Global Warming Conference: Political Economy of Climate Change

Global Warming Conference: Political Economy of Climate Change

July 15, 1997

MR. ADLER: Most of us have been here inside all day in the air conditioning, rather than outside. As people trickle in, let me say, after this session, back in the room where we had lunch, there will be reception starting promptly at 5:00, where we will be joined by Senator Hagel, who will be sharing his views on climate change issue, and some of the thoughts that went into the Byrd-Hagel Resolution of which he is the lead co-sponsor. And that's promptly at 5:00. And that will go -- the reception will last until 7:00.

With that, let me turn this session over to Ronald Bailey. Ron, as I believe many of you know, was the first Warren Brooks Fellow at CEI in 1993, is the author of the book Eco Scam, and editor of the books The True State Of The Planet, of which -- the first edition of which is on sale out in the hallway. And we believe that a second edition will be available -- God willing, will be available some time in 1998, which you can ask Ron about after the session.

So, with no further ado, Ron Bailey.

MR. BAILEY: I'm delighted to be here. Thank you very much. This is going to be an exciting panel. I'm very pleased to be here.

I wanted to make a quick claim here. First of all, I realize that many of you have been dealing with the environmental issue for a long time, but I want to claim that I've been dealing with it for at least 27 years. It was the high school debate national topic in 1970. The question was, should we essentially have an EPA? And I've been involved with it ever since.

And on the climate change issue, just a little anecdote, when I first heard about this was when I was working at Forbes Magazine, and somebody was saying, well, they're claiming that we're going to warm up the climate, and it's going to get up to about nine degrees warmer. And I turned to the person and I said, you mean that we'll be able to have palm trees growing down Fifth Avenue in New York now? And I didn't see this was a particular problem.

But, in any case, realizing that the panel is all that stands between you and your cocktails, I'm going to move this along very, very rapidly. They will get 15 minutes a piece, and we will begin with Roger Bate, who has come a long way to speak to us. He is the director of the environment unit at the Institute of Economic Affairs and the executive director of the European Science and Environment Forum. He earned degrees in economics, land economy, environmental management from London and Cambridge Universities. He's the co-author of Global Warming: Apocalypse or Hot Air, 1994 -- I wonder which side he's on -- which won the Anthony Fisher International Memorial Award in 1996. He has authored numerous academic papers on science policy and economic issues, and has published articles in the Wall Street Journal and the Sunday Times. Mr. Bate has also appeared frequently on television and radio broadcasts. So here we are, Roger Bate.


MR. BATE: Thank you very much, Ron. It appears I've been promoted up the batting order. I don't know if that's necessarily a benefit to you or me, or our later speakers. I've been charged with presenting a public choice perspective on the climate debate, and especially that related to science. Really, this will try and be an explanation of why rhetoric does not always equate with reality, although in some instances it does. And, in fact, it's heavily reinforced.

The reason what we have to do to understand a public choice approach is to look at the motivations, the motives behind the various actors in the debate. Dr. Spencer earlier today discussed a lot of the motivations that scientists face, and I shall dwell on those a little later. But, basically, the premise of public choice, economics public choice theory, is that most people, most of the time, cannot argue against or debate against their manifest interests.

Now, the public choice model as it applies to the public policy world is of four groups. We're looking at voters, politicians, bureaucrats and interest groups. There may be a fifth in terms of the media, which I might have mentioned but, of course, David Murray is going to talk about the media, so I probably won't.

They all want something from the political system. Voters want better government. Politicians want votes. Bureaucrats want job security and increased budgets. And interest groups want income. The climate change game, as I'm going to call it, presents all these actors vying in this game of competing interests. However, and this is a key point to all the public choice analysis, there is an asymmetry of information. Unlike the politicians, bureaucrats, interest groups, all the specialists in the field, the voters are usually ignorant of most of the details of the debates. This is true in things -- in issues like employment, but it's even more true in cases like climate change where the substance of the debate is even more difficult to define.

And, because of that, the political process gears the benefits to the other three players in the game. And this often leads to, as one economist has called it, myth making and suppression and distortion of information, stimulation of hatred and envy, and the promotion of excessive hope. And this is all in a rational game. Climate change is, as I say, a policy game like in any other. But, because of the increased voter ignorance, it's even more subject to the kind of rent seeking that occurs within most other policy arrangements.

And I assure you that when Fran Smith said that 90 percent of voters in this country were completely unaware of climate change policies, that is probably the case, certainly across the United Kingdom, and almost certainly across Western Europe. So I doubt if you go further afield than that, that you're going to have any smaller number than 90 percent.

Basically, the political entrepreneurs in this game have serious problems at home. Most politicians around the world find that they come up against a variety of problems ranging from economic policies through to things like the Whitewater scandal. At home, in my country, we have recently had the unfortunate situation of politics slipping to a discussion of sleaze, and the allegations of cash for questions asked in the House of Commons, and the unfortunate situation which we're now in where, although the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom have been in power for more time this century than the Communists were in Soviet Russia, they are probably not electable for the next nine or 10 years, given the problems that they have brought on themselves.

Where their interests, where the individual interests of the politicians coincide with the national or perceived national interest, you tend to have very, very powerful voices on this international arena. Now, remember, on the international level, politicians are less accountable for their actions. And we've witnessed recently in New York, a few weeks ago, Herr Kohl and Mr. Blair coming over here and finger-wagging rather excessively, I thought, at your president, although he seems to need some kind of finger-wagging, but probably this was the wrong issue on which it was done.

There are a couple of reasons why Mr. Blair and Herr Kohl, and Angela Merkel, the environment minister in Germany and John Gummer or rather now the new labor minister, whose name escapes me for a second -- thank you. And that's not the name of the environment minister, just a time warning. Although, I was going to be very, very impressed, Ron, if you had been able to get it to me that quickly.

The two reasons are, and it is incredibly ironic that the two countries outside of the United States that do a lot of climate scientific research are the United Kingdom and Germany, and as both our Australian guests today have already pointed out, the reasons that these two countries will be the only ones in Europe, and which certainly that hit their implied Rio commitments, it is because of the demise of the coal industry in the UK, and the reunification within Germany. And these were for reasons which had nothing to do with climate change. So, you've got politicians who can act in their own interest, who can act in the national interest, and can be seen to be green. It's a wonderful position for Herr Kohl and Mr. Blair to be in.

The other players in this game are, some of them are as obvious, business, of course. Business is not -- does not have one defining interest, though. If you're a solar power executive, you really do want climate change to be an issue. If you're an oil or a coal company executive, you'd rather it went away. And, of course, then you have the more difficult to define interest in-between, such as in financial services, and in the insurance industry, which I'm going to talk about a bit later.

And then we have the environmental organizations who can gain from the promotion of things like solar power, and from gaining kudos in pushing forward this as their agenda. And, of course, also, and this is the point that Deepak Lal I think was making, to stop population growth in less developed countries, which I actually think is the aim of quite a lot of these environmental organizations.

Then, of course, we come to the main topic that I want to talk about, which is the scientists themselves. Dr. Spencer mentioned, and when I was talking to Alan Robock earlier, that scientists on the whole do, I think, honestly search for the truth. But in my humble opinion, they are also subject to incentives. They have remained, fortunately for them, and I think with some reason, above ridicule in most countries of the world, especially in Europe. There were jokes about lawyers which go back as far as Shakespeare. There are -- doctors and accountants are being sued for malpractice even in Europe on a more regular basis than has ever occurred before. But academic scientists have remained objective, apparently objective, and above all this. And this is down to a couple of issues. One which is, of course, peer review.

Now, if you look at the climate change issue, there are many, many scientific disciplines that make it up. We took geochemistry, biochemistry, crystallography, botany, paleo-botany, there are probably 200, 300, 400 more. But most of the money, and this, as Alan pointed out to me earlier, is because it is very expensive, is heading towards dynamic modeling. Now, I would argue that one of the reasons for that is, it is not necessarily as or more scientifically important, but it is vitally important politically. It is unusual, especially in the United Kingdom, for scientists to think of their work as being relevant, but relevance is very, very useful in terms of getting dollars for research.

The Hadley Center in the United Kingdom, which is part of the UK Meteorological Office, gets about $20 million a year and that is going up, primarily -- and it was set up because of climate change. Should climate change disappear as an issue, that government-funded body should probably wind up, although it will probably find a new mandate. The Max Planck Institute in Germany, and the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom as well, would probably lose tens of -- maybe 20, 30, 40, even 50 researchers.

Big science needs big money, and climate change now in the UK gets more money than cancer research. Careers do depend on climate change as an issue. This, I would argue if I had longer, leads to distortions in funding, even in peer review, and there is certainly a publication bias.

There are a few documented, and probably many more, examples of scientists who are put under pressure not to stand up against the consensus. There's a nice example of an oceanographer in Miami who was told by his professor that if he questioned the climate consensus, he may be in endangering his department's funding. The more skeptical members of the meteorological office don't seem to be in charge of publicity anymore, although they were in the early stages.

