Nov 06 2017

US Government Report Affirms Climate Change

climate changeThe U.S. Global Change Research Program Climate Science Special Report was recently published, and its conclusions are crystal clear:

 This assessment concludes, based on extensive evidence, that it is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. For the warming over the last century, there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence.

That conclusion is nothing new to those following the science of climate change for the last couple decades or so. The more this question is studied, the more data is gathered, the firmer the conclusion becomes – the planet is warming due to human release of greenhouse gases, such as CO2. There are error bars on how much warming, and the exact effects are hard to predict, but that’s it. The probable range of warming and effects are not good, however. It will be bad, the only real debate is about how bad and how fast.

The conclusions of the report, therefore, at least scientifically, are not surprising. It was, however, politically surprising. The special report began in 2015, under Obama. Because of Trump’s stated position that global warming is a Chinese hoax, and his appointment of many global warming deniers to key positions, it was feared that his administration would slow or frustrate the publication of this report.

However, according to the NYT, Trump himself was simply unaware of the report. Further, the fate of the report was largely in the hands of those amenable to following the science, rather than putting a huge political thumb on the scale. As a result the report was not hampered or altered. It was approved by 13 agencies who reviewed its findings.

The reports adds to the consensus of consensus that global warming is real and human-caused. What I mean by the “consensus of consensus” is that multiple reviews by expert panels have come to the same conclusion about the consensus of scientific evidence. There are only fringe outliers, as there are with most scientific questions (no matter how strong the consensus).

It remains to be seen how Trump himself or his administration will respond to the report. However, the global warming denier community has already dismissed it as the result of “Obama holdovers.”

There is good reason to be pessimistic about the effects this report will have on public opinion. While it does seem that public opinion is slowly moving in the direction of accepting the science of global warming, there is a strong ideological influence on what people believe. A study from March 2017 surveyed 9,500 people over several years and found that the strongest predictor of their views on climate change was their party affiliation.

In other words, you could predict with a high level of accuracy someone’s attitudes toward climate change if you knew only their party affiliation. This effect was strengthened the more they paid attention to the news. Therefore consuming information itself did not move people toward the scientific consensus, just toward their party line.

I do want to point out, because this point is often missed, that this motivated reasoning phenomenon is not universal but appears to be in proportion to the degree to which issues are strongly ideological and tied to tribal affiliation.

Of course, in an ideal world this would not be the case. Science should speak for itself, and should inform politics but not be determined by it. Party affiliation should have nothing to do with the scientific consensus on a scientific question. This highlights the importance of separating science from ideology, and the need for better education in philosophy and critical thinking. This is a failure of thinking clearly and scientific literacy.

Both sides, of course, will think that they are the one’s who are in line with logic and evidence and the other side is succumbing to political ideology. This does not mean that the issue is necessarily symmetrical – that both sides are wrong. Sometimes the science happens to be in line with our ideology. In those cases the accuracy of your views on the science is almost incidental, or at least it does not provide convincing evidence that you will accept scientific conclusions regardless of their ideological implications.

What is convincing evidence is when someone accepts a scientific consensus on a question even when it is inconvenient to their ideology or party affiliation. Again, I am not saying there is absolute symmetry, but liberals, for example, should not be smug about their acceptance of the scientific consensus on climate change unless they also accept the scientific consensus on genetically modified food, organic farming, vaccines, alternative medicine, and nuclear energy.

Part of the problem is motivated reasoning. Part of the problem (perhaps a growing part) is the echochamber effect. But also scientific literacy plays a huge role, and here I am not just talking about factual scientific knowledge but the ability to evaluate scientific research and opinions, to determine what the consensus of scientific opinion is and how solid it is. This means not citing retracted papers, fringe opinions, or preliminary studies as if they were definitive, for example.

And of course critical thinking is essential – knowing how to avoid common pitfalls such as logical fallacies and conspiracy thinking.

But the key concept to understand with regard to the relationship between scientific questions and ideology is this – don’t expect or demand that the science will always be maximally convenient to your political views. Understand, by chance alone, it won’t be. You should strive to be most suspicious of scientific claims when they do seem to support your political ideology, because of the motivation to accept such conclusions uncritically. Further, structure your ideological value-based opinions in such a way that they can accommodate whatever conclusions science comes to.

In other words, if you are pro-environment, then support whatever policies are science-based, rather than choose the scientific conclusions that are in line with environmentalist ideology. If you value the free market, then propose rational free-market solutions to the problems that the scientific evidence says we face. Don’t deny the science to make it more convenient for a free-market ideology.

