Pielke Jr: The climate debate is ‘over’

One characteristic of academics is that they never waste a good argument. They would give it as project to a graduate student, carve out a review article with favored colleagues as co-authors, or write a whole book on it. This brings multiple benefits: you can forever hang around making half-baked public statements to draw attention, and simply wave away questions with “The answers are in my book”. Your h-index keeps going up while your opponents waste their time figuring out your cryptic statements.

Roger Pielke Jr has been doing that for a while. There is a new post in his blog in the same vein: about those skeptics. Pielke reacts favourably to a football sports columnist Simon Kuper writing about ‘climate change’, quoting Pielke. Not the first time that’s happened either: here’s Kuper quoting Pielke Jr and saying ‘ignore the skeptics’. The reverse’s happened too: Pielke quoting occasional climate writer Kuper writing about football. You might think, ‘what’s the deal with football here?’ It’ll become obvious shortly.

I ploughed through the sportswriter’s piece: sceptics are ‘irrelevant’, there are not that ‘many of them’, and they are not blocking ‘action’ on climate change. What is blocking it? “Lack of government will”

Apparently Pielke Jr who agrees that the debate is over and the sceptics are irrelevant makes his full argument for the case. Only, as noted before, it is made in his book.

Again, I ploughed through the book. While the first two chapters are rambling one can hack away at the fluffy text and extract points for review, some which Pielke himself fortitiously identifies and some he doesn’t. These are: a) Climate change from CO2 can be ‘undesirable’ b) I cannot tell you exactly why that is, but just…just believe me c) Everyone in the world is worried about climate change and wants to do something about it d) There is an iron law

The central playground for scepticism in climate change has been in (a) and (b). Is CO2 really bad? is warming bad? how much so? is it really heating up so fast and so much like never ever before? Really? Apparently Pielke never experienced any of these questions

Perhaps it is one of the unavoidable side effects of being the son of a world-famous atmospheric scientist, but I have never questioned the climatic importance of human emissions of carbon dioxide; its importance has always been something that was accepted by my father and presented in his work.

So the young Pielke learnt everything about CO2 from his dad, you might think. However Pielke the Junior informs the reader that when his dad was writing basic encyclopedia articles on climate he was not interested in the science and was instead running behind girls and playing soccer

For instance, in the mid-1980s, when my own interests lay far from science and policy, focused instead on soccer and girls my father wrote an annual article on the atmospheric sciences for the Encyclopedia Brittanica

Thus when Pielke writes:

“So the “controversy” over whether carbon di-oxide emissions affect climate is not a subject that holds much interest for me, …”

the situation is rather easy to understand. Here’s one more person wishing to impose that the ‘real debate’ lies away from an area he is not good at, or is interested in.

 ‘The debate is over’?

One of Pielke’s favorite claims is that the public of the nations of the world support climate action. As before, the effect is one of stepping into a hall of mirrors of non-sequiturs. Pielke’s contention is based on opinion polls conducted by the World Bank. The “debate is over” conclusions by Pielke spring from the same source.

From the Worldbank commissioned report in 2009: “Public attitudes toward climate change: findings from a multi-country poll”

Did ‘the debate’ ever take place around the world?

Consider the recent University of Oxford study of newspaper articles, examining reporting of climate scepticism in six countries: Brazil, China, India, France, the US and UK in 2007 and 2009. The report concludes that close to 80% of all ‘climate sceptic content’ appeared in the UK and US print media, and that Brazil, China, India and France had considerably reduced coverage of ‘climate-sceptical’ content. Climate scepticism is particularly ‘an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon’, we learn.

No doubt, the Reuters Institute study wants the focus to be on the inordinate amounts of scepticism flowing through UK and US media arteries, but data that is of interest to us is available  – climate scepticism finds little to no expression in countries like India and China.

Media expression of climate scepticism is studied in the peer-reviewed literature. Consider the example of India, for which good data happens to be available. In a 2009 study published in the journal Climatic Change, Simon Billett of the Oxford University Centre for the Environment found many interesting things. Firstly, Billett asserts rightly that the print media is the predominant source of information about climate issues in India:

The media are instrumental in shaping public understanding of environmental issues in India (Chapman et al. 1997). Recent public polling suggests that the print media remain the major source of information for the literate public on climate change issues; the 2007 Global Nielsen Survey suggested that 74% of the surveyed population used newspapers as the primary source of information on climate change.

Well, what information does the Indian print media carry on climate change (for a 2002-2007 period)?

On whether global warming is real:

In comparison to the scepticism in the North American and European press, the coding results suggest that the Indian press entirely endorses climate change as a scientific reality. Based on the codes in Table 1, 100% of the 247 articles discussing the existence of global warming argued that rapid, unusual climate change does exist today.

On what was causing it:

 In addition, 98% of these articles directly attributed climate change to anthropogenic causes.

Anything about ‘climate scepticism’?

 Just five articles remained unconvinced that the phenomenon  was the result of human activity, four of which suggested the causes were unknown rather than simply ‘natural’.

…many were also highly critical of so-called ‘climate sceptics’, often highlighting the US media in particular as responsible for giving voice to known contrarians.

So most of those who get their climate fix get it from newspapers and all studied newspapers toe the consensus line completely. Moreover Pielke himself points out in his book: close to 35% percent of the Indian population hasn’t even heard of ‘climate change’.

‘The debate is over’ indeed! Looks more like it never got underway.

The same phenomenon is repeated in almost every UNFCCC non-annex I developing country. Either privately owned media (as in the case of India) or state-controlled media outlets fully suport and promulgate the consensus line. Data to support this are available in Billett 2010 as well (see graph). The reasons for this are not hard to discern.

From Billett 2009. Positive values on vertical axis indicate ‘positive news coverage’ of AGW and negative values indicate ‘negative news coverage’

Imagine a situation where a country’s media uniformly promotes a certain line, and the media forms the major source of information in that area. What opinions would a majority of its citizens  hold, other than what is sold to them? However it is such unanimity that Pielke Jr presents as evidence for his claim that  ‘the debate is over’. Calling it disingenuous would be going easy. Pielke Jr is not alone in this either. As he reports in his book Bill McKibben, a Pielke favourite, managed to convince ‘mostly poor’ 92 island nations about the risk of global warming. One wonders whether these poor nations had the scientific expertise to evaluate McKibben’s claims before lending him their support.

The absurd consequences of such stage-managed opinions and the resulting neuroticism is clearly evident in a paper by Max Boykoff, one of Pielke’s colleagues at his Colorado institute. Singing praises of the study above, Boykoff writes of an Indian farmer so worried about climate change that he looks for text messages on his phone:

“I can’t afford to suffer due to such frantic climate changes. I can’t predict yields any more as my forefathers could. I have to depend on the SMS (short message service)”

It is in tow of such abysmal understanding of climate change (no fault of theirs though) that Pielke claims that the debate is over.

The non-sequiturs only multiply from there in Pielke’s chapters. Public support for action on climate change is ‘strong’ as shown by polls such as those conducted by the World Bank, but apparently it is not ‘intense’. Climate change and global warming consistently at the very bottom in surveys of global concerns. What this properly tells us is that people worry about global warming but in the larger scheme of things they really don’t. In the real world this would simply mean that climate action carries little political weight, but in the hair-splitting logic of climate policymakers, ‘strong support’ has a different meaning.

Another of Pielke’s favorites is his iron law. Simply put, the ‘law’ is another reminder of the painful reality that nothing can be done in the name of climate (which Pielke gleefully points out at every turn), and its intimate link to climate scepticsm (which Pielke doesn’t want anyone to know about). To the  climate sceptic, the link between carbon di-oxide and catastrophe is tenuous or non-existent. He/she therefore may argue from principle that drastic action ought not to be taken. To the climate-neutral layperson, the link between CO2 and catastrophe is immaterial: he/she is simply willing to go along with the climate game, to a certain limit. What this means in practical terms is that the same public which Pielke Jr is counting on his side, are actually more akin to skeptics. One takes the climate issue seriously and the other doesn’t even do that. You will get nothing from them both. In other words, the so-called ‘iron law’ is an enormous non-sequitur, and just a small outcome of a more general ‘iron law of scams’.

