Climate Hawks: Not All Birds Flock Together

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Red-tailed hawk (Credit: Glass_House via Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

Following up on my post about David Roberts’ coinage of the term “climate hawk,” I see that physicist and climate activist Joe Romm at Climate Progress has embraced the term as well. That’s good news in itself, but his post on the subject touches on a point that I think illustrates one of the great contributions that such a term can make:

I don’t think “climate hawk” applies to my view of climate science, but rather my view of climate and energy policy.  My view of climate science comes from having read much of the climate science literature of the last few years and having listened to many of the leading climate scientists (for a recent literature review, see “An illustrated guide to the latest climate science“).  In that respect I sometimes call myself a “climate science realist.”

Exactly. “Climate hawk” is a statement about one’s stance on policy, not on the science.

One of the problems that has muddied climate discussions is that there has not been a simple way to separate people’s positions on the science from their positions on the appropriate policy response. Having such labels is extremely useful—arguably, essential—not only as a way of hemming in individual discussions (“Are we debating the science or the policy response?”) but also as a way of clearly pegging exactly what people stand for.

Case in point: climatologist Judith Curry, who has become a controversial figure in the field. In the new November issue of Scientific American, journalist Michael Lemonick explores why she is variously viewed either as a rare, brave scientist willing to criticize the IPCC and engage with skeptics of global-warming “groupthink” or as a well-meaning scientific dupe playing into the hands of those trying to undermine the needed climate response. (Lemonick’s intelligently balanced article makes a case that both characterizations are valid.) Whatever one thinks of her, though, here may be the crucial distinction (emphasis added):

Climate skeptics have seized on Curry’s statements to cast doubt on the basic science of climate change. So it is important to emphasize that nothing she encountered led her to question the science; she still has no doubt that the planet is warming, that human-generated greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, are in large part to blame, or that the plausible worst-case scenario could be catastrophic. She does not believe that the Climategate e-mails are evidence of fraud or that the IPCC is some kind of grand international conspiracy. What she does believe is that the mainstream climate science community has moved beyond the ivory tower into a type of fortress mentality, in which insiders can do no wrong and outsiders are forbidden entry.

In short, Curry seems to have misgivings about the uncertainties in the climate science, but she agrees that we need to cut CO2 emissions and take whatever other steps are necessary to head off possible climate disasters. Indeed, if she feels a policy response is required, then it seems clear that whatever problems she has with the state of the science, they aren’t big enough to negate that conclusion.

Understanding this much about her position and being able to state it clearly is therefore huge in policy discussions that invoke her name. If Curry identified herself as a climate hawk (a purely hypothetical possibility at this point), then her usefulness to those who would cite her to undermine proposals to cut CO2 emissions plummets. She could also probably make peace with many of her scientific colleagues who think she is willing to be a pawn of the climate denialists. On the other hand, if she doesn’t want to call herself a climate hawk, it clearly opens up a discussion about why.

Having a term like climate hawk at our disposal is invaluable for making important distinctions between those who want to argue about the climate science and those who want to argue about the policy. Even those with uncertainties about the science can still recognize that there’s a need for action; even those who disagree about specific prescriptions for how to respond to the climate crisis can still agree that some response is needed. Right now, anything that helps to make it clear just how broad and strong the support for action on global warming is would help tremendously in getting the debate back on the right track.

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