Who are the Skeptics?

Part 3 in a series of 5 for NextGen Journal
Adapted from part of an earlier post

As we discussed last time, there is a remarkable level of scientific consensus on the reality and severity of human-caused global warming. However, most members of the public are unaware of this consensus – a topic which we will focus on in the next installment. Anyone with an Internet connection or a newspaper subscription will be able to tell you that many scientists think global warming is natural or nonexistent. As we know, these scientists are in the vast minority, but they have enjoyed widespread media coverage. Let’s look at three of the most prominent skeptics, and examine what they’re saying.

S. Fred Singer is an atmospheric physicist and retired environmental science professor. He has rarely published in scientific journals since the 1960s, but he is very visible in the media. In recent years, he has claimed that the Earth has been cooling since 1998 (in 2006), that the Earth is warming, but it is natural and unstoppable (in 2007), and that the warming is artificial and due to the urban heat island effect (in 2009).

Richard Lindzen, also an atmospheric physicist, is far more active in the scientific community than Singer. However, most of his publications, including the prestigious IPCC report to which he contributed, conclude that climate change is real and caused by humans. He has published two papers stating that climate change is not serious: a 2001 paper hypothesizing that clouds would provide a negative feedback to cancel out global warming, and a 2009 paper claiming that climate sensitivity (the amount of warming caused by a doubling of carbon dioxide) was very low. Both of these ideas were rebutted by the academic community, and Lindzen’s methodology criticized. Lindzen has even publicly retracted his 2001 cloud claim. Therefore, in his academic life, Lindzen appears to be a mainstream climate scientist – contributing to assessment reports, abandoning theories that are disproved, and publishing work that affirms the theory of anthropogenic climate change. However, when Lindzen talks to the media, his statements change. He has implied that the world is not warming by calling attention to the lack of warming in the Antarctic (in 2004) and the thickening of some parts of the Greenland ice sheet (in 2006), without explaining that both of these apparent contradictions are well understood by scientists and in no way disprove warming. He has also claimed that the observed warming is minimal and natural (in 2006).

Finally, Patrick Michaels is an ecological climatologist who occasionally publishes peer-reviewed studies, but none that support his more outlandish claims. In 2009 alone, Michaels said that the observed warming is below what computer models predicted, that natural variations in oceanic cycