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Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has also appeared in The Christian Science…

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The Fatal Flaw In The Climate Change Debate

Everyone loves a courtroom drama--especially one that pits a feisty, but a determined criminal defense attorney against the awesome power of a prosecutor who has the resources of the state behind him or her. We see such David and Goliath stories every week on television.

We cheer as the defense attorney pokes one hole after another in the case of the prosecutor, raising what the audience now perceives as reasonable doubt. But will the jury see it that way? We'll return after these messages....

This is just the sort of metaphorical setting into which the climate change denial lobby is trying to place the debate over climate change without the public or even most policymakers realizing it. The deniers in the fossil fuel industry and elsewhere are attempting by sleight-of-hand to get both the public and policymakers to abandon the preponderance of evidence standard used primarily in civil trials--and which is similar to evidence-based public policymaking--in favor of another judicial standard designed for criminal trials, namely, beyond a reasonable doubt. Related: Price War: OPEC Versus U.S Shale Likely To Continue Despite Iran Deal

So long as the deniers get to claim the role of defense attorney in this public fight, their task will be much easier. The reason that the deniers want to change the standard of proof, of course, is because climate scientists have already shown through an overwhelming preponderance of evidence that human activities are a major cause of climate change. The deniers have no hope of winning the intellectual argument if this standard of proof is used.

Drawing from tactics permitted to defense attorneys in criminal proceedings, the deniers are freed from the need for consistency, clarity or comprehensiveness. Instead, they pursue several lines of contradictory rebuttal in hopes that one or more will stick since they believe they need only to poke holes in climate science to win. The deniers as defendants are not called upon to offer their own coherent theory of climate change. That's why they simultaneously claim that there is no global warming, that global warming is caused by nonhuman forces, and that global warming is good even if it is caused by human activities.

Some people wrongly treat the fossil fuel industry and carbon dioxide itself as if they are both somehow involved in a quasi-criminal proceeding. They think any one piece of evidence--even in isolation--that might suggest, however tenuously, that neither is implicated in climate change leads to reasonable doubt and a verdict of not guilty.

But, this kind of criminal trial thinking is not relevant to public policy deliberations. It is based on longstanding jurisprudence as expressed by the great English jurist William Blackstone who said: "It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." The principle at stake is that the freedom of the innocent is so precious that society should make every effort to ensure that no one is wrongly deprived of his or her personal liberty--even if it means that the courts are skewed toward letting some guilty defendants go free. But neither fossil fuel corporations nor carbon dioxide are actual living individuals, and so no one is going to be deprived of his or her personal liberty--that is, be imprisoned--by greenhouse gas emission regulations.

Probably the single most important question one can ask about this move by the deniers is whether they would accept the role of the prosecution. That would oblige them to offer an internally consistent theory of climate change supported by bona fide scientific evidence which somehow explains away all the evidence for human involvement in climate change. Related: Huge 100 Billion Barrel Oil Discovery Near London

As defendants in this hypothetical turnabout, climate scientists would only need to poke one or two holes in such a theory to prevail and win the case for the regulation of greenhouse gases. (This would roughly be the equivalent of the precautionary principle in action.) You can be assured the deniers only want to play the role of the defense in this faux courtroom drama. This is because they simply cannot marshal a winning prosecutorial case with the meager evidence they have and a story that is all over the map and riddled with holes.

There are only a tiny number of bona fide climate scientists who still say that the evidence is inconclusive concerning human contributions to climate change. There are none--so far as I know zero--who say that climate science PROVES that humans are NOT causing climate change--which would imply that these skeptics have a comprehensive, evidence-based theory of climate change which does not merely suggest nonhuman causes (which are already accepted by climate science), but which successfully refutes the enormous and growing evidence for human activities as a major cause.

Climate change deniers would like the public to believe that regulating greenhouse gas emissions should only be undertaken when we are 100 percent certain of their role in global warming. But anyone familiar with public policy knows that such regulatory policies are never undertaken with anything approaching 100 percent certainty--though the role of greenhouse gases in causing climate change comes closer to a 100 percent certainty than perhaps any previous scientific finding used to justify public policy action.

Where uncertainty remains concerning the possible consequences of climate change, that uncertainty--far from supporting inertia--actually cries out for significant and aggressive action in an effort to avert possible catastrophe. If the future of climate change meant merely that we all risked getting a hangnail, perhaps waiting would be an option. However, the history of climate change shows that we have consistently underestimated its pace and consequences. The changes already apparent and which climate change models forecast, suggest that we are risking nothing short of the stability and even survival of modern civilization if we do not act now. To wait would be akin to a cruise line deciding that lifeboats for its vessels will only be ordered when a ship starts sinking. Related: How Much Water Does The Energy Sector Use?