The Iron Law of Scams dictates how much money people are willing to throw away to a cause they only marginally care for, and feel in their heart of hearts is probably a scam but will not say it out loud from politeness. If such donation-seekers showed up at my doorstep, I might feel like parting with 50 bucks a year just to keep them happy and away. This says nothing about what I feel about my economy (i.e., my income) or my concerns for the climate.  You could take the ‘iron law of scams’ and replace ‘scam’ with any cause celebré of the moment, it would work just the same.  Pielke’s iron law of climate policy is however an attempt to link economic priorities and climate ‘action’.

Climate sceptics are those who looked at the case for climate change causing ‘undesirable’ things and therefore require remedial action, and came away unconvinced. Pielke and Kuper believe that something should be done about the climate even if there is not much concern or support, and even if it costs us handsomely. I hope they don’t think something needs to be done, even if  there isn’t any need to do it. Pielke’s mistake lies in his misdiagnosis of the foundation for any possible climate action.

In the end, the numerous step-wise safety valves that have been built into the Durban climate agreement by these very countries, Brazil, China and India make one thing clear. They are a greater testimony to ‘government will’ and undercurrents of public expectation, than any monolithic wall of climate-supportive ‘political will’  that is hypothesized to exist.


[1] Billett S Dividing climate change: global warming in the Indian mass media DOI: 10.1007/s10584-009-9605-3
[2] Boykoff M. Indian media representations of climate change in a threatened journalistic ecosystem Climatic Change (2010) 99:17–25



  1. hro001

    Shub, great post! You’ve articulated all the “skepticism” my intuition tells me about Pielke Jr’s “the debate is over”. I do have his book (but it happened to arrive with a few others shortly before I became Kindlized … so it is as yet unread!)

    Perhaps he has not read his father’s many papers which (IMHO) suggest that C02 may well not be the primary problem and that “decarbonization” is not necessarily the answer.

    As an aside, Pielke Jr. has made many observations with which I can agree. But he does seem to have his blindspots – as does Judith Curry (re Landsea) but with whom I can agree more often than not.

    But then, perhaps we all have blindspots. You ‘n I being among the notable exceptions, of course 😉 And (speaking of blindspots) I’m inclined to think that Kloor may have the most blindspots of all!

    P.S. I’m not sure I’m crazy about this new template you’re using … seeing what one is typing after a certain number of rows of text when commenting is somewhat of a challenge … although it does eventually sort itself out!

  2. Russell C

    I know very little about the actual science of AGW, but if there is one thing I do know, it is that there are the AGW believers, and there are the skeptic scientists that the mainstream media goes out of their way to marginalize by any means possible. As near as I can tell, Pielke Sr is a skeptic, but I’ve never gotten a particularly good handle on whether Pielke Jr expresses real skepticism or is still on the side of the AGW believers.

    My problem is with Pielke Jr’s associations – take Max Boykoff, for example. AGW believers routinely cite one of his papers from 2004 as absolute proof that skeptics got too much ‘media balance’, a premise that practically all of us know can’t be true. I pointed this out in detail in my own online article, ” ‘Media Too Fair to Climate Skeptics’, say reporters who’ve been unfair to skeptics” http://www.globalwarming.org/2011/06/02/media-too-fair-to-climate-skeptics-say-reporters-whove-been-unfair-to-skeptics/

    Long story short: Max Boykoff is far too closely tied to anti-skeptic book author Ross Gelbspan, who along with the enviro-activist group Ozone Action are what I describe as the epicenter of the smear of skeptic scientists. Click on my name above for more that, the entire accusation against skeptic scientists centers around a coal industry memo that supposedly proves their guilt – yet no accuser who quotes a set of words from the memo ever has the courage to show the memo in its full context.

    One person I don’t yet deal with in all my online articles is someone who seems to have a few too many associations with Pielke Jr, and that is Myanna Lahsen. She is also associated with a sort of ‘industry’ (see this page as an example http://aaas.confex.com/aaas/2010/webprogram/Session1591.html ) that has formed around the concept of analyzing why skeptics behave the way they do, but such analysis is based on the idea that skeptics are corrupted by the fossil fuel industry. The one thing I see in this over and over is that people doing this kind of analysis – Lahsen, McCright, Dunlap, Oreskes, Boykoff, the late William Freudenburg and others – all cite a SINGULAR source to prove this corruption……… Ross Gelbspan.

