Sunday, April 12, 2015

How the climate change debate got hijacked by the wrong standard of proof

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.

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.

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.

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.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at


ChemEng said...

If people are entrenched in their opinions then can be no real debate. However, as we start to see the effects of climate change many people will start to re-think their opinions. I have noticed, for example, that the ongoing drought in southern California seems to be having such an impact — many people recognize that “things really aren't normal”.

Anonymous said...

civil and criminal standards of proof have no place in science.

scientific proof is much more rigorous. a theory must be able to successfully predict something that is otherwise hard to predict, and it must have no contrary examples.

there is no such thing as "weighing the evidence" in science. if someone finds an apple that falls upwards, it means that Newton is wrong about his Law of Universal Gravity.

Kurt Cobb said...

Anonymous gives us a truly naive description of science. Scientists are constantly evaluating evidence from real-world observations and laboratory experiments as they relate to accepted and proposed theories to see how the data and observations fit the theory. With every theory there are always bits of evidence that might be construed as "contrary" even where the vast weight of evidence supports the theory.

In public policy, however, we must come to conclusions and act. And, this is why I've proposed the "preponderance of evidence" standard as a better one for public policymaking than the "beyond a reasonable doubt standard." We should act when the probability of harm is high and the confidence in our interpretation of the facts is bolstered by the overwhelming preponderance of evidence as is the case with climate change.

Edward H. Binns said...

IPCC 2007 cooked the data to get a long term prediction of warming over the next century.

IPCC 2007 violated DOZENS of forecasting standards. "Global warming" is a forecast, in case you didn't notice.

The surface of the earth is warm (59 degrees F) because of energy reaching the earth from the sun. That energy is not constant. We don't know enough about the patterns of sun activity and its variances.

The warmest year on record was 1922. The warmest decade was the 1930s. The earth cooled from about 1940 to about 1978. Yet CO2 in the atmosphere increased throughout that period.

CO2 is a trace element in the atmosphere and it doesn't hold heat well.

The scientists supporting "global warming" tend to depend on government money. They are not unbiased. "Climate science" is a magic area in between meteorology and geology where MODELING is supposed to be as reliable as laboratory findings. That's laughable.

"Climate scientists" want the G7 to spend $20 trillion on containing an unoproven model. Denied. Not scientific. They jumped to a pre-ordained conclusion.

Anonymous said...

The Malthusians have been wrong for centuries and will continue to be wrong.

Why is data made up and doctored? Because the case is weak.

California drought supports the climate change narrative? Please! California doesn't have enough annual rainfall to support tens of millions of people. The damning of the rivers allowed man to temporarily create an oasis in the desert. Cyclical droughts were bound to cause the current problems sooner or later. Cyclical weather is normal, it doesn't mean that "the end is near".

Climate change is a religion, requiring faith to believe. It is caused by man's sinfulness (use of fossil fuels), and requires sacrifice to atone for your sins. Non-believers are constantly lectured by believers and condemned because we aren't "right with God" (Mother Nature).

Anonymous said...

This article largely misses the point. The reason the climate change debate got hijacked is because it got turned into a religion, excommunicating those who "don't believe."

Martin Luther King understood that you have to persuade, which means first earning their trust. Yes, there will always be holdouts. But you can't change people's minds by posturing, or hurling insults cloaked in scientific arguments, which hurts the cause far more than any level of ignorance.

The one item this article did get right is that the efforts to regulate carbon emissions have to be approached in a way that assures people that their freedoms and livelihoods won't be egregiously compromised. Treat people as equals, no matter how uneducated or ignorant they are, and you'll start seeing true progress in the battle against climate change.

John Beloit said...

The very poor predictability of the climate models over the past 20 years is only one reason to doubt human-caused global warming theory. I believe the larger reason to doubt the theory, and the theorists, is the recommended solution --- centralized government control of energy, the economy, and world-wide socialism (climate treaties, emission caps, carbon credits, redistribution, etc). Very scary policies that would be implemented by incompetent, corrupt, and power-hungry politicians. On that, the science is definitely settled.

Kurt Cobb said...

Normally, I would delete comments which contain climate disinformation. But the above comments illustrate the point I am making in my piece. Let me explain:

None of the commenters point to a comprehensive alternative theory of climate change with rigorous scientific evidence supporting it. That's because there isn't any.

They simply use the tired practice of pretending to poke holes in existing climate science. I say "pretend" because even here they do a very poor job. (I would hire none of them as my defense attorney.)

1. Sweeping vague generalizations without proof are supposed to substitute for actual argumentation. They hope that readers won't notice that these are mere assertions, not arguments with proof and that some of them are just plain wrong:


"IPCC 2007 cooked the data to get a long term prediction of warming over the next century."

"IPCC 2007 violated DOZENS of forecasting standards."

"The very poor predictability of the climate models over the past 20 years is only one reason to doubt human-caused global warming theory."


"We don't know enough about the patterns of sun activity and its variances."

As it turns out we do know a lot about radiation variances of the Sun due to satellite observations. The Sun has actually been cooling in recent decades as Earth's surface temperature has warmed.

"The warmest year on record was 1922."

The warmest year on record is 2012, followed by 2006 and then 1998. Coming in 49th (for worldwide temperature) is 1934. The 1922 or 1921 claim is about the United States only and even this is incorrect. Some researchers believe 2014 will turn out to be the warmest ever worldwide. But we need more data and corroboration.

"CO2 is a trace element in the atmosphere and it doesn't hold heat well."

It's hard to believe that anyone would make such an assertion since the fact that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas has been known since 1859 when Irish physicist John Tyndall showed that it absorbed infrared radiation.

