Nierenberg. Clearly, the suggestion the GW might improve conditions for anyone outrages Oreskes. But what about the evidence that this Nierenberg was responsible for this sentence? There follows pages and pages of stuff, but not a shred of evidence that N was responsible. Failed again.

Continuing: Thus, it is a striking feature of the CO2 assessment committee that its members included two economists. Oreskes says this as though it were a bad thing. But its hard to see how you can make a meaningful cost-benefit analysis of GW without some economists. At the first full discussion of the issues facing the committee, both Schelling and Nordhaus introduced the idea that climate change was not necessarily bad, that most likely it would have both negative and positive effects."Nordhaus wanted to evaluate costs and benefits, suggesting that although he "suspected that the impacts of increasing carbon dioxide would be negative," they might not be, and it would be hard to prove either way, given the complexity of social and economic systems. I know there are people who will refuse to see GW in terms of costs and benefits. To them, GW is Bad, obviously, and Must Be Stopped, regardless of cost. But its not quite clear how they are going to persuade the rest of us of their view. Certainly, they have not succeeded so far. And it was the economists' view that the final report would place front and center. [57] If true, this would be a fair charge. I think the economists view should be taken into account, but not dominant. So, we scurry off to footnote 57, eager for the evidence. it is: On June 15, 1981 the National Research Council formally charged 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. Pardon? Shurely shome mishtake. Another failure.

Oreskes then spends pages and pages and pages and... you get the idea, going over the Smagorinsky report. I don't know why, all S has to say is nothing has changed since Charney, but since he says it in the N report I can't quite see why this is supposed to be a problem for N. Or is it worse than this? Oreskes says: Thus, to the list of major reports affirming the importance and significance of CO2 and climate... one could now add Smagorinsky. Is it possible she simply hasn't realised that there is a Smagorinsky chapter in the N report? I can't see any other way to make sense of her words.

The Reagan administration had come to power in 1980 on a platform of unleashing the power of private enterprise... Meanwhile, at the Energy Department the man who had run its climate programs since the 1970s, and had nurtured Dave Keeling's CO2 measurements program, had been removed. His replacement, Fred Koomanoff, had informed Keeling that his funding would be discontinued as the Reagan administration took steps to trim the Department's climate research programs. The problem got worse when Democrats in Congress held hearings on the climate research program. Koomanoff was a key witness, and he emphasized model uncertainty -- the very point that Lindzen and Idso had been pushing. What I would take from that is that Reagan knew perfectly well what he was going to do about the CO2 problem: nothing. Having the NAS say "do something" would have been inconvenient, bu still wouldn't have got anything done. But since the Charney report had said "do nothing" (except study) only a few years earlier, it was entirely reasonable to expect any new report to say much the same. Whether it required anyone to be leant on to say this, I really dont know. Oreskes certainly doesn't provide any convincing evidence.

Oreskes last (I thought, but Im wrong. There is more...) argument is that the synthesis chapter is an evil monster that has overshadowed the individual good chapters (except the economics one, obviously): In fact, the conclusions of the individual chapters were very different from one another, and with the exception of the two chapters written by the economists, very different from the synthesis. The chapters written by the natural scientists were consistent with what natural scientists had already said. Yes, but with the obvious problem that the chapters by the physical scientists, as ever, dont't provide the cost-benefit analysis that the politicians need. Or anyone needs, to decide whether to do anything. Oreskes tries to get around this by pretending they predicted apocalypse: 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]." This is true, but deeply misleading quoted out of context like this. Revelle didn't know how likely this was to occur, or how fast it might occur. Which is fair enough, because we still don't know. And Revelle knew that he didn't know. So what else? The physical scientists allowed that many details were unclear -- more research was needed -- but they broadly agreed that the issue was potentially very serious, with major changes in the offing. 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. None of the physical scientists suggested that accumulating CO2 was not a problem, or that we should simply wait, see, and adapt when and if changes occurred. Is this true, or is Oreskes making it up? She provides no quotes for us to judge, simply asking us to accept her authority, which I don't, so I'll have to provide my own quotes. Lets try chapter 6, "Agriculture and a climate changed by more carbon dioxide": p617, section 6.7 "conclusion" What will be the net effect..? ...answering seems more foolhardy than courageous... The direct effects of more CO2 in the air are beneficial... The indirect effects of warmer and drier... are slightly harmful in the American grain belt... Thus in the end one sees that the effects on plants of the gradual changes in CO2... are modest, some positive and some negative. The wise forecast of yields, therefore, seems a continuation of the incremental increases... Truely, a stirring call to action! No? Ah, I see what you mean. OK, how about the Smagorinsky chapter? Oreskes goes out of her way to praise Smagorinsky, so it should be good: p282: In summary, the conclusions of our study appear to remain valid... CO2... change climate significantly... change will be large and rapid; it will be greater in global terms than any natural climate changes that civilized man has yet experienced, although, as Schelling observes in Chapter 9 of this report, far less than the climate changes mankind has voluntarily undertaken through migration. We have some general notions of how climate change will be distributed across the face of the earth... but these are as yet a very uncertain basis for decision making. So contrary to Oreskes, I think there is evidence that the physical scientists were indeed aware that their science wasn't usable for policy making.

