New York Times, Dec. 15, 2009


by Stewart Brand

San Francisco -- CLIMATE talks have been going on in Copenhagen for a week

now, and it appears to be a two-sided debate between alarmists and skeptics.

But there are actually four different views of global warming. A taxonomy of

the four:

DENIALISTS - They are loud, sure and political. Their view is that

climatologists and their fellow travelers are engaged in a vast conspiracy

to panic the public into following an agenda that is political and

pernicious. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma and the columnist George Will

wave the banner for the hoax-callers.

“The claim that global warming is caused by manmade emissions is simply

untrue and not based on sound science,” Mr. Inhofe declared in a 2003 speech

to the Senate about the Kyoto accord that remains emblematic of his

position. “CO2 does not cause catastrophic disasters — actually it would be

beneficial to our environment and our economy .... The motives for Kyoto are

economic, not environmental — that is, proponents favor handicapping the

American economy through carbon taxes and more regulations.”

SKEPTICS - This group is most interested in the limitations of climate science

so far: they like to examine in detail the contradictions and shortcomings

in climate data and models, and they are wary about any “consensus” in

science. To the skeptics’ discomfort, their arguments are frequently quoted

by the denialists.

In this mode, Roger Pielke, a climate scientist at the University of

Colorado, argues that the scenarios presented by the United Nations

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are overstated and

underpredictive. Another prominent skeptic is the physicist Freeman Dyson,

who wrote in 2007: “I am opposing the holy brotherhood of climate model

experts and the crowd of deluded citizens who believe the numbers predicted

by the computer models .... I have studied the climate models and I know

what they can do. The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics, and they

do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the

oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the

chemistry and the biology of fields and farms and forests.”

WARNERS - These are the climatologists who see the trends in climate headed

toward planetary disaster, and they blame human production of greenhouse

gases as the primary culprit. Leaders in this category are the scientists

James Hansen, Stephen Schneider and James Lovelock. (This is the group that

most persuades me and whose views I promote.)

“If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which

civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted,” Mr. Hansen

wrote as the lead author of an influential 2008 paper, then the

concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would have to be reduced

from 395 parts per million to “at most 350 p.p.m.”

CALAMATISTS - There are many environmentalists who believe that industrial

civilization has committed crimes against nature, and retribution is coming.

They quote the warners in apocalyptic terms, and they view denialists as

deeply evil. The technology critic Jeremy Rifkin speaks in this manner, and

the writer-turned-activist Bill McKibben is a (fairly gentle) leader in this


In his 2006 introduction for The End of Nature, his famed 1989 book, Mr.

McKibben wrote of climate change in religious terms: “We are no longer able

to think of ourselves as a species tossed about by larger forces — now we

are those larger forces. Hurricanes and thunderstorms and tornadoes become

not acts of God but acts of man. That was what I meant by the ‘end of


The calamatists and denialists are primarily political figures, with firm

ideological loyalties, whereas the warners and skeptics are primarily

scientists, guided by ever-changing evidence. That distinction between

ideology and science not only helps clarify the strengths and weaknesses of

the four stances, it can also be used to predict how they might respond to

future climate developments.

If climate change were to suddenly reverse itself (because of some yet

undiscovered mechanism of balance in our climate system), my guess is that

the denialists would be triumphant, the skeptics would be skeptical this

time of the apparent good news, the warners would be relieved, and the

calamatists would seek out some other doom to proclaim.

If climate change keeps getting worse then I would expect denialists to

grasp at stranger straws, many skeptics to become warners, the warners to

start pushing geoengineering schemes like sulfur dust in the stratosphere,

and the calamatists to push liberal political agendas — just as the

denialists said they would.