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Andrew Dessler: Science and the Politics of Climate Change

Andrew Dessler is a professor of atmospheric studies at Texas A&M. An expert on how clouds relate to a warming planet, Dessler became a target of climate science critics following an interview he gave to The New York Times. “Science is what science is,” Dessler says. “Nature doesn’t care what your political persuasion is.” This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Aug. 14, 2012.

When did you notice a change in how climate science was perceived? Like what have you seen, as far as your students and all of that?

When I started teaching here at Texas A&M in 2006, it was really a different world. People were accepting of the science, and they wanted to know more about it. And that’s both sides, both conservatives and liberals, among the students.

And then in the 2008 election, if you’ll remember, both [Sen. John] McCain [R-Ariz.] and Obama supported action on climate change. The arguments they were having were over how much nuclear energy should we have, things like that, things that you couldn’t believe today that that’s what the argument was about.

And then after Obama was elected and probably around the time the health care debate was going full blast, there was this debate in the House and then in the Senate over legislation to control climate change. And that’s really when things changed.

So 2009, 2010, climate change went from being something that rational people could talk about to being something where if you go out and you talk to your neighbor and your neighbor is of a certain political persuasion, you offend him. I mean, you tell him, “This is what I study,” he’ll be offended. I mean, it’s really remarkable.

And why do you think that is? I mean, what’s your sense from your own experience of why that might be?

I think that there is a group of people out there whose goal it is to make the policy debate over climate change toxic, just like Social Security, just like Medicare reform; this thing that if you talk about it, you’re just going to get creamed.

And they’ve been very successful. Now when you bring up climate change, it’s this polarizing, incredibly divisive subject. Even the sciences, you know, science is what science is. Nature doesn’t care what your political persuasion is. The laws of physics don’t take that into account. But yet the politics have gotten to the point where people just don’t want to listen to science.

“Science is what science is. Nature doesn’t care what your political persuasion is. The laws of physics don’t take that into account.”

We’ve gotten to the point where if you’re a Republican politician, and you tell people the truth about climate change, you will not get elected. It’s really remarkable. People like [Mitt] Romney and [Newt] Gingrich, they essentially have to go out there, and what I would consider to be really tap-dancing around the truth to get elected. …

So let’s talk about what happened with this FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] that you received. How did this come about?

When Justin Gillis of The New York Times was working on an article about the cloud feedback, which is something that I know a lot about, he called me to get my point of view. And I actually had the first quote in the story. And within hours of that story coming out, the university received a FOIA request for my email for a bunch of what appeared to be random terms. …

I was actually traveling at the time. And the email came in to the Open Records person, whoever that is at the university. And it was at 8:05 a.m., I think. So it was the first thing they did in the morning. There was a pretty clear cause and effect there.

What were they asking for?

It was a fishing expedition. They were asking for tobacco; I don’t work on tobacco. They were asking for emails with the word “Hockey Stick” in them; I don’t work on Hockey Stick. They were asking for emails to and from [climate scientist] Michael Mann; I don’t collaborate with him.

People have to understand two things: First, this was a legal request, and therefore we are happy to follow the law. We fulfilled the requirements and turned over the relevant emails. So in that sense, it’s no big deal. The university gets requests like this all the time, and we fill them. So it was completely legal.

On the other hand, you have to understand the context of this. This was not done for the reasons that Open Records Requests are normally made. Normally, Open Records Requests are designed to understand how deliberations are made — you know, why was a grant awarded, why was the president of UVA [University of Virginia] fired, things like that.

This was most definitely not done for that reason. If you want to understand why I think that cloud feedback is positive, why I think that climate sensitivity is what it is, just read my papers. I lay out in great detail my reasoning here.

The goal of this was to try to find something in the emails that … would be used to embarrass climate science and to cast doubt on the certainty. It’s another way to create uncertainty in climate science. You can find an email and you can quote something out of context that looks bad; that’s what they were going to do. And that was the goal of this.

And what effect did that have on you, to receive something like that?

