Climate change a ‘questionable truth’

January 27th, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

That is the headline of a lengthy article by Margaret Wente, a columnist for The Global and Mail, on climate policy and politics. The following excerpt introduces the piece:

Is the sky really falling? How fast and how hard? And if the vast majority of scientists agree, then why don’t governments act? After all, nobody wants the world to melt.

If you’re an average, concerned citizen, no one will blame you for being confused or angry. The global-warming debate has become so shrill, so political and so polarized that it’s impossible for even a reasonably well-informed person to figure out who or what to believe. Only one thing is for sure: Science isn’t all that is driving this debate. Politics, ideology and scaremongering are too.

19 Responses to “Climate change a ‘questionable truth’”

  1. Kit Stolz Says:

    It’s an interesting piece, but I for one am puzzled by the idea that if we cannot put a date on the day the sky will fall, that the debate has become shrill or polarized. Is it really? I see a lot of consensus, and Wente eventually admits as much, saying that most experts–not environmentalists, but economists–agree that we must literally value our climate, which means taxing the consumption of fossil fuels to reduce emissions as efficiently as possible. It’s not the only solution, to say the least, but it’s a good start, as many many people across the political spectrum have already loudly said.

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  3. Steve Hemphill Says:

    Kit -

    You are still assuming the sky is falling. You are only questioning when. Here is the lone effect we have actually observed *in reality* about increasing CO2:

    Climate appears to be changing, but the magnitudes of the reasons why, which includes feedbacks, are unknown. Forcings are pretty much known, but that’s the easy, and possibly insignificant, part.

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  5. Jim Prall Says:

    Steve? That’s the ONLY science article you accept about the potential impacts of global warming? All the hundreds of others just don’t rate with you? I guess you don’t buy any of the rest of the research on potential impacts such as those on fisheries, coral reefs, loss of glacial runoff for agriculture, drinking water and hydro reservoirs, droughts, expanding ranges of insect-borne diseases, drying out of rain forests…
    Well for those willing to look farther than just “oh, rising CO2 will help plants grow, no worries mate, what could be bad about that?” start here, the IPCC working group II on impacts and vulnerabilities:
    See Martin Parry’s brief page on “Millions at Risk” at:
    This gives a good brief intro to his work such as the journal article of the same name published in Global Environmental Change, 11, 181-183.

    The Stern Report also looks at some of the impacts and vulnerabilities.

    Of course, you can just sit with Margaret Wente and call all these sources “alarmist” – but please at least take a look at what they are saying first.

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  7. Steve Hemphill Says:


    The Stern Report? There went your credibility right off the bat…

    You not only misinterpreted what I said, you are confusing:

    1. Total AGW with the effects of CO2, and

    2. The results of models and other laboratory results with history, which means parametrics with reality.

    This is your “data”:

    You will notice that the IPCC calls it “data” but it is not borne of reality. It is borne of models.

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  9. charlesH Says:


    We have lived through 100 yrs of massive co2 increases with resulting (or not) warming.

    What are the three most significant disasters from the co2/warming?

    What are the three most significant benefits from the co2/warming?

    Do you believe we would be better of had we not burned all that FF the last 100yrs?

    You need to keep things in perspective.

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  11. charlesH Says:


    Once you have thought about what has happened the last 100yrs you need to consider the following facts when you think about what we can expect over the next 100yrs.

    1) co2 in increasing linearly (not exponentially)

    2) co2 forcing is ~ log co2. Thus what ever effect co2 has had on warming in the past it’s effect will be less going forward.

    Thus unless you can make the case burning FF the last 100yrs to be a disaster it’s pretty hard to make the case that burning FF the next 100yrs will be a problem.

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  13. Jim Clarke Says:

    Congratulations to Margaret Wente and the Globe and Mail for resisting the temptation to run with the sensational. Of course, it may just be temporary. We will see what happens after Feb. 2nd.

    The only criticism I have is that I still do not like the described policy recommendations referred to as ‘the middle ground’. This implies doing something half way between doing nothing and doing the best thing. The multifaceted approach, focusing on actions that have multiple benefits (regardless of actual climate change) is the best thing to do!

    In my opinion, ‘doing nothing’ is the middle ground, while focusing all our resources on ‘Kyoto-like policies’ would be the absolute worst thing to do! Lubos Motl makes this point very clearly in his Reference Frame Post entitled: Kyoto protocol: third millikelvin:

    If the majority of newspaper articles on climate change were written as well as this one, we would be much further along in making the future a better place for all concerned! More importantly, we would not be making it worse, as the current push towards a global climate change bureaucracy most certainly will!

