Don’t a lot of scientists dispute climate change?


There is virtually no doubt about climate change in the scientific community and virtually no doubt that humans are a contributing factor.  There is only a small number of credible scientists who feel that the human contribution may be somewhat exaggerated.  There is a correspondingly small number of scientists who feel that the threat of man-made climate change may be far worse than mainstream science suggests.

A recent survey of scientists published in EOS found that 97.4% of recently published climate scientists believe that human activity is affecting the climate.  This compares shockingly to the mere 58% of respondents from the general public who believe that human activity is affecting the climate.

Almost all of the major scientific societies of the world have issued statements supporting climate science.  These include the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, various national science academies, representing such countries as Germany, France, the United Kingdom, China and others.  The Royal Society of Canada joined with some of these societies to issue a statement in support of the science used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest scientific body in the world, has issued one of the toughest statements on climate change in 2007:

The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society….The pace of change and the evidence of harm have increased markedly over the last five years….

The average temperature of the Earth is heading for levels not experienced for millions of years. Scientific predictions of the impacts of increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels and deforestation match observed changes. As expected, intensification of droughts, heat waves, floods, wildfires, and severe storms is occurring, with a mounting toll on vulnerable ecosystems and societies. These events are early warning signs of even more devastating damage to come, some of which will be irreversible…

The longer we wait to tackle climate change, the harder and more expensive the task will be…

The growing torrent of information presents a clear message: we are already experiencing global climate change. It is time to muster the political will for concerted action. Stronger leadership at all levels is needed. The time is now. We must rise to the challenge. We owe this to future generations.

More importantly, we need to assess the risks of action and inaction.  While it’s understandable that we want to believe the threat is simply not that great, it’s irresponsible to future generations to trust a handful of dissenting scientists over the huge body of mainstream scientific evidence.  If we put our trust in the majority of scientists and they are wrong and climate change is not a threat, then we will have drinkable water, fresher air and cleaner soils at some economic cost.  If instead we bank on the small handful of dissenters and they are wrong, we may end up with a planet that can no longer support much of humanity.  It’s not a responsible choice.

So why do we hear that there is a dispute?

There are powerful interests who benefit from the status quo.  They promote slick ads that exaggerate tiny scientific disputes and make it seem like the whole field is suspect.

I get particular questions about this all the time, and I always dutifully look into them and answer carefully, so I am very well aware of what is out there, though the attacks on climate science do change over time.

To explain the sources of denial thoroughly would require writing a book, and that would be a pointless duplication of efforts because several very good books have already been written on the subject.  For anyone who wants to read and understand the lies and duplicity, and the funding sources, of the denial industry, please read:

Boiling Point by Ross Gelbspan, 2004
Climate Cover-Up by James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore, 2009
Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway,  2010

The summary is this.  The climate change denial industry thrives in the nexus of four potent forces that come together:

1. The fossil fuel industry, particularly the oil industry, but also coal to a lesser extent, which has a great deal of money and a vested interest in making the public believe that climate change is not a problem.

2. Free-market think-tanks that promote government intervention in guaranteeing property rights and corporate profits, but oppose government intervention for regulating health and safety impacts, or labour standards.

3. Professional skeptics who are often scientists who realize that their doubts can be promoted profitably by big and wealthy industries that stand to lose from the conclusions of mainstream science.

4. A compliant media that is supported by advertising revenues from big players in the current economy, most of whom would not benefit from addressing climate change.

Professional skeptics rarely question just climate science.  Many of the biggest players questioning climate science were also involved in doubting the impacts of tobacco smoke, and made considerable profit from this doubt too.  Some doubt evolution, some doubt aspects of astronomy and so on.  Because they are outside the scientific mainstream, they are often attracted to the attention and additional income they can gain by lining up with industries that stand to benefit from their doubt.  And they often speak well outside their field of expertise, casting doubt on a wide range of topics they have no particular authority in.

