Why Joe Romm Won’t Debate Roger Pielke Jr.

March 2, 2010 | Michael Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus,


As background see Breakthrough's special series on Climate McCarthyism.

UPDATE 3/3/10: Keith Kloor has weighed in with "Fisking Romm" at Collide-a-Scape, as has Ron Bailey at Reason with 'Climate Progressive Joe Romm Ducks Debate." Roger Pielke, Jr. has provided an excellent PowerPoint presentation of climate disaster research for readers who wish to understand why the consensus science shows there is no global warming signal in the disaster loss record.

The last few months have been rough for Joe Romm. Forced to spin Copenhagen as a success, climategate as a skeptics' conspiracy, and cap and trade legislation as world-changing, Romm has started making increasingly wild accusations against working journalists and academics.

Just in the last few weeks Romm has piled up quite a list: Newsweek's Fred Guterl, the Wall Street Journal's Jeffrey Ball and Keith Johnson, the Times' Andy Revkin, climate researchers, Judith Curry and Roger Pielke, Jr., a Breakthrough Senior Fellow. Romm has shown himself willing to say virtually anything to avoid dealing with the fact that his apocalypse-mongering has backfired, and that his climate policies are failing.

A telling moment came last week after Revkin wrote on the Times blog Dot Earth, that one test of the IPCC's credibility is whether it will choose Pielke to co-author the next IPCC report on climate change and natural disasters. Revkin noted that Pielke has one of the longest, if not the longest, list of peer-reviewed publications on the matter.

While he has been an aggressive critic of the panel's practices on his blog, and a frequent target of energy and climate campaigners, Dr. Pielke's research record in this particular field stands on its own."

Romm responded with a 4,000-plus word diatribe that charged:

Roger Pielke, Jr. is the single most disputed and debunked person in the entire realm of people who publish regularly on disasters and climate change.


In the comments, Revkin asked Romm to back up his claim that Pielke's work has been debunked.

Any reason you didn't direct your blast at, say, Chris Field, co-lead of Working Group 2 for 5th IPCC assessment (who says he's eager for Pielke to contribute), Michael Oppenheimer ("He fits" in this extremes report), Richard Klein (strong endorsement)? Oh, I almost forgot that the Obama Administration, in submitting Pielke's name, described all of the candidates as "impressive." Was that a mistake on their part?


Lacking evidence, and faced with the reality that Pielke's work has mainstream credibility, Romm backpeddled:

You missed the whole point of my post. This isn't about whether Roger is technically qualified.


Strange then, that just moments earlier Romm had claimed Pielke "is the single most disputed and debunked person in the entire realm of people who publish regularly on disasters and climate change."

Over at his blog, Pielke responded:

In an effort to turn this episode into something constructive and educational, I'd like to formally challenge Joe Romm to a public debate on climate policy to be held in Fall, 2010 in his home town at a date convenient for him, so that he does not have to travel and the timing can be made to fit his schedule.

Moments later a reader commented at Romm's blog:

Well Joe, now that you've taken Pielke to task, you must just be chomping at the bit, then, to debate him in person... Are you going to take him up on it?

Romm responded:

The question is why waste any more time on him?... He simply isn't relevant to the debate anymore.

But if Pielke is so irrelevant, why did Romm just spend 4,000 words attacking him?
In a comment on both men's blogs, Les Johnson announced he would contribute $2,000 to the charity of the winner's choice.

Romm replied:

Zzzzz. I've explained many times why one doesn't want to give a platform to people who spread mis-and dis-information and then have to use all my time debunking it.

And yet just a few months earlier Romm had debated an actual skeptic, Marc Morano, and days before had gone on Fox News to defend snowstorms as evidence of global warming. Why the double standard? Because -- "Zzzzz" -- it's boring?

Romm's readers weren't having it. Jonathan Adler, a law professor from Case Western, comments:

Like many others, I'd love to watch a webcast of the two of you exchanging views in person, and I can't see any reason you'd refuse.

Unable to stick to a single reason to avoid debating Pielke, Romm replied:

"You don't read this blog, do you? I've explained my position on this sort of things many times."

Many times and, notably, many different ways.

Then, Les Johnson rejoined:

Lets up the ante Joe.

I will match every dollar you put up, to 10,000 USD, to the winner's charity of choice. If you win, you don't pay and I do, to your charity.

If you lose, we both pay to Medecin san Frontiers. The winner is determined by an audience, which, as you choose the time and venue, is really chosen by you.

Elevating Skeptics Romm has refused to debate Pielke on the grounds that he does not want to elevate Pielke's arguments. Apparently Romm would rather elevate climate skeptics like Marc Morano and FOX News.

Then, Pielke announced that the eminent journal Foreign Policy had agreed to host the debate.

At this point there was no way out for Romm. Confronted by Revkin, Romm cannot sustain the claim that Pielke has been debunked. Confronted by commenters eager to see a debate, Romm cannot sustain the claim that a debate would be boring. Now, having just boasted of his debates with Morano and Fox News hosts, Romm cannot in good faith claim he doesn't debate his opponents.

By the end of the thread Romm had stopped replying to the comments and had gone back to censoring them.

The Demands of Hyper-Partisanship

Why won't Romm debate Pielke? Readers looking for an answer might start by reading this gripping account of how Pielke mopped the floor with his opponents in a debate last month at the Royal Institution in London. Or they might read Pielke's PowerPoint (PDF) laying out the evidence of IPCC's misrepresentations.

But aside from his fear of losing to Pielke, Romm knows that a debate with a non-skeptical liberal like Pielke would disrupt the Manichean fairy tale that global warming is an epic struggle by scientists and climate realists against global warming deniers and ignorant reporters. That's because publicly debating Pielke will inevitably require Romm to acknowledge that Pielke is not a global warming skeptic nor an opponent of action to address global warming.

By contrast, Romm relishes debating skeptics like Morano and relishes offering them a platform precisely because doing so reduces the climate debate to an argument between skeptics, who oppose carbon pollution limits of any kind, and advocates like Romm, who demand emissions reductions in the name of climate science.

Reducing global warming to a battle between irrational conservatives waging a war on science and Democrats advocating science-based policies to save the planet was great politics for Democrats in opposition, allowing them to mobilize the liberal base, raise money, and differentiate the two parties among swing voters throughout the Bush years. It is no accident that Romm's blog is hosted by the Center for American Progress, which was created with the express intention of defining a progressive Democratic liberalism in sharp contrast with political conservatism.

Give Me a C-A-P: Romm has long been a cheerleader for climate legislation that includes a cap-and-trade mechanism, but now that his policies are failing Romm has turned to criticizing working journalists and academics as a means of deflecting tough questions.

But that polarizing strategy was only useful to Democrats precisely so long as the proposed solution to global warming remained just out of reach. Today, cap and trade has become a millstone for Democrats. The hyper-polarization that served Democrats in opposition has been turned back against them in leadership. That, alongside the public's realization that cap and trade was code for helping utilities raise electricity prices, has been its undoing.

Of course, Romm will try to blame the failure of cap and trade on fossil fuel-funded global warming deniers and Republicans. And once the threat of actually passing cap and trade has passed, global warming will once again look like good politics to a lot of Democrats - with Romm there to egg them on. But we should not forget that much of the U.S. fossil fuel and energy industries were backing the Democratic proposal and in the end, Democrats couldn't hold support from much of their own caucus, much less Republicans who Romm and Co. have spent the last several years demonizing.

In the end, Romm's bullying does not serve efforts to effectively address global warming; it serves the political interests of the self-proclaimed progressive wing of the Democratic Party. As the chief spokesman for climate legislation in Washington and the pointman on climate for the Center for American Progress, Romm is no rogue actor. On the contrary. In framing global warming as apocalypse, polarizing the debate, attacking alternatives to cap and trade, and using character assassination against working journalists and academics, the green and liberal establishment in Washington has, in Romm, precisely the spokesperson it deserves.

Below are point-by-point refutations of Romm's attacks on Pielke:

Joe Romm falsely claims Pielke's work has been "debunked."

Roger Pielke, Jr. is the single most disputed and debunked person in the entire realm of people who publish regularly on disasters and climate change. He trashes the reputation of any scientist who even suggests that there is the tiniest link whatsoever between climate change and extreme weather -- even though he himself has stated such a link exists (click here, reposted below).

The Facts: Pielke's work, and that of the many colleagues that he has collaborated with, has consistently shown that it is not yet possible to identify a signal of GHG emissions in the rising toll of disasters. Peer reviewed research is unanimous on this point, based on studies of North America, Asia, Australia, Europe, India and the Caribbean.

Romm uses the term "climate change" here in a misleading manner to imply the opposite of what Pielke and his colleagues have concluded. In their work they explicitly define climate change to refer to any change in climate irrespective of cause, following the terminology of the IPCC. Thus to state that climate change affects disasters is to express a scientific truism. The question that is the subject of debate is whether or not greenhouse gas emissions can be linked to the rising costs of disasters, and presently they cannot.

Joe Romm misrepresents Pielke's criticisms of scientists engaging in partisan political battles.

"But Pielke wrote his post on the subject merely calling Inhofe's despicable move "a bit of clown-like bluffing" -- and then he goes about attacking Rick Piltz. Rick Piltz! He says Piltz "focuses on the Inhofe report to ... use these scientists for his own partisan purposes." To Pielke, defending scientists from Inhofe's 'Climate McCarthy act' is using them for "partisan purposes." Seriously."

The Facts: Pielke has long argued that waging political battles through science is a losing proposition for the climate science community, an argument that has been borne out in recent months. Pielke was among the first to speak out against the Bush Administration's effort to muzzle James Hansen and testified before Congress about the Bush Administration's "ham-handed" efforts at public relations control of scientists. At the same time, Pielke, unlike Romm, is also critical of those who politicize science among the scientific community and those calling for action on climate change. What Romm sees as aiding his political opponents is Pielke practicing what he preaches, irrespective of who is doing the politicizing.

Joe Romm falsely implies Pielke is a climate skeptic.

Pielke was just included on Foreign Policy's "Guide to Climate Skeptics." He disputed that, of course, but then, that's what he does. At least Foreign Policy didn't back down, as Alternet did -- see ClimateChangePsychology's post, "AlterNet.org censors Buffalo Beast article on climate villains -- deletes Roger Pielke, Jr., under pressure."

The Facts: Pielke is not a climate skeptic. Romm, of course, knows this. For more than 15 years Pielke has consistently based his policy work calling for action on climate change on the consensus position of the scientific community as represented by the science expressed in the IPCC Working Group

Joe Romm implies that Pielke's arguments with other researchers and scientists makes Pielke a skeptic.

The Facts: Romm seeks to scandalize intellectual arguments. Pielke has engaged in intellectual debates with Tim Lambert and James Annan, among others. This is what academics do in private, and now, via blogs, in public. Romm appears to suggest that normal back and forth among academics that disagree is evidence of some wrongdoing or worse. Romm ignores the substance of any of these debates. Pielke is happy to have observers examine the debates and come to their own conclusions. Romm seems to think that simply engaging in a debate is evidence of malfeasance.

Joe Romm cites blogger Brian Schmidt who falsely claims Pielke misrepresented James Hansen.

The Facts: Pielke has consistently defined "air capture" to include biological, geological and chemical approaches, much as does the UK Royal Society. Brian Schmidt prefers a different definition and accuses Pielke of some sort of malfeasance for using a broader definition. This is a perfect example of how bloggers use semantic arguments rather than engage substantive debates.

Romm misrepresents Pielke's climate policy proposal.

But Pielke's primary proposal is "a $5 charge on each ton of carbon dioxide" and then use the money to develop clean tech technologies and infrastructure!!! You might as well bring a squirt gun to a firestorm.

The Facts: Pielke has a far more nuanced approach to climate policy than suggested by Romm. Pielke argues for a much more direct approach to decarbonization, focused on advancing efficiency and decarbonizing energy supply. He favors a carbon tax as a mechanism of raising revenue to invest in innovation. Pielke's views, along with colleagues from around the world, were spelled out in some detail last summer in a white paper released by the London School of Economics and Oxford University. Pielke also advocates attention to adaptation and air capture as a backstop technology.

Joe Romm claims Pielke misrepresented a NOAA report.

Last June, Pielke launched one of the most absurd attacks in his career -- on a few innocuous sentences in the terrific new NOAA-led report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. Pielke launched the strongest possible accusation on his blog -- "misrepresenting science in a government report" -- on the basis of four sentences in this 196-page, 13-agency report.

The Facts: Pielke has documented in detail how his work was misrepresented in the CCSP report. Romm turns again to the misleading definition of "climate change" rather than engage Pielke's specific claims. Pielke's claims of misrepresentation of his work in the IPCC and

I would add that [Evan] Mills is not the first scientist Pielke has smeared on this issue of a link between climate change and extreme weather/insurance losses due to extreme weather. Pielke said that the 3000 scientists listening to Gore at the AAAS meeting were "willing silent collaborators" to "the misrepresentation of climate science" because they did nothing while Al Gore made the link, albeit with very careful wordchoice (see "Unstaining Al Gore's good name, Part 1"). (emphasis in original)

Pielke's criticisms were judged accurate by Gore. Pielke's critiques of Mills are supported by the overall peer reviewed literature, none of which shows a relationship between increasing greenhouse gases and the rising costs of disasters. On this debate, Pielke has come out on top. Romm routinely characterizes academic critiques with "smears" and "attacks" as if that makes discussion of the substance unnecessary. In each of these instances Pielke's critique has been proven correct.