Patrick Brown’s interest in climate and weather goes back to his childhood, when, as an eight-year-old, he set up a home weather station. In this episode, Brown, the co-director of the climate and energy program at the Breakthrough Institute, talks about why he left academia, how the “climate doom narrative” dominates climate science, how “cliques and clubs” within the science community affect what gets published in prestigious journals, and how much of the reporting on climate change “leaves out the full truth.” (Recorded September 18, 2023)
Robert Bryce 0:04
Hi, everyone. Welcome to the power hungry Podcast. I'm Robert Bryce. On this podcast we talk about energy, power, innovation and politics. And I'm pleased to welcome a new friend of mine, Patrick T. Brown. He is the co director of the Climate and Energy Program at the breakthrough Institute. Patrick, welcome to the power hungry podcast.
Patrick T. Brown 0:21
Thank you for having me.
Robert Bryce 0:23
I had your colleague Seaver Wang on the podcast. He is the other co director of the Climate and Energy Program at the breakthrough Institute. I didn't warn you I might have worn Seaver. But here's this is the ambush. Just as getting started here, Patrick, guests on this podcast, introduce themselves. So imagine you've arrived somewhere. You don't know anyone. And you have about 60 seconds to tell us who you are. Please introduce yourself.
Patrick T. Brown 0:48
Sure. So I'm Patrick Brown. I'm co director of the climate energy team at the breakthrough Institute. I'm a meteorologist and climate scientists. So I'm from Minnesota and went to the University of Wisconsin in their Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic sciences, so kind of a meteorology. undergrad major than I got a math master's degree in meteorology and climate science from San Jose State University. So moved out to California. Then I went to North Carolina, where I got a PhD at Duke in Earth and ocean sciences, then back out to California, did a postdoc at the Carnegie Institution at Stanford. And I've been than I was briefly a professor at San Jose State. And so I've been teaching and doing research on climate for over a decade now as a professor, and then now at the breakthrough Institute.
Robert Bryce 1:46
Well, so I want to get into your recent paper that you published in Nature about about climate and wildfires and also the September 5 up piece you published on the free press. But one of the things I one of the questions I wrote down since you've given us your background, and you're living in North Carolina right now and outside Raleigh and Cary North Carolina. So you clearly science climate climate stuff has been your bag to this guy say that climate science has been your bag for a long time now what and what? What out of high school you chose this? Why climate science? Why did you decide to become a climate guy?
Patrick T. Brown 2:23
I guess I've always just been interested in the weather and severe weather. So even when I was like eight years old, I had a weather station on top of my roof. And I had a newsletter that I sent out to the family and I would record forecasts on my, on my voicemail. And so
Robert Bryce 2:44
this was where in Minnesota that you did this.
Patrick T. Brown 2:46
This? Yeah, I grew up in Minnetonka, Minnesota.
Robert Bryce 2:49
Uh huh. So what was the lowest temperature you recorded? Then? Do you remember that when?
Patrick T. Brown 2:54
I mean, yeah, it was there. It was, you know, wind chills would be, you know, 4050 below Fahrenheit sometimes. And we would have, you know, many, many days in a row of, of below zero high temperatures. And it doesn't, it doesn't snow all that much in Minnesota compared to the west or our parts of the Northeast. And so you don't get snow days very often, where there's where there's good snow plows, but you would get cold days, because, you know, they'd be worried about kids literally freezing to death at the bus stop. So yeah, it's quite cold. And that was that was an interest as well. But I was particularly interested in, in, you know, tornadoes and thunderstorms. And so the, the severe weather in the summer.
Robert Bryce 3:45
And so, this is from age eight, you said?
Patrick T. Brown 3:48
Yeah, yeah. So when
Robert Bryce 3:52
you knew the types of clouds from when you were, you know, before you're even a teen? I still don't know, I you know, I kind of know clouds, but I don't you can you can name all the clouds then before you were when you were in grade school?
Patrick T. Brown 4:02
Yeah, yeah. Because people would, you know, for birthday presents and things give me you know, whether books and all that. So I had it all from a very young age. And then when I applied to undergrad programs, I only applied to schools that had atmospheric science or meteorology as a as a major, and then it was in, in college, and then in grad school in particular, that I moved more to the climate side of things.
Robert Bryce 4:26
Okay, so Well, that's interesting. I like the idea of a weather station as an eight year old, but that would have been pre digital age right then or where their digital would be about that time where digital weather stations were coming out, right?
Patrick T. Brown 4:37
Yeah, we had I mean, it was it was a weather station on my roof that had a cord that went into my bedroom and there was a digital display, but it wasn't it wasn't you know, Wi Fi or anything, anything like that. Right?
Robert Bryce 4:50
So let's let's jump to the reason I invited you on the podcast, which is the you've caused a stir in the climate, climate change world climate science world with a paper that you wrote in nature. And then an article that you published, the paper in Nature was about wildfires and climate. And then on September 5, you published a piece in the free press, about your history and publishing academic papers and prestigious journals, I think might be easiest for me to just read what I think is the nut of that piece so that we set the table here, you wrote. While climate change is an important factor affecting wildfires over many parts of the world, it isn't close to the only factor that deserves our sole focus. So why does the press focus so intently on climate change as the root cause, perhaps for the same reasons I just did in an academic paper about wildfires in nature, one of the world's most prestigious journals, it fits a simple storyline that rewards the person telling it, you went on climate science has become less about understanding the complexities of the world, and more about serving as a kind of Cassandra, urgently wanting the public about the dangers of climate change are understandable. This instinct may be it distorts a great deal of climate science, research misinformed the public, and most importantly, makes practical solutions more difficult to achieve, that you've thrown down the gauntlet here, I mean, you're kind of attacking the whole, the catastrophe, climate catastrophism business. And I think there it's clear, it is something of a, it is a business. But in reading your follow up to this, it's something you've been thinking about for quite a long time.
Patrick T. Brown 6:31
Yeah. And I use the word narrative in the piece. And I think that that's kind of the right way to think about it, that there's really like a dominant kind of narrative of, of climate science that's, I think, penetrated into a lot of institutions, universities, and as well as these high impact journals. And that kind of dominant or preferred narrative is essentially that, you know, the impacts of climate change on people are catastrophic, and, and pervasive. And, you know, kind of, implicitly, it's implied that they're larger than a bunch of other things that are going on. And the way to address those impacts is through greenhouse gas emissions reductions. And, you know, a lot of times that's then wrapped into like a goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius. So kind of a massive, immediate transformation of the global energies and agricultural system, that you can kind of justify at any cost if the impacts are large enough. And so I think that narrative really leaves out the full picture or, you know, the full truth on what's going on. And so that's kind of what my essay is about is that these preferred narratives can get entrenched by institutions and kind of within scientific fields. Because the you kind of, as a researcher, you see a certain narrative and then you that indirectly kind of solicits more research from other researchers that are that are going to be along those same lines. And then I specifically targeted my own paper, where I was basically basically describing a situation where as a researcher doing research on on wildfire activity, you have to publish, and you have to, you know, you're publishing papers as essentially your your progress reports on the research that you're doing. So you have to get papers out. And I noticed that there was an opportunity for high impact paper, a paper that I thought you know, would be publishable by Science or Nature, or one of these high impact journals. And there's just a lot of incentives for researchers to publish in these journals, that gets a ton of media coverage, which gets gets it in front of the eyes of a bunch of other researchers, which means that you're going to be cited more. So citations and high impact publications are a very big deal for researchers. So I described a situation where I essentially played into what I thought would result in a high impact paper. So that's largely around the framing of the research question, being a kind of exclusively looking at the climate change impact, even though we know that there's a bunch of other causal factors going on. And that's all by the way, that's all laid out and and totally, you know, legitimately laid out in the paper so the paper can be taken complete completely at face value. It's just that the formation of the research question itself. I, in retrospect, you know, decided that that was not actually the most useful use of my time. And that it that it would would be better, more informative, more useful for society to be thinking about climate change much more in the context of, of many other causal factors. And in particular, it's the change in vegetation and fuel loads that are the most relevant for wildfires.
Robert Bryce 10:21
Well, and that was clearly the case in Maui, wasn't it? I mean, you wrote this paper, and it was already under review before the Maui wildfire. So you kind of got a double hit here, right, in terms of the timing and the news cycle that it came out right after the the Maui fires. And that was clear in, in the news reporting that I've seen that a lot of this was due to excessive vegetation growth, that there was that there was a lot of dry grassland around that hadn't been tended. And that that was one of the key, as you say, fuel loading. So you kind of got a little Alaska did you did that timing really was good for you in terms of getting attention on the paper? No.
Patrick T. Brown 11:04
Yeah, I mean, just just a total coincidence. And this in the situation of Maui is pretty different than in California, where, in California, I'm talking about this situation where you we had this policy, ill advised policies of fire suppression, right cause large, you know, build up of hazardous fuels over the past century and a lot of California's forests. So where there used to be a situation where you'd have a national fire every about 10 years would clear that out. Now, we have a situation where we built up fuels for an entire century. And so you have way more to burn when there is when there is a fire making it much more intense. And that's different than what happened in Maui, which is these invasive grasses that took over after right after the shutdown of various
Robert Bryce 11:56
cattle cattle grazing, wasn't it? Yeah, yeah. And
Patrick T. Brown 11:59
sugar cane and pineapple. But still, I mean, the point there is that a lot of the media did focus on some climate change. aspect of that looking at, you know, Flash droughts or things like that, when I really don't think it should get central building. In that case, at all. Really, it's it's, it's this kind of inordinate focus on a climate change impact that I don't think is, is necessary or springs from the science.
Robert Bryce 12:32
So is it fair to say then what you did was to adhere to the narrative, this narrative that you said this, this dominant narrative on climate change about the impacts are catastrophic and pervasive. So you? Here's how it will tell me if I'm reading back this confessional, I guess as a way to put it. I mean, I don't Is that is that the right word?
Patrick T. Brown 12:55
Yeah, I definitely feel guilty in retrospect, playing into that, and so I'm
Robert Bryce 13:02
buying into that, but I'm sorry to interrupt. But playing into that is that you, you, you adhered to the narrative knowing that you get this, this published in a prestigious journal, but you purposely omitted some of the facts, right, in your, in your and now in your confession, you're saying, Well, I'm coming clean here. I didn't, you know, if we're going to have a more honest, is this a fair rebag? If we're gonna be more honest, we have to be the climate scientists have to be more open and more, include more, more, disclose more complexity more complete, disclose more, that this is not a simple narrative? boil it down for me what needs to happen here?
Patrick T. Brown 13:45
Yeah, so it's, it's not that anything was omitted in the paper itself. So again, the paper itself is just you can take it completely at face value, because it says that the research question is we are going to focus narrowly on the impact of climate change on wildfire, while the the risk of extreme daily growth and wildfires. And there's also there's a lot of really interesting scientific results in there, that do have a lot of value. But what I'm saying is that, you know, that then if they so that's a Nature paper, so that gets nature has a direct line to the media, where they're given these stories, these papers a week ahead of time the media gets, gets them a week ahead of time and is able to write their stories, and there's kind of a big, the embargo is lifted, and it's dropped, and then all the stories go out and everything. And at the end of the day, what the public hears is not the full story. Right? Because it's it's just this is this is another paper I'm saying that's in along the same lines of focusing narrowly on on a negative climate change impact. And it says that all in the paper, but then What the public is hearing is these constant, just a accumulation of of this same type of paper that's not discussing other important factors. And so then that's, that's where the full story is left out. I think and I think that that's, you know, kind of penetrated the zeitgeist of, of a lot of the public, that this kind of climate, climate is everything. Negative impact story, and especially, you know, left of center kind of educated circles that have a lot of influence on policy, for example. And so I'm very worried about people just being kind of misled from the aggregate output of the field, the aggregate output of climate science, when it has such a narrow focus on seeking out and highlighting negative impacts from climate change, and not really putting them in proper context, in my opinion.
Robert Bryce 16:01
So this is what you read later wrote not in your, in your in your Free Press piece. But in a in a piece that you published on the breakthrough Institute's website, which is the breakthrough.org. You said, I chose to frame the research question in my paper narrowly to focus only on the contribution that climate change was making to wildfire behavior. And doing so I'm just repeating repair, repeating what you largely what you just said, but I think it's good to well, you wrote it, I think is very succinct as well. In doing so my methodology left out, held constant, the myriad of causal factors that affect wildfire behavior, eg non climate factors, like human ignition patterns and fuel loads, and could be altered in the future to mitigate wildfire danger. The paper is honest, you put an italics, about leaving those factors out. So there's nothing explicitly wrong with the paper itself. However, at the end of the day, what gets communicated to the public is just part of the story and not the full truth, you put in italics. So, but but this climate industrial complex, there's a lot of money at stake here. It's not just the climate for the climate scientists themselves, right? It's also for the mitigation, right, that if there is catastrophe looming that no cost is too high. We have, of course, we have to subsidize wind, solar batteries, hydrogen data data, and they're now if you look at the cost, potential Cox costs of the inflation Reduction Act, we're talking trillions of dollars, potentially a federal money at stake here, that hinges on, is it fair to say that hinges on this catastrophic narrative?
Patrick T. Brown 17:34
Yeah, I mean, I just want the public, like decisions on, on legislation on legislation, like the inflation Reduction Act, to be as informed as possible. And so people are not getting the full picture, the full truth on all of these, you know, multi multi causal factors, and you know, really how big the climate change signal is on these various impacts on society. So it's not just, you know, wildfires, but, but talking about effects on food or agriculture, or, you know, human health, non optimal temperature related deaths, or, you know, exposure to flooding or all of these things. You know, the trends. If you just look at the overall trends, they're positive, they're good. But then there's a lot of research going in and teasing out and looking for the climate change impact in there and saying, Well, you know, the trends, the trends in agriculture, yes, we've seen these huge increases in yields, but they wouldn't have been quite as large the increases would not have been quite as large if it weren't for climate change. And that's all, you know, said in the reports, but I don't think that's what people hear. I think that people, you know, hear something that's much more dire and much more negative. And so, yeah, when when policies are enacted, people should be fully aware of what the actual magnitude of the impact is, and not just isolating the magnitude from climate change, the magnitude of the impact from climate change, but putting it in the context of everything else that's going on.
Robert Bryce 19:18
But that's the nub of it isn't I mean, I had Judith Curry who I'm sure you're familiar with her work. I had her on the podcast fairly recently. She said that we need to see the global climate as here's her quote, a complex chaotic, nonlinear system. You agree with it?
Patrick T. Brown 19:36
Yeah, I think I I am much more confident in the basic physical climate science than I perceive. Dr. Currie is so I think it's it's beyond, you know, any reasonable doubt that humans are responsible for the vast majority, if not 100% of the increase in temperature since the industrial revolution. So I think the evidence is very, very solid on that. What I'm more concerned about is not really the complexity of the climate system. It's the complexity of the interaction of the climate system with society. And how, you know, if you look, historically, you know, all of all of the, all of the measures of human wellbeing that should be sensitive to climate have all been going in positive direction. So over the past 50 years, it's warmed one degree Celsius, we've seen, you know, crop yields and calories per person increase death rates, from malnutrition and famines decrease. The share of population with safe drinking waters increased, livable land area in coastal cities has increased, right, you do land reclamation, so all of these things are going in the positive direction. And then we're expecting another one to 1.25 degrees Celsius warming in the next 50 years. And there's every reason to believe that that they will still be going in the positive direction despite that. And, and so that's the those interactions, I think, are not getting proper billing here. And that's the that's the complexity that that should be highlighted in, in, you know, when policy decisions are coming up.
Robert Bryce 21:27
Through Okay, well, let me let me come back to that in just a second. Again, my guest is Patrick T. Brown. He's the co director of the Climate and Energy Program at the breakthrough Institute. You can find more about him at the breakthrough.org. He's on Twitter at Patrick T. Brown 31. When you read that back was so what I'm hearing you say, and I don't want to put words in your mouth is that? Yes, the climate is changing, but we're not seeing catastrophic impacts, or at least we're not seeing catastrophic impacts yet. Because of all those things you just said, because this is kind of the one of the points of eco modernism right, with a breakthrough Institute in general, right, that things are getting better people are living longer, healthier, Freer lives and anyone, anytime in human history. And so you're you're not saying it's climate change is not a concern. But what are you You said humans are responsible. But to finish that off for me, what are you saying then that we need to balance these discussions more, more carefully?
