Open Letter to Katie Tubb
on Climate Change
Notes from the Road urges Heritage Foundation author to walk back indefensible climate change claims. Includes new sketches by author Erik Gauger.
was dismayed to read your December 2021 opinion piece, “A Different Perspective on Global Warming.” The article is laced with dangerous deceptions and dubious logic.
You preface your piece by stating that, “climate trends don’t support rapid economy-altering responses, and areas of uncertainty in our scientific understanding caution for humility in policymaking.”
This single sentence contains two separate egregious errors. You suggest that uncertainty about the science of anthropogenic climate change persists, and that decisive international action to curb greenhouse gases and sequester carbon is not necessary.
Let’s address both separately.
Katie Tubb, climate Change science is not uncertain
The science of climate change is rock solid, meaning the mechanisms of climate change and the impacts of anthropogenic climate change are beyond a shadow of doubt. In your opinion piece, you stated that, “scientific debates continue,” although this is patently false.
This is literally the first sentence of the 3,949 page 2021 IPCC report: “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.”
It’s impossible to predict with absolute certainty the precise impacts in a complex system, even though we are confident in the range of outcomes. Uncertainty about outcomes of some predictions is normal in science, especially in a system as complex as our planet’s biosphere.
But when you double down by saying, “The reality is, there is considerable uncertainty,” you are not explaining to your audiences (who are under-educated on scientific issues) that these uncertainties are not relevant to a broader discussion of climate change. This sleight-of-hand tricks the reader into believing that significant doubt remains about a well-understood range of possibilities for the planet if we do not curb greenhouse gasses and sequester carbon quickly.
In the past, right-wing think tanks would try to discredit the theory of evolution, which critically underpins the biological sciences, by stating that there were still big gaps in the fossil record. You do not need a complete fossil record to have a comprehensive understanding of the history of life on Earth. Similarly with climate change, you do not need certainty on every predictive variable to know that the range of possible outcomes, should we fail to address the issue, are all bad. With climate change, a range of uncertainty on some aspects of predicting and modeling does not put into doubt the reality of the threat of climate change.
Katie Tubb, this is no time for humility in climate policymaking
Your unfounded assertion about uncertainty leads you to your conclusion that policymakers should delay action, even though it is well understood—unequivocal—that anthropogenic climate change, without bold action globally to draw down greenhouse gases and sequester carbon—will have severe consequences for life on Earth. No credible source dispute this. If two scientists disagree about which species is likeliest to succumb to climate change first - Formica exsecta or Simopelta minima, that in no way puts the overall theory into question.
Let’s create an allegory.
Let’s say that I am the First Citizen of a walled city-state in a foggy kingdom, surrounded by green mossy and grassy slopes, and a dependable flock of sheep, which can almost always be seen grazing the steep slopes. My commander is responsible for the defense of the city, and in a sudden emergency, I have summoned her - you, Katie Tubb - to the court.
“Commander Tubb”, I say, “It’s not looking good. Our military advisors have received a report from our advance scouts. There is an encampment of 20,000 of our most feared enemy in the woods to the north, and a further 5,000 are perched on the promontory to the southwest. They appear to be constructing twenty trebuchets and what appears to be a battering ram in the meadows beneath. Furthermore, a dozen of their triremes are blocking the river mouth.”
Commander Katie Tubb says, “Apparently, with a helping hand from your scouts eager to sell bad news, you have assumed the worst and ignored nuance. The reality is, there is considerable uncertainty about whether these so-called enemies of ours are really that bad."
"I don't understand! We know these people are deceitful and dangerous! They literally ripped off the limbs of our children and raped all the women. There is vast evidence of this, not only from our own direct observation, but this carnage is well documented by our own military advisors!"
Commander Katie Tubb says, "I don't know, what would be the nature of a successful siege by these people on our city state—is it a net positive change, negative, or some mix in between? What is the pace of our understanding of whether they have maybe become good, and do we have trustworthy tools to make educated guesses?"
