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Yes, there is a strong consensus on climate change

I have been corresponding about these matters with one of the authors (Dana Nuccitelli) of the lead paper on the subject ( Cook et al. 2013 “Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature“) for some years.

Arctic Sea Ice Volume, from Polar Science Center (http://psc.apl.uw.edu/)

Climate change denial shares many interesting features of evolution denial. Misrepresentation of data, accusations of fraud (remember Climategate?), allegations of non-existent scientific disagreement, reporting on genuine scientific debates about rates and mechanisms as if they were fundamental disagreements of principle, and repeated attempts (especially in the US, at state level) to pass laws requiring schools to “teach the controversy”. In the US, although not as far as I know in the UK, there is strong overlap between evolution denial and climate change denial, both being linked to the Evangelical Right that has more or less captured the Republican Party. In both cases, there are Orwellian mislabellings. Thus the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation is dedicated to the unrestricted exploitation of the planet’s resources, while Evolution News and Views consists of nothing but attacks on the science that supports evolution. We also have the endless and shameless repetition of blatant falsehoods. Creationists keep on telling us that evolution has never been observed, that the fossil record is too sparse to be interpreted, and that there is a “missing link” between humans and their common ancestors with other apes. Climate change deniers seem oblivious to the massive loss of Arctic ice, while trumpeting every intermittent uptick as a major recovery, and use the then unique 1998 spike (exceeded several times since) as if it were an appropriate baseline. Other climate denial falsehoods that refuse to go away include the allegations (repeated on UK TV Channel 4 and elsewhere) that volcanoes emit more carbon dioxide than humans (the reverse is true, by a factor of over 100), and that present warming is due to Milankovich cycles (no; it is much too fast for that). Both have their own glossy websites, and setting up counters to these (such as talkorigins and pandasthumb for evolution, and Skeptical Science for climatology) is a major cottage industry.

Climate change denialists, however, take quote mining and misattribution to a whole new level. Thus denialists regularly accuse climate scientists of having switched from talking about global warming to talking about climate change or vice versa because the case for warming was so weak or because global warming sounds more frightening (versions vary). In reality, it was the denialist Frank Luntz who proposed the change in vocabulary, in an internal thinktank memo leaked to Mother Jones:

It’s time for us to start talking about “climate change” instead of global warming and “conservation ” instead of preservation. “Climate change’’ is less frightening than “global warming”

(In this memo, Luntz shows mastery of how to use words for effect; we would do well to study his methods closely.) And while both kinds of denialists accuse the scientists they are attacking of wholesale fraud, at least the evolution denialists do have one real case they can cite (Piltdown Man), while despite half a dozen investigations in two continents into alleged misconduct, the climate denialists have none.

There are two other important differences. One is scale of funding. The funding available to promote climate change denial is major, large enough to finance attempts to set up an entire bogus curriculum. The other is potential impact. If large numbers of people persist in a creationist view of reality, remaining obstinately misinformed about what kind of universe we inhabit and what kind of creatures we are, that is an enormous pity but has no obvious further implications. But if large numbers of voters, especially in the US, persist in denying our influence on climate, the implications for policy making are very serious indeed.

The Logic of Science

Even if you have never paid any real attention to the climate change “debate,” you have probably seen someone say that, “97% of climatologists agree that we are causing climate change.” This is a number that I have personally cited on numerous occasions, and it is a number that is highly contested by the climate change deniers. Indeed, I rarely mention the consensus without people responding by adamantly proclaiming that the 97% number is a myth, and the study that produced it (Cook et al. 2013) has been debunked. Therefore, in this post, I want to deal with the consensus on climate change from several angles. First, I want to focus on the prominent Cook et al. study and explain what the authors actually did, what they found, and why their study was robust. I also want to deal with some of the common criticisms of their study. Finally, I…

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Denialgate; oil barons caught funding classroom anti-science

Denialgate is the name being given to the leaking of a parcel of documents from the Heartland Institute. This is a thinktank lying far to the right, even by American standards, and funded largely by an extremely wealthy “anonymous donor”, and by the Koch Brothers, oil barons, Tea Party funders, and each of them billionaires 25 times over. As I wrote in 21st Floor,  “ Koch Brothers, US oil billionaires who have spent millions promoting climate change denial (you didn’t think all those well produced “sceptical” or “real science” sites with nice sciency names just happened, did you?)” That may have been the first time that many people have heard of the Koch Brothers, but I fear that it won’t be the last, especially as US Supreme Court recently ruled that privately funded groups can spend unlimited amounts on political campaigns, and they are reported to be spending $60 million to defeat Obama (sound business; much cheaper than losing their tax breaks).

