The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Why climate scientists want to be thought of as the real 'climate skeptics'

with Paulina Firozi


Last week, I wrote a story about how the staff of Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt turned to advocates outside the agency to help craft a “red team-blue team” exercise.

The proposed military-style exercise would have pitted two teams of experts against each other to debate the large body of science showing that human activity is warming the planet. To sum up the story in a succinct headline, I wrote: "Emails show EPA turned to climate skeptics to craft ‘red team-blue team’ exercise."

The story, however, sparked an entirely different debate. As I soon learned, first on Twitter and later when talking to scientists and other climate science communicators, many of the researchers who have come to the conclusion that the burning of fossil fuels are indeed increasing atmospheric and ocean temperatures prefer to think of themselves as the real skeptics.

The question of what to call those who repeatedly express doubt about the broad scientific consensus that humans are warming the planet is more timely than ever. The top echelons of the federal government are now filled with such individuals since the election of Donald Trump, who himself has dismissed climate change as a hoax concocted by China. 

For Katharine Hayhoe, a prominent Texas Tech University professor and director of the school’s Climate Science Center, the label “skeptic” should be reserved for those truly interested in testing and retesting hypotheses in order to find the truth behind phenomena. In short, the true skeptics are the scientists themselves.

“We demand evidence, we kick the tires,” Hayhoe explained to me later over the phone. “The entire system of peer review is based on you making the best argument for the result that you've found, and then multiple colleagues who are not involved in your research then tear it apart and try to find all the holes possible.”

In her experience as a public figure exchanging emails and tweets with critics of climate science, many (though not all) of them are not motivated by a desire to find new evidence, she said. “Every single day I get someone on Twitter saying, nobody's ever been able to show me a single study that links carbon dioxide with climate change,” she said. “I'm like, oh well, here's an entire book.”

Susan Joy Hassol, director of the science outreach nonprofit group Climate Communication, dislikes the label “climate skeptic” for the same reason.

“Real skeptics question things, consider all evidence and have open minds,” Hassol said. “Those who reject climate science don’t do those things; rather they ignore information that doesn’t support their position."

For Hayhoe, the term “climate doubter” fails in the same way. Constant, nagging doubt about results drives scientists to ask novel questions and make new discoveries, she says.

And what about the label "climate denier"? That tends to draw complaints, too — not so much from climate scientists but from those who question them, and resent any hint of a comparison with those who deny the Holocaust happened. '"Climate science denier’ is an accurate description, but can get some people’s hackles up,” Hassol said. "It is not, as some say, a reference to Holocaust denial."

Indeed, Princeton physics professor William Happer pushed back against the term "denier." Happer is one of the scientists I mentioned in my story as among those researchers who reject the notion that climate change is all that severe — and who was working with Pruitt's EPA on the "red team-blue team" exercise.

When reached by email, Happer said the term "denier" is "designed to cast me and others like me as a Nazi apologist."

"Any honest scientist should be a skeptic, most of all, a skeptic of his (or her) own scientific work, and the work of others," Happer wrote to me. "If you insist on categorizing me as anything other than an honest scientist (and somewhat immodestly, a very good one)," he added, "you might call me a scientist who is persuaded that doubling or tripling CO2 in Earth's atmosphere will be a major benefit to life on Earth."

Instead, Hayhoe and Hassol often use the term “dismissive,” a phrase promoted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, which starting in a 2009 study breaks Americans down into six categories when it comes to concern about climate change.

At one end of the center’s spectrum are the “alarmed” — or those fully convinced of the reality of climate change and the need to personally act on it.  At the other end of the spectrum are the dismissives — or those “actively involved as opponents of a national effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” according to the center’s website.

"We struggled with this, too," said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale center. But, Leiserowitz added, "skeptic is a word that really is better kept for scientists because that's the very heart of science. One should always maintain a skeptical attitude, even about one's own work. Maybe even especially about one's own work."