This is where philosophical literacy comes in – understanding the difference between value-based opinions and empirical questions of fact. I also think it is critical to value the truth as part of your ideology. Following a valid logical process needs to be highly valued in itself, and not, therefore, easily subverted to other values.

Otherwise you end up denying a strong scientific consensus because the pundits on news outlets that make you feel good about your political affiliation tell you it’s a hoax.

21 responses so far

21 thoughts on “US Government Report Affirms Climate Change”

  1. Willy says:

    A few days ago, the WSJ had an opinion piece entitled “A Deceptive New Report on Climate Change”. It’s behind a pay wall, so I haven’t read it, but maybe someone here has, or can. I’d be interested in a summary of it, although I’;m pretty sure I could make up a fairly decent one despite not having read it. lol

  2. BenE says:

    Yeah, WSJ is a pretty good paper save the opinion pages. After 2007, when Fox News’ parent company (News Corp) bought WSJ, the opinion pages have become right wing propaganda and should be ignored by reasoned people in their search for reasonable viewpoints.

  3. DCTyler says:

    The WSJ used to be more reliable. Now that it is owned by the same folks that bring us FOX news. While the news is still fairly useful, the opinion pages are not. At least they are predictable.

  4. JoeMamma says:

    Great piece Steve.

    These sorts of stories always serve as great opportunities for discussing the process by which people form their opinions, and that process is of course far more important than any individual opinion by itself.

    I think one of the biggest wins we could hope for is mandatory, politically-neutral critical thinking classes taught in American schools at every level. The ability to evaluate claims and the associated evidence for those claims is every bit as important as learning how to do algebra.

  5. MosBen says:

    The examples of areas which liberals should “accept the science” seems fine until we get to nuclear energy. While a citation to controversies regarding vaccines or GMO is pretty straightforward to parse, I’m not sure what specific controversy about nuclear energy has both a scientific consensus which liberals are inclined to deny.

    If we were talking about storage of nuclear waste, I think that there would be a strong case, although I think that it tends to be more of a NIMBY issue that crosses the political spectrum. But I don’t think that there’s anything like a consensus that nuclear is, for example, an essential component of a transition away from fossil fuel energy production. Nuclear plants are expensive to build and take a lot of time to come online. I’m just not clear on what issue of “nuclear energy” has the same level of scientific consensus as something like vaccinations not causing autism, GMO being safe for human consumption, evolution being the driver of changing life on Earth, and humans being the drivers of current climate change.

    I completely agree that people of all political stripes should be vigilant about investigating their biases and giving reliable scientific findings their appropriate weight in making policy decisions, but that specific example seems tagged on to add political balance to the criticism.

  6. Johnny says:

    “If you value the free market, then propose rational free-market solutions to the problems that the scientific evidence says we face.”

    I don’t think it is really reasonable to have ideological preferences of that sort. Sometimes a free market approach is the most effective option on the table, and deregulation is the answer. Sometimes a more collective approach is called for. To have an inherent preference for a free market solution, or a collectivist solution for that matter, seems bizarre to me. We should be equally open to both kind of options when facing the problems that scientific evidence says we face.

  7. MosBen says:

    I mostly agree, but at a root level whether you believe that government should be actively involved on a broad scale in resolving society’s problems or if it should be left to the people or the market to resolve them has a moral/value component. Even what counts as a problem or not can implicate values. While issues like climate change or gun violence are fairly reasonably obvious problems because they involve loss of life, what about the price of TVs? Is it a problem that there are TVs that are out of the economic reach of a large segment of the population, or is that just fine?

    Any decision that we make is going to implicate our values and biases to some degree; our goal should be to not allow those biases and values to trump or cause us to ignore or attempt to cover up reasonably reliable data.

  8. BillyJoe7 says:


    There are not too many free-marketeers who believe that there should be absolutely no government regulation of the market. Most free-marketeers would acknowledge that there must be some government regulation. They just want it to be minimal. What SN is asking of them is to follow the science when deciding how much government regulation is necessary in order for the system to run efficiently and effectively. Of course, this is always going to be more or less a value judgement, but that value judgement should be informed by science.

    Most free-marketeers believe in the “trickle down effect”, but they vary in how much of a “trickle down effect” is possible without government regulation and they also in how much of a “trickle down effect” there should be – in other words, how evenly money and assets should be distributed amongst the population. Again, follow the science when if comes to the degree of government regulation reqired for the system to run efficiently and effectively and how much of a differential in assets and income produce the best outcome.

    And what is the “best outcome”? Well, we need a degree of wealth concentrated in the hands of individual entrepreneurs to drive the economy. But not at the expense of widespread poverty.Because poor people can’t buy the goods and services being produced and, driven to extremes, are likely to strike back and make our societies less peaceful and harmonious, which is a problem for everyone.

  9. Donna B. says:

    No doubt there are ideological disagreements about the severity of climate change, but I think most of the disagreement is ideologically based in the human aspect of it. If humans are causing it and it’s likely to be catastrophic, then… something should be done, right?

    What that something is and when and how it should be done… that’s the argument.

    The only thing I’m going to say is very, very bad is the whole idea of carbon credits. Let me tell you why. My family owns/controls substantial timber acreage. We were approached some years ago by a company wanting to purchase our “carbon credits”. What they asked was that we agree not to harvest OR manipulate in any way that timber for a period of 20 years. Basically, that wouldn’t have been a problem as the timber at that time was 25 – 30 years away from harvest. It was the fact that we’d be agreeing to not maintaining the land, to not thinning the timber (that promotes growth and prevents the spread of wildfires). So, we said “No.”

    At the time, we had no idea what carbon credits were, but we learned quickly. They could just as easily be named “virtue credits” or “political credits”. They do nothing to lessen any impact on the climate, but they do allow some entities to advertise as “carbon neutral” when they do nothing but pay a subsidy. It’s puke-worthy virtue signalling at best.

    Because that was promoted as a viable way to combat climate change, is one of the reasons you’ll find “deniers” who actually think “climate change” is code for “oh hell yeah, we can make tons of money from this”.

    That’s not the big picture, but it’s one reason why there’s resistance.

  10. Nidwin says:

    It’s only one picture and not the entire collection of photo albums.

    On the subject of climate change, accelarated by human made contributation …, the accepeters and deniars are just minorities while the vast majority doesn’t give a damn if it’s true or false.

    It’s the same with vaccines, gmo’s, spiritual and religious beliefs, LGBTQdathdfhvcifdanhtrldfacvva, … as most people don’t care anymore. Folks are actually getting annoyed by pros and cons fighting each other openly and publicly. They are tired of the same old stuff being thrown at them over and over again in the daily or even hourly news.

    As my mom told me, it’s too much news too often repeated too much fighting that’s losing her, so she listen to what I’ve to say about some stuff or otherwise just let it go. And when she let it go she falls back to what Dr Novella wrote, what fits best for her.

  11. BillyJoe7 says:


    The idea behind carbon credits is that each country has a carbon credit allowance, which is the number of tons of carbon that it is allowed to emit over a certain period of time. The idea is that this allowance should decrease over time but, even if that doesn’t happen, the country’s energy requirement will be increasing over time for many reasons but mainly due to population growth. So the per capita carbon allowance is going to decrease over time.

    Each country, in turn, allocates these carbon credits to industries operating within the country. These industries will try to reduce their carbon emissions for the simple reason that buying carbon credits is an expense and selling them is income. The idea behind allowing industries to trade carbon credits is to offer some flexibility to industries as they try to reduce their carbon emissions. Some industries can do it quickly while, for others, it’s a long term goal.

    The company trying to buy your carbon credits is trying to buy the carbon you do not emit by not maintaining your land, not by not harvesting your timber, because you won’t be doing that for a few decades. Of course, there might have been a loophole that the company was trying to exploit. But the solution then would be to close the loophole, not abandon carbon credits.

  12. BillyJoe7 says:

    …or maybe you need to save those credits for when you do harvest your timber.

  13. tder2012 says:

    For anyone who thinks we can accomplish deep decarbonization of global energy systems without nuclear power, this NY Times post shows how very inadequate the Paris agreement is
    This post shows how little we have reduced fossil fuel use and CO2 emissions despite $ trillions in investment for renewable energy (see figure 6)
    We need to deploy clean energy quickly, as one can see, nuclear, in some places, has a good track record (see “Average annual increase of carbon-free electricity…. ” figure)
    We need to take a risk-based approach to these climate change, excess CO2 emissions, excess combustible fuel use and excess air pollution emissions problems

  14. Donna B. says:

    BillyJoe7 — it would be ideal if the idea behind carbon credits worked. I don’t think it does. I do think we’ve come a long way toward reducing all sorts of pollution, but most of that progress is decades old, the low-hanging fruit.

    What often happens is that for some industries buying the carbon credits is cheaper than reducing their emissions. Other industries naturally have an excess. It might be a short-term monetary win-win, but emissions aren’t reduced because no one is having to try very hard.

    In reality, we are doing the planet more good by not selling the carbon credits just to let someone else off the hook. One thing I left out was that the agreement would also have prevented setting seedlings on other parts of the acreage — we were to leave it entirely to nature. Nature isn’t all that concerned about sequestering carbon. The decomposition of the undergrowth from “natural” thinning would have released a substantial amount back into the atmosphere. A fire from a lightning strike would release carbon while eliminating the trees that could have sequestered carbon in the future.

