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Climate

An Interview With the Climate Scientist at the Center of a Scandal

Patrick Brown claims to have “left out the full truth” in order to get published. But his full story is much more perplexing.

Patrick Brown.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images, The Breakthrough Institute

Patrick Brown is a climate scientist at the Breakthrough Institute, a heterodox think tank based in California that advocates for using technology and economic growth to manage climate change. He holds a Ph.D. from Duke University in Earth and ocean science.

Last week, Brown and a team of co-authors published a paper in Nature that found climate change has made it more likely that California wildfires will experience a particularly dangerous kind of event: a moment of rapid, explosive growth. Thanks to climate change, these dangerous events are now 25% more likely to occur, the paper found.

On Tuesday, Brown published a lengthy Twitter thread about his wildfire paper, as well as an article in The Free Press, an online publication founded by the former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss. Now Brown told a different story about his research — a far more negative one. His new paper revealed fundamental problems with climate science, he said, because it looked at climate change alone and not at the role that other factors, such as vegetation change, arson, or forest management tactics, might play in driving wildfire growth.

“I knew not to try to quantify key aspects other than climate change in my research because it would dilute the story that prestigious journals like Nature and its rival, Science, want to tell,” he wrote. “I sacrificed contributing the most valuable knowledge for society in order for the research to be compatible with the confirmation bias of the editors and reviewers of the journals I was targeting.”

These incentives revealed that climate science is now more interested in serving as a “Cassandra” than revealing new information about the world — a tendency, he charged, that can “actually mislead the public.”

Brown’s argument attracted my attention, because I have written about how nuanced and complicated climate science can sometimes be. When President Joe Biden linked the Quebec wildfires to climate change, I expressed doubts about the connection. When Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida last year, I wrote that hurricanes have a far more complicated relationship with global warming than many believe. And in 2019, I broke the news that a respected team of climate scientists had ruled out some of the worst-case scenarios for rapid sea-level rise this century. I am not, in other words, someone who sees climate change in every shadow.

On Wednesday, I called Brown to talk about his claims, the Nature publication process, and the state of climate science as a field. Our conversation follows below. But I left the interview unsure of why Brown had made such a fuss.

Brown argues that climate science suffers from a serious misallocation of incentives. He says that his paper should have looked at the influence of many factors — such as arson or forest management — in driving rapid wildfire growth. Yet it didn’t. Even though he says these factors can be “just as or more important” than climate change, he declined to study them because the professional incentives pointed against it. Doing so would have detracted from his paper’s “clean narrative” focused on climate catastrophism and made his paper less likely to “pass muster with Nature’s editors and reviewers.”

But after talking to him and reading his paper, a different story emerged. When Brown began his research, he did not actually know that, say, arson or forest management were as important as climate change in driving wildfire growth. What he did know is that it would be complicated — and labor-intensive — to pull out every factor that might influence a wildfire’s growth. So he chose to focus his first paper on what was likely to be the biggest signal: climate change.

During the peer-review process, Nature’s reviewers asked him why he made this choice. It would have been “very difficult” to study those other variables, such as forest management, he replied. “This is precisely why we chose to use a methodology that addresses the much cleaner but more narrow question of what the influence of warming alone is on the risk of extreme daily wildfire growth,” he wrote, adding that he hoped to look at other factors in future research.

Nature’s editors and reviewers accepted this argument in good faith. And Brown did, in fact, begin studying the role of those other factors on wildfires. He claims that newer, unpublished work shows that active forest management can negate some impacts of climate change on wildfire in California, although this finding has yet to be peer reviewed.

When the Nature paper came out last week, Brown was admirably upfront about its limitations. The paper itself cautions that its findings should be interpreted only “narrowly”; Brown stressed on Twitter and in interviews that even though climate change is making wildfires worse, near-term greenhouse-gas reductions will do little to cut that risk. And journalists listened to him. NPR and the Los Angeles Times devoted multiple paragraphs of their stories to that insight and to the importance of forest management.

