Holier Than Thou

July 28th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The RealClimate folks are all excited about an internal memo from the Inter-Mountain Rural Electric Association (link here in PDF) that details, among other things, that the IREA have donated $100,000 to support the activities of Patrick Michaels, a long-time political advocate on the climate issue. I’m all for disclosure of financial support. But the response to this memo, at RealClimate and elsewhere, suggest to me that many involved in the climate debate would much rather bash their opponents than work with them to find common ground. In a democracy, action occurs most often through compromise rather than complete annihilation of one’s opponents. Until this point is realized by those calling for “action” expect gridlock to continue.

Here are some questions that I have about this episode:

1. So what? In a democracy interests mobilize and support fellow travelers. Where science and politics overlap care must be taken to be aware for the possibility of conflicts of interest, which includes but are not limited to the financial. For example, the Journal of the American Medical Association has recently clarified a policy for disclosing potential conflicts of interest in research papers. The climate community would do well to adopt this practice. That people involved in the political battle over climate change see benefits in supporting people who share their interests is not a surprise, it is democracy at work.

2. Is only some money unclean? Those who are criticized for accepting industry money often observe that Jim Hansen was awarded an unrestricted cash prize of $250,000 from the Heinz Family Philanthropies. Stanford University’s Global Climate & Energy Project has accepted $100 million in support from ExxonMobil and other industry sponsors. Does this mean that we should discount Hansen’s work and that coming from Stanford? Or is it only certain combinations of people and funders that we should be concerned about?

3. Are vows of poverty signs of moral superiority? There does seem to be more than a hint of holier-than-thouness about all of this. One of the RealClimate contributors said in the Washington Post, “We don’t get any money; we do this in our free time.” He fails to recognize that his “free time” is made possible by an employer and research funders who allow (or look the other way) when RealClimate pursues its political agenda and aggressively attacks those who do not share it. I have no doubts that Pat Michaels holds his values every bit as strongly as the RealClimate folks do. Groups interested in political action usually begin by recognizing the legitimacy of differing value commitments. RealClimate seems to acknowledge this when they write, “It might actually help people engage on the substance of their concerns rather than simply arguing about the science – which, as we are by now well aware, – is simply a path to gridlock.” Have they followed this useful guidance when engaging the concerns of the IREA?

4. Do opinions chase dollars, or do dollars chase opinions? I am convinced that it is the latter, a consequence of what Dan Sarewitz has called the “excess of objectivity” which allows political interests to simply survey the landscape and align with convenient experts. With nod to their own apparent moral superiority, RealClimate suggests that the causality goes the other way, writing, “any quote from Michaels should probably be followed with ‘So spake the industry’s P.R.O, A man who really ought to know, For he is paid for saying so’.” In the Washington Post, Donald Kennedy has a more realistic and fair-minded perspective about Michael’s funders, “”I don’t think it’s unethical any more than most lobbying is unethical,” he said. He said donations to skeptics amounts to “trying to get a political message across.”"

Finally, what I think is most interesting about the IREA letter, and not discussed by anyone, is their description of how they view different policy options. They view a carbon tax and cap-and-trade system as the least desirable options. They support voluntary programs and investments in technology. They also view the participation of India and China as essential to any international agreement. They want all industries involved in any political action on greenhouse gases, and they don’t want the economy to be harmed. Seems to me that there are real opportunities for a discussion on climate change policies and the possibility that the IREA might be amenable to a course other than business-as-usual. Looking for common ground is consistent with the perspective that I presented in may congressional testimony last week (PDF). I doubt anyone is going to change IREA’s views of science and certainly not their values commitments. If they are to be “brought on board” in a coalition supporting action on climate change, it will be done through compromise – Politics 101.

But rather than seize upon the possibilities for compromise, advocacy groups like RealClimate have decided to use the memo as an opportunity to foster divisiveness and continued gridlock. It really does make me wonder if some actually want action on climate change or simply to score meaningless political points by bashing those who do not share their values. It will get commentators in the blogoshpere nicely agitated, but it won’t in my view contribute positively to progress on climate policy.

