Pittsburgh, Not Paris: Explaining the Climate Hysteria

Jun 27, 2017 |  Peter Wood

Font Size  

  

Pittsburgh, Not Paris: Explaining the Climate Hysteria

Jun 27, 2017 | 

Peter Wood

Peter Wood's article originally appeared in Public Discourse on June 23, 2017. 

“Humans in the near future,” predicted Michael Moore, the documentarian filmmaker, in a recent tweet, “will mark today, March 28, 2017, as the day the extinction of human life on earth began, thanks 2 Donald Trump.” Trump had just issued an executive order rescinding Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Where does a prophet of dystopia go after predicting something like that? When Trump, in his June 1 Rose Garden Speech, withdrew from the Paris Accord, saying “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” Moore was left with small change, calling it “a crime against humanity” and warning that “this admitted predator has now expanded his predatory acts to the entire planet.”

Some commentators have made sport of the most unhinged prognostications of doom. I understand the impulse. To anyone who is not caught up in climate hysteria, the breathless anticipation of catastrophe and the efforts to connect every groan of groaning humanity to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere are evidence of—let’s be polite—a will to believe.

I am among those, however, who presume that life on earth will survive the Trumpocalypse. If the world really does drown in the outfall of melting ice caps, or sizzle like a hapless earthworm on a city sidewalk, our doomsayers will bask in posthumous vindication. But I suspect their collective fate will be more like that of William Miller, the upstate New York preacher who in the early 1840s convinced many thousands of Americans that the world would end on October 22, 1844.

In the meantime, climate catastrophism presents a puzzle. Just compare the fervor of belief and the stridency against opposition, on the one hand, to the quality of the claims, on the other. Catastrophism isn’t grounded in personal experience, and the “science” it lays claim to is, at best, wobbly. The “models” don’t match the facts, and the mismatches are enormous. Rival hypotheses for how the earth’s climate changes are simply ignored. Efforts to test the theory are met with indignation. Discrepant data are over and over again “recalibrated,” erased, or explained away as unreliable.

So much effort has gone into maintaining a theory that is really little more than an ill-supported conjecture that we are confronted less with a scientific problem than a sociological one. How can so many people subscribe to an idea—and so vehemently—that rests on so little?

Fervent Authority

Two parts of the answer are immediately evident. The manmade global warming movement incessantly appeals to authority, and it offers under the shelter of that authority the psychological satisfactions of fervent belief. The authority is supposedly “science,” as in “97 percent of climate scientists” believe this. That figure has been debunked over and over, but it is immutable in the minds of the clima-catastrophists.

The fervor is something else. This is by no means the first time we have seen this convergence between misplaced appeals to authority and the emotional thirst for certainty. I mentioned the Millerites, but long before the Reverend William Miller set out to calculate, via the Book of Daniel, the exact date of his apocalypse, we had other authorities such as the Puritan father Cotton Mather, who provided the intellectual justification for the Salem witchcraft trials. Princeton physicist Will Happer has drawn the larger lesson: the ardent belief in manmade global warming upheld by our educated elite resembles the view of witchcraft upheld by the educated elite in colonial New England.

Fervent belief is never to be relied on as evidence that a belief is well-founded. Such fervor may in fact be evidence of the opposite: a desperate attempt to wall off doubt. No one is fervent in believing that water is wet or that the sun is hot. Fervor requires a certain implausibility to sustain itself: a not-so-obvious truth claim that only people who have superior perception and understanding can see as valid. Fervent believers derive some satisfaction from being among those who grasp something that eludes less insightful people.

The Malthusian Moment

In 2015, my NAS colleague Rachelle Peterson and I released a report, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalismwhich explored the strange enthusiasm of hundreds of college presidents, students, and faculty members for the idea that the earth was running out of natural resources. This was, of course, not a new idea. It has been in circulation in one form or another ever since Thomas Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798. Human ingenuity in finding new resources, superseding old wants, and making better use of what’s on hand has always raced ten steps ahead of Malthusian doomsayers, but that’s a lesson that every subsequent generation has had to learn for itself.

