The sins of the fathers
A hallmark of the modern punditocracy is that those who were wrong are taken to be the great and worthy, invited to pontificate in all venues and called on by the mighty for advice. In fact, they should be clothed in sackcloth and ashes and either sent into the wilderness to repent, or, given the damage they have done, have a final professional Roman bathtub sitdown, but that does not appear to be an option, which accounts for Eli's general outlook.
Rabett Run linked to recent papers on how we got into the climate science corner of the mess. Oreskes, Conway and Shindell (OCS) describe how William Nierenberg, led and distorted a 1983 National Research Council report on the consequences of man made climate change. Here we emphasize the corrosive role that Gary Yohe and William Nordhaus and a later Nobel Economist, Thomas Schelling played in the process and the consequences thereof. Nierenberg was the Director of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, a member of the National Academy and soon to be a founder of the Marshall Institute, a position from which he, Fred Seitz and William Jastrow threw sand in the face of science till their deaths.
The Nierenberg report followed reports on climate research by a committee headed by Jule Chaney and from the JASON group which established (see papers by Oreskes and Myanna Lahsen) [link updated - thanks to Stoat], even then a consensus that increasing greenhouse gas concentrations were known to be a serious threat. Nierenberg built a jury rigged sandwich with moldy bread.
The physical sciences, in the middle, were pretty much along the lines later filled in by the IPCC process. There was more uncertainty, less was known then, but the broad outlines conformed to the current scientific consensus, however the bread that held the sandwich (and the bottom line conclusions) were from Nierenberg and his band of merry economists, singing don't worry, be happy we can take care of any problems later at lower cost, a song they are still singing as things get worse. Sadly, many are listening.
As OCS point out, they did so by accepting the conclusions of the physical scientists, but then only considering the least threatening of the range of possibilities.
Nierenberg’s principal tactic was to rely on the arguments provided by the two economists. At the first full discussion of the issues facing the committee, both Schelling and Nordhaus introduced the idea that climate change was not necessarily bad, that most likely it would have both negative and positive effects. Nordhaus wanted to evaluate costs and benefits, suggesting that although he “suspected that the impacts of increasing carbon dioxide would be negative,” they might not be, and it would be hard to prove either way, given the complexity of social and economic systems.The economists provided the necessary cover and continue to do so for the Marshall Institute types, indeed it is the same economists.
Chapter 1, written by Nordhaus, Ausubel, and Gary Yohe, an economics professor at Wesleyan University brought in mid-stream as a consultant, focused on future energy use and carbon dioxide emissions. The long and detailed chapter was perhaps the first serious study of the problem that looked at many variables, and did not assume linear extrapolations. It began by acknowledging the “widespread agreement that anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions have been rising steadily, primarily driven by the combustion of fossil fuels.” The emphasis here, however, was not so much on what was known, but on what was not known: the “enormous uncertainty” beyond 2000, and the “even greater uncertainty” about the “social and economic impacts of possible future trajectories of carbon dioxide.” This uncertainty provided the basis for an argument that no meaningful action could be taken now. They used the uncertainty to hide the pea, acknowledging the possibility of rapid and damaging changes, but then only considering far off and lesser threats from climate change. Moving the danger far enough in the future meant that it did not have to be confronted, which is what Nierenberg wanted as a conclusion Nor did Nierenberg attempt to deny the legitimacy of the existing science. Rather, he accepted the scientific facts while adopting a conceptual framework in which those facts were irrelevant. The essence of the report is the reframing of climate change as something that policymakers and politicians should ignore, which in the United States at least, for the next two decades, they largely did The actions of William Nierenberg belie that assumption. Nierenberg did not engage his scientific colleagues over the technical basis of their scientific views. He did not produce new or competing claims about how the Earth would respond to increased CO2. In short, he did not try to construct knowledge about the Earth. Rather, while accepting his colleagues’ technical conclusions, he dismissed the interferences that they (and others) had drawn from those conclusions, substituting an alternative framework that insisted that those inferences were wrong. Rather than constructing knowledge, William Nierenberg de-constructed it.This fits well with current threads on grist and inkstain, where the protagonists walk right past what could have been done ten and twenty years ago if clear scientific conclusions had been honestly accepted and well into the postmodernist framing debate. Indeed OCS write 70+ pages on how Nierenberg was able to reframe the question of what was happening to climate, to that of should we bother doing anything about it. Which leads to the serious question of why Nordhaus and Yohe have any remaining credibility given that they played a knowing and crucial role in making us miss the opportunity to deal with climate change at low cost, at a crucial time. You and your children will pay the price.