Climate, scepticism and conspiracy

ecologistEcologist cartoon, from article about the 1972 Stockholm UN Conference on the Human Environment (vol.2, no.10, p.9)

Everyone has a friend who thinks global warming is just a big conspiracy to put up taxes and tell you what to do. Maybe you’re one of those friends yourself.

You are in a minority if so, at least nationally (and internationally) speaking. You might well be friends with other people who share that view, so it’d be normal with certain groups. Climate scepticism is complex and variable – and usually an awful lot more than a conspiracy theory – but the majority of people believe climate change is real. To take one recent survey of the UK public, only 13% felt climate change was not happening. That study cites others if you fancy digging around for more. Try Eurobarometer or Pew, for example.

Still, the conspiracy idea is common enough that the old USA Today cartoon “what if it was a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?” has become a depressing cliché of PowerPoint presentations on environmental issues. Most people may not take the conspiracy theories seriously, but many who work in climate communication and policy still find the view significant enough to bother pointing and laughing (or better, actually worry and think about).

I saw a talk a few months ago from Kevin Anderson which turned the usual climate change conspiracy theory on its head. You can watch a video of an almost identical talk Anderson gave at the University of Bristol last year (there’s also a pdf transcript there). He suggested many scientists and policy-makers  routine underplay their public statements on climate change; doing what many sceptics accuse them of, but in reverse. The 2 degree target so often referred to in climate policy discussions is not consistent with science, he argued, and scientists should be standing up and saying so. Anderson isn’t suggesting that scientists sat secretly planning to keep people in the dark, all in the pay of [insert your own bogeyman] (he did apply the Chatham House rule at one point, but I wouldn’t read too much into that, sometimes bits of secrecy is necessary as part of the course of opening up truths). More simply, his point is that forms of understatement have become an unchallenged part of the course for much discourse on climate targets.

Anderson’s no crank. I trust him. But that doesn’t mean I simply believe him. I also trust many of the people he is complaining about too. And so I doubt him and them. I’m confused. I think this a pretty normal state of affairs to be in. But it’s disorientating too.

Doubt is a powerful thing, whoever casts it or why, especially in complex societies like ours which run on large amounts of trust. Sociologists talk about “civil inattention” as a way in which we “do modernity”; simply bracket off and ignore interacting with large parts of our lives just to get on with them. This can quickly unravel at times of crisis though. We trusted, for example, that food labeled beef came from cows, not horses, until that particular scandal broke. Most of us probably didn’t bother to even think that that there were institutions put in place that regularly check that the food we eat is what it says it is, or that such bodies had been struggling with threats of cuts, or that we’ve been doing this kind of gradually more institutionalised checking of the validity of food for hundreds of years. We had other things to worry about. We can see similar patterns of the breaking down of trust with BSE, libor and a host of other topics we’ve relied on technical expertise and found it wanting.

Scepticism can be very positive. Indeed, it powers a lot of scientific work: “Nullius in Verba” and all that (take no one’s word for it, the Royal Society’s motto). People even take up scepticism as a form of hobby, with networks of “sceptics in the pub” meetings. In a recent speech at the Royal Society, Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, used this idea of science’s inherent sceptism as a basis for arguing it’s strength: “Good science is questioning, sceptical, analytical – testing theories and understanding risks. Two hundred years of good science – teasing out uncertainties, considering risk – has laid the foundation of what we now understand. It screams out from decade upon decade of research”.

However, doubt can also make science vulnerable, especially when combined with the everyday inattention most people give the details of scientific expertise. As Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway show in their book Merchants of Doubt, the natural uncertainty at heart of science has been deliberately amplified by the tobacco and petrol industries. As this short video on the topic argues, it was assumed the public can’t understand the complex nature of climate science (or tobacco’s link to cancer) so it would be relatively easy to convince them the scientists don’t know either (and that without “sound” solid science, it would be wrong to take preventative measures).

Back to Professor Anderson’s suggestion of a sort of alternative conspiracy theory. A paper in the journal Global Environmental Change potentially provides some depth to this (write up without paywall at Skeptical Science). Contrary to the oft-made criticism that climate scientists are alarmist, they argue that many seemed to err on the side of least drama. The researchers stress that restraint is a community norm in science, leading many scientists to be cautious, understated and moderate in their public statements. They also recount ways in which there may have been an extra “chill” exerted on climate scientists due to dogged actions from sceptics. As the paper concludes, in attempting to avoid drama, the scientific community may actually be biasing their own work in a way.