The Malthusians of our time grounded themselves in two initially separate doctrines. One was the idea of “sustainability” put forward by the United Nations’ report, Our Common Future (the Brundtland Report) in 1987. The other was the idea of CO2-driven global warming that was initially formulated in 1978 by the National Academy of Sciences’ Ad Hoc Study Group on Carbon Dioxide and Climate in what became known as the Charney Report. Through most of the 1980s, the global warming conjecture was a minor thread among those who worried about environmental catastrophes. It is mentioned in the Brundtland Report as one of many possibilities, and not given any special emphasis. That changed within a year. In June 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen testified to the Senate Natural Resources Committee that “the greenhouse effect has been detected and is changing our climate now.” His testimony galvanized public attention. Four days later, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, meeting in Toronto as part of the G-7, endorsed the idea that “global climate change” required “priority attention.”

It would no doubt surprise most of today’s climate activists to learn that their movement is deeply rooted in the statecraft of Thatcher and Reagan, but so it was. The creation of the International Panel on Climate Change came about as a direct consequence.

It would probably also surprise most of today’s climate activists to learn that their movement had hardly any support on college campuses. The path that led from the Charney Report, the Brundtland Report, and the 1988 Toronto G-7 meeting to hyperventilating students occupying the offices of their college presidents to demand divestment of fossil fuels is long and twisted, but well worth reading. Of course, I recommend Rachelle’s and my study of it and Rachelle’s sequel, Inside Divestment, but Rupert Darwall’s The Age of Global Warming: A History is a commendably thorough account too.

Global warming theory is the Malthusianism of our time. It is, as a few observers have noted, a religion, or a lot like a religion, and not just in being a belief system. It has prescriptions for moral conduct; formulas for penance; demands to proselytize; absolution for sins (e.g., carbon offsets); its own apocalypse; paths to redemption; and an elaborate set of prescriptions and taboos based on the idea of purity. What it lacks, perhaps, is an idea of transcendence, but many of its adherents supply that too, by worshiping “Mother Earth”—literally.

The Cloak of Invisibility

How does such a thing take shape without people noticing that a massively popular counter-religion has established itself in American life—and in the life of most of the other developed nations? Of course, many people have noticed, but the sustainability movement still somehow escapes the kind of critical attention that is poured out with abundance on other movements that have gained only a small fraction of the popularity of sustainability. Think of Black Lives Matter or the Alt-Right.

The answer, I think, is that the sustainability movement identified itself from early on with elite opinion. In commerce, sustainability comes from boardroom edicts, not the factory floor; from advertising agencies, not line producers. In the United States, sustainability initiatives are bankrolled by billionaires such as Tom Steyer, not by Main Street.

It is a religion, not of the masses, but of the elites, the upper middle class, professors, Hollywood, journalists, “knowledge workers,” school teachers, corporate CEOs, Wall Street, the Democratic Party, and a good portion of the establishment side of the Republican Party. As such, it is almost completely invisible to the people who fall into these categories. For them, “sustainability” is simply shorthand for the right way to lead your life and conduct public policy. It is unavailable as something that poses—or ought to pose—troubling questions, along the lines of “How do we know this is true?” “What if it isn’t?” “Why does it seem so convincing?”

All of this goes a fair way toward explaining the baffled outrage of media figures when confronted by Trump’s declaration that “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.”

The invisibility of sustainability as a substitute religion is enhanced by the readiness of other faiths—Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, Buddhism, and various New Age religions—to accommodate its commands to their own. Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical, Laudato Si, elevated the synthesis of Catholic teaching and radical sustainability doctrines to a new level. This doesn’t make it any easier for people to reckon with the degree to which the movement cuts against traditional religious precepts, as well as secular scientific inquiry. Notably, Islam appears to be immune to the appeal to alter itself in favor of the edicts of sustainability.

