"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

History of Opinon on Climate Change

Spencer Weart has a two part history of the subject of how popular opinion about climate change has evolved that is quite interesting now and will be of great use to posterity. There are links to other articles by himself and others.

I am especially taken by his article for the American Physics Society. Here he makes a remarkable claim.

The naysayers are constantly going on about how IPCC is as much a political as a scientific organization. They use this to suggest that it will necessarily be biased in favor of increased government power, hence inclined to exaggerate risks. In that context, consider Weart's version of the story, which I had not heard presented this way:
Half a century ago, nearly all scientists thought greenhouse warming
was scarcely likely to be a problem. It took decades of accumulating evidence, with many hardfought debates, to convince them they were wrong. Panels of scientists convened on climate change hundreds of times in many countries. As scientists, most of the panelists were professional skeptics. Yet since the late 1970s essentially every such panel has concluded that warming could become a bad problem someday. In the present century, every respectable panel has concluded that it probably will be a severe problem, and soon.

Some people suspect such panels are just an old-boy-and-girl network looking out for its own research funds. History helps counter that suspicion, for the origins of
the present consensus are revealing. The Reagan administration believed that any self-appointed group of scientists would issue alarmist, hyper-environmentalist
statements. They forestalled that by promoting a complex international
advisory structure, led by people appointed by governments rather than by the scientific community. To further impede any statements that might push toward government regulation, the advisory group’s conclusions would have to be consensual –the unanimous findings of representatives of all the world’s governments.

The result is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Surprisingly, the process produced useful advice. Relentlessly confronted with the evidence and arguments of their colleagues, even the science representatives of oil-rich states eventually agreed that the world is very likely warming at an unprecedented rate, and that the most likely cause is the buildup of greenhouse gases due to human activities.
I'd really like to know if that's true. It certainly sheds an interesting light on the argumentative style of the opposition if so. On the whole Weart seems an honest and diligent reporter of the facts. As old Mr. Spock might say, raising an eyebrow, "fascinating".


Paul said...

I too was very intrigued by Spencer Weart's account of the Regan administrations role in encouraging the formation of the IPCC. The history as described in the IPCC 10th anniversary brochure

does not single out any particular country role.

Paul Middents

Michael Tobis said...

Well, it wouldn't, would it? I find it an interesting if as yet unconfirmed story.

Michael Oppenheimer says something similar here.

Anonymous said...

I have read the same story in Mark Bowen's "Thin Ice", which happens to be a pretty good history of climate science told in the context of a story about Lonnie Thompson.

I suspect that this is an accurate account, since we now have not two, but three sources for it.

Anonymous said...


You asked me before to assume that I was convinced AGW was the real deal, what would I then do about it.

Can you conduct a similar mind-experiment on your end. What if the government (in the US, or in all countries) had never even considered the idea of funding or in any way being involved in science. i.e. Imagine it never occured to anyone to say "Hmm, science, yeah we should get into that".

What do you think the state of things now would be? What would the incentives be? How would scientists focus their research, publicize issues, conduct research, etc?

Michael Tobis said...

Hmm, I am not sure I see the point, Steven, but I am confident of one thing, we would not be having this conversation in this way.

Why don't you do the work on this one and get back to us? Blogger accounts are free you know.

Anonymous said...


Well, if you ask me, it sounds too much like one of those climate conspiracy theories. Though I have to admit it sounds more plausible, since it only requires one group of conspirators -- the Reagan administration -- and doesn't need the rest of the world to play along with their intentions.

But still...

What are the "smoking gun" indications that stifling activism was indeed on the mind of the Reaganites? It'll be interesting to see those. Oppenheimer mentions a letter from Bill Nitze -- I'd like to know what the letter actually says.

-- bi, International Journal of Inactivism

Anonymous said...

Google Scholar, I tried:

reagan administration delay environmental creation IPCC

Found much, e.g. this from 1994:


"... Our discussion is organized into three periods of time: 1970–1980 (ending with the first World Climate Conference), 1980–1987 (ending with the U.S. presidential election), and 1988–1992 (signing of the Convention). For each period there is an overall summary and analysis followed by a chronology of selected events...."

Anonymous said...


Thanks, that was interesting... though by the word "delay" I think the article was talking about delaying global warming, rather than any specific delayer tactics to be attributed to the Reagan administration.

-- bi, International Journal of Inactivism

Michael Tobis said...

Agree with bi here.

We need something a tad less circumspect for convincing corroboration.

Anonymous said...

I have to confess I am pressed for time and can only afford a drive-by now and then.

I have been considering blogging, but I've got non-class projects due for a professor, and the Dean want's me to reinvent B-school for him. It'll stay on my mind until I find the time.

My point was that incentives would be different (among other things). I'm not sure if I got your point, but if you're saying we wouldn't have the internet without the government, I don't know that I agree with you there.

This is a common fallacy and is essentially a case of survivor bias writ large. We see the things that happen. We don't easily have ways to see what would happen in other circumstances.

The forces that led to the creation of the internet were a 10,000 year old trend. If the resources had not been funneled through the government- those resources would not have just disappeared, they would have flowed somewhere else. And more efficiently I might add.

Maybe we would have had the internet sooner. Maybe later. Maybe something completely different and better. The history of invention shows that often a great new idea is developed often simultaneously by different doctors, scientists, and inventors.

When the infrastructure and world body of knowledge is sufficient to produce the next thing, it will emerge.

It is not sufficient to say that government made a thing which is good. I grant that. The question is whether more good would have been created alternately.

A good example is the Tullock Lottery. H.U.D. gives out block grants to cities to redevelop housing for the poor. The cities became increasingly competitive over the years, hiring experts, architechts, and artists to submit the winning bid. (In what was once a one-page project plan)

The total of all the money spent in many cities (from local funds) exceeds the value of the H.U.D. grant. So to simplify the matter, 20 cities bid $2 million each to win a grant of $10 million. One city is $8 million better off, while 19 cities are $2 million worse of than they were.

Michael Tobis said...

Private companies were trying to invent little fenced-off internets. They still are trying to fence off bits of it.

If there hadn't been a public sector there would not have been an internet as we understand it today.

And yes, Al Gore deserves a great deal of credit and thanks from everyone living today for one of the few positive trends out there.

Your idea as to how progress works is naive, though you claim yourself familiar with business, especially startups. In general, engineering professors or lab scientists invent something on the public dime, start a company on a public seed grant, get their first round of funding from public capital, and then either go public or sell their company to a public corporation.

Don't believe me?

Visit a local high-tech startup and ask questions. They aren't shy about it.

It's the same in other countries.

You can call it "socialism for the wealthy" if you want. The idea of the bootstrapped company still exists, but it isn't the norm. Most progress is expensive.

Anonymous said...

I can't possibly disagree with what is Michael.

That's precsely the same argument that made slavery OK, kept women from voting or having reproductive rights, apartheid, National Socialism, racism, and all kinds of other nasty things.

"That's just the way it is kid. Live with it. Don't be so naive. Yuo can't change 'the way thigs are' "

I'm honestly shocked that as I scientist you would make that argument. Are you trying to intentionally forget the difference between positive and normative? Or just use each one when it suits policies you prefer?

I have no illusions about how things are. And I don't think there was an Edenic past when all science was commercial. The majority of art in the world is the result of patronage. But as much as I like art, I don't think it is an excuse for Kings and Emporers being wealthy and a poor populace just so we can have art.

It is an absurd statement to say there is no way we would have an internet if it hadn't happened exactly the way it did in fact happen. There is no way you can back that up with any type of logic.

Michael Tobis said...

The distinction between what is predictive and what is normative is very well taken. I have been known to emphasize that very point myself.

That said I find the comparison of public funding of R&D to slavery more than a bit bizarre.

Now the internet...

I was not one of the founders of the internet but I was a participant in its early days. The culture that formed the backbone of the internet as a communication medium simply could not have emerged in a corporate setting. Admittedly it's improbable in a government setting as well.

In fact I consider the outcome enormously lucky, and very far from inevitable. Indeed, there have been several attempts to kill the internet. Probably by now it is too late to kill it all in one go, but it's by no means preordained that packet switching and free speech are closely connected.

I think our age difference may be enough that you understand the extent to which public speech was constrained in the mid-century, particularly in the eighties when television dominated everything.

No, I think if you ran the experiment on multiple worlds, you would not have come up with the same group of people and you might end up with packet switching eventually but not with a universal peer-to-peer publishing mechanism.

There were many financial interests with much to lose. Remember AOL?
Remember the TV networks?

I can't prove it of course but I have always thought we won a lottery here.

Anonymous said...

I recall once back in the early BBS days reading about a scenario the phone company did get some legal groundwork done for -- to define any telephone call going to a BBS as a long distance call for billing purposes. They anticipated profit as more and more people started buying acoustic couplers to connect their 300 baud modems to the local telephone, and wanted to know they'd be able to charge by the minute for those calls.

Curses, foiled again ...