Character assassination in climate science: the Michael Tobis story

Climate scientists and those who understand the threat from global warming have long been puzzled by the apparently limited concern among average members of the public for the issue. That has started to improve in the last few years, particularly in response to Al Gore's efforts. Oil and coal companies have long funded efforts to confuse the issue, but recently claimed to have reformed. The media has frequently been inadequate to the job, we know that. But the most important reason for public confusion on global warming seems to trace not so much to the influence of money, corruption, or incompetence, but ideology. The cooperative nature of the fight needed to combat global warming runs counter to the centrally selfish individualist thread in American thought, and so-called "conservatives" have stubbornly and insistently refused to acknowledge the facts on CO2 and warming. This trend seems to be only increasing in Obama's America, where they are starting to be marginalized. The reaction to George Will's ignorant recent columns at least shows a new self-assertiveness among the climate-knowledgeable, since Will has been writing much the same thing for decades without this level of reaction.

But even so, the NY Times had to balance their report on the Will affair with criticism of Al Gore. Where did that come from, and why did it happen? Andy Revkin, the normally excellent climate reporter who wrote that piece, was quickly taken to task by many in the climate community, including Michael Tobis, a blogger and climate modeler at the University of Texas, Austin. Tobis was so appalled by Revkin's article equating Gore's and Will's "exaggerations", he expressed himself rather strongly on the matter on his blog, and went on something of a quest to find out what happened. What motivated Revkin to do something that Tobis felt, given Revkin's understanding of the climate issues, was unethical, even "evil"?

The trail quickly led, thanks to Revkin's own links in his articles, to this post from Roger Pielke Jr.. RPJ appears frequently in Revkin's articles and blog posts, whether because Revkin is in the habit of emailing him for comment, or because the emails come the other way, we can't say. In any case, Pielke's rather over-the-top reaction to a minor issue in Gore's AAAS presentation, quickly corrected by Gore himself, must have somehow seemed comparable to the widespread reaction to Will's unrepentant piece, even though nobody else seems to have noticed Gore's problem until Pielke pointed it out. And it turns out Pielke used the wrong graph to exaggerate Gore's sins in his post anyway!

Pielke is not a climate scientist (though his father is, of the curmudgeon type) but rather a social scientist focused on science and technology policy at the University of Colorado. He claims to be an "Honest Broker" in the climate debates, and even wrote a book with that title, apparently without realizing that brokers are supposed to use their knowledge to help people make good decisions, not to confuse them into making random or bad ones.

Now, Tobis, along with many of the rest of us (Revkin perhaps included) had been willing to cut Pielke Jr. some slack, figuring that it was more his lack of understanding of the science than any deliberate malice behind his repeated attacks on climate scientists (only of the pro-warming variety), and that (since he claims to believe in the basic science), his quest has been simply against over-exaggeration on the part of the scientists (and Al Gore) that he takes on. So Tobis wrote a blog post trying to understand why Pielke Jr. found Revkin's equating Gore and Will (based on Pielke's own criticism of Gore) to be acceptable.

Now, bear in mind, Tobis' blog is not heavily frequented - I didn't even habitually read it until this past couple of weeks. So, while Tobis in his post and comments was speaking "in public", as we all are (as I am here!) when blogging, he probably didn't expect a lot of people to read - mainly a few of his usual friends and, he hoped, Pielke himself, who could perhaps help him understand the motivation here.

Roger Pielke Jr. did indeed respond in comments, but without the kind of opening up Michael Tobis was hoping for. Tobis even pointed to his own point of view statement as an example of what he was looking for, to justify Pielke's stance apparently approving of Revkin's article (not to mention all the other similar attacks in the past). And he clarified what he was trying to get at with this question:

[Tobis asks Pielke]: The perception is that whatever you believe, you go out of your way to provide fodder for those whose beliefs are much further from the scientific mainstream than those you propose here.

Given your concession that current greenhouse-relevant policy is inadequate, it is surely surprising how often you are quoted by procrastinators and deniers and how rarely by those proposing to take vigorous action.

Now, this certainly appears incoherent at first glance. Leaving aside why people are angry at you or dismissive toward you, can you explain this peculiar trend?

