Climate and Energy Twitter just went another five rounds on emissions scenarios in major climate assessment reports like the IPCC and U.S. National Climate Assessment. I wanted to put together some thoughts to encourage people to focus on what they actually disagree about, stop spreading incendiary misinformation, and stop treating scientists like the elected officials and CEOs who are actually the most responsible for determining our climate future.
Here’s what’s up and here’s why you should understand why so many people are talking past each other in these debates (and why so many of us who actually work in climate policy mute these repetitive conversations). First, we’ll cover a little bit of the work I do, what climate models and energy forecasts we’re talking about, how to spot bad faith arguments in this area, and FINALLY, how to be awesome and constructive in this debate.
What’s this guy’s deal?
Hi, I’m Aaron, I’ve done communications work on climate assessment reports for 10+ years. However, my current work focuses almost entirely on voter registration and mobilization (yay democracy!). I’ve done outreach and comms work for California’s last sea-level rise analysis, convened scientific societies and science advocacy groups to provide input in to the U.S. National Climate Assessment (NCA), provided communications training to IPCC scientists, conducted communications trainings for the American Geophysical Union and other science groups, released state and regional-level climate assessments for the Union of Concerned Scientists, and most recently served as the communications director for a U.S. House committee focused on climate policy. I also wrote a content analysis of cable news representations of climate science based on watching and reading transcripts for a year’s worth of coverage (and my brain didn’t even melt).
If you have a hot take about climate assessments: I’ve heard it. And most of these disputes are absolutely 100% not about science. They’re just proxies for people’s underlying ideological disagreements about climate policy, media coverage of climate assessments, and public opinion.
Climate models are cool, but they don’t predict future choices
When scientists build climate models, they look at different amounts of warming and different concentrations of heat-trapping gases that could create such an amount of warming. They don’t tell us which path we’re taking between now and 2100 (or whenever the model run ends). Why not? Because that’s an incredibly contentious policy-dependent choice.
Okay, totally reasonable. But what about big public reports like the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or the U.S. National Climate Assessment? The models developed under these processes do not tell us where we’re headed in 80 years either.
We should be clear about this at the outset of the discussion:
The governments that convene climate assessments don’t tell scientists to predict future policy choices.
Think about it. Why would Congress, the United Nations or a state government want a bunch of scientists telling them exactly what the future would look like? Scientists aren’t in charge of climate policy. But what they can do is show us a range of possible futures to inform policy choices.
But because scientists are chatty, friendly, and eager to bust misinformation, they’re happy to answer questions about climate models, sometimes even badly framed ones that assume it’s up to scientists to tell us exactly where we’re heading. Of course, when those questions are based on flawed premises, it can get confusing (sometimes that’s the point, but we’ll get to that later!).
Energy forecasts don’t predict future choices
Around 2011, scientists developed one of many scenarios that look at how much the Earth could warm between now and 2100 ahead of a major IPCC report. These scenarios answer the question: “What might the world look like if global warming were at the level of 2.6, 4.5, 6.0 or 8.5 watts per meter squared?”
The IPCC also involved energy forecasters developing back-stories for these scenarios — ones that would generate a high enough amount of heat-trapping gases to create that much warming as an aid for policymakers to understand what kind of worlds we might be headed toward. The highest one (RCP 8.5) had a back story that involved using a lot more coal. Thankfully, we use a lot less coal than expected now, so many energy analysts think that specific back story is unrealistic now. Yay.
But does that mean we can rule out 8.5 watts per square meter of warming in 2100? Well, as scientists keep telling us, no. There are still a lot of ways to get there. Scientists can hazard a guess as how likely they are by 2100, but in the context of major climate assessment reports, that’s not their job.
Here are a few points to helpfully understand this and not fall into the bad faith trap critics of the IPCC have set out:
- Coal use and energy forecasts aren’t the only source of heat-trapping gases. Human-driven land-use change, melting Arctic permafrost and other factors contribute to emissions, too. They are hard to predict. You can see two scientists who are involved in major assessment reports discuss some of this here.
