Conversion Fever! Why The Media Adores Former Climate Skeptics

Mon, 2012-07-30 07:56Chris Mooney
Chris Mooney's picture

Conversion Fever! Why The Media Adores Former Climate Skeptics

If you’ve been following the science of global warming for over a decade—as I have—you might find the recent conversion of Berkeley physicist Richard Muller into a climate believer kind of underwhelming. That’s certainly the reaction of many longtime climate scientists, with whom Muller now, finally, agrees.

At this rate, Muller should be caught up to the current state of climate science within a matter of just a few years!” climatologist Michael Mann tweeted. Climate scientist Ken Caldeira also had an amusing take, as quoted by Joe Romm: “I am glad that Muller et al have taken a look at the data and have come to essentially the same conclusion that nearly everyone else had come to more than a decade ago.”

Why, then, does Muller draw New York Times op-ed attention for his conversion? Is it really news that one individual physicist has finally come to agree that the science of climate change is very solid?

Note that this is not the first time this has happened with climate skeptic conversions in the media, or in the New York Times in particular. Remember the former skeptical journalist Gregg Easterbrook, of the New Republic and elsewhere? The New York Times published his conversion op-ed in 2006. Even at the time, some of us thought Easterbrook was pretty tardy in his turnaround–and this was six years ago.

Another prominent 2006 convert was the libertarian publisher of Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer. Once again, upon hearing the Shermer news some of us thought, “better late than never, I suppose.” Or as I blogged at the time:

As in the case of Easterbrook, I don’t see why people like Shermer held out so long…but as we all know, there’s a lot of misinformation out there that can lead earnest people astray. So perhaps we should simply applaud these rather late AGW converts, rather than presuming to judge…

So what is up with former climate skeptics, conversions, and media attention?

The short answer is that most non-science journalists (and editors!) simply don’t know much about the science of climate change, or how solid it is. In this area in particular, they are classic low information thinkers, and so they make up their minds about what is newsworthy based upon short-cuts and heuristics.

This has many consequences. For instance, it explains why journalists (like average Americans) are much more likely to focus on climate change in the context of extreme heat and weather. It also makes these non-science journalists highly susceptible to framing effects—which gets to the heart of our story.

There are few frames that journalists dig more than the conversion story, the “Nixon Going to China” narrative, in all its various incarnations. And of course, they don’t dig it for scientific reasons—they dig it for political ones. A convert represents a shift—movement—in the overall political narrative. A convert is also likely a proxy for the public, especially at a time when more and more Americans are shocked and alarmed by extreme weather, and highly open to considering global warming as its cause.

What all of this means, of course, is that while in a scientific sense Muller’s conversion is quite insignificant–in fact, its tardiness may even seem rather trying–in a political sense, his recent arrival is all that matters. So just declare victory, my scientific friends. True, we won over most of the scientists that matter a long time ago. But politically, converts still count for a great deal. 


He may now accept that the globe is warming and it is caused by anthropogenic emissions of CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels but he denies the serious effects of AGW:

The number of hurricanes hitting the United States has been going down, not up; likewise for intense tornadoes. Polar bears aren’t dying from receding ice, and the Himalayan glaciers aren’t going to melt by 2035. And it’s possible that we are currently no warmer than we were a thousand years ago, during the “Medieval Warm Period” or “Medieval Optimum,” an interval of warm conditions known from historical records and indirect evidence like tree rings. And the recent warm spell in the United States happens to be more than offset by cooling elsewhere in the world, so its link to “global” warming is weaker than tenuous.

Atlantic hurricanes have been increasing since 1960 I have plotted this number and the increase is 0.14 per year. I cannot comment on the number hitting the US but that is just a strawman argument since it is the total which is important. As for his comments about polar bears, these comments are taken directly from denier web sites and not the work of honest polar bear researchers. He is wrong about the temperature of the MWP being warmer than the present. See Peter Hadfield’s video ( He is also wrong about the hot spell in the US being offset by cooling elsewhere.

All in all I see no conversion of skeptic/denier to AGW acceptor, he just realizes that he cannot deny the data which have been accumulated over the past 20 years or so. He is still stuck in denier mode about the negative effects of AGW.

You most likely did not adjust your data to account for detection capabilities over the time period that you observed. The experts account for such differences in detection capability over time to avoid signal error in the data. NOAA highlights this and I have provided a link to the information where experts indicate that there is no long term signal for a GHG influence on Atlantic Hurricane activity.

“Atlantic tropical storms lasting more than 2 days have not increased in number. Storms lasting less than two days have increased sharply, but this is likely due to better observations. Figure adapted from Landsea, Vecchi, Bengtsson and Knutson (2009, J. Climate)”

“There has been a very pronounced increase in the number of tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic since the late-1980s. However, to gain insight on the influence of climate change on Atlantic tropical storm and hurricane frequency, we must focus on longer (> 100 yr) records of Atlantic hurricane activity since very strong year-to-year and decade-to-decade variability appears in records of Atlantic tropical cyclones. If greenhouse warming causes a substantial increase in hurricane activity, then the century scale increase in global and tropical Atlantic SSTs since the late 1800s should have been accompanied by a long-term rising trend in measures of Atlantic hurricanes activity.

Existing records of past Atlantic tropical storm numbers (1878 to present) in fact do show a pronounced upward trend, correlated with rising SSTs (see Figs. 1 and 9 of Vecchi and Knutson 2008). However, the density of reporting ship traffic over the Atlantic was relatively sparse during the early decades of this record, such that if storms from the modern era (post 1965) had hypothetically occurred during those earlier decades, a substantial number would likely not have been directly observed by the ship-based “observing network of opportunity.” We find that, after adjusting for such an estimated number of missing storms, there is a small nominally positive upward trend in tropical storm occurrence from 1878-2006. But statistical tests reveal that this trend is so small, relative to the variability in the series, that it is not significantly distinguishable from zero (Figure 2). Thus the historical tropical storm count record does not provide compelling evidence for a greenhouse warming induced long-term increase.”


You will find all the data here, assuming you know how to open a link and create a spreadsheet and do a linear regression:


and flawed analysis? Are you denying that when all factors are considered, that there is no significant long term increase in Atlantic hurricanes?

I am not talking about how many hurricanes there were in 1910 or there by. I am talking about hurricanes since 1960 when the effects of AGW were starting to be felt.

The only people who claim that there has been no increase in hurricanes over time are the ones who invent “fictitious hurricanes which were probably there but we never so them but we will add them to our data base anyway”. Do you actually believe rubbish like that? If you do you are certainly an AGW denier. But we know that already.

In her usual inane nonsensical babble, she’s brought some truth.  (I voted her down anyways… )

Potholer has a good talk on this.

Essentially we may not have risen above the signal to noise ratio of climate change induced hurricanes.  When it happens… they should be less frequent and more severe.  This is hard to measure because of the many climate cycles which induce and and reduce the amount of hurricanes.

Windy will be talking a lot about La Nina soon since its ended and will be part and parcel with the fact that this year will be a scorcher.

Ignore the fact that NOAA scientists have already determined that there were just as many hurricanes when CO2 was below 300PPM via looking at past records in their hurricane reanalysis project. Go ahead and ignore data before 1960 just because it disproves what you believe. Even the IPCC 2007 AR4  highlights that hurricane frequency will likely diminish with global temperature increase while intensity level ”should” increase slightly, but you will ignore that science too I suppose. There is no hurricane experts that I am aware of that support your contention based on your truncated analysis.

What I find most interesting ia that you are no different than the “Republican Brain” types that Mooney thinks are somehow different than him and people like you when in fact your brains function in the same manner when science conflicts with your beliefs as you just demonstrated in this thread.

IPCC is well known for not getting things right in terms of effects of AGW. Just look at how they underestimated sea level rise and Arctic ice melting to just name a couple. Scientists knew that things are a lot worse than that described by the political hacks who framed the final IPCC report. Hurricanes are just another case of not telling the truth but massaging it so things wont seem so bad.

Temperatures have gone up since 1960, you don’t deny that do you? In conjunction with this rise Atlantic hurricane frequency has also gone up, at the rate of 0.14 per year. Are you denying that? Have you read the references I provided which show that I am right?

Whatever happened before AGW took over control of temperature is immaterial. Including fictitious hurricanes that may or may not have been present is not science. If you would just stop and look at facts you would see that increasing global temperatures are having a concomitant increase in the frequency of Atlantic basin hurricanes.

Why do deniers ignore real science and just regurgitate misinformation put out by the likes of deniers such as Muller?