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  15. Indur Goklany Says:

    Jim Prall:

    Regarding Martin Parry’s “Millions at Risk”, I have discussed that paper at some length in “Relative Contributions of Global Warming to Various Climate Sensitive Risks, and Their Implications for Adaptation and Mitigation,” (Energy & Environment 14: 797-822, 2003), and in an exchange of letters with David King in Science [see “Climate Change and Malaria.” Science 306: 55-57, 2004].

    Drawing upon various analyses of the global impacts of climate change, Martin Parry notes that millions of additional people would be at risk because of climate change due to malaria, hunger, coastal flooding and water shortage. However, he forgets to note that the same analyses also show that many millions –- and perhaps billions –- more would be at risk in the absence of climate change.

    Based on the very sources that Parry provides, following are estimates of the populations at risk in the 2080s without climate change (P0), population at risk because of climate change alone (deltaP), and total population at risk (total P = P0 + deltaP), and contribution of climate change to the total population at risk (in %). Except for the percent contribution, all numbers are in millions:

    Hazard, P0, deltaP, total P, contribution
    Hunger, 300, 69 to 91, 369 to 391, 19% to 23%
    Malaria, 8820, 256 to 323, 9076 to 9143, 3% to 4%
    Water stress, 6405, -2307 to +1063, 4018 to 7468, -59% to 14%
    Coastal flooding, 13, 81, 94, 86%

    Thus while climate change may be a big problem, other climate-sensitive problems would, in fact, loom larger! As I note in the paper, in the absence of a context even the smallest molehill can look like a mountain, and the real policy question is whether the additional numbers due to warming constitute mountains or molehills, or if mountains, are they the Scottish Highlands or the Himalayas? [Apologies to all Scots, don't mean to 'dis' the Scottish Highlands, though.]

    If you believe the analyses that Parry refers to, they tell us that if by waving a magic wand we could freeze the climate at the 1990 level (which I reckon would require reductions in the 60-80% range, or larger), in 2085 we will have reduced the prevalence of malaria by no more than 4%, hunger by 23%, and coastal flooding by 86%, while the population at risk of water stress may in fact go up by 59% (but in any case it would not be reduced more than 14%).

    Reductions by 2085 due to the Kyoto Protocol are, as you might guess, minimal — about as effective as King Canute waving a sceptre.

    Now, do you think that GHG emission/concentration reductions are where we should target our always-so-abundant financial and human resources given that there are other more fruitful avenues for advancing well-being?

    BTW, I have estimated the relative costs and benefits of reducing climate-sensitive risks in the short-to-medium term using Parry’s sources in “A Climate Policy for the Short and Medium Term: Stabilization or Adaptation?” Energy & Environment 16: 667-680 (2005). This can be accessed at , as can my other papers noted above.

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  17. ILJAY Says:

    Even the BBC that is generally not known for global warming skepticism is critical of Stern Report. Here are just some of the highlights from the BBC4 Radio 4 program “The Investigation”:

    “The report may have been loved by the politicians and headline writers but when climate scientists and environmental economists read the 670-page review, many said there were serious flaws.”

    “If a student of mine were to hand in this report as a Masters thesis, perhaps if I were in a good mood I would give him a ‘D’ for diligence; but more likely I would give him an ‘F’ for fail. There is a whole range of very basic economics mistakes that somebody who claims to be a Professor of Economics simply should not make.”
    “Stern consistently picks the most pessimistic for every choice that one can make. He overestimates through cherry-picking, he double counts particularly the risks and he underestimates what development and adaptation will do to impacts.”
    -Richard Tol, professor at Hamburg and Carnegie Mellon Universities, and is one of the world’s leading environmental economists. The Stern Review cites Tol’s work 63 times.

    “The IPCC is not going to talk about tipping points; it’s not going to talk about 5m rises in sea level; it’s not going to talk about the next ice age because the Gulf Stream collapses; and it’s going to have none of the economics of the Stern Review”
    “It’s almost as if a credibility gap has emerged between what the British public thinks and what the international science community think.”
    -Professor Mike Hulme, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research

    I recommend listening to the audio of the program. It sheds light on some of the global warming lies, such as how many times Themes barrier has been closed to ward off the rising seas. Surprisingly it happened less times in the last five years than in five years before that.

    It is good to see reason prevailing over hysteria. One question still remains: if global warming is real and so obvious, why do so many of its proponents have to exaggerate and mislead so wildly?

