Republicans vs. Democrats: Why Washington is stuck on climate change (Part 2)


Image by DonkeyHotey/Flickr

Look at the polls: Twice as many Democrats as Republicans say that most scientists agree that climate change is occurring.  But why don't conservatives believe in climate change?  For some progressives, the answer is easy: Republicans are dumb or backwards or fooling themselves.  They may feel the same about me, since I don’t think it ever makes sense to write off a hundred million of your fellow Americans as fools for disagreeing with you.

It is certainly true that partisanship drives a lot of the opposition.  President Obama is for it, so they are against it.  Al Gore is the face of climate change, so it must be wrong.  That’s an irrational approach to any issue, but it is something we all do. Democrats should try this thought experiment: If Dick Cheney were promoting an issue, calling on Americans to make it a national priority and touring the country with a fact-filled slide show, would you be willing to agree with him?

Gallup Poll


You might say it would depend on the facts he was presenting, but if I honestly ask myself the question, I know it would be very hard for me to stand on his side. 

Or look at the issue of missile defense. There may be plenty of reasons to be skeptical of missile defense, but for most progressives who don’t follow the issue closely (like me), I think our opposition is rooted in the fact that President Reagan first promoted it.

Progressives are no more interested in having their cities bombed than Republicans are in having them flooded, and very few non-experts on either side really understand the complex science of either issue. But we have taken our cues from the leaders we trust, and instinctively oppose those with whom we generally disagree.  (Just to be clear, I’m not arguing the relative merits of missile defense and climate action. My point is simply that tribalism and partisanship tends to color our judgment.)

So it makes sense that conservatives would start out as skeptical toward climate change. But once every major scientific organization has concluded the science is right, shouldn’t they get past that?  After all, the consensus view of climate science has been endorsed by the august and stodgy National Academy of Sciences, which President George W. Bush called the “gold standard” of scientific inquiry. 

It may be that a more important reason many conservatives are reluctant to accept the science of global warming is that the solutions worry them.  Addressing the problem will require national policies (and international cooperation) that shift our economy towards clean energy, and the GOP generally wants less, not more, government.  So conservatives are going to demand very strong evidence that the problem is real and dangerous.

Still, I believe that for most conservatives, the bar of proof is not set infinitely high.  When they see a real, dangerous threat, they get behind government action.  For example, Republicans support the Centers for Disease Control’s work to fight epidemic diseases and FBI efforts against organized crime. Similarly, once conservatives are convinced that climate change threatens our way of life, they will support policies to address the problem. Their solutions may be different from EDF’s, but that’s a debate the nation would benefit from having.

Keith Gaby

Keith Gaby

Explores the intersection of politics and climate change.

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When Herman Cain ran for president, people's opinion of Godfather's Pizza suddenly became politicized:

So you're right, the messenger matters, but OTOH it seems unimpressive to me to that the Democratic presidential nominee from 2000's position is more important to conservatives than the Republican nominee from 2008's position.

I think this is more a matter of politics and psychology than of science. Psychologically, I'm betting that the most attractive argument for conservatives is that we climate realists have a systemic argument that provides closure, while denialists have nothing but an insistence on coincidences or conspiracies:

(BTW, enjoying your stuff, Keith - keepit up!)

I think you're absolutely right that it is more about politics and psychology than anything substantive (though there are substantive issues about regulation, markets, and the role of government). On many issues, people take the position which makes them feel comfortable -- based on community, ideology, family and other factors. We need to figure out ways to open up a conversation that recognizes those obstacles.

I agree with the author on the causes of a polarized and politicized view of climate change, but proof won't bring conservatives to immediate action. Unfortunately, severe weather patterns (and their causes) can't be linked to particular causes in quite the same way that disease or crime can. Rather, I think conservatives' acceptance of climate change will be part of a slow trend as the political culture changes.

What concerns me most is the time cost of debating denialists. We're all expecting that even the most fervent tribalistic deniers of climate change will change their tune after some Big Event. But by analogy I ask, what if Pearl Harbor had happened AFTER the Nazis had taken over England and Russia had already taken over Europe and so our sole political Big Event for getting into WWII was too late? If we keep hoping and waiting for climate change deniers to wake up to a Big Event, science is already telling us it will be Too Late.

I think you’re right, we are not going to find a silver bullet that will change the minds of people who are committed to denying the existence of climate change. There are always going to be some citizens who will ignore all evidence, no matter how powerful, if it suits their personal or partisan needs. So we need to concentrate on those who disagree with on a more rational basis – perhaps mistrust of the messengers they’ve heard, or fear of a big government solution, or that they haven’t had an opportunity to study the evidence closely. And I think big events can move people, at least for a time, but certainly the hard core denialists won’t be among them. Our society made great strides on civil rights and women’s rights by ignoring those who were steadfast against progress, hopefully we can do the same on climate.

I doubt a significant number of people can be found who deny that climate changes. That it has not significantly changed beyond expectable annual variations for decades and that global temperature hasn’t risen for seventeen years is no proof that climate isn’t changing: the Sahara desert has been expanding for eons. That may be a manifestation of climate change. The issue is one of significant anthropogenic cause; whether man’s activities change climate at all or what percentage (positive or negative) is attributable to human activity. The significant failure of the climate fearmongers models to conform to reality goes a long way toward discrediting their theories as has the patent manipulation of statistics and the collaboration on falsehoods in support of their claims. Not to mention the lame excuse that anthropomorphic global warming isn’t creating a temperature rise because the coming ice age is pushing temperatures an equal amount in the opposite direction.
The evidence which is insistently being ignored by the majority of the True Believers is that they are being had. They are in the position of the Heaven’s Gate followers who believed a flying saucer was coming to ? – whatever they were promised.
This has nothing to do with real climate change. Climate change is an inescapable reality and will always happen. Since every area is acclimated to its current climate, most changes will have negative consequences for that area. Attributing it to human activity has yet to be proven and the improbable predictions of global warmers have not been realized. The attempts to correlate their predictions with reality have fallen flat and, as they are losing their followers, the core believers become, increasingly, a dedicated ritualistic sect and transition from a popular movement to a statist hierarchy with a significant financial interest in AGW, pushing their agenda on the unwilling by legal and political regulation.


One of the more annoying aspects of debating a progressive is getting past the name calling. If I disagree with your position, I become a "tribalist denier"?. But we can look beyond that juvenile tendency for a moment. Here are a couple of things that make the progressive debate a little difficult to swallow: Sea levels are rising. Where? These sky-is-falling scenarios never happen where they can be seen. Florida, Texas, NY, California etc. aren't losing beach front property to the ocean.

As for believing those who screech the loudest on the subject, I will have a little more faith in Al Gore's "science" when he parks his private jet and his limo. I don't how you miss the hypocrisy in Gore flying around the world in a Gulfstream to make speeches about how my truck and air conditioner are killing the planet. When the leadership of the movement abandons the "do as I say, not as I do" attitude, I may listen to them. Until then, they are nothing more than a source of more hot air.

As for whether the climate is warming, of course it's warming. I remember being taught the "inconvenient truth" in elementary school that 25000 years ago north America was under a glacier 2 miles thick. But that melted before the advent of the internal combustion engine so we can't to talk about that. Where is Lake Bonneville? Why did the Anasazi abandon their cliff dwellings in the American southwest? The answer of course is "climate change"! But since we can't blame big oil or Dick Cheney for things that happened between 1000 and 10000 years ago those points make me a denier.

Oh, and BTW, do a google search on world war 2. Pearl Harbor happened after the Battle of Britain and after the Nazis invaded Russia so your analogy is flawed.

A better way to convince conservatives would be to present actual evidence to support the catastrophic man-made global warming claim. Wild sky-is-falling claims and clear propaganda films do not make a rational argument.
We have abundant evidence that alarmists doctored data to create an illusion of warming not supported by the evidence, planned to delete FOI material, conspired subvert the peer review process and destroy the careers of prominent skeptics. That is not a way to convince people the science is sound.

You might want to look up the page and read some.

A very kind to Republicans article. Unlike Gore, Cheney lied about WMD's in Iraq. Once proven a liar, a person loses all credibility. The planet IS hotter yet the GOP persist in their insane view that global warming isn't real. Money is their god and as long as coal and oil earn big bucks the GOP will be in favor of them, and as long as there is a profit to be made someone will sell them. Look at cigarettes; people still smoke even though they've been proven to kill. Sadly, we must turn our efforts towards mitigating the effects of climate change. We must decide between evacuating large areas of the coast or building huge infrastructure projects to protect them. I have no idea what can be done when there are even more severe droughts and crop failures in the mid-west, but I have no expectation that enough people world-wide will change enough to stop further CO2 release, much less get us back down to 350ppm.

