Climate Change Clarity

In the November 9, 2012 Manchester Journal, John McClaughry ("Climate Change 'Consensus'"), manipulates the numbers of an opinion survey and concludes that the "consensus" of scientists supporting climate change is "manufactured" and "obviously dishonest." The particular survey may (or may not) be flawed, but McClaughry's broad conclusion is a false assertion since consensus generally means a judgment arrived at by most of those concerned. A consensus is clearly the case with regard to climate change and the knowledgeable, highly-qualified scientists who have researched it for more than two decades. His conclusion was intended, it seems, to cast doubt upon the existence of climate change itself. He also criticizes Gov. Peter Shumlin for recognizing evidence to support man-made climate change and instituting renewable energy initiatives for Vermont.

McClaughry's Op-Ed began by seguing off of a PBS Front Line exploration of the recent negative shift in public opinion doubting the reality of climate change - according to the program because of a largely right-wing stimulated climate change "doubt campaign" and related attacks on climate scientists. His editorial in fact seems to be a case in point regarding that campaign and confirming the thesis of the Front Line program. And, it is a lesson on how to focus on the less consequential, avoid the obvious, create doubt, and turn truth on its head.

By 2012, one might think that possible long-term world-wide climate change and the evidence to support it would be sufficiently established in principle if not in exact predictions that one could have a reasoned discussion of remaining real issues, potential impacts, and what to do about them. Yet skeptics persist in distorting the facts, sowing seeds of doubt for their own purposes, and arguing these points in the public media rather than presenting valid counter data or analysis in scientific journals. All this to delay taking any action.

What are the some of the key facts? According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Climatic Data Center, many lines of scientific evidence show the Earth's climate is changing.

The global mean sea level has risen substantially, much of that due to ocean expansion as it warms. Glacier volume is shrinking and Northern Hemisphere snow cover is retreating. Averaged over all land and sea surface, global surface temperatures have increased roughly 1.4°F over the past century, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which is the leading international body for the assessment of climate change. More than half of this warming has occurred since 1979. The amount of energy from the sun received into the top of our atmosphere shows no net increase over that same period. While seemingly small, as global averages these represent significant changes. Climate scientists working the matter for decades ascribe it as in large measure due to the increased production of carbon dioxide (CO2) (a greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels - ongoing since the industrial revolution. This can be debated, yet there is strong evidence to support it, and skeptic's arguments are scientifically unconvincing however plausible they may seem when aired in the public media.

Furthermore, as mentioned, the oceans have warmed and carry a larger CO2 absorbed burden today that affects their acidity levels and in turn all life in the seas; coral reefs seem particularly affected.

An issue to be further examined scientifically is the question of whether future temperature increases from the greater amounts of greenhouse gases will rise more or less steeply - i.e., the matter of system sensitivity.

We need to remember that primary issues regarding climate change include: (1) whether a real global warming trend exists; (2) whether the warming trend is unprecedented or within normal climatic variations of the past few thousand years; and (3) whether humankind through the release into the atmosphere of massive amounts of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide has contributed significantly to it. Large numbers of scientists, through their research, published peer reviewed papers, and international review by reputable organizations have concluded that (A) overall, there is a clear warming trend - the collected evidence of global warming is real and accurately measured; (B) the warming trend is unprecedented at least over the past 12,000 years; and (C) human activity since the onset of the industrial revolution is the likely primary cause.

Although these issues are regarded in the mainstream scientific literature as settled, secondary issues such as climate sensitivity, possible runaway warming, and refining specific consequences such as just how much might the sea level rise for a given change in global temperature are still the subject of scientific research, analysis, peer reviewed publication, and refinement.

Skeptics, mainly political and not scientific, have recently been very successful in making global warming more controversial and planting substantial doubts in the minds of much of the public regarding the credibility of the climate scientists' measurements, calculations, and projections - even to the point of ascribing conspiratorial and base motives to the huge number of independent scientists studying the matter. Curious indeed, as several of the organizations spearheading the doubt campaign get their money from energy companies and mysterious anonymous right-wing donors according to Front Line.

Unusual or extreme weather and opinion surveys aside, the most thoughtful, prestigious, broadly composed and highly qualified international and national scientific organizations have examined the evidence for global warming and found that it has merit. That is, climate change should not be ignored because there certainly seems to be something real going on. For example, independent analysis by the U.S. National Academy of Science has found strong evidence, to support climate change. Through its research arm, the National Research Council, it has released three reports to date. These are carefully considered, collective, and penetrating reviews, analysis, and conclusions scrutinized and endorsed by people who are top achievers in their various scientific fields and not merely one person's opinion or that of a few zealous climate scientists. They conclude that there is a compelling case based on a strong credible body of scientific evidence that climate change is occurring and is caused in large part by human activities. The three reports emphasize why the U.S. needs to act to develop a national strategy to reduce the output of greenhouse gas emissions, ameliorate impacts, and prepare to adapt as best one can to the inevitable impacts of climate change - it does appear that is too late to turn global warming around. What various scientific organizations are suggesting is taking prudent steps to deal with the trend and its implications rather than putting one's head in the sand or denying the facts.