Roger Pielke Jr reviewed this paper rather unfavorably, laughing at its faux-science approach of referring to “erring on the side of least drama” as “ESLD”, like it’s a disease, chemical or something similarly intricate. Moreover, Pielke argues their methodology for proving that scientists were under-dramatising was less than robust. I agree with much of Pielke’s critique, but I don’t think this issue is easy to garner evidence on, and I don’t think Pielke has any robust evidence it is not happening either. Considering what scientists such as Anderson (and others mentioned in that paper, notably James Hason) have to say, I think it’s worth studying further.

Anderson and the people behind the “erring on the side of least drama” paper might well be wrong, but I think it’s worth asking more questions here. Scepticism about the workings of science is a good thing, as long as it’s not lazy or driven unreflexively by ideology. As philanthropist Jeremy Grantham wrote in Nature last year, overstatement may well often be very dangerous, especially for scientific careers, but when it comes to climate change understatement is even riskier, even unethical.

This was first published in the March edition of Popular Science UK. Visit their Facebook page to register for 3 free issues.

47 thoughts on “Climate, scepticism and conspiracy

  1. Paul Matthews

    The usual catalogue of misrepresentations of climate scepticism
    “who thinks global warming is just a big conspiracy”

    “only 13% felt climate change was not happening”

    The issue is with the cause, as you are perfectly well aware. The relevant point from that survey is that only “28% consider it to be caused mainly or entirely by human activity”

  2. TinyCO2

    If you are serious about CO2 being a huge problem you need to learn your enemy. I will introduce you. It’s not sceptics. I repeat, your enemy is not sceptics. The conspiracy against you is much deeper.

    You are your own worst enemy, as is every person whom I’ve ever heard talk about public attitudes to catastrophic global warming. Your internal biases are preventing you from even seeing the size of the problems, let alone trying to work out how to solve them.

    I have conversed with people (not climate sceptics) who really do believe in conspiracy theories and one of the few things they say that makes sense is ‘watch what they do, not what they say’. Now there’s a good piece of advice. Don’t bother with surveys, people tend to put down what they think they ought to say. Instead look at what they’re doing. How many people are really acting like they believe CO2 is an issue? I don’t mean a bit of recycling or loft insulation. I mean REALLY acting like they believe it.

    Is anyone who aspires to extra space worrying about the impact of construction, land conversion, heating, possessions, increased commute, etc? For those who dream of home grown veg, do they care that their garden lifestyle is impossible for the majority because there isn’t the land for such indulgences? If a person chooses a new wide screen TV is the issue the energy rating or the fact they probably didn’t need a new TV at all? Can anyone justify a trip to see ice melt so they can tell people not to emit CO2? Should a president fly home for a visit or take foreign holidays while setting rules that will make necessities unaffordable? How many people need a pet and its lifetime of related emissions or do they just want one? Are climate conferences justifiable when the work really could be done remotely? If you won the lottery would you be tempted buy stuff you want instead of stuff you need?

    You get the idea. We ‘waste’ energy at every turn and while many would say they worry about CO2, they don’t really think about it at all.

    Now weight, that’s something we do worry about. We know what makes us fat and while we might still get fat, it’s not because we don’t think it’s a problem. At dieting clubs the first thing people ask ‘how did the weight loss go this week?’ When was the last time you asked your fellow CO2 dieters ‘what CO2 have you cut this week, I lost 2 kg?’ When did you last ask about footprints at all?

    ‘Oh but it’s Big Industry emitting the real sums.’ Like unhealthy food we buy CO2 rich goods, they make them. We can moan all we like about temptation but it’s just an excuse, we are the ones in control of what and how things are made, not the other way round. If we buy cheap goods from China that are dripping in coal fired CO2 then there will be more where they came from. Is it any wonder that greener items are left on the shelf like overpriced organic celery?

    So you give us sceptics I give you the real enemy, you. And you and you and you. It’s everyone who says one thing and does another. And if those of you who are convinced about the severe hazards of CO2 are barely scratching the surface of cutting emissions what hope of convincing those who are just ticking the box?