20 Responses to “Holier Than Thou”

  1. Scott Says:

    Isn’t RealClimate violating their own “rules” by blatantly posting political/economical/whatever (certainly not scientific) information such as this? Of course, they do it all the time, just not as blatantly.

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  3. William Connolley Says:

    Its pretty clear from the IREA memo that they are pushing septic science. You’re silent on that. Do you not care?

    You appear to have missed the point about known versus unknown funding.

    The IREA appears to believe that T will downturn in the next few years due to solar influences. How then is there any meaningful room to discuss policy with them?

    It would be far simpler if they could just accept the std.consensus on the *science*. Then (a) most of the scientists (inc Michaels) disappear from the discussion, because the science is no longer in dispute (b) IREA don’t look like a bunch of liars, which is a poor start to any debate (c) you can then talk happily about policy.

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  5. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    William- Thanks for your comments. Some replies:

    1. It does not bother me that IREA is cherry picking the science. Their objections, from the memo, are economic. I have no illusions that universal conformatity to a particular scientific consensus is possible. It is certainly not nbecessary for policy action to take place. It is worth releating what you wrote at RC — “It might actually help people engage on the substance of their concerns rather than simply arguing about the science – which, as we are by now well aware, – is simply a path to gridlock.”

    2. They are hoping for a global cooling. Current science says it is not in the cards. Even so they give plenty of indications where a discussion of policy might tsart on shared ground.

    3. The world would indeed be simpler if everybody agreed about things. They don’t. Such utopian fantasies aren’t how the real world works. Consider the possibility that the IREA folks are not necessarily “liars’ but perhaps misguided. Why action would you prefer them to take on climate policy?

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  7. Sylvain Says:

    It really gets boring when some peoples attack others based on either their funding or their motives.

    Everyone is biased toward one side or the other. I personnaly find that the folks who are paid by government funding have just as much motives than those who aren’t.

    For example what would be the effect on the budget of Micheal Mann if his HS was to be proven flawed. Would the government or GISS still be interested in funding his program as much as in the past. People who worked with him and himself have huge interest.

    Another example would be that it would not be rare to see people who studied in Stanford leaning toward the “alarmist” side and just has well it wouldn’t be surprising to see a student of Arizona State University leaning toward the “skeptic” side.

    And you say:

    “It really does make me wonder if some actually want action on climate change or simply to score meaningless political points by bashing those who do not share their values.”

    I wonder if some people wouldn’t prefer to see a catastroph happen so they can prove that they are right. I believe that the huge differences in action between the “alarmist” side who promote policies toward reducing CO2 emission and the “skeptic” side who promote research of cleaner energy and adaptation to changing condition.

    Finally, I read most some books by Dr Michaels and in it, he says that he believe in GW, he believe that human have an impact on it, he just not believe that we are the only cause of it, and that the situation is much more catastrophic than the present or past.

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  9. Scott Says:

    “I wonder if some people wouldn’t prefer to see a catastroph happen so they can prove that they are right.”

    That’s exactly what happened with Hurricane Katrina last year. There was a definite “see, that’s what you [current administration] get for not curbing emissions/not signing Kyoto/etc.” It was also attempted with the tsunami in 2004 – the ridiculous notion that because of sea level rise, this and future tsunamis will be worse (i.e. 2 inches higher).

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  11. William Connolley Says:

    Calling their memo cherry picking seems rather kind to me. And I don’t recognise my RC quote. I do agree that people should focus on their concerns – in the IREAs case, the economics – and not waste time on nonsense, which in this case is the IREAs science.

    If you expect cooling, then there is no basis for shared policy based on science. You could do it on energy security or something, but in that case I and RC have no reason to be blogging it, since we *are* interested in the science.

    As to the IREA being misguided… well, it was you that raised the “utopian fantasy” idea.