Then Oreskes has a go at the economics chapter, and immeadiately impresses by nearly getting the chapter number correct (only off by one! never mind, it was close). But I've done that one before and wasn't impressed. Chapter 9 is next on the hit-list, it must be evil because it was written by Schelling, and Oreskes doesn't mention p 480: There is no reason for believing that that development is to be welcome, and there are many reasons for the contrary perhaps because of the eminently sensible it is unlikely in the foreseeable future that national governments will embark on serious programs to reduce further their dependence on fossil fuels to protect the Earth's climate against change. One reason is that governments are already saturated with reasons to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels....

Then we're back to the Evil Synthesis theory: ...Nierenberg's synthesis exclusively followed the position advocated by the social scientists. It did not disagree with the scientific facts as laid out by Charney, the JASONs, and all the other physical scientists who had looked at
the question in his own report. Instead, it rejected the interpretation of those facts as a
This is just wrong. By their very nature, the physical scientists are going to tell you (at best) that climate will change by X oC. They can't tell you "...and that will be a problem" because its outside their scope. Its no good wishing it were otherwise, and that the nice objective physical scientists, who just happen to vote the same way you do, will rescue you from the Evil Economists who drive fast cars and have all the fun.

At junctures where an important uncertainty was broached, the synthesis consistently took the most sanguine view... that the actual increase in mean global temperature for doubling CO2 was likely to be at the low end of earlier estimates closer to 1.5 than to 4.5. [nb: this is actually in the exec summary not the synthesis, but what the hell - this isn't a peer reviewed academic paper, after all, is it? -W] This last conclusion particularly flew in the face of the prior scientific results; neither Charney nor Smagorinsky's group had suggested that the actual mean temperature increase was likely to be at the low end of their estimates. For chapter 4 I agree: they explicitly state that the range hasn't changed. But the cite is to chapters 4 and 5, and chapter 5 (p 307) does say something vaguely related, though its talking about estimates of probable CO2 induced rise to-date.

Oreskes then quotes someone called Alvin Weinberg who disagreed with N, and wrote a text of no clear status (it looks to have been a letter to N) disputing the reports conclusions. Unsurprisingly, no-one has ever read his letter, presumably as he intended.

And thats about it. Conclusion: unchanged: Oreskes is wrong.


More like this

> is wrong.

Okay, wrong.

Useful? (as with models). Any lesson learned?

[Just because someone is "evil" doesn't mean that all criticism of them is correct. Just because someone is "good" doesn't make them right. Nothing new there -W]

(Personally, it's been fascinating to see the high speed threshing of this field, much faster and more involving than watching journal articles grow, and it seems likely to provide an opportunity for more and better history once the stinging and redness subside.)

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 10 Nov 2008 #permalink

Weinberg was named director of the U.S. Office of Energy Research and Development in Washington, D.C. in 1974. The following year he founded and became the first director of Institute for Energy Analysis at Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU). This institute focused on evaluating alternatives for meeting future energy requirements. From 1976 to 1984, the Institute for Energy Analysis was a center for study of diverse issues related to carbon dioxide and global climate. Weinberg worked at ORAU until retiring to become an ORAU distinguished fellow in 1985.

Guess where from [that ends rather abruptly -W]

Hmmm... ok so I just skimmed it but what says that physicists cant say and that will be trouble... do you just mean at this specific subject or? Because I think that it is quite obvious that for example if you learn that a village is going to rain away or 1000 farmers will get toxins in their crops... it's going to be problems...