The elite character of the sustainability movement is especially evident in the top-down way in which it has entered our institutions. John Kerry and Teresa Heinz founded an organization called Second Nature in 1993, specifically to bring global warming ideology to campus. They chose not to appeal directly to students or faculty members, but instead to college presidents. Today more than 600 college presidents have signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which puts reducing greenhouse gases and propagandizing about global warming at the heart of higher education.

It’s Miller Time

As of June 5, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 180 college and university presidents had signed a pledge “to remain committed to the goals laid out in the [Paris] agreement, which was signed in 2015 by representatives of nearly 200 nations.” The pledge, titled “We Are Still In,” includes mayors, governors, and business leaders as well.

It is, to say the least, an odd document. All of the signatories have some power over their own organizations to take “climate action” aimed at fighting “climate change.” Such action might be futile, merely symbolic, or extravagantly wasteful, but whatever it is, it cannot meaningfully substitute for a repudiated national policy. I suppose “We Are Still In” has to be understood as a creedal document: signing is a way of expressing belief in an idea, a way of declining to consider the possibility that the idea itself may be mistaken.

President Trump’s repudiation of the Paris Climate Accord, practically speaking, is not very significant, for the Accord was little more than a rhetorical gesture made by President Obama. It was not a treaty and was never approved by the Senate. Its provisions were “voluntary” for the nations that signed it, although we can be sure that a different administration in the United States would have worked hard to enshrine them in regulation.

With its tissue-thin standing as a policy document, was the Paris Climate Accord worth President Trump’s dramatic exit? The responses from Moore and many others show that Trump performed an exemplary public service. By tearing up the Accord, he forced the fanatics of the eco-apocalypse to present themselves more openly on the public stage than ever before. Can their theory survive in the Rose Garden of a world that remains happily free of climate catastrophe? How long will Americans continue to credit the wisdom of people who explain every shift in the wind, warm day, or dry summer as the result of exhaust? Believing it has become a habit, but believing the unbelievable gets tiresome after a while. Ask the Reverend William Miller.

Peter Wood is the president of the National Association of Scholars.

Image: Pittsburgh WEO Night 1 by Ronald C. Yochum // CC BY-SA 2.5

John Droz, jr

| July 17, 2017 - 12:44 PM


As a scientist (physicist to be exact) I say that Dr. Wood’s comments are spot on.

Moore, et al are actually experiencing Cognitive Dissonance from their imagined realities. Note that this well-known psychological term came from an event in 1956. What that says is that during that 100+ year period we have learned little from the Miller story.

An additional 60+ years is apparently still not enough time for this message to sink in.

Jane Johnson

| July 17, 2017 - 1:23 PM


Excellent recap of recent history of the AGW/sustainability phenomenon, especially of the role played by higher ed presidents.  I had not realized this latter aspect of the climate movement.  This piece and others in this vein desperately need wider dissemination to the general public.

Andrew M

| July 17, 2017 - 4:15 PM


Don’t you mean Intergovernmental, not International, Panel on Climate Change in paragraph 11?  The latter exists, if I recall rightly, but it isn’t what you meant.

PS The security question speaks of a word, but it wants a word plus two digits (which isn’t a word).

John Wenger

| August 01, 2017 - 8:22 AM


I have a problem with this essay that has nothing to do with whether it is correct:  why is the president of the NAS using this platform to take a stance on something like global warming, a topic having nothing to do with the mission of our organization? 

If Dr. Wood were arguing that climate change skeptics are not receiving a fair hearing by being shut out of scholarly journals even though they have the credentials to justify their inclusion, I would not be writing this.  Indeed, as the past editor of Science Insights, I made this point myself.  But this article is nothing more than a straightforward polemic ridiculing those who accept what appears to me to be something of a consensus on climate change.