Pielke in one comment (not yet responding to this) has his own question for Michael Tobis - why does Tobis think this a matter of ethics? Hmmm:

Michael's assertion that it was "unethical" for Revkin to compare Will's mischaracterizations with Gore's is bizarre. You might think that Revkin's comparison was poorly judged or inappropriate or many things, but "unethical"? Honestly, I do not understand this thinking. Revkin has shown for years his commitment and devotion to this issue, because you disagree with him on a single news analysis, he is now unethical???

The quick rush to pass judgment about people and their ethics by many physical scientists is something I don't see as much of in the social sciences where such things are debated all the time.

Now Pielke does get to something of an answer on his stance:

I do think that the current approaches -- Kyoto, CDM, ETS, cap and trade, British CC Act, etc. -- are doomed to failure, and I have no qualms about saying so. Now, you might feel better about me if I was a cheerleader for feel good but impossible policies (like Jim Hansen or Joe Romm). By contrast, I feel better about myself saying what I think.

Once again, the biggest obstacle to effective action on mitigation is not the skeptics, or people who want action but are critical (like me), but those who try to enforce singular thinking on this subject, more or less ensuring that no new ideas get into the debate, ensuring the dominance of the same bad ideas that are getting us no where

The biggest obstacle is "those who try to enforce singular thinking"? Who is Pielke blaming here - Jim Hansen who favors nuclear power and wants all coal plants shut down ASAP? Al Gore, who rarely says much about specific mitigation policies at all, hoping instead for a nonlinear change in the realm of the "politically possible", though he likes carbon offsets and is on record favoring a carbon tax rather? Joe Romm, who is largely responsible for the dismissal of the mirage of hydrogen from the policy picture, who hates carbon offsets and opposes nuclear power as too expensive? Really, Pielke thinks they are the obstacle to solutions because their disparate views constitute "enforcement of singular thinking"? Or if not these people, who?

And they are getting us nowhere? With renewable energy production growing by leaps and bounds, with a new administration that has actually included revenue from CO2 permits in its budget projections? With the latest IPCC report from 2007 and work on a new climate treaty underway? Nowhere? Am I the only one who finds the "honest broker's" policy claims confusing and incoherent?

But the conversation didn't get into that. Instead, Michael Tobis responded with passion to Pielke's earlier query on why this was a matter of ethics:

Regarding the ethics of linking Gore and Will, that is the crucial question as far as I am concerned.

Each of us acts in his or her own way, according to our own ethical principles. Many of us, though, see the fate of civilization and of much of nature as being at issue in our conversations about climate change. Actions that can reasonably be determined to increase the likelihood of catastrophe are, in that sort of ethos, evil.

Comparing Gore to Will in the public eye and from a position of authority (such as Revkin or Pielke might claim) can affect the outcome of the public debate.

If the person making such a claim is well-informed, that person understands that all else aside there is a political tug of war in which Gore is pulling in roughly the right direction, for increased policy action, and based on a fair understanding of the facts, and Will in the wrong one, and against it, based on what at best is a rather stubborn form of confusion.

This brazenly elevates Will and wantonly defames Gore, therefore pulling the rope in the wrong direction.

The press should be able to make correct judgments when the evidence is in. Their failure to do so is contagious.

The press certainly came down strongly on the side of Saddam's WMD; I and most others believed them, to our great cost and shame.

This proves that they are fallible, but note that it also proves that they can be decisive. One doesn't remember the occasions when the press steered us right, after all. That amounts just to them doing their jobs.

The press is equivocal on anthropogenic global change; most people will conclude that the evidence is equivocal. Though the confidence we have in the press is certainly waning rapidly, and surely with good reason, it remains influential if only because people like to repeat the stories they hear.

Any assertions in the press that Gore represents an extreme position miscast the evidence gruesomeley and increase the odds of a terrible outcome.

It is difficult for me to state how grave I think the transgression of ethics committed by Revkin and Pielke in this matter is.

Consider some statistical expectation of human lives that will likely be lost as a consequence of the delay due to this confusion. I think such a number could present a very grave picture indeed.

I don't blame Will that much. He is just confused, a victim of propaganda as much as a perpetrator, just as so many perpetrators of it are. The behavior of the Post, so far, is fascinating and revealing and damning. But the behavior of the Times and Revkin was a massive blow, albeit a more subtle one and harder to fight with a blogstorm.