    Dive into anything written by Lahsen about skeptics, you’ll soon see the problem. In all of my digging into what those old coal industry memos are all about, it appears she is one of the very few that have seen them in person. This seems to indicate she was involved with the people who were working in the mid ’90s to turn the memos into something that would get media traction, despite any actual evidence to prove these were a sinister top-down industry directive, which is what they are portrayed to be.

  3. Mike Davis

    I just read about you not being “Fair”. WOW!
    I first read your balanced post at WUWT and thought you were being to kind in your description of RPj.
    In spite of what the Gav says about jr and sr over at RC, they are no more sceptics than I am a member of the Chicken Little Brigade.
    I just stopped by to let you know that I thought you were going out of your way to be fair and balanced in your comments.

  4. hunter

    It was disappointing but impressive that Roger re-framed your post into a critique of his book.

  5. Andy

    Interesting reactions over at RP’s blog on your “review” of his book (?)

    I do have a copy of the “Climate Fix” and find it a useful reference when trying to argue with some of the more outlandish claims around energy policy

    Everyone seems very touchy about this article. Can’t really figure out why.

  6. gnomish

    heh- pielke fils said he’d leave it to the reader to figure out your article.
    i figured it out – i’m not buying his book.
    however, it will likely remain a mystery why mr watts removed it. it appears your work was burned as an offering to somebody. the ‘unfair’ story… was it claimed so you can’t use it?
    well, better things to do than ponder that but i stopped by to say i like your writing.

  7. Roger Carr

    “Pielke Junior on: The climate debate is ‘over’”

    I was highly impressed with this piece when I read it on WUWT? last night, Shub, and commented there to that effect.

    I am disappointed that Anthony subsequently took it down as I believe it is a very powerful statement of a reality which is important — many thanks for having written it.

  8. Scott

    It is concerning that the post was taken down at Watt’s site. It sets a bad precedent for him. Excellent post and an important contribution to the debate.

  9. diogenes

    doesn’t it just show that the links between Mr Watts and the Pielkes are quite strong?

  10. Justin K

    Anthony stated that it was removed, not due directly to the content of the post/article, but due indirectly to the post because of the comments it was generating. I’m not sure why that couldn’t have been controlled in another way, but I guess Anthony made a command decision to scrap the whole post because of a multitude of comments.

  11. Shub Niggurath

    Hi folks
    There is obviously more than meets the eye here.

    I particularly felt that Pielke Jr’s response to my ‘book review’ was a complete downer. Basically, there was no response to the substance of the criticism directed at the first two chapters of his book.

    Will keep you posted.

  12. Shub Niggurath

    Hi Hilary
    Have the Kindle copy. Bought it long back.

    I think I will go back to dead tree books now. I miss books. My Kindle is like a prison for books and documents. Absolutely useless if you want to go back to stuff. I tend to remember ‘where’ in the book I saw something (as in, how the page looked). Kindle is good for people who read stuff and will never come back again.

  13. Roger Carr

    Shub writes: “There is obviously more than meets the eye here.”

    Yes. And a feeling of disappointment, even unease, here.

  14. hro001

    Hi Shub,

    I did consider getting the Kindle version, as well (but last time I checked, it cost more than the paperback … and I refuse on principle to pay more for electrons than for dead trees!)

    You must have a rather early Kindle … on mine, I can search, “bookmark”, add notes, upload to PC for including in posts (keyboard leaves much to be desired, as does its “touchpad” … but for intensive stuff, I can read on PC via their (freebie) desktop app!

    After re-reading Pielke’s original “response” to your post, I wondered at times if he had actually read the whole thing … and I really don’t understand why Anthony decided to take it down. However, I see that you mentioned below that there is more to this than meets the eye. So, I guess that – in the fullness of time – all will eventually be revealed!

    O/T but speaking of the fullness of time … did you ever hear anything further re the SRREN reviewer comments?! They did say November, right? (But then again they didn’t say which year, did they?!)

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