More on Real Climate as Honest Broker

April 18th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In a paper of mine (PDF) last year on the role of scientists in the debate over Bjorn Lomborg’s book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, I observed “Some scientists in opposition to Lomborg lent their credibility and stature to interest groups who then used the scientists as the basis for making a political claim.” Clearly, the practice of issue advocates using scientists (and scientists offering their services) to further political ends takes place across the political spectrum. In what ways should scientists claiming to be honest brokers bear responsibility for the use of their name, stature and organizations in the political battle of issue advocates?

One reply is that it depends upon what role that scientists and their organizations want to play in the process, honest broker or issue advocate? Here at Prometheus we have commented on organizations (and their representatives) such as the IPCC, Presidents Council on Bioethcs and the Real Climate weblog who appear to conflate the roles of issue advocate and honest broker. Here I’d like to continue a critique of Real Climate by focusing on the role of one of its representatives in the current issue of Mother Jones magazine.

To be fair to Real Climate, I am focusing on them because (a) they are an important experiment at the interface of science and policy/public, their role invites STS-type analyses (b) we have an ongoing and I think unique conversation here on Prometheus with numerous Real Climate scientists on this subject and (c) Real Climate claims to be serving as an honest broker, in contrast to many other groups in the climate arena who clearly identify their role as issue advocates. We have at times taken a similar role in critiquing the IPCC. Also, it is worth repeating that our critique of Real Climate does not imply any affinity with those who critique Real Climate on the basis of the contrarian/mainstream science-cum-political debate on climate change. Our views on both this debate and the policies that we advocate on climate change are well established (e.g., see this PDF).

The current issue of Mother Jones contains an interview with Michael Mann who represents Real Climate as “a resource for people looking for an honest broker…”. Mann’s interview appears in a special issue that is focused on advocating a particular approach to climate politics that has climate science at the very center of this debate. Mother Jones posits that the political debate over climate is between “environmentalists” and “climate skeptics.” Here are some excepts on the MJ perspective:

From an article by Bill McKibben, “To reduce the amount of CO2 pouring into the atmosphere means dramatically reducing the amount of fossil fuel being consumed. Which means changing the underpinning of the planet’s entire economy and altering our most ingrained personal habits or now and for the foreseeable future, the climate skeptics have carried the day. They’ve understood the shape of American politics far better than environmentalists.” McKibben, accurately I believe, characterizes “climate skeptics” not by their scientific views, but by their political views. But in the process he equates a view on science with a particular political perspective, thereby turning scientific debate into political debate. In other words, McKibben has left no room for honest brokering of science.

In the second article article, Chris Mooney further reifies the politicization of climate science by explicitly positing the work of Michael Mann to be contrary to the political agendas of conservative issue advocates on climate change, “Nevertheless, the ideological allies of ExxonMobil virulently attack Mann’s work, as if discrediting him would somehow put global warming concerns to rest.” Irrespective of who is scientifically correct in this debate, issue advocates on both sides have successfully scientized the political debate over global warming so that any defense of Mann’s work will take on a political hue, regardless of the intent of the defenders. (We have argued elsewhere that scientists can militate against the scientization of politics and politicization of science through explicit discussion of policy options, see this (PDF).

And in the third article Ross Gelbspan connects the hurricanes of 2004 with global warming and reinforces the scientization of the climate debate, “When four hurricanes of extraordinary strength tore through Florida last fall, there was little media attention paid to the fact that hurricanes are made more intense by warming ocean surface waters… In the early 1990s, when climate scientists began to suspect that our burning of coal and oil was changing the earth’s climate, Western Fuels, then a $400 million coal cooperative, declared in its annual report that it was enlisting several scientists who were skeptical about climate change-Patrick Michaels, Robert Balling, and S. Fred Singer-as spokesmen.”

In this skeptics-versus-mainstream political context appears Michael Mann’s interview in which he sticks close to scientific issues but still makes numerous statements that reinforce those of McKibben, Mooney and Gelbspan. This happens because McKibben, Mooney and Gelbspan have equated scientific views with issue advocacy. For example, Mann says:

On the need for action:

“If you talk about a severe flood or drought or heat wave-if climate change expresses itself in those terms-then people can understand climate change much better. So often those advocating for action, which in my personal opinion is advisable, use those sorts of examples out of context to try to make a point.” [Note- Clearly, Mann means that action is advisable, not examples out of context.]

On hurricanes/climate change:

“MM: On the other hand, as sea surface temperature warms, the hurricanes that do end up forming can become far more powerful. There’s a great deal of sensitivity to this-it isn’t that you just change the sea surface temperature by 1 percent and hurricanes get 1 percent stronger. As you increase sea surface temperatures in the tropics, even by a little bit, you can greatly enhance the maximum potential intensity of a hurricane. It’s what we call a “nonlinear” relationship.

MJ: So to say that the Earth is warming and thus there will be more hurricanes hitting Florida is not necessarily true.

MM: Right. It could be true, but we don’t know the answer to that question yet. However, the models are quite clear about the storms getting stronger, and the observations on that point thus far seem to be consistent with predictions.”

On the role of scientists in the debate against the skeptics:

“MJ: Is this [work of the skeptics] just a big PR campaign?

MM: I’ll leave it to you as a journalist to investigate some of the links, some of the funding sources, and come to your own conclusions. Ross Gelbspan-he’s a former editor of Boston Globe-has written two books on the connections between industry funding, in particular funding by ExxonMobil, and these climate contrarians. The vast majority of them appear to receive funding from industry sources.