So I’m left asking: What’s the problem here? Brown had a knotty research problem, and he chose to divvy it up into smaller parts and focus on the easiest part first. He triaged, in other words. When peer reviewers — whom he now claims accepted his paper due only to their “confirmation bias” — pushed back on his decision, he argued against them and said that he would look at other variables later. He kept that promise; he is studying those variables now. When his paper was published, he publicized its findings fairly and accurately. The media covered them with nuance. Where’s the scandal, again? What are we supposed to be mad about here?

Brown seems to have talked himself into the view that he did something wrong, but it’s not clear to me that he actually did. Shorn of his personal example, his Free Press article amounts to a series of gripes about other high-impact climate papers. He criticizes an article that calculated how carbon emissions could hit GDP, but his concerns, while reasonable enough, are hardly an indictment of the field. He complains that journal editors look for “eye-popping” statistics when reviewing papers, but this is hardly a vice unique to climate science. None of what he describes — least of all his own behavior — amounts to an effort to “distort research” or “mislead the public” that he has seemingly alleged.

His critique has found its audience anyway. Since we talked, Brown’s argument has been cited by Fox News,The New York Post, andThe Telegraph. “Climate scientist admits editing paper to fit ‘preapproved narratives,’” reads a typical headline. (Brown denies distorting or lying about his results.) The editor-in-chief of Nature, meanwhile, has rebuked Brown and said that the journal is “carefully considering the implications of his stated actions.” During our conversation, Brown lamented that only articles warning of climate change’s dangers ever appear in the media. Now he is receiving a wholly different type of coverage.

Our conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.



I wonder if you could catch me up on what’s happened in the past few days and on the criticism, or the meta-criticism, of the paper that you just published.

If you look at my tweet thread or the press release on the paper, I went out of my way to emphasize the points that I end up critiquing the paper for. I emphasize that in our current phase of research, we’re finding that hazardous fuel reduction treatments might be able to completely overwhelm the impact of climate change on fire.

My argument is that I would very much defend the research overall, but I’m making this commentary on framing it for the journal. What I did when writing with paper, when my goal was to get it in Science or Nature, is very, very common. It’s pervasive. It’s just turning the dials in all these specific ways that end up skewing the public view of the overall situation that we’re in. As a climate researcher, if you want this high-end paper, if you want this paper that’s going to make a splash and help you in your career, your goal is to cut through everything else and use a bunch of sophisticated statistics to find the climate change signal in there.

There’s nothing explicitly wrong with this paper; it’s just what ends up getting communicated at the end of the day. So in this case, you hold everything constant, you only look at this temperature impact, so you’re controlling for other factors — like changes in human ignition patterns or changes in characteristics from fire suppression. Those caveats are mentioned in the paper, so I’m not saying that they’re hidden. But you focus exclusively on climate change and you ignore these other factors that might be important. There’s a firehose of papers like this, but they end up giving a totally overemphasized impression of the climate change impact.

Climate change is this nuanced thing, and it shows up in different ways in the world, and what we know about it is quite nuanced. I think that can absolutely get lost in the loudest parts of the discourse.

I struggle with it. People are coming from such different baselines, where I think some people are of the mindset that we don’t even know if the climate is changing, or we have no idea if humans are contributing to it or something like that. And, obviously, that is completely against what all of the empirical evidence and science shows. For those people, I’d love to convince them of the importance of climate change and the dominant role that humans play in it.

But then there’s this other group of people that I think is misled by social media or certain media outlets, that are under a very misinformed impression about how large changes in weather and impacts on people are at least historically or up to this point. That starts with the journal articles themselves, and I perceived there to be strong incentives to really just focus exclusively on the climate change impact and to play it up more than it deserves to be played out.

I want to talk about that by focusing on this paper. It seems there are these other factors that shape wildfires. You mentioned just now changing ignition patterns, changes in fire suppression, changes in vegetation. I think the way that you just described them is that they “might” be important. The way you described them yesterday is that they’re “just as or more important.”

My first question is: Do we know that? I can imagine that they might be important. But have you done the research to know they’re just as important?