(See part 2 below)

Kurt Cobb said...

2. Some assertions are simply irrelevant though those who make them would like you to believe that they are somehow relevant. In a courtroom a judge would rightly rule that they are not germane to the case:


"The Malthusians have been wrong for centuries and will continue to be wrong."

Whether Thomas Malthus is right or wrong about the relationship between population, disease, war and resources is irrelevant to whether climate change is happening and a threat to humankind. Malthus made no claims about climate.

"I believe the larger reason to doubt the theory, and the theorists, is the recommended solution"

Proposed solutions to climate change do not in any way effect the scientific findings. But neither are the solutions listed the only ones available to us. But this points to my third response. The real reason behind climate change denial.

3. The real reason behind climate change denial is amply illustrated in the words of one commenter and it has nothing to do with science:

"I believe the larger reason to doubt the theory, and the theorists, is the recommended solution --- centralized government control of energy, the economy, and world-wide socialism (climate treaties, emission caps, carbon credits, redistribution, etc)."

What those who fear such developments don't seem to understand is that we already have centralized control of energy and we already have a certain kind of socialism, what I call socialism for the rich where they privatize the gains of society while socializing the costs, that is, foisting them on the rest of us (pollution, climate change, taxpayer financed bank bailouts and fossil fuel subsidies).

What a world addressing climate change actually means in decentralized renewable energy such as wind, solar and small hydro which means MORE local control over our lives and resources and less dependence on centralized power in the form of huge multinational energy corporations and central governments. It is a continuing puzzle to me that those resisting responses to climate change don't see that they are simply supporting the current vast, entrenched, corrupt system of governance and energy production and preventing the steps needed to break its stranglehold.

Of course many who deny climate change are simply paid to do so by this same corrupt system and they are therefore merely mercenaries who care nothing for the truth, only for their paycheck.

Crooktooth said...

Climate change is real. Climate change is bad. But it's not at all clear that climate change is Real Bad.

The physics behind global warming are straightforward. Carbon dioxide blocks infrared radiation, so the more CO2 we have the more infrared (heat) we get. But how much? While the physics of greenhouse gases is straightforward, the physics of climate are anything but. Climate is far too complex to be calculated. It can only be modeled, and models by definition are assumptive simplifications. And so far, our models have been hopelessly inadequate; none have done a good job of accurately predicting climate.

So we don't know the magnitude of the problem. Given that, we can't really select the right solution. And since our models are so poor, we can't even determine if our "solutions" are actually working.

Demanding answers is foolish if we don't know enough to ask the right questions.

Kurt Cobb said...

Crooktooth illustrates another fallacy of the climate change deniers though in his case he wisely doesn't claim that there is no climate change, only that we don't know how bad it will be.

The definitive answer to "How bad will it be?" can only be found by waiting to see. He is correct that climate models have not been correct. What he neglects to point out is that the vast majority of them have been behind the curve, failing to predict just how soon the effects of climate change would be seen and thus how severe they will be. The Arctic summer ice is melting away far sooner than expected (particularly with regard to thickness, but also with regard to extent) and the Greenland ice sheet is shrinking far faster than originally believed. Growing zones for crops and wild plants are shifting northward in the Northern Hemisphere at an alarming rate. Those are just three examples.

Thank god Crooktooth is not making public policy or we would have to wait until we are 100 percent certain to act on anything, which means never! This illustrates one of the persistent canards of the deniers as I mentioned in my piece. Contrary to what the deniers say, public policy is always made without complete knowledge and is based on an assessment of risk. It is never based on certainty.

If Crooktooth had to be 100 percent certain before doing anything in his own daily life, he would never get out of bed in the morning.

Kurt Cobb said...

If you are a climate change denier, you can save yourself some time by reading my Comments Policy. In all likelihood your comment will be deleted. There are many sites which are open to such comments and you are free to start you own blog if you wish. So express yourself if you have a desire to do so--just not here.

√ėyvind Holmstad said...

What about nuclear waste with a rapid collapse?

"The problem is if the spent fuel gets too close, they will produce a fission reaction and explode with a force much larger than any fission bomb given the total amount of fuel on the site. All the fuel in all the reactors and all the storage pools at this site (1760 tons of Uranium per slide #4) would be consumed in such a mega-explosion.

In comparison, Fat Man and Little Boy weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki contained less than a hundred pounds each of fissile material – See more at:

A typical 1 GWe PWR core contains about 80 t fuels. Each year about one third of the core fuel is discharged into the pool. A pool with 15 year storage capacity will hold about 400 t spent fuel.

To estimate the Cs-137 inventory in the pool, for example, we assume the Cs137 inventory at shutdown is about 0.1 MCi/tU with a burn-up of 50,000 MWt-day/tU, thus the pool with 400 t of ten year old SNF would hold about 33 MCi Cs-137. [7]

Assuming a 50-100% Cs137 release during a spent fuel fire, [8] the consequence of the Cs-137 exceed those of the Chernobyl accident 8-17 times (2MCi release from Chernobyl). Based on the wedge model, the contaminated land areas can be estimated. [9] For example, for a scenario of a 50% Cs-137 release from a 400 t SNF pool, about 95,000 km² (as far as 1,350 km) would be contaminated above 15 Ci/km² (as compared to 10,000 km² contaminated area above 15 Ci/km² at Chernobyl).

We have thousands of these ponds around the world. It really does not matter if we had 1 or 100,000 more spent fuel rods to the ponds.

Because when the existing storage systems fail when we collapse back to a primitive state, we are all dead.

Now you have you answers at to a) why the PTB are doing everything possible to kick the can and b) the PTB are doing absolutely nothing to prepare for economic collapse."