Wow! Now I know the argument is over for sure. A Physician has spoken!!! He knows that Cheney lied. It is not possible that Cheney was right or that he was mistaken? Is the rest of this screed "scientific" or just more of the same drivel that will never convince the unscientific "layperson" like me? I am not a "scientist" but I know what the Scientific method is. When I get a fool like this on a witness stand, I use my training in logic to their dismay.

By the way, let me give you more ammunition to completely destroy me: Veteran WWII USMC, Korea USAF and Vietnam USAF Pilot.

I thank you for your service, Mr. Schneider.
Cheney’s comments on the Iraq WMDs reflected what was known at the time. That Saddam had WMDs was not contested, and he used them on the Kurds, so there is no doubt he had them. That they were not found in the quantities expected does not prove he didn’t at some point have them, and they may have been a source of the presence of weapons in other Middle Eastern countries. Most governments seem to have accepted the validity of intelligence reports regarding the WMDs at the time.
I can only assume, by the same standard applied to Mr. Cheney, that the good doctor holds that the spokesmen for the seventies ice age and the current Global Warming promoters whose projections have failed to materialize were also lying – rather than merely being profitably mistaken.
I find it tragic that the climate issue has become a war of beliefs in which what is happening and why has been pre-ordained and all that is left is to prove it. It is a valid area for research, the very meaning of which denotes looking for an answer, not trying to prove an answer contradicted by observable phenomena.
And I have over twenty years experience in print journalism, which probably sets me up for some sort of attack. I have been amused by quite a few of them in the past. And Logic is a dying art.

Controlling the weather has been the dream of a very small segment of mankind for eons, and has now evolved on a grandiose scale into controlling the climate. Given that there is really no precisely measurable effect on long term climate of anything done by mankind because the anthropomorphic effect on the total biosphere are exponentially small compared to those generated by nature, e.g. Mt. St. Helena instantly blasted into the atmosphere more pollution than generated by mankind since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the predictions and models generated (at no small cost) by the Global Warming true believers have been, let us say kindly, not entirely accurate. We survived the Ice Age of the seventies. The global temperature hasn’t risen in seventeen years and gondolas have not replaced the ubiquitous taxi cab in Manhattan. Speaking of Venice, it’s probably sinking. The current position on why the end of the world hasn’t happened on schedule is that Global Warming is forestalling the coming ice age – which is O.K. with me. Al Gore has been a farce from the start – the coming Al Gore disaster has not driven him to give up private planes, driving SUVs in convoy and living in a home that consumes twenty times the electricity of the average home in his neighborhood. And who has made more money off Global Warming (carbon credits, anyone?) than a highly successful carney barker evangelist. The hoops through which the government funded alarmists have leapt to adjust figures, even to the point of conspiring to manipulate, hide and falsify data, would overwhelm Barnum & Bailey. The True Believers have even dropped the subterfuge and are now openly saying that Truth is Truth because they believe it, and Lies are Lies because they don’t. They are priests and acolytes of the True Faith, determined to sic the Climate Inquisition upon the soulless non-believers. Their increasingly naked agenda, stripped of the climate rational, is not saving our souls or our planet (forestalling an ice age is bad?) – it is global control of human activities.

Another favorite trope of deniers: "In the 1970s they said we'd have an Ice Age. See, those scientists don't know nuthin."

Reminder: that was 40 years ago, before remote sensing and computers that have the ability to process massive amounts of data, and before nearly all of the field work relevant to climate change that has contributed to the models. And the models, also not available in the 1970s don't just predict the future and hope. Researchers are constantly feeding them actual field data so that they can then use it to compare their predictions. But this is all falling on deaf ears, I know. The science Gore brought to the public is not a farce, and his personal carbon footprint doesn't change that one way or the other. Demonstrate, won't you, a couple of the "hoops through which government-funded alarmists have leapt." And don't use an indeterminate "they." Give us facts. Show us where the misrepresentation lies. Show me on the side of those who say climate change is real and happening and dangerous to human well-being even 1/1000th of what the denial machine has done through PR efforts to "sow doubt about the science" (same companies doing the same thing they did when hired by the tobacco companies to deny the link between smoking and cancer. Show, don't tell. And don't bloviate and get off track.

I have always been impressed with the Environmental Defense Fund as an organization with sound economic principles behind it. I was hoping to see that in evidence here, but have not. It should be pointed out that the costs of implementing policies to fight global warming/climate change are known to be enormous, meaning that our standard of living is at stake. It should be pointed out that the messengers of draconian climate change stand to make vast sums of money off the issue and proposed policy solutions. This could explain the support of Goldman Sachs, General Electric and, of course, Al Gore. In the crony capitalism of today, such interests should not be ignored. In similar vein, the proposed policy "solutions" are very statist. So Republicans of the libertarian Rand Paul ilk, which seems to dominate the rank and file these days, are rightly concerned about the cost to human freedom.

So the costs are high, the prominent alarmists have much to gain, and freedom is at risk. If the world is about to boil itself to death, then those matters might well be ignored. But is it? Carbon dioxide levels keep rising, but temperatures don't. Temperature data points in earlier studies turn out to be suspect, such as not being moved away from expanding urban heat islands or being placed near unpaved roads that have since been blacktopped. Then there is the science of sunspots, seeming to explain a great deal of climate irregularity. Over the centuries, mankind has adapted on its own to climate changes, or do we forget that the Great Plains was once called "The Great American Desert"? All in all, it sounds like the benefits are quite uncertain. Certain costs with uncertain benefits suggests caution. That should be EDF's message.

I would hate to see EDF move away from its historical emphasis on market-based solutions and toward statist, central planning ideas that so appeal many of the climate alarmists. Does that make me a Republican? Perhaps. Does that mean I urge caution in incurring costs when the benefits are highly uncertain? Absolutely, especially when some costs might be irreversible. And no, just because Al Gore is a self-serving hypocrite does not mean that I can not make rational decisions on my own. Again, I thought this article should have taken a higher plane of respect for arguments you should probably consider seriously from a rational economic point of view.

jeez.If you were the least bit knowledgeable about the evolving body of suggested solutions for climate change and other environmental challenges, you'd know that centralized command and control is not the primary driver of policy thinking. Much more effort is expended on designing market-based incentives to drive behavioral change. Cap and trade relies on a cap on carbon and a market to trade credits for those more or less equipped and/or willing to meet goals. The emerging field of ecosystem services quantifies the benefits nature provides and uses markets to trade credits among those who deplete or protect those services. Did you cry and whine when international agreements were used to control ozone? I doubt it. It worked, and it did not result in one-world government. How or why you think that is the goal of liberal-minded people is beyond me.

You do not get it. You think that because the central planners "nudge" people with incentives to get them to jump through the right hoops in the right ways that there is no central plan as to what constitutes "right." Don't feel bad. The economics profession in its reverence for math models has also gone the central planning route. Does it not bother you just a little that the Duke Energy/G.E./Goldman Sachs crony capitalists are on board your plan. Limiting competition and distributing licenses to the connected is fine with them. We know you by the company you keep. The company you keep is with the crony capitalists and central planners. Concern for the environment is far down their list of priorities, if it even makes the list at all.

Point missed cleanly. Again. It is not that conservatives don't believe that climate change does, or could, occur. It is our skeptical approach to the belief that MAN-MADE climate change is happening now. No sensible person would deny that major climate shifts have occurred in the past and done so without any contribution whatsoever by man or his internal combustion engines or power plants. That some areas of the globe change in average temperatures is undeniable. That my Suburban or my lawn tractor or Weber grill is causing it is ridiculous.

Butch & Fred.