And, now back to our program (mentioned at the beginning)....We return to the courtroom, but it turns out to be a courtroom of the future. As the planet burns outside, the prosecution is asking for the imprisonment of scores of defendants who denied the dangers of climate change and delayed effective responses to it. These defendants are charged with crimes against humanity.

In this case the proper standard for a guilty verdict is "beyond a reasonable doubt" because the personal liberty of each defendant is at stake. The prosecution tries to prove that the climate change deniers knew they were lying to the public about climate science and understood that the future consequences of climate change might be severe, even catastrophic, but acted with reckless disregard for the safety of humanity.


The jury is not convinced "beyond a reasonable doubt" and frees all of the defendants. As the now freed defendants leave the courtroom, they thank their lucky stars that the court could not invoke the preponderance of evidence standard--a standard that would likely have landed them all in prison.

By Kurt Cobb

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  • Roger on April 14 2015 said:
    The author frames his argument as a black and white issue because of “an overwhelming preponderance of evidence that human activities are a major cause of climate change”. Skeptics of that argument can suggest that the preponderance of evidence may be an artifact of the 2.5 billion dollar climate research program that focuses on human activities as the cause and looks at other causes as an afterthought. Cynics can ask why if climate is constantly changing, that there is so much certainty that human activities are a major cause of this recently observed warming and not one of the natural factors that caused warming in the past instead. Furthermore, doubters can point out that the general circulation models that “prove” the catastrophic impacts claimed are not verifying well with recent temperatures.

    The author states “the role of greenhouse gases in causing climate change comes closer to a 100 percent certainty than perhaps any previous scientific finding used to justify public policy action”. This is an over simplification. All climate scientists and meteorologists (like me) probably agree that there is 100 percent certainty that some portion of the observed warming is caused by greenhouse gases. But from a policy perspective that does not help determine what greenhouse gas regulation policy is appropriate because there are other human activities that affect climate change, there are natural factors that affect climate change and we simply do not know how much each of these factors affects the climate.
  • Karl Rich on April 14 2015 said:
    Thank you for an entertaining yet thought provoking piece. There are way too many flat earthers and charlatans out there peddling their nonsense in support of climate change denial - in addition to a lot of highly educated people who are well able to apply critical thinking to the problem and should know better.
  • Brian R Smith on April 15 2015 said:
    What a terrific article. No punches pulled – thank you! As in your courtroom metaphor, it was Stephen Schneider who paraphrased: "it's the preponderance, stupid." And in the end, if we can't *allow* climate deniers to dominate with a false beyond-reasonable-doubt argument, the preponderance of evidence, and it's consequences for them, have to be made crystal clear to the jury, the public.

    For all the campaigning, the increasing public awareness, the deluge of evidence that we need to act now.. the public is STILL not overwhelmingly convinced of the scientific consensus, let alone demanding science-based climate and ecological accountability from their politicians. Nor is there good reason to think this will change much between now and Nov. 2016 unless the prosecution gets its act together.

    Missing in the courtroom (which I take to be the media) are the only credible expert witnesses to the evidence, climate scientists themselves.

    Instead, for the most part, we have substitutes or proxy advocates, e.g. Al Gore, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill McKibben or Bill Nye; many climate journalist & bloggers; mainstream opinion makers like Naomi Klein, the President, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh or Jon Stewart; and numerous documentaries and series on climate change, nature & energy issues. In other words, without the voice of the science community being heard directly – it's he said, she said, all the way down.

    This may seem obvious, but I'm not aware of any prominent discussion among civil society climate leaders of the importance of getting scientists before the public as a core public relations strategy. Worse, while the well oiled denialist PR machine rolls on, there is no attempt at coordinated, collaborative, movement-wide focus on public relations strategy at all that I can see. Given the resources at hand, which I think are easily up to the task of putting denialism in its grave, I don't get the hesitation. I don't get not using expertise and imagination to overcome media, and therefore political, disadvantage. Kurt Cobb, are you interested in this problem? Either way, thanks for great writing.
  • Jim on April 15 2015 said:
    Mr. Cobb uses his own sleight of hand to frame this as a moral argument, when it primarily is economic. Many people are skeptical of the policy decisions that assess various risks and rewards in regard to scientific assessments of climate change. Most skeptics admit that the climate changes and that humans may be implicated in that change. They do not agree with some of the scariest assessments of the future or the current prescriptions, but they should not be dismissed as stupid, naive or irrational as this piece does. Mr. Cobb should be engaging smart critics, like Bjorn Lomborg, on multiple scenarios of the future and multiple paths to get there.
  • Graeme on April 15 2015 said:
    Mr. Cobb fails to talk about the elephant in the room. Namely, the Sun

    Habibullo Abdussamatov, an astro-physicist of the Pulkovo Observatory of the Russian Academy of Science has recently published an article in Thermal Science that advises that our planet, Earth, is entering a new little Ice Age. It relates to the Sun’s 200 year cycles, what is called the Quasi-bicentennial variations of total solar irradiance.

