Climate Cooking – How a few billionaires helped push climate science to the extremes


by Roger Pielke Jr.

This is a story of American democracy. In one sense, it’s a noble story. People with shared values came together to petition the government and the public on their political aims, just as envisioned by James Madison in Federalist 10.

In another sense it’s a story of privilege and conceit – the privilege in American democracy that accompanies being mindbogglingly wealthy and the conceit that climate politics could be best pursued by corrupting the scientific literature on climate change.

Before proceeding, let’s make a few things absolutely clear. There is no doubt that climate change is real, and is significantly influenced by our activities, particularly through the emissions of carbon dioxide.  I have long advocated for aggressive mitigation action and adaptation to climate variability and change. At the same time, I have also long argued that upholding scientific integrity should go hand-in-hand with effective climate action.

At the center of the corruption of climate science discussed here sits a highly technical scenario of the future called Representation Concentration Pathway 8.5 or RCP8.5. Longtime readers of THB will no doubt be familiar with RCP8.5 and its consequences, but for anyone needing a quick primer, have a look at our short paper in Issues in Science and Technology.

Today, I add further details to this incredible story by explaining the important role in promoting RCP8.5 played by billionaires Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg.

According to the New York Times, in November 2012, one month after stepping down from the hedge fund he led, Steyer gathered environmental leaders and Democratic party leaders around the kitchen table at his ranch in Pescadero, California. Among those in attendance were Bill McKibben, the founder of, and John Podesta, who had founded the Center for American Progress (CAP) in 2003 to promote progressive causes.1 Today, John Podesta serves as President Biden’s “climate envoy,” recently replacing John Kerry.

At the 2012 kitchen table meeting, Steyer was focused on the question: “How do you make climate change feel real and immediate for people?” He was convinced by attendees that the best way to answer this question was by appealing to people’s pocketbooks, through the economics of climate impacts.

Following this meeting, Steyer invited two collaborators and co-funders to join him — One was Michael Bloomberg, then a political independent who was completing 12 years as the mayor of New York. The other was Hank Paulson, a Republican who was a former CEO of Goldman Sachs and who had also served as Secretary of the Treasury under George W. Bush.

Each of Steyer, Bloomberg and Paulson contributed $500,000 to the initial project, which had the goal of,

making the climate threat feel real, immediate and potentially devastating to the business world

The initial aim was to produce a series of reports, drawing on several young academics and the expertise of external consultants at the Rhodium Group and Risk Management Solutions.

The first report was published in June, 2014 and was titled “Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States.” The Risky Business approach was a clever, if flawed, way to place economics at the center of climate policy.

The approach focused on characterizing the extreme RCP8.5 scenario as “the closest to a business-as-usual trajectory” and centered its economic analysis on that scenario:

we focus on RCP 8.5 as the pathway closest to a future without concerted action to reduce future warming

By focusing on the most extreme scenario as business-as-usual they guaranteed that the economic impacts of climate change that they projected into the future would be eye-poppingly large.

But in generating large economic impacts, the authors of the Risky Business report made two significant methodological mistakes. In addition to improperly characterizing the extreme RCP 8.5 scenario as “business as usual,” they improperly presented other scenarios of the IPCC as representing different policy outcomes, suggesting that we could “move” from one scenario to another: “

Moving from RCP 8.5 to RCP 2.6 (as well as RCP 4.5 and RCP 6.0) will come at a cost

Both of these methodological choices were contrary to the appropriate use of the scenarios, according the modeling experts who created them, and who explained at the time:

“RCP8.5 cannot be used as a no-climate-policy reference scenario [”business as usual”] for the other RCPs because RCP8.5’s socioeconomic, technology and biophysical assumptions differ from those of the other RCPs”

The scenarios are completely independent from each other, and policy cannot “move” us from one to another. Consider that RCP2.6 represents a world with 3 billion less people than RCP8.5. The Risky Business methodology ignored such critical details while promoting a simple narrative.

Dodgy science published by climate advocacy groups is certainly not uncommon and it is usually not that interesting. But the genius of the Risky Business project was that it did not stop with a flashy report aimed at the daily news cycle. It undertook a far more sophisticated campaign focused on introducing its methods into the mainstream scientific literature, where they would take on a life of their own.

For instance, soon after the initial Risky Business report was released in 2014 the Steyer-Bloomberg-Paulson funded work was the basis for 11 talks at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, which is the largest annual gathering of climate researchers.

The next step was to get the Risky Business analyses published in the scientific literature where they could influence subsequent research and serve as a basis for authoritative scientific reviews, such as the U.S. National Climate Assessment.

For instance, a 2016 paper published in the prestigious journal Science from the Risky Business project featured the erroneous notion of moving from one RCP scenario to another via policy, comparing “business as usual” (RCP 8.5) and “strongest emissions mitigation” (RCP 2.6). That paper has subsequently been cited more than 1,100 times (as of April 2024) according to Google Scholar. Despite the obvious methodological flaw, the paper passed peer review and received little or no criticism. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of papers followed similarly in adopted the same assumption of “moving” between incommensurate scenarios.

In another example, a study from the Risky Business project was published in Science magazine in 2017, where the abstract brazenly announces its methodological error:

“By the late 21st century, the poorest third of counties are projected to experience damages between 2 and 20% of county income (90% chance) under business-as-usual emissions (Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5)”

The most extreme conclusion of this analysis was that the United States would see a 10% hit to its economy under the most extreme version of RCP8.5 (specifically its 99th percentile), projecting an incredible 8 degree Celsius temperature change from 2080 to 2099. There is your pocketbook impact!

This prominent paper has also been cited more than 1,100 times in other studies, according to Google Scholar. The 10% GDP loss figure would become the top line conclusion of the U.S. National Climate Assessment the very next year.

That’s a big number!

Publishing papers in the academic literature based on the flawed Risky Business methods was a formula that would be repeated time and time again. Like the introduction of a virus, the misleading reinterpretation of climate scenarios expanded throughout the climate science literature and into leading assessments, and well beyond studies that had any connection to Steyer-Bloomberg-Paulson funding..

The flawed methods spread beyond the academic literature and into policy and scientific assessments. According to Gary Yohe in 2015, the Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies at Wesleyan University and active in climate assessments for many years, the methodology used in the Risky Business project caught on and spread widely:

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How much is Schwabe and Gates making off this swindle?