So. You both just "know" that anthropogenic global warming is not happening. You realize you have to then explain all the following phenomena or go measure it yourself and show that none of these are happening:

1. CO2 levels have risen from 280 ppm to 395+ ppm
2. lower tropospheric temperatures are rising
3. upper tropospheric temperature are declining
4. satellite measured heat imbalance of earth of solar radiance is ~0.6 watts per square meter
5. Ocean temperatures across all measured depths are rising
6. Sea level is rising
7. Ice mass is declining in arctic and Antarctic
8. Glacial ice mass on all 7 continents is declining
9. Bioregions for plants and animals are moving polewards
10. Solar radiance has not increased in the past 50 years
11. Volcanic outgassing has not increase in the past 50 years
12. El Nino/La Nina cycle has been progressively warmer each cycle for past 50 years
13. Frequency of heat waves, droughts, floods and intense storms has increased each decade for the past 50 years

Lets be clear here, thousands of scientists from dozens of competing universities, some even funded by deniers have gone out and measured these phenomena. They've considered natural cycles, solar radiance, cosmic rays, volcanic outgassing as hypothesis to explain these. Turns out those possible causes don't and fail to explain these phenomena. The best remaining explanation is that CO2, which absorbs and re-emits infrared radiation (heat) and has a 200+ year half life in the atmosphere is driving heat trapping by the planet and will take hundreds of years to rebalance the black body radiation it's absorbing. The signature of much of that excess CO2 in the atmosphere has the isotope ratio that correspond with fossil fuel burning.

You don't get to just say "it's not happening" and you don't get to say "it's all fabricated and made up". You actually HAVE TO produce real measurements that contradict thousands of published papers and you have to convince thousands of practicing climate scientists that their understanding is mistaken or flawed. Anything else you say is just your opinion and has no weight and you should be ignored.

Really, how uninformed are you? a) totally, b) completely or c) no evidence will convince you because you just "know" the truth.

The atmosphere is a thin layer of gases over the planet. Increased heat trapping by CO2, CH4, H20 etc, goes into the oceans first. To claim global warming paused for the past 20 years overlooks one simple physical reality - the land and atmosphere are just a small fraction of the Earth's climate (albeit the part we inhabit). The entire planet is accumulating heat due to an energy imbalance. The atmosphere is warming. Oceans are accumulating energy. Land absorbs energy and ice absorbs heat to melt. To get the full picture on global warming, you need to view the Earth's entire heat content, not just lower tropospheric temperature since 1998.

Ocean temperatures all rising for the past 20 years. Extreme weather events all more severe this decade than the preceding decades. Ice melt faster than any previous

Ever hear of the second order of ignorance? That is when you do not know what you do not know. You might want to get a check-up. False certainty is much more dangerous than a touch of humility. Did my link to an article based on a piece in The Economist not meet your oh-so-high standards? Nevermind.

Dude, Benhamin Funar has schooled you. You have presented not a single fact, just a lot of hot air. No wonder you deny warming.

Yes, you have a point. The fault lies in our schooling. We are taught to always go with the feel-good answer and to name call those who are out of favor. Haters. Denialists. Racists. Unthinking shills for Dick Cheney or knee-jerk opponents of anything supported by the inventor of the Internet and master of rising chart-lines Al Gore.

Some of us on the conservative side are less inclined to go with the trendy social group of the sneering and sarcastic and actually apply sound logic and principles. We are less likely to trust the self-proclaimed experts with their blinders on, defining scientist as anyone who agrees with them and publishes in their journals.

Rather, we look to history. Consensus changes. Utopian dreamers end up with fascist and Communist dictatorships. Oh, BTW, that has not even been good for the environment in those countries, much less for personal freedom and prosperity. Even now, here in the U.S.S.A., the EPA is becoming known for its fascist actions and the term "enviro-fascist" hits too close to home. Let's not give an excuse for more of it. If this was a Sierra Club page, I would save my breath debating. It just saddens me to see EDF, an organization I have had close association with in the past, becoming so politically partisan.

A key difference is that the changes are taking place at a much higher rate than they did historically. And sure, the earth was much hotter a long time ago, and it wasn't supporting human life then either. The question is, do you want to have a comfortably habitable planet for a longer or shorter time?

The obstacles that you speak of are only "obstacles" if you take the progressive position. On the other side of the coin the false claims, doctored scientific evidence, and the ridiculous self serving claims of Al Gore, are all "irrefutable absolutes". Redistribution of wealth and power are more likely to be the aim of progressives. Telling the big lie over and over does not make it true. An open discussion of facts is never an option with progressives. They are only interested in an open conversation that discusses the claims of the opposition. The Inconvenient Truths are set in stone.

You can deny the science and flash red herrings all over the place until Manhattan floods, but it won't make the overwhelming body of science go away. That "the Inconvient Truths are set in stone" is your statement, not the other guys. Stalinism, one-world government, wealth redistribution -- you guys always go for the same old bogey men. Don't you feel even the least bit silly trotting out your 50-year-old bromides?

