Maybe you've heard: Local celebrity weatherman Cliff Mass and Stranger philosopher-in-chief Charles Mudede are in a loud and extended blog feud over climate change.
To be fair, it's Mudede who started the whole thing. He's called Mass "a very dangerous weatherperson" and contends that the University of Washington atmospheric sciences professor is aiding climate-change deniers by promoting skepticism about the causes of certain weather-related events.
Mass, for his part, thinks Mudede poses a danger to truth, facts, reasoned discourse, the future of life on this planet, and more.
On May 16, Mass and Mudede had it out at the Stranger offices. At Mass's request, I was there to moderate.
Did Mudede apologize for calling Mass "dangerous" and for writing that Mass's brain had clearly "broken"? Did Mass, a household name to many Seattleites because of his public-radio appearances and popular Cliff Mass Weather Blog, admit to any of Mudede's allegations? Did everyone make it out alive? Read on. —ELI SANDERS
ROUND ONE: Facts Are Useless in Emergencies (Also, What Happened to That Dead Pine Tree?)
Eli Sanders: Welcome, Charles and Cliff. I've called you both here today because we need to settle a beef. You two have a major disagreement, and it involves a huge issue: climate change. You both believe in climate change, right?
Charles Mudede: I do, definitely.
Cliff Mass: I don't usually like the word "believe," but I certainly know that climate change is a very serious issue.
Sanders: You both voted for someone other than Donald Trump, correct?
Sanders: And both of you believe in the importance of fact-based discourse?
Mass: Absolutely. Facts are good.
Mudede: Facts are useful.
Sanders: Okay. We'll take that as a starting point. Cliff, Charles has called you "a very dangerous weatherperson." He's also called you a man with a "broken" mind. What Charles is upset about is the way you're describing climate change and its effects. And you're upset with the language Charles has been using to describe you.
Mass: That's right. That's why I'm here. I really believe that name-calling, and putting people down, and ad hominem remarks are all inappropriate in this kind of discourse. We can have a difference of opinion about how we deal with climate change. That's fair. We can talk through the facts. But I think calling people names and ad hominem stuff like "You're losing your mind" or "You're dangerous," I think that's inappropriate for this kind of discourse. I think it's inappropriate for The Stranger.
Sanders: Charles, why are you calling Cliff a "very dangerous weatherperson"? Do you hear his criticism about name-calling?
Mudede: I wouldn't say that saying someone is dangerous is calling names. I'm just saying that the conclusions—or some of the ideas that he's publishing or posting—are dangerous.
Sanders: What's so dangerous about them?
Mudede: I think that climate change is real, and I think there's real resistance to addressing it, and I think we're running out of time. When we have comments that are not entirely wrong, but they give people reason to doubt whether or not the situation is grave—to me, that's what I would call dangerous.
Sanders: On May 13, the Seattle Times ran a story about a pine tree in the Arboretum that has died. The Times said this pine tree died because of climate change. But, Cliff, you wrote on your blog that the paper was attributing a real-time event to climate change without proof. This is exactly the type of thing that Charles is talking about. The Seattle Times comes out and says, "Here's an example of climate change." And then you come in and say, "No. This is getting ahead of the facts." Charles says that you writing this kind of blog post just sows doubt.
Mass: I think it's very important that society has facts. I think it's key for people like myself—climate scientists, weather scientists—to give people the straight truth. When you see the headline of a major paper in this city giving information that is absolutely factually incorrect, someone has to say something about it. Their story was factually wrong. They were claiming that this was due to climate change, and specifically that our summers were getting drier and warmer. In fact, as I showed in my blog, this is factually incorrect.*
Sanders: You said on your blog that our summers are actually not getting warmer over time.
Mass: What I said is we're getting slightly warmer, like a tenth of a degree or something like that. And our summers are, in fact, getting wetter, not getting drier. The Seattle Times explicitly stated that we were getting drier during the summer.
In fact, I even went to talk to the person that was quoted, David Zuckerman, who's head of horticulture at the Washington Arboretum. I said, "What's this business about climate? You talked to the reporter. What did you tell the person? Did you have any facts?" He said, "No, I never checked anything about precipitation and temperature. It was my feeling that the climate has changed."