Well, it makes me delete my emails when I get them a lot faster and makes me not communicate via email as much. I think when I first got it, it was upsetting. Nobody wants people rummaging through things that they thought were private.

On the other hand, it was a legal request. So as an employee of the state of Texas, I satisfied the request as required by the law.

Now, I’ve gotten a lot calmer about it. There was nothing in the emails. We turned them over. It’s clear there was nothing usable in them for their purposes, because they haven’t done anything with them. So I’ve become a lot more sanguine about it. But initially it was very upsetting. …

Would you say it’s harassment? Would you say it’s intimidation?

I think the net result is sort of harassment, intimidation. But I don’t think that’s actually what the goal was. I think the goal was to try to find something in there that they could then use in the policy debate. …

As a climate scientist, I do always think now, these guys are out there, and they are willing to misrepresent anything I say. So when I put stuff online now, I have to really think, is there anything in here that can be misrepresented? Can they take a quote out of context? Can they do something like that to try to embarrass me and try to embarrass climate science? …

But, you know, I don’t let it stop me. I fully expect that after this program airs, I’ll get another FOIA request for all of my emails with you, and I’ll just deal with that.

As a climate scientist, I think a lot about the future; [it] goes with the job. And I want to make sure that in 50 years or 100 years or 200 years, nobody could ever say we didn’t warn them. …

“I want to make sure that in 50 years or 100 years or 200 years, nobody could ever say we didn’t warn them.”

Climate change is coming. If you want to know what it looks like, just look at the Midwest right now. It’s drought; it’s heat. Warmer temperatures don’t mean barbecues and tank tops. It means drought; it means fire; it means suffering. People have to know that, and people need to be warned. And, you know, I hope we do something about it. But I’m a scientist, not a politician. So I sort of stop at the warning.

… They would claim that warming is alarmist. What’s your response to that?

I think from a literal sense, the worst case scenarios are truly alarming. I’m alarmed by the upper end of the projection range, you know, 10 degrees Fahrenheit warming.

On the other hand, the implication is that we’re being unrealistically alarming, and I think that’s not the case. I think if you read what the scientists actually say, it’s really very measured. The most likely response is to something which is not really catastrophic. But the thing you have to realize is that catastrophe is a reasonable possibility.

Reasonable possibility?

Yeah, absolutely. There’s uncertainty, and people love to use uncertainty to say, “Well, climate change may not be that bad.” And that’s true. Climate change may be not that bad. But the uncertainty also means that climate change could be a lot worse. Uncertainty cuts both ways. So it may be something that we can deal with reasonably easily and may be really terrible.

… What does it say that if you have one quote in a newspaper, you get a FOIA the next day?

Here’s why I think it is. They had FOIA’d [climate scientist] Katharine Hayhoe a few months before, so they were very familiar with the Texas FOIA rules. The rules for these Open Records Requests vary strongly by state, and they know that in Texas, you can request a state employee’s emails. You don’t have to have a reason; you don’t have to pay any money; you just make the request. And they knew that. So I think the people at ATI [conservative think tank American Tradition Institute] saw that; they thought, wow, let’s go fishing, and let’s see if we can possibly find something in his emails that we can misquote and try to embarrass him and embarrass climate science. …

They were just rolling the dice. It’s completely random. They had no reason to think that there was anything improper. But they were hoping to hit the jackpot like they did in “Climategate.”

I think they wrote in there something about we’re asking for them not for commercial purposes, but because we want to see whether there are signs of activism on the part of a public employee.

Yeah, I can’t remember the exact words, but the request included some statements which they didn’t need to actually include, to the extent that they wanted to see if I was misusing public funds for political activism or something like that. …

I would argue that as a scientist, I have a responsibility to talk to these people, to (UNINTEL PHRASE). That’s my job. I get paid by the taxpayer. Both the state and federal governments pay my salary and salary of my students, so when people want to know what my research says, I feel I have to tell them; it’s a responsibility. …

One of the things you try to do when you try to cast doubt on climate science is you have to bring the scientist down a peg. Most people know that if all of the scientists in the world agree on something, it’s probably right. People kind of believe in science; they believe in how science works and things like that. So you have to go after the scientist.

