The Continuing Climate Disconnect and the Climate Bait and Switch

I am at an impasse.  Here is my dilemma:  I don't know if the media is purposely obfuscating the climate debate or whether they are just ignorant and scientifically illiterate.  For now, because I am a happy soul that does not like making dark assumptions about other people's motivations, so I am going to give the media the benefit of the doubt and just assume they are ignorant.  But it is getting harder to reach this conclusion, because for it to be ignorance, it has to be serial ignorance lasting many years and crossing thousands of people.

The other day, in response to an article at Skeptical Science, I wrote about the typical media myths in the climate debate that make actual conversation about the theory so difficult.  The first one I listed was this:

  • "Climate deniers are anti-science morons and liars because they deny the obvious truth of warming from greenhouse gasses like CO2"

In fact, if you read the article, most of the prominent climate skeptics (plus me, as a non-prominent one) totally accept greenhouse gas theory and that CO2, acting alone, would warm the Earth by 1-1.2C.  What we are skeptical of is the very net high positive feedbacks (and believe me, for those of you not familiar with dynamic systems analysis, these numbers are very large for stable natural systems) assumed to multiply this initial warming many-fold.

This is just tremendously frustrating, in part because climate alarmists (at least in the media) don't seem to understand their own theory.  I constantly have to patiently explain that the theory of catastrophic man-made global warming (or climate change if you prefer) is a two part theory, and that warming forecasts are based on two independent chained theories:  First, CO2 acting as a green house gas incrementally warms the earth and second, large net positive feedbacks in the Earth's climate multiply this initial warming many times.  The majority of the warming actually comes from the second theory, not greenhouse gas theory, but every time I am in a debate or interview situation one of the early questions is "how can you deny greenhouse gas theory, it is settled science?"   This is what I call the climate bait and switch -- skeptics have issues with the second theory but the media and climate alarmists only want to argue about the first.

Robert Tracinski at the Federalist highlights a really good example of this:

In a CNBC interview, the host asked, “Do you believe that it’s been proven that CO2 is the primary control knob for climate?” Pruitt answered: “No, I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do, and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact. So no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see. But we don’t know that yet. We need to continue the debate and continue the review and the analysis.”

This is a pretty reasonable answer.  It is simply absurd to argue that CO2 (at a current atmospheric concentration of 0.04%) is the "primary control knob for climate".  CO2 is obviously part of a large and complex equation with many, many variables, but calling it the primary control knob is like saying that the sugar industry is the primary control knob for the US economy.

But back to the issue of the climate bait and switch.  Here is NPR responding to Pruitt's comments.  Can you guess what they say?

Those statements are at odds with an overwhelming body of scientific evidence showing that humans are causing the climate to warm by releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. The view that CO2 is a major heat-trapping gas is supported by reams of data, included data collected by government agencies such as NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Greenhouse gas theory is settled science!  But Pruitt has never, in anything I have read, disagreed with greenhouse gas theory.  He just thinks the effects have been exaggerated.  But here is the media, yet again, ignoring the actual arguments of skeptics and trying to recast their position as denying greenhouse gas theory.  The media sets up this false dichotomy that either you accept that CO2 is "the primary control knob of climate" or you deny CO2 is a greenhouse gas at all.  They allow no intermediate position, despite the fact that both of these choices are scientifically absurd.

Mr. Tracinski goes on to make the same point I often make, so I will let him do it in his own words since I don't seem to have any success explaining it:

The question is not whether carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. The question is whether it is the “primary control knob for the climate.” The question is whether it is the greenhouse gas, the one factor that dominates all other factors.

There is good reason for skepticism. For one thing, just on the “basic science,” Pruitt is absolutely correct. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, but it is not the most powerful greenhouse gas, by a long shot. Water vapor is far more effective at trapping heat and releasing it back to the atmosphere, primarily because it absorbs a lot more radiation in the infrared spectrum, which is released as heat.

That’s why all of the climate theories that project runaway global warming use water vapor to juice up the relatively small impact of carbon dioxide itself. They posit a “feedback loop” in which carbon dioxide increases temperatures, which increases the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere, which increases temperatures even more. These models need a more powerful greenhouse gas to magnify the effect of carbon dioxide.