First Citizen Erik replies, "Commander Tubb, do you have a working strategy to defend this city or not?"
"Let's be clear," says CommanderTubb. "There is not sufficient evidence of a coming siege, and so I don’t support rapid economy-altering responses, and areas of uncertainty in our understanding of our enemy caution for humility in policymaking."
"We have a matter of hours to act!"
"And this is why there is the phalanx. Phalanx shields are produced in abundance by the free market. Homes and businesses can defend themselves independent of the state!"
"Commander Tubb, the phalanx was a great offensive military formation a hundred years ago. A siege is a complex military offense that requires a multi-faceted plan. Where is yours?"
Commander Tubb replies. "What happened in these past years of successive attacks and sieges by our sworn enemy? Extreme poverty—the norm for most of the history of our city state—plummeted 80 percent, thanks to economic growth and access to watermills. Our grain storehouses increased over 200 percent. This is evidence that attacks by our enemies are not all that bad!"
"Commander Tubb, you are dismissed," I say and call in the Second-in-command.
"I need our defensive plan now!" I exclaim.
"Of course," says the Second-in-command. "It's important to note that the following plan is based on the collaboration of scholars, entrepreneuers in the free market, and military historians who have worked effortlessly with our military advisors to respond to such a threat. We cannot predict exactly how our enemy will respond, but this plan represents the boldest strategy in this existential threat to our beloved city state. We will assemble twenty trebuchets on the north wall. The remaining 5 will be disassembled and rebuilt into long-range boulder catapults, which we believe can reach the camps beneath the promontory. I have already made the decision to send five scouts to plead with our allies in Ochilmore, and a further five to Cappataggle to negotiate a naval response to the triremes. We will assault the siege camp on the promontory with cavalry and stage a longbow offense from the fields of Killure."
"Good work Second-in-command, the fate of our city state is in your hands!"
Any short description of the policy positions of your employer includes the mention that the Heritage Foundation supports increased national defense spending, basically bigger government, which could be misunderstood by some to be contradictory to your other primary objective, which is arguing that free market solutions are always better than government ones.
National defense is what we call a public good, meaning that it is more efficient when led by the state versus the individual.
But a strong climate change defense is really the same as a strong military defense. If we let individuals run our military, our defense would be at best haphazard neighborhood militias, armed with handguns and cans of bear spray. The Heritage Foundation's belief in strong state presence for the military tautologically demonstrates that aspects of climate change mitigation cannot be left to the individual, the family, the neighborhood or Wall Street. Climate change mitigation will depend first and foremost on international treaties, and federal mandates and spending will rest neatly below those treaties - it does not matter what The Heritage Foundation says about the role of federal government when by definition some aspects of climate can only be addressed by the state. Climate change mitigation has a role for the free market, the individual, the family, the neighborhood, the town, the institutions and the press, but also federal government.
A robust global conversation about strategies to tackle climate change already exists
Throughout the world, free markets, venture capital, engineers, scholars, scientists, entrepreneurs, policymakers and visionaries are collaborating and competing on the policies, the agreements and the technology that will allow us to draw down and sequester greenhouse gases in order to protect our biosphere and future generations.
The marketplace and policy debates are fascinating - and they are taking place without the involvement of the Heritage Foundation, which has no credibility on the topic. While there may be a range of tactics and strategies to address climate change, some of which may be favored by those who see the marketplace or government action as the primary instigators of change, the reality is that the world already understands the framework of what needs to be done - and there is general agreement on the actions that need to be taken by nations to reverse climate change trends.
While you use words like, "alarmist" and "catastrophist" to dismiss bold action against climate change, the walled city-state allegory shows how such words aren't necessary - we know we have a matter of years to keep global temperatures at or below 1.5 degree celsius increase.
Let's describe, at a broad level, what needs to happen in order for humanity to secure our fate. These are not 'alarmist' reactions, but practical solutions that, combined together, will slow the threats of climate change.