So the paper in Nature was submitted in July 2022, and since I submitted this, I moved on to that question. And we don’t have a manuscript yet, but what we're seeing using the same methodology is that fuel loads just have an enormous impact on fire danger. It’s a struggle to figure out how to model mechanical thinning and prescribed burning, but the results indicate that doing that at least locally can totally overwhelm or negate the climate change impact.

That will be a new paper, but that’s not some new result. If you look at disciplinary journals — it’s not in PNAS or Nature for the most part — that is kind of a consensus, that the fuel component of this is very large. It’s not unreasonable at all to think that a hazardous fuel reduction could overwhelm the impact of climate change.

So, do we know that for sure? No, but that’s one of the points I’m making — researchers aren’t incentivized to write that paper as much as I think that they should be. That’s a paper that's like, We’re going to do the very best we can varying different scenarios of ignition, or how we think ignition patterns have changed historically, or varying different scenarios of fuel buildup based on suppression policies and climate change. And we’re going to do this in a super rigorous, fair way, and we could rank these things or just see the relative influence of those factors. That has a much lower return on investment from the perspective of a researcher. It’s way more work, it’s way harder, and whatever the results, it will be much more equivocal. It’s going to be this super long paper, and it’s going to get bogged down in review.

I want that to be the gold standard. But what I see becoming the gold standard are these papers that are mimicked off of Science and Nature. You have a limit of about 2,000 words and three figures, and it incentivizes you to make this case. You have all of this data that’s messy, and your goal is to find the story and to tell the story with beautiful figures. Inevitably, doing it that way, you have to relegate things that go against your story to the supplements and explain them away. That’s the way that scientific publishing works, at least for these letter-type papers in Science or Nature.

There are two threads here, but I want to stay focused on the smaller one first. I think the way you put it in your thread was that to focus on other factors would “muddy the waters of a clean story” or would decrease the odds that this gets approved by Nature’s editors or reviewers.

Yeah.

But at the time you submitted the study, did we have methods to pull out the vegetation signal? Or the ignition signal?

What I’m doing now is the same idea as trying to pull out the temperature signal. You’re using the variation in space and time to get at the incremental influence of fuels on fire danger. But historically you would’ve had to come up with an estimate of what suppression policies had done to those fuels.

Got it. But at the time you submitted the paper, the work hadn’t been done.

Right. And I would love to have it be the case where as a researcher you could afford essentially to submit a paper and then be like, actually this other [method] is better or something, and then take your paper back. But that is insane, but you would never do that as a researcher. You need publications, and you want to build off the previous one.

I’m asking because there’s a throughline in some of what you’ve written that basically alleges that this kind of science is simply not something that Nature and these high-level scientific institutions are looking for. You wrote, “I sacrificed contributing the most valuable knowledge for society in order for the research to be compatible with the confirmation bias of the editors and reviewers of the journals I was targeting.”

I’m struggling to square that with the fact that the Nature reviewers, who are the people you accused of confirmation bias, directly ask you for this analysis in the peer review. One of them flags that there’s “numerous factors that play a confounding role in wildfire growth that are not directly accounted for, including vegetation, fire management, and ignition.” And another cautions against publishing the study because of methodological problems.

And during peer review, you responded to them, “We agree that climatic variables other than temperature are important for projecting change” — then you name all the factors we’ve been talking about — but “accounting for changes in all of these variables and their potential interactions simultaneously is very difficult. This is precisely why we chose to use a methodology that addresses the much cleaner but more narrow question of what the influence of warming alone is on the risk of extreme daily wildfire growth.”

It seems there’s this motte and bailey here. I understand that a researcher has limited time and they’re going to invest in the most methodologically clear stories. But you’re saying that you “molded” your work to fit the confirmation bias of Nature reviewers. Yet the Nature reviewers actually asked you to do the thing that you’ve identified as the biggest question mark in the article — and when they asked for that, you said it was too difficult. So which is it?

So I think that, that’s very good that the reviewers brought that up. But like I said before, doing that is, then, it’s not a Nature paper. It’s too diluted in my opinion to be a Nature paper.