And as for your last paragraph, have you nothing better to offer than nasty ad hominems? Just for your information, science does not conflict with “my beliefs” since they are based on science not like you deniers who neither understand nor appreciate science.

Ian scientists are careful to recognize that radar, satellites, more ships, etc that did not exist in the past certainly increase the detection of hurricanes in modern times. I don’t understand how you can’t understand this. It’s like saying atoms didn’t exist until we were able to detect them with modern equipment. Plus I already mentioned the hurricane reanalysis project which is finding more hurricanes in the past that were missed so they are not imagined. Please read about the project if you care to be educated. Here is a new study that further supports the findings that warming will not increase North Atlantic hurricanes.

“We find that over the first half of the twenty-first century radiative forcing changes act to increase NA TS frequency; this increase arises from radiative forcings other than increasing CO2 (probably aerosols). However, NA TS trends over the entire twenty-first century are of ambiguous sign.”

In the above study they are specific that CO2 is decoupled from any signal in North Atlantic storms, and therefore none of the attribution that you are claiming. It seems aerosols rather than CO2 may or may not lead to storm increases in the future as they find the sign to be ambiguous. To suggest that there is some sort of conspiracy NOAA scientists, IPCC scientists, the scientists in this new study, etc. to lie about past and future hurricane trends in the NA is what Mooney keeps suggesting is only possible with a “Republican brain”. I guess I’m as bad as Mooney in pointing out those that are unwilling to accept peer reviewed science. :-)

Cherry picking and not providing proper cites is typical AGW denier tactics.

Here is a quote from a report from the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory/NOAA:

D. Model simulations of greenhouse warming influence on Atlantic hurricanes

Direct model simulations of hurricane activity under climate change scenarios offer another perspective on the problem. We have developed a regional dynamical downscaling model for Atlantic hurricanes and tested it by comparing with observed hurricane activity since 1980. This model, when forced with observed sea surface temperatures and atmospheric conditions, can reproduce the observed rise in hurricane counts between 1980 and 2006, along with much of the interannual variability (Figure 5).

Figure 5 is shown here:

They show an observed increase in hurricanes between 1980 and 2006 of 0.15 per year, compared to the 0.14 per year I got from 1960 to the present. Only a fool can look at the data I provided and claim “no increase in hurricanes”.

Real Climate has a post and here is their conclusions as to the number of “fictitious” and unreported hurricanes:

In summary, according to current knowledge, the best estimate for the underreporting bias in the hurricane record seems to be about one tropical cyclone per year on average over the period 1920-1965 and between one and three tropical cyclones per year before 1920.

Your last paragraph is meaningless since I am only disputing the fact that you and AGW deniers are claiming that hurricanes are decreasing. I have never linked CO2 to hurricanes, I have only provided data to show that that statment is false and that the number of hurricanes in the Atlantic basin have increased since at least 1960.

from 1980 to 2006 in the image you link is not as robust of a hurricane trend indicator as the data I presented that went back to 1880. In climate science resolution in hurricanes increases over longer periods of times. You keep arguing that your 30 or 40 years of data are significant when to hurricane experts they are not. Short term trends that you propose lack resolution seen in longer trends. You are acting like you have a Republican brain and ignore the 130+ year higher resolution trend because it doesn’t fit your “religious views” on hurricanes in the Atlantic. We haven’t even delved into global cyclone data which further refutes your contention that hurricanes have been increasing with warming.

What Real Climate posts on a blog is meaningless. First of all it is from 2008 and I have already recommended that you learn about NOAA’s Hurricane reanalysis project which is finding many more missed hurricanes in the past and is ongoing. You continue with your confirmation biased approach and ignore newer data than presented at Real Climate.

…I figure that it’s a good time to flog some interesting material that shows how incredibly robust the global temperature record is.

This material, in one whack, debunks the widely-repeated “skeptic” claims about global-warming being an artifact of UHI or data “homogenization”.

As it turns out, the NASA/NOAA/CRU global temperature results can easily confirmed with raw data taken from fewer than 100 rural stations scattered around the world.

Details at this link:

There are three images at the link, along with a README file that explains what the images show and how the results were computed.  If you find the information worthwhile, please don’t hesitate to share the link with skeptical folks who you know.


Warmist reaction to Watts’ 5 year temperature study vs Muller’s recent vacuous one.