MJ: Earlier this year, the hockey stick was hot topic, yet it seems the debate has died down a little of late. Are they backing off this particular argument?

MM: The contrarians are always jumping from one argument to another. It’s sort of like a Hydra-when one of its heads is cut off it merely sprouts another. These contrarians-and interestingly it is often the same group of individuals-first tried to dispute the instrumental record of surface temperature data that demonstrates the dramatic warming of the earth’s surface. That was back in the in the early 1990s. They argued that urban heat island issues affected the temperature readings-but of course, scientists had already accounted for that.

Then they moved on to the argument that recent satellite data-which appeared to show less warming than surface data-argued against surface warming. The flaws of this argument were exposed as well, and if you analyze the satellite data properly they actually reaffirm the other evidence of surface warming. So then the contrarians began to go after the “hockey stick” because it was perceived as an icon of the global warming debate. It just goes on and on.

There are quite a few papers undergoing peer review now and studies in press which detail the critical flaws in the arguments that these contrarians have been putting forward about the hockey stick in the past few months. As it plays out in the peer-reviewed literature, it will soon be evident that many of claims made by the contrarians were fraudulent.

MJ: Is it fair to say that this head of the hydra has been cut off?

MM: As far as the legitimate scientific community is concerned, yes. But what’s often the case is that contrarians will pretend that they have an argument long after the scientific community has thoroughly discredited it. As long as something sounds good in a sound bite, they’ll keep at it.

MJ: This has to be difficult for scientists to combat in the public arena. How do you approach this?

MM: I’ve been involved with a team of other climate scientists in this project called which is a website with a blog format. It’s a commentary site on climate science created by working climate scientists for both the interested public and for journalists.

The idea is to provide a rapid response to developing stories and provide the scientific context that’s often missing in the media coverage. We’re not circumventing the peer review process, as some have claimed, we’re simply trying to provide the context of what existing peer reviewed science has to say about certain issues. And we’ve had a fair amount of success with this. We’ve received good media coverage, and have had over 200,000 visitors since we went online in mid-December. So it seems to be serving the purpose that we intended, which is to provide a resource for people looking for an honest broker for stories like the hockey stick attacks and State of Fear, both of which are riddled with fallacies.”

For the most part Mann does a very nice job sticking to the science. But in this case “sticking to the science” means taking sides in a political debate that is being waged through the language of science. So it is unavoidable that Mann is either contributing to or being used in issue advocacy. A prominent climate scientist who I have a lot of respect for wrote me an email last week to explain why climate scientists are not too thrilled with being told that efforts to “stick to science” actually wind up contributing to the politicization of climate science:

“So, in climate, when we discuss water vapour feedback, or ice core results, or what climate sensitivity is, regardless of the audience, we feel we can do so without having to always refer to the policy implications. Now along comes an STS academic who states that we can’t be doing what we claim to be doing because the whole concept has been completely discredited. Therefore we must either be ignorant of our own motivations and agenda or deliberately downplaying our motivations and agenda to sneakily subvert our readers with policy-driven pseudo-science. Neither of these permitted options is particularly attractive to us scientists, and so (understandably) we are liable to be a little aggressive in resisting the impeccable logic of our fellow academics. Conversations with people who have ‘a priori’ concluded that you must be either a fool or a knave generally don’t go well!”

This is a fair response (I agree with everything except the “pseudo-science” comment – the science can be first rate and the comment still holds.) My reply is still that if scientists want to play in the public and political arenas, there can be no hiding behind the science. And such scientists should not be surprised when they garner the considerable interest of those scholars who study science in society and policy. Honest brokering is an admirable objective, but as the Mother Jones example (and many others in other contexts) progress in that direction will require a greater sophistication about science in policy and politics than the climate community has shown in the past. The alternative is the continued scientization of the political debate over climate, reinforcing the politicization of science.

5 Responses to “More on Real Climate as Honest Broker”

  1. Crumb Trail Says:

    Pawn Broker

    Roger Pielke continues his investigation of notion of honest brokers is science policy. He is unpicking some fussy little knots to reveal interesting insights about the role of science advisors in policy debates. The current issue of Mother Jones…

  2. 2
  3. Jim Says:

    Is Prometheus an honest broker or issue advocate?

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  5. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    Thanks for the question. We are clearly issue advocates on a number of subjects, such as (1) science should serve societal values, (2) climate policy should encompass a broader discussion of policy options, (3) scientists should be aware that they have choices in how they connect to policy and politics (see the archives and other writings for the details). But even though it is easy to pose it as either/or, the roles of honest broker vs. issue advocate are more a matter of degree than kind. In my posts I have tried to make clear that scientists can be more or less of an issue advocate/honest broker, and both roles are very important to a healthy democracy, but one cannot play both roles at the same time. Clearly, I feel strongly that we have plenty of issue advocates and too few honest brokers.

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  7. Ender Says:

    I have found Real Climate imformative. I find it fascinating to talk about Climate Change with the scientists that are doing the actual work. As an interested citizen rather that a scientist I would not have this oppertunity otherwise.

  8. 5
  9. Crumb Trail Says:

    Pawn Broker

    Roger Pielke continues his investigation of notion of honest brokers in science policy. He is unpicking some fussy little knots to reveal interesting insights about the role of science advisors in policy debates. The current issue of Mother Jones…