This is what I’m trying to highlight, I guess, from the inside as a researcher doing this type of research. Reviewers absolutely will ask for good sensitivity tests, and bringing in caveats, and all that stuff, but it is absolutely your goal as the researcher to navigate the reviews as best you can. The file even gets automatically labeled Rebuttal when you respond to the reviewers. It’s your goal to essentially get the paper over the finish line.

And you don’t just acquiesce to reviewers, because you’d never get anything published. You don’t just say, Oh you’re right, okay, we will go back and do that work for five years and submit elsewhere. The reality of the situation is you have to go forward with your publication and get it published. They can ask for legitimate things, and you can kind of hand wave it away, and I don’t think that would work if you were not focused on the climate-change signal alone. If you were only focused on the fuel effect, I don’t think it would even go to review. They would be like, They didn’t consider climate change. That’s the thing we care most about.

I think it’s good that they’re now publishing reviewer comments and retorts, but that is common, absolutely conventional practice. You do what you think you have to do, and you don’t do what you think would take too long or bog it down or end up with a paper not being published.

There’s two different stories there, though. I mean, you write: “To put it bluntly, climate science has become less about understanding the complexities of the world and more about serving as a kind of Cassandra” and that this “distorts a great deal of climate science research. It misinforms the public and it makes practical solutions more difficult to achieve.”

The argument you make in your article is that this is due to confirmation bias and the desire for splash. And the argument you’re making now, which is different, is that the methods on the climate signal are much better developed. That it’s a much clearer thing. It’s what everyone cares the most about, for understandable reasons, and if you’re a researcher, it’s the lowest-hanging fruit, so it’s the easiest and most pressing thing to focus on. But that’s very different from this being about confirmation bias or a tendency toward catastrophism — it’s about researchers trying to make the most of the limited time that they have.

Yeah, I don’t think that they’re that different. I think that the methods are less developed for these other causal factors because of this climate obsession. We know the most about the climate signal, again, because the data sets and the infrastructure are all designed around the climate signal.

So it’s very easy for me to get estimates of the temperature change since the pre-industrial era, and we have all these models, and it’s all at my fingertips. It’s easier, it is the low hanging fruit. But you can imagine a world where in the fire science community, there are resources and databases estimating historical ignitions or other data, like, “this is our year-by-year estimate of fuel loads from 1850 to the present.” Then, that would be the low-hanging fruit. You would have potentially a totally different feeling for what comes out the other end, or what is reported in the media, if those data sets existed.

But the other side of that story is right here, which is that the peer reviewers ask you for that other stuff, and you say it’s too hard. You said it’s “very difficult.” And the other thing you said is that, “Our study shows that large-growth days are predictable using our predictors despite having no other information.” My interpretation is that this leaps out of the data even if everything else is moot.

The predictors include fuel characteristics. There’s nothing in the paper that does long-term manipulation of those, like the temperature or other variables. The models do know certain fuel characteristics, but those have gotten much more sophisticated in the current version of the models.

But back in 2019 or 2020, when you started the wildfire paper, you actually didn’t know about the role of ignitions or vegetation or forest management in driving wildfire growth. You would assume, as I would assume, that these are important factors, but you didn’t know about them. You chose to focus on climate first.

Yeah.

And then you were told to go back and look at the other ones, which you eventually did — that’s what you’re doing now. But at the time, you were like, that’s very hard, so we’re doing this one first. So my question here is: Isn’t this just science working, then? Is that really so scandalous? You picked the highest salience trendline first and then, having found that, went to go study other things.

You could say that that’s science working, but I think that what would happen is that when we start to dilute the climate change story, it’s not a Nature paper anymore. It's not a high-profile paper.

I’m not throwing all of science or all of climate science under the bus. I’m saying, the incentives are aligned to get this exclusive billing in these highest-profile papers and that skews the overall public impression of how large the climate signal is. So yeah, we could go publish another paper, but that wouldn’t have nearly the splash or penetration into the public as this one would have.