- The climate itself may be more sensitive to change than we expect, so even if you undershoot a certain amount of emissions you can still get a high level of warming. And scientists usually attach very wide ranges of temperature increase to each scenario they work with because there’s uncertainty involved in trying to figuring out what happens when we poke the atmosphere with a giant stick. For instance, RCP 4.5’s range is 1.9 to 3.5 degrees Celsius. RCP 8.5’s range is 3.3 to 5.9 C. Yes, they overlap and astute readers will note they both exceed the often-stated policy goal of avoiding 1.5 degrees C.
- Policymakers can still choose to emit a lot of CO2. If they don’t great, but scientists can’t rule it out because we have no idea what the energy or political landscape will look like in ::checks note:: 80 years.
Side point: These assessments pick 2100 rather arbitrarily. It’s a round number. Presumably if we were on a different calendar system our entire climate assessment process in this context would be different, too. Funny right? But big picture, if emissions don’t go to zero, you never stop warming, so part of this discussion has also involved whether or not we’ll hit RCP 8.5 levels of warming by 2100 vs. 2120. Again, wonky stuff, but worth bearing in mind how squishy all long term projections are and how “net zero emissions ASAP” is a common refrain among climate policy advocates because if you don’t get to zero, the Earth will keep heating up indefinitely.
So when people ask scientists which scenario is the most realistic, they get forthright answers that basically boil down to: it’s up to all of us to figure that out.
Further, IPCC and NCA reports are updated about every 5 years (though not on the same timeline, which creates some lag issues when it’s time to do the NCA). And we’ve had versions of this debate about other lower- or higher-emissions scenarios before, too. The next round of updates is well-summarized here with the IPCC moving to what it calls “Shared Socioeconomic Pathways” that have descriptive names such as “Sustainability” and “Regional Rivalry.” Check them out. If you want to play policymaker, pick which one you think is most likely, too!
But many people still wonder: why can’t scientists just tell us where we’re heading? The answer is simple: they don’t know! And neither do you, me or anyone else. Because fundamentally, our future emissions are based on policy choices we make today — as well as how rapidly we cross various thresholds related to natural systems pumping more heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, e.g. runaway wildfires, melting Arctic permafrost and other so-called “tipping points.”
So why don’t these big reports tell people where we’re headed? Well, these reports aren’t commissioned by scientists, they’re commissioned by governments. That’s you, me and the people we elect to represent us in government. And policymakers don’t want to charge scientists with telling people what elected officials are going to do in eight months, eight years or eighty years.
Further, climate assessments come with specific legal mandates that spell out what they’re supposed to look at and why. For instance, here’s the one for the U.S. National Climate Assessment, which is grounded in a 1990 law passed by Congress. Want scientists to answer a different set of questions? Hit up your member of Congress!
Okay, climate assessments are commissioned by policymakers, but what if my policymakers are bad?
I’m sorry to hear that your policymakers deny climate change and see burning profligate amounts of fossil fuels as fundamental to their ideological worldview. It’s a familiar feeling:
Indeed, Republicans in the United States have a history of attempting to censor the U.S. National Climate Assessment. State-level reports have faced similar levels of censorship from elected officials and their appointees, including deleting all mentions of climate change from reports. And assessments vary significantly in the amount of resources they get for effective public communication. The first National Climate Assessment under Barack Obama was quietly released in the Old Executive Office Building. The second was released with great fanfare on the White House lawn with the president, report authors and major agency heads discussing report findings. That release also had a very robust website that made the findings much easier to access than the standard government .pdf. It was probably the best-communicated federal assessment report we’ve had to date. The first NCA released under Trump was buried on a holiday weekend, but got a ton of coverage in response to the attempted censorship and authors in and out of government had to scramble to answer everyone’s questions about the report.
In the United Nations, countries also constrain what the IPCC looks at and they have a ton of input into how they say it. The Reagan administration pushed for tighter policymaker oversight of the IPCC precisely because they didn’t want scientists making too many strong, precise statements about how bad climate change could be. Congressional Republicans have also tried to cut funding for the IPCC.
So if you’re wondering why climate assessments don’t do what you want them to do, talk to a policymaker, not just a scientist. And if you think your policymakers are bad on climate, do what you can to elect a new one!