To be sure, there are scientists, a handful with seemingly impressive credentials, as well as writers and others who disagree. They are relatively few in number and, this point is critical, mostly they do not argue with their own counter evidence in the scientific journals but in the public media or published books (of which there are several) suggesting climate change is a scam or hoax. It is my observation that if a reader comes to a book countering global warming with a mind-set that climate change is a scam, he will find the presented "evidence" in the book convincing unless he thinks critically about it and openly seeks additional information.

McCaughry mentions one scientist who has often been a public advocate for contrarian positions on different issues (ozone, second hand smoke, etc.) over a number of years that go against mainstream thinking and research. One should ask is he correct and the thousands of other scientists working on climate change not? Or, is he is one of a relatively small group of maverick or contrarian scientists who, for whatever reasons, inject themselves into the public debate about contentious scientific issues with political impacts, positioning themselves as skeptics and thereby accorded a disproportionate amount of attention in the public media? There is evidence and a history that strongly supports answers to the questions: no and yes respectively.

It is a commentary on our times and our approach to these matters that the maverick's views often gain more uncritical traction in the public media than perhaps they deserve because the media gives them equal time against multiple massive, legitimate, mainstream, painstakingly-done scientific studies, involving large numbers of scientists. The media does this out of a (misbalanced) sense of fairness. A scientist skeptic should certainly be accorded the right to speak, write, and publish competing evidence, if the latter exists. But, when the vast preponderance of evidence is supported by years or decades of work of hundreds if not thousands of knowledgeable and equally or better qualified scientists, and also the supposedly science-based statements of the mavericks do not stand up to peer scrutiny, the media needs to ensure, as some do, that the skeptic's voices are placed in context and presented in balanced perspective in any public debate.

The correct forums for evaluating competing evidence (data) and its validity are the peer reviewed journals of science and the reasoned scrutiny of scientific practitioners, not the pages of newspapers and other public media. By and large, the relatively few skeptics are not in the journals with evidence of their own. The media does a disservice to the public by treating such differences as equal in weight; it really is not one person saying this and another saying the opposite - it is more like thousands of knowledgeable people saying this and one person who may or may not be as knowledgeable or as thorough saying the opposite.

Also, it isn't just, as McCaughry might have us believe, a "manufactured consensus" of scientists who are concerned. Governments and international health, agriculture, and development organizations such as the World Bank are urging stepped-up efforts to meet world carbon reduction goals world-wide after looking at what it says could be catastrophic consequences for less developed and coastal countries as we near the end of this century. The World Bank cites the possibility of widespread crop failures and malnutrition and dislocation of large numbers of people from land inundated by rising seas. Perhaps this may not happen to the extent that the Bank fears, but it hopes to spark countries to act more aggressively to achieve climate goals and to prompt poorer nations to begin planning ways to offset the long list of potential impacts. Those could include sea level rises, in the extreme rising as much as three feet higher than the average currently projected rise, a potentially devastating problem for large coastal cities in Asia and Africa. Warming on such a scale could also limit access to fresh water for irrigation and cause heat, exacerbate drought and disease problems and make it more difficult to meet world food demands and needed health and sanitation improvements.

Predicting the course of the world's climate is difficult science, and it is impossible to forecast precisely how technology, demographics, and politics may shape what the world looks like in 75 to 85 years - regardless of how much the temperature increases.

However, the World Bank's report concludes that climate change impacts, near the extreme of the predictions, could push some countries and regions to the brink of collapse, regardless of how hard they try to adapt. Wealthier countries might be able to adapt to the changes, although there is no certainty that adaptation to such a markedly warmer world will be easy, cheap, or even possible. One of the points of contention that skeptics don't want to consider is that not preparing could, in the end, be much more costly!

Politics, not science, fuels the controversy. Climate change has become an issue of widespread political debate, sometimes split along party political lines, almost uniquely so in the United States. Distortion of the scientific issues and avoidance of the likely human responsibility for global warming stem mainly from politically motivated attempts to downplay, dismiss, or deny the entire climate change body of research and implications.

Richard A. Scribner, a resident of Manchester, is Executive Vice President of LaLonde Associates Inc., and a Ph.D. physicist. He was formerly a Director of the Institute of Security and Technology Studies at Dartmouth College and a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He co-edited a 1991 book on global warming research.


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