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Does grass green when a ‘lukewarmer’ visits your backyard?

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When it comes to climate discussions, a “Lukewarmer” represents a dangerous portion of the climate discussion spectrum. While stringent climate denial, like Donald Trump’s, can be quickly pigeon-holed as yet another ignorant absurdity from someone who is poorly acquainted with truth and knowledge, Lukewarmers can easily confuse the situation through their seeming reasonableness and superficial moderation — mixing some truth, partial truths, and outright deception to undermine public (and policy community) understanding of climate science and, therefore, to weaken support for climate mitigation.

A definition is merited before delving deeper. A Lukewarmer

  • acknowledges that climate change is occurring and that human action is, in part, driving a warming planetary system;
  • Asserts that this isn’t a crisis due to
    • low ‘climate sensitivity’ (how much heating will occur for doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations);
    • warming (and increased CO2) provides significant benefits (at least to well beyond where we are today); and that
    • adaptation to changed conditions is normal human action and easy/low-cost.
  • argues against action to mitigate climate change
    • asserting high costs and risks for mitigation action, minimal impacts of action, combined with the assertions above, makes this simply not worth doing.

Or, as a member of the National Academies of Sciences put it to me in a private note:

Lukewarmer.

That’s just a medium denier, who pretends to accept the science, but then fights against ANY action to address the problem by minimizing how bad it is and maximizing false information of the costs of acting.

[A moment for some critical truth: no matter its level, that there is any level of climate sensitivity to human action should merit attention and concern. Agreeing that there is climate sensitivity is agreeing that we are driving change in the global system that human civilization and, well, all creatures have evolved/developed in.] https://twitter.com/DrKateMarvel/status/1108813392150740992

A smooth talking, well-prepared Lukewarmer can truly confuse a public audience by seemingly being so reasonable and so well armed with (alternative) facts to buttress that reasonableness. Just such a snake-oil salesman came to my backyard the other day.

Pat Michaels is a rarity in the climate denialism/lukewarmer space. He actually has a relevant degree, actually has worked in relevant science, actually has (even if long ago) publications in peer-reviewed literature. Michaels, also, has a long history of the fossil-fuel industry paying for work to confuse the public about climate science and policy. For example,

  • In 1991, “Patrick Michaels lended “expert” advice on the impacts of global warming to a public relations campaign conceived and funded by a coalition of coal companies and electric utilities.  The campaign, under the title “Information Council on the Environment,” aimed to “reposition global warming as theory (not fact).””
  • “In a leaked 2006 memo of the Intermountain Rural Electric Association (IREA), Michaels is listed as a recipient of at least $100,000 from IREA to combat global warming “alarmists.” The IREA memo outlines a coordinated strategy by Koch Industries, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Michaels, and other key groups. “We have met with Koch, CEI and Dr. Michaels, and they meet among themselves periodically to discuss their activities,” NERA’s General Manager Stan Lewandowski wrote. [97]”
  • Etc ….

In any event, Pat Michaels came to my backyard to give a presentation to the Lewinsville Presbyterian Church’s “Faith and Public Policy Committee”.

Pat Michaels, Lewinsville presentation, 20 March 2019
Announcing a Lukewarmer’s Presentation

In this announcement, some critical language is underlined. An assertion that Michaels is providing a legitimate “alternative perspective on the underlying science” which could “turn out to be correct”. We are mandated to accept as some form of a reasonable proposition that the world’s scientists could be wrong and fossil-fuels-funded Michaels and friends just might be right. (Re that link, Michaels is asking us to believe him (and bet our, our children’s, humanity’s future) rather than pay attention to every single national academy of science and relevant professional association.) Perhaps the next Faith and Policy Committee announcement will request invitees to “please suspend your disbelief as we discuss the implications of the coming Zombie Apocalypse.”

Summarizing a truthiness-laded presentation

Michaels’ roughly 90 minute presentation (especially without recording/transcript/slides) is just too much (and too painful) to recount fully here. A reasonable summary of this Lukewarmer:

  • Yes, there is warming
  • Yes, humans have something to do with it
  • Warming risks/CO2 implications are less than the models predict
    • Scientists have ‘gone along’ (conspired) to exaggerate warming risks and implications
  • Increased CO2 and warming are beneficial, on average
  • Options to reduce CO2 won’t have much impact and cost too much money
    • We should bide our time until technology and options come around
  • Adaptation is what humans do and is easy.

