Climate Change Denial: Fiction, not Fact

In 2006, 80 percent of Americans agreed that there was solid evidence that the earth was warming. Today, that number is below 70 percent. Yet, the scientific basis for climate change is stronger now.

Inputs to the public debate have also changed: previously it was often about how to effectively respond to global warming and maintain economic vitality; now it is more frequently about whether a response is needed.

As implausible as it might at first appear, one reason for the lowered acceptance and shifted debate might be extensive efforts by intransigent climate change skeptics, termed "deniers," to introduce misinformation and deliberately seed doubt in the public's mind. A recent letter, a paid advertisement opinion, an October op-ed, and a July letter in the Manchester Journal are all cases in point of deniers' efforts that may be linked to a stimulus of such activity nationwide, as I will show. This article informs about the well-funded climate change doubt campaign and uses these local cases as examples. In her Nov. 8, 2013 letter, Janet Saint Germain supported John McClaughry and his most recent anti-climate change op-ed. She falsely claims that global warming has stopped. I addressed this spurious notion extensively in a Journal letter (Aug. 8, 2013). As I and others have pointed out, Mr. McClaughry has said demonstrably incorrect things about climate change in three op-ed pieces over the past year, most recently on Oct. 17, 2013. Ms. Saint Germain purchased a half-page in the Nov. 8, 2013 Manchester Journal to showcase an op-ed by 16 scientists and engineers whose credentials she praises. Entitled, "No Need to Panic about Climate Change," it first appeared nearly two years ago, Jan 27, 2012, in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ). Although long ago debunked, it rises Phoenix-like to try again to lead us into confusion. A search reveals their op-ed was promptly and substantively criticized in the letters pages of the WSJ. One letter from 38 climate scientists' called out the group of 16 for misinforming on the science. The group unapologetically defended their op-ed in a Feb. 21, 2012 "response to critics" letter to the WSJ editor.

In the Nov. 15, 2013 Manchester Journal, Seth W. Bigelow's letter to the editor, "Climate Change Deniers Ignoring Science Data," corrects three of the group's mistakes: (1) warming has not abated as evidenced, for example, by the sea level continuing to rise, (2) their weakly supported claim about the benefits of unfettered carbon dioxide production is not worthy of serious consideration, and (3) deliberate, focused urgency is in fact needed to mitigate the effects of climate change - no panic necessary. He concluded, and I concur, their misrepresenting the science and diminishing the need for urgency has done readers "a disservice." Since the WSJ 16 scientists' op-ed is an archetype of what obdurate climate change skeptics continue to put forth and since it has been resurrected anew for the Manchester Journal, it may be worth additional examination. While not without some useful thoughts and a recommendation, the op-ed contains misrepresentations and half-truths, false or misleading information, and questionable observations. It's not possible in this space to cover all examples of these. Dr. Bigelow has specifically treated three. I'll address three others.

The op-ed's coverage of the Journal of Climate Research controversy seems disingenuous. The article referenced by the 16 and defended by them, was not factually correct and had severe methodological flaws, contrary to what they assert. Therefore, it should not have been accepted for publication (search online for "Soon and Baliunas Controversy"). When the article's serious shortcomings were revealed, the resulting brouhaha ultimately led to the resignation of several of the Journal's editors (not just one martyr as the op-ed would have you believe) and the eventual repudiation of the article by the publisher. This was more a case of the scientific process self-correcting and a Journal trying to save its reputation than climate scientists extracting a pound of flesh. Very different from what the op-ed portrays.

The meaning of climate scientist Kevin Trenberth's email message to colleagues is seriously misrepresented. (See online WSJ Feb 1, 2012 letter: "Kevin Trenberth and 37 Others"; also see "Climate Research Unit Email Controversy.") Their comparison of the conduct of climate science to the USSR's Lysenko episode is reprehensible. Decades of shared, peer-reviewed international climate change research do not compare to what happened under centralized Stalinist political control regarding genetics and agriculture in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. The listing of unsavory insinuations used to suggest there are money-related compromising reasons why climate scientists might passionately want to get an important message across rings false. Again, the odious comparison: "Lysenko and his team lived very well, and fiercely defended their dogma and the privileges it brought them." This is not how science and scientists work or even could work internationally in the 21st century. Generally speaking, scientists feel an obligation to pursue the truth regardless of the implications and they are often passionate about their work and communicating it. Peer review normally assures quality and value of published results. Open publishing lays bare each climate scientist's work; it is a constantly self-examining, eventually and inevitably self-correcting, and always assessing process.

Just because a small number of impressively credentialed people have an opinion in WSJ does not in itself lend any particular veracity to their claims. But, there must be more: Substantiated facts must speak for themselves. The opinion of a relatively few, setting aside that they have the hubris to presume to be "speaking for many scientists," does not stand up against the vast collected sum of evidence that overwhelmingly support mainstream scientific opinion on climate change held by many thousands of equally or more knowledgeable scientists world-wide. The doubters refrain "There is no scientific consensus on global warming" is wrong. Notwithstanding bureaucratic, organizational, and procedural problems with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), their collected evidence is corroborated, ultimately persuasive, and broadly accepted.