[Well yes. But the physical scientists weren't saying that. They were saying things like "it will get warmer and drier". Or "and wetter". Or whatever -W]

And that scientists to seldom spell that out...

As Spencer Weart mentioned in , the conclusion of the Exective Summary of the NAS 1983 report meant "more money needed to be spent on research". I think that this attitude was "normal" (should we rather call "median"?) one among climate scientists then in 1983, and scientists who wanted prompt action, like Woodwell, was minority. But by 1989 when the pamphlet of Marshall Institute was published, the situation was changed considerably, perhaps thanks to the very research funding requested by scientists in 1983. I think that W. Nierenberg's opinion did not change. But science moved, so the position of his opinion relative to the world did change. A story of relativity!

[I believe that you are correct, though I haven't studied Nierenbergs writings post the N report -W]

Disclaimer: I saw the NAS report in real-time, but probably I read just Chapter 5, and I did not notice the name of the chairman of the committee. I see the book now again thanks to the library of my current employer. I have checked the executive summary. I am not sure whether I am going to have a time to read the rest.

>"to consider more than just the scientific aspects of GW - how much the world might warm by - to include economic and environmental aspects - will we notice and do we care? I think that this is an entirely appropriate thing to do, if you are interested in a policy response."

Yes or maybe 'entirely appropriate' is too understating the situation.

Progressing from 'is it an issue?' to 'is it much of an issue?' and if so on to 'how much of an issue?' and 'how much of prevent vs reduce impact vs adapt when it happens should we do?' is such an obvious progression and one that could hardly failed to be tried. ('entirely appropriate' might suggest there could be alternatives.)

I started reading Oreskes et al. but found it just too irritating in its failure to admit this and one other point that seems central that I gave up reading it.

The other point was its immediate starting to talk of deconstruction of scientific knowledge. I didn't find anything to justify this rather than an acceptance that it might be a useful constructive activity to work how far science can take you at the moment concerned. If there were only a small gap between where the science could get to and what is needed to be sure a policy decision is appropriate then one could hope that a politician's intuition could be used to make the right choice rather than the politician wimping out with a prayer to the god of the gaps. If the gap is hugely larger then a prayer to the god of the gaps may well be a more appropriate political decision. This is politics not science but I hope it still shows it is useful to have scientists informing the debate (about how large the gaps are). So where is Oreskes consideration of whether it is useful or deconstruction of scientific knowledge? That seems central but I didn't find anything but maybe I was just too irritated by it to find it.

We've still got my hobby-horse issues of Exec Summary 20(b): "We do not believe, however, that the evidence at hand about CO2-induced climate change would support steps to change current fuel use patterns away from fossil fuels. Such steps may be necessary or desirable some time in the future, and we should certainly think carefully about the costs and benefits of such steps; but the very near future would be better spent improving our knowledge (including knowledge of energy and other processes leading to creation of greenhouse gases) than in changing fuel mix or use. (Chapters 1, 2, 9)"

IIRC, Chaps. 1 and 2 aren't much support for this point. The quote William found from Chap. 9 is thin gruel I think - saying that we're unlikely to do something isn't the same thing as saying that inaction is the right approach. Maybe there's more support elsewhere in the chapter?

Still, Oreskes seems to have overplayed the whole thing. It's kind of unnecessary too - there's no question that the denial spin machine was in full force just a few years later, with W Nierenberg playing a big role.

Mr. Schmidt,

This conclusion is well supported by the various sections including the synthesis. More importantly it is clearly stated that these were the consensus views of the committee.

As to the "spin machine" I don't think it is fair to lump everyone together. The scientists involved in the Marshall institute were very distinguished, and knowledgeable on climate issues. Dr. Oreskes aside it isn't clear that they had any agenda other than what they directly stated. You should take a look at Scientific Perspectives on the Greenhouse Problem. As a result of all of this I did, and it isn't an unreasonable document. This is different than saying that every scientist or even most agreed with it.

By Nicolas Nierenberg (not verified) on 15 Nov 2008 #permalink

Mr. Nierenberg (feel free to call me Brian, by the way):

I understand your position although I can't quite say I agree with it. If there's anything else though in Chapter 9 that supports 20(b), I'd be interested to hear about it.

[I agree your bugbear needs more work from me. Its on my list... feel free to remind me -W]