It’s also worth noting that debates about climate models are often conflated with debates about the value of cutting carbon pollution. In some cases, they are connected, but in many important cases they are not. For instance, the Trump administration is trying to undervalue the benefits of cutting carbon pollution in federal fuel economy standards for cars and trucks. Doing so has required them to do things like 1) stop counting climate damage suffered outside the United States 2) move the economic discount rate used in this calculation from 3% to 7%. These are mathematical arguments, for sure, but they’re also intensely ideological, moral and ethical ones: Does harm to people outside the United States matter? How much do we value the future? Climate advocates comes down on the side of yes / a lot while climate policy opponents often come down on the side of nope / not much.
It’s business-as-usual to debate climate communication
Having said all that, people still look to assessments to tell them where we’re heading. One easy way to do that is to compare what groups like the International Energy Agency have to say about where we’re going to climate models. Or you can do your own analysis like the Climate Action Tracker does. The IPCC itself also gives policymakers directional data on where we’re at when a report is released, but doesn’t put its thumb on the scale with regard to what future path is the most or least likely (again, that’s up to policymakers).
But a big thread of this discussion has been the degree to which RCP 8.5 *is perceived* as where we’re heading, not whether or not it’s actually where we’re heading. In some cases, scientific assessment reports refer to RCP 8.5 as a reference case, baseline, no-policy baseline or as a business-as-usual scenario. The IPCC’s own glossary recommends not using the latter phrase, though inconsistent references to the phrase appear in the report, some of which don’t even describe RCP 8.5. (We’ll cover this later, too!)
Some interlocutors claim this is a Serious Problem for Climate Science and has led to Alarmist Media Coverage. This is where the discussion starts to shift from reality to politicized belief about perceptions because the reality is: no one has a standard for what constitutes alarmist or non-alarmist media coverage, no one has done a serious analysis of media coverage on this point (i.e. a content analysis) and no one has demonstrated that public concern about climate change is helped or harmed by any of this in-the-weeds debate. In fact, most climate communicators think this is Decidedly Not That Important Wonkery.
My hot take, because I guess I’m entitled to one, too: media coverage and public opinion are largely downstream of policymaker choices and people’s perceptions of climate risk are mainly social, e.g. do they see and hear people like them talking about climate change. A big part of that has to do with climate damage we’re seeing today, not whatever reporting people do about climate model outputs. Media coverage on hyper-specific topics like this is understudied and rarely studied via experiment. The raw number of times people are exposed to messages about climate change is a big factor, too. Finally, climate coverage that emphasizes the choices we face gives people more agency than climate coverage that presents climate change as inevitable or unavoidable.
But what about communicating on this issue specifically? I don’t think there’s a good way to communicate about long-term scenarios like this. Period. They’re super in the weeds, they’re often presented as 80 years out, and they’re not even what most climate communicators — even hardcore doomer-level activists — focus on. I recall a man on the street interview in NYC with someone about a climate assessment where they basically said: 2100? What do I care? I’ll be dead by then. It’s not an uncommon reaction.
And importantly, the policymakers who work in the weeds get all this. They read reports and summaries, have staff, and have access to scientists who explain things to them. They’re also very comfortable making their own judgments about what they think is likely or unlikely, as are advocacy groups, climate strikers, journalists, and every other opinion-haver in a debate. For a California sea-level rise analysis, for instance, scientists and policymakers agreed to tailor guidance to indicate that an absolute worst case scenario was not one that had to be used for planning. They also identified a higher-risk scenario as more appropriate for infrastructure projects for example and a lower-risk scenario as more appropriate for non-critical applications. When we’re down in the weeds of implementation, it works.
So if you want to say that you think Scenario Two or Three is superior to Scenario Four, knock yourself out. You’re entitled to your opinion, just like a policymaker.
But maybe you disagree with this whole approach. If so, please know that the IPCC has a very robust public feedback process. You can learn about how to contribute here. And they note that constructive feedback on language choices are very welcome. You could also tell them to change their mandate and tell us where we’re headed using precise language you like, but again, that’s up to policymakers. The same applies to the NCA.
