Is Message More Important Than Facts? By David Montgomery

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Never have I thought I would write a column about something that was written about me.  The self-referential topic makes my head spin.  Nevertheless, a recent article that claimed I had single-handedly (well, with one colleague) held back progress on climate policy for 25 years makes me think there is something worth sharing.

Since I have a perverse sense of humor, my first reaction was to send a copy of the article to many friends, asking them to help me celebrate one of the finest compliments ever paid to me.  But the column provoked too many disturbing thoughts to leave the matter there.

The article was titled “Unmasking the Climate Deniers.”  Its stated purpose was to “investigate more deeply the forces driving delay” in climate policy.  In itself, that is an interesting and admirable topic.  Political scientists could analyze the dynamics of American politics, the polarization of the electorate, the dominance of constituency service in the US Congress, and the ability of a minority to block legislation.  Experts in international affairs could examine the incentives to join a treaty to manage a global public good and the difficulty of enforcing such a treaty.  Policy analysts could evaluate the actual legislative proposals and regulatory actions to ascertain whether they would achieve their purposes in a cost-effective way.  Public opinion specialists could measure the depth of public support for action.

Instead, the writer knew that the answer was much simpler: “Throughout the 1990s, the American Petroleum Institute…repeatedly relied on economic models created by two economists, Paul Bernstein and W. David Montgomery, to argue that pro-climate policies would be devastatingly expensive.”  The author then cites studies he claims we did in 1991, 1993, 1996, 1997 and 1998, and drives the nail in our coffin by reporting that “the first two authors of the report Trump cited [in withdrawing from the Paris Agreement] are Bernstein and Montgomery.”  He concludes from all this that “The same arguments – and people – used by the fossil fuel industry to block climate policies decades ago are back.  For the sake of humanity, we must not let them succeed again.”

The idea that studies that Dr. Bernstein and I were responsible for the slow progress of climate policy is so absurd that all it deserves in itself is a good laugh.  But if we realize it is a symptom of much deeper problems, it deserves more attention.   Unimportant as this article was, it was a perfect example of four disturbing trends in public discourse: carelessness about facts, unwillingness to listen to the reasoning of those we disagree with, uncritical acceptance and repetition of statements by politically congenial sources, and finally, the wholesale politicization of academic disciplines.

The article reveals quickly how careless advocates are about facts.  We could start with the title of the article, because neither Dr. Bernstein nor I have ever denied that there is a scientific basis for concern about climate.  Continuing down his list of grievances, the author obviously did not read more than the title of my (Dr. Bernstein and I had not yet met) 1991 study, because that is all the hyperlink in his article provides.  Had he even read the executive summary, he would have seen my conclusion that a carbon tax or gasoline tax would be much more cost-effective than fuel economy standards in achieving greenhouse gas reductions.  Hardly a torpedo against carbon dioxide controls, unless any criticism of any climate policy, no matter how bad, makes you a denier.

Sometimes distortion of facts is an intentional effort to deceive, but in this case it may just be intellectual laziness and bias so deep that it eliminates all thought of checking facts.  This tendency shades over into the more deadly disease of unwillingness to confront the actual substance of arguments that reach distasteful conclusions – or even read what those arguments say.  The author calls Dr. Bernstein and me “co-opted scholars” because, among other things, we pointed out flaws in the Kyoto Protocol.   

His citation to our 1996 work on the Kyoto Protocol is a hyperlink to a Greenpeace broadsheet against Exxon, which is also the apparent source of his only criticism of the substance of our work: “they ignored the negative costs of climate change, and suggested that clean energy would never be price competitive with fossil fuels.”

The problem with this criticism is that in the case of Kyoto, there were no benefits to ignore, and we were and are right about renewables.  Our critic either failed to investigate those possibilities or suppressed what he knows.  

The Kyoto Protocol never gained much respect among experts on climate policy.  Researchers at MIT’s Joint Center for the Science and Policy of Climate Change wrote: “Kyoto Protocol … costs are borne by the United States—the U.S. pays almost two-thirds of the global cost …”  

The consensus of climate scientists on the benefits of Kyoto was stated by one of their number: “. . . the long-term consequences are small. . . . The influence of the Protocol would, furthermore, be undetectable for many decades.”

Substantial costs to the United States, as we said, and virtually no effect on global warming.