So anybody who disagrees with them is an activist. Their definition of activist is anybody who doesn’t agree with them. So yeah, by that definition, I am an activist. But I think that’s not a reasonable definition of an activist.

Because what you’re really doing is?

I advocate for science. If I’m an advocate, it’s for good science.

And what do you think is the net effect on scientists getting something like that? I mean, you or other people? What message does it send, do you think?

Well, again, I think that when you get something like that, it’s a shot across the bow [a warning shot], and you have to make a decision: Am I willing to put up with this crap, or am I just going to crawl into a hole and write code?

I mean, the thing I like the most, if I could do anything in the world, it’s I would like to be sitting at my computer, writing code and looking at data. That’s what I really love to do. And I do these other things, again, because I don’t want anybody to ever say: “We weren’t warned. Why didn’t you tell us?” …

Do you think it’s working as far as impact on maybe other climate scientists, ones who speak up? Does that tactic work? Is it a successful factor?

You know, I don’t think so. I don’t know any scientist that I think has spoken out in the past but has stopped speaking because of this. In fact, if anything, it kind of makes us more determined. At least it does with me.

I do know that scientists are now organizing in ways that we haven’t organized in the past, because in the past we thought, well, we’re going to do our science, and we’ll let our science speak for itself. We realize that’s not going to happen, that we really have to be out there and organized and making sure that the message of what the correct science is gets out.

… Did you think when you first got into this that you would be involved in something that’s high stakes?

Yeah. If I had known 25 years ago [when] I was in graduate school the kind of crap I’d have to put up with every day, I think I probably would have gone back to Wall Street, which is where I worked before I went to graduate school. …

When I first talked to you, you said it’s really not about this FOIA thing; it’s about a bigger story. And what is the bigger story?

The bigger story is how there is this machine out there that’s designed to try to create uncertainty about climate science. And it goes from a very small number of legitimate climate scientists — I would number them half a dozen or a dozen skeptical climate scientists — writing a very small number of papers, maybe one or two a year, and then that gets amplified by blogs and that gets picked up by policymakers, presidential candidates.

There are lots of people out there who don’t want to believe in climate change, and what they have managed to do is create this alternative reality that if you don’t want to believe in climate change, there is all this stuff out there you can claim to support your position. You can say, “Well, the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] is biased; it’s a U.N. organization.”

Then you can point to, there is this scientist at MIT, and he doesn’t believe in climate change. Or there is a scientist at UAH, University of Alabama in Huntsville, and he doesn’t believe in climate change. And there are these little factoids you can quote to support what’s really an absurd position because, yeah, we’ve been working on climate for 200 years, and we really understand most of it really well.

There is legitimate uncertainty, but the uncertainty is whether we’re going to see warming over the next century of 4 degrees Celsius, which is about 8 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2 degrees Celsius, which is about 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

“It is going to get warmer, and it’s going to get a lot warmer. And the warming we’ve had over the last century is going to be dwarfed by the warming over the next century.”

That’s the debate. The debate is not over whether we’re going to see any warming. I mean, it is going to get warmer, and it’s going to get a lot warmer. And the warming we’ve had over the last century is going to be dwarfed by the warming over the next century. Yeah, we know that. The evidence supporting that is overwhelming.

The alternate reality, what is that? Explain that.

If you don’t want to believe in climate change, what these people have managed to do is create this entire alternate reality you can believe in, starting from a set of skeptical scientists. There are skeptical meetings where you can go to where the meetings are full of skeptics. There are skeptical reports written by the NIPCC [Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change], for example.

So there is this entire alternate reality that you can use if you don’t want to believe in climate change. I mean, it’s absurd and an unreal reality, but that’s what it is, and that’s what people use it for. …

It’s just this lawyerly “Let’s create some reasonable doubt.” It’s not legitimate in any actual scientific sense.

