The Environmental Uncertainty Principle

The New York Times reports, with more than a touch of breathless enthusiasm, that a Department of Interior official is “on a campaign” to ensure that the agency’s scientific reports “misrepresent” climate change. The putative exposé makes for thrilling reading—hints of intrigue, deception, and craven self-interest. The headline says it all: “Trump Insider Embeds Climate Denial in Scientific Research.” A bit of fact checking, however, reveals that there is more to this story than meets the eye—in fact, understood in context, this little kerfuffle says more about the Times, climate change rhetoric, and scientific groupthink than it does about this supposed “insider,” or embedded denial. In fact, the article’s heavy reliance on the term “misrepresentation” supports an observation, common in this strangely polarizing issue, that the climate “faithful” exhibit a curiously strong case of psychological projection.

For example, the Times tells us that this official, Indur M. Goklany, has “inserted misleading language about climate change—including debunked claims that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is beneficial—into the agency’s scientific reports.” Well, to be fair, it is unarguably true that increased carbon dioxide has some benefits for some species at some times and in some places. Ecology is complicated like that. For the plant kingdom, it is a well-known experimentally demonstrated phenomenon that increased CO2 generally stimulates plant growth and carbon fixation, improves photosynthetic efficiency, and (via stomatal conductance) tends to reduce water consumption. Greenhouse producers routinely enrich CO2 levels to 1000 ppm or more, double or even triple ambient atmospheric concentrations. Yes, it’s complicated, with potential secondary effects such as decreased nutritional density, but by-and-large, carbon dioxide is in fact a major boon to plant growth.

Moreover, Goklany does not appear to have made the broad claim that “carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is beneficial” as the Times would have us understand. Instead, if we take time to read the “embedded” language, what we see is something rather different. Goklany writes:

Ultimately, future conditions at any particular time or place cannot be known exactly, given the current scientific understanding of potential future conditions. Likewise, it is important to recognize that the risks and impacts are the result of collective changes at a given location. Warming and increased carbon dioxide may increase plant water use efficiency, lengthen the agricultural growing season, but may also have adverse effects on snowpack and water availability. These complex interactions underscore the importance of using a planning approach that identifies future risks to water resources systems based on a range of plausible future conditions, and working with stakeholders to evaluate options that minimized potential impacts in ways most suitable for all stakeholders involved.

This may be “misleading language” in the sense that it does not hew to the orthodoxy of climate absolutism (i.e. all climate effects are negative and all policy responses must be immediate and draconian), but nothing in the statement strikes me as unreasonable. Indeed, on the contrary, it seems that in the bid to label Mr. Goklany as “misleading,” the Times in fact resorts to the tactic itself.

I don’t know Mr. Goklany from Adam. He may in fact be a devious, venal slave to the Western water lobby, desperately spewing climate denialism in a bid to line his own pockets. But that seems doubtful. The Times clearly spent considerable time researching this story; one can only imagine such stark sleaze would have come to the fore. Instead, Goklany, who is trivialized in the piece as a “longtime Interior Department employee” and a “minor bureaucrat” in the peanut gallery of backlinks, might actually be worth listening to. After all, he represented the United States delegation on the IPCC, has written extensively on the topic of carbon concentrations, has an engineering PhD, has published three books critically assessing climate science, and has written widely, including at Nature and The Lancet. So while he is caricatured as the deceptive one, it seems on reflection to be the other way around. In fact, it might just be possible that he has a trained quizzical mind and is making a good-faith effort to frame policy in ways that do not unintentionally do more harm than good.

The Times goes on: “[Goklany] inaccurately claims there is a lack of consensus among scientists that the earth is warming.” Technically, again, Goklany didn’t say that, and to the extent that Goklany highlights existing debate on the topic, he’s actually correct. As Scientific American notes in an extremely important article, the academic feud over climate “consensus” is very real. While there is a generalized agreement over an observed absolute rise in global temperatures, there is no monolithic “consensus” on where this rise comes from, the role of anthropogenic emissions in it, or what models can be reliably marshaled to build policy on. “After all,” says the article, “the point of science is to challenge accepted wisdom and refine it, a process that runs somewhat counter to the idea of a consensus.”

Whenever scientists begin to think in consensus terms, or dismiss dissenters and doubt, it is time be wary. Think eugenics, or the abysmal treatment of the founder of tectonic theory. The Times promotes a narrative that a clear, unequivocal “consensus” exists amongst climate scientists when study after study shows that it’s more complicated than that. Goklany’s position, which acknowledges the messy reality of current climate science, is branded as “inaccurate.” Very expedient for the in-crowd of climate-believers, I’m sure, but the label sticks to the accusers more than the accused.