    I can’t see much basis for usefully discussing policy with IREA, while they try to drag in their junk science. We could probably discuss policy in the absence of science – which is probably their objective. But are they trying to discuss policy? It looks more like a PR campaign. Unless you don’t distinguish the two.

    See-also: http://scienceblogs.com/stoat/2006/07/irea_more_interesting_than_exp.php

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  13. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Comment from:

    Kit Stolz



    The Comment: You say that Michaels is “a policy advocate.” You say that the co-operative (which may or may not be in competition with other electric providers in the area) is “cherry picking the science.” Isn’t this an admission that they are politicizing the science?

    And doesn’t it trouble you that the co-operative paid a hired gun $100,000 without first asking or even informing its member owners?

    I find it hard to believe you would be so approving if say, a Florida co-operative quietly paid a huge fee to Robert Kennedy, Jr. to speak out on the need for emissions reductions to reduce the risk of hurricanes.

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  15. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Kit- Thanks.

    They are indeed politicizing the science. And not doing a very good job of it in my view!

    As far as how they spend their money, if it was my money, yes I’d be troubled about their apparent governance processes.

    I’d say the same thing about Kennedy. I’m pretty sure that I’ve not gone after anyone on this blog because of their funding. Though I have been critical in the past of conflicts of interest — or appearances thereof — in situations like the FDA and drug approval. I think that conflict of interest polciies should be applied across the board, irrespective of political orientation.


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  17. Dan Hughes Says:

    I do not understand the arguments about Big Oil, and ‘wealthy’ persons, profiting because of a lack of restrictive policies relative to use of hydrocarbon-based fuels. Big Oil is ‘big’ first and foremost only because there is demand for its products and services. We are that demand, not the Big Oil companies. Big Oil, and all other ‘Big Bads (insert your favorite here)’, do not operate in a vacuum. In the absence of demand they will not be Big. One especially striking aspect of the recent arguments is that it seems that those who have reaped the most benefits from our present energy-supply systems are among those that use energy (create demand) for applications that are in no way necessary. I use a personal computer, have audio and video systems and other electronic ‘toys’, car and other modes of transport, comfortable heating when needed, etc., for examples.

    Additionally, as is readily seen in many markets, profit margin is not necessarily a function of size. Many companies have established very profitable niche markets. Many companies have much larger profit margins than the ‘Big Oil’ companies; these latter run at about 10% to 12% of gross revenue. And, although I have never been in management, I can easily see that managing a smaller company can potentially be very much easier than managing larger enterprises. At the same time many of these smaller companies make larger profit margins.

    In the case of energy and hydrocarbon fuels, a necessary and absolutely vital service is being performed. These vital services cannot, and will not, simply be ‘cut down to size’. There is frequently presented real-world evidence that energy generation and distribution systems in several industrialized countries run at the margins; usually at peak-demand times in extreme weather conditions. Additionally, when this occurs we see the tragic results in deaths of human beings. Not all deaths result directly from the lack of energy services, but some preventable deaths do occur.

    Decreasing our dependence on hydrocarbon fuels will be a major undertaking; probably unequaled in history. The vital services and products must continue to freely flow as very significant changes are developed and implemented on enormous scales. And not only for the already-industrialized countries. All humans on the planet, present and future, must absolutely have the opportunities and benefits that have been realized in the industrialize countries.

    So far it seems that actually-viable, real-world solutions to dependence on hydrocarbon fuels do not exist or are subject to other political, non-scientific debates. Demands for energy services and products will only continue to increase in the future all over the planet. Existing energy production systems will be required to continue to operate as additional systems are developed and implemented. Simply cutting off supply is not viable. Taxes on the supply will of course be passed on to the consumers of energy products and services, and these taxes will generally fall on the people who can least afford them. As demand is not elastic the ‘Big Oil’ companies will continue to be ‘Big Oil’. The ‘Big Oil” elites and ‘big-oil-based wealthy’ will continue to as if nothing has happened and all us regular people will pay. What is missing from the let’s-change-Big-Oil community are actual solutions that will, additionally, successfully operate in an manner that ensures an equal burden in the real world.