Why is it not legitimate in any scientific sense, in terms of characterizing the credentials, the publishing? …

Yeah, they will say that there are people who believe both sides, and they’ll say that, you know, “We have a credentialed writing team,” and things like that.

But that’s not right. I mean, the NIPCC is illegitimate in a couple of ways. First off, science has to be consistent. If you argue that the earth isn’t warming, you cannot then argue the warming is natural. Those two cannot both be right. And in science, you have to put together an argument that every step is right.

We’re not lawyers. We’re trying to determine actual truth here. We’re trying here. So the earth is warming; we have ascribed the warming to humans. We can predict about how much warmer it will get over the next century. And then social scientists take over and try to convert that into how bad that will be, and then the economists work on whether they can do anything about that. But that’s real science. It’s not the earth isn’t warming, and if it is warming it’s not due to humans. That’s not a consistent scientific statement.

As far as legitimacy of the writing teams, … there are a lot of people out there who claim to be credentialed and don’t believe in climate change. These are people who don’t work on climate. If you are going to look for a doctor, you would not go to a Ph.D. physicist; you wouldn’t go to someone who has a bachelor’s degree in biology. You would want an M.D., and an M.D. who studies exactly the disease that you, God forbid, don’t actually have but think you might have. You want someone who’s an exact expert. And that’s what we do. …

If you look at how many actual experts they have, it’s very few. There are very, very small numbers. … The writing team of the NIPCC has three or four, maybe five, credentialed climate scientists. And the IPCC, on the other hand, has thousands of scientists on it, and they are experts in what they’re writing on. And so, you know, it’s really when you look at the details you can see how the bizarro universe is frayed and fake. It’s like a New York soundstage where all the buildings are cardboard. They kind of look real from a distance, but they are not real. They are just these fake facades, and that’s what the alternative universe of climate skepticism is. …

Are there legitimately published [skeptic] scientists?

Yeah, the small number of legitimate climate skeptics do occasionally publish. But what I would hasten to add is that if you combine all of them, you’ll get three or four skeptical papers a year. They get published in peer-reviewed literature. The peer-reviewed literature is sort of the goal standard. I mean, it’s got out. It’s been reviewed for accuracy and has past peer review.

Over that time, you get three or four skeptical papers a year. Over that same time, you probably get 10,000 papers that aren’t skeptical, that either explicitly or implicitly endorse the mainstream view of climate science. Journal of Geophysical Research, for example, publishes 40,000 pages a year. And that’s just one journal from one organization.

So the balance, or the overwhelming balance, of stuff that gets published is completely consistent with mainstream climate science. But the very small number of skeptical papers that do get published get infinitely amplified by the uncertainty machines. Fox News will pick it up, and The Wall Street Journal will pick it up, and the presidential candidates will start talking about it. And so it sounds like, wow, there are all these skeptical scientists out there when they don’t — it’s just a mirage. …

If you had to pick one or two examples of the cherry-picking or misinformation that give people an idea of what you think is grossly inaccurate, … are there any couple that come to mind?

Yeah. So there’s a lot of debate about the surface temperature record. That’s the record that we use to know how much warming we’ve had over the last 100 years. And that has really come under, I think, really inaccurate, withering fires.

People are always claiming that they’ll show a picture of a temperature station which is next to a parking lot, and they’ll say: “Look. Look at the station. How can you possibly get accurate temperature measurements from this?”

But a tremendous amount of work has gone into that. There have been multiple groups [who have] looked at this. Scientists aren’t idiots. So the really obvious sources of uncertainty people have looked at. People have done lots of analyses about the impact of urbanization versus rural stations and things like that. So there have been so many analyses that there’s really no question the earth is warming. In fact, the IPCC calls it unequivocal, meaning basically beyond doubt, and I think that’s exactly right.

And anybody who claims the earth isn’t getting warmer, you know that person is deep into denial.

