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Dessler’s “Introduction to Modern Climate Change:” Suggestions for More Interdisciplinary Scholarship, Less Advocacy

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- August 21, 2019

“This is not an advocacy book…. (p. xi)

“[T]he single most important thing you can do is become politically active … and vote for politicians who support action on climate.” (p. 245)

In the Acknowledgements of Enron Ascending: The Forgotten Years (2018), I co-dedicated the book to a scholar and friend who crossed disciplines to advance our understanding of the real world. His intellectual trespassing benefited from diligence and fairness. I wrote: “Donald Lavoie taught me the value of scholarship in which opposing views are deeply understood, charitably interpreted, and thoroughly evaluated.”

This brings me to Andrew Dessler’s Introduction to Modern Climate Change (2nd edition: 2016, 3rd ed. in process). While this book is well organized, clearly written, and full of settled physical science, it fails the Lavoie Standard in the areas of unsettled climatology, history, and political economy. In short, it is more a polished brief for one side of the debate than a reliable exposition of a two-sided one.

[Note: This is part of a series. Yesterday’s post critically assessed Dessler’s view of free-market Adaptation (versus government Mitigation). Tomorrow’s post (on physical science) continues my multi-part book review.]

An Honest Broker?

Professor Dessler tasks himself with providing essential knowledge for students, citizen voters, and policymakers. He concludes that business-as-usual carbon-dioxide emissions are unsustainable, necessitating large-scale government intervention. Consumer-chosen, taxpayer-neutral fossil fuels create the mother of all market failures, requiring a fundamental (forced) restructuring of lifestyles and economies.

Dessler states in the Preface (xi):

This is not an advocacy book…. I strongly believe that an unbiased assessment of the facts will bring the majority of people to see things the way I do: that climate change poses a serious risk and that we should therefore be heading off that risk by reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases.

But he is an activist by numerous instances of bias, even with the book cover (a dead desert) and word choice. [1] And sure enough, in the concluding chapter (What can you do?, p. 244), he goes activist/political. “There certainly are personal choices you can make that will reduce your share of emissions of greenhouse gases,” Dessler notes, two examples being walking instead of driving and eating less meat.

But these individual actions are not going to lead to the emissions reductions necessary to stabilize the climate. Those will require collective, coordinated action at both the national and international levels. That is why the single most important thing you can do is become politically active … and vote for politicians who support action on climate. (p. 245)

Worse, the real Dessler is revealed in his regular Twitter communications that are full of emotion and rank disrespect toward his critics that raise a flurry of red flags about impartiality.

No doubt he is unhappy about the public not being very alarmed, the US-led boom of the fossil-fuel industry once thought to be declining, and failing climate politics at home and abroad. It cannot be fun being a climate alarmist, reason enough to check your premises and smell the free-market coffee.

Imbred Bias?

Professor Dessler is the alarmist’s alarmist when it comes to the human influence on global climate from the enhanced greenhouse effect (primarily CO2 emissions). His specialty is the toughest and most uncertain area of climate science, climate dynamics, particularly feedback effects driving climate sensitivity. Dessler sees strongly positive feedback effects and discounts, even dismisses, countervailing forces that might make the net feedback effect small to get into the 1.3 – 2°C “lukewarming”) range for climate sensitivity.

When reading the text (2nd edition: completed late 2014, published 2016), I noticed that Dessler ignored, significantly downplayed, or misstated many worthy arguments questioning climate alarm. His bias problem is particularly great on the historical and political-economy sides, but it is present in the (unsettled) physical science side as well.

The sum result is not seriously presenting to the reader

  • The weaknesses of climate models and unproven proofs for high- sensitivity forcing estimates (potentially overstating the problem)
  • The policy alternative of wealth-is-health adaptation (yesterday’s post) as opposed to government-forced mitigation (potentially misidentifying the solution).

Dessler avoids the serious problems of climate models and prediction (there is not even an index citation to ‘climate models’). Climate “surprises” can only be bad, not good. The log-over-linear “saturation effect” to moderate incremental GHG forcing, important science for the policy debate, goes unmentioned. His discussion of the distribution of warming (night versus day, season versus season) appears to be out of date at the time it was written.

Dessler lauds human ingenuity (p. xi) but does not seriously apply it to free-market adaptation. He ignores the fundamental concept of energy density to place false hope on forced energy transformation. His historiography of the climate debate is seriously incomplete and thus ad hominem. This and other arguments will be explored in Part II of this book review tomorrow.

Is the author so convinced that he has not taken the time to really understand his opponents? Has he carefully and sympathetically studied articles and books that he disagrees with across the disciplines? Does he readily acknowledge historical data that does not support what he believes must happen (believed-to-be forthcoming)? Does he seriously try to understand where his intellectual opponents are coming from (assume good rather than nefarious intentions)? These aspects of the Lavoie Standard are the high bar of scholarship that Introduction to Modern Climate Science should aspire.

Philosophical Bias: Deep Ecology/Stasism

Dessler states, “when it comes to climate, change is bad (p. 146). Manmade CO2 emissions are “perturbing” (p. 87) the climate. He adds, “any changes in the climate, either warming or cooling, will result in overall negative outcomes for human society” (p. 146).

His argument is that we have adjusted to the present climate, so any incremental change is costly and disruptive.

This macro notion of some averaged whole is dangerous given that climate and weather are local, changing, even unpredictable. Present planning must include worst-case events of a distinct, forgotten past. (The present author, for example, is building a house between two forks of a river where the worst flood was in the 1930s–and accounting for it.)

The quasi-religious notion that the planet “has been delivered in perfect working condition and cannot be exchanged for a new one,” [2] as stated by Amory Lovins et al., reflects what climate economist Robert Mendelsohn calls “an unstated myth in ecology that natural conditions must be optimal. That is, we must be at the top of the hill now.” [3] Atmospheric concentration levels of CO2 have plenty of room to grow for plant and agricultural uptake, if thousands of peer-reviewed articles chronicled by the CO2 Coalition are to be believed.

Dessler’s dismissal of Adaptation (discussed in Part II) as the least-cost climate policy rests on the deep ecology notion that the natural climate is optimal and fragile, and any human influence is bad and potentially perilous. Business people and economists, on the other hand, are used to and thrive on change, the real world opposite of the academic emphasis on equilibrium and models.

[1] “When humans were dumping large amounts of carbon dioxide” (p. 82: emphasis added) could be neutralized by using the word releasing instead. A favorable term would be liberating as in taking CO2 from a dead state to the active carbon cycle, some of which will fertilize plants. “Perturbing the carbon cycle” (p. 87) also insinuates an optimal situation is being violated by man (a tenet of deep ecology, discussed above).

[2] Hawken, Paul, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism. New York: Little Brown, 1999, p. 313.

[3] Mendelsoln, Robert. The Greening of Global Warming. American Enterprise Institute, 1999, p. 12.


  1. John Garrett  

    Nobody really knows if the climate models have any predictive ability.

    Q: Why is that?
    A: D’oh— because this is anything but “settled science.”


  2. Robert Hart  

    Enlightening take on the fear mongers.
    I am just a layman but when I discuss C02, the pie chart is the best way to really show how small a percentage C02 is of the earth’s atmosphere. The environmental zealots tell us to ignore the Sun, Nitrogen, Oxygen, and the other trace elements that are a greater percentage of the atmosphere.
    The earth’s core could be a huge contributor to the earth warming, correct?
    With all the hot magma releasing each second from the earth into the oceans etc…can’t that be a contributor?
    The Zealots scream C02 yet we know nothing about the earth’s core. It being >3850 miles from the surface….and to date the furthest we’ve drilled into the earth is…..12 miles, I’d say we don’t know much but to insist we let the U.N. collect a world carbon tax for starters tells me that it is all just liberals being liberals…..never inventing anything but a new regulation or tax.


    • rbradley  

      Robert: I have been persuaded that the four hundredths of one percent is still very causal (400 ppm today) in this case. That small amount has a warming effect for 2x around 1.2C, other things the same. It is feedback effect based on this ‘settled science’ that is very unsettled.


  3. Matthew  


    You wrote:

    Dessler fails to convey:

    1.The weaknesses of climate models and unproven proofs for high- sensitivity forcing estimates (potentially overstating the problem)

    2. The policy alternative of wealth-is-health adaptation (yesterday’s post) as opposed to government-forced mitigation (potentially misidentifying the solution).

    Do you have a link to a good source on the first point? I’m not aware of a credible, reasonable source for info on the “unsettled” parts of climate science besides the typical climate scientists I follow (recently following Judith Curry).

    And for the second point. Would you find it satisfactory if the question of “what can you do?” was largely left for students to decide, and presenting an array of solutions, not just the government mandates. I’m just seeking a little clarification on what teachers and professors should do to pass your Lavoie standard.


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