One of our biggest problems with climate change is that it simply refuses to fit conventional narratives. So when a leading skeptic makes a public conversion it makes a compelling story that calls for our attention.
We are far more inspired by narratives that speak to our social values than data that mumbles to our intellectual reasoning. This is why the most powerful storylines have, since the earliest recorded tales, been those with identifiable protagonists clearly representing opposing sides, with sequential events leading to a denouement that confirms social rules.
Climate change has always been hard to turn into a compelling narrative. It’s bad enough that it is a vast and overwhelming tableau with major uncertainties of causality, timing and outcomes. Even worse, though, is the absence of any external enemy. We cannot demarcate between the perpetrator and victim (us and them, good and bad), because everyone in our society contributes to the problem and everyone will be affected. Of course this is not a story without victims – the ultimate victims will be the poor, the vulnerable and our descendents- but then who wants to cheer for the Sheriff of Nottingham?
And this is one reason why the recent media coverage of climate change has been so abysmal. Climatologists are now too bullied to make public conclusions from the record breaking extreme weather and the media feel that they have already told that apocalypse story before. The problem is that the climate may be changing, but the story stays the same.
So it is hardly news when Richard Muller, a professor of physics at University of California at Berkeley, concludes, after two years study, that ‘human’s are almost entirely the cause’ of potentially catastrophic climate change. What makes this new is that he used to be an outspoken critic of climate science and has been funded, in part, by the libertarian oil billionaire Koch Brothers.
Here at last we have the narrative ingredients we needed all along: an individual protagonist and the human drama of one man’s personal struggle that leads him to cross sides in the interests of the truth. And Muller, with his twinkling eyes, high forehead and somewhat wild grey hair perfectly meets our visual expectations of an independent scientist tirelessly seeking the facts on which to build a better world.
Changing sides is potent content for stories: just think of the movies on this theme? There are countless whistleblower films such as The Informer, Silkwood,, The Firm, Serpico in which the hero discovers information that compels them to turn against powerful bureaucracies (big tobacco, the nuclear industry, a lawfirm, the NYPD respectively).
But in many ways a more interesting analogue for Professor Muller is with the stories about people who have an internal change brought on by moral conflict. For example Schindlers List or – one of my favourites- Angels with Dirty Faces. In the world of documentary this theme is captured in Marjoe or The Fog of War.
What is interesting in Muller’s opinion piece in yesterday’s New York Times is that the way he tells the story is shaped so knowingly by these narrative expectations. In his very first line: “Call me a converted skeptic” he infers a Damascene conversion. Later on he adds a dramatic flourish when he refers to “my total turnaround, in such a short time”.
He tells the story as an unfolding tale of discovery: “Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. Last year… I concluded that global warming was real….. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause”.
He also directly plays to the iconic image of the scientist searching for truth. He writes” It’s a scientist’s duty to be properly sceptical. Science is that narrow realm of knowledge that, in principle, is universally accepted. I embarked on this analysis to answer questions that, to my mind, had not been answered”.
To complete the story we might like a little more contrition. After all Professor Muller’s previous ‘skepticism’, however well founded he feels it was, contributed to a highly political battle to undermine action on climate change. Although the project was funded with numerous respectable sources, climate change research funding from the Koch Foundation is not really like any other research grant, and I will happily bet my house that he won’t get another grant from them. Having spent last night with my son watching James Bond battling Dr No, I feel that the shadowy Koch bothers add great appeal to the narrative
But maybe it is unreasonable to expect a mea culpa when he has already come so far. Muller has made a bold and brave step worthy of commendation. And, even if he still has some way to go, maybe his intervention is more effective when he maintains that “I still find that much, if not most, of what is attributed to climate change is speculative, exaggerated or just plain wrong”.
What is curiously missing in this storyline- and what I would dearly love to ask Professor Muller- is why he was a skeptic in the first place. Although the general public has a conception of the ‘Ur-Scientist’ as a polymath egghead at home among the bubbling retorts in any lab, professional scientists are usually very respectful of disciplinary boundaries and don’t assume that they have the authority to challenge the expertise of scientists in other areas. However Muller freely assumes that authority despite his lack of any expertise in climatology or atmospheric physics.
But he is an outstanding specialist in particle physics and this background provides an important clue to his motivation. In an excellent study on the psychology of prominent climate change sceptics Dr. Myanna Lahsen of the University of Colorado observes that many of them have, like Muller, a background in theoretical physics. She finds that they share a worldview that makes then reluctant to believe in the vulnerability of natural systems and leads them to have an excessive faith in technology – it is worth noting that Muller has been advocating increased fracking as a response to climate change.
Lahsen draws on anthropological studies to argue that physics, especially theoretical physics, has an internal culture that encourages “self confidant style of self-presentation and an inclination to discount techno-scientific risks and to approach even highly complex scientific problems with confidence”.
This description certainly seems to fit Professor Muller. According to fellow Berkeley physicist Raymond Jeanloz: “he is a very, very independent thinker. He does not take it for granted when he is told something. His instinct is to go check it out for himself,”
In her study Lahsen interviews three physicists who were among the highest profile climate skeptics : Frederick Seitz, William Happer and William Neirenberg. During the Bush administration all three sat on the board of the George C Marshall Institute, a free market think tank and contributed to its reports on climate change. It was these men that President Bush had in mind when he responded to the first IPCC report by saying : ‘‘My scientists are telling me something very different’’.
Not only does Muller share the same discipline, but they have all sat at various times on the JASON Defense Advisory Group a small and highly confidential panel of scientific experts that reports directly to the Pentagon. We do not need to make too much of this, but given that there are no more than 60 scientists in the Jason group, we can surely assume that Professor Muller has been deeply embedded within a small network that enjoys having political influence, has a shared sense of its right to challenge people in other disciplines and has a strong propensity to challenge climate science.
This network also has its own narratives and storylines. Lahsen suggests, drawing on her interviews, that their position on climate change has been formed, in part, by their sense of diminishing personal influence in government and resentment that their authority has been undermined by the rise of oppositional progressive movements. Although they argue that their challenge to climate science is grounded in legitimate scientific scepticism, Lahsen puts a coherent and persuasive argument that it is more informed by their own cultural narrative about power and progress.
In this light Muller’s original scepticism is more comprehensible. And his change of position is even more admirable because it represents a turn against the views held by some of his closest colleagues. Muller presents his findings as a revelation but they can only be seen as such to someone immersed in a culture that never accepted climate change in the first place. The real revelation is that has finally out found that his peers and colleagues have been wrong all along.
The final conclusion to Professor Muller’s opinion piece in the New York Times would be touching were it not so exasperating. He writes: “I hope that the Berkeley Earth analysis will help settle the scientific debate regarding global warming and its human causes”.
It shows a remarkable political innocence to assume that any ‘debate’ on climate change will be settled by a single piece of research- especially given that it only confirms what every legitimate expert has been saying for 20 years. The lines are already firmly drawn up between the different world views and The deniers are already lining up to demean his work.
Professor Muller’s greatest contribution is not his actual findings, but the role model he provides for other climate change sceptics to change camp. My concern is that Muller may actually be a new species of climate change denier who has identified an unfilled niche in the pundit ecosystem f. Just as Bjorn Lomborg built his career on being a ‘skeptical environmentalist’ there is surely an opportunity for Muller to brand himself as a ‘real skeptic’ who sees everything as up for challenge. Whatever his intentions, people will not listen to the detail of what he concludes is right and will only hear that climate science is still unreliable and untrustworthy.