    A century ago astronomer Milutin Milankovitch described how the tilt in the Earth’s axis among other movements determine the climate, Milankovitch cycles
    and Herschel, 200 years ago noticed an inverse correlation between Sunspots and harvests.

    Their work, that has substantial support, is also reflected in Piers Corbyn’s work and John Casey’s warnings over the least ten years on the arrival of the “Dalton Minimum”, a 205 year cycle of our Sun he says has now started.

    Any global warming produced by humans is such a minimal amount in the grand scheme of things that Mr. Cobb should not be terming it "Climate Change" as that is well beyond any human influence, as the solar cycles of our Sun determine how warm or cold our climate is.

    But that is another discussion beyond courtroom tricks and into the realm of physics
  • David L. Hagen on April 15 2015 said:
    Our greatest need is to rapid develop replacement fuels to redress the gap between conventional fuel depletion, declining discoveries but growing population and the need for economic development, aka "peak oil".

    Cobb wastes a lot of hot air on a relatively insignificant issue. Cobb mistakes drama for science. His argument is so week that he resorts to ad hominem accusations of "denier" for those ignoring his fascist arguments.
    Cobb himself appears to be "denying" the observed reality that there has been no statistically significant warming for 18 years 4 months.
    He further fails to recognize that the actual global warming since 1990 is half that predicted by the IPCC.
    Cobb fails to recognize the UNFCC's equivocation of redefining "climate change" to mean human caused change rather than scientific recognition of variation.
    He fails to recognize that the IPCC's global climate models are running so hot that there is now greater than 95 probability that they do NOT represent the observed global temperature change during the satellite era (since 1979).
    Could Cobb catch up with modern scientific evidence by actually reviewing the deep uncertainties involved and the very low certainty in the IPCC's claimed confidence?
    See Prof. Judith Curry's testimony before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, April 15, 2015
    e.g., the latest evidence from Nic Lewis is that the likely range for transient climate sensitivity is 1.05 deg C to 1.45 deg C - about half the IPCC's claims.
    Furthermore Murry Salby is finding multiple independent measures showing that human caused warming is less than ~30% of total global warming.

    Lets get back to the very serious looming challenge of declining availability of oil exports and of developing abundant inexpensive replacement fuels.
  • Gavin Johnson on April 16 2015 said:
    Kurt, the safety of humanity has never been assured - far from it in fact. Humanity has faced near extinction in the past, at a time when we contributed nothing to GHG. The fact remains that the Earth has a molten core with a temperature over 5000 degree Celsius, and we face the Sun, with a similar surface temperature. The Earth has been through numerous global warmings in the past, without any human contributuion whatsoever. The Earth warms and cools in cycles that we are powerless to control. Sure, we are reckless and we spend our energy and resources foolishly, as we are fallible little creatures who are bound to extinction at some point. However, fossil fuels are nowhere near our greatest evil. The economic system that assumes limitless supply, a global culture that fails to see the problem of overpopulation, and our obsession with our material possessions are the real evils. Oil and gas have enabled us like nothing else we've ever known. Besides, how would solar and wind energy hold up to a catastrophic cosmic event like a large asteroid strike on the planet? They wouldn't. We would all die in the cold and dark eternal night. Whereas fossil fuels are far more durable and flexible and could save us from such an event.
  • Edward Cherlin on April 17 2015 said:
    The deniers are out in force here, I see, each clinging to an exploded hypothesis. I find the claim that fossil fuels would save us in the cold and dark eternal night resulting from an asteroid strike particularly hilarious, both on the supposition that this once-in-many-million-years possibility is relevant, and the fantasy that we could burn enough fossil fuel to keep ourselves warm and also keep agriculture going in the eternal night.

    It is conceivable that all of the deniers could escape criminal charges in the hypothetical future trial that ends this article, by obfuscating such unreasonable objections into a reasonable doubt verdict. But, like O. J. Simpson, they would not escape damage awards in a civil trial, including punitive damages for willful malice, all proved on the preponderance of the evidence. We have the documents to prove malice already.