Patrick T. Brown 22:26
Yeah, I think that's that's a fair assessment. I mean, the thing with co2, the problem with co2, is that it accumulates in the atmosphere. And so it is the case that in order to stabilize climate, and or just stabilize the temperature, that means doesn't mean bring it back down to where it was, but just stop it from warming, you do need to get emissions down to zero to net zero of co2. And so that is something that has to be a long term goal, or you just warm indefinitely. And so I am definitely on board with policies that put pressure in that direction. And I'm not a I'm not an energy policy expert, my colleague, CBRE is much more of a of an expert on on that side of things. But given that, that's the situation. So we do have to reduce emissions to zero in the long term, it's a matter of how fast you need to do that. And that's informed by how big the impacts are. And, and I do think that, in a lot of cases, the impacts are being oversold as being larger than they actually are. If you look at the if you look at the data. So just kind of going back to the to the narrative idea. You know, the narrative that I've said has kind of taken hold is that, you know, the impacts are, are very large when you just focus on them. And the primary way to deal with them is through greenhouse gas emissions reductions. But you could have like a different narrative that's basically like, that leans in a little bit more to human resilience to climate. So you could say something like, you know, okay, society is slowly starting to decarbonize, we're probably going to be at a plateau of emissions for a long time. And it's gonna result, you know, we've seen a little bit over one degree Celsius of warming world probably at the end of the day in the 2100s, be more be closer to three degrees Celsius of warming. Given that, here's what we have to do to deal with the impacts that would come from from two to three degrees Celsius warming, so that could be a way that papers are framed. And that would be to me, I think that's a more useful way of framing papers because it highlights what you would need to do to overcome the climate change impact, and it's much more focused it's much more positive and focused on on the ground, near term practical solutions, as opposed to saying our only lever is climate policy is our only lever is is mitigation, greenhouse gas emissions reductions. And I don't think that's, you know, when you look at, when you look at the difference in 2050, for example, between say an RCP 4.5 and RCP 2.6, those are huge policy differences, but they make almost no difference in climate by 2050. So any type of problem that you're trying to solve on the ground, needs to look elsewhere, it needs to look at that problem in particular, and focus on that on the ground.
Robert Bryce 25:33
So is it fair to read back, what you just said is that mitigation is part of it. But as I look at what's going on around the world, I don't see much, you know, real traction in terms of mitigation. So is it fair to say, or to paraphrase back to you that we need to be thinking more about adaptation?
Patrick T. Brown 25:52
Yeah, and I think it's, I think it's just more fostering continued resilience increase. So historically, you know, we look at you look at all those positive trends and all our climate sensitive portions of society, this didn't come about because we said in 1900, oh, it's going to the climate is going to change. And so we need to adapt to climate change. Like that makes it seem like we had everything figured out perfectly. And then the only reason to worry about the climate is because it's changing. But it's that's not what happened, we've just through economic development, we've drastically increased our resilience to the climate, the climate, which is naturally hostile, hostile to people. And that we need to, you know, be facilitating more of that. So you know, that could be more of an emphasis on on agriculture, r&d, or it could be that you that you get, you know, in addition to an electric vehicle, subsidy may be a big subsidy on air conditioning, you know, something like that. So more of an emphasis on this resilience, could push, push that push in that direction. And, you know, resulting in helping people more, frankly, just in the near term people alive today, right now.
Robert Bryce 27:11
So fair enough, I like that, well, I use that term resilience, because I think that's right, we need our systems to be weather resilient, weather independent, and not weather dependent, which is one of the big mistakes, I think is being made now that we're adding a whole lot of spending a whole lot of money on systems that are weather dependent and not weather resilient. So you said you're not an energy policy expert, necessarily. But then what is the way forward? Then what do you give me if I've just made you the secretary of energy or the energy czar? What would you do? What are the policies that you would push? Then, on the mitigation, we talked about adaptation and resilience that that is going to be naturally ongoing? You mentioned the AG, research and ag, what about policy on the energy and power front? What would you do?
Patrick T. Brown 27:58
I think just broadly, that it should focus on research and development, that it should rather than restrictions rather than putting, you know, banning things or restricting anything that's going to restrict energy access, or make things more expensive, I think is is a non starter politically, and it's you know, has has real implications on people's lives. Right. So the the increases in resilience that I'm talking about, largely come from fossil fuel development, you know, economic development. And so you have to be very careful with anything that's going to restrict your energy options. And so I do think that the way to go is to be much more on the side of, you know, research and development that lowers the the cost of alternatives to energy systems that that emit co2 as a byproduct. And so it makes them desirable on their own. It makes them desirable over fossil fuels, without even considering the climate change impact.
Robert Bryce 29:17
So to use what I think is terminology that Ted Nordhaus and I think Michael Shellenberger, have uses both and others is make it cleaner energy cheaper. Right, exactly. So you have a stance on nuclear?
Patrick T. Brown 29:33
Yeah, I mean, I think that it certainly has, there's a lot of there's a lot of bugaboos on on nuclear that I don't think are justified. And so I certainly think that nuclear should be a major portion of our energy mix going forward. When you when you take into account all the costs and benefits of different energy systems, which I think is very, very important and is often neglected. In this conversation, that there's what I see is kind of so much cheerleading for renewable energy, wind and solar in particular, that there's, you know, just not really an acknowledgement of what you do with the waste and what you do with, you know, the supply chain issues and what you eat, and how you deal with all of the additional land that comes with that. And so those things need to be taken into account along with the cost and benefits of, of nuclear and the costs and benefits of fossil fuels. And it should just be, you know, looking at all sides of the ledger when you're making these energy policy decisions.
Robert Bryce 30:42
Fair enough. So we're going back to your paper and to the article you wrote in the free press you one of the things I heard you say that you felt constrained and being an academia and that was why you went to the think tank world is this. I've said the word confession before is this paper going to if you wanted to go to back to academia is going to hurt your prospects there? I mean, have you committed some kind of career hairy carry here with how do you think about where you go from here?
Patrick T. Brown 31:13
Yeah, I think I think it definitely hurts my prospects of going back to academia, but I have no plans of doing that. So I'm not too concerned about that. But yeah, there's, you know, there's kind of cliques and clubs in academia, and that's something that I'm trying to highlight actually is kind of the social construction of, of these narratives, and about, you know, research that's kind of good and research that everyone likes. That that affects the, the output of fields, these social relationships. And so being transgressive in that way, can be not fun socially. And I think it's important for people to know that that that, that that dynamic, that kind of social dynamic within academia actually affects the public knowledge generation. It affects the output of fields.
Robert Bryce 32:15
So that cliques and clubs and now so you're outside the cliques and the clubs then as what has been the the cliques and clubs that are following this narrative that you talked about this that the narrative must be adhered to, and now you've been, you're a transgressor, you're a heretic in this regard, and that you've called out this. This, this hewing to the narrative, right toeing the line, you're saying, Well, no, everyone's toeing the line for a reason. The more you toe the line, the more research grants you get, the more catastrophic the outcome, the more money you get that this is part of my friend, Chuck Spinney, call it the self licking ice cream cone, right, you get the same kind of reinforcing effects, and now you've stepped outside of that. So now, this kind of is this a career defining moment for you?
Patrick T. Brown 33:05
I don't know, possibly, we'll see. We'll see what happens. But, you know, I would say that I don't think it's that cynical, the way that you just described it, that people are doing it just for career grants or for money or things like that. I think it's it's much more subtle, it's much more just embedded within the culture. And I think people are genuine in the way that they think about the climate change issue. So I'm not questioning people's motives. I'm just arguing for an alternative narrative. And I think that people, people that are particularly offended by by an alternative narrative, really like this idea of the science says, like capital S science, and then and then they defend basically, their opinions under this mantle of the science says it's this kind of nice bludgeon to use to defeat your opponents that what I think is, you know, a fact that's based on capitalist science, and so challenging that saying that no, this is actually there's a, there's a, there's a fair element of this that is kind of socially constructed, and is not just doesn't just sprang from the underlying data, that's very offensive to people that like to think of what their opinion is as as a fact that cannot be questioned.
Robert Bryce 34:31
There was a the, the gospel is the gospel and it must not be must not be questioned that you do have to hew to that line. Right. And that that is so Okay, so I'll take I take your point, it's more subtle than what what? There?
Patrick T. Brown 34:45
Yeah. And also also say that you don't I wouldn't say that you have to hue to it. It's just that it's kind of the the highest return on investment for a researcher to hue on it to to stick to that. And there's there's 1000s of pay papers published every day, and there's tons of journals. And there's a lot of research out there that's in the direction of exactly what I'm advocating for, which is the, you know, the reason that I know that a lot of these, you know, increases in, in resilience exist is because those papers exist. But what I'm saying is that, you know, kind of at the elite institutions at the highest level, where you get the, where you're looking for the for the high impact publications, and you're looking for the, the glowing media coverage. That's the section of climate science that I'm talking about that it seems particularly married to this to this kind of climate Doom narrative.
Robert Bryce 35:43
Right, yeah, I like that idea that the climate Doom narrative. But it's interesting, the way you framed it, you said the return on investment. So I'd even use an energy or physics term energy return on energy invested, if you're gonna make if you're gonna spend all this time doing this paper, you're gonna get a bigger, you get a bigger return on your energy investment. If you had, if you adhere to this climate do better than to one that is more more well rounded. Is that a fair way to think about it?
Patrick T. Brown 36:13
Yeah. Yeah, exactly. That it's that what I what I thought when I was doing the research, was, you know, the most useful way to frame this research in terms of, you know, how can be used by society by the public would be to properly place the climate change signal within the signal of changes in in fuel loads, and then look at how, you know, proposed policies going forward, could potentially offset or, yeah, how much they could offset the climate change impacts going forward in terms of reducing fuels and negating that climate change, impact. And so that however, more useful research would be just kind of more boring, it's just a it's not as clean of a story, you're going to, you're going to have more equivocation in your results. And so that's, that's kind of a problem that I'm identifying is that, that more useful research is less clean of a story. It's less, it's more nuanced. Yeah. If you're not able to, if you look at the if you look at the titles of these high impact papers, they they're like headlines like newspaper headlines, that climate, you know, climate warming, does this bad thing. You know, climate change does this bad thing. And the the alternative paper that I'm saying is more useful, would be, you know, a much more like, a much less direct title. And it would just be something that I envisioned would not be a high impact paper, and so that, that gap between what's more most useful, versus what's most useful for society versus what's most useful for the career of the researcher. That's the gap that I think we can we can try to close as a as a community.
Robert Bryce 38:16
Got it. So if I was going to put it in newspaper terms, and that's been my career, right? I've been a reporter my whole my whole life, I've never had a real job. If it bleeds, it leads.
Patrick T. Brown 38:25
Yeah, yeah, exactly. Yeah. I've thought I've thought about that exact same thing. A lot. But it's not, you know, it's not uncommon to criticize the media for hyperbole. Right? Right. But I'm bringing it back one step to the underlying to the underlying publications. And I definitely see a huge it bleeds, it leads, attractor, for the, for the underlying publications. And, you know, something. So just just to give people an idea of, of kind of the realm of science that I'm talking about, you know, I think there's certain there's certain parts of, of science more on the physical science side, where you don't have the creativity and freedom to kind of, you know, decide your research question and inform your your paper with just a lot of a lot of creativity. But in in the interaction between climate and society, you do have that creativity, there's just a ton of research or degrees of freedom. And there's a ton of freedom in terms of how you ask a research question and what you're deciding to look at. And so that's how you can, you can, that's how social forces can shape what comes out of a research field. So it's different than if you're, if you're looking at like hypothesis tests, like double blind control studies or something like that. You're just asking a question is a drug efficacious? And we're going to go We're gonna run the study and find out whether or not it's efficacious, that that's not really what's going on. And in the type of scientific publication that I'm talking about, which is much more data analysis, and much more, you spend years kind of changing tweaking your research question and being creative, essentially, about how how your paper
Robert Bryce 40:21
is that merely a function will not merely but is it a function of the fact that there's so many variables in climate science that you can accentuate with this versus that. Whereas in chemistry, if you're making a new compound, people can go back and test that? Well, you made that compound. And you can write a new journal article about this compound that does XY and Z. But it's a very, is that a fair way to think about it, you're very constrained, if you're my father, and I was a chemist at University of Michigan, this is emeritus now, but that's what immediately comes to mind, if you're going to claim you have a new polymer, and that was one of the new better battery chemistry, other people can go back and test that right away, whereas employment and not so much.
Patrick T. Brown 40:57
Yeah, definitely. And what what is produced is, you know, I would say they're just, they're just, you know, one volley and a whole tennis match or something like that, like each paper. And that's how other researchers think of them. But then if that's the case, then I don't think we should necessarily have this straight to public consumption. You know, pipeline, where we're, you publish a paper, and then everyone you know, then that's pushed to the media, and people are writing a story on it all over the place, when two other researchers, you just look at that you're like, Okay, that's, that's interesting opinion by that person. You know, that's kind of like how, how you think of it within a lab setting where we have things called, you know, journal clubs, which that doesn't mean you go write in your diary, it means you like, right, you read a research article and discuss it in, in academic labs. And in those in those situations, people are very, you know, they roll their eyes at papers, all they looked at this, why didn't they look at it this way? You know, oh, it's because they got it gave them this answer that they probably wanted, you know, that's very, that's kind of the culture that I'm coming out of. Gotcha. I think that it's, it's, you know, a lot of people are kind of taken aback by, you know, you're challenging a published research paper, like, that's crazy. And it's just, it's, that's not how, how people within within the field, think of these research papers, they think of them as just just single data points in the hole. Right?
Robert Bryce 42:37
In the, in the, in the quest to better understand this complex system. Right. So whose work do you admire in this field? Who do you follow? Who do you who are your North Stars?
Patrick T. Brown 42:49
I put me on the spot. I don't know if I want to name names necessarily. Okay. Just yeah, I mean, I just I try to stick to the, to the less to the less flashy journals in the more disciplinary journals when it comes to when it comes to understanding interactions between climate and society.
Robert Bryce 43:12
Okay. But well, I would say if you quit academia and have no intention of going back, you find that that you have more freedom in the brain in breakthrough Institute, the think tank world than you would have in academia. Is that a fair assessment?
Patrick T. Brown 43:27
Yeah, it's more it's more that I don't feel pressure to publish to publish papers or high impact papers in particular. So that's that's what I'm highlighting is that you can you can do research in whatever direction you want and not feel like oh, you know, the clock's ticking I need another I need another publication and I need the publication to to attract you know, citations
Robert Bryce 43:58
up press you need to be prestigious, it has to be some high profile outlet. Right. Right. So just a couple more questions. We've been talking about 45 minutes and I think we covered pretty much the things that we that we had outlined and talked about I asked all of my guests What are you reading what are the what's your I'm sure you're reading all the time are you new like novels? You fiction nonfiction guy? What are the books that are on your I see a bunch of books behind you there. Tell us what you're reading.
Patrick T. Brown 44:24
Yeah, mostly mostly. journal papers and textbooks. I do not read fiction at all. I with I have a two and a half year old I used to read a lot more before I had a two year old to read more nonfiction books. Having so you're
Robert Bryce 44:44
now you're reading Hop on Pop and Dr. Seuss is what Yeah, exactly.
Patrick T. Brown 44:47
Okay. I'll tell you I mean two of my favorite books. nonfiction books are the righteous mind by John hight and the Black Swan by the scene. To lab, right. And both of those are, you know, talk a lot about kind of human biases and human the ways that that we can fool ourselves. And so that's that's something that I think is a theme of of some of this work. Gotcha.
Robert Bryce 45:19
So you've been through I mean, you there there is understand that nature has, you've had back and forth with the nature editor there was talking about withdrawing the paper, you've been in the middle of this kind of controversy now for a while for several weeks anyway. And you've talked about the what I would say some, maybe the, I don't know if it's the dark side, but a near an unfortunate narrative that dominates what gives you hope?
Patrick T. Brown 45:44
Well, what gives me hope is just looking at the difference between what is reported out there, which you know, so I've had like a Google news alert on climate change for 10 years, I read these journals, I read what comes out of the climate desks. And that story is so much more pessimistic than when I look at the data or look at what's been going on historically, in terms of climate sensitive aspects of society, and how they've overcome any negative input, any negative impact from climate change. And so knowing that makes me much more optimistic about the future than most of my contemporaries who are not climate scientists, but kind of adjacent to the climate area. And so I think that that's something that we can lean into more and we can try to facilitate more increases in in resilience. And I think that that's a hopeful message.
Robert Bryce 46:47
So if I'm gonna read that back, you're saying that when you look at the world, the situation isn't as dire as we're being told. Is that a fair way to?
Patrick T. Brown 46:56
Robert Bryce 46:58
Okay. Well, I liked that message. I'm, as the late Molly. Ivan said, optimistic to the point of idiocy. So I'm an optimist as well. Patrick Brown, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Congratulations on stirring the pot as another Texas writer Jim Hightower said some time ago. It's the agitator that gets the clothes clean. So you've definitely done some agitation here. So good for you.
Patrick T. Brown 47:25
Yeah, yep. That's, that's for sure.
Robert Bryce 47:28
My guest has been Patrick T. Brown. He's the co director of the Climate and Energy Program at the breakthrough Institute. You can find him at break the breakthrough.org and on Twitter at Patrick T. Brown. 31. Patrick, thanks again for coming on the power hungry podcast.
Patrick T. Brown 47:40
Thanks for having me.
Robert Bryce 47:42
And all you out there in podcast land. Tune in for the next episode of the power hungry podcast. It might be as good as this one. Until then, see you