The fossil fuel industry rarely funds deniers directly.  Almost all funding from the fossil fuel industry is funneled through free market think-tanks.  However, this often allows the industry to dictate which experts and executives advise and direct the organizations.  In addition, fossil fuel industry funds can be used to direct particular projects specifically to cast doubt on the science.  Some think-tanks are actually nothing more than a front for particular industries, with very little else behind them at all.

Industry money, funneled through compliant institutions, is used for marketing campaigns that seek out the most credible spokespeople, exaggerate their credentials and inflate their image.  Slick and catchy ads are developed for public consumption.

While it can be argued that the oil industry, free-market think-tanks and even deniers are just doing what you would expect them to, the media has truly been negligent in carrying out its duties.  Many media outlets respond to complaints from scientists and supporters of science that “conflict sells”.  But this is absurd.  If conflict sells, then they should trot out some of the scientists predicting truly apocalyptic outcomes as often as they trot out scientists who think climate change won’t be so bad.  And in either case, they should do a much better job of screening the people they interview and at least accurately describing their credentials.  What we too often get is a sober climate scientist with decades of work in the field carefully laying out the case for climate science put up against a colourful fast-talker whose expertise is in politics or weather reporting (an acting job requiring no knowledge of atmospheric science).  Both are presented as “experts”.  It is absurd to treat these sides as deserving equal attention or consideration.

Common arguments against climate science

I will address just a few of the most common arguments that deniers often use below.  For more complete answers to the claims made by climate change deniers, please go to any one of several excellent sources:

Skeptical Science – easily readable explanations of common denier deceptions.

RealClimate – climate change disputes presented by climate scientists.

Deep Climate – a Canadian site exploring the claims made by climate deniers.

Climate Progress – a good site from Joe Romm, not a climate scientist but a physicist and energy advisor.

deSmogBlog – a fierce and biting anti-denier blog with a database of information on deniers, their sources and funding, it was established in 2006 by James Hoggan, now executive director of the David Suzuki Foundation.

Climate Denial Crock of the week playlist – almost as colourful as some of the ads from the deniers.

Source Watch – a project of the Center for Media and Democracy, Source Watch is a database of media sources which details their known funding and biases.  I often find it useful when evaluating the credibility of various competing claims.


What about the 30,000 scientists suing Al Gore?

No one is suing Al Gore. And if they did, they would lose.

It’s much more effective to make a public threat than to pay the legal costs of a failing lawsuit.

I have seen no credible, peer-reviewed science that could convince me otherwise.

The 30,000 “scientists” often referred to originated with Frederick Seitz, who died in March of 2008.  Frederick Seitz was a professional skeptic or denier, with links to the oil industry.  He had spent decades denying that smoking caused cancer under the pay of cigarette companies.

Frederick Seitz was also a former president of the National Academy of Sciences.  In 1998, he issued the “Oregon Petition”, written in the style of the National Academy, to a large number of working scientists asking them to sign on.  Many scientists, most with no special skills in climate science, were misled and duped into signing on.  The National Academy of Sciences immediately repudiated the petition.

The petition remains online, asking “scientists” to sign on.  It is interesting that of over 31,000 signers now online, fewer than a third claim PhDs.  There are very few people who I would call scientists who have no doctorate.  Even these fewer than 10,000 are experts in very divergent fields.  Virtually none are climate scientists.  There is no control to confirm the credentials claimed, either.

Scientific American performed a survey of the petition signers.  They randomly selected 30 PhDs who had signed the petition and discovered that among this group, at least 9 either no longer agreed with the petition or couldn’t even remember signing it.  Only one individual was a climate scientist.  There was no trace of 4 signers.

This is not a serious petition by credible individuals.  It is a publicity stunt paid for in part by the oil industry and elevated by media looking for controversy and not doing the necessary homework to look into its sources.

Hasn’t the planet been cooling since 1998?

Only deniers say this, primarily on blogs funded by the oil industry.  Among credible scientists, even those who think the problem may not prove to be so bad, I know of none who think it is cooling.  For example Richard Lindzen, darling of the deniers, has been known to respond to this question with “I don’t argue with thermometers”.  He accepts that the Earth has warmed, he just doesn’t think that the pattern will necessarily continue in the way most climatologists predict.

There are 5 large data sets of world temperatures.  Both NASA and the MET office keep both terrestrial and space-based records of the Earth’s temperature.  There are also measures of sea temperatures.  Of these data sets, only one records 1998 as the hottest on record.  For many years, deniers trumpeted this one data set as the only reliable one, and cited it as proof that the world is cooling.

The dataset that shows 1998 as the hottest is the MET office space-based one.  Deniers will say that space-based measures are more reliable because they don’t involve human interference in measurement.  But climate scientists point out that space-based measures are bombarded with all kinds of interference as well, and are equally complicated to standardize.  I have no doubt that if only a terrestrial measure showed 1998 as the hottest years, deniers would find a way to discount space-based measures.

And climate scientists have always said that there would be unusually hot years and unusually cold years, and even hotter decades and colder decades, all within a generally warming trend.  There is no doubt that the general trend is for warming.  This last decade was the warmest on record, the previous decade was the second warmest and the one before that was third.  What’s more every single one of the warmest 10 years on record has occurred in the last 12 years.  It is very difficult to look at these facts and conclude that it is cooling.

In fact, even before the record-setting hot year of 2010, the Associated Press commissioned a set of independent statisticians to look at temperature data without telling them what the data represented, and they concluded that the data showed a warming trend.

What is true is that during the last decade the rate of warming has been slower than it was in the two decades before that.  Scientists are not entirely sure of the reasons why, but the trend is slight and has various possible explanations, which are well understood by climate scientists.

Weren’t climate scientists caught lying when internal emails were revealed?

Following the storm unleashed after internal emails were stolen and published on line, five independent inquiries all exonerated the scientists, though some recommendations were made for going forward.  The academic integrity of scientists is not in any doubt.

For example, the infamous reference to “Mike’s Nature trick” refers to a “trick” that was openly revealed in a research paper that Michael Mann published in the journal “Nature”.  It was a “trick” of statistical manipulation, but it was never hidden from anyone.   No one was “tricked” or deceived, nor were they intended to be.

Wasn’t it shown that IPCC data is made up and unreliable?

There was one reference to the rate of melting of Himalayan glaciers in the last IPCC report that was shown to be unsubstantiated, and the IPCC recognized the mistake.  Note that the fact that Himalayan glaciers are melting is not in doubt.  However, they are not expected to melt as quickly as the IPCC suggested.

The last IPCC report is thousands of pages long.  It was written by 450 scientists from 130 countries serving as lead authors, another 800 contributing authors and with over 2500 experts providing over 90,000 review comments.  It was an enormous project that took years to complete.  I refer to the sections I need, but I have not read the whole thing.  I imagine very few people have.  The standards for including papers in the report are very high.  This one claim failed to live up to the standards for the rest of the report.

This error is unfortunate, but also unsurprising in a project that is so big.  And it in no way invalidates the long and careful work that went into the report.

What deniers fail to say is that in spite of careful work by climate scientists involved with the project, the IPCC actually underestimated the climate change impacts going forward.  Not only do newer models anticipate more greater climate change impacts, but some of the changes are happening so quickly that we can know not just in probability but with certainty that the predictions were wrong.

The most glaring example of this is the IPCC prediction that by 2080 to 2100, Arctic ice might decrease by 22-33%.  In 2007, the same year this prediction was published, Arctic sea ice decreased by 39% below the long-term average in a single year.  Although the extent of sea ice recovered slightly in subsequent years, the ice was thinner so the overall volume remained low, with 2010 marking the year with lowest sea ice volume on record.

This is part of the reason why deniers should not be taken seriously.  They are quick to pounce on any tiny error made in the IPCC reports that might have overstated the case for serious human interference in the climate, but they fail to note the cases where there are much more serious concerns that climate scientists have been too timid in their projections and human induced climate change may be far more serious.

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