Here is what we need to do. We also know roughly the cost, the savings and the resulting impact on greenhouse gasses of everything we can do. A great starting point to learning about a global climate change solutions plan is Project Drawdown.
The Heritage Foundation is funded by petroleum industry interests, and so naturally when you and other Heritage Foundation authors write about climate change, it is almost solely through the perspective of petroleum versus alternative energy. I am not aware of any of your writings or speeches delving into the other aspects of mitigation. But in fact, the act of sequestering greenhouse gasses; of removing them and storing atmospheric greenhouse gasses, is perhaps the most critical aspect of climate change mitigation. Here are some of the primary methods we will employ to sequester carbon:
- Permanently conserve fifty percent of the world's land and sea. Here is the global database of how much is protected now.
- Global reforestation, proforestation and aforestation
- Climate-friendly grazing practices
- Conservation Agroforestry practices
- Tree intercropping
- Mangrove and wetland restoration and protection
- Promote bamboo forests and farms
- Protect and restore all existing peatlands
- Restore degraded farmland
Reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions
The world already has the technology to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gasses. Today, for example, wind power and solar power compete as the cheapest forms of energy around the world, crushing coal and natural gas.
- Wind power
- Solar power
- Geothermal power
- Wave and Ocean power
- Electrification of everything fueled by petroleum
- "Net-Zero" Efficient buildings and homes
- Grid flexibility
- Green roofs and cool roofs
- Seaweed for Cattle
- Trucking, aviation and shipping efficiencies
- Promote walkable cities, green cities, bicycles, electric bicycles and scooters.
Are these solutions alarmist or catastrophist? Or do they represent a critical evolution in our global infrastrusture and relationship to the biosphere that needs to begin now?
Katie Tubb, suggesting anthropogenic climate change may be beneficial to humanity is patently dangerous
You question whether the effects of climate change are even dangerous as you write, "For example, what is the nature of global warming—is it a net positive change, negative, or some mix in between?"
The negative effects of climate change on the biosphere are well understood, and there is no scenario in which the positives outweigh the negatives.
This summary from Skeptical Science provides a good summary of why there is no scenario in which anthropogenic climate change is beneficial to humans and the biosphere:
"Once we surpass the 2°C limit, the impacts listed above are exacerbated, and some new impacts will occur. Most corals will bleach, and widespread coral mortality is expected ~3°C above late 19th Century temperatures. Up to 30% of global species will be at risk for extinction, and the figure could exceed 40% if we surpass 4°C, as we continue on the path toward the Earth's sixth mass extinction. Coastal flooding will impact millions more people at ~2.5°C, and a number of adverse health effects are expected to continue rising along with temperatures."
Katie Tubb, no, we are not making educated guesses. We have a high degree of understanding about the range of future Warming.
You write, “What is the pace of future warming, and do we have trustworthy tools to make educated guesses?”
A scientific theory is not the same as an educated guess. In my lifetime as a travel writer, I have had the luxury of communicating with scientists, conservationists and climate entrepreneurs, and I have had the luxury of seeing animal and plant populations change over time, and I have had the luxury of seeing some ecosystems decline over the course of my lifetime. Direct observations supplanted by education and literacy are very valuable - and should not be dismissed - when thinking about and evaluating the topic of climate change. However, your use of the phrase, 'educated guesses' when describing the theory of anthropogenic climate change is the absolute wrong phrase to describe the science. Established theories are not educated guesses.
You question whether we have trustworthy tools to understand what future warming will bring. We have both diverse and precise tools. I encourage you to explore the fabric of interconnected tools scientists use to advance the theory of climate change. I have had the joy of joining climate scientists while banding birds, studying changes in flora on small islands, studying bleaching corals and more.
But one climate change tool puts me in awe every time: the majestic white NOAA ships with their state-of-the-art technology as they come into Newport harbor to resupply.
You incorrectly relate the economic, institutional, environmental and scientific successes of the twentienth century with climate change warming
You write, "What happened in this past century of warming? Extreme poverty—the norm for most of human history—plummeted 80 percent, thanks to economic growth and access to energy. Global crop yields of grains increased over 200 percent. Deaths from climate-related disasters decreased 96 percent."
This well-known climate-denialist trope confuses the economic health successes of our recent past with the consequences of growing global populations and economies. With the growth of economies comes new responsibilities, and we are up to the challenge of addressing those responsibilities.
You misrepresent the role of climate change on natural disasters
You deduced incorrectly from the 2021 IPCC Report that scientists have not found an explicit relationship between rising natural disasters and climate change. Without citing or quoting any specific section of the 2021 IPCC report, you write that it “found downward or no trends for hurricanes, winter storms and extreme cold, floods, tornadoes, or thunderstorms.” From there, you dismiss the IPCC’s reporting on climate-induced natural disasters by concluding, “So, Florida may be dealing with flooding, but not necessarily from global warming.”
But the IPCC states clearly, “Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. Evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and, in particular, their attribution to human influence, has strengthened since the Fifth Assessment Report.”
According to the 2021 IPCC report, climate change is affecting these natural disaster and extreme weather events.
- Warm spells and heat waves are increasing.
- Heavy precipitation events are increasing.
- More intense droughts are increasing.
- Flooding and frequency of flooding is increasing globally.
- Coastal high water is increasing.
- Large landslides are increasing.
- The intensity of cyclones, hurricanes and other major storms is increasing.
- Forest fires are increasing.
- Shrinking glaciers.
- Thawing permafrost.
Other natural disasters, linked to climate change abound. I would consider the following to be extreme natural disasters. Do any of these climate-fueled disasters not directly affect human economies and have a direct impact on the integrity of the biosphere both today and tomorrow?
- 54% of coral reefs are lost or degradeocd beyond repair.
- 30% of North American birds have vanished.
- Global insect populations are declining by 2.5% per year.
- Ocean fish populations have declined by 50% since 1970.
- The acidity of the oceans has increased by 30% since industrialization.
Scientific consensus is a scientific, not political term
You said, “our understanding of an incredibly complex, dynamic climate is always changing and busting previous notions of scientific “consensus”, which is itself more a political term than a scientific one.”
This is not true. Scientific consensus is foundational to science, and the existence of consensus on anthropogenic climate change is also a powerful tool in communicating a challenging subject to the public. Skeptical Science describes the scientific consensus this way:“So a consensus in science is different from a political one. There is no vote. Scientists just give up arguing because the sheer weight of consistent evidence is too compelling, the tide too strong to swim against any longer. Scientists change their minds on the basis of the evidence, and a consensus emerges over time. Not only do scientists stop arguing, they also start relying on each other's work. All science depends on that which precedes it, and when one scientist builds on the work of another, he acknowledges the work of others through citations. The work that forms the foundation of climate change science is cited with great frequency by many other scientists, demonstrating that the theory is widely accepted - and relied upon.”
It’s not just about grandchildren and beautiful roses
You say, dismissively that, “It’s important to acknowledge that many are concerned about global warming because they are concerned for their grandchildren and for the beautiful places we enjoy today.”
This sleight-of-hand, which uses wordplay to downplay why seventy-percent around the globe consider climate change a global emergency, underserves what the threat of climate change actually means: an existential threat to human civilization and the health of the biosphere which provides everything essential for economies, wealth, health, free-markets and freedom. There is a big difference between decreased beauty for our grandchildren and the end of civilization.
You discount science journalists, experts in their field
You said, “Too many politicians, with a helping hand from media eager to sell bad news have assumed the answers and ignored nuance.”
You provide no evidence to back up this wild claim. The science journalists who interpret and report on climate change news are among the most educated on Earth. They are often embedded among scientists, have formal training, are respected by their peers and by scientists, and have links to the free-market industries which are working to solve the puzzles of climate mitigation. As agents of their own reputation, science journalists are held to high standards, and their careers are made or broken by their credibility and precision.
In fact, these science journalists, on the whole, correctly communicate the range of predictions. If there were a pattern of science journalists threatening their credibility and reputation by miscommunicating the science of climate change, wouldn't they be endangering their journalistic careers? And wouldn't you, on account of your working for the Heritage Foundation, have an inherent incentive to call out those miscommunications? If you don't have specific examples, how do readers know you are you telling the truth?
Climate change science is not being busted, new findings support initial theories
You said, “our understanding of an incredibly complex, dynamic climate is always changing and busting previous notions of scientific consensus.”
This is absolutely incorrect. The science is not changing, rather, it is strengthening. Scientists have already confirmed the mechanisms of climate change and are now at work on more details that strengthen the rock-solid theory. The next Albert Einstein or Rachel Carson or Leonardo Da Vinci is out there, but he or she will not upend the theory of climate change. Rather, he or she will invent a new wind turbine, or advance fusion energy, or invent micro hydroelectricity bands that sustainably draw energy from the currents of small rivers.
Invention and engineering creates heroes, but the hero of basic science is collaboration and evidence.
Reputation, Credibility and Authority Matter
Carl Sagan, in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark cautioned against the idea that the authority of a particular scientist was critical to the scientific method. "Arguments from authority carry little weight – authorities have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts."
This is because in science, progress is made according to the evidence, not by those who advanced the evidence.
But in the world of science journalism, where professional journalists report on and interpret the complexities of climate change science, reputation does matter, a lot.
Science journalists advance their reputation through education, science degrees, consistent publication of strong journalistic pieces, a curiosity for the subjects the journalist is embedded with, objectivity and neutrality. The journalistic institutions which employ them also depend heavily on reputation. Scholarly science journals and more mainstream science publications like Scientific American or Nature rely heavily on a strong reputation among peer-reviewed scientists and the educated audiences that consume them. The press, and journalism, and this relationship between a reputable institution and a critical audience - the marketplace of ideas - are foundational to the fabric of society in our country.
You do not work for a journalistic institution. Rather, you work for a right-wing political industry group that seeks to sway public opinion on the issues associated with your donors. The Heritage Foundation, a competitor to reputable journalism, has ties to the petroleum industry and to the tobacco industry, and lo and behold advocates against reforms or limits on these dangerous industries. The Heritage Foundation has no need to maintain credibility or reputation, because its opinion pieces serve to placate its corporate and retail donors. Those retail donors represent an extreme minority in the United States of the truly under-educated and ignorant.
By stating mistruths and making dubious claims about the IPCC report and climate change, you build a foundation of low credibility and lengthen a breadcrumb trail of dubious claims.
If you doubt whether your own claims are dubious, if you believe what you are writing, why not answer these questions?
- How did studying history at a conservative Christian college, known for preparing its graduates to work in the right-wing politics industry, prepare you for communicating about complex science?
- Where else have you advanced your science education? Are you embedded with climate entrepreneurs? Can you describe your relationships with those working in climate science, policy or entrepreneurialism?
- What climate scientists do you communicate with and interview? How do they view your work?
- Why don't you cite sources or specifics in your writings?
- When you read the IPCC report, are you consuming a report that you are qualified to understand, or are you scanning overviews for nuggets to cherrypick?
- Does cherrypicking qualify as a form of expertise or analysis?
- When laymen on the Heritage Foundation social media sites respond to your articles with ridiculous anti-science claims, why do you not correct them?
- Does your work sound like it adheres to the 5 pillars of climate science denial as described in this article by The Conversation?
- Why has your work been ignored by the mainstream? Why does it generate no buzz and little interest in circles outside of a core fan base?
There is another way. You can reverse your positions on climate change, seek credibility, seek journalistic integrity, find joy in the discovery of science and in working with the brightest minds to resolve our greatest challenge. Ultimately, you can walk away from the Heritage Foundation, and seek a better path.