Fans of assessment processes will note that similar linguistic debates have cropped up before. For instance, do you call a brief flattening of global temperature increase a pause, slowdown or hiatus? We never figured it out, but the Earth…uh, solved the problem for us by continuing to heat up. Thanks…fossil fuels? At the time, this dispute was also presented as an Existential Threat to the Integrity of Climate Science. (Narrator: it was not.)
Deep cut assessment nerds will also note that older versions of the IPCC report also got into disputes over how to talk about the monetary value of a human life. Economic models tend to underestimate the value of lives in developing countries, a calculus people who actually live in and represent those countries at the UN rightfully view as wildly unjustified.
If the IPCC were a company or advocacy group with tons of money, it would engage in robust message testing around all the words it uses, but that takes time, resources and a mandate the IPCC doesn’t have. Further, if a public science assessment did that kind of work, it would probably be perceived as political or an attempt to persuade. Additionally, policymakers routinely fight for their own language choices in IPCC reports, usually on the side of watering down findings. Historically, the George W. Bush administration got caught doing a bunch of embarrassing line-edits to U.S. government climate reports, too.
And, of course, detractors of climate science will always find something to complain about, so there’s no real level of communications analysis one can do to prevent that since their criticisms are largely driven by political ideology, not a desire for improved communication.
One final note on climate communication: The Breakthrough Institute also recently put out an analysis that pegged their definition of “business-as-usual” at 3C based on IEA scenarios. The IPCC said something similar, but didn’t call it “business-as-usual.”
Breakthrough tends to present a sunny-side-up version of climate and energy issues, which is fine by me, but they also dispense free communications and advocacy advice for people who work in climate policy which I routinely disagree with. Never the less, their effort here is in good faith and I appreciate it (especially the charts). But their headline message compressed the temperature ranges scientists usually use down to a single temperature prediction for their definition of “business-as-usual.” This led to some imprecise coverage, which scientists have also criticized. And Zeke Hausfather with Breakthrough, who has produced a ton of useful analysis on this wonkery, helpfully clarified this point:
On the communications front, this is actually an old problem! Again, we haven’t had a lot of resources to study this in the ways companies or campaign study their communications choices, but many years ago scientists could only afford enough computer time to do model runs based on a mid-range scenario. This led to news coverage that only focused on a single scenario, which presented climate choices as locked in and inevitable. As computing capacity increased, scientists could more easily present a range of future outcomes, which they sometimes call a “climate choices” frame for policymakers and the public.
And of course, nearly every scientists has had the experience of journalists focusing on a headline and not the uncertainties expressed in an analysis, even when they’re near the top of the page. It’s a game of telephone and media outlets have their own responsibility to get this stuff right, too, if / when they’re not dealing with their entire industry collapsing, but…I digress!
So…what’s the best choice? That’s up to you, me and everyone we know, but mostly policymakers and corporate giants, who are routinely pressed by climate advocates to do better on this issue.
That said, this debate has produced a Canonically Good Twete, which I will enshrine here.
How to spot the Bad Faith Boys’ Club
Hopefully, that all seems very reasonable to you. It does to me and virtually everyone who actually works on these reports. But what if you have some Very Strong Political Opinions and think they are Not Given Enough Respect by scientists?
Well, then you’re probably very active on Twitter. And your name might be Michael Liebreich. I don’t want to pick on him too badly, but his approach to this debate has been both toxic and illustrative of how people try to launch politicized attacks on climate reports, so I thought it’d be worth going into in some detail. (Like many people who work in climate communication, I also find his interventions funny because they convey both great arrogance and great ignorance, providing many unique Dunning-Krugerisms.)
Michael started this discussion several months ago by introducing an incendiary hashtag (#RCP85IsBollox [or bollocks], a British slang term for “testicles”). Michael is a British energy analyst who helped found Bloomberg New Energy Finance, though he no longer leads the organization. And I want to say this before I get into his contributions to this discussion: I totally respect Michael’s work on clean energy and have cited it when discussing renewables with business- and security-minded conservative audiences that care about climate action in DC. And the analysts at BNEF do great work and I appreciate their contributions to climate analysis. But when it comes to climate communication, Michael is hilariously off base and no one should take him seriously. He’s also clearly operating in bad faith and is open about his politicized goals for these discussions. Unfortunately, he seems to think that scientists are here to implement those goals for him. They are not.