Pielke responded claiming amazement that Michael was talking about ethics in his specific case (limiting it to the attack on Gore, rather than Michael's clear point that the problem was equating Gore and Will in such a public forum):

If you think that it was unethical for me to point out that Gore was misrepresenting the relationship of disasters and climate change (based on my research I should add), then I am really amazed.

What kind of scientist says that misrepresentations are OK or should be ignored if politicians with the right values are making them?

[And maybe I read you wrong, but are you really suggesting that Revkin and I are complicit in "statistical deaths"? Please do clarify that odd claim ...]

Michael Tobis clarified indeed - quoting his old "point of view" post, and pointing back at the problem being equating Gore and Will in a public forum:

Implying an equivalence between Gore, who is constantly treading a fine line between effective politics and truthful description of risks, and George Will, who is wrong from beginning to end in conception, detail and emphasis is unacceptable because it perpetuates this dangerous skew.

As for the scope of the ethical risk, let us consider the possibility that the behavior of the Times and the Post this year increases the chance of an extreme event with a premature mortality of a billion people by a mere part per million, a per cent of a per cent of a per cent. The expected mortality from this is a thousand people. Is that morally equivalent to actually killing a thousand people? It's not all that obvious to me that it isn't.

In practice one can and must excuse oneself behind all the myriad realistic uncertainties. We don't know, after all, which butterfly will cause the hurricane. Most likely if we do find our way to hell, we will have trodden on many good intentions along the way.

But the point is that we really are playing with fire here and we shouldn't be putting our own careers or our own self-worth (like a clever and easy column for the Times) ahead of the enormous scope of the problem, because mortalities on the order of a billion are by no means excluded.

Now, admittedly this presumes we are so far from coping that it is very clear which direction we should be pulling. I believe that Revkin agrees with that, which is why I am so horrified by his actions.

Roger, you say that our present policy is not commensurate with the risks. I presume this means you too accept that there are very large risks in a delayed-policy scenario. Is this so?

This in turn places a very large ethical weight on any public speech, does it not?

As I put it the other day, this was a heart-felt plea for an honest discussion of the morality of various participants in public discussion of global warming and its implications. We should be talking about the morality of our actions more. If Pielke felt his and Revkin's actions were ethically justified, an appropriate response to Michael's comments would have been to point out that his hypothetical "statistical deaths" scenario was missing the "statistical deaths" from the other side of the equation, harm from action taken. If we turned off all coal plants immediately, people would surely die from that as well.

More than that, Pielke's argument earlier was that his approach is trying to get at the most effective solutions rather than the current bad ideas that are "getting us nowhere". So he could well have argued that in his view his presentation of criticisms is legitimately leading to that goal. Although I have a hard time seeing how he could possibly argue that one coherently. But apparently discussion of ethics and morality is off-limits to policy folks. Who knew?

Anyway, instead of responding in kind to this plea, Pielke came out with:


These sort comments give far more ammo to your political enemies than anything I could ever say or do.

Eye opening stuff.

Hmmm, give far more ammo to political enemies. How could that be, when this is a quiet, if passionate, conversation in an obscure corner of the blogosphere, where Michael has been trying to give the benefit of the doubt and get to understanding what motivates Roger Pielke Jr? What does Pielke mean by this? Michael doesn't even know he has any "political enemies"!

Now the chronology gets a little interesting. That last comment from Pielke was March 1, 2009 at 7:10 PM. At 12:31 pm March 2, Keith Kloor posted a copy of much of Tobis' comments with expressions of increduility. Who is Keith Kloor? I'd certainly never heard of him before. Apparently he is a journalist who is currently a fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado. The same place Pielke works. And about half the comments on his 1-month-old blog seem to be from one Roger Pielke Jr. Interesting. But clearly not a high profile blog.

Some time the same day, CE Journal posted an article mostly on Joe Romm vs Revkin which happened to also criticize Tobis' use of the word "evil" in discussing his moral dilemma. Note the criticism is about Tobis' language towards Revkin, not Pielke Jr. I.e. it doesn't distort Tobis' point that the problem was the equation of Gore and Will, not criticism of Gore per se.