    1. RKS

      The most sickening are the hypocritical spoilt left wing academics with little experience of the real world and who never practice what they preach. The misery of millions in the socialist Soviet Union, and the millions of deaths due to man made famine in Chairman Mao’s socialist utopia, mean absolutely nothing to them in their quest to force their socialist animal farm horrors upon their fellow citizens in which these same academics expect to be top pigs.

  3. Robert Pujol i Vives (@rpujolvives)

    Skepticism in front of any scientific affirmation is always good, because it is the motor of science. The current climatic skepticism is due at oil and coal interests so this skepticism nothing has reference with science, even when they give us scientific argues more or less right.
    There are two kind of skeptics: denies who all prove or study are wrong or bad (or maliciously bad) interpreted, and believers of Climate Change which are sure that is a natural process where humans haven’t any responsibility; In the second category we can include the global cooling apostles. But two categories have the same conception: waste energy and how much better; and obviously oil and are the cheap and easy energy form that we can waste without problem.
    It’s very sad to see how inertia can dominate the will of people. And a simply argue as “don’t worry because it doesn’t happen anything if you continue what you’re doing” is enough for ignore evidences. Today people in Europe are more aware of climate change than America, because they aren’t conscious that it will suppose them: reduction and rising fuel for cars, the price increases of electricity and changes in habits. Necessary changes but painful that people don’t want to pain. After they see these changes as governmental maneuvers for increase the price of things and encourage hidden interests. So they will begin to hear the siren song from the skeptical.
    Today in Europe it’s strange uncommon skeptical of climate change but it is only a matter of time.

    1. TinyCO2

      ” Necessary changes but painful that people don’t want to pain.” You can see that the general public could become sceptical because they won’t like the pain of cutting CO2 but you assume “The current climatic skepticism is due at oil and coal interests”. How do you know that current scepticism isn’t driven by those who can see the pain coming? When you can see two hazards on the horizon isn’t it logical to consider both? Scepticism is just a greater fear of the pain of solving CO2 than CO2 itself.

      1. Robert Pujol i Vives (@rpujolvives)

        “How do you know that current scepticism isn’t driven by those who can see the pain coming?”
        I can’t know it. But here there are two roles: the current people which see the dramatic change that is coming and they close their eyes in the hope of their way of life continues equal; and writers with space in media and powerful speakers which are saying “waste oil! Nothing happen”.
        Obviously there are more in first that seconds, but if it doesn’t exists the seconds first would be difficult to remain with eyes closed; but in front two possibilities they choose the most comfortable, independently of that happen around them.

        1. TinyCO2

          You’re making the huge assumption they look at the science and come to the same conclusion that you do and then either pretend it’s not happening or don’t care. That doesn’t typify the average sceptic at all. Even if we are talking about oil execs, do you really think most of them would knowingly destroy the planet for a quick profit now? Logic suggests they really don’t consider it a huge problem, even if they’re wrong.

          The people with their eyes closed are those who tick boxes on surveys and never ask what reducing CO2 entails.

          1. Robert Pujol i Vives (@rpujolvives)

            My English and my dyslexia sometimes don’t allow me to be accurate and understandable.
            Now you’re dealing another aspect of the question. People aren’t conscious of damage in planet as a lion don’t know the pain of its prey. But science shows day by day the consequences of our acts in the planet. Why don’t change? Greed, commodity… therefore if the message would be “stop we’re wrong” things may change, but if there are two messages people take the most beautiful for them.
            And in this point we arrive at oil interest. Who wins more with this suicide attitude? Current people who only don’t need to make any change but sooner or later reality crush down, or oil companies which this attitude gives a lot of money of profit.
            When there are money in play the rest of things left to have value, and under ours feet there are astronomical amount of money that they will not leave losing.

            1. TinyCO2

              I understand perfectly what you’re saying but I argue that you are seeing these people like TV characters instead of thinking, feeling and yes, caring human beings. For you the science is clear but why can’t you accept they think differently?

              Maybe they don’t expect CO2 to raise temperatures much? Maybe they don’t think the planet will react too badly to such a rise. Maybe they think mankind can geo engineer cooling at some point? Maybe they think it’s all a mistake made by nervous nerds? Certainly nobody has bothered asking them.

              Because you put the lowest of motives on these people you run the risk of treating the next layer of sceptics the same way. Those people who don’t like the pain of cutting CO2 will ask if it’s necessary. If you treat them the same way you do sceptics now, they’ll automatically join the other side. The ‘them’ will grow and grow until you are surrounded.

              1. RKS

                Many rational people, other than the unquestioning true believers in AGW, find the unexpected 16 year stasis in global temperature, along with comments by Met Office climate scientist Richard Betts that they don’t understand why their models failed to predict it, and perhaps the parameters chosen were incorrect, is giving them cause to question whether the whole AGW message has been grossly exaggerated. That is the rational position when predictions fail and, in fact, should be by everyone when we are being asked to destroy our economy for the sake of an unproven hypothesis.

                1. Robert Pujol i Vives (@rpujolvives)

                  Prediction fail but not of all. And there are the main argue of its validity, because fail is into fluctuation expected. Calculate and model climate is very complex and this is not the place to explain why there are deviations
                  But economy NEVER gets right any prediction and today I can’t see the legion of skeptics economics blaming in press, TV or radio. Why? Because nobody gives them a microphone as potent as skeptics of climate.

                2. Robert Pujol i Vives (@rpujolvives)

                  Linearity: Do you know how much time needed Chernobyl to move from stability to explosion? Tenths of second, but operators were dangerously manipulating the reactor hours before and it seemed that didn’t produce any changes. Why reactor didn’t show changes? Because reactor isn’t a linear system and changes of boundary conditions was compensated by intern changes until the situation becomes untenable and system jumps at new stable sitation, in Chernobyl case was disintegrate the reactor around to the atmosphere. We are changing the boundary condition of atmosphere, but it seems quiet, it’s only a time question that atmosphere jump at a new stable state.
                  Ours climatic models can be wrong, and insist not of all; but geological registers shows us how as hard can be when atmosphere does a jump. You’re worry about cool, well Cretaceous was a very hot age with more CO2 in air, but it will finished, because CO2 isn’t guarantee of nothing; its growth only guaranties the output of current stability.
                  Where it carry us? There are more prevision but the most probably is a glaciation as a Wurm but if the new climate was with Younger Dyras or Dansgaard-Oesher (more cool or cool) can depends with the kind of disequilibrium that we made. By the way the end of the last glaciation lasted 80 years, only to show what does jump mean. Who play with fire in time will become burned.

              2. Robert Pujol i Vives (@rpujolvives)

                You can’t understand me.
                People can think from world never change until ET will come to save the Earth. But the mean thinking is “I like my way of life so I don’t want to change it” and after everybody can rationalize anything. Cost isn’t economical only, in fact people are agree to pay more money if their way of life continuous equal (always the mount would be assumable). How much people protest by the continuous rise of fuel but they are still filling tank and never thinking in sell car.
                Skepticism is only a rational position in front changes that they want to do. Other kinds of skeptics are the little children about syrup with bad taste; they don’t think in need to take it too, luckily their parents convince with arguments that is a necessary action; now you think if every parent has different point of view respect their son take or not syrup, and at last they cede decision to son, what do you think will be the decision? In short this is the question people see (or not) a possible problem which solution doesn’t like them, and the easy gate is deny, if at the same time there are experts that say “you are right” they don’t need anything.
                In my country a TV spot said: “nine of every ten dentist recommended chewing gum without sugar” and people asked: “where is the one of every ten, because he/she will be my dentist”

                1. TinyCO2

                  What you’re talking about is forcing people to do what you think is best because you can’t convince them. Good luck with that.

                2. RKS

                  Even the Met Office’s own climate scientist admits the models got it wrong – why won’t you accept that? Perhaps like many zealots you actually enjoy the alarmism, it gives some sort of adolescent minded cause to follow and you just don’t want to admit that the alarmist propaganda has been wildly exaggerated.

                  Nature has shown the hypothesis [not even a decent theory] to be way out of step with actuality. It’s time for a rethink – why force millions into fuel poverty in order to reduce CO2 [is it ok for the elderly and poor to die of hyporthermia every winter because of fuel poverty in the name of ‘the cause’] when all that extra CO2 produced by the Chinese etc to produce our consumer goods, thus INCREASING our carbon footprint by proxy [how do hypocritical zealots deal with that?], is not causing temperatures to rise as the alarmists said it would.

