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The AAAS Steps in to Defend Climate Science

Just two weeks before the release of the latest IPCC report (released Sunday, March 30) and in a growing library of scientific organizational publications on global warming, the American Association for the Advancement of Science released “What We Know: the Reality, Risks and Response to Climate Change.” For climate scientists, and for most of us who try to keep track of what is going on in climate studies, this does not contain anything that is new. Rather it seems to be, once again but always valuable, an attempt by scientific organizations to engage those in the “public” who are skeptical or who simply deny the findings of climate scientists.

Public Views Changing Toward Acceptance

As it turns out, the proportion of those who disagree with arguments about anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming is falling. According to annual March Gallup polling, the proportion of respondents who did not believe human activity is the cause of global warming has fallen back to 40 percent this year, after rising to 46 percent in 2010. During the same period, those who accepted the scientific view that human activities are responsible for global warming rose to 57 percent this year after falling to 50 percent in 2010.

2013piechartbyred2At the same time, the overwhelming consensus among actual scientists who do climate research remains unchanged. James Lawrence Powell just reported on a study of peer-reviewed climate science articles, and found that only 2 of 10,885 articles reject the finding of anthropogenic global warming (see diagram at left). The study examined all articles with the phrases global warming, global climate change and climate change in them. According to Powell, “Only two articles [here and here] in my judgment rejected anthropogenic global warming.” That vertical slice at the top of the chart has been magnified three times to make it visible.

How Science Works

Indeed, the global denial sliver simply has no competing ideas at all. Here’s how science works: You find something or a question interesting (an “ah-ha” moment) and you try to fit it into what you know. When you can’t, you may actually be onto something. So you speculate a little and create a hypothesis. Then you collect data that you believe are relevant to the problem and build a model. When you have both, you run your model with the data you’ve collected to see how it holds up. Much of the time, it doesn’t work out (I’ve had personal experience with this). When it does, you can then talk about beginning to have a theory. This is precisely what global warming/climate change critics don’t do. At best, they’re “cherry picking” — grabbing charts or snippets of data from this, that or the other paper and putting them together in a way that tells a story that they want to sell. But, this is not science. The easy questions to ask are: What is your hypothesis? Where are your data? Where is your model and may I see the results of running it? Usually they change the subject.

Global Warming Deniers are Desperate

In fact, they often try to distract with arguments that have nothing to do with science. Most of the distractions are downright silly, but they’re effective with their audiences. Here are five myths frequently used by so-called  climate science “skeptics” — actually, deniers.

  • Climate change is happening all the time. What we’re seeing today is

    CO2 in the atmosphere over 800,000 years

    Scripps Institute of Oceanography

    caused by natural forces.  There are two problems here. This ignores the role of greenhouse gases, like CO2, which have been understood since the 19th century and have increased more in the last 130-plus years than in the last 800,000 years, during which we had four major glacial periods and a few minor ones (see here). Scientists have actually run their models excluding the recent CO2 emissions and found that the predicted path is to lower temperatures. So, clearly something is different and that something is the rising level of CO2

  • Temperatures have leveled off and aren’t rising now. Usually, they say that there’s been no upward trend since 1998. This is loading the dice: As any meteorologist will tell you, 1998 was an “El Nino” year of particular intensity that raised temperatures unusually high. So we can say two things: First, if you compare the last decade of the prior century to the first decade of this one, the latter was warmer. Second, climatologists will tell you that there was a slowdown in the increase in surface atmospheric temperatures and they’re actively investigating why. One candidate for this evidence is absorption of heat by the ocean — its temperature is rising.
  • Scientists are politicizing science, thereby discrediting themselves and their efforts. In fact, scientists came slowly to the public discourse and then only when they thought there were important reasons to do so. (See, Weart, chapters 4, 7, and 8, below).
  • Global warming is a plot by the United Nations to control the US. Though this is actually believed by some people, it’s laughable. In reality, it was scientists themselves who realized the need for international cooperation and began to organize through workshops and conferences they initiated, and developed through existing international organizations, like the World Meteorological Organization. Eventually they and some astute politicians realized the need for a world organization specifically to digest and deal with the results of global scientific inquiry on climate, hence the IPCC. But originally, international cooperation was a bottom-up effort. We have a lot more to fear about our sovereignty from governmental efforts like the Trans Pacific Partnership and its cross-Atlantic cousin being pushed by the Administration, which permit private corporations to sue governments by completely undemocratic means.
  • “It’s a conspiracy” is a favorite line by Senator James Inhofe. He continues to repeat the line that a bundle of purloined emails by climate scientists prove the conspiracy, even though every investigation has shown it did not. I have also heard the line that climate scientists go along with global warming because it supports their livelihood. If true, this would have to be a conspiracy that includes thousands of people, which is hard to imagine. In fact, if I were in such a conspiracy, I would find it very tempting to go to someone like the Koch brothers and offer to blow the lid off the conspiracy, providing the evidence for a handsome price. That no one has indicates the absurdity of the idea. Moreover, the only thing scientists have is their reputations for their work. If their work were shown to be fraudulent, their reputations would be in shambles and it’s hard to believe anyone would participate at that risk.

The political problem we face is that the radical right currently has the political power to slow any positive action. At the same time, while the Obama administration uses big words, it takes, at best, small steps. That’s our challenge.

 

Note: Spencer R. Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming, Harvard University Press, 2008. Hypertext version: http://www.aip.org/history/climate/index.htm

Gary Nickerson was an economist and IT consultant, and is now responsible for digital and online media for the Sierra Club’s New York City Group.

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