Posted by: Matthew Hoffmann | January 25, 2013

Response to Margaret Wente Opinion on Climate Change

Note and Update September 24, 2013–This blog post was originally written in response to a Margaret Wente commentary on climate change from January 2013 and deals specifically with the content therein. Ms. Wente has written another column on climate change in the Toronto Globe and Mail today, September 24, 2013. My original blog post, is obviously not directly relevant to this new column and I have not written a response to this recent column, but the general themes from my original post remain relevant. Specifically, while the surface temperature plateau that she writes about is a relevant item for discussion, it is not nearly as problematic for climate science as she makes out (see this post by Andrew Revkin and this one by Zeke Hausfather) and surface temperature alone is not the only indicator of global warming and climate change (see this additional post by Revkin for a discussion of loss of Arctic sea ice).  Moreover, my general conclusion, that columns like this that “seek to lull readers into inaction by claiming that things aren’t so bad or that we can’t really do anything anyway” are problematic, remains the same. Yes there are uncertainties that surround climate change–the sensitivity of land surface temperature to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases is one of those uncertainties–and every good climate scientist will readily admit that.  The uncertainty in particular areas, however, is not a reason to discount the overwhelming evidence of human induced climate change and it is certainly not a reason to call for inaction in the face of this problem.

Margaret Wente is correct when, in her recent commentary on climate change in the Toronto Global and Mail (Whatever Happened to Global Warming), she writes “Climate policy is hard. We should be humble about what we know – and what we don’t.”  Wente should take her own advice and restrict herself to things she knows about: the rest of the commentary is rife with misinformation. It is a thinly veiled call to do nothing on climate change.

Wente is wrong about climate science. She repeats the claim that  “temperatures have held steady for 16 years.” This claim was debunked as soon as it was reported in October 2012 (see this article in the Guardian for one example: ).

Wente is misinformed in her denigration of climate models. She resorts to a nonsensical analogy when she asks rhetorically “Our economic models turned out to be lousy. Why should our climate models be better?” They are better. If climate models have problems, it is that climatic changes are coming faster and more severly than expected (see this article from Scientific American and this one from MSN.com).

Wente seems determined to sow doubt about the wisdom and possibility of acting on climate change.  To do so she erroneously depicts the pursuit of biofuels as a climate policy.  In fact many biofuel initiatives were actually agricultural policy, some simply designed to sell corn. She also tells only part of the story of German renewable energy programs and the EU’s emissions trading system. Cherry picking concerns to characterize them as “disasters” ignores their positive results, such as Germany becoming a world leader in renewable energy technology. Even more importantly this slant obfuscates the fact that climate policy is necessarily a learning process.   Some policies put in place to address climate change will succeed and others will fail—the same as in every other policy area. What is the justification for holding climate policies to an impossible standard while not even mentioning epic policy failures like the economic and environmental disaster that is fossil fuel subsidies?

Commentaries like Wente’s are all too common.  They rely on sketchy interpretations of climate science.  They seek to lull readers into inaction by claiming that things aren’t so bad or that we can’t really do anything anyway.  This is dangerous.  It is not outright denial of climate change; it is more subtle, more insidious. It makes doing nothing feel okay by creating the impression that doing something is doomed to fail.

Climate change is the challenge of our times and it is hard.  We do need to be humble, acknowledge uncertainty, and the limits of our knowledge. Yet we must resist the temptation to heed the obvious subtext of Ms. Wente’s commentary. Instead we must act. The stakes are too high, but even more importantly the potential missed opportunities—for economic growth, more sustainable and livable cities, healthier and more equitable lives—are too great to be lost through inaction.

Words of caution on climate policy are wise when they accompany calls to action, calls to learn by doing, calls to learn from successes and failures, and calls to find solutions. Words of caution are foolhardy when they are the sum total of the advice and stem from an unfounded characterization of the challenge at hand.    Experimentation and innovation should be celebrated, not discouraged.  We should applaud cities that seek to take action in the face of national inaction, companies that seek alternative fuels, environmental organizations that seek to overturn economically distorting and environmentally disastrous fossil fuel subsidies, and attempts to put a price on carbon. We must approach climate change with our eyes wide open, wary of hubris in the face of the complexities of climate change, but with a spirit of possibility.

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Responses

  1. Very well said. As you point out, Wente’s piece is a lot more damaging than the ‘know-nothings’ who deny global warming outright. Instead, taking a page from the tobacco industry’s efforts to prevent regulation of cigarettes, the intended effect is to make what is a strong scientific consensus sound overly confusing and complicated.

  2. Thanks Jason. I agree with you entirely–the “I accept climate science, but it’s complicated and we probably can’t/shouldn’t do anything” is the worst because it’s so seductive.

  3. Thanks for writing this. Have you received a reply from Ms Wente?

  4. Thanks for your note–no, no response from Ms. Wente or the Globe and Mail. Not that I really expected one.


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