And so, my point, and I haven't been able to defend it fully, is that scientists, along with the rest of the political players, have conflicting interests. And this is why rules of procedure are so important. From a constitution down to peer review, it's important that rules are adhered to. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, is alleged to have broken some of their own rules last year. And I'm not going to dwell on this too long, because it has been discussed at length, and I haven't the time. But it should come as no surprise that these alterations were made. If you look, and I'll quote you, from the defining article of 1988, in the setting up of the Intergovernmental Panel and Climate Change, it says that the IPCC is a mechanism aimed at providing the basis for the development of a realistic and effective internationally accepted strategy for addressing climate change. Note the assumption that climate change was treated as a given even then.

Now, the IPCC reputation, like that of science, really hangs on the peer review process, and in open debate. Now, remember, objectivity is not from the word of a particular scientist. Objectivity arises from open debate. Now, peer review is a good case in point. There are 22 papers in Chapter 6 of the IPCC's second scientific assessment report which were not peer reviewed at the time of publication, although it is seen by the media as being a truly scientific, truly scientific in terms of all peer reviewed papers in its bibliography.

I debated John Houghton, who is the head of one of the scientific advisory groups, and he said that, "these papers were available to reviewers who could request them," but I didn't have the chance at the time, but it begs the question. Firstly, they had to know that they existed. And, secondly, that anybody in a wider potential for review were not able to get a hold of these documents.

Now, I come to, I suppose, as far as I'm concerned, the key point of my talk, and that is that there are several people around the globe who pointed these things out, including myself in the UK and Dr. John Emsley, who is a fellow director at the European Science and Environment Forum. But, especially the climate inside the climate change kind of clique and the climate change scientists, let's say, and probably the media as well in most instances, especially in Europe, reported only the complaints from industry lobby groups.

Now, one article, one comment was made in Nature at the beginning of the question about the alternations of the document, but they never returned to us, even though I tried to get through to the journalist in question on several occasions. Perhaps more worrying still is, there is a BBC program which was published -- sorry, rather which aired about three months ago, where the only reason that they actually put people on the air, including here today, Fred Singer, and Pat Michaels, was to discredit them because, at some stage in their careers, they had taken funding, or their institutes had taken funding, from fossil fuel sources. I wasn't deemed adequate, although I've been on many BBC programs, to go on that program because I'm funded by charitable sources. I did not get any funding directly from fossil fuel groups. And, because of that, I didn't go onto the program.

Now, I think that we may have had a more ad hominem debate in the United States than perhaps many people here would like to have seen, but at least you had a debate. This issue just did not raise more than a few eyebrows within the European Union countries. And that, I think, comes down to because there's a trust of -- or more of a trust of authority there than perhaps there is here.

So, quickly moving on to the kind of predictions that had been made. Firstly, that coalitions would spring up in the climate debate. The most alarming, I think, is that of between the environmental organizations and the insurance industry, especially in Europe. The insurance industry worried about potential impacts are asking for the governments to underwrite their loans. The removal of the kind of act of God areas of their contracts, increasing premiums and, of course, in return, they will say that action is needed on climate change, which becomes sweet music to green ears.

Also, it was predicted that John Galmer, who is likely to lose his seat at the election, and formerly our environment minister, would be seeking pastures new and, in fact, I think he wanted the head job at the United Nations Environment Program, until he realized he'd have to move to Nairobi. And there's one good thing to be said for Nairobi.

Public choice should also be able to help us predict things that may actually be sensible activities that may be contested by people in this room, but I think, and most economists, most interest groups, and probably most voters would agree as well, and that is the removal of subsidies to fossil fuel production around the globe. If the German miners had their funding cut, that would probably save the Vice Chancellery or whatever it is now, about 7 or 8 billion deutsche Marks a year. So, if we move on, quickly, to Kyoto, we have heard today some very interesting analysis of countries such as Australia and the United States who have serious reservations about either continuing with the planet treaty or may be looking towards not signing at Kyoto. I urge those people to speak to the Norwegian government. Norway is a country that produces all its electricity from hydropower. Yet, it is still asked to reduce its emissions by 15 percent, as are the rest of the EU. They will find it very, very difficult. And, as I am now moving, they are shifting on their feet worrying how they can get out of this deal.