The Heartland Institute has many interests. One of their programs is called “health choice”, and their donors include Altria (that’s Philip Morris, the tobacco people). They fund Fred Singer, famous at one time for advising the tobacco companies on how to cast doubt of the link between cigarette smoke and health problems, but now apparently concentrating on climate questions. Regarding climate, the Institute has a long record of cherry picking and distortion, to create the illusion that the science of anthropogenic climate change is seriously in doubt. The strategy is to urge delay on grounds of uncertainty; to keep on claiming that the science is complicated (true) and controversial (true at one time, but no longer), and hence to infer that it is unwise to sacrifice immediate economic benefits to meet hypothetical future threats (non sequitur; as Margaret Thatcher pointed out 20 years ago, prudence implies the exact opposite). The tactics are to claim that anthropogenic global warming is a giant hoax by self-seeking scientists, and as evidence to present outlying points from the large but noisy available data set as typical. The sort of thing I discussed, in connection with how the Daily Mail (and in the US, Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal) have misrepresented the recent climate record. Denialgate now completes the military metaphor by showing us the Heartland Institute’s logistics.

There are six documents. One, a strategy outline, is quite different in style and tone from the others, and is the only one to have been explicitly denounced as a hoax by the Institute, while according to one of the Institute’s pet “experts”, Anthony Watts of the very professional Wattsup denialist website, PDF metadata confirmed its separate origin. Watts himself is a former TV weatherman, not a climate scientist. But then, climate scientists who deny the reality of anthropogenic global warming are about as common as life scientists who deny the reality of evolution.

The unintended consequence of these denials was to strengthen confidence in the authenticity of the remaining documents, including, crucially, the fundraising plan and budget. Finally, the distinguished environmental scientist Peter Gleick (MacArthur Foundation Fellow, member of the National Academy of Sciences) admitted that he had received the strategy document through the post from an anonymous source, and was then able to obtain the others directly from the Heartland Institute by a simple subterfuge. Heartland is frothing at the mouth over this piece of dishonesty; naturally, I have to join in this condemnation (ROFLMAO).

So what have we learnt? This, among other things:

The Heartland Institute is funded by Altria (better known as Philip Morris, the tobacco people) and by the Koch Brothers, whom we have already met, but most of its money comes from an anonymous donor.

The Institute plans to spend $249,000 on what it calls “Government Relations”.

The Institute is paying $5000 a month plus $1000 expenses to Fred Singer, a physicist who in the past advised the tobacco companies on how to cast doubt on the relationship between smoking and lung cancer, but is now better known for advising fuel companies on how to cast doubt on the relationship between carbon dioxide and global warming. (When questioned about this, Singer admitted to getting money from Heartland, evaded questions on the amount, and claimed to spend it all on student assistance.)

The Institute is also paying $88,000 to Anthony Watts, whom we have already met, for a new Internet venture. His present venture, Wattsup, will no doubt continue. Its main achievement was to perpetuate the myth that global warming was the result of an urban heat island effect, a case that he continues to argue even though, as I reported last week, an in-depth study funded by the Koch Brothers themselves found that this is simply not true.

Most ominously, the Institute is paying $100,000 to one David Wojick to prepare a series of 20 modules for classroom use on the subject of climate change. When challenged by a reporter, Dr Wojick emailed, with no sense of irony, “This means teaching both sides of the science, more science, not less.” (Where have we heard that before?) Dr Wojick really is an expert, but not on education, nor on climate science, but on data manipulation, and we can guess in what ways he will manipulate the data.

Meantime, climate change is increasingly finding its way into the “teach the controversy”, “sound science”, and “academic freedom” measures being introduced into US state legislatures, in parallel with Intelligent Design/Creationism. And while the creationist lobby relies on the generosity of the faithful, the climate change denialists are backed by some of the world’s deepest corporate purses.

[A version of this post has appeared on the 21st Floor site,  and forms part of the content of my article on recent developments in climate change studies in the first 2012 number of The Beacon, the house journal of  the New Mexico Coalition for Excellence in Science and Math Education]

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