    What I’m using those credits for is to offset the electricity I use reading Neurologica, cooling and heating my house, driving my car, and breathing. What are you doing to save the planet?

  15. bachfiend says:


    ‘What I’m using these credits for is to offset the electricity I use reading Neurologica, cooling and heating my house, driving my car and breathing. What are you doing to save the planet?’

    There’s no need to worry about saving the planet. The planet will just do fine with global warming. It’s a matter of saving civilisation.

    What I’m doing personally is saving electricity whenever possible, using an electric fan running at 30 Watts instead of an air conditioner at 1000 Watts, cycling instead of driving, generating all the energy I need with 8 solar panels and installing 20 solar panels generating 20-30 on a rental property I own.

    I personally don’t think anyone should gain credits for something they would have otherwise done.

  16. Ivan Grozny says:


    i don’t know what WSJ by deceptive but I was able to find in less than 10 minutes quite a few of dodgy claims in the Summary of the report:

    “Heatwaves have become more frequent in the United States since the 1960s, while extreme cold temperatures and cold waves are less frequent.”

    Why 1960s? The answer is simple. That was the record cold decade. Most record high temperatures in the USA are from 1930s and 1940s, not from recent years.

    “Without major reductions in emissions, the increase in annual average global temperature relative to preindustrial times could reach 9°F (5°C) or more by the end of this century”

    This is simply bullshit. New research on climate sensitivity pretty much rules out any warming beyond 3.5 C and puts the ‘best estimate’ at or below 2 deg C which means negligable warming int he 21st century, even WITHOUT any reduction in CO2 emissions. (Lindzen and Choi, 2011; Masters 2013; Otto et al, 2013, Lewis and Curry, 2014; Spencer and Braswell, 2013; Skeie et all, 2014, Loehle, 2014; Lewis and Curry, 2014, Bates, 2016…plus at least 10 additional ones with similar conclusions)

  17. bachfiend says:

    Ivan the Terrible,

    What makes you think that global warming will be less than 3.5 degrees Celsius, that greater warming is ‘ruled out’ when the ‘authorities’ you’re citing from a brief glance are global warming denialists, including Spencer who seems to be a denier for religious reasons being a member of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation?

    The 3.5 degrees might be a little optimistic. The Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum 55 MYA due to a natural release of greenhouse gases of similar magnitude to that we’d achieve if we burn all known reserves of fossil fuels, but over 25,000 years instead of over the current centuries, led to global warming of 7 degrees Celsius and its own minor mass extinction. The extinction was only minor, possibly because it was only 10 million years after the K-Pg mass extinction, meaning there wasn’t sufficient time for the evolutionary radiation of specialised species more sensitive to environmental change.

  18. Donna B. says:

    bachfiend: I personally don’t think anyone should gain credits for something they would have otherwise done.

    That was pretty much my point to begin with. With few exceptions, carbon credits are virtue signalling.

  19. Jason says:

    Wow the government spends $80 billion over 25 years to produce the stunning revelation that the climate changes.

    While it is generally expedient to accede to a consensus of experts in non-politicized fields, credulous deference to the manufactured consensus of state-suckled careerists with a political agenda is anything but.

    Dangerous Anthropogenic Global Warming is just the latest in a long line of propagandist consensuses produced by the abomination that is statist science. Just like eugenics, the USDA Food Guide Pyramid, acid rain, the ozone hole; the play is the same: take a consensus on basic science that forms a kernel of truth and represent it as if it were support for a fascistic, technocratic policy platform that would be utterly inhumane even if the consequences of the issue at hand were true to the extent of their exaggeration.

    Taken as the deceitful package deal it has been sold to the public as, DAGW is indeed a hoax. On this one, Donald effin’ Trump is a better skeptic than the venerable Dr. Novella.

    Pretty pathetic.

  20. chikoppi says:

    [Jason] take a consensus on basic science that forms a kernel of truth and represent it as if it were support for a fascistic, technocratic policy platform that would be utterly inhumane even if the consequences of the issue at hand were true to the extent of their exaggeration.

    Oh no, investment in renewable energy technologies. Help, I’m being repressed!

  21. BillyJoe7 says:


    Either that or you’ve been sucked in lock stock and barrel by the climate denialism industry.
    Given that you’ve quoted these loons word for word, l’m guessing that maybe your credulity has been massaged into a stiff resolve resulting in your explosive outburst above. You can now sit back, relax, and suck on a cigarette. Meanwhile the rest of us will deal with reality.

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