At least in his original post Kloor didn't confuse this either. But that wasn't to last - Kloor follows up at 5:40 pm with The Church of Al Gore where he baldly claims Tobis thinks "Revkin and Pielke Jr. have committed blasphemy by somehow besmirching Al Gore’s good name." Nope, that's not quite what Tobis was on about, though subtlety is often quickly lost in the blogosphere. Tobis has even criticized Gore himself in the past, hardly a member of the "church of Al Gore"!

Things start to get worse the following morning. At 7:34 am Tuesday March 3, Pielke himself uses the crutch of Keith Kloor's post to lay into Tobis with the identical misrepresentation that the problem was Pielke's criticism of Gore:

one climate scientist suggests that my calling out Al Gore for misrepresenting the science of disasters and climate change [...] to be morally comparable to killing 1,000 people. I kid you not.

Reread the exchange excerpted above from Tobis' blog. How many things did Pielke get wrong here? Does he have a reading comprehension problem, or is this wilful, deliberate, character assassination? Tobis didn't mind that Pielke spotted some problem with Gore's presentation and helped him fix it. Tobis was wondering why Pielke devoted that much time to the issue. But more importantly, Tobis was criticizing Revkin (and Pielke if he had any hand in it) for treating this minor exaggeration, if any, in Gore's presentation as if it was at all similar to the major wrong-picture distortions of George Will's. And doing so in print, in the New York Times. Where policy-makers and the general public will be widely exposed to the comparison, and where it will surely at least slightly alter some minds in the direction of thinking there is still some real debate here on the basic science, when there is none. And where those minds might well decide that we can wait a bit longer, before acting.

Words have consequences. People's minds are influenced, their actions are altered. The more public the forum, the greater those consequences. Those who know the science well (like Revkin in particular) have a very serious responsibility in what they write. Usually they take that responsibility with some level of appropriate seriousness - that's why we tend to trust Revkin and the NYT. What happened here? Did Pielke have a hand in it, even though he tries to claim innocence? Let's see what happens next.

Tuesday March 3, 9:22 AM - Tobis reports (see 5th comment in the link) he has received an email titled "Professor Unleashed! Gore Critics 'Palpably evil' - Suggests critiquing Gore's science 'morally comparable to killing 1,000 people' - Professor Michael Tobis of U. of Texas" quoting Pielke's blog post from just over an hour before. Who is this email from? None other than Marc Morano, senate staffer to James Inhofe, the top Republican senator on the "Environment and Public Works" committee. Morano has a long history of anti-global-warming hysteria, he is responsible for the lists of "400" or "650" scientists against global warming the EPW minority has been putting out, for instance. I've had my run-ins with Morano myself in the past.

Now, did Morano learn about this kerfuffle by reading Tobis' blog? That seems very unlikely, especially since he echoes almost word for word Pielke's misinterpretation of what Tobis meant. Did he learn about it from Kloor's posts? Doesn't seem to have, since Kloor's misinterpretation of Tobis was only at the end of a long rambling post, and wasn't so pointed. Morano's source was clearly Pielke's blog. This is Pielke's distortion. How did Morano learn about Pielke's post so quickly? Pielke certainly made it much easier for Michael Tobis' "political enemies" to find out (a distorted version of) what he had said.

The right-wing echo chamber wasn't in full working order on this one, but by Wednesday morning, March 4, Pielke's distortion had made it all the way to Glenn Beck's TV show, with Pielke's distorted version of Tobis' statement intact in the title: "Bashing Gore = Killing 1000 People". Here's Beck mocking Tobis:

Between scientist Roger Pielke, Jr., University of Texas scientist Michael Tobis, it took place in the blogosphere, kind of like a beaker, kind of cool like that. People like me in the lab coats and stuff who like to hang out, pick up chicks. They're everywhere. Of course, none of them really chat with me, but that's a different story. Michael Tobis, University of Texas climate scientist on his blog recently said this about a New York Times columnist who wrote a piece basically bashing both sides for exaggerating the global warming issue that focused on George Will and Al Gore. I don't think his dragging Gore into Will's muck was a minor transgression of a fine point of propriety. I think it was palpably evil. Let's just make sure that you heard that clearly. It's palpably evil to bring Al Gore's name into a criticism of global warming exaggerators. But hang on. He's not through yet. He's appalled that Pielke would equate George Will and the almighty Al Gore. [... basically quote of Tobis, with beaker references ...]

Now here's the interesting thing - despite the title of the piece, Beck appears to have read what Tobis wrote and understands it - look at the nuanced way he paraphrases Tobis here:

So you're saying comparing George Will to Al Gore as somebody who exaggerates about global warming is equivalent to killing 1,000 people?

Not too far off - the additional constraint is of course, doing this knowingly from a platform like the NY Times print+online where you could actually have an impact on people who have to decide how to act on the issues.

But then he throws Tobis off the deep end anyway (and where does he get plural "scientists" from here?):

Scientists believe that saying Al Gore exaggerates is equal to killing 1,000 people. Well, if that is true -- you know what, we should keep track of the Glenn Beck death count because I have a feeling if we counted all the times that I made fun of Al Gore, I might be equal in deaths with Stalin.

No, sorry Glenn, you're probably not quite up to Stalin yet, because people who would make decisions on these things have absolutely no reason to trust your opinion of Al Gore. They do, however, trust Revkin and the NY Times.

We're not quite over yet. By Wednesday afternoon, Marc Morano had issued another press release on the matter, this time talking about Glenn Beck's show. But then the RWNM petered out. Not quite enough juice on this one to get Drudge to talk about it, I suppose, even though it was all the rage on a few popular "skeptic" blogs.

But all this left our climate scientist, Michael Tobis, deeply shaken. His words in an innocent and heart-felt exchange with another had been used against him, just as Roger Pielke Jr. predicted. But most troubling, the person who most clearly used his words against him, the one at the center of the whole storm starting Tuesday morning, was Roger Pielke Jr. himself.

What was that Pielke said? Tobis's comments "give far more ammo to your political enemies than anything I could ever say or do." Tobis was wondering what political enemies he had. The answer couldn't be more clear: Roger Pielke Jr.

Who was the first person to claim that Tobis was actually saying that "calling out Al Gore [is] morally comparable to killing 1,000 people."? Roger Pielke Jr. Kloor did confuse things by wrongly claiming Tobis was a member of the "church of Al Gore" and that he had accused Pielke of "blasphemy". But Pielke was the first one to make the direct claim that, essentially, Tobis was saying "bashing Gore = killing 1000 people". He never was. Pielke knew better, and yet he still has the claim up on his blog. Accompanied by the sophomoric "I kid you not". "Honest broker" indeed.

But I think we finally do have an explanation for why Pielke is so frequently in conflict with climate scientists, despite claiming to be on their side. He is seeking attention, wants his advice listened to, but works hard to suppress the voices of those (like Michael Tobis, Jim Hansen, Al Gore) who are genuinely worried about the climate. He continually claims to want effective policy solutions to the global warming problem, touting currently impractical things like "air capture" of CO2. But whenever somebody pipes up with an effective argument - like Gore or Hansen - he attacks them for being alarmist, strident, for exaggerating.

There's no doubt about it. Roger Pielke Jr. is the Concern Troll of Climate Science. This episode should surely and clearly lend him the obscurity he so richly deserves.


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Only thing you missed was

Only thing you missed was that CE Journal is also tied to Pielke -- the author, Tom Yulsman, also works at the University of Colorado Center for Science and Technology Policy Research (

Ha - that's cute. Brad - you

Ha - that's cute.

Brad - you wouldn't happen to know if there's some bigger entity associated with U. Colorado (something counter to NCAR?) that is behind all three of them in some way? Kloor claims he never communicated with Pielke until a couple of weeks ago, but his stance was remarkably similar before that. Why?

Wow. You are correct–


You are correct– subtlety and nuance DO get lost on the internet.

In a world where most blog posts are the sound and the fury of a twitter post with the substance of the back of a cereal box, this is refreshing.

I hate it when small-minded people get so confused at concepts they choose not to understand and then get angry, take things out of context, and call people communists/terrorist or whatever the byword du jour is.

Thanks Arthur, and thanks

Thanks Arthur, and thanks Andy. Andy's comment summarizes the very long story in very few words very well.

(I do like Twitter, though. Much depends on whom you follow.)

Anyway I am here to tell you that the attempted assassination of my character has failed.


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