May 14, 2015, by Brigitte Nerlich


temperature-157127_1280On 3 May (2015) Tamsin Edwards wrote an article for The Observer entitled “The lukewarmers don’t deny climate change. But they say the outlook’s fine” (see here for a discussion; I should point out that Tamsin didn’t choose the title for this article). This prompted Steven Mosher to write the following comment: “Lukewarmers have come a long way from the day in 2008 when we first recognized that there actually was a position that was INSIDE the mainstream of science but at odds with the public face of that science. Like I tell my skeptic friends there is a debate, its inside the science community and they are welcomed to join if they want to. Hmm one day I suppose I’ll have to write a history of the term and ‘team” lukewarmer.”

As I am interested in the emergence and spread of various labels used in the climate change debate, such as for example ‘greenhouse sceptic’, I wanted to know more about the label ‘lukewarmer’ and while I can’t write its history in this post, I can show how it was used in the news. I put ‘lukewarmer’ and ‘climate’ as search terms into my preferred news data base, Lexis Nexis, on 3 May 2015 in All English Language News and got (only) 43 results. There were 8 duplicates. So, in the end I read 35 articles, published between 30 January 2010 and 22 April 2015. Compared to the use of other labels, such as denier and alarmist for example, these are small numbers. What follows are extracts from this small body of articles and I’ll leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions.

Setting the scene

Alongside the label lukewarmer, I found some variants being used, such as global lukewarmer, climate lukewarmer, lukewarmist; there was even a verb: lukewarming; and lukewarm and lukewarmer were also used as adjectives.

I was curious to know who was involved in popularizing these labels, albeit on a rather small scale. It turned out that many of the more substantive newspaper articles were written by Matt Ridley (7) and David Rose (4). A frequent source for quotes was Judith Curry (quoted in 6 articles). Other names mentioned in the context of lukewarmism, to coin another term, were Richard Lindzen, Bob Carter, Steve McIntyre, Ross McKitrick, Patrick Michaels, Bjorn Lomborg, James Lovelock, Nic Lewis, and Richard Tol.

Only one or two articles put the label under a critical lens, one published in New Scientist in 2010 about Ridley and one written by Leo Hickman for The Guardian (28 August, 2013). Hickman writes: “John Abraham made an astute point the other day when he said that it rarely gets noticed that climate sceptics have actually conceded a lot of ground over recent years when it comes to the science. Many have begun to adopt a so-called ‘lukewarmer’ position, which means they now accept the basics of some since but don’t think it’s worth investing heavily today to prevent or limit a problem that will increasingly hit home in the decades ahead.” And of course he calls this an “irresponsible strategy”.

The political contexts in which the label was used changed over time. While in 2010 it was used in the context of various -gates (climategate, Amazongate, glaciergate), in 2013 and 2014, the IPCC reports, the so-called ‘pause’ or ‘hiatus’ in global warming, and climate sensitivity were the backdrop to discussions. Towards the very end Ridley and Rose wrote articles about the way the label was used to denigrate their work and their lives.

The label emerges

The label was first used in English speaking news, as far as I can make out, in an article by James Delingpole for entitled “Steven Mosher: The real hero of Climategate?” Delingpole calls him “the spokesperson of the lukewarmer set”.

The second article is based on an interview with Ridley in New Scientist (12 June 2010). He is introduced as the author of The Rational Optimist who dismisses two pessimisms, global climate change and the global financial collapse. The interviewer makes three critical remarks: “As I ask him about global warming, I suddenly remember who Ridley reminds me of. It is Doctor Pangloss, in Voltaire’s Candide, who believed ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’”; “In person, Ridley denies that he is a climate sceptic, preferring the term ‘lukewarmer’”. However, to the interviewer “he starts to appear as someone who is blind to facts that do not fit his ideological framework”.

The third article is by Ridley himself for The Times (31 August, 2010). He calls for the IPCC or “this discredited science body” to be “purged”. He thinks that the IPCC’s summary for policy makers has been ‘sexed up’ and that it might be prudent to read papers by Ross McKitrick and Patrick Michaels instead. He points out that he has become “a ‘lukewarmer’ who has yet to see any evidence saying that the current warming is, or is likely to be, unprecedented, fast or tending to accelerate” and that global warming “will most probably be a fairly minor problem” – ‘(mostly) harmless’ as the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy might say about our planet ‘Earth’.

A Hearing

At the end of 2010 the Federal News Service (17 November, 2010) publishes a transcript of a hearing before the US Energy and Environment Subcommittee that had as its subject “A rational discussion of climate change”. Curry participated in this hearing alongside various other experts. Before Curry is asked to contribute, a Mr Geer quotes some economists as saying: “Action on climate is justified, not because the science is certain but precisely because it is not.” Curry starts her testimony by saying: “Anthropogenic climate change is a theory whose basic mechanism is well understood but whose magnitude is highly uncertain”. She points out that she has been “publicly raising concerns since 2003 about how uncertainty surrounding climate change is evaluated and communicated.” She stresses the need for climate scientists to engage with social scientists and the blogosphere which is “bringing much-needed scrutiny” to the issue.

At the end of the debate, the chair, Rep. Baird, comes back to the blogosphere issue and says that he is worried about what he has seen there. “It was snarky, it was non-substantive, it was ad hominem, it was juvenile, and it was unconstructive.” In her reply Curry points to ‘technical’ blogs where, she claims, this happens less and says that “the blogosphere has sort of developed that sort of ‘lukewarmer’ technical blogging community where people are actually looking at the data, debating scientific papers, people from both sides in a fairly civilized way.” Rep. Baird responds by saying: “[…] look, this idea of science by ad hominem attack, by politiciziation, by false accusation, by conspiratorial theory, by labelling things hoaxes, that ain’t science.” Curry replies that many people distrust climate scientists and see them as “arrogant” and that climategate provided a “concrete reason” for them to believe this. Rep. Baird asks: “Would you say that that, though, obliterates all the legitimate data that we’ve heard today?”

In his summing up he comes back to the meeting’s purpose and points out: “We have an obligation to approach decision making in a constitutional democratic republic with rational, empirical judgment and information, imperfect and uncertain but the best we can do. […] I don’t think anybody is going to say, well, dang, I was a complete skeptic before, now it has turned. Maybe some will go the other way. But the process that we try to follow and the process of science is what is going to get us there. And I would hope that that process, that legacy on this committee, if no other, is one based on empirical decision making, mutual respect, critical analysis, objective analysis.”

Lukewarmers, the IPCC and the ‘pause’

In September 2013, when the first part of the latest IPCC report came out, Rose published an article in the Mail Online (28 September, 2013) on the so-called ‘pause’ in global warming and quotes Curry as saying that by denying the importance of the pause the IPCC “’has thrown down the gauntlet.’ Should the pause continue, she said, ‘they are toast’.” He also refers to “other ‘lukewarmer’ experts – scientist who do not ‘deny’ the world has warmed, partly in response to humans, but do not expect imminent catastrophe”, amongst them Lindzen and Lomborg. The same day, Ridley publishes an article in The Times entitled “Global lukewarming need not be catastrophic”. He talks about “a lukewarm ‘third way – that climate change is real but slow, partly man-made but also susceptible to natural factors, and might be dangerous but more likely will not be” and “man-made climate change is real, just not very frightening” – again, it seems, climate change is framed as ‘mostly harmless’. The focus is on climate sensitivity and Ridley claims that even IPCC authors are now “tiptoeing towards the moderate middle” and are conceding what lukewarmers have always said; he even talks about the IPCC’s “conversion to lukewarming”. He refers to Curry “who used to be alarmed and no longer is” and he calls for a “grown-up conversation without name-calling”.

In an article about the IPCC press conference (29 September, Mail on Sunday) Rose repeats Curry’s quote from 28 September that the IPCC ‘is toast’. The title of another article puts it more strongly: “Washington: ‘Lukewarmist’ scientists Curry calls for end of IPCC” (US Official News, 5 October 2013). The article underneath this title is a news release from the Heartland Institute in which Curry (“who has gained a reputation as a ‘lukewarmer’ for agreeing with many climate assertions by global warming activists but calling for more scientific scrutiny of alarmist claims”) is quoted as saying that the IPCC “suffers from paradigm paralysis”, i.e. “motivated reasoning, oversimplification, and consensus seeking” and that it “failed to predict the decline” in temperatures. She is reported as saying that it is therefore time “to put down the IPCC”, as it is spreading an infection, a disease, against which not everybody is immune, especially governments.

