Climate Hawks: Not All Birds Flock Together

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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17 Responses to Climate Hawks: Not All Birds Flock Together

  1. Meme Mine says:

    If a few hundred bankers can bankrupt the world economy, how far fetched is it to suggest a Climate Change conspiracy at the UN, MET, NASA and ……………….GREENPEACE?
    When has anything ever been as bad as the media has said it will be? What if media had covered climate change science as well as they did Toyota? Spread Love, not Wind Mills. No, bad weather is not our fault now.

    I am a Green-Liberal Climate Change Denier. Stop scaring our kids.
    -trust politicians to manage the weather.
    -think humanity is stronger than Nature.
    -only human pollution stays in the air forever.
    -wish, pray and hope for this misery to really happen.
    -are a doomsday cultist because Climate Change is “unstoppable warming“.
    -unquestionably accept other peoples thinking.
    -deny any denial science.
    -make a religion-like virtue out of no evidence.
    -feel envy for anyone who has more than you.
    -accepts as your God as being a fat politician who promises to lower the seas with taxes.
    -call Bush a liar, but the fear mongering Gore and Canada’s Nutzuki are true saints.
    -think contracted consultants are scientists.
    -like scaring children with ‘DEATH BY CO2”.
    -think we are immortal gods who can kill the powers of Nature and the cosmos.
    -a participant in the Iraq War of science, Climate Change.
    History will not be kind.

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  4. Amos Zeeberg says:

    Insightful post, and I’m all in favor of the idea, but I think “energy hawk” would be a more politically effective term. The climate debate has gotten bogged down in a typical red/blue-culture fight that may not resolve itself for years or decades. Clean energy & energy conservation are much less polarizing causes that can pick up support from climate skeptics; they play just fine with conservative ideals like (national) self-reliance, thrift, and “creation care.”

    This recent Times article highlights Kansan cultural conservatives (Gore’s the devil) who are happy to be frugal and save energy (LEDs on Xmas trees). “Don’t mention global warming…And don’t mention Al Gore. People out here just hate him.”

    Interesting to note that the groundwork for a non-partisan agreement on energy was laid a while ago; in 2005, Slate pointed out that some foreign-policy hawks loved hybrid cars because they could help decrease the flow of Western money going to oil-rich countries. Even arch-spook James Woolsey apparently drove a Prius.

    • John Rennie says:

      Thanks, Amos. The problem, to me, with “energy hawk” is that it loses focus on climate as an issue—for better or worse. As you say, many people can see abundant reasons to reform our energy strategies, and to the extent that those reforms move us away from fossil fuels and CO2 emissions, they will help with climate. But cleaner/greener energy policies (unless they specifically include CO2 reduction in their definitions) aren’t necessarily synonymous with better climate policies, as I argued here.

      Still, I can see your point. It is fundamentally a question of what would work best as strategy, and whether one is (or should be) willing to walk away from climate mitigation as an explicit, politically realizable goal.

      • Amos Zeeberg says:

        I hadn’t realized that the rebound effect might be so big for lighting. Good to know.

        But as the Times article points out, there is right now a successful campaign in a bluer-than-blue state for energy efficiency, energy frugality, and costlier-than-fossil-fuel clean energy. If the money saved by efficiency and frugality is spent on (energy from) wind turbines, I think that’s a win-win. (I know the Breakthrough Institute focuses on “making clean energy cheap,” but clean energy will always be more expensive than the dirty stuff, or everybody would be using it.)

        Long-term: climate policy. Short-term: clean/efficient/frugal energy policy. It could be effected in the U.S. now. And a decade of successful energy policy will help people get over the knee-jerk FUD response and pave the way for more comprehensive climate policy.

        • John Rennie says:

          Yes, it seems like that should be so.

          Not that I feel any competence to criticize the rebound effect study, but I do have this nagging (and probably unfounded) misgiving that their analysis ends up being a bit like a study of how much money goes unused in the economy. The answer goes to zero because money always gets used. Here, money saved from energy efficiency will get spent on other things that will themselves involve energy consumption. Does that drive to an asymptote? I don’t know, and it’s probably wrong to fret about it, but I can’t help but wonder.

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  6. Keith Kloor says:


    I got you the answer to your hypothetical about whether Judith Curry would embrace the climate hawk label or not.

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  11. Betty says:

    Mr. Rennie, I happened upon this by complete accident, I was actually googling whether or not there are any species of bird that doesn’t actually flock together (for my daughter). That being said, even though I realized immediately that this wasn’t what I needed, I was intrigued by the subject matter & read further. I found it to be a very good read, as well as informative, was actually hoping it would be a bit lengthier, as I view learning as a truly amazing experience & love to learn as much as I can, no matter what the subject. Knowledge is never a problem, it’s how someone chooses to wield that knowledge that causes the problem. Furthermore, I was thoroughly annoyed by the very first comment that some fanatic “bury your head in the sand & hope for the best” idiot made. Then, I was thoroughly impressed with your extremely simple, yet overwhelmingly effective retort; there is no doubt in my mind why they chose not to reply back. Just wanted to say it was a pleasure and I thank you for sharing.