Why is a clean energy analyst so worked up about this stuff? Well, here’s the other thing to know about Michael: his worldview is extremely anti-leftist and he wraps his takes on climate science into that. He has called Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn a “totalitarian Marxist” and regularly dispenses advice to climate advocates that all involve placing more emphasis on business-minded conservatives like him, who he just so happens to believe are THE KEY to passing climate policy, even in the United States, where he has almost no political experience. I have no idea how substantive this is, but he also appeared on a list of potential names to run for mayor of London after someone (???) dumped a bunch of money on his name in a betting market then he tweeted about it.
As a result of his anti-leftism, Michael embraces conspiracy theories about scientists that paint them as secret leftist agents. Here he is spreading conspiracy theories about scientists related to people who stole their emails in 2009. (No really, he still does this.)
He has accused scientists of “demanding global government” based on an obvious misreading of a scientific abstract and saying that he refuses to read the actual paper because he’s a conservative. (No really, he says stuff like this in public! He’s amazing.)
His main claims about RCP 8.5 involve accusing scientists of “feeding” the scenario to media outlets and activists to chase scary headlines. Evidence for this conspiracy theory is never offered, but he has related it directly back to the stolen emails.
Michael’s views about RCP 8.5 are therefore mostly a meta-criticism of media coverage he doesn’t like for political reasons, all of which hinge on assuming that we can only reach RCP 8.5 through an illustrative back story published in 2011, something the energy analysts and scientists involved never claimed and have repeatedly disputed to him despite his protests. Scientists have laid out many ways one could still hit RCP 8.5 and many say they think it’s not likely when asked, but he keeps telling them they haven’t met whatever his unstated standards are for a plausible scenario to include in IPCC reports and demanding new language to describe it (which he never seems to get around to describing in detail when asked).
If you attempt to correct something inaccurate he says, he may call you a “Soviet political commissar” or accuse you of attempting to silence him, even when you spend hours answering his questions. And I’m very grateful to scientists Ken Rice and Peter Jacobs for interrogating Michael’s beliefs so helpfully in these discussions.
In the months he’s spent arguing about this on Twitter, he’s come up with some gems, including claiming that winning a thermodynamics prize at Cambridge gives him keen insights into climate models. He also has some unique ideas about how climate model inputs work, comparing them to turning the gas up and down on a stove, which is wholly inaccurate, but funny to scientists who work in this field. Indeed, his thermodynamics prize has become a bit of a running joke among scientists who do climate modeling.
Unlike the professional climate deniers I deal with in some of my work, Michael is delightfully open about his motivations and strategy. For instance, Paul Maidowski clued us into Michael spitballing about the ways he uses to Twitter to do “culture hacking” on debates he wants to participate in. This apparently includes comparing climate models to testicles and re-initiating discussions during winter break, when scientists have more free time to take his bait. (1–17–20: This section was updated to credit Maidowski and post a screenshot below rather than link to an old auto-deleted tweet.)
When Michael finally got off Twitter and wrote up his thoughts about this topic for Bloomberg New Energy Finance, however, he finally found himself publishing in a venue that does factchecking. And he had to eat a few telling corrections.
First he did not understand that U.S. presidents are sworn in months after they are elected. This had some bearing on his political advice for climate advocates, which hinged on whether or not the next president can formally withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, which must be done the day after the U.S. presidential election, but before the next (possible non-Trump) president is inaugurated. Whoops.
But back to this topic: his first round of claims about the IPCC designating RPC 8.5 as “business-as-usual” were not right and were based on cutting off half of a report FAQ and misattributing the phrase “business as usual” to RCP 8.5 when it was really a statement about *prior emissions* not future ones. This is something I think he picked up on from this article by Colorado political scientist Roger Pielke Jr.
At this point, a reasonable observer, even an ideologue, might acknowledge that the language used in the report is not built for energy analysts who want to define “business as usual” Michael’s way. Instead, Michael appears to have hit “ctrl+f + business-as-usual” on a few IPCC .pdfs. As a result, his analysis now includes references to things that aren’t even RCP 8.5. Scientists who actually contributed to the report have pointed this out to him, not surprisingly to no avail. And he keeps insisting that a glossary defining the term doesn’t count, despite his desire to focus so intensely on this phrase.