The problem with attacking us for suggesting that clean energy would never compete with fossil fuels is that we are correct.  According to the Energy Information Administration, even by 2022 the cost of wind and solar will still exceed the cost of natural gas fired generation (and they do not count the amount of additional backup capacity that must be built because wind and solar are not always available when needed).

It is very disturbing that our critic does not seem to care whether what we wrote was right or wrong.  All he needs to know is who funded some of the work and what its conclusions were.  A diatribe by Greenpeace was all he needed to read.  

A short paper I wrote in 1998 is my critic’s last piece of evidence that I am a mouthpiece for the oil industry.  It was based on testimony I gave at a Congressional hearing alongside the chairman of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors, Janet Yellen.  My conclusion was that “Given her assumptions, Dr. Yellen’s analysis is internally consistent and compatible with mainstream economic analysis. However, … Dr. Yellen has assumed worldwide permit trading and very extensive purchases of these permits by the U.S., whereas the Kyoto Protocol includes only limited trading possibilities and may preclude such extensive U.S. purchases.  If these assumptions fail to materialize, the administration’s estimates of permit prices and GDP costs will need to be adjusted upwards by a factor of ten or more.”

I am rather proud of that testimony, and was complimented on it by Dr. Yellen’s staff at the hearing.  Citing it as evidence of my bad faith simply shows that my critic never bothered to read it.

In a previous column, I discussed the false statements made about how my colleagues and I performed the study cited by President Trump, including claims that we failed to account for jobs created by renewable energy and that renewables make electricity cheaper.

Our critic brought to my attention that this is exactly what Greenpeace stated in a broadsheet dated May 2002.  That is not only the only source of our critic’s knowledge of what we did, it makes the same statements as the attacks on our most recent work.

These statements were untrue in 2002 and untrue now.  It appears that the environmental know-nothings have been quoting each other and not bothering to read the works they condemn for at least the past 15 years.  

That is not unusual.  True believers do tend to associate with and believe only one another, but scientists and scholars are expected to consider and evaluate all points of view.  

What makes me most unhappy is the author’s biography: “… a former research fellow at … the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, [he] is a doctoral student in the history of science at Stanford University, where his research focuses on climate politics and the manipulation of science “ A topic that does not even pretend to weigh the evidence for whether its hypothesis is true or false.  

My own PhD is from Harvard; I have taught at Stanford and participated from 1980s to the present in Stanford’s Energy Modeling Forum, where the models the author of this diatribe dismisses as “co-opted” were presented, peer-reviewed and published.  To me the most disturbing aspect of all this is that those two institutions are turning out graduates with so little capacity for logical thought and such careless research practices.  To put it more simply, how can you claim to be doing a PhD when you never learned to do your homework?  

I truly hope that some historians getting PhD’s at Stanford learn how to do more than write propaganda, but perhaps that is how far the liberal arts have fallen.  Being rewarded for careless and politicized scholarship, this young man may well join the ranks of professors who have abandoned all pretense of rigor or objectivity and perpetuate the views they taught him on another generation.

David Montgomery was formerly Senior Vice President of NERA Economic Consulting. He also served as assistant director of the US Congressional Budget Office and deputy assistant secretary for policy in the US Department of Energy. He taught economics at the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University and was a senior fellow at Resources for the Future.

Letters to Editor

  1. Hugh (Jock) Beebe says:

    I have previously written letters to the SPY editor expressing criticism of David Montgomery’s editorials, largely complaining about his apparent bias fueled (sic) by his past association with big petroleum and closed minded organizations such the Hudson Institute where he has served as an advocate for their interests. But as I read his current piece I thought it was a very readable and carefully reasoned response to a flawed complaint about his work, and thus felt a need to acknowledge it.

    The issue of accelerating climate warming, a naturally occurring phenomenon augmented by human oxidation of petroleum products, has been accepted by most developed countries as a growing threat. But the United States seems to be moving in the opposite direction and does not participate in acknowledging the danger or translating that into policy aimed at effective mitigation of the human elements. Why do we not? I agree with Al Gore’s answer to that question, who says it’s because there are so many distractions stirred by current political turmoil that we can’t focus on it.

    But there’s another important reason , our logarithmic increasing national failure to listen to each other, actively and respectfully. Mr. Montgomery’s current piece promotes that as a goal and helps to make the case for a better dialogue. I congratulate him.

    • David Montgomery says:

      Thank you. I shall try to continue. And thank you even more for reading and discussing writings that you expect to disagree with.

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