[Founder and president of the Science and Environmental Policy Project] Fred Singer claims the earth isn’t warming.

He does claim the earth isn’t warming. I tried to have a conversation with Fred about that and explained to him that, and he didn’t accept any of my arguments. …

Fred Singer is, I think, a professional contrarian. When I was in graduate school, I worked on stratospheric ozone depletion, and Fred would call me when I was in grad school and talk to me about how he didn’t think humans were depleting ozone. And before that, he had real questions about whether humans were causing acid rain, and he didn’t think that nuclear winter was a super-sound science. And he really criticized the work that connected secondhand smoke to health impacts.

And now he doesn’t think global warming is an issue. So at least he’s consistent. But I think in all those cases, he’s quite wrong. So I know Fred. I talked to Fred, but I don’t think he’s right.

And is he peer-reviewed? And is this his area? What’s his credential for climate science? …

He does have some credentials in climate science. He does occasionally write papers — not very many. I don’t see him at meetings. I don’t think he’d be considered a front-line climate scientist. … He does occasionally have his name on peer-reviewed papers. …

But of course, it’s funny. You talk like oh, you know, you scientists, you’re shutting down the other side or whatever. There might be some people, right, legitimately –

They have to make the claim that climate scientists are corrupt. Most people realize if all of the climate scientists in the world agree that this is happening, it’s going to be bad, most people would say, “Well, we should do something about it.” So step number one is you have to criticize the climate scientist.

And that’s where the argument is that they are in it for grant money; they’re communists; they’re socialists. That’s where those arguments come from. They are trying to say: “You can’t believe the experts, so you should believe me instead. I know nothing about this. Therefore, I’m the most believable person, because the experts can’t be believed.”

It’s an argument that at its core makes no sense at all. I mean, we live in a society where we trust experts. We go to doctors because they’re experts. We go to accountants because they’re experts. We go to architects because they are experts. And we rely on experts.

So you think, well, we should go to a climate scientist; they are the experts. But they are trying to make this argument that the experts are the last people you should believe. The less somebody knows, the more believable they should be.

[They argue there's been no warming in the last decade.]

That’s just wrong. You can, if you want, very carefully select the end points of your time series, the starting month and the ending month, and then maybe you come up with something that shows no warming. But that’s not a legitimate way to do science. You don’t pick your answer and then select the time series, select your data to fit your answer.

If you look at all of the data, it’s quite clear that the warming is continuing and that we’re not cooling. We’re not not warming. I mean, that’s very clear from the data if you look at all the data.

Is it the number of years? Is that what it is? Because they only picked 10 years?

Exactly. That’s exactly right. For climate calculations, you really have to pick a decade or two decades or hopefully three decades. That’s what the National Weather Service picks when they do climate. They pick 30-year periods. So you really have to look at these longer time periods to see if the temperature is going up. And if you look at a decade, you see that this decade is much warmer than the previous decade, and that’s really the comparison you want to make.

If you look at individual years, you can get any kind of results. It’s like looking at the stock market during a day; you know, it’s 20 points higher than it was three hours ago. What does that mean? That doesn’t tell you anything about the direction of the stock market, what it does over a few hours. Similarly, what the climate does one year versus next year tells you nothing about long-term trends, zero. It’s impacted by the short-term variability, just like the stock market. The climate, sensitive things like El Niño cycles, weather variability, things like that can determine whether one year is warmer or cooler than the next. You have to look at decades. …

[What about Climategate?]

Climategate, I think, was really a public relations disaster for climate science, and I fully understand how, if you read those emails, you see people that may not be behaving quite the way you would hope they would. Nonetheless, there’s no reason in there to believe that anybody’s cooking the books on climate information. So there’s no evidence that they were making things up or that they were faking temperature data.

And in addition, what they were arguing about was essentially one surface temperature data set. But there are lots of other surface temperature data sets out there. … And if you look at all those data sets, they all agree. So if you want to argue that one of these is corrupt, then they all have to be corrupt. …

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