Over at the Making Science Public blog, Brigitte Nerlich wonders about the origins of the word ‘lukewarmer’…
As I am interested in the emergence and spread of various labels used in the climate change debate, such as for example ‘greenhouse sceptic’, I wanted to know more about the label ‘lukewarmer’ and while I can’t write its history in this post, I can show how it was used in the news. I put ‘lukewarmer’ and ‘climate’ as search terms into my preferred news data base, Lexis Nexis, on 3 May 2015 in All English Language News and got (only) 43 results. There were 8 duplicates. So, in the end I read 35 articles, published between 30 January 2010 and 22 April 2015. Compared to the use of other labels, such as denier and alarmist for example, these are small numbers. What follows are extracts from this small body of articles and I’ll leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions.
Underneath Brigitte’s post is a long, unproductive exchange between various contributors and astronomer Ken Rice, pka And Then There’s Physics, who runs the blog of the same name. Rice bans alternative opinion from his own blog, but is a prolific commenter — so much so it’s hard to wonder how he gets any astronomy done — at popular blogs. Lucia made a heroic attempt to explain to Rice that there are more than two positions in the debate — read her précis here — but to little progress, such is the limit on dialogue imposed by the astronomer’s personality or capacity, it’s not clear which.
What is interesting about the phenomenon of ‘lukewarmism’ is its background. More respectable than climate scepticism and climate denial in turn, of course, but seemingly positioned just as far away from climate alarmism. But in this sense, anyone seeking to identify themselves as ‘lukewarm’ needs to take for granted the categories that others designate for themselves and each other, to triangulate their own coordinates.
But didn’t this space always exist? Was it only discovered recently? In the discussion at Making Science Public, various attempts are made to identify positions in the debate with respect to estimates of climate sensitivity. If this be the index corresponding to the fundamental axis of the debate, then, why not just give everyone on it a number? Deniers, 0-0.5; sceptics, 0.5-1.0; lukewarmers, 1.0 – 2.0, warmists 2.0-3.0, alarmists 3.0-99999999999.0.
Such an index would tell you nothing about why somebody believes that the climate’s sensitivity is what they believe it to be, much less why that number is significant. The numbers would obscure the argument, and in turn would prefigure the debate. This is, of course, the point of Consensus Enforcement that Ken Rice and his highly prolific associates engage in. Many a lukewarm blog — and even many ‘denial’ websites — has been all but colonised, lest the climate debate be contaminated by nuance. The consensus enforcers don’t even want there to be an index — admitting to an entire axis of perspectives would make the debate far more complicated than the simple matter of right-vs-wrong, good-vs-bad or science-vs-denial that they want it to be. The point of consensus enforcement is to sustain the polarised account of the debate.
Of course something approximate to the lukewarm position has always existed. And as the recent hand-wringing about Bjorn Lomborg’s appointment, and subsequent dis-appointment at the University of Western Australia shows, the debate has at least one more axis than even the enforcers admit to. In the Guardian, consensus enforcer, Graham Readfearn claimed of the affair, “The spark was the University of Western Australia’s decision to back out of a deal to host a research centre fronted by climate science contrarian Bjørn Lomborg and paid for with $4m of taxpayer cash.”
The designation of the category ‘climate contrarian’ to Lomborg is an interesting one, as Lomborg himself takes a fairly mainstream view of climate science, and stresses the need to decarbonise the energy sector. It is true that he says this is not the world’s greatest problem, but this is hardly ‘contrarian’, except in the world imagined by the consensus enforcers, where any policy short of radical mitigation is merely a lighter shade of ‘denial’. The case of Lomborg’s treatment at the hands of the consensus enforcers is the most perfect demonstration of their polarisation of the debate — the lumping together of lukewarmers, sceptics and deniers.
The same University was home to Stephan Lewandowsky, who has set up camp in the West of England — Bristol University — from where he has famously pronounced on the apparent correlation of conspiracy theories and climate change scepticism, which was fatally flawed and widely debunked, and led to a retraction. Lewandowsky has now teamed up with Naomi Oreskes, to produce a new theory of the climate debate, called ‘seepage‘,
… we argue that the appeal to uncertainty in public discourse, together with other contrarian talking points, has “seeped” back into the relevant scientific community. We suggest that in response to constant, and sometimes toxic, public challenges, scientists have over-emphasized scientific uncertainty, and have inadvertently allowed contrarian claims to affect how they themselves speak, and perhaps even think, about their own research. We show that even when scientists are rebutting contrarian talking points, they often do so within a framing and within a linguistic landscape created by denial, and often in a manner that reinforces the contrarian claim. This “seepage” has arguably contributed to a widespread tendency to understate the severity of the climate problem (e.g., Brysse et al., 2013 and Freudenburg and Muselli, 2010).