For journalists, however, distinguishing between those who will dismiss climate science at every turn and those who are truly open to persuasion is a difficult task, especially on deadline. 

Hayhoe empathized when I brought up the tough spot reporters are in. "It's very challenging, and there really is no perfect answer to this because, you're right, you don't want to assume too much," she said. "But the thing is, whatever we call people, we're making some type of assumption."

The recent "red team-blue team" story was not the first article in The Post to contain the phrase “climate skeptic.” In fact, the phrase has been used repeatedly in Post journalism — more often more recently, it seems, with Trump as president.

The Post has no official entry in its stylebook on "climate skeptic" or any of its cousins. But the stylebook for the Associated Press does, and among its recommendations is perhaps the best bet for a busy journalist: Describe what the subject believes with a phrase like "those who reject mainstream climate science," rather than just a one- or two-word label.

That is likely what I will do going forward. Though that is not the easiest to do in a headline.

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) told a former White House science adviser on May 16 that rising sea levels were due, in part, to river silt and falling cliff rock. (Video: House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Photo: Nathan Morgan/House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology)

— "Soil or rock or whatever": During a hearing of the House Science Committee on Wednesday, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) suggested erosion was a significant cause of sea-level rise, E&E News reports.

"What about erosion?" Brooks said. “Every single year that we’re on Earth, you have huge tons of silt deposited by the Mississippi River, by the Amazon River, by the Nile, by every major river system — and for that matter, creek, all the way down to the smallest systems. And every time you have that soil or rock, whatever it is, that is deposited into the seas, that forces the sea levels to rise. Because now you’ve got less space in those oceans because the bottom is moving up.”

“I’m pretty sure that on human time scales,” Philip Duffy, president of Woods Hole Research Center, told Brooks. "Those are minuscule effects.”

The truth: Duffy is right. The mainstream climate science consensus, as reported by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is that the melting of glaciers and the thermal expanding of the oceans, both caused by global warming, are the "dominant contributors" to average sea-level rise through the 20th century. The IPCC leaves "soil or rock or whatever" unmentioned.

As The Post’s Philip Bump explains, "to make the oceans rise 3.3 millimeters" — which is an estimated annual average — "we would need to displace that 1.2 trillion cubic meters of water upward by dropping in 1.2 trillion cubic meters of dirt or stone or whatever. How much is that? It’s a sphere of earth a bit over 8 miles in diameter."

— "We human beings are contributing to it in a major way": Meanwhile, former House Science Committee member Jim Bridenstine, who is now Trump's NASA administrator, gave an address Thursday before NASA employees during which he went further than virtually every other major Trump official in affirming humanity's role in warming the planet.

"I don’t deny that consensus that the climate is changing," Bridenstine said, per the Atlantic. "In fact, I fully believe and know that the climate is changing. I also know that we human beings are contributing to it in a major way. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. We’re putting it into the atmosphere in volumes that we haven’t seen, and that greenhouse gas is warming the planet. That is absolutely happening, and we are responsible for it.”

Context: This is a somewhat stronger statement than what Bridenstine said during his Senate confirmation hearing in November, where he said he believes carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and that humans are driving climate change. And it is marked shift from his record as a Republican lawmaker from Oklahoma who once attributed global temperatures shifts entirely to natural causes. "Global temperatures, when they exist, correlate with sun output and ocean cycles," he said in a 2013 House floor speech.

“As far as my position on climate change and how it’s evolved," Bridenstine said this week, "I’ll be very open."

— USDA pilots planned inspections: The Agriculture Department is launching a pilot project under which it will announce inspections of zoos, breeding operations, research labs and other facilities ahead of time — instead of conducting them by surprise, as the USDA currently does. “The department has no plans to discontinue unannounced inspections but is considering 'blending' them with announced ones,” The Post’s Karin Brulliard and Juliet Eilperin report.

— Another day, another rollback: Pruitt signed a revised set of Obama-era rules proposed for chemical plants after a fatal blast at a Texas fertilizer plant. “Pruitt’s changes eliminate several of the original requirements concerning safety training, accident prevention and accident investigations,” the Associated Press reports. “The revised version signed by Pruitt also would remove a requirement that members of the public who ask the plants should receive information about any chemical risks and community emergency plans.”


— This may not surprise you, but during disasters, Twitter is full of false information: When confronted with falsehoods, “86 to 91 percent of the users spread the false news by retweeting or liking,” The Post’s Angela Fritz writes, reporting on a new study from the University at Buffalo. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to investigate how apt Twitter users are at debunking falsehoods during disasters,” said Jun Zhuang, associate professor of industrial and systems engineering at the school, and the lead author of the study. “Unfortunately, the results paint a less-than-flattering picture.”

— Man, it’s a hot one: April marked the 400th consecutive month with above-average temperatures, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday. "The thing that really matters is that, by whatever metric, we've spent every month for several decades on the warm side of any reasonable baseline," NOAA climate scientist Deke Arndt said, per USA Today.

17 people have been charged with crimes related to a poaching ring responsible for the illegal killings of hundreds of animals in Washington and Oregon. (Video: KOIN News)

— “A demented social club”: Investigators in Oregon and Washington uncovered a poaching ring responsible for the illegal slaughter of hundreds of animals in the states. Clues began coming together after headless animals were regularly found, and authorities set up camera to capture footage of the killings. “The sheer size of the animal body count involved has shocked wildlife officials, in part because of the wantonness driving the rampant killing,” The Post’s Kyle Swenson reports. “[I]nvestigators found dozens of images detailing the poachers’ work, including videos of pack dogs running down and gnawing on bears, the suspects posing with the dead carcasses of elk, and the hunters splattered in the blood of recent kills. Between the two states, 17 people have been charged with more than 200 misdemeanors and felonies. None of the accused has publicly commented on the charges.”

— Sea otter populations “are kind of stuck": Wildlife experts in California are struggling to restore the threatened southern sea otters, a key coastal predator. “Southern sea otters, nearly wiped out by centuries of industrial-scale hunting for their fur pelts, have rebounded from as few as 50 survivors in the 1930s to more than 3,000 today, thanks to federal and state protection,” the Associated Press reports. “But there’s a problem … Despite decades of government protection, southern sea otters today still occupy only about a fourth of their historic range. Federal wildlife policy calls for waiting for the otters to spread out again on their own. The otters’ habitat hasn’t really budged beyond their current central California enclave, however, over the past 20 years.”


— Power grid summer readiness: The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said Thursday that most areas in the country are prepared to meet the power and natural gas demands ahead of the summer, but noted shortages are possible in Southern California and Texas. In California, “lower-than-average hydro generation may create challenges as natural gas-fired generation… may be limited due to reduced gas storage capacity and local pipeline outages in the region,” Reuters reports. Meanwhile, the retirement of a number of coal plants in Texas may affect the grid there.

— The road ahead for Tesla: Elon Musk may need to acquire more than $10 billion in funding by 2020 to fund the electric-car maker’s operations, new products and expansion plans, Goldman Sachs is predicting. Musk has insisted he won’t have to raise any more capital this year. “Goldman joins a growing chorus of investors and analysts who see additional financing as not only wise, but vital,” Bloomberg News reports.


Coming Up

  • The Partnership for Advancing an Inclusive Rural Energy Economy holds a livecast May 22.
  • The Environmental and Energy Study Institute and the American Biogas Council hold a briefing May 23.
  • EIA holds its annual 2018 Energy Conference June 4-5.

— They don't call it the "Volcano Golf and Country Club" for nothing: The Post's Jacob Bogage talked this week to Getty photojournalist Mario Tamawho, who snapped photos of golfers hitting the links at the Volcano Golf and Country Club seemingly undeterred by Kilauea’s eruption: