How a climate science denier saw the light

One of the recurring issues that come up in discussions about politics and religion and other areas in life where people hold strongly entrenched views that we think are harmful and wrong is how to persuade them to change. So it is always interesting to hear the story of someone who switched their views and describe what led them to do so.

Sharon Lerner talked to Jerry Taylor who used to be a vocal climate change denier and worked as “staff director for the energy and environment task force at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and vice president of the Cato Institute” (organizations that vigorously fight any suggestion of climate change) but realized that he was wrong and now heads the Niskanen Center that tries to turn other climate skeptics into climate activists. She asked him what was the turning point.

Sharon Lerner: What did you think when you first encountered the concept of climate change back in the 1990s?

Jerry Taylor: From 1991 through 2000, I was a pretty good warrior on that front. I was absolutely convinced of the case for skepticism with regard to climate science and of the excessive costs of doing much about it even if it were a problem. I used to write skeptic talking points for a living.

SL: What was your turning point?

JT: It started in the early 2000s. I was one of the climate skeptics who do battle on TV and I was doing a show with Joe Romm. On air, I said that, back in 1988, when climate scientist James Hansen testified in front of the Senate, he predicted we’d see a tremendous amount of warming. I argued it’d been more than a decade and we could now see by looking at the temperature record that he wasn’t accurate. After we got done with the program and were back in green room, getting the makeup taken off, Joe said to me, “Did you even read that testimony you’ve just talked about?” And when I told him it had been a while, he said “I’m daring you to go back and double check this.” He told me that some of Hansen’s projections were spot on. So I went back to my office and I re-read Hanson’s testimony. And Joe was correct. So I then I talked to the climate skeptics who had made this argument to me, and it turns out they had done so with full knowledge they were being misleading.

SL: So that was it? You changed your mind?

JT: It was more gradual. After that, I began to do more of that due diligence, and the more I did, the more I found that variations on this story kept arising again and again. Either the explanations for findings were dodgy, sketchy or misleading or the underlying science didn’t hold up. Eventually, I tried to get out of the science narratives that I had been trafficking in and just fell back on the economics. Because you can very well accept that climate change exists and still find arguments against climate action because the costs of doing something are so great.

SL: And the economic case eventually crumbled, too?

JT: The first blow in that argument was offered by my friend Jonathan Adler, who was at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Jon wrote a very interesting paper in which he argued that even if the skeptic narratives are correct, the old narratives I was telling wasn’t an argument against climate action. Just because the costs and the benefits are more or less going to be a wash, he said, that doesn’t mean that the losers in climate change are just going to have to suck it up so Exxon and Koch Industries can make a good chunk of money.

The final blow against my position, which caused me to crumble, was from a fellow named Bob Litterman, who had been the head of risk management at Goldman Sachs. Bob said, “The climate risks aren’t any different from financial risks I had to deal with at Goldman. We don’t know what’s going to happen in any given year in the market. There’s a distribution of possible outcomes. You have to consider the entire distribution of possible outcomes when you make decisions like this.” After he left my office, I said “there’s nothing but rubble here.”

As the old saying goes, change has to come from within. You have to, like Romm did, get people to examine their own beliefs by posing questions that they have to answer for themselves. Bludgeoning them with facts and counter-arguments doesn’t seem to be as effective.


  1. says

    So I then I talked to the climate skeptics who had made this argument to me, and it turns out they had done so with full knowledge they were being misleading.

    That’s an important point. I helped several christians begin recovering from faith thanks to Lee Strobel and Michael Behe. Strobel, particularly (since in 2 cases, the christians in question felt Strobel made a compelling argument) When I showed them that, not only was Strobel wrong, but his arguments had been shown to be wrong long before he made them (he does a lot of puffery about Behe’s silly “irreduceable complexity”) the only way Strobel could be carrying forward those arguments was to be deliberately trying to mislead his readers.

    That’s a good wedge to drive in, “Skepticism is great and I’m a big fan of skepticism. But would you feel differently and re-assess your skepticism if I could show you that the arguments you’re basing your skepticism on were created to manipulate you, and that their authors were lying to you?”

  2. Art says

    It takes a strong and courageous person to admit to having changed their view.

    It is entirely normal to not want to metaphorically change your underwear in public and openly admit to being influenced. It involves having to admit to being wrong. Change is hard. That said authoritarians, most of the political right now, have a fetish about consistency and being right, even when there simply isn’t enough information or time to have to made a judgment.

    Tragedy, and sometimes hilarity, ensues.

  3. Philip Mitchell Graham says

    This is an oddly detached anecdote. It describes in detail the ideas that triggered his changed point of view, but it does not describe how he reconciled the conflicting ideas that upheld his previous beliefs with the decision to change his position. There is a point where you choose to reject further arguments either way.

    Beliefs exist independent of reason and knowledge. Beliefs can remain robust in the face of incontrovertible evidence. Changing our beliefs is an arbitrary political decision, not a logical one.

    To be able or willing to change your beliefs is a huge deal, requiring a lot of energy. Its hard work and often unpleasant.

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