According to this theory, the global warming ‘hiatus’ is a myth, put about by climate sceptics, but which has been absorbed by climate scientists (as per ‘meme’), who reproduce it blindly, having been so beaten and harassed by the assembled forces of contrarianism and denial. But Richard Betts disagreed.
The authors suggest that climate scientists are allowing themselves to be influenced by “contrarian memes” and give too much attention to uncertainty in climate science. They express concern that this would invite inaction in addressing anthropogenic climate change. It’s an intriguing paper, not least because of what it reveals about the authors’ framing of the climate change discourse (they use a clear “us vs. them” framing), their assumptions about the aims and scope of climate science, and their awareness of past research. However, the authors seem unable to offer any real evidence to support their speculation, and I think their conclusions are incorrect.
Betts’s rejoinder was published as a guest post at… of all places… Ken Rice’s blog, where it was received by a mixture of responses, most resistant to the nuanced picture of the debate advanced by Betts. The post was republished at WUWT. I’m curious, though, why Richard Betts didn’t publish it on one of the websites of the organisations he is associated with, such as the Met Office. After all, Lewandowksy takes aim at climate scientists and their work directly. (For more comment, see also contributions from climate scientists including Betts in the comments under the article at http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/may/15/are-climate-scientists-cowed-by-sceptics )
And this point is worth more consideration. As I’ve argued before, “memes” — a theory which often comes up in the climate debate — are a double-edged sword. Lewandowsky is saying that climate scientists are vulnerable to ‘contrarian memes’ about ‘the pause’. But if this is so, wouldn’t climate scientists be equally vulnerable to ‘warmist memes’ and ‘alarmist memes’? After all, the warmist cause is so much better funded, and able to mobilise vastly more resources than any climate sceptics.
Once we start to see debates in terms of competing memes, we reduce all notions of truth to merely a dominant ‘meme’. Which is to say ‘truth’ might be nothing more than a meme — an arbitrary judgement which merely reflects dominant beliefs, not necessary truth. If that still sounds too theoretical, consider that it is precisely what Lewandowsky, Oreskes et al have done. They have said that the entire scientific community — individual scientists, scientific institutions, and the IPCC — were vulnerable to the ‘meme’, whereas only the historian of science and the psychologist were immune to its propagation through the very community that both Oreskes and Lewandowsky claim has produced a robust, unimpeachable consensus. Indeed, science itself — as a process — is no longer the best test of theories about the material world. And science — as an institution — is no longer an authority on any matter. All because us crafty deniers, by careful deployment of a simple word — “hiatus” — were able to undermine the consensus on climate change, and to hijack the entire global research enterprise.
Moreover, the implication of Lewandowsky and Oreskes is not only that by virtue of their vulnerability they are incompetent, climate scientists cannot even research ‘contrarian memes’, because to research the meme in question is QED to become vulnerable to it, and to reproduce it: ‘seepage’.
This returns us to the post at Making Science Public. Brigette opens by referring to a recent post by Tamsin Edwards, who is to the ‘contrarian meme’ what Typhoid Mary was to, erm, typhoid…
On 3 May Tamsin Edwards wrote an article for The Observer entitled “The lukewarmers don’t deny climate change. But they say the outlook’s fine” (see here for a discussion; I should point out that Tamsin didn’t choose the title for this article).
I find Edwards writing for the Guardian as odd as Betts writing for ATTP. Indeed, the comments beneath her article reflect the preference for shrill, alarmist copy, not nuances. Ditto, and moving more into the established Lukewarm camp, Roger Pielke Jr, recently had an article on the same website, ‘Why discrediting controversial academics such as Bjørn Lomborg damages science‘. The very first comment is from Ken Rice, who takes the moniker ‘fast fingers’ from Bob Ward…
What would probably help is if someone like Lomborg where to acknowledge the errors he makes when talking about something like climate science.
… Which is to say that debates would be so much easier if people I disagree with would just have the humility to admit that they are wrong.
But back to Tamsin Edwards, who wrote
But whether we are in denial, lukewarm or concerned about global warming, the question really boils down to how we view uncertainty. If you agree with mainstream scientists, what would you be willing to do to reduce the predicted risks of substantial warming? And if you’re a lukewarmer, confident the Earth is not very sensitive, what would be at risk if you were wrong?