In March 2014 Ridley publishes an article in The Australian (31 March, 2014) which goes back to issues around the pause, climate sensitivity etc and, like Rose, cites Nic Lewis “who has no academic affiliation but a growing reputation since he discovered a statistical distortion that had exaggerated climate sensitivity in the previous IPCC report”’. Ridley pits ‘warmists’, who are alarmists and scaremongers, against ‘lukewarmers’ “who think man-made climate change is real but fairly harmless” – mostly harmless. Ridley also publishes a review of a book by James Lovelock in The Times (5 April, 2014) in which he welcomes him to “the Lukewarmer Society”.

On 10 April 2014 we find a rare article outside the Times/Ridley and Mail/Rose set, written for the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail by Margaret Wente entitled “Don’t bash the global lukewarmers”. Wente writes: “Almost all reporting about climate change is binary: There are warmers and deniers, and few in between. But the real fight isn’t like that at all, observes climate critic Matt Ridley. It’s between warmers and lukewarmers – people who believe climate change is an urgent, existential threat and those who think it’s not that big a deal. Unfortunately, the warmers have done their best to lump the lukewarmers in with the deniers.” She accuses ‘warmers’ of ‘crying wolf’. Following this Canadian article, we find another one by Ridley himself for the National Post in Canada (9 September, 2014), written on the occasion of a climate summit. Ridley mentions the ‘pause’ and points out that it had been predicted by Bob Carter and David Whitehouse. He admits that he himself had been surprised by the ‘pause’, because, as a “’lukewarmer,’ I’ve long thought that man-made carbon-dioxide emissions will raise global temperatures”. A few days later an article for The Daily Oklahoman (15 September, 2014) refers to Ridley as a ‘lukewarmer’, “a person who’s somewhere in between when it comes to positions on global warming”.

Lukewarmers under attack

In January 2015 both Ridley and Rose publish articles defending themselves and their lukewarm positions against increasing criticisms, hostility and attacks. In an article for The Times (19 January, 2015), Ridley makes extensive use of religious metaphors tapping into the popular framing of climate science as dogma, orthodoxy or gospel and talking about his “apostasy from climate alarm”. He mentions ‘coming out’ as a lukewarmer and how this led to him being ostracised by leading scientists and activists. Rose writes about an increasing ‘climate of hate’ in a Mail Online article (31 January, 2015). He thinks, like Ridley, that renewables are “ruinously expensive and totally futile”. “Some would say this makes me a ‘lukewarmer’ – the jargon for someone who is neither a ‘warmist’ or a ‘denier’”, he writes. “But true believers don’t recognize such distinctions; to them, anyone who disagrees with their version of the truth is a denier, pure and simple.” He refers to Ridley, “The Times columnist, Tory peer and fellow ‘lukewarmer’”.

Mostly harmless?

A few articles talk about the issue of labels themselves (New York Times, 17 February, 2015; The Guardian, 6 March 2015). One article attributes this “memorable coinage” of ‘lukewarmer’ to Ridley (The Australian, 27 February, 2015). And finally, one article by the Media Research Centre USA (3 February 2015) mentions that Pat Michaels is working on a book entitled The Lukewarmers’ Manifesto

It will be interesting to see what this book says and whether the position adopted by lukewarmers, who claim that climate change is ‘mostly harmless’, is ‘mostly harmless’.


Two posts by other people might also be of interest

One on Climate Resistance

One on And then there’s physics with an interesting follow-up with interesting comments

And here is another which is worth looking at by Don Aitkin

And yet another reaction here by Tom Fuller

So, if anybody wants to write about the history, use and identity politics surrounding this label/title, go ahead! There is a bit of material here.

Image: Labelled for reuse



Posted in Climate ChangeClimate Politics