I am not sure that's true. I’m also not sure that it seems like nobody has done this vegetation work that you're doing. And when you publish that, it seems like it will be a very important methods paper — and methods papers get cited in some ways more than the high-impact stuff.

I don’t see a story, really, or a narrative getting into The New York Times about how — or especially the Guardian, or someplace like that — about how something other than climate change could be the dominant driver. Maybe I’m wrong, but that doesn’t seem like it would be nearly as likely as focusing on the climate change thing exclusively.

Again, I’m not sure that’s true, but I think that gives away the game a little, because if you’re a researcher trying to publish work that will be highly salient to the public, of course you’ll focus on climate change — the public already cares a lot about climate change. And the public is fundamentally right to care. I even think this whole process has sold your own paper short: If climate change is contributing to these rapid wildfire growth events, that’s a very important finding! Even if it’s not fixable in the near term with emissions reductions. Of course the public cares about it.

There’s a lot in your criticism that suggests certain kinds of analysis are “discouraged” or that certain kinds of questions would not have made this a Nature paper. And I understand you’re just trying to get past the review stage, but the process that was set up to edit Nature did tell you this, and you argued against it. So it’s a little duplicitous to turn around to the public and say, Well, I was only arguing against them because of the incentives.

I realize you have to publish. But when the peer reviewers told you to look at these other factors, you were like, “Oh, it’s very difficult, and climate change is so important that it’s worth pulling out this signal anyway.” And now to the public, your meta-interpretation of your own paper is like, “I wish I had been able to focus on this other stuff.”

But we got it through. Reviewers and editors could say, “No, this is ridiculous, you can’t focus exclusively on the climate change signal.” And they could do that with everything — with yields, with deaths, with fires, with floods, with GDP.

But what I’m saying is that from reading Nature, from reading Nature Climate Change, from reading Nature Communications, from reading Science, from reading Science Advances, I know as a researcher that this is not going to stop my paper. This is what everyone does. So when someone says, look at other factors — which is always what you get in reviews — you just learn to say, that’s not in the scope of this paper, but we can do it potentially in future work. You come up with a reason why you’re not going to do it in this paper, because you need that paper published so you can go on to the next one.

I hear that, but it does feel dishonest to turn around and interpret the paper to the public in this way. You’re not saying, in either the Twitter thread or Free Press article, that “Frankly it was very hard to pull out all these other factors, so we didn’t do it in this paper, but you should know that other factors matter.” What you’re saying is that the entire publication set-up is geared toward producing articles finding a catastrophic climate impact.

I understand you felt you had to just get past the reviews, but you can’t tell a high-impact journal that what they want is too hard, then turn around and tell the public, “Simply put, the incentives didn’t let me do this!”

Yeah, I understand what you’re saying, but what I would say is that there was no pathway for the reviewer to say, “Consider these other factors,” and then for us to do that, and for it to become a Nature paper. There’s no off-ramp there where you say, “Okay, good idea, we’ll go do that.” Your response has to convince the reviewer that you don’t need to do that. That would be a potential way to reform things — if you were able to hold papers in limbo. As a researcher needing publications, and wanting as many high-profile publications as you can, you have to argue with the reviewers and do whatever’s necessary to then get it over the finish line. My larger point is that it’s still the biases of the editors and reviewers that allowed the hand-waving response to get through.

But if you thought that they had made such a valid point that it torpedoed the paper, you could have pulled the paper. You did have options.

Yeah. I could have pulled the paper.

But that’s my point. I’m trying to improve science. And I’m saying, from the inside, that you don’t pull your paper, that’s crazy. You would never do that. Your incentives as a researcher are not aligned with the best knowledge generation for the public. You can say, okay, a more pure scientist would have done that, and shame on me for not pulling the paper, but I don’t think that’s fair, because I think 99.99% of people in my position … this is our job. To argue with reviewers and get papers over the finish line. Especially when nothing is actually wrong. Nothing is explicitly wrong here.

