Canaries in the Coal Mine

January 12, 2017

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Governor Walker Tells Wisconsin Department to Stop Blaming People for a Changing Climate

The “canary in a coal mine” is a metaphor originating from the time when caged birds were carried into the mines as an early warning system; the canary would die before methane and carbon gases reached levels hazardous to humans.

There’s Something in the Air

Wisconsin—the home of House Speaker Ryan, Governor Scott Walker and Senator Ron Johnson—is having second thoughts about the cause of  climate change. Once convinced human activity had something to do with global warming, the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has now decided–maybe not!

The Department was confident up until December 20, 2016, that:

Earth’s climate is changing. Human activities that increase heat-trapping (greenhouse) gases are the main cause.

Then, on the 21st of December, the DNR changed its mind and its webpage to read:

As it has done throughout the centuries, the earth is going through a change. The reasons for this change at this particular time
in the earth’s l
ong history are being debated and researched by academic entities outside the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The effects of such a change are also being debated ….

The DNR has yet to identify with any specificity just what those reasons for its change of heart might be. I rather suspect it had more to do with politics than science; and, the outside academic entity it referred to was a certain Washington-based organization, under the leadership of Myron Ebell?

Ebell is “director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) and chairs the Cooler Heads Coalition (CHC), which comprises representatives from more than two dozen non-profit organizations based in the United States and abroad that challenge global warming alarmism and oppose energy rationing policies.” Many CHC members are supported by the Brothers Koch and other climate conservatives.

The Institute and Cooler Heads Coalition is allied with the obscure Washington policy group, the American Energy Alliance, founded by a former Enron executive and captained by Thomas Pyle.  Pyle also leads the Trump energy transition team and is a favored advisor of Speaker Ryan’s.

Ebell, the doyen of deniers, has been tasked to lead PEOTUS’s EPA transition team.  A pace of mendacious minds whose recommendations will undoubtedly  be favored by Scott Pruitt–should he be confirmed as the Agency’s new administrator.

According to Ebell’s CEI blog:

            …global warming could pose challenges over the long term. But there is much evidence that the mild global warming that has occurred since the end of the Little Ice Age in the mid-nineteenth century has been largely beneficial for humanity and the biosphere. Earth is greening, food production has soared, and human longevity has increased dramatically.

Let’s hope the “greening” of which he speaks isn’t that depicted below of a dead zone in Wisconsin’s Green Bay. A blight caused by algae blooms fueled by the runoff of contaminated waters and warmer summer temperatures.

(And, I thought the only dead zone in Green Bay was the portion of Lambeau Field defended by my beloved Chicago Bears.  Estúpido me!)

Image Removed

Why a Canary in the Coal Mine?

I’m calling Wisconsin’s action a canary in the coal mine not for the scientific fallacy I believe it is based on, but for the actions it could portend in other states and at the federal level—revanchist rewrites of science.  That is: replacing credible conclusions flowing from a preponderance of evidence with those based on a much smaller series of suspect studies, conducted by a fringe element of the scientific community.

I can accept that 99 people out of a 100 believing something is true–when it is false–doesn’t make it so. I can even accept that there are legitimate questions concerning the conclusions of a large majority of scientists still to be answered.

What I have trouble accepting—in fact and principle– is DNR’s retraction of a sound conclusion and legitimatization of the bantering between climate deniers and defenders, as an honest scientific debate. It’s not—at least as currently constituted by deniers.

The reason climate change is an issue at all is because of the epochal nature of the threat it poses to the health, safety and welfare not just to the nation but to the world. Governments are routinely expected to respond appropriately to such threats. Climate change is no different in kind than terrorism or great recessions.

Do we wait to know with certainty which terrorist group or cell is responsible for the threat?  Does Donald Trump wait for Ford or Carrier to move to Mexico before he Twits?  He does not.

Why then do the deniers want to wait until all evidence–of the cause of pending climate calamity–is in to act?  I can’t say for sure. I think, however, that it is not the shadiness of the science but the motives of the messengers.

As defined by the deniers, the debate is rigged to insure protection of the status quo, not to guide constructive action.  Society acts every day on the basis of incomplete knowledge and understanding. It must, to operate.

Guiding actions are acceptable decision frameworks.  Coming from a legal background, I see this in how justice is dispensed every time I go to court. The law doesn’t demand certainty, it sets reasonable standards. In capital criminal cases a jury is asked to determine guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  In civil and lesser criminal cases, the measure is a preponderance of the evidence.

Are these measures of culpability foolproof? Of course, not. They do, however, allow the system to work. I would credit the denier’s arguments if accompanied by some rational decision criteria.  Would they accept a conclusion based on a preponderance of evidence or even beyond a reasonable doubt, the debate would prove constructive.

As it is, it is not even a debate.  It’s an endless dialogue that supports stasis and quite possibly could threaten life on Earth as we know it.  At best, it denigrates on-going scientific discoveries and hamstrings preventive government actions.

Climate change cannot be responded to in the 11th hour. Simple prudence requires a response to the ravages that are increasingly being documented.    Even the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is hedging its bet. The rest of the paragraph quoted above clearly qualified the Department’s position:

but whatever the causes and effects, the DNR’s responsibility is to manage our state’s natural resources through whatever event presents itself; flood, drought, tornadoes, ice/snow or severe heat. The DNR stands ready to adapt our management strategies.

Having once caved to the “science” of politics, the DNR is unlikely to receive the resources needed to make good on its promise of readiness. I may be missing something, but all I see having changed between the time the DNR believed in and then questioned anthropogenic climate change was the emergence of The Donald and Republican Congressional majorities.

If anything, the preponderance of evidence in support of anthropogenic climate change is greater with each passing day. Recent release of new research results has indeed cast doubt on earlier conclusions—not about the fact of warming but the rate at which it is occurring.

Analysis in the journal Science Advances concluded that scientists under-estimated ocean temperatures over the past two decades. This latest report confirmed earlier findings by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published last year in Science magazine and counters  a theory that, until recently, was held by the IPCC.

Efforts to censor sound scientific statements from the pages of government documents—both educational and decisional—have been made before.  All that was accomplished was retardation of government’s response to a recognizable threat, jamming up of judicial dockets and the need to make up lost ground.

The danger lurking in the DNR’s revanchist rewriting is that other governments will point to it as evidence of growing scientific uncertainty.  It is not. It was required to reflect the opinion of politicians–not credible conclusions reached    by scientists.

Climate defenders are not opposed to honest and open debate. Reasonable decision criteria will lead to rational proactive responses by government. I urge all to follow the advice of the President-Elect of the United States:

Now, to solve a problem, you have to be able to state what the problem is or at least say the name. 

Photo credits: Canaries/Pixabay/Andrade Cleiton

Green Bay/Val Klump/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/ December 28, 2016/ Lee Bergquist

Joel Stronberg

Joel B. Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years of experience, based in Washington, DC. He writes about energy and politics in his blog Civil Notion ( and has recently published the book Earth v. TrumpThe Climate Defenders' Guide to Washington Politics based on his commentaries. He has worked extensively in the clean energy fields for public and private sector clients at all levels of government and in Latin America. His specialties include: resiliency; distributed generation and storage; utility regulation; financing mechanisms; sustainable agriculture; and human behavior. Stronberg is a frequent presenter at conferences and workshops.

Tags: American climate policy, climate change, climate change communications