I am not a Republican and I am not a Democrat. I am an independent. I am trained as an engineer and as a result, while I am open to the possibility that those on either side of this issue are right, I want to see data before I take a firm stand.

Like everyone, I have a gut feel on the issue but I have found over the years that a gut feel is often originated in non-scientific influence. A gut feel is by definition, a belief whose origin you are not sure of. If that weren't the case, you'd call it something else. Advertising and politics often have a heavy influence on what seems to be to be experience and judgment. What you call a gut feel may be the manifestation of how you have been influenced by others - regardless of their motives, integrity,intelligence or competence. For that reason, I don't listen much to my gut feel on issues as important as this one. It is okay to use a gut feel to pick a restaurant, but not something as important as this issue because the consequences of being wrong - in either direction - are huge.

I have worked to become knowledgeable on this issue. I have read quite a bit. This includes several books and countless articles. I have been open minded and have intentionally sought out differing points of view. I have not been able to come to a conclusion that I feel confident in based purely on hard scientific data.

I find that there are far more political arguments out there than there are scientific ones. As an example, I have seen countless arguments that go something like this: Thousands of scientists have concluded that this is true. Anyone that disagrees is in denial and must be under the influence of the oil companies. My response to this (besides rolling my eyes) is that I find that insulting and coercive while completely lacking in any information useful in determining the truth.

The mere use of the word scientist in an argument does not make an argument scientific. That is a political argument, not a scientific one. To illustrate, imagine a scientist comes up with a new theory that goes against everything we have held to be true. For the sake of the argument, assume that the theory - as revolutionary as it is - ends up being correct. At the moment the theory is first put forth, it is likely that almost all of the scientists in the world will doubt that it is true. It will take a lot of data to prove the theory and only then will minds be changed. So, if you take a vote of the scientists early in this process, it will overwhelmingly be against the theory (even though the theory ends up being correct in the end). The vote isn't science. The examination of the data by open minded skeptics is what is important here.

In my readings, I have noticed a disturbing trend. I have been able to find several books that have hard data that is rigorously traced to its origins. The books go on to explain the context of the data and they make logical arguments based on the data that support a position. So what is the disturbing trend? All of the books I have found that meet this criteria are on one side of the argument. I cannot find a similar book on the other side. The books that I have found that apply this rigorous method are all on the side expressing doubts about the extent of the claims of the impact of global warming.

I would truly like to read a rigorous book on the other side of the issue. One that includes scientific data and method. If someone can point me to one I will be grateful. I remain open minded but I am tired of reading things that simply attack and seek to discredit the opposition and don't present hard data and logical arguments. There is way too much "everyone else is on board, what's wrong with you" writing out there and I am tired of trying to wade through all that to find an argument worth reading.

I often hear "the argument is over." Whenever someone says this to me, I ask them what they can remember about when the argument was taking place. I ask "what was the defining moment of the argument that convinced you that the position you now hold is the correct one?" To date, there have been two types of responses to this. One is nervous silence and the other is attacking me as a denier. As I said above, I am not firmly on either side. I am merely trying to find data and compelling scientific arguments and I am fine with wherever that takes me.

Calling me a denier when I haven't taken a stand on the issue simply because I ask a question is disappointing. I can't help but be reminded of the story of the emperor with no clothes.

I see a similar response to authors that make scientific arguments against the extent of claims of the impact of global warming. Some even agree, but only to a point. That is apparently not enough to protect them from being attacked personally. Their credibility is questioned on vague grounds and their arguments are rarely addressed by presenting a competing scientific analysis - only political assassination.

So please, someone tell me about a book that presents a rigorous scientific argument on the pro-global warming side of the argument. I will read it and I will be grateful for the reference.

I think there are a lot of people out there like me. We may have a gut feel but we want real data and proof (not the number of scientists that agree but real data and a scientific argument). We can be convinced but it will take hard work, not ridicule and coercion.

If you truly want policy decisions to happen and progress to be made, then you have to do the hard work of convincing the open minded people. There are closed-minded people on both sides of this issue. Railing against them will get you nowhere. There are enough in the middle to make the difference you want. You just have to do some work to get them.