Life is so short, let’s all have a laugh for once, ok? :)

Love the Hitler video takes, Thanks Chas! Ever seen the “third reviewer” one?

Sometimes sarcasm is all we have left … on a more to-the-article point: I think Chris has a good point here. In communicating Muller’s “story”, scientists should maybe less belittle him than highlight what is actually going on, including the fact made by Ian that Muller is getting in line with other denialists in moving the goalpost to the next, currently prevelant position: “Sure there is warming, but it is all not so bad … climate sensitivity is low and we will all adapt … no worries”.

Not sure what goalpost comes after that, but I get the impression the denialists are digging themselves in on this one … for now.

as I recall, I covered that theme in my last post here with Emanuel.

I’d also agree with a “better late than never” attitude towards Emanuel’s kind, and that should be the essential lesson taken from this sad chapter in our collective history – that some cons woke up after the electricity was applied and the monster was animated, as opposed to when it was being stitched together in the public square under full view of those like us and those so blind they would not see.  As I see it, only after a collective lesson in humility brought about their abandonment of their “rightness”, and acknowledgement and acceptance of their wrongness on so many costly issues as Emanuel (and others cons) is seemingly on the road of individually here, can there be any hope of remedies and the compromise and cooperation so badly needed before those remedies can be realized.

the sad part in this case (based on the content of the other posts, since I haven’t read about him beyond his acknowledgements of the AGW cause and reality) appears to be that he’s only taken the first babystep in our direction, and remains in the Lindzen camp I addressed here

 ”We know that humans are rapidly increasing the level of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere, we know that this GHG increase is causing some amount of warming, and will continue to cause additional warming as long as GHG levels continue to rise.  The remaining relatively credible climate contrarians like Lindzen acknowledge these realities; where they differ from mainstream climate science is in exactly how much warming the GHG increase will cause.  This is known as the climate sensitivity - how much the planet will warm in response to increasing GHGs, including feedbacks.”

This “while it’s warming, it’s not gonna be that bad” BS is the last bullwark between them and brutal reality they have, and it is likely one the “smart idiots” are indeed aware of in much greater numbers proportionally than the common “man on the street” rightwing flat earther, most of which are still stuck in the “Gorebal Warming” mentality.   It provides them some cover – as fragile and really, illusionary as it is – to deny the fact that education and the intelligence it takes to get one, serve as no bar to being idiotic. They’ve lost the debate, and are basically left with nothing but bruised egos and the shame of having been a part of obstructing action on the only real existential threat mankind has ever brought upon itself, other than full-scale nuclear war, or maybe also, building nuke plants on fault lines…


I can’t give him much credit for no longer denying the undeniable as is the case with Emanuel, just his becoming pretty much a Lindzen clone, which is hardly worthy of praise.

The only benefit I see coming from his partial conversion to what is needed and desired, is that it migh help end the “Gorebal Warming” crap from the knuckledraggers, and focus the debate on the magnitude of potential harm, which will hopefully lead to a consensus view on that after they all become little Lindzens, and get their collective asses stomp on that as well.




While Richard Muller has been releasing his BEST papers, Anthony Watt’s is releasing his own paper, which claims poor weather station citing exaggerates surface temps. None of these papers has yet passed peer review and been published in a journal. Both teams are claiming complete transparency.

Since I am somewhat concerned about the fate of the climate, I’m rooting for Watt’s to be right. Will this issue be settled once and for all?


Watts is completely wrong.  NCDC already did such an analysis correctly and anyway the Greenland Ice Sheet doesn’t care.

Anthony Watts claims to have found flaws with BEST’s classification of stations and grouping of classifications.

It will be interesting to see if anyone can point out any flaws in Watt’s paper, rather than calling his blog an “unqualified and inexpert morass”.

they already did that (pointing out the flaws) for you  ;)

Apparently critics have found problems with Watts ignoring adjustments to data that were based on time of observation (TOB) issues. I don’t know how much this will affect his conclusions or if it will invalidate them, but he is reworking his paper.

What peer reviewed journal do I need to get that from?

Ohhh…. Just a blog post.  The usual high school science then?  Don’t make me laugh.  It hurts too much.

Did he get his ideas from here?

Please… let me know that day he does some honest work.  Until then, I wait with baited breath.

About 8 minutes into his interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Richard Muller offers a controversial climate action. Help China and India switch from coal to natural gas!

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