Sanders: Okay. Charles, this is all an example of what you've been talking about. Something happens in our world that people feel is connected to climate change. Cliff comes in and says, "Hold on. You don't have all the facts." You come in and say, "Hold on, Cliff. That's dangerous." So what should Cliff have said?
Mudede: You know, the tree situation was really complicated. I admit that. Trees in parks are not the same as trees in forests. They're susceptible already because pines are very social living things. So there's all these other factors that are at play in that situation. I think that to say it's climate change, I would only say that because I believe that climate change is happening, that you can make that guess. What I'm interested in knowing is this: Which event, then, in Cliff Mass's world, at all suggests climate change? I've been through his website, and I haven't seen one event yet. That absence is curious to me.
Sanders: This is a fair question, Cliff. It's an absence you've actually noted yourself.
Mass: Well, now it's time for Climate 101. You would never see me say one event means that we've seen climate change. That's a very rigorous approach. One event does not tell you anything. If you're looking to learn about climate change, it's the trend that counts because there's always extreme events. There were extreme events 50 years ago or 100 years ago. One extreme event proves nothing. It is only the trend that makes a difference.
Sanders: But to repeat Charles's question: Is there anything out there that, to you, suggests climate change is real and happening?
Mass: Yes, and I'll give you some examples of that. One would be the trend toward warming in the Arctic. That is a rigorous example of something we expect from climate change. If you look at the global climate models, the trend they show is warming in the Arctic.
* We reached out to the Seattle Times, which responded: "We stand by our story, which is based on research by scientists at the University of Washington."
ROUND TWO: Power, the Politics of Climate Change, and the (Failed) Carbon Tax
Sanders: It seems to me that the core of the debate you two are having is really a profound disagreement over how we should be speaking about climate change. Am I getting that right, Charles?
Mudede: I think that the big difference between us is that I take power effects in society as real. I think that we talk about certain things in certain ways for specific reasons. My question is: The comments that Cliff makes sometimes, who benefits from those comments?
Sanders: Who do you think benefits from raising uncertainty about climate change?
Mudede: What Cliff Mass knows very well is that there's a consensus on climate change. He knows this. There's a consensus from numerous scientists in different fields, all agreeing that it's actually happening. Now, addressing climate change means upending a lot of the ways the system or the economy works. I want to know: Who gains? Who loses?
Mass: I think Charles completely misunderstands the power structure in this country and what is happening in terms of the politics of this. Let me explain that. Why are people exaggerating these events? I think it's pretty clear. There are people who are concerned about climate change. The fact of the matter is, our country and mankind are not doing enough to stop it. It's going to happen the way it's going. We're doing very, very little about it.
These concerned people see that, especially around here, there aren't really very many things that you can really point to and say, "This is due to climate change." And so in desperation, what they're doing is trying to hype up and exaggerate events that are probably natural in order to inspire people to do the right thing.
Sanders: What's wrong with that?
Mass: That's wrong in a number of ways. Number one, society has to have accurate information to adapt to climate change. Climate change is going to happen. The gases in the atmosphere already ensure that we're going to warm. We're going to have to build different infrastructure. We're going to have to modify our infrastructure. We have to have adaptation and resilience. And so society has to have accurate information about what we believe is going to happen. We cannot exaggerate it, because we have to do things to prepare.
The other thing is political. Dealing with climate change will be successful only if we do it in a bipartisan way. Take a look at this country. See how much is red and how much is blue. Well, I hate to say it, but most of it is red. And we are here on the coast. We're a minority, really, in terms of the area of this country. Even in population, we're not a majority. So in order to move forward, we have to move forward in a bipartisan way.
People like Charles, people who are pushing this left-leaning type of approach, are undermining our ability to do what has to be done.