                  Do you care about the immense damage being done in the wake of such a weak hypothesis – Stop preaching to me, HOW IS YOUR CONSCIENCE?

  4. RKS

    It would be interesting to learn exactly what the authors academic qualifications are as I find it strange that she declares an interest in science, which is after all the SOLE basis for concerns regarding AGW, and the fact she refuses to debate the science her whole belief system is based upon. This seems more a religious than a rational science based philosophy.

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  6. geoffchambers

    I’m reading Kevin Anderson’s talk, on which your idea of a “reverse conspiracy” is based.

    Anderson seems astonished that CO2 emissions should continue to grow at 3-6% p.a. during what he calls “the economic downturn”, apparently unaware that the world’s economy has continued to grow at a healthy 3-4% for most of that time (but just not where we are).

    He quotes approvingly an IEA forecast of a temperature rise of 3.5C by 2040, but doesn’t mention that temperatures have not gone up for 16 years. The IEA forecast implies an average rise of 1.3°C per decade from now on, whereas the highest decadal rise ever recorded (in the 80s and 90s) is of the order of 0.17°C. For the IEA forecast to come true, temperatures have to start rising eight times faster than ever in recorded history – right now. And if they don’t start rising now, they’ll have to rise even faster later on.

    I know you don’t want to discuss the science, but this isn’t science, it’s simple arithmetic – the kind of thing I’d say to my granddaughters if they suggested they could take out a loan at 30% interest and pay it back in a reasonable time. Yes, it’s mathematically possible. In the real world, I just can’t see it happening.

    Of course, if I’d said that 16 years ago, I’d have been proved right by now, and the IEA wouldn’t be saying what it’s saying. 16 years ago, no-one expected temperatures to remain static so long. But that’s Popperian (or Keynesian) empiricism for you. Facts change, and you choose what you do.

    1. RKS

      I’m afraid you won’t change the minds of AGW fanatics with mere facts of life, they’re not interested in anything that might affect their belief in ‘the cause’, which is all AGW is for the misanthropic adolescent minded leftists looking for any cause whatsoever to bring down our society and punish the population for supposed ‘crimes’ against the environment. Whether the science remains valid or not is a matter of total indifference to them once they’ve embarked on their path of ‘enlightenment’, massaging their narcissistic egos by preaching fire and brimstone to the great unwashed. As the author has indicated, why spoil the road to a poverty laden socialist utopia by debating inconvenient scientific facts.

    2. RKS

      I’m astonished. Kevin Anderson is a professor of energy and yet fails to grasp the simple fact that China, India Brazil etc are producing all of our CO2 for us second hand, manufacturing and transporting most of our consumer goods half way across the world. The fact he regards the IEA forecast as valid, after the past 16 years of statistically flat temperature change, seems to indicate he is either incompetent or is prepared to twist the facts to suit an advocacy of AGW. In either case, as a public servant it seems his contract is way past it’s review date.

  7. TinyCO2

    You’re being too harsh RKS, the pro CAGW side are mostly coming from a point of genuine concern about CO2 and for which there are good reasons to worry. Intransigence on both sides comes from some ignorance of each other’s case.

    It’s no accident that many vocal sceptics are engineers of some sort or have at least worked in industry. We tend to be at the sharp end of others’ well meaning attempts to improve the World. Some things work out well, some are a costly waste of time and effort. When we hear politicians or academics or even senior management talk about slashing waste and vastly improve efficiency we wince, not because we don’t think it’s important but because we wonder what you think we’ve been doing for decades. Most businesses that waste things don’t stay in business very long. OK there are often areas that can be improved but unfortunately the solutions can often be nigh on impossible either physically or financially. Some might think that raising the price of energy further would encourage businesses to carry out the more costly improvements, unfortunately they have a third choice – that is move out of the country inflicting the restrictions. It has happened, it is happening, it will happen. Sadly this practice is well supported by the public because when it comes to the crunch, price features higher on the list or priorities than ‘Made in UK’ or any claims of environmental friendliness.

    I know that manufacturing is not that important to London but the recent banking crisis showed that sometimes you need more than service industries to prop up the country when and if the banks stop pulling money in. In recent years we have put our eggs in a smaller and smaller collection of baskets. We can’t all be in a nice office where the biggest drain on power is the kettle and the file server. If we want British manufacturing we need affordable energy and since we all can’t live in London, hitting industry is also hitting the poorer parts of the country disproportionately.