I urge readers to look online for: "Climate Change and the Integrity of Science," "Scientific Opinion on Climate Change," "IPCC," and "Joint Science Academies' Statement: Global Response to Climate Change." But don't stop there. Also investigate "Exposing the Unscientific Undermining of Climate Change," "Climate Change Denial," "Global Warming Conspiracy Theory," and "Dealing in Doubt: The Climate Change Denial Industry." The next paragraph contains an understated key-points summary of what is supported by substantiated evidence about climate change. Unwavering skeptics attempt to refute nearly every point in speeches, books, articles, and public media.

Compelling evidence of global warming and climate change derives from observations of the atmosphere, land, oceans, and cryosphere. The evidence comes from many science disciplines. It is highly likely that human activity, by loading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases, are causing most of the warming. Not only are sea levels rising, but also the uptake of carbon dioxide is causing significant effects on the chemistry of seawater weakening coral reefs, shellfish, and other ocean life. Most changes are expected to be quite adverse with respect to our developed civilization. Some adverse ones are already upon us. The best available information indicates that decades from now the adverse ones will be worse. Everything the vast majority of climate scientists think they know strongly suggests that effective remedial and adaptive actions are urgently needed. Global warming may take a very long time to slow and turn around if and when nations make a concerted effort to do so - impacts could continue and perhaps grow for several decades or centuries after initiating ameliorating action.

Climate change deniers not only do not accept most of these points, but also they perceive that climate scientists have nefarious motives and that a global left-wing agenda is bent on perpetrating a massive hoax - in other words, a preposterous world-wide scientific conspiracy. Saint Germain dismisses climate change conclusions because they are merely, in her writing, "predictions of the ruling ideology." A revealing choice of words! Such views may have been encouraged by a 2009 controversy (in the 16 op-ed derisively referred to as "Climategate") after 1,000 emails and 3,000 documents were hacked from a major UK climate research center, and out of context fragments describing ongoing research seriously misinterpreted. Fierce political assaults and personal threats against climate scientists followed. Eight investigations found no evidence of fraud or scientific misconduct, but the controversy damaged the credibility of climate science and scientists. All of us are thankful for our nation's guarantee of the freedom of speech, but that freedom comes with responsibility: ensure you speak and write with integrity. Our overall excellent media, in its efforts to provide balanced coverage, is willing to give an opinion an impartial even sometimes uncritical airing - especially if it is in opposition to another. In practice this can sometimes lead to a conundrum. For example, often media will report evidentiary updates from the multi-year efforts coordinating the contributions of hundreds of the best climate scientists in the world juxtaposed against the unsubstantiated opinions of a staunch climate change skeptic - as if both were equally valid. Seeding doubt, the deniers' misdirection of choice, is their best, easiest, and least expensive means of trying to confuse the public about the body of fact that exists. Consider the well-funded Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based American conservative and libertarian public policy think tank which says that it seeks "free-market solutions to social and economic problems" such as global warming. Sounds good, but in fact in the case of climate change it funds misinformation. Reportedly, its annual conferences have become so one-sided that moderate climate change skeptics stopped attending.

It produces inaccurate highly selective counter climate change reports rebutting the IPCC reports, has its own stable of maverick scientists, and actively promotes nationwide that climate change is scientifically uncertain and highly "controversial." Heartland is taking the long-term approach to sowing doubts. It is developing K-12 school curriculum modules that use a "teach the controversy" approach - as opposed to teaching about global warming which the Institute dubs "the alarmist perspective." The Institute's featured "Experts" include John McClaughry, five of the 16 authors of the above referenced WSJ op-ed, and the author of a July letter to the Manchester Journal, Howard Maccabee, who repeated the fiction that global warming has stopped and no action is needed. There does indeed seem to be an influence from Heartland to opinions expressed in the Manchester Journal. One could wish that organizations with the resources and mission of the Heartland Institute would foster broadly-based debates and issue even-handed climate change evaluations.

For the good of the nation and the world, one could also wish that they might use their money to find free market solutions to the problem of climate change. For example, investing in a well-designed phased transition to a low-carbon economy might not only allow the world to avoid the worst risks of climate change, but also drive decades of economic growth.

A recommendation for the Heartland Institute: fully and fairly examine this suggestion and other similar responsible free market possibilities. Publish your results in independent quality journals.

Unfortunately, climate change deniers hope to long postpone the day when there might be a viable international consensus among nations to constructively ameliorate and adapt to global climate change impacts. If deniers succeed, it may be to the detriment of all people of the world that live mid-century and beyond, but it will be a triumph for disinformation.

Richard Scribner, Ph. D. (physics) is a resident of Manchester, he was a U. S. State Department official; assoc. prof. , Georgetown University; research institute director, Dartmouth College; and co-editor of a book on global warming.


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