    But none of that matters. We are will into the Grid Parity transition, where renewable wind and utility-scale solar power cost less than coal and oil, and are catching up to gas; and to the Socket Parity transition, where rooftop solar costs less than utility electricity from any source. With new storage technologies also passing their transition points, it will soon be possible for many homeowners to go off-grid entirely, not only cutting off utility bills, but having electricity even when the grid goes down. In developing countries, village-scale microgrid solar means that it is no longer a matter of waiting decades for a connection to an unreliable national grid.

    The markets that the Right professes to worship have spoken. The economic and ocean tides are coming in ever higher, year by year, and no King Canute can order them back.
  • dazzling doug on April 18 2015 said:
    The earth first religion crowd needs to explain the global warming period of 900 to 1300 ad aka the mid evil warming period. Science thru ice cores and tree ring measurements show the earth temp. At avg. 4 degrees higher than world temperature today
  • Robert on April 18 2015 said:
    The author cannot be serious. "Preponderance of evidence"? The only "evidence" that the alarmists have are a series of climate models that, looking back on their 20+ years of predictions, have been spectacularly wrong. The fact is that mankind has only a marginal effect on the climate, at best, and we're wasting large amounts of time and money quibbling over the subject. Unless and until we can figure a way to regulate the Sun, we're not going to have a noticeable effect on the climate, one way or another. So-called "renewable" energy has its place, to be sure, but isn't remotely as efficient as the much more energy-intensive hydrocarbon and nuclear energy. A true "all of the above" energy strategy is what we need. Solar, wind, etc., are not substitutes for hydrocarbon. Rather, they are complementary sources.
  • George on April 19 2015 said:
    Climate change does exist.
    MAN MADE climate change is a JOKE.
    IT is just not being caused by the worlds way of living.

    Does GREENLAND ring a climate bell with anyone.
    THE MINI-ICE-AGE that peaked in 1945.
    Stradivarius Violins only being a made from special old wood not longer available due to the climate.
    The End of the Mayan civilization being cause by a climate change in about 1000 A.D.

    This is just a P(ile) H(igher) and D(eeper) thinking that I hope we do not have in the US Senate.
  • mike on April 21 2015 said:
    This is not about science anymore, it is about politics. The forces of darkness called conservatives are not so blind with hate they cannot agree with anything the liberals say. For them to be ruled by a black guy has them apoplectic with rage. And when Hilary is president they will take up arms. This is the last gasp for the tea baggers and the arch conservatives. Hate and prejudice filled their diseased souls. The discussion on climate change is over. Clearly climate change is real, man made and increasing. Deniers are flat earth people.
  • Rock on April 21 2015 said:
    Humans caused the end of the ice age. Been causing problems for billions of years.
  • John on April 22 2015 said:
    The fundamental problem I have with this articles' courtroom metaphor and even all of the scientific evidence presented is that an unstated assumption is made which is that we have all of the information we need to make a decision.

    Climate change, or more exactly anthropogenic climate change, is a paradox. It can not be dis-proved therefore it can not be proved either.

    Either mankind is causing climate change or it is not. The only way to experimentally verify it would be to either 1) test this hypothesis on two or more Earths using at least one as a control - or - 2) remove all humans from the Earth and see if anything changes. The latter is of course ridiculous because who would be left to conduct the experiment? The former is completely beyond all current human capability (though perhaps someday we can try this on other worlds).

    But public policy on anthropogenic climate change is still a paradox for the same reasons. Either we undertake all recommended changes and avert a climate catastrophe, or we undertake all of the recommended changes and we still do not avert a catastrophe. There is no way of knowing beforehand if the action we take will be enough or implemented in time. It leaves the argument that "if only we had acted sooner" to explain away any short coming in the result with no way to disprove it.

    Similarly, taking no action whatsoever is held to be so reckless that anthropogenic climate change deniers should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity. But there is no way to prove that not taking action and still avoiding a climate catastrophe is a viable result unless we actually do nothing and wait and see. What if drastic action was taken and it had no effect; would the people arguing for action be held responsible for the wasted effort?

    What we have today is an action bias coupled with a confirmation bias. To be fair, confirmation bias is present in both camps, but nonetheless bias has distorted people's opinions and interpretations to such a degree that consensus seems impractical if not impossible.
  • John Smith on May 15 2015 said:
    A bonkers article trying to frame "deniers" as a united group of charlattans who "simultaneously claim that there is no global warming, that global warming is caused by nonhuman forces, and that global warming is good even if it is caused by human activities"

    The reality is that different people have different views. Most of the climate skeptics I've come across agree that there probably has been some warming in recent years, but that this is not necessarily very unusual or anything to be alarmed about. Probably the most common skeptic belief is that the global temperature is not very sensitive to CO2 levels so there isn't a whole lot to worry about. Empirical data seems to back that up, after the huge failure of the super-CO2-sensitive IPCC climate models.

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