There is nothing wrong with this if the NAS were a forum for such exchanges, but it isn’t.  Furthermore, since it is the president who is making this presentation, it leaves the impression that our organization takes the side of climate change skepticism.  This is not the way to grow our membership, since most academics are on the other side of this issue and since the issue has nothing to do with whether one agrees with our core values.

I also take issue with the substance of the article, since many of the comments are way over the top.  For example, Dr. Wood says, “Some commentators have made sport of the most unhinged prognostications of doom. I understand the impulse. To anyone who is not caught up in climate hysteria, the breathless anticipation of catastrophe and the efforts to connect every groan of groaning humanity to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere are evidence of—let’s be polite—a will to believe.”  The use of loaded terms such as “climate hysteria” is bad enough, but the charge that the conclusions of those on the other side are evidence of a will to believe is a slap in the face of scientists who are experts in their field.  I believe this is inappropriate in most cases, especially without any evidence shown, and especially given that Dr. Wood is speaking outside his own field of expertise.

I have no horse in this race.  I am a mathematician with no knowledge of climate science and no interest in it either other than the obvious one of hoping we do what is right, whatever that might be.  But I do have an interest in keeping the NAS out of the business of taking unneeded positions on controversial subjects having nothing to do with our mission, especially when such positions make us look to liberals as if we are a right-wing group.  We need to be a big tent with room for everyone on both sides of the political spectrum, and this essay seriously undermines that.

I believe this essay has serious flaws in it, but other than the one I mentioned above, I don’t wish to debate it because my point is not that the essay is wrong but that it shouldn’t have been written in this forum (nor should one be written here that reaches the opposite conclusion). 

Does anyone know the opinion about climate change held by Steve Balch, the founding president of this organization?  I certainly do not, and I have known him for decades.  I don’t know his position on this and on most political matters because he was scrupulous in not sharing these things, especially not publicly.  We are all entitled to our opinions, but I don’t think we should be sharing them in this space, especially if we represent the organization.

Let Dr. Wood argue this anywhere else, but not here..  He is a brilliant writer, a great polemicist, and a terrific warrior for the causes we all agree on.  I ask that he not weaken the organization by using its platform to argue matters not in its scope, especially given the damage it will do to us.

John Wenger

John Droz, jr

| August 01, 2017 - 1:48 PM


Mr. Wenger:

I’m sure that Dr. Wood can explain himself, but as a member of NAS I see no conflict with their charter and this article.

The NAS mission is: “NAS is a network of scholars and citizens united by our commitment to academic freedom, disinterested scholarship, and excellence in American higher education.”

As a scientist quite involved in secondary and university education I’d say that the “climate change” issue is very much an issue of “academic freedom, disinterested scholarship, and excellence in American higher education.”

Jane Johnson

| August 01, 2017 - 8:14 PM


While I appreciate Jon Wenger’s disinterested mathematician perspective, I wonder if he read the entire Wood article.  Here is a significant, relevant comment near the end:
“Today more than 600 college presidents have signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which puts reducing greenhouse gases and propagandizing about global warming at the heart of higher education….
As of June 5, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 180 college and university presidents had signed a pledge “to remain committed to the goals laid out in the [Paris] agreement, which was signed in 2015 by representatives of nearly 200 nations.” The pledge, titled “We Are Still In,” includes mayors, governors, and business leaders as well.”
Perhaps this should have been the lead-in to the story because it is so relevant to NAS’s mission.  The sheer number of college presidents who have signed onto the Climate Commitment assurea that college students are immersed in this new religion.  Putting a slightly different twist on this, it is the sentiment behind Bill Nye the Science Guy’s recent assertion that the global warming cause won’t be fulfilled until the older population “ages out” (translation:  dies off.  I rarely agree with Nye, but his point is well taken.  The higher education industry has assured that current students and recent alumni are indoctrinated in the climate religion.  This, I believe is Wood’s central point, and is well within NAS’s charter.