The standard denier (okay, Lukewarmer) tactic is what’s call Gish Gallop: jumping from one false or misleading argument to another so fast that it hard to keep up and hard(er) to refute. In an audience like this, the Gish Gallop is strengthened with slide after slide seeming to ‘prove’ with data the point being discussed. And, unless a true world class expert who has been ‘fighting’ these issues forever, it is essentially impossible to keep up with the presentation while delving into specific items to figure out how they’re misleading. And, since the slide deck isn’t available, pretty much impossible to go back to X slide to demonstrate how the data or presentation was manipulated to confuse the discussion.

Even so, here are a few examples of such ‘misdirection’ or confusion generation.

Hurricanes ….

Michaels talked about how people are concerned about things they hear on the radio and that they shouldn’t be. His example was claims that “hurricanes are getting worse” with an implication (statement?) that this is what climate scientists are stating. He talked for a few minutes (with, of course, solely a focus on Atlantic hurricanes rather than the global data) about how the data record doesn’t back that up.

Hmmm … Okay, it was just too hard to search for material to challenge all the misdirection but had to at least strive to look for one item to use in a question and I chose this as there is debate within the relevant scientific community as to how and, in some ways, whether climate change is impacting hurricanes. As per a National Academies of Science report on Advancing the Science of Climate Change,

Changes in the intensity of hurricane have been documented and attributed to changes in sea-surface temperatures, but the link between these changes and climate change remains uncertain and the subject of considerable research and scientific debate.

Now, when I read a sentence from this NAS report to preface a question, to highlight how he was gaming the situation, Michaels interrupted me (as opposed to the moderator not allowing anyone in the audience to interrupt Michaels — so much for cordiality) to state that this was responding to X study by Y author as if (perhaps it is true) that Micheals knew exactly which report this was (out of dozens of NAS pages) and exactly which page. Sure, right, but he didn’t deal with the issue that the scientific community is in ‘debate’ on a point where he asserted that they were fully in agreement (and wrong). The point really was that Michaels set up a strawman argument to pick apart to ‘prove’ a supposed exaggeration by the scientific ‘herd’ that, well, simply doesn’t exist.

Washington will be like X

Michaels wants people to think that impacts will be minor and thus easily adapted to with, for example, air conditioning. Amid his ‘adaptation’ will be easy (and not even noticeable as we go about our lives), he said something like ‘Washington’s weather will become like Richmond’s. Really think that this will have much of an impact on our lives.?’

Richmond? How about Greenwood, Mississippi, which “is 9.8°F (5.5°C) warmer and 75.2% wetter than winter in Washington.” By 2080,

Many East Coast cities are going to become more like locations to the southwest, on average roughly 500 miles away.”

What will your city feel like in 2080?

Fossil-foolish funds

When asked about his history of taking funding, Michaels simply refused to answer. Again, there is a long documented history of Michaels taking (directly and indirectly) funds from fossil fuel firms — even for specifically assisting to confuse the public discussion of climate science.

Pat Michaels: a confusion-generation machine

Some other Michaels’ confusion-generating messaging that, well, generates head-knocking against wall and deception that takes much more effort to refute than it does to spew out.

  • TRUTH: Scientific modeling on climate change is doing reasonably well in providing a window on what has and is happening.
    • Michaels: Scientists are “cheating” at the models, are poorly executing their models, and leveraging bad models to scare people.
  • TRUTH: Greenland ice melt is accelerating, could have a serious impact on global sea levels in our lifetimes, and — if totally melted — could add 23 feet to sea level.
    • Michaels: Greenland ice melt isn’t to be worried about — it will take a long time and won’t be that consequential.
  • TRUTH: Energy poverty is being tackled around the world, with increasing numbers of people having access to at least basic (level 1) electricity every year with solar power being a primary reason for this.
    • Michaels: Africans face a choice between burning fossil fuels or burning dung … who are we to keep them burning dung.
  • TRUTH: People want/need energy services, not the ‘energy’. Some situations, like powering a jet aircraft, require “dense” energy (power per weight, volume) while in other situations, ‘energy density’ is irrelevant. (Think solar power on rooftops — the roof is already there. As long as those clean electrons are cost competitive, does it (in economic calculations) how many watts are generated per square foot? And, for the energy system, that rooftop would be wasted space without those solar panels.)
    • Michaels: Fossil fuels are an absolute necessity due to energy ‘density’.
  • TRUTH: Market interactions are complex, with incumbents and other influencers distorting markets and ‘irrational’ humans (e.g., essentially none of us are homo economicus) not always making the most rational economic choices. The ‘market’ isn’t perfect and the ‘best’ solution doesn’t always win or emerge.
    • Michaels: Efficiency and the market will win out. Just let the market solve everything.
  • TRUTH: “Climate change is the greatest threat to coral reefs.”
    • Michaels: Yes, there is coral bleaching, but it has nothing to do with CO2 warming and the system is self-correcting as coral polyps that are able to handle the heat replace those who die. Nature adapts just like humans.
  • TRUTH: Using obsolete financial industry very high discount rates for assessing, for example, impacts of environmental regulations essentially means that we could couldn’t care less about the future. Using a high discount rate in a social cost of carbon analysis quite literally means that today’s consumption is worth more than all of humanity’s existence a century from now.  The Obama Administration’s calculation of the social cost of carbon was, in fact, far lower than the numbers generated by many analytical teams around the world.
    • Michaels: The Obama Administration Social Cost of Carbon was overstated since it didn’t discount the future (e.g., the value of we (in our old age), our children (as adults) and grandchildren having a habitable planet) enough.
  • TRUTH: Climate change is complicated, as is the global ecosystem. Carbon dioxide can lead to greater plant growth even while lowering the quality of the plant’s nutrients (in many cases).  And, tropical deforestation is a real thing that creates real risks … and tropical deforestation is happening.
    • Michaels: The world is greening due to increased CO2 in the atmosphere [implying that we should just keeping adding more] and that areas of greatest greening are in tropical forest areas — which are getting greener, more vegetation rather than the deforestation we hear about.
  • etc …
  • etc …
  • etc …