You’ve said that this “wouldn’t make it a Nature paper.” But there was a commentary in Nature Climate Change just yesterday that argued against the assumption that the future will be worse than the present and said that we shouldn’t paint an increasingly dire version of the future.

These articles don’t always get covered in the press, but is this a problem with science, or is it just a problem with the press?

Well, I think that there’s definitely a press issue, and that's a whole separate issue. But yeah, I’m highlighting what I think is a basic foundational science portion of the issue. And there are feedbacks between the two. I think 10 years ago, or 15 years ago, I don’t think there was this alliance between certain celebrity scientists and certain journalists, like — “You journalists will be the PR for my study that just came out, and I’ll shape my study to be the most salient for writing about.” I think that’s a natural tendency for highly motivated and ambitious people.

This question of an “alliance” is an interesting one. Because there’s a very understandable story about the incentives you’re describing. I think it’s good to point out that climate change is where we have the most developed methods, it’s what the public cares about the most, so it’s what you write about first when you start to take a crack on this wildfire problem. And if there are negative consequences that follow from those incentives, that’s quite understandable. But when you talk about an “alliance,” it suggests that there’s this malevolent or highly self-interested conspiracy —

I don’t think that. Just as an example, though, you are being an excellent journalist right now. You are really questioning me, and shaking me down, and questioning all sorts of things that I said. But I did a bunch of interviews on the Nature paper and I got nothing like that. No one ever asked challenging questions. They do this kind of, You are the scientist, you are the arbiter of truth-type thing.

So I notice a difference here — when I am in this role of warning about climate change, I am treated very differently than when I’m in this role of challenging that. And maybe you always do this with all the climate stuff that you cover, but I think that the people on the climate beat should not just be these megaphones for researchers, they should challenge them.

When those reporters were asking you questions, were you going out of your way to say, “Oh, fire management is really important. Actually, how we manage this is really important.”

Yes, I was, actually.

And did it make it into the stories?

Well, the vast majority of the stories I was not interviewed for. There was an NPR story and an LA Times story, and I think my quotes got in there. So that’s good.

That’s good to hear. I’ll be honest that when I saw your Free Press article yesterday, I was pretty taken aback. And it’s because I was looking forward to calling you as an expert during a big wildfire event. But when I call a researcher about a paper, I need them to be honest with me and tell me their full views about it. But if someone says A to me and to my readers, and then they turn around a few days later and say, In fact, I really believe B — I was only saying A because of the incentives, it gives me pause. Because why should I trust you?

I totally understand what you’re saying. Part of this is certainly a confession of personal fault, but in my tweet thread and in the press release, I made sure to emphasize everything I thought was important. If we had wanted it to go viral, I could have emphasized a [high emissions scenario] and made the title that climate change radically alters wildfire growth. But the title was about using artificial intelligence. And in all the interviews I did, I emphasized what I think is the most scientifically interesting part of this, which is that if you put climate change on different wildfires, you get different responses because forests are nearer or closer to these aridity thresholds. I feel no regrets whatsoever about the publicity I did for the paper.

I want to ask you about a few of the ways that Twitter and Free Press readers have interpreted the criticisms you’re making. One reader says you “inflated numbers” in order to get the article published. Did you do that?

No. That sounds like something totally different from what I’m talking about. That sounds like you go into a spreadsheet and change the numbers or something. I’m talking about a much more subtle thing, about emphasis.

Got it. There was a Free Press commenter who walked away from your story and said that you “distorted the facts and lied in order to succeed.” Do you think that’s a fair read?

No — “lied in order to succeed”? No. There’s nothing out of the ordinary or unconventional about this paper. I’m saying the conventions lead to an incomplete picture overall.

Do you understand why people walked away from the criticism you were making with those ideas?

I suppose if you just understand that people are reading things pretty quickly and lightly, but I don't think if you go word by word through my piece, you would see that.

Your piece does allege that the public’s being misled by the incentives here.

I think the overall picture being painted emphasizes climate more than it deserves.

Were your co-authors aware that you were going to use the paper in the way that you did?

I gave some of them a verbal heads up, but they did not see the piece, so this is, 100%, I own it. They are not involved and should not be accused of anything. I wrote the paper, I did the entire analysis, and this is my thing in terms of the opinion piece as well.

Is this really about climate change, or is this really about something that we know happens in every scientific discipline, which is that the most novel, eyebrow-raising papers get into high-impact journals and get the most press coverage? We don’t read about the bulk of the experiments that happen at the Large Hadron Collider, either.

It’s hard for me to judge completely about other fields since I’m not in them, but I would say that the splashiest papers in a non-politicized field are the ones that would go against conventional wisdom or the state of perceived knowledge in the field. I would say it’s the opposite in climate science. It’s all about emphasizing the climate-change signal or the climate-change impact. A lot of climate researchers feel like it’s essentially their job to raise alarm about climate change and emphasize the emissions reduction component.

But climate change is inherently politicized, right?

Yeah.

And the history is that climate scientists are not who politicized it. The reason it’s an especially touchy field is because there was a 15-year effort to emphasize every single error bar, every quibble, every well-founded scientific statement of doubt, to convince the public to doubt the climate-change hypothesis.

I take your point. I don’t know if it’s fair to say — I mean, are you saying that they could be politicized? Because I think it’s still politicized in general. There’s all these values that are taken onboard [by scientists]. There are traditional environmentalist values that impacting Earth is inherently bad, and so we should look for and highlight these bad things. That’s not explicitly, necessarily a partisan, political thing, but it’s an ideology that’s running in the background. It’s different from an ideology that says warming is this much, but it could be overwhelmed or offset by this technology.

I’m not someone who sees the fossil-fuel industry in every failed climate policy. But just as a matter of historical fact, from 1990 to at least 2005, there was a well-funded, highly organized effort to publicize every point of scientific caution to sow doubt about climate change. And yes, climate science was associated with environmentalism through the 1970s and ’80s, but had there not been an organized effort to play up every morsel of doubt in the literature, climate science wouldn’t have been politicized in the same way.

I’m not a historian of that. I take your point.

You’re describing a set of incentives that push researchers to look at climate change first. But if you go to a climate science conference, it’s really different, and you do in fact see ideas in climate science get rolled back over time. Like, in the 2000s, we thought climate change played a much larger role in hurricanes than we do now.

I think that’s a really important point, but I don’t think that that is at all what the public thinks or that’s communicated to the public. I guess if that’s an empirical question, you could do the polling on it, but it seems like, now, to me, it seems like every extreme weather event is covered through the lens of climate change.

Look at Canada’s explosive wildfire year. On the one hand, it’s so out of line with historical norms, it’s hard to see how there isn’t a climate change signal there — on the other hand, it’s so out of line that it’s hard to say what’s going on. So what do we want the public to do here? Because I don’t think every member of the public will be an expert on exactly how climate change drives extreme weather. So is the American public, writ large, sufficiently concerned about climate risks as I understand them? Probably not. Is 5% of the public too concerned? Maybe, yeah. But I also don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.

I’d have to look at the polls. I remember seeing that 42% of young people have some form of climate anxiety every day, which I think is filtered through social media reframing all extreme weather through the lens of climate change, bringing in a very apocalyptic view that I think is incongruent with the data. You think 5% is too concerned? I don’t know. You’d also have to bring in policies, and costs of policies, and the net overall costs and benefits of energy systems and agricultural systems and everything, and that’s just a much more difficult thing to get right.

But the leading candidate for one of the two parties also says climate change isn’t real. So my question would be, are there malicious actors and institutions here? Or is this just an extremely hard, very difficult thing to get right?

I do not think that there are malicious actors and institutions. I think it’s much more just the cultural milieu of institutions. The problems that I’m highlighting, I think there’s just a groupthink that develops, and people not wanting to rock the boat too much, and everyone kind of being on board knowing that, Well, the good side is to raise alarm about climate change and to reduce emissions, and the bad side is to do anything that would be in the other direction of that. And I think that you can make an argument for that, but I think that that ends up distorting actual scientific output.

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Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology. Read More

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