A good example of that is the carbon tax. What we really need in this country is a national carbon tax to help pull us back from the use of carbon. That's something we could do. That would allow the private sector to move ahead and encourage it to work on renewables and things like that. But what we've seen here recently, with Washington State Initiative 732—the left actually torpedoed 732. If the left had supported it, it could have passed, and we would have been the first state in the union to have a carbon tax. It would have been huge. But we lost that opportunity because of the politicization of this issue and rejecting the idea of having a bipartisan approach.
Sanders: Cliff, you said, "I think Charles completely misunderstands the power structure in this country." What's his misunderstanding?
Mass: The misunderstanding is it has to be bipartisan.
Sanders: I don't want to steal your thunder, Charles, but Cliff, what is the evidence so far of effective bipartisan effort to combat climate change?
Mass: Initiative 732, for instance. The carbon initiative was a very bipartisan group.
Sanders: Can you point to some bipartisan action that has actually accomplished something, somewhere, to combat climate change?
Mass: One example is the bipartisan support of climate research. That is something that is very much evident.
Sanders: Okay, but research has so far not led to action. Charles, Cliff says that you completely misunderstand the power structure in this country and that well-meaning alarmism is, in the end, self-defeating because it inhibits bipartisan action.
Mudede: Yeah. First of all, we have very different political views, or at least very different ways of looking at politics. I'm not convinced at all that the solution to the crisis—and I call it a crisis already—is going to come through the private sector. It's going to come through strong central government action. I don't believe the market will provide any solution that's meaningful.
Sanders: Were you in favor of the Washington State carbon tax initiative last year?
Mudede: I just felt I-732 was cosmetic, as far as I could tell. I think maybe it would have been symbolic if it was implemented. But I want to have, and I think it's necessary to insist on, a real organization of the economy that is orchestrated and conducted by the government with a complete indifference to the needs of the private sector.
Cliff is talking about needing a bipartisan situation. I see that as just gumming up the process. We would just end up being slow. Half the people on the right believe that an ape invented the universe. Do you know what I mean? They're not really going to take a lot of these things seriously or understand how serious it is. Then the other half are completely tied to business interests that are entrenched and that fear being upended by a radical transformation of how we consume in this society. That's it.
We have to change how we move around. We have to change how we buy. We have to change what we buy. Then, if we are wrong and it doesn't get as bad as we thought, my conclusion is it's better to be wrong in that direction than to be wrong in the direction of the climate-change deniers. My question is, which kind of wrong do you want?
Mass: I have a lot to say. First, he's proving my point really. He says only government can deal with this. I hate to tell you, the government is controlled by the Republicans right now. Both houses of Congress and the presidency. You've lost government—if it's Democrats in the government that you care about. So if you're going to get government involved, you have to deal with the people who are in power right now.
Having a middle road opens up doors. The fact is the people who are screaming and exaggerating stuff, they don't get to talk to people. But talking in the middle, I've been able to talk to people like the Association of Washington Business, Puget Sound Energy, people like that. I was able to go to the Rotary Club in Eastern Washington. These people are totally Republican, but I found that they were interested in global warming, they were concerned about global warming. It is possible to reach out to these people and create a middle ground to work on things like carbon taxes, et cetera.
Now, the only way out of this issue is technological. We've tried your way now for the last several years, Charles—the exaggeration, the Democratic administration. What's happened? Very, very little. Carbon dioxide is going up radically right now. And most of it is not even due to what's happening in this country. It's due to what's happening in China and India. So let's talk reality here. What's driving global warming? It's outside of this country. You have situations where people want to live like we live. It takes energy to live like we live.
ROUND THREE: Technology vs. Human Behavior as a Fix
Mass: People on the left do a lot of talking, but they don't do a lot of acting. I find that some of the most knowledgeable people about climate change do the least. For instance, they fly around. Do you ever fly anyplace? Do you ever go on a vacation, either one of you? Well, if you've done that, you've thrown it all away right there. One long trip to Europe is equivalent to commuting a whole year. And people on the left seem to be very happy doing all these flights, and going around the world, but they're throwing it all away every time they do that.
So the solution here really has to do with technology. How do we get technology forward? If we have a national carbon tax, we put pressure on the price of carbon. That will encourage the private sector.