So to summarize, Michael’s strategy here has been to:
- repeatedly promote an incendiary hashtag
- tweet out of context report segments at scientists while demanding responses to misleadingly framed questions
- never directly answering questions posed back to him about what he means or wants
- insist that “business-as-usual” can only possibly mean what he says it means, even when it’s used to refer to different scenarios and the IPCC’s own guidance says it’s not a preferred term
Climate bloggers have long dealt with arguments like this. They call them “Climateball” a tribute to the cartoon game of “Calvinball,” in which Calvin changes the rules of a game with his pet tiger Hobbes during the game itself.
For scientists, this means trolls constantly update the rules of engagement as they discover which versions of their arguments are absurd, totally wrong, merely wrong, or half-true. From a politicized critics’ perspective, the key to Climateball is to never give ground to scientists, never read their words in context, and constantly move the goal posts on them.
Smart players know what political ideologues are up to and Willard, a long-time climate blogger, laid out a helpful Climateball blow-by-blow for us.
Ultimately, Richard Betts, an affable scientist who has contributed to many assessment reports, invited Michael to submit his concerns to the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report (AR6) as part of its public review process. Surely, as an energy expert and self-identified communications expert, Michael would have some helpful thoughts about what energy future we might be facing and how to talk about it with people like him? But just like publishing on BNEF’s website, contributing to the IPCC’s extensive review and comment process would open Michael up to getting fact checked in a venue that isn’t entirely under his control (unlike his Twitter feed).
One of the core features of Climateball is to keep getting scientists to argue in your frame, for instance: “How likely is RCP 8.5?” “Would you call it plausible?” “What about the RCP 8.5 2011 energy forecast narrative?”
After asking enough questions, a savvy Climateball player (or “culture hacker”!) can then claim that it’s not they who have pestered scientists for months with a series of shifting questions, but the scientists who have circled the wagons or changed their message.
When arguments about what words mean fall apart, the Climateball player shifts to what other people think words mean, particularly journalists and policymakers. Never answered: what level of control do scientists really have over what those people say and think? Some, for sure. But is the Climateball player interested in helping scientists communicate with them more effectively or is the Climateball player interested in scientists spending more of their time and energy generating media coverage of which the Climateball player approves?
After a Climateball player identifies an area where they think scientists will concede a narrow point (“does BAU mean what I think it means in a specific context”), they can then ask for censorship of the underlying literature based on their communications criticism. No, really.
Climate ball, like nuclear war, is a game that only has losers. And unfortunately, some of Michael’s fellow travelers in the energy sector are happy to take the bait, too, especially if they don’t understand what RCP 8.5 is or how the IPCC works. It’s very easy to get energy analysts fixated on which energy scenarios they think are realistic or unrealistic (fun!), it’s much harder to get them to focus on what the IPCC report actually does (including its work with energy forecasters).
I’ve challenged several of the analysts in this conversation publicly and privately to organize their feedback for the IPCC or lobby policymakers to change the IPCC’s mandate if they don’t like how scenarios are currently used. None of them have indicated they will. And I suspect that complaining about media coverage they don’t like on Twitter will not advance the cause of addressing climate change. They’ve also engaged in some rich discussions about which future scenarios are most likely and, surprise, they don’t agree with each other, just like politicians don’t agree with each other on this exact same point.
Thus, the online discourse tends to go like this:
One other note here: Roger Pielke Jr. the political scientist from Colorado I mentioned earlier, is someone I often disagree with this on these topics, but he did contribute a helpful essay here, which makes it clear that adopting what energy forecasters consider a “business-as-usual” designation in the IPCC would require a change in the assessment’s mandate from policymakers.
Pielke Jr. suggests that such a scenario might rely on agencies like the International Energy Agency or companies like Exxon and BP.
If you consider how implementing that recommendation might go, of course, it becomes clear that determining what a new “business-as-usual” scenario would look like in in this specific context is quite a contentious policy question. It’s hard to imagine that countries which want more aggressive climate action would agree to adopt assumptions from fossil fuel companies whose business models rely on their nations being swallowed by rising seas. And more broadly, Saudi Arabia’s ideas are very different from Costa Rica’s. So are the Democratic presidential candidates’ and Donald Trump’s.
