New Paper on Climate Contrarians by Myanna Lahsen

March 24th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

I’d like to alert readers of this blog to an article of mine just out
in this issue of Global Environmental Change. It analyzes a prominent
subset of US climate contrarians, providing a more multi-faceted and
complex account than generally available of why they chose to join the
anti-environmental backlash. One of them, Frederick Seitz, died recently, making this a poignant time to examine him as well as his
similarly influential colleagues in historical perspective, as I do in
this article. Below is the reference and the abstract of the article:

Lahsen, Myanna. “Experiences of Modernity in the Greenhouse: A Cultural Analysis of a Physicist ‘Trio’ Supporting the Conservative Backlash Against Global Warming.” Global Environmental Change (2008), Vol. 18/1 pp 204-219. (PDF)

In the context of President George W. Bush’s rejection of the Kyoto
Protocol intended to combat human-induced climate change, it appears
important to improve understanding of powerful efforts to reframe
global climate change as a non-problem. This paper draws on
ethnographic research among U.S. scientists involved with climate
science and politics to improve understanding of the U.S. controversy
over global climate change by attending to structuring cultural and
historical dimensions. The paper explores why a key subset of
scientists – the physicist founders and leaders of the George C.
Marshall Institute – chose to lend their scientific authority to the
“environmental backlash,” the counter-movement that has mobilized to
defuse widespread concern about perceived environmental threats,
including human-induced climate change. The paper suggests that the
physicists joined the backlash to stem changing tides in science and
society and to defend their preferred understandings of science,
modernity, and of themselves as a physicist elite – understandings
challenged by recent transformations in American science and society
that express themselves, among other places, in the widespread concern
about human-induced climate change.

4 Responses to “New Paper on Climate Contrarians by Myanna Lahsen”

  1. Timo Says:

    On page 208 of your paper you mention that Nierenberg died in 2002. However, on the Website of the Marshall Institute, but also on other websites it is mentioned that he died on September 10, 2000!?

    Secondly, I am wondering when you did interview William Nierenberg. That should then be at least 7 years ago! Because he can not defend himself anymore, it would be much appreciated to make the transcript of the interview available. This could shed more light on the statements made.

    I do have other comments. If you remark that with age the individual level of environmental concern decreases, the same would be true for the proponens of AGW and the IPCC, i.e. Bert Bolin, Houghton and others. However, for the record: I am not making such a statement. The combination of young students and senior scientist is of value for proper science.

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  3. Wildcatter1980 Says:

    I want to correct the record regarding the the acceptance/rejection of the Kyoto Protocols by the United States of America.

    On July 25, 1997, the Senate voted 95-0 to pass the Byrd-Hagel resolution, “which stated the sense of the Senate was that the United States should not be a signatory to any protocol that did not include binding targets and timetables for developing as well as industrialized nations or “would result in serious harm to the economy of the United States”. On November 12, 1998, Vice President Al Gore symbolically signed the protocol. Both Gore and Senator Joseph Lieberman indicated that the protocol would not be acted upon in the Senate until there was participation by the developing nations.[65] The Clinton Administration never submitted the protocol to the Senate for ratification.”

    Regarding President Bush, he “has indicated that he does not intend to submit the treaty for ratification, not because he does not support the Kyoto principles, but because of the exemption granted to China (the world’s second largest emitter of carbon dioxide[67]). Bush also opposes the treaty because of the strain he believes the treaty would put on the economy.”


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  5. Jonathan Gilligan Says:

    This is an important paper. Asking why prominent scientists ally themselves with such a fringe position is very important.

    It was particularly rewarding to read this paper as a companion to Seductive Simulations, in which climate modelers are aware of the pitfalls of faith in their models and struggle, not always successfully, to remain aware that models are not reality. This introspection and self-criticism makes an interesting contrast to the brash assurance Seitz and his colleagues expressed.

    From a theoretical perspective, I’ve often thought that it would be interesting to try to apply to the climate change debates a test proposed by Harvey Brooks in the mid-1980s for distinguishing scientific disputes from trans-scientific ones: ask each participant what empirical evidence would convince her that her position was wrong and her opponent’s correct.

    If consensus emerges on the standards of proof, the dispute can be addressed scientifically. If no such consensus emerges, then the dispute is fundamentally political and can only be fruitfully addressed by political means.

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  7. Timo Says:


    I am not a scientist, at least not a climate scientist. But if you ask which evidence would suffice to convince me that my position is wrong, I would demand:

    • Weather models should predict with an accuracy of 95% of the amount and kind of precipitation, hours of sunshine, clouds and kind of clouds, windforce and direction, thunderstorms and lightning and all other weather phenomenon on an hourly basis, 24 hours a day, 365/366 days a year, for every location (land and oceans) on earth and for a period of at least 10 years. Averaging in time and location is not allowed;
    • Weather models should be coupled with climate models. These models should predict climate with an accuracy of 95% for all regions in the world. The world needs to devided in squares of say 10 km2.The models should predict the climate in every square with a 95% accuracy without the possibility to average between squares/regions. The climate models should make these predictions for a period of at least 30 years.
    • Weather and climate models may not be tuned or otherwise controlled by “man-made” adjustments, i.e. they should work independently and without interference from human beings.
    • The model predictions should be verified by empirical evidence.

    Only if the above conditions are met, I am of the opinion that we can rely on the predictive value of weather and climate models. Otherwise, the models contain too much flaws and/or uncertainties and do not have the appropriate predictive value.

    This is my opinion. I understand that my conditions look ridicolous, but I believe that a lot of lay men and women will agree. Otherwise, the predictions will be a gamble. Probably, I will have more luck in a casino.