    The time scales for change-over to other fuel sources are very long; on the order of several decades. And this would only occur on such a short time frame if some kind of required mandate is forced upon all the people on the planet. Under such conditions it is always those that have-not who suffer and pay an unfair share, while the ‘haves’, which very likely includes everyone reading this, make out like bandits.

    True scientific and engineering research cannot be influenced by the funding source; the math will not allow solutions to be influenced by political agendas. News releases and soft-sciences aspects can be tailored to meet almost any agenda; we see this every day from all sides. The climate-change research community is probably entirely funded by public sources. In the United States about 55% of these public sources come from industry, including ‘Big Oil’.

    The only “Big’ organizations that get big in the absence of demand are government bureaucracies. These seem to operate on momentum alone because there are no stopping criteria. In the case of climate change we hear daily that ‘the science is settled’. Yet we at the same time hear, with alarm, that ‘funding is being cut’. In a private enterprise setting this would not be allowed to occur. When a problem is solved work does not continue on the problem. Implementation of the solution is the next process.

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  19. Gavin Says:

    Roger, Even when we agree with you, you still jump up to criticse us for advocacy. Yet you clearly read the line ‘It might actually help people engage on the substance of their concerns rather than simply arguing about the science – which, as we are by now well aware, – is simply a path to gridlock’, and yet you still seem to think that we were arguing with IREAs use of the science. We even stated that this letter will be useful because it actually states the IREAs real positions rather than what utilities normally say in public. Tackling their real concerns is clearly the only way to move forward on policy. And you have our opinion on the money-following-opinion vs. opinion-following-money issue 180 degrees wrong. I am also convinced that IREA gave Michaels money because of his previous positions rather than to buy his compliance with their agenda. However, Michaels does now have very clear financial motives not to change his tune and clear responsibilities to his funders to get out there to ‘balance’ the debate. It is self evident that this is useful in understanding why he does what he does. We were neither excited nor surprised by the existence of this memo, but I’m a little surprised that you seem to be so exercised about our comments on it.

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  21. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    Thanks much for your response. A few replies:

    1. I’ve got not a problem with advocacy by RC. The issue I have is the disinformation (sorry couldn’t resist:-) that RC espouses on its WWW site about focusing on science when clearly engaging in advocacy. Get that straight and I’ll gladly stop giving you guys a hard time on that point. Truth in advertising is good for Pat Michaels and RC.

    2. Pat Michaels is not alone in having a vested interest in his position on climate change. Anyone who has made a public pronouncement or published a peer-reviewed paper has a stake in the debate, whether it is financial, ego, or professional. That includes me and you. I don’t see the financial as particularly special in such a case.

    3. You might have a look at the comments of your RC collaborator William Connolley on this same thread who sends a very different message, such as, why discuss policy without debating the science? And that the IREA folks are “liars”. Seems to me that if RC wanted to unite rather than divide, a very different commentary might have been produced.

    Take it for what it is worth, but my view of your continued bashing of the “skeptics” (or “septics” in your jargon) does more to maintain the intensity of the two-sided debate than open it up to compromise or new views. I for one would be interested in what you suggest IREA actually do, given their economic situation and their customers who depend upon them for power …

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  23. William Connolley Says:

    Septics is me, not RC. Try to keep up.

    What should IREA do? I’ve already said: give up pushing junk science; accept the std.consensus; go and talk about policy. At which point it disappears out of my area…

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  25. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Thanks William, though when RC signs its posts “group” I assume that the “group” is the author!