So we are left with interlocutors attempting to advance their favored climate policy outcomes by attacking scientific assessment reports, even if that means amplifying incendiary hashtags from people who are obviously wrong about climate science.
This is unfortunately pretty typical for Roger, but in this case I think he’s being more constructive than usual since he’s putting actual policy proposals on the table we can interrogate and debate.
Previously he has falsely accused climate scientists who serve on assessment reports of having conflicts of interest (including, I kid you not, working on other assessment reports). More notoriously, Roger falsely accused a climate researcher of stealing grant funds on social media. His thousands of climate denier followers pounced and a Republican member of Congress obliged by opening up a politicized harassment campaign against the scientist. Roger has also faced his own critics, including in Congress, but he never seems to get around to acknowledging the ways in which he’s responsible for his own communications missteps.
To be clear, Roger is liberal. He says he supports Sen. Amy Klobuchar for president. But his anti-left communications and advocacy choices are a big reason Republican climate deniers regularly invite him to testify at climate hearings.
All that said, these disputes are professional for me, not personal. I’ve offered to discuss these issues with both Michael and Roger over the phone or in person and will do so again now. But I know from experience, they’re not interested in perspectives grounded in critically assessing their political and communication choices — they want to be the ones setting the rules of Climateball, not the people doing the work. So if you’re wondering why these conversations are so toxic, it’s because people like Michael and Roger want them to be.
Final, final note on this section: this discussion has largely been an ego-driven, toxic bro-fest. And as online discussions degrade, the people who are willing to keep plugging away at them become more and more…distilled. In this case, they feature players well known for equating disagreement with censorship and confusing their own unexamined political opinions for The Truth.
Effective climate communication — let alone advocacy and policy communication—requires empathy for other people’s perspectives and respect for people who disagree with us. Absent that, we’re left with people whose arguments essentially boil down to: Why Isn’t This More About Me?
That isn’t to say we all have to be civil to each other, at least as the term is usually defined. Scientists who have intervened in these discussions have been cautioned by energy analysts many times to be Respectful to Michael. Much more rarely have energy analysts told Michael to Respectfully Read and Comprehend the Source Materials He Is Criticizing. If your version of civility only involves civility for you and people who are like you, you don’t really believe in civility, but if you actually engage in good faith, as many have done in this discussion, you can learn a hell of a lot.
Update: 12/30. Neither Michael or Roger have responded to this essay and I’m virtually certain they never will. Why discuss climate communication with a climate communicator when your real goal is bullying scientists in carrying water for your political goals?
Roger suggested some more policy proposals for editing scientific documents to his liking, but doesn’t seem to want to engage in a dialogue about whether or not these are political choices. As with many of his other policy proposals over the years, they just so happen to involve political scientists like him getting more oversight on science report communication. Go figure.
Michael also stopped responding to me, Peter Jacobs and now Ken Rice. Instead, he decided to tag Dr. Katharine Hayhoe in a series of increasingly rude follow-on Tweets. Dr. Hayhoe is one of the most remarkable climate communicators in America and one of the few researchers who has subjected her own communications work — including with fellow evangelical Christians — to peer-reviewed study. (Yes, there is scientific evidence she is a great communicator! Good times. She also won an AGU climate communications prize and was named to the TIME 100. Michael’s hot comms advice: not so well regarded.) I’m grateful to other analysts who have encouraged Michael to rethink his approach here and, maybe just maybe, log-off.
This incident also made me appreciate this line from Sam Adler Bell on so-called “unpopular opinions.”
Defenses of the status quo must dress themselves in novelty — and preemptive self-victimization — in order to be heard.
Update 1/3/20: I wasn’t sure this debate could reach new levels of bad faith conspiracy theorizing, but 2020 refuses to let me down in this regard. While Michael has been in the lead with accusing scientists of secret socialism, Roger went totally hold-my-beer on this one (see below). Apparently the nefarious use of RCP 8.5 goes straight to the top! I’m being sarcastic, but this is honestly sad and embarrassing to see from an academic who has some otherwise serious takes on climate policy. Maybe he should stick to those instead of the political hot take business.