    Read or listen here:

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  19. Mr. Lee Says:

    The research on global warming is irrelevent to the decision makers. It comes down to economics and ideology. If reducing pollution and processes harmful to life on Earth get in the way of profit, then any data collected is moot. If one believes the end is nigh- whether it be the Messiah or Jihad or any other ’spiritual’ reason, then who cares what happens in 100 years. For the rest of us who don’t want to leave our planet a toxic wasteland for my grandchildren and YOURS the issue is not simply “global warming”. It does not take 500,000 man-hours of research to know that FF produce pollution. It does not take an expert to unplug the “phantom loads” in our homes and reduce the load on the grid by 20-30%. Individuals need to take the lead. Individuals need to change the economics. Stop poisoning your lawn and the demand for one group of devastating chemicals goes away. Quit buying cars that get 9mpg and cars will become more efficient. Enviromental destruction is a buisness- fed by our “needs”. Cleaner air, less nasty rivers, and sustainable development could be a booming buisness as well- but it has to begin with the individual. We must reassess what we need, and support a change in industry, commerce, and government that fulfills this goal. How you spend your money has much more effect than how you vote.

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  21. Kit Stolz Says:

    CharlesH, if the earth is about 4.5 billion years old, and we have changed the atmosphere in the last hundred years, the fact that we have not yet been overwhelmed by a global crisis proves nothing but that human time scales differ from oceanic time scales.

    Surely you wouldn’t argue that Californians need not worry about earthquakes, since it’s been over a 100 years since they’ve faced a really big one?

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  23. charlesH Says:


    Having lived in California I am familiar with earthquakes. My understanding is that climate and earthquakes are quite different. We should be able to see the consequences of burning FF, increased co2, associated warming and the resulting negative and positive consequences in the record of the last 100yrs. And I think we do see some.

    Increased standard of living

    More plants and animals from co2 fertilization

    Slightly warmer winter nights in the higher latitudes

    Modest increases in sea level

    The linkages of the above are not certain. However the the results thus far have been modest to beneficial. Again, given co2 is increasing linearly and co2 forcing ~log there is no reason to worry about the future (unless you want to).

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  25. Jim Clarke Says:

    California has earthquakes, yet tens of millions still live their! Wouldn’t it be prudent to reduce that population by 60%-80% by 2050 in order to minimize the impact of the next big quake?

    A climate change crisis, on the other hand, is not something we have historical data on, yet there is the constant call to limit our use of fossil fuels to prevent a problem that only exists in computer models.

    I guess the folks in California are willing to accept the risk of the next big quake in order to continue enjoying their California lifestyle. They know the quake will happen, but they are willing to prepare for it now and deal with it when it arrives, rather than give up their wonderful way of life.

    The same strategy is in play with people who live in hurricane prone areas or in the Northeast US where they have their famous blizzards! All across the planet people have chosen to live in areas prone to extreme natural events, preferring to prepare for these events and dealing with them when they arrive, rather than dramatically changing their lives.

    A similar strategy for climate change seems to be out of the question, even though it is not nearly the clear and present danger of extreme natural events.

    Why do you suppose that is?

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  27. Mark Bahner Says:

    “Based on the very sources that Parry provides, following are estimates of the populations at risk in the 2080s without climate change (P0), population at risk because of climate change alone (deltaP), and total population at risk (total P = P0 + deltaP), and contribution of climate change to the total population at risk (in %).

    Malaria, 8820, 256 to 323, 9076 to 9143, 3% to 4%”

    As a result of my exchange with Richard Tol on malaria, I hope to develop a model to predict the total number of deaths worldwide from malaria every year in the 21st century. It plan to produce predictions in the form of 5 percent, 50 percent, and 95 percent probability predictions. That is, a number for which there is only a 5 percent probability that the total number of deaths will be lower, a number for which there is a 50 percent probability that the deaths will be lower (and 50 percent chance that it will be higher), and a number for which there is a 95 percent probability the deaths will be lower.

    Currently, worldwide deaths from malaria might have 5 percent, 50 percent and 95 percent probability estimates of 500 thousand, 1 million, and 2 million. (These are just wild guesses, I need to carefully review the literature.)

    I would not be surprised if the 2080 values look something like *zero*, 10 thousand, and 200 thousand. That is, I wouldn’t be surprised if the “50 percent probability” value for 2080 is at least a factor of ~100 lower than the present level (i.e. a 99 percent reduction from the present value). And I think I’ll find at least a possibility of total eradication of malaria by 2080. In fact, maybe I’ll even find a 50 percent probability (or greater) of total eradication of malaria by 2080.

    These are just total guesses. I need to do the research first. But I think I’ll find that speculating about worldwide deaths from malaria in 2080 will be like people in 1890 speculating about deaths in Manhattan in 1980 from diseases related to horse poop. Would people in 1890 have foreseen the complete replacement of horses by automobiles? Only if they had extraordinary foresight!

    P.S. Check out those overhead wires! There’s another big change from 1890 to 1980 in Manhattan. Would a person in 1890 have predicted that in 1980 one would not be able to see the sky at all from the streets, due to overhead wires?