John Wenger

| August 01, 2017 - 8:47 PM


John Droz, Jr. comments that he sees no conflict between Dr. Wood’s article and the NAS charter.  Neither do I.  My point is that writing such polemics is inconsistent with the big tent effort we are trying to achieve at the NAS.  When the president writes an article heaping scorn on the scientific conclusions of thousands of climate scientists on a matter which has become a political hot potato, the NAS will present itself as a part of the right wing, which is not conducive to our goal of being a non-partisan organization.  Perhaps we should have a “What’s your political position about this or that section, but we don’t, and this article will be interpreted by many liberals as a warning not to join the NAS.

Jane Johnson writes that there is a connection between the article and the NAS, which is sandwiched in at the end of the article, and she says she wishes this part had been the lead in.  But it wasn’t the lead in, and the reason is that the article was about Dr. Wood’s belief that climate scientists have become hysterical doomsayers, with the last part as a throw-in.  Had the article been about hearing all sides of the story, I would not have written my post.

Finally, I made a mistake and hit the wrong link.  Instead of being sent here in order to reply, I hit the disconnect email which now prevents me from being notified about comments.  That was the exact opposite of my intention, and I hope someone on the other end can correct my mistake.  I am now clicking the “Notify me of follow-up comments, which is what I meant to do in the first place.  I also just wrote a separate post to the NAS asking to be put back on the list Help, help.

John Wenger

John Wenger

| August 01, 2017 - 8:50 PM


Finally, I made a mistake and hit the wrong link.  Instead of being sent here in order to reply, I hit the disconnect email which now prevents me from being notified about comments.  That was the exact opposite of my intention, and I hope someone on the other end can correct my mistake.  I am now clicking the “Notify me of follow-up comments, which is what I meant to do in the first place.  I also just wrote a separate post to the NAS asking to be put back on the list Help, help.  And one other thing:  when I went to send this, I did everything right and it said I hadn’t filled in everything, which I had.  This isn’t the first time this has happened to me.

John Wenger

John Droz, jr

| August 01, 2017 - 10:14 PM


Mr. Wenger:

It is interesting that you see Dr. Wood’s treatise against unscientific political positions as casting NAS as “right wing.”

It appears that you would prefer that he take the “left wing” position and not object to unscientific political policies.

It is most unfortunate that no matter what position a person or organization takes on important matters, that they immediately get pigeon-holed as being of a certain political persuasion.

Why can’t we be either for or against science-based technical policies — simply as intelligent citizens?

John Wenger

| August 08, 2017 - 10:48 AM


Mr. Droz said that I “see Dr. Wood’s treatise against unscientific political positions as casting NAS as ‘right wing,’” and that it “appears” that I would prefer him to take a left-wing position instead.  Neither allegation is accurate.  What I said was that when the president of the NAS takes a position that has become a political hot potato, it makes the NAS appear to be right wing.

I don’t want Dr. Wood to take right wing, left wing, or any positions on matters, especially controversial matters, not related to what the NAS is about when speaking as NAS president.  Further, I never called his position right wing; I said, or meant to say, that the position is generally perceived as right wing, not that Dr. Wood is himself joining one side or the other.  I should have been clearer about that.

I agree with Mr. Droz that we should be for or against scientific policies based upon scientific considerations alone, and there is nothing wrong with us having and publishing such positions as concerned citizens.  But Dr. Wood published his opinions on the NAS website; this gives the impression that the NAS has taken a position on climate change, which it has not and should not.  The NAS has taken the position that both sides of the issue should get a fair hearing, a position I very much agree with, but we should leave it at that, since the issue has nothing to do with the policies or positions of the NAS.

John Droz

| August 08, 2017 - 11:38 AM


Mr. Wenger: After an amicable discussion it appear that we have come to an agreement.

Both sides of any technical issue should be given a fair hearing.

The resolution will be based on what can be scientifically proven — not such irrelevant matters as to how many people are one side or the other.