It seems to me that ‘lukewarmers’, to the extent that they are represented by Pielke and to a lesser extent by Betts and Edwards, still have a cultural, or spiritual home in The Gaurdian — or even at ATTP. But it is an unhappy home.
This is shown, I believe by taking a closer look at Edward’s naive definition of the climate debate’s fundamental axis, that denial-lukwarmism-concern are reflected by one’s estimation of likely warming impact. As I wrote at Bishop Hill in the comments,
Here Tamsin should admit that this is ‘ideology’ or politics — the precautionary principle, reformulated — not straightforward risk analysis.
It follows that if you take a view of ‘nature’ which is fragile, exists in ‘balance’, and provides for human society, any interruption to the imagined Order of the world will be catastrophic — a contemporary, secular reading of the The Fall.
If on the other hand you take the view that human society is (or can be) more dependent on itself than dependent on natural processes, which don’t exist in quite such a perilous state as has been imagined, the perturbations caused by human society are of lesser consequence.
I can agree with a ‘mainstream scientist’ that his predictions (such as they are) are plausible without committing to the idea that substantial warming creates uniquely challenging risks. Conversely, the green view used to hold (i.e. Greens used to be frank about it) that tiny perturbations can precipitate huge changes in the natural environment. One can be wrong about low climate sensitivity, but still be able to face the societal and technical challenges this would imply, even if that meant, 500 years hence, abandoning London to the sea (or rescuing it through some form of engineering). After all, human life thrives across a vast range of environmental conditions.
There is the question of the sensitivity of climate to CO2, and there is the question of society’s sensitivity to climate. They should not be conflated. Conflating them is to presuppose the green view of nature in balance, and the perfect form of social organisation reflecting that balance.
If the notion of risk is still important, Tamsin’s question to the lukewarmer and mainstream scientist can be turned inside out. What are the risks of holding with the view that society is dependent on ‘balance’ with natural processes? And what are the risks of believing that human society is largely self-dependent. Added to these risk calculations are moral and political questions — is a society that models itself on ‘nature’ better than one that models itself on its own measure? I don’t believe Tamsin’s questions — nor any implications of climate science — make any sense until those questions have been answered. That’s not to say that even the radically human-centric view of the debate wouldn’t choose some form of mitigation, but it does suggest that mitigation at all costs, and in the political form of that the agenda currently takes would likely be off the cards, so to speak, and would be seen for the deeply regressive tendency that it is.
It seems to me that debates about the environment, and climate in particular rest on more than one axis. Of course, there is this index of sensitivity, which is important.
But then there is the question of the degree to which human society is dependent for any given stage of development, on natural processes, or ‘stability’. And this is arguably just as important.
Then there is the question, related to the first and second, about the necessity of organising public life around the principles seemingly understood from environmental/climate science.
I don’t believe that the first axis is the only axis in this debate. As I describe above, one could take a high position with respect to climate sensitivity, but have a high estimation of human society and humans as individuals, to determine that the benefits of industrial society are worth bearings the cost-consequences for, on economic, moral, or political bases. Moreover, I have had many arguments with people of an alarmist bent in which it has become obvious that they are keener on a society organised around the authority of climate science than they are keen on understanding precisely what climate science has determined, which is to say that such a position is nakedly ‘ideological’, yet owes very little of its understanding to science. And on the other hand, I have argued with just as many putative ‘deniers’ who would seem to accept a great deal of state control of their lives, should it be discovered that indeed the climate is changing as dramatically as been claimed, such is the limitation of pure climate scepticism.
Over at TheLukewarmer’s Way, Thomas Fuller enumerates the things, per Lucia, that lukewarmers disagree with others about:
“Lukewarmer disagree with those who:
1) Believe CO2 has no net warming effect.
2) Believe the warming effect is so small that any observed rise in measured global temperature is 100% due to natural causes.
3) Believe the measured global temperature rise purely or mostly a result of “fiddling”.
4) Believe the world is more likely to cool over the next 100 years than warm.”
* lukewarmers believe ECS is on the lower end of the IPCC AR4 range […]
* … recognize the magnitude of the temperature change matters as does the rate of change.[…]
* … think it’s important for the estimates of ECS used in economic models that are used to guide policy to not be biased by things like using inapproriate priors […]
* … disagree with the rhetoric that suggests that we must all focus on the high end of ECS […]
This would seem to claim that lukewarmism is qualitatively different from scepticism and ‘warmism’, not merely a position taken after triangulating between having ones cake and eating it. But that appears to be the implication, unfortunately. And this is perhaps the limitation of honest brokerage, lukewarmism and the new manifesto offered by the ‘ecomodernists’.