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  29. Indur Goklany Says:


    That sounds like a very worthwhile project. I suspect you are right about the future level of malaria prevalence being much lower than it is today because even today’s developing countries will be richer, technologically more advanced and with greater access to human capital, and we’ll know much more about the disease. I suggest as much in the paper I referred to in that earlier post.

    Malaria is a disease of poverty, and Tol & Dowlatabadi, who are referenced in that paper, have shown that malaria is more or less eliminated in countries with a GDP per capita of $3,100 (I think it was in 1995 dollars, but I’d have to check).

    Notably, for other diseases of poverty the long term declines in death rates have exceeded 99% for the US (and I suspect for other developed countries too). For the US, they declined 100% for typhoid and paratyphoid between 1900-1997, 99.8% for gastrointestinal diseases from 1900-1970, and 99.6% for dysentery from 1900-1997. [Source, if you don't mind me tooting my own horn: Goklany, The Improving State of the World: Why We're Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet, Cato Institute, Washington, DC, 2007 (just published)]. So your first order guess would seem to be in the right ball park, assuming that, for whatever reason, we don’t reject effective technologies (like we did DDT), and that we stay on top of whatever evolution, in the form of resistant strains of mosquitoes and malaria parasites, throws our way.

    Incidentally, these declines also illustrate the perils of projecting estimates into the future using methodologies that neglect improvements in technology and adaptive capacity, as virtually every current impact assessment does. [So I'll be very interested in seeing whether the IPCC WG2 report claims anything other than "low confidence" in any results based on such assessments, particualrly if they are sensitive to socioeconomic factors.] However, regardless of the precise magnitude of deaths due to malaria in 2085 (or whatever), as a first order approximation I would think the contribution of climate change to the total malaria deaths would continue to be in the 3-4% range (or similar), i.e., for malaria at least, climate change ought not to be a dominant factor.

    These perils also extend to methodologies that estimate costs of control or adaptation but neglect secular trends in technology.

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  31. Daublin Says:

    THANK YOU, charlesH. We need some perspective. An 80% reduction in CO2 emissions would be devastating to human life. If, instead, we instead continue to advance our technology, who can even imagine what will be possible in 100 years, much less 300?

    Jim talks about people living in disaster areas, and writes, “Why do you suppose that is?”. Good question. For some reason people are smarter when they vote with their feet.

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  33. charlesH Says:


    Regarding earthquakes …. we have examples in the last 100yrs. However, for co2/GW we have no disaster examples in the last 100yrs.

    Thus it’s perfectly reasonable to take precautions regarding future earthquakes but to be rather skeptical regarding future disasters resulting from co2.

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  35. TokyoTom Says:

    Indur, we have earlier discussed “adaptation” and distinguished between adaptation in the developed nations, which will largely happen on its own as individual actors and communities decide how they wish to respond to a changing climate, and adaptation in the developing economies, which are both more likely to see the negative effects of climate change and are least prepared to respond to them.

    I agree with you that it is in our enlightened self-interest to “improve well-being” in the developing world, by helping them to improve domestic governance and rule of law. SOme, like Jonathan Adler, have even acknowledged that there may be an ethical aspect to this, since the climate effect likely to be felt over the next century are largely the result of emissions by the developed nations.

    But as you have elsewhere acknowledged, this is likely to require a significant commitment of funds and concerted action with other nations. Other than voices such as yours, I see little discussion of the size and difficulty of the adaptation/development problem and little appetite for actual further funding. Rather, the “adaptation” argument is used mainly as a rhetorical device by those who wish to continue to use the global commons for free, and to avoid expenses they would anticipate from mitigation actions.

    IMHO, it seems to me that we need to proceed on both fronts, and to use revenues generated from carbon taxes/sale of emission rights to fund our efforts to help other nations.

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  37. Kit Stolz Says:

    CharlesH, I’ve got to give you credit. I’ve heard a lot of arguments on this issue, but I’ve never before heard the “it’s been a hundred years, we’re still okay, what could go wrong now?” argument.

    Here are a couple of examples from the last few weeks of what could go wrong:

    In it the prominent NOAA researcher Martin Hoerling discusses the alarming prospect of “a new era of drought” for the Southwest.

    In this story, Jesse Logan discusses how a species of pine trees on which grizzly bears depend are likely to be nearly wiped out by the mountain pine beetle’s ability to thrive in warmer winters, as he predicted in studies years ago.

    Other examples could be found without much difficulty. To suppose that changing the climate will have major consequences is not a stretch. I can buy Roger’s argument that we need to do more than simply reduce greenhouse gas emissions to face this challenge, but to suppose that there is no reason to worry is a little crazy.

    But I’m impressed with your orginality!