By Larry Kummer, Editor / 17 February 2020
Summary: The coronavirus epidemic shows science at its best, not perfect but effective. Compare the public health agencies’ response to it with the longer and larger campaign by scientists against climate change. Much could be learned – by the public (climate science is probably beyond internal reform). This could help make a better world.
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The coronavirus epidemic and climate change are very different kinds of global crisis. But they have important similarities, most especially that scientists take the lead in both warning the public and recommending solutions – solutions requiring policy-makers’ assent. Both are crises still in motion, with the ending still unknowable. Contrasting the two can provide useful insights, since the response to coronavirus has been a milestone of progress (best so far in history) while the global Climate Change debate has produced global gridlock (with only a few western European nations taking substantial policy action).
Why the different results?
(1) Start at the beginning.
The movement for public policy action to fight climate change hit the big time when climate scientist James Hansen (director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies) testified before the Senate on 23 June 1988 (transcript). He stated the problem, the supporting evidence, and concluded with this.
“Finally, I would like to stress that there is a need for improving these global climate models, and there is a need for global observations if we’re going to obtain a full understanding of these phenomena.”
Unfortunately, Hansen’s advice was not taken seriously. Much money was spent on research, and the IPCC skillfully collated the results. But it was uncoordinated, with scientists focusing (rationally) on career-enhancing findings. For example, countless studies focused on headline-grabbing forecasts about the likely consequences of the RCP8.5 scenario (the worst case used in the IPCC’s AR5). It is either improbable or impossible (see here and here), but its propaganda value is high.
Contrast that with the response to the Coronavirus. There were warnings from local, then national, then global public health agencies. WHO organized communications between scientists so that research was coordinated and information shared – on a global scale. Perhaps most importantly, research priorities were established – based on the path to solutions, not to produce politically useful propaganda. There was nothing like that in climate science.
(2) Self-discipline among scientists.
It takes just one paper to get people excited. Such as “Novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV: early estimation of epidemiological parameters and epidemic predictions” by Jonathan Reed et al., a non-peer-reviewed paper posted on January 24 at medRxiv. Although speculative and contrary to information from the world’s public health agencies, some take it as gospel and have extreme reactions. This is what America’s liberals saw on January 25 at Naked Capitalism – a Tweet sent on January 25 based on that paper (see the thread here).
The tweet was condemned by scientists and then deleted by its author.
Even worse was “Uncanny similarity of unique inserts in the 2019-nCoV spike protein to HIV-1 gp120 and Gag” by Prashant Pradhan et al., a not-peer-reviewed paper posted on January 31 at BioRxiv. It claimed to find similarities between the new coronavirus and HIV (the viral cause of AIDS). The word “uncanny” in the title and “unlikely to be fortuitous” in the abstract implied that the authors believed that the virus had been engineered – not evolved. The paper was published on Friday, quickly condemned by scientists, and formally withdrawn by the authors on Sunday.
Contrast that with the climate change debate. Scientists gained fame by making increasingly outlandish predictions of doom. Their peers almost always remained silent. Even worse, activists learned that they could make even wild statements without fear of rebuttal by climate scientists and their institutions. Countless bold predictions were made and proven false by time (examples here). An entire industry bloomed of scientists writing predictions of horrors to come and activists that exaggerated and publicized them.
- A look at the workings of Climate Propaganda Inc.
- Ten years after Katrina: let’s learn from those predictions of more & bigger hurricanes.
- See how climate science becomes alarmist propaganda.
Eventually, activists manufactured their own scenarios, going far beyond climate science. Such as The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink by journalists Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank (2018).
Eventually, climate scientists began to occasionally, quietly push back. For example, following the July 2017 article by David Wallace-Wells in NY Magazine: “The Uninhabitable Earth” (expanded into a book: The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming). This went too far, even for climate scientists. Some spoke out, such as those quoted in this WaPo article – and especially this FaceBook post by Michael Mann. His summary…
“The article argues that climate change will render the Earth uninhabitable by the end of this century. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The article fails to produce it.”
But it was too little, too late. A population of believers in the climate apocalypse had been created. The NY Magazine article went viral, becoming their most successful article ever. Imitators multiplied.
- The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by journalist David Wallace-Wells (2019).
- Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by journalist Bill McKibben (2019).