Update 1/10/2020: Brietbart News, an influential right wing propaganda outlet has picked up on Roger’s conspiracy theory.
Update 1/13/2020: Michael has moved on from complaining about just one climate scenario to complaining about how he thinks they’re combined. Yay, #ClimateBall! The idea that scientists should “condemn” things he doesn’t like and respond to all of his Tweets is, of course, a form of trolling. Asking someone to offer constructive comments to an IPCC report they keep complaining about, not so much.
Update 1/17/20: Michael has indicated that he read the first section of this essay, but when he got to the part where I listed my 10+ years of experience working in climate communication, including on climate assessments, he had act quickly to shield himself from further reading.
Update 2/12/20: Roger Pielke Jr. has announced he is stepping back from social media again. Earlier this month, he had two embarrassing episodes related to this debate, though I have no idea if that contributed to his decision:
First, he accused the New York Times of overstating the effects of climate change by covering a study that relied in part on RCP 8.5. He was wrong on the substance, but also missed that it was an Associated Press wire service article running on the NYT’s site, not something written by NYT journalists, as one of their climate writers helpfully noted. Whoops.
Second, one of Roger’s original complaints about RCP 8.5 was that it’s overrepresented in the literature as “business-as-usual.” It turns out the search paramaters he was using to justify this claim were flatly wrong and were picking up on a wide array of instances of the phrase “RCP 8.5” not just ones where it was presented as “business as usual.” Whoops! Ken Rice helpfully pointed this out to him and after some hemming and hawing, Roger admitted he was wrong then proceeded slap a multiplier on some updated search results and repeat an inflated version of his original claim. Additionally, as many of have pointed out for weeks, scientists often use other phrases to describe scenarios and put “BAU” in scare-quotes since they know it’s not preferred language anymore.
Unfortunately, Roger’s original misinterpretation lives on in a Nature comment that uncritically repeated his point without citation. One of the comment’s authors has noted that a BBC story about it is inaccurate, but this is what happens when people mistake months-long Twitter fights with people like Roger and Michael for real content analysis or a communication problem. To recap: this claim went from Roger’s Forbes.com blog to Michael’s Twitter feed, to Michael’s BNEF’s blog, to a few more Twitter feeds, then, finally, to a Nature comment (stated as opinion without citation, not fact). This is how so-called “seepage” happens, with claims from non-peer reviewed sources working their way into the scientific literature masquerading as communications or policy issues.
After all that noise, Roger switched gears and started complaining about how his career has been negatively impacted by a science blog (Skeptical Science) that has factchecked several of his claims over the years. This included a threat to set up a legal defense fund (for what purpose, he does not say), and a demand that scientific societies, advocacy groups and god knows who else take up his cause.
As I’ve pointed out to Roger many times over the years, this is not a constructive way to approach public policy debates. Perhaps next time, fewer people will be sucked into responding to his ego-driven social media provocations. There is an incredibly wide world of climate policy out there and there are a ton of useful ways to contribute to it, especially at a time when legislative and executive bodies are in dire need of independent expert advice. Wasting scientists’ time with nonsense to get more retweets from climate cranks doesn’t help anyone and I can’t imagine it’s a pleasant way to spend the latter stages of one’s career.
Thanks for reading, here’s some constructive stuff to do
Hug a climate scientist. People ask them to do a lot, even things governments haven’t asked them to do or supported them to do. And nearly all of their outreach and communications work is uncompensated. They’re doing it for democracy and their love of science!
Sign up to review the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report. You don’t have to be a climate scientist. People with expertise in business, energy and communication are welcome!
Encourage your colleagues not to feed the trolls. (This is a guide I wrote on dealing with trolls a few years ago.) Yeah, it’s fun to post online and blow off some steam. It’s not fun to answer bad faith questions that someone is using to attack your entire profession for political reasons. If you want to play Climateball, hold onto the the ball and notice when someone starts trying to change the rules.
Oh and if you’d like, please urge policymakers to offer more robust support for climate science assessments and to support this bill, which would make it harder for politicians to censor scientists.