Head hitting desk moment … everyone of these assertions is false and/or misleading.

Laughing all the way

Michaels is a good snake-oil salesman, overwhelming with appearance of overwhelming data to ‘prove’ his assertions and engaging in ways to win over audience sympathy. All of this confusion generating and misdirection came with wry humor and seeming self-deprecation.

  • ‘Washington, DC, has one of the largest urban heat islands in the country from all the money changing hands.’
  • In discussion asserting that modeling is wrong, with the exception of one model: I hope the Special Prosecutor gets his report out because it is the Russian model.”
  • In audience dominated by people over age 65, Michaels slowly and loudly stated “O … M … G” to emphasize (false) points.
  • “Let’s talk about Syria because that’s one of the infrared herrings of the climate discussion.”
https://crankyuncles.com
courtesy of John Cook

Ha … ha .. ha … laughing our way to catastrophe.

O … M … G … The Oregon Petition

My question was the last of the evening and I did manage to get out (something like): “Every single world Academy of Science and relevant scientific institution would not agree with your presentation. You are asking everyone here to believe you over the world’s scientific community.” While Michaels’ reaction was, in essence, ‘they are all going along to get along and don’t have my courage’, the most interesting reaction came as the evening closed.

The wife of the event organizer, John Theune, was (my wording) clearly outraged over the impugning of Michaels, Theune, and the professional climate science denial (oops, Lukewarmer) world. She stood up, in her outrage, to assert that there is a “petition signed by 31.478 American scientists who agree with John and Pat Michaels.  When John worked at NASA, the position was we did not know enough … There is a large body of data, research, and scientists who stand behind Dr. Michaels.”

Sigh. Love the preciseness of 31,478. In any event, that is the Oregon Petition whose luminaries, in signing, have included senior scientists like Mickey Mouse and ” included the names of “Drs. ‘Frank Burns’ ‘Honeycutt’ and ‘Pierce’ from the hit-show M*A*S*H and Spice Girls, a.k.a. Geraldine Halliwell, who was on the petition as ‘Dr. Geri Halliwel’ and again as simply ‘Dr. Halliwell.'” Now, even if we were to assume that 100% of the “31,478” were accurate, as of 2010, there had been over 10 million Americans who fulfilled the claimed ‘requirements’ to be able to sign the petition as scientists.

An interesting aside moment: CATO vs Heartland

After the presentation, one of the audience members went up to Michaels and said that his unwillingness to discuss his fossil fuel funding undermine his message. Amid this (paraphrasing),

  • Audience member: You worked at Heartland, after all, which takes lots of money from the Koch Brothers.
  • Michaels: No, I worked at CATO. We’re quite different. You shouldn’t trust anything about science from Heartland.

Hmm … okay, there is at least one thing Michaels said Wednesday evening that is accurate and truthful.

The most critical message of the evening

Without question, there are far (FAR) more pleasant ways to spend the evening than sitting in the audience for a science denial presentation. The event moderator, Lincoln Brooks, provided the painful truth as to ‘why’ it can be necessary:

No matter what you think of Pat Michaels and what he said, no matter whether you think he is utterly wrong, there is a simple truth. One half of major American political parties is listening to him.

And, one last note to resolve an opening question: despite a lukewarmer’s substantial CO2 emissions, the grass isn’t any greener in my backyard.