- Plus endless articles in the media, such as “Planet Earth Is Doomed. How Do I Go On?” by Liza Featherstone at The Nation.
- For more examples, see The Extinction Rebellion’s hysteria vs. climate science and How listening to climate doomsters makes our situation worse.
And, as night follows day, eventually activists declared their independence: Climate activists attacked climate science.
(3) Frankness about uncertainties
“The time for debate has ended.”
— Marcia McNutt (former director of the US Geological Survey, then editor-in-Chief of Science magazine, now President of the NAS) in “The beyond-two-degree inferno“, an editorial in Science, 3 July 2015.
The press releases by the CDC and WHO are explicit and specific about the uncertainties in our knowledge about the coronavirus epidemic. As is the IPCC (see the confidence levels for each item in their most recent report, and how many are “medium” or lower).
But in the public debate about climate change, discussion of uncertainties becomes climate “denial.” For example, for several years scientists explored what appeared to be a long pause in global warming. Then research shifted to determining its cause. Hundreds of papers. Yet what the public saw were activists denying this work and condemning as “deniers” those who point to it (examples here). Climate scientists, including the authors of those papers, remained silent.
One other key point: the scientists of WHO and the CDC have conducted their campaign without attacks, let alone smearing, of those experts who disagreed with them (and there are many areas of disagreement). Climate science these days is all about smearing those outside the consensus.
(4) Simple, immediately useful recommendations.
The CDC and WHO reports provide immediately actionable suggestions, a stream of measures to produce incremental progress – each appropriate given the facts at that moment.
The climate science community could do the same. Thirty years ago they could have asked for more funds to do the research James Hanson recommended in 1989, for more money to validate their conclusions (e.g., here, here, and here), to begin a slow conversion away from fossil fuels, to do more research into new energy sources, and to better prepare for extreme weather (whether repeats from the past or from climate change). The result might have been slow and steady, accellerating as knowledge advanced.
Instead, they have done the opposite. They have recommended or demanded massive changes in the world’s society and economy, despite their shaky foundation in facts. As activists’ claims about the future became wilder, the demands became more extreme.
(5) Results from both projects
The public health agencies have strong and broad support. Despite shrill complaints about them by alarmists and extremists, they retain the public’s confidence.
The American public has been subjected to a propaganda barrage about climate change with few precedents in US history. Unfortunately for the activists, we live in a stew of propaganda – and most people have developed a high level of resistance. Gallup’s data as of March 2019 shows the result: a modest increase in concern since 2001 (see detail about 1998 – 2016 here and here – and from 1990 here). But this trend stalled in 2017. These are small results from a vast expenditure of money and effort.
Nobody is perfect. No organizations are perfect, least of all governmental and quasi-governmental organizations such as the CDC, WHO, and IPCC. But they are not all of equal effectiveness, and there are lessons to be learned. But thirty years of history shows that climate science will not reform as a public policy advisor without massive pressure from those funding it.
It’s easy to follow the coronavirus story
The World Health Organization provides daily information, from highly technical information to news for the general public.
- There is their daily situation report, with detailed numbers.
- The Director-General of WHO gives frequent briefings, which are quite insightful.
- Their daily press briefings have more information. An audio goes up quickly afterwards. A transcript is posted the next day.
Posts about the coronavirus pandemic.
- The 2019-nCoV virus shows that we’ve built a better world.
- Hidden news about the epidemic sweeping across America! – How fake news drives out good news.
- Amazing but hidden news about coronavirus – Update about the epidemic, and why so few know the good news.
For More Information
If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information about this vital issue see the keys to understanding climate change, and especially these debunking our mad policy client debate …
- Climate science has died. The effects will be big.
- After 30 years of failed climate politics, let’s try science! – A proposal to break the policy gridlock.
- The guilty ones preventing good policy about climate change.
- Toxic climate propaganda is poisoning US public policy.
- A demo showing our broken climate policy debate.
- An autopsy of the climate policy debate’s corpse.
Films about scientists responding to global threats
In these films, we see scientists behaving according to their and our highest ideals.
When Worlds Collide (1959) – The world will end. Scientists band together to warn the world and build an ark to carry humanity to another home.
Contagion (2011). – This shows the progress of a pandemic from Patient Zero, through global devastation, to eventual victory by the world’s scientists.