Goklany’s basic approach, which might be characterized as environmentalism’s “Uncertainty Principle” seems quintessentially reasonable to me. It is not, as the Times suggests, a “denialist’s” retort that a lack of perfect certainty about climate science justifies the status quo. Rather, it is a logical demand that when formulating policy, we account for risk on a number of competing dimensions, recognizing that action (or inaction) has both positive and negative consequences to a constellation of actors in a kaleidoscope of outcomes. It is not enough, in other words, to wield a stripped-down precautionary principle as justification for supporting certain vogue causes (like solar panels) or thwarting certain popularly-decried activities (like meat-eating). Goklany instead advocates for

a framework for employing the precautionary principle in such ambiguous situations based on a set of common-sense criteria that allow risks to be ranked and compared based on their nature, severity, magnitude, certainty, immediacy, irreversibility, etc.

The Uncertainty Principle, then, encourages a return to studied, careful, scientific methodology. Goklany’s reasoning also offers a reminder that that “certainty” is a word that should give everyone the jitters when used by the powerful.

The tone and tenor of Goklany’s writing is altogether more sober, rational, and humble than the frantic alarmism that so dominates the “believer” side of the debate. The Times article, which is ricocheting around the world while Truth tries to put its boots on, might have been better titled “Goklany the Unbeliever!” This is predictable enough—character assassination is an old and effective trick for silencing apostates. But if true, Goklany is an interesting kind of unbeliever: asking questions, prompting dialogue, and compiling evidence to insist that unelected agencies refrain from absolutist policy formulation based on what is, obviously, a very complicated topic. He may be wrong, I’ll warrant. I am personally a climate agnostic (or, more properly, like the old bumper-sticker: “Militant agnostic—I don’t know and you don’t either!”). My general sense is that we have very real anthropogenic change afoot, but that the extent and effects are largely unknown and unknowable. But after reading more about Goklany’s dedication to uncertainty as a guiding principle in making policy, I find it strikes a resonant frequency.

In this sense, I’m grateful to the Times for writing the piece—like a monk reading Luther to see what all the “heretical” fuss is, I find Goklany’s position quietly compelling and closer to my own. While the Times article is not really journalism, and is a barely concealed ideological screed, it actually aids the larger dialogue by showcasing the alternate (sorry, “denier,” “skeptic,” “dissenter”) view. More to the point, by engaging in such flagrant projection, the Times has highlighted the problem with groupthink in the climate discussion. As a psychological defense mechanism, projection can be an effective, if vicious, technique. But as a method for generating useful, actionable information in the face of real environmental issues, it falls short. The Times should know better.

Reader Discussion

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on March 20, 2020 at 08:44:41 am

"While there is a generalized agreement over an observed absolute rise in global temperatures"

There may generalized agreement that the *AVERAGE* global temperature is going up but the average going up tells you absolutely nothing about what is happening at the temperature envelope extremes, i.e. minimum and maximum temperatures. In fact, for much of the globe maximum temperatures are actually not going up, they are stagnant or going down. It is the minimum temperatures of the temperature envelope that are going up across much of the globe. Ask yourself why you *never* see a climate study or model using maximum temperatures instead of average temperatures. When you take an average you *lose* data, you don't gain it. Increasing minimums absolutely have benefits including longer growing seasons and better nighttime growth of crops (most climate scientists don't even know that plants grow at night, apparently they have never seen dandelions grow overnight after being mowed off!).

I have maintained for several years that studying heating and cooling degree-days (go here: https://www.degreedays.net/calculation) would be a far better use of grant money than studying "average" global temperatures. It would give you far more information about what is happening with the temperature envelope and provide a much more useful projection of future conditions.

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Tim Gorman
on March 20, 2020 at 12:13:02 pm

Paul Schwennesen makes several excellent points in his critique. I will use his argument with my students. In addition to the other comment about the perils of averages, I would add that the reference to the Monk and Luther is apt. That's because what the Times is publishing is current orthodoxy regarding a new religion, They are not attempting to write a rigorous technical paper but are defending their religion against an apostate former member of the IPCC, another group of believers who did so well when their e-mails were leaked in the middle of Copenhagen.

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Eric Smith
on March 21, 2020 at 22:36:34 pm

I am reminded of the aphorism attributed to Galileo: "Eppur si muove."

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on March 20, 2020 at 16:18:06 pm


Here is a little reminder of just how "misrepresentative" are the majority of climate graphs and studies. It is short but interesting.

Moreover, I, for one, do not accept the concept of a global average temperature that is susceptible to human calculation. Are we covering the entire globe? or are we simply sampling and using what we now know to be measuring instruments that have a) been either compromised over time, b) have seen the *sampling* environments radically altered (as in some gauges now residing in asphalt parking lots or urban as opposed to their original exurban environments and c) the data from which have been *selected* to present and support the *consensus.*

I do not buy it, nor do I buy the climatistas claim that they are capable of understanding all the complex chemical / atmospheric variables and presenting a *settled* conclusion.