As I pointed out here in an earlier discussion about words…
I find it hard to fault Pielke, Nerlich or Curry’s thinking on most things. But I wonder what use there is in an endless taxonomy of agents in the climate debate, and ideas about configuring effective relationships between science and governance.
Would even an honest broker have ever been able to resist eugenics and neomalthusianism? Could being objective about the evidence, and helping politicians consider the evidence have stopped the ‘limits to growth’ thesis from developing its toxic hold over (and against) the development agenda? Could public engagement have stopped 20th Century scientific racism?
The following may sound shrill, and lean towards a reductio-ad-Hitlerum argument. But notice that, even though we all now know that the racial science of the early 20th Century was political, not even the Royal Society is so aware of the difference between science and ‘ideology’ that it recognises mid 20th Century malthusianism as a racist doctrine and Paul Ehrlich as a nasty racist. The Royal Society gives Ehrlich awards instead, salvages his failed prophecies, and re-animates them to increase their own leverage in political debates about the environment. The task in front of the honest broker is bigger than he realises: it’s him versus some serious institutional muscle.
Just a few years south of Rio Declaration’s fourth decade, I would argue, is a little bit late to start worrying about merely fixing the relationship between science and policy-making, such that only the best science gets through, untrammelled by alarmism — denial was never admitted to the debate anyway. If lukewarmism really is about merely fixing this relationship after locating some sensible middle ground, it is hopeless. It is not equal to the task of understanding why the environment in general and climate in particular have become encompassing frameworks for understanding the world and things within it such as poverty, war, inequality, and decline in the ‘general sense of wellbeing’, and as such is not equal to the task of understanding what impedes transparent dialogue between science and policymaking. It is not enough to merely say that we should use ‘good science'; the reason why policymakers have sought the moral authority of science needs to be understood, before we can say what is good science and what is not. And it is not enough to produce glossy manifestos, aiming to put policy-making and the natural science on the right track. Until the reasons why alarmist manifestos and the models that underpin them were able to thrive are understood, there can be no sensible manifesto.
In other words, if ‘lukewarmism’ tries to define itself as anything other than merely an attitude towards debate — for instance by attaching itself to an estimate of climate sensitivity — then it is as problematic as outright denial or rabid alarmism. I always thought this was what was meant by ‘lukewarm’, and that the middleground estimation of climate sensitivity was the consequence of not being invested either in ideas about scientific fraud or in particular political agendas. It seems that many lukewarmers are, after all, refugees from the green camp, displaced — or even expelled by the shrill rhetoric of so many Lewandowskys and Oreskes — by alarmism, but not really willing to ask why they are in exile.
Of course, many (but not all) lukewarmers do ask such questions. But perhaps ‘lukewarm’ doesn’t describe very much at all, except where a position exists in relation to another. There’s little point trying to define lukewarmism for all values of alarmism, or for all values of denial, since the debate is fluid, and moves on. New issues emerge, such as the pause, or ocean acidification, or climategate, or Himalayagate. Each creates new challenges for the putative camp in question to explain the development. Giving things names, more often than not, is an attempt to keep the debate frozen.
There is a quote somewhere, which I have lost: once you give something a name, you don’t have to argue with it. This is the tactic followed by Lewandowsky, Oreskes et al. By suggesting that there is a phenomenon of denial… And now lukewarmism in the form of reflection on the hiatus, it becomes an object of study, rather than an analysis or judgement in its own right. Lewandowsky and Orsekes no longer need to defer to climate science — nor even climate scientists — they simply need to say that science is vulnerable to some force which is greater than it. Deniers are vulnerable to ‘conspiracy ideation’, and climate scientists are vulnerable to deniers’ conspiracies to undermine certainty with doubt. No deniers, sceptics, lukewarmers or even climate scientists are allowed to have found the data on the hiatus interesting in its own right. Don’t take my word for it, ask Lewandowsky et al.
Roger Pielke Jr. tweets that he rejects the term ‘lukewarmer’, and adds: “Distinguishing political perspectives according to ECS is antithetical to robust policy & inclusive politics”.
I would again add that I think the term isn’t meaningful, so I don’t mean a lot by it. My apologies to Pielke, nonetheless. This is the problem with labels. By referring to him as a ‘lukewarmer’ I was not referring to his estimates of sensitivity, but as I point out later, an approach to debate, contra those who are hostile to it, which holds that it is essential.