So, to conclude, the ad hominem attacks on people's funding and sources of income will continue, because I believe that a proper debate on this issue, a more open debate, would put it into better perspective. Obfuscation and myth making are flourishing. Consensus is equated with truth. Source of information is equated with quality. And, unfortunately, business is confused as to what it should do. As usual, business, when it's confronted like this, often placates. It doesn't actually attack things head on. Even now, and I may be alarming people when I say this, I think it's gone as far as -- I think many businesses have Fifth Columnists within their own companies. The environmental departments working on climate change, their jobs now depend, to a certain extent on environmental issues, and certainly on climate change.

But the debate will continue. The European Science Environment Forum, the Institute of Economic Affairs, which I represent, will attempt to keep the debate alive in Europe. Given that, my contention is, the pro- warming bias occur in funding, publication, presentation and policy, I think this is essential. There's a leaflet outside which has got a Wall Street Journal Europe article that I wrote on the Earth Summit last month, and also an announcement of our continuing debate, which is the next book, which follows up to the first book of the European Science and Environment Forum, A Global Warming Debate.

I will end it there. Thank you very much for listening. And hopefully I can answer your questions later. Thanks.


MR. BAILEY: Thank you very much, Roger.

Our next speaker is going to be David Windham Murray. He's going to be talking about something, a topic, very close to my heart. He's going to give us insight into why the media seems repeatedly to raise the alarm on global warming, address whether this is due to the inherent media bias -- bias in the media -- limitations on the journalistic medium -- limitation, no -- sloppy reporting -- unthinkable -- or something else. So I'm waiting to hear what that something else is.

In any case, let me tell you, David Murray is the director of research for the Statistical Assessment Service, better known as STATS, which is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving media coverage of scientific and statistical information. He has taught at several universities, including Connecticut College, Brown University, and Brandeis University. Dr. Murray received his BS in philosophy and anthropology at Brigham Young University, his MA and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in social and cultural anthropology. He has been widely published in scholarly journals as well as in major newspapers, radios -- spoken in radio and television formats.

Anyway, thank you, Dr. Murray.


MR. MURRAY: I was hoping that was going to end soon. And thank you, Ron. Well, we've had the -- in the words, I'm batting second, in the words of Roger Bate, in baseball analogy, we've got a solid single to right. I think my job is to bunt at this point, being second here, and I probably will. I have a paper that's sitting out there. I don't know if you all got a chance to look at it. It’s a more comprehensive and kind of finer textured look at some examples of media coverage regarding the global warming debate.

This was jointly authored by me and Joel Schwartz, who is now with the Hudson Institute. But I decided the other evening to sort of rewrite, and I've got a slightly different thing that I want to convey, related, but a somewhat more hovering view about what may be wrong and going on here.

I have no solutions to this, as to what exactly is driving the system of engagement between media and the science stories of this kind. But let me try to grapple with it a little bit, and try and give some examples.

Is there a problem in general with reporting global warming? During the last two years, my organization has looked at this question, investigated the possibilities, by examining both science reports and the newspaper and news magazine articles that were coincident with them. According to Ross Gelbspan, who we are told repeatedly has a Pulitzer Prize for reporting, there is a problem with media and climate change. The problem is that the handful of minor skeptics get altogether too much coverage and credibility. Geltspan, himself, meanwhile, who not only gets massive coverage, he makes news with a further claim that skeptics are dominating the media debate by pitching their campaign to "older, less educated males and younger females." Which may remind us of the famous characterization of the Christian Right by the Washington Post as poor, uneducated, and easy to command. In fact, I believe some studies of climate skeptics amongst readers have shown them to be relatively more educated than the general population.

Bud Ward, editor of the Environment Writer, explains just what it is about journalists that creates this imbalanced coverage accorded to climate minority, "skeptics have an impact disproportionate to their numbers because of the journalist's tendency to accentuate extremes so as to get both sides of the story. In this area of journalism," he concludes, "balance is the enemy of accuracy."

And yet, others argue that the coverage problem lies elsewhere. In fact, they see a pattern opposite to the one described by Gelbspan whereby the dominant media have been not only neglectful of the full story, they have actually muzzled contrary information; at the same time, they have credulously swallowed and amplified tenuous positive evidence. They perceive a one-way ratchet that shows the media more in the role of an advocate in the courtroom than as a balanced referee. Indeed, many journalists are accused of serving as prosecuting attorneys seeking always for confirmatory evidence, pairing always doubt or uncertainty where evidence fails to convict.