But does it really work that way? By how much does water vapor magnify the impact of carbon dioxide? And is that effect dampened by other factors? Consider cloud formation: more water in the atmosphere means more clouds, which reflect sunlight back into space and have a cooling effect that counteracts the warming effect. But by how much?

The answer is that nobody really knows. There are varying estimates for “climate sensitivity,” that is, how sensitive global temperatures are to increases in carbon dioxide. They range from a relatively trivial impact—less than one degree Celsius warming from a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide—to more than five degrees.




  1. J_W_W:

    The catastrophic man-made global warming crowd is literally screaming at everyone that

    2 + 2 = 5

    or more specifically

    1 + ? = 4

    The irony is that there is so much climate science that has to be done. There is actually literally decades of science regarding climate that has yet to be discovered. You would think the scientists would key off of this to fund their research, but ironically they claim all is "settled".

    I was witness once to an actual climate scientist asking a group of other climate scientists the question "if you claim all this is settled, what are you going to say when they respond to your grant request with 'but I thought they science is settled, why do you need any more money?'" The room fell kind of silent at this....

  2. SamWah:

    The media are in the tank for the Warmenists, and the Warmenists lie to keep on the warming gravy train of government grants and NGO grants.
    Cynical?? Moi?? Yep,

  3. mlhouse:

    TO me the entire question is answered in the forecasts and how they related to actual results. And those results are not good. In fact, their error terms are basically equal to all of the warming in the past 150 years so it is now very significant.

    YOu can have the greatest scientific theories and have a consensus behind them, but if your policy is based upon what is going to happen in the future and your near term forecasts cannot measure real data your models are bad and this indicates your assumptions were wrong. Good scientist go back to the drawing board and reevaluatet. Climate scientist double down as if their long term forecasts will be more accurate.

  4. slocum:

    "I don't know if the media is purposely obfuscating the climate debate or whether they are just ignorant and scientifically illiterate. "

    I think it's smug, willful ignorance. They really don't understand climate sensitivity and have absolutely no desire or intention of finding out more. And from their point of view, there's absolutely no reason to do so. Understanding those details is the job of certified experts. Who have assured us that everything is settled. Furthermore, not only would reporting on the details be actual work (and require math that reporters never understood) it would only serve to confuse readers. Only bad people (Republicans, Libertarians...*Trump Voters*!) are skeptical.

  5. CC:

    I think we can blame part of this on categorical thinking. The easiest way to deal with a situation or object is yes/no. Snakes are dangerous, white people are racists, men are rapists, any change is bad. This is obviously absurd, but it is the way people often deal with things that they aren't in control over, don't have time or background to learn about, happen rarely, etc. If I see weird clouds I may head to the basement rather than keep watching for a tornado, because it might be risky to stand there and watch. If I don't know about snakes it is easier to just jump out of the way rather than try to figure out if it is poisonous.
    In the climate debate we get: climate is changing, man caused it (or some of it), change is bad, therefore climate change is bad. Simple reasoning, but wrong.

  6. Warren Anderson:

    After I read this article

    on the first migration to the New World, I thought this could be the best thing I read on climate science despite the fact they seemingly have nothing to do with each other.

  7. Gil G:

    It's amazing how deniers flirt with science so they can pretend they're scientists too.

  8. Ike Evans:

    It's amazing how flippantly the word "denier" is tossed around. The term itself was coined to deliberately tie people who question certain portions of the alarmist narrative to holocaust deniers, thereby shutting down the debate.

  9. jhp151:

    The Media still believes the 1 in 5 rape statistic even though it has been proven wrong for several decades.

  10. Earl Wertheimer:

    It's very simple. The Media's primary role... is to sell more media. Controversy sells. In addition, most of the J-School graduates are left leaning and made the choice so that they could influence other people. Add in the outspoken Environmentalist religion and you have the perfect storm.

  11. markm:

    "I don't know if the media is purposely obfuscating the climate debate or whether they are just ignorant and scientifically illiterate. "

    How about both? Most journalists are challenged by basic arithmetic, let alone subjects like feedback loops and system stability. (I'll give you a hint: if the climate has enough positive feedback to give the amplification effects they need to predict disaster, it's inherently unstable. That's not a theory, it's an area of mathematics where I do have expertise.)

    But most journalists are also carrying water for leftist political causes; that's been horribly obvious the last year, with everything Trump uttered without thinking broadcast and exaggerated, while they ignored or minimized all of Hillary's misdeeds. A successful journalist in our left-leaning media is someone who can simultaneously think that Hillary is highly qualified as President, and that she understood not even the simplest things about protecting secret documents and files - which was a fundamental part of her job as Secretary of State, and is even more important for the President. So yes, I I believe that consciously or unconsciously, journalists actively avoid learning anything that might put them at odds with the hive mind, including the points that CAGW advocates gloss over.

  12. Q46:

    " I don't know if the media is purposely obfuscating the climate debate or whether they are just ignorant and scientifically illiterate."

    Include politicians, particularly those in Government, in that statement.

    You do not even need to explore the scientific argument to answer this.

    If you want to know what someone really thinks, observe what they do not what they say.

    When presented with an existential threat, it is instinctive to chose the most readily available means of escape - people even jump out of burning buildings, having made a comparison of risk assessment.


    Humanity faces a real and present existential threat from catastrophic climate changed caused by rapidly accelerating global warming.

    This global warming is the result of CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuel.

    The remedy is to reduce this CO2 output by moving away from using fossil fuels as quickly as possible - 'not a moment to lose' - as we head towards a 'tipping point' beyond which recovery will be impossible.

    What is the most readily available means of reducing CO2 emissions?

    Nuclear power. We have the technology; it is affordable; can be funded with private capital; provides reliable, consistent power. Shifting to electrical vehicles can be done without reliance on electricity generated from fossil fuels, which otherwise would merely mean CO2 emitted from power stations instead of motor vehicle exhaust pipes.

    Are there risks associated with nuclear power? Yes. Are they greater or less than mass extinction? Considerably less - France has been operating nuclear reactors since the 1970s and has 59 producing 80% of its electricity needs, and has the lowest CO2 emissions from electricity generation of any industrial Country. Most Western Countries have some nuclear power too.

    And we are very good at handling nuclear waste, large part of which is recyclable.

    So we have a workable, tested, low risk model? Yes.

    So if Government had supported and encouraged replacement of fossil fuel electricity generation with nuclear power 20 years ago when this hare was set running, we now would have the majority of electricity generated from nuclear and therefore drastically reduced CO2 emissions well within the limits recommended by scientists?


    So why did this not happen?

    Because politicians do not believe that Man-made global warming/climate change is an existential threat - you don't jump out the window if you do not believe the building is on fire - but it does make a jolly good justification to raise more tax revenues and advance global governance.

    Verdict: media, politicians - not ignorance, duplicitous liars.

  13. Jason Azze:

    Your position has nearly converged with that of Scott Adams (of "Dilbert" fame). Adams says, "Stop conflating the basic science and the measurements with the models. Each has its own credibility. The basic science and even the measurements are credible. The models are less so. If you don’t make that distinction, I see the message as manipulation, not an honest transfer of knowledge."

  14. joe:

    I agree - Always amused by the number of science deniers that demand we believe them

    Such as those who deny the MWP
    Such as those who deny the millions that died to cold and starvation because there was no little ice age
    Such as those that deny the multitude of proxies showing an elevated MWP in the SH.
    Such as those that deny the warming cycle of the amo and pdo enhanced the warming of the 80's-90's yet the cooling cycles of the AMO/PDO are responsible for the Faux pause.

  15. Scottvan949:

    Is CO2 the primary control knob for the climate? The answer is obviously, is no. The dominate system variable effecting the
    earth's temperature, by far, is solar radiation.
    Solar radiation has much more influence on temperature than cloud cover. CO2 concentrations are only one factor of
    many effecting cloud cover. The .1%
    regular variation in solar radiation dwarfs the impact of man’s 3% increase in
    CO2 emissions.

  16. Thane_Eichenauer:

    I believe that 95% are ignorant and scientifically illiterate with the rest being folks that are lying to both themselves and others.

  17. Joe - non climate scientist:

    Markm - "(I'll give you a hint: if the climate has enough positive feedback to give the amplification effects they need to predict disaster, it's inherently unstable. That's not a theory, it's an area of mathematics where I do have expertise.)"

    I give another hint - If positive feedbacks existed at the level the alarmist (climate scientists ) are telling us - then why didnt the earth boil over during the MWP or during the Roman warm period , or the holcene period, or any number of times prior to that - or do the positive feedbacks have some intrinsic knowledge to only manifest themselves if the warming is caused by man (Mann)?