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on March 20, 2020 at 16:20:06 pm

I do not share the writer's optimism that example #12,427 of leftist propaganda will aid any dialogue. For one thing, the alarmists terminated "dialogue" long ago. They hold dialogue to be the equivalent of absolute comprehensive denial of everything. Dialogue just gets in the way of their will to impose every restraint they can think of (and they can think of many). For another, the alarmists have already committed themselves body and soul, and publicly, to the fiction that there is certainty and a scientific consensus. Any of them who attempts to walk back any of that commitment is severely policed by the rest. Finally, anyone who has even the slightest experience with human groups, and that is all of us, understands that the term "consensus" describes only an ideal type, a concept, and has no empirical basis whatsoever. Anyone who has ever been part of a group that "made" a decision knows full well that it is always just a few individuals who assert their will and make the decision and obtain the passive acquiescence of the rest, and then announce that a "consensus" exists, and then enforce that "consensus," that submission to their will, by the selective granting and withholding of rewards (grant money, publication in journals,e.g.). This is simply human nature.

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on March 20, 2020 at 21:01:47 pm

I admire the essayist's attempt to address the arguments disingenuously raised by the NYT. His common sense, reasonable man standard, especially his endorsement of the uncertainty principle, should appeal to any mature, thoughtful adult. Experience in life, common sense, basic knowledge of science and rudimentary knowledge of history teach the importance of cautiously approaching matters of exceptional complexity, especially where defensible doubt, understandable disagreement and vast uncertainty abound, as with the matter of climate change, its causes, impacts and susceptibility to human control.

Only the hair-brained adult, the emotionally-immature adolescent, the know-it-all teenager and the politically-driven power-seeker think otherwise.

The first three types abandon caution due to ignorance; the last does so out of an impulsive attachment to Machiavellian expediency and an abiding indifference to truth.

The NYT is of the last type.

I suggest that the essayist join me and refuse to debate with political opportunists and amoralists, like the many who type for the NYT under the guise of journalism.

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on March 21, 2020 at 15:30:43 pm

There has been a consensus on the greenhouse effect since the late 80s, as anyone who works in the natural sciences knows. The question of "Is climate change real?" is a non-starter given the evidence. If I take a step back, it is very silly that people who have never performed an experiment are even talking about it. What you should be asking is "Do we have to do anything about it?"

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on March 21, 2020 at 21:01:59 pm

The Science and Environmental Policy Project puts out a scientifically- informed newsletter entitled "That Was the Week That Was" which addresses the serious problem of bad environmental science, including frequent discussions of the faux-consensus on dispositive matters of climate change science.
Here is the link: http://www.sepp.org/the-week-that-was.cfm

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on March 22, 2020 at 21:59:52 pm

From the March 22, 2020 newsletter of That Was the Week That Was:
We have over forty years of comprehensive, reliable, unbiased evidence to address what the UN calls a “climate crisis.” That evidence shows that atmospheric warming, where the greenhouse effect occurs, is no threat to human health and welfare. When the EPA declared that carbon dioxide endangers human health and welfare, it ignored the finest data available. When the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declared a “climate crisis”, it ignored the finest data available. When US government research centers run their climate models, they ignore the finest data available to predict dangerous warming from carbon dioxide, which is not occurring. It is very difficult to identify an appropriate term to describe these public entities that deliberately mislead the public.

Already, many advocates of dangerous carbon dioxide-caused warming are advocating that society’s mobilization for Covid-19 should be an example for mobilization for the “climate crisis.” It is not. The problem with Convid-19 is the absence of solid reliable evidence. The problem with the so-called “climate crisis” is government entities deliberately ignoring solid reliable evidence.

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on March 22, 2020 at 10:46:58 am

And a final thought about Mr. Schwennesen's excellent essay: the NYT's attack on Dr. Goklany was not to debate "Gok's Uncertainty Principle." Rather, as its racialist ''1619 Project" is to our future civil rights laws and policies, the NYT's attack on Goklany is part and parcel of the NYT's much larger mission to write the text from which the country's future environmental laws and public policy will be determined according to the Left's deterministic, draconian political script.

More specifically, one should view the NYT's hit-job on "Gok" as a Luca Brasi-like message to Trump-supporting environmental dissidents in the group-think, anti-Trump Deep State at the Departments of Interior, State and Energy and, most importantly, at EPA. Luca Brasi carried the Godfather's message to Goklany and other "deniers of the climate crisis faith" in the bureaucratic Environmental Deep State: "Read from our script. It's is an offer you can't refuse."

The grand strategy of the anti-Trump Environmental Deep State (of which the "Gok attack was but one military tactic) is to prevent the Trump Administration from re-writing the Obama-EPA's disastrous "Endangerment Finding." The Department of Interior is a key player in that rewrite (underway as we speak.) At all costs the Left must prevent the Department of Interior (and State and Energy) from supporting EPA's existentially-crucial project of promulgating a drastically-revised, better-informed and more scientifically-grounded EPA "Endangerment Finding" that is ultimately sustained by the Supreme Court.

Stop that and the Enviro-whackos win the war and rule the country.
And that is what the NYT is really up to!

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