    Your candid comment helps to explain why many in the science community have been an obstacle on progress on the climate issue: “I’ve already said: give up pushing junk science; accept the std.consensus; go and talk about policy. At which point it disappears out of my area…”



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  27. Scott Says:

    William, why are you trying to ‘bully’ everyone into a self-proclaimed consensus? Science is not done by consensus, scientists don’t vote on their scientific beliefs or findings. At least they aren’t supposed to. Whatever happened to simply publishing or otherwise communicating your science, regardless of what the findings may be or with what political agenda they may fit? And what is wrong with taking your research to where there is funding for it? If certain corporations are interested in your work, they’ll fund it; if not, they won’t. It doesn’t mean that the fundee will taint their results to please the funder. Is that what you do in your research? Why do you assume that’s what ’sceptics’ do?

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  29. SteveF Says:


    You title this post ‘holier than thou’, presumably referring to the RealClimate folks. Do you not think the following statement is a fairly textbook example of that very attitude:

    “In a democracy, action occurs most often through compromise rather than complete annihilation of one’s opponents. Until this point is realized by those calling for “action” expect gridlock to continue.”

    You undoubtedly have a lot of interesting and highly relevant things to say. However, do you not think that your occasionally smug, indeed ‘holier than thou’, tone is as equally counterproductive as the charges you lay at the feet of RC? You suggest building bridges; as someone coming from a similar, non-policy, background to those at RC, I’d suggest to you that your approach could be modified a tad.

    Just a thought……

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  31. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    Thanks for the feedback. I appreciate it. I’ll plead guilty to occasionally smarmy. But I don’t think the “holier than thou” tag quite fits in this instance.

    Sometimes being direct and a bit aggressive is called for in my judgment (which could eaily be wrong). Do have a look at the archives as I’ve been having this sort of debate with RC for well over a year. More generally than RC, have a look at this paper:

    Pielke, Jr., R. A. and D. Sarewitz, 2003. Wanted: Scientific Leadership on Climate, Issues in Science and Technology, Winter, pp. 27-30.

    I do have high expectations for the world’s leading climate scientists – which includes the RC crowd — in politicized debates.

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  33. Sylvain Says:

    Dan hughes-

    Good comment.

    I would like to had that big oil is the cheapest, and by a wide margin, energy available, even with the recent rise in its costs.

    The change to cleaner energy will come as soon as the gap in cost between clean and fossil energy will be even.

    In my opinion, the proponent of the Kyoto protocol wants to speed up that closure in cost by artificially fixing fossil fuel price to a point that green energies are becoming just has cheap and viable.

    In Québec, we are facing the negative effect of such policies that attack the big oil industries. For example, our government imposed a special tax to the amount of $250 millions to the oil industry which they are now charging to the wide public at about 2¢/liter at the pump. This week-end the price at the pump were at 1,14$/liter or a little more than 5.00$/gallon.

    They also want to produce more wind energy. Since wind energy cost more they have to rise their prices for the electricity that they sell us. Once again the poorest pay the price since they have to make some hard choices to survive.

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  35. Mark Bahner Says:

    “If you expect cooling, then there is no basis for shared policy based on science.”

    Sure there is.

    I’m pretty sure that IREA would love to see a big fat tax credit for plug-in hybrid vehicles. (Promotes electrical energy use!)

    Assuming that plug-in hybrids produce LESS CO2 emissions per mile traveled than gasoline engines–I haven’t looked carefully at the data, but I’m pretty sure that’s the case, even for coal-fired power plants–you should also support that, from your concern about CO2 emissions.

    P.S. To give another example, I’m pretty sure IREA would support research into iron fertilization of oceans to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. (Avoids requiring coal-fired plants to install expensive CO2 removal equipment.) If you’re concerned about atmospheric CO2 concentrations, presumably you would also support such research.

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  37. Mark Bahner Says:

    William Connolley writes, “Septics is me, not RC. Try to keep up.”

    If “septics” is you, not RC, why doesn’t RC respectfully request that you (a primary author on RC) not use such childish name-calling on their “science” site?

    P.S. James Annan (also an author at RC) also uses the term in his comments on the RC site:


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  39. Richard Tol Says:

    Roger’s suggestion for full disclosure of funding and affiliations is excellent. It would also reveal that, for instance, Greenpeace has funded a number of “studies” and that some of its employees pose as independent academics.