In many instances, reporters seem to be practicing a version of what is termed in other areas rational ignorance. Using stereotypes and prejudice as a rational response to a world overwhelming in detail or too challenging in scientific appraisal. Journalists have foreordained and awarded black hats and white hats, perhaps so as to save themselves from the trouble and the confusion that an independent evaluation on its merits each new scientific report would otherwise command from them. They have established a kind of filtering system, as we all must confronted with the complex world, which does, in part, screen the world in selective fashion.

In many respects, reporters are like trout in the media stream watching upriver for whatever tasty morsel the current will bring them. Occasionally, active foraging under a root or lily pad. Fishermen, there are many, though the sight of a hat rim over the bank's edge will probably spook the fish. The skill lies, therefore, as any good public relations officer can tell you, in knowing how to tie your flies.

How is it done? I can give you a couple of examples. Mr. Gelbspan is particularly adept at getting information that journalists both bite at, as do editors when he narrates his own. For instance, in his piece in Harper's, he opened up with a very compelling narrative sort of imagery. “After my lawn had burned away to straw last summer, I wondered, how long can we go on pretending that nothing is amiss with the world's weather.” Notice the framing of this, both in immediacy, a sense of urgency, a flaming lawn, and the hint of a cover-up, how long can we go on pretending. This is extremely interesting to most journalists, and for most readers.

Another good example of how tenuous scientists become irrefutable -- oh, by the way, Mr. Gelbspan does escalate the stakes not long thereafter. In May 1995, in the Washington Post, he offers us an article, the title of which is: Should We Fear Global Plague? I mean, this is beyond the lawn now. Yes, disease is the deadliest threat of rising temperatures. So that you can always ratchet up a little higher in terms of what the threat is.

Let's look at a more careful piece of actual science that was done by researcher Camille Parmesan that appeared in Nature in August 1996. She argued that butterfly extinction within the West Coast range was possibly a function of global warming. We have greater detail of this in the other paper.

The story jumped immediately to the top of the media queue, appearing in the Guardian of England, the Rocky Mountain News, News Day, Dallas Morning News, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Lawrenceville Gazette, the Washington Post, and a 1,200 feature by William K. Stevens of the New York Times. That was actually longer than the original research article. It appeared in the Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Sun Times, and a piece in the Los Angeles Times that was entitled, Butterflies Head North to Beat the Rising Heat, Climate researchers today have found the first biological consequence of global warming as insects shift to cooler habitat. I'll leave it to better heads in here to discovery whether lepidoptera is, in fact, an insect.

Demurrals, contrary information and challenges that were sent to Nature, some of which I authored, some of which were authored by others and shared with me, were not acknowledged, nor were they published. In fact, a reviewer at Nature wrote back to me saying that the Parmesan thesis was no longer considered a viable hypothesis of global warming. And yet, they declined to publish retractions.

And yet, now we find, a year after the fact, that the butterfly extinction and global warming linkage is asserted without qualification in many aspects of the media. Bill McKibben writing the New York Times so said, and AP science writer Matt Crenson, in a July 13, 1997, special article, argued that the signs of climate change are everywhere. Birds are returning to Michigan's upper peninsula earlier to show that spring is arriving. "From Alaska to Mexico, ecologists are finding provocative signs that global warming is altering North America's flora and fauna. Vigorous tree growth is outrunning Alpine Meadows in Montana. Glaciers are melting at an alarming rate. And on the West Coast, the range of Edith's Checkerspot butterfly is gradually moving northward."

To understand the media's engagement with the story of global climate change, we need to recognize certain general features of modern media. First, the question of coverage generates a subsidiary question of whether the coverage of global warming is different in kind from the coverage of all other science stories. In general, what one finds is that certain types of science stories, of which global warming is one, get treated in approximately the same manner by the mainstream press, while the majority of science stories do not.

For example, research involving air or water pollution, endocrine disrupters, mad cow disease, silicon gel implants, deformed frogs, and food safety are often portrayed in a manner quite comparable to that of climate change issues. But other science stories, such as those involving chloride ion transport at the cell surface, or the relationship with Neanderthal to contemporary Homo Sapiens do not get this treatment.

What are, I wondered, the characteristic of stories that receive this special treatment? In general, they involved a claimed urgent threat to health or well- being, they reinforce the need for regulatory action or increased government intervention in human activities, and they are perceived to advantage one faction in partisan political disputes. Most importantly, they are stories that acquire symbolic value over and above their scientific substance. That is, one stands with respect to a particular subject, certain or uncertain, committed to action or qualified by reservations, becomes a kind of referendum regarding one's stance in some other domain, such as the political or the compassionate. To accept or reject a bit of science then, becomes a signal of what kind of person you are, and whether your motives are pure or crass.