    Now some might say that the UK has had it’s time at the top of the heap and developing countries deserve fifty years or so of the same kind of success. We should lead the way in cutting CO2 even if it has a hugely detrimental effect on British prosperity. Such an impact would also play a large part in cutting our CO2 footrint. Hmmm, it’s a theory. However it’s such a radical change to previous thinking that it’s not something that a few wealthy politicians and comfortably placed academics can make for the rest of us. It really does need to be debated and voted on. And that is especially true if the majority would vote ‘NO’. You cannot force people to be green, even to save the planet.

    There is a delusion that cutting CO2 is merely an inconvenience that wealthy countries could shoulder but that is the viewpoint from the top of society. Because acting on CO2 is more like VAT than income tax, it acts disproportionately on the poor. The people paying the most to subsidise solar panels on the roofs of wealthy suburbanites are those on prepayment meters who don’t even own their roof. But the less well off could benefit from the Green Deal? Sure they could fork out a couple of hundred pounds on a survey, take out a loan at 3% more than the cheapest home loan and pay it back in bills that could register a drop in energy use that has nothing to do with the home ‘improvement’. Unfortunately the public don’t seem to be that dumb and are ignoring the Green Deal in their droves.

    Too many plans are being made by people who won’t be affected by them. Do we really think that the person who mooted car sharing in – COIN A new conversation with the centre right about climate change – envisaged themselves actually doing it on a regular basis? Do we imagine private jet owners who are making a trip to New York offering the spare seats on a pay for mileage basis? Nah, sharing is for poor people.

    Cutting CO2 is a brand new way to separate the haves from the have nots. People have set targets based on the scientists’ output but never looked at a basic standard of living and put a CO2 footprint on it. I think if they did they’d scare themselves silly.

    Reducing CO2 is not a no-brainer, it’s a choice between two scary futures. More thought about the hazards and opportunities on both sides is needed and debate is essential.

    Oh and debate between people with the same viewpoint but trying to think like the other side is not a debate.

  8. geoffchambers

    There’s more sound social science in TinyCO2’s comment above than in a dozen position papers from government subsidised think tanks. Those are real people he’s talking about, not abstract notional groupings conceived simply as obstacles in the path of some civil servant’s plan. (Has anyone ever met the Centre Right? Conservative voters, yes, but has anyone in Britain ever uttered the words: “I’m Centre Right”?)
    The Green Deal, which he mentions in passing, is a small foretaste of where current energy policy is leading us. Designing laws connecting loans to loft insulation to small businesses to energy bills, and leaving out the interest of real human beings – and all to delay the arrival of a few billion tons of gas into the atmosphere (or rather, to ensure that someone else, and not we British, will be emitting it) – is just daft – social engineering, but of the Heath Robinson rather than the Pol Pot kind.
    People buy a house when they’re young(ish), spend their spare cash making it nice, then consume masses of energy when they have kids and no spare cash. When the kids leave home, their energy consumption goes down, as do lots of other expenditures. If there’s any cash left over, they can choose between loft insulation and a nice holiday in Australia. The idea that governments can enter into the life cycle of twenty million families and twiddle with it in such a way as to affect their CO2 output significantly is colossal naivety, a kind of innocence which social scientists should be warning governments against, not encouraging.

  9. geoffchambers

    Kevin Anderson is not the only scientist who thinks that “many scientists and policy-makers  routine underplay their public statements on climate change”.
    Stephan Lewandowsky made a similar point in a presentation at the AGU this month, which you can see here

    He says: “Scientists may think that they are impervious to “skeptic” messages in the media, but in fact they are likely to be affected by the constant drumbeat of propaganda.”
    I’ll transcribe it when I have time and post it at Alex Cull’s Mytranscriptbox.

    1. RKS

      I’ve noticed several climate scientist back tracking on their previous alarmist positions since nature started to invalidate their models. It’s the professional thing to do when the data disagree with the theory [simply a hypothesis on the lines of B follows A therefore A causes B in fact and still without empirical support] The trouble is that B has failed to follow A for the past 16 years. Expect climate scientists to be less alarmist from now on.

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