Mudede: My God. Holy moly. The technological fix is, to me, a touch far-fetched considering the scale of the problem. And also considering that right now the government is not even spending that much on research—or as much as it should be. The Republicans, of course, are promoting austerity. Budget cuts are happening all over the place. You cannot have a technological fix if you don't have a well-funded government. The government needs to be able to do that research, and pay for it, and not be obstructed by people who are clearly working in the interest of those who would lose if there is any massive change in the way society is currently configured.
Mass: Charles, facts matter. Much of what you just said is factually incorrect. Let's take research budgets. In fact, the climate research budgets were supported during the recent administration. They rose through the Obama years. They rose even more during the Bush years. We have a healthy research enterprise now in climate research. In one of your headlines, you criticized me for saying that the Republicans were going to protect science. They did protect science. You are factually wrong about that. The research for technology, for climate research, it's all still there. It has not been knocked down by the Republicans. I don't know about you, but I talked to Republican staffers in the House science committee. One thing they told me: No matter what Trump does, they're going to protect science. They're going to protect climate research.
Now, in terms of the technological side, you're wrong about that, too. There's been a tremendous investment in wind and solar energy. That has taken off. There's been a profound change during the last 10 years. Wind energy now has become economical. It's cheaper than oil or fossil fuels. We have made huge progress based on scientific research, technical research that the government has supported. What you're saying is just factually incorrect.
Sanders: What I hear you saying, Cliff, is, "Never mind the way we talk about it. Never mind the political problem. It's not really a problem because technology is going to ride to the rescue."
Mass: It can rise to the rescue. We have much more to do.
Sanders: But what I hear Charles pushing on a lot is human behavior change. He's trying to figure out how you get people off planes, how you get people out of cars, how you get us investing more in Seattle transportation projects that get people out of vehicles that are emitting a lot of CO2. Cliff, you don't sound worried about behavior change.
Mass: Because I think the behavior-change side is a lost cause. The most knowledgeable people about global warming are people in my department—these are people who are the world leaders on climate, they know the problem better than any other people in the world—but they're not stopping themselves from taking that vacation in Europe. They're not stopping themselves from having that second house. They're not restraining their driving.
Sanders: A moment ago, you were criticizing me and Charles for potentially taking European vacations. But you're saying that behavior change on an individual scale is pointless.
Mass: Basically, that's right. It's only the technology that allows you to change your way of life. There was a recent lecture at the University of Washington by Jared Diamond, the guy who wrote Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. I put my hand up at the end of it and I asked, "Has there ever been an example in the history of mankind where people endured economic pain in order to avoid an environmental problem, or any kind of problem, in the future?" He smiled at me and said, "No." I said, "You're not very encouraging about people changing their behavior regarding global warming." He said, "No, I'm not."
Sanders: Charles, you're very focused on changing human behavior.
Mudede: Yes, I am. For example, we're bombarded by car ads, and they advertise in a specific way to say that if you have a car, you're going to have this freedom. They understand that they have to build these habits. They don't just come naturally. We became a car culture through a massive amount of social engineering, which are called car ads. You can reverse that. These things are reversible.
Sanders: Socially reengineer for a sustainable culture.
Mudede: That's right.
Sanders: You have a social-engineering agenda.
Sanders: And Cliff is saying, "Hey, the facts that you're using to support your social-engineering goals are wrong, or at least not yet proven"—and that's undermining your effort.
Mudede: Yeah. He wants technology to keep the system as it is, to keep things as they are.
Mass: No, that's not correct. We've tried social engineering. That hasn't worked. That's clearly a road to failure.
Sanders: So what do each of you recommend an individual do? What I hear you saying, Cliff, is, "There's nothing for an individual to do—"
Mass: No, I'm not saying that.
Sanders: "—wait for the scientists to solve the problem. Wait for the technology gurus to solve the problem. Then do what they tell you." And, Charles, what you're saying is, when it comes to individuals, we need to wait and hear which way the alarm is being sounded, then run in the direction it's telling us to run. Cliff, I see you shaking your head.
Mass: People ask me all the time, "What can I do?" You can do a lot of things that I do and other people do. I bicycle to work every day. That's a low carbon footprint. I have a very economical car. I don't use it very much because I don't use it for commuting. I take mass transit whenever I can. I try to minimize the number of flights I take. Those are the things that I do personally. But quite frankly, no matter what we do here personally is kind of in the noise level. That is the truth. We can talk about doing stuff, but until we solve the problem of China and India, and maybe Africa, then we're not going to solve this problem. CO2 is going to continue to go up. It's a matter of technical practicality here.
Sanders: Charles, I described your position as basically, "Listen to the alarm that I, Charles Mudede, am ringing and then do what I tell you."
Mudede: Yes. That's what you should do. I have no embarrassment about that at all. I have no shame. I say it directly. The situation is dire. It needs action quickly. We're not going to get support from the Republicans on this issue because they have commitments to keep things the way they are. Cliff wants to keep things the way they are—
Mass: No, I don't.
Mudede: —and wants to resort to technology to preserve the American way of life. Technology will come and save us at the last minute. I just don't believe that we're anywhere near that solution.
Sanders: Let's just say I'm ready, Charles, to follow you. What do I need to do?
Mudede: The way Cliff lives—riding a bicycle, not using his car that much, traveling cautiously or at least being selective when he flies—I need to see that in a mass form. I can't just have Cliff doing it. I need to see everybody doing that. When you say social engineering doesn't work—when I was a young kid in the 1970s, there was an advertisement that came on the television, which had a Native American looking at the landscape. He looked at all the garbage and he cried. It hit people. It really made an impact. It had an effect on me. From that point on, I could never toss garbage on the ground. I became very conscious of waste. To me, my job as a person who writes—and I think Cliff should be responsible about this as well—is to tell people that, and to provide the model for how to live in a situation that is defined by the need to make personal behavioral changes.
Sanders: You think Cliff's writing is irresponsible?
Mudede: Yes, I do.
Mass: I don't feel that way. I feel my responsibility as a scientist is to determine what is going to happen due to global warming, find the uncertainties, and communicate that to society, so that society can make decisions about how we will adapt, how we will work on infrastructure, and what we need to do in terms of mitigation.
ROUND FOUR: Strong-Arm Alarmism? Or Faith in the Persuasive Truth of Science?
Sanders: Cliff, it does seem, though—and you've admitted this on your blog recently—that you end up spending a lot more time on the uncertainties than the certainties. Why is that?
Mass: I'm trying to provide some balance here. We have a situation where we have a highly irresponsible media that has now crossed over from providing facts to advocacy. I think Charles is one of the worst about doing this.
Sanders: Charles, you're embracing the idea of advocacy here. What are you trying to do?
Mudede: I've said it before: I want people to change the way they live quite profoundly. That's what I'm about. I'm the bearer of bad news, because I know it's really hard to change your ways. Also, the society promises us that we will get these things.
Sanders: Is that what's lying beneath some of your concern about Cliff? A suspicion that with all his question-raising, Cliff is really just trying to defend his unsustainable middle-class life?
Mass: That's completely foolish. That's not cool.
Mudede: It's not you. You live in a way that I would say is admirable. But most Americans don't live that way, and it's important to show them, like, "No, you should actually change."
Mass: But you won't change them. That's the point. You've tried your approach. You have failed.
Mudede: No, I haven't failed. I'm still working.
Mass: You have failed. And you have failed because you haven't reached out to the other side. Your approach is what gave us Trump.
Mass: You're calling Republicans names and saying they don't believe in evolution and stuff like that. It's the deplorable thing. The attitude that you are promulgating created Trump. Because you haven't reached out to the middle, you have failed about this global-warming business.
People like me are trying a different approach. Why don't you give us a chance to try, instead of calling us names and saying we're crazy and things like that when we're just trying a different approach than you are?
Mudede: To me, that just sounds a lot like a waste of time. It doesn't sound serious at all because there hasn't been any seriousness from the right about this issue.
Sanders: Cliff, I'm now confused about something. If you rewind our conversation, you brought up the question you raised to Jared Diamond, and how he couldn't think of one example of human societies ever doing something against their economic interests in order to avert future calamity.
So if you believe this, then why do you care what journalists say? Even if we put out journalism that in your mind was purely factual, it wouldn't matter because, according to your argument, people don't act based on real facts when the necessary action is going to adversely impact their way of life.
Mass: But they will make changes when it won't adversely affect their way of life. That's where the technology comes in. If we can use solar and wind power, and it doesn't cost any more, maybe even costs less—they might be willing to make investments in that if they're educated about the technologies and about the threat.
Mudede: No. If we followed his path, we'd still be smoking in cafes today, we'd still be smoking in airplanes.
Mass: That's not true. That was fact-based.
Mudede: That was imposed by the government. That was imposed by the law. You have to take a strong arm, and you have to change society from the top to the bottom. This is how it works.
Mass: What you're saying is scary. You almost sound like you want a totalitarian fascist leader to take over and do the right thing. This is terrifying to me. This is—
Mudede: It took fascism for us not to smoke in public areas.
Mass: That's not fascism. It was good science. There was good science done showing that secondhand smoke causes cancer, and so the government took action.
Mudede: What's wrong with that?
Mass: There's nothing wrong with that.
Mudede: Why don't we do that with climate change? There's a consensus that it's real. Why doesn't the government step in? Because the Republicans are in the hands of people who have interests in keeping things the way they are. I got you!
Mass: One thing I've got to mention here is that we can't cry wolf. In your approach, Charles, we go wrong with all this exaggeration. Then, 10 years later, people find out it didn't happen. What then? I'll give you a good example. About 10 years ago, there were certain mayors in the city who were saying, "Oh my God, the snowpack is disappearing due to climate change. This is it. We're never going to have the snowpack again. It's due to climate change." Then a few years later, all of a sudden, it turned out we just had a bad year or two, and then the snowpack came back. If you start claiming stuff like that, and then it doesn't happen, people will look at you and say, "How can we trust the climate scientist? How can we trust you if you're giving us information that is wrong?"
Mudede: No. Actually, I commend the mayors for doing that because the—
Mass: But it was false.
Mudede: Because if they were right, what a catastrophe. If they are wrong, the snow came back, so what was lost? What was lost?
Mass: It's not my responsibility to hype or exaggerate things. It shouldn't be yours, either. You should tell the truth.
Mudede: There's no crisis?
Mass: There's no crisis. There's no cliff you could go over right now.
Mudede: I wanted to hear that from you, because—
Mass: That's the best science that's available.
Mudede: Yeah, that's a big problem. There is no sense of a crisis in terms of global warming right now.
Mass: So you want to panic people with information that's not true.
Mudede: Panic made people vote for Obama in 2008, because they freaked out that the Republicans would not be able to help them out of the economic crisis. When I'm talking about climate change, and worry, and action, I want you to be so freaked out that you do not, you cannot, throw a vote away—
Mass: You tried that—
Mudede: No, we haven't.
Mass: Did you see what happened last election? You tried the same thing with Trump. The left tried to panic people. Well, Trump became president.
Sanders: Here's what I hear Charles asking: Isn't it better to alarm people into action before we reach a point at which the earth's temperature is rising much faster than our ability to reverse it?
Mass: To stop us from getting to these higher numbers, what we have to do now is so draconian that people will not do it. If you want to prevent a two degrees centigrade increase, we have to reduce our carbon emissions by 90 percent now—right now.
Sanders: Well, that's what Charles wants.
Mass: I know that's what he wants. But he ain't going to get it. He can want all the money. He can want this totalitarian guy to take over. He ain't going to get it.
Mudede: No, it's not totalitarian. I'm actually thinking that transmitting a stable climate to the next generation is as democratic as I can get. I'm sorry.
Mass: No, you want to lie to people, to get a totalitarian person in to force them to do what's good for them. This sounds like Hitler and Mussolini. It's really scary.
Mudede: Well, I'm a green Mussolini. Call me that.
This debate excerpt has been edited for clarity and condensed for ease of reading. For the full, unedited audio of Cliff Mass vs. Charles Mudede, go to thestranger.com/massvsmudede.