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‘Contrarian’ views on climate change

  • by JW

“Most climate scientists and writers still take great pains to avoid being too apocalyptic or definitive in their declarations, lest they be accused of doom-mongering that would incite climate deniers and trigger unproductive despair in normal people. Many of us think and argue constantly about such messaging. That’s a healthy thing.” [Mark Gongloff, Bloomberg]


Quite a brouhaha has erupted over claims by a climate scientist that he exaggerated the impact of climate change on wildfires, to ensure his paper was published in the science journal Nature.

Dr Patrick Brown is Co-Director of the Climate and Energy Team at The Breakthrough Institute – and this story has been reported in the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Times, the Sun and the Daily Express in the UK, and on other mainstream media outlets beyond.

Firstly, there is the The Breakthrough Institute. Last month, the San Francisco Bay Chronical explored “Why this Bay Area think tank is the most controversial climate nonprofit you’ve never heard of“. Whilst a decade ago, a Harvard University foundation said the Breakthrough Institute has “a clear history as a contrarian outlet for information on climate change and regularly criticizes environmental groups”, with one writer describing them as a “program for hippie-punching your way to fame and fortune.”

Then there is Dr Brown, who has written on subjects as diverse as The IPCC Report on the Impacts of Climate Change is Depressing and How Is Climate Change Influencing the Severe Storms in California? and The “Failure” to Ban Fossil Fuel Projects in the Developing World at COP27 May Actually Save Lives. All of which do seem to give a ‘contrarian’ view.

Then there is the media which has reported this week on the story – that Dr Brown claims research that cuts against the ‘mainstream narrative’ on climate change is ‘taboo’ in certain journals. Which by no means suggests that such press is automatically ‘climate sceptic’ – with the Telegraph, for example, covering earlier this year a study revealing that scientists at Exxon predicted global warming with ‘startling accuracy’ decades ago. 

And it is indeed the job of the media to ask awkward questions – and perhaps to take a ‘contrarian’ view.

However, as the Energy & Environmental News website suggests in a piece yesterday, “A scientist manipulated climate data. Conservative media celebrated”:

The researcher, Patrick Brown, said he omitted “the full truth” about nonclimate causes of wildfire, such as insufficient forest management, from a peer-reviewed study that showed how rising temperatures are increasing the risk of wildfire, because he suspected editors of the journal Nature would have rejected his research if it failed to exclusively blame human-caused greenhouse gases for intensifying blazes. Nature said his claims were untrue...

Brown was hailed as a whistleblower by some conservative media outlets that sometimes promote falsehoods around climate change. His accusations were covered by and the New York Post with headlines that indicated Brown’s claims were evidence of corruption in climate science.

But the editor-in-chief of Nature, Magdalena Skipper, said Brown’s assertions were demonstrably false. Before the paper was published, peer reviewers of Brown’s research pointed out that he excluded important variables other than climate change that also affect wildfires, Skipper said. Brown argued against including those other variables, she said...

That firestorm of attention and distorted claims threaten to blow back on Brown’s seven co-authors, scientists said. It’s not clear if any of his co-authors knew about Brown’s plans. They include recent graduates and early-career scientists. None of them responded to requests for comment Wednesday. Brown’s actions are “monumentally unethical,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Over decades of research in the field, he said he could not remember another author treating publication as a “game.” Brown’s actions won’t hurt his own job prospects since he is no longer an academic, but the controversy could follow his colleagues throughout their careers, Schmidt said. He added that Brown censored himself, rather than actually being told his paper wouldn’t be published if he broadened his research. “He’s whistleblowing on himself — he did all of this,” Schmidt said. “Nobody did anything to him.”

And today, a former editor for the Wall Street Journal writes for Bloomberg suggesting that “Climate Scientists Aren’t Being Forced to Exaggerate”:

It reads like a climate denier’s dream come true: A prestigious climate scientist publicly confesses he fudged research in order to get published. That’s basically how excited headlines in right-wing media have portrayed scientist Patrick Brown’s claim this week that he oversold the influence of climate change on wildfire risks in order to get a paper published recently in the prestigious journal Nature. But the real story isn’t quite that simple.

At the top of his would-be mea culpa, Brown links to a column I wrote about last month’s Maui wildfires, citing it as an example of how the media contributes to a narrative that such conflagrations are “mostly the result of climate change.” While I appreciate the link, I must point out that nowhere in my column do I argue climate change was the primary cause of the Maui fires. I do strongly suggest it was a contributing factor, with much of the leeward side of the Hawaiian islands trapped in a drought cycle that has and will continue to be exacerbated by global warming…

It’s true that there is an allure, at least for those of us in the media, to lean into the lurid when it comes to climate. It’s difficult to get readers to pay much attention otherwise. If it bleeds it leads, and all that. But it’s also true that most climate scientists and writers still take great pains to avoid being too apocalyptic or definitive in their declarations, lest they be accused of doom-mongering that would incite climate deniers and trigger unproductive despair in normal people. Many of us think and argue constantly about such messaging. That’s a healthy thing.

Pretending otherwise, as Brown’s piece and its jubilant aggregators in right-wing media are doing, only gives comfort to climate deniers, confuses the science and makes real action far more difficult.

It so happens that Brown is the co-director of the climate and energy team at the Breakthrough Institute, a nonprofit known for courting controversy and pushing “ecomodernism,” or relying on technology to help humanity adapt to climate change. Implied is the idea that global warming isn’t as catastrophic as many scientists warn it could be, further implying that action to transition from fossil fuels isn’t so urgent. If any narrative is dangerous and needs debunking, it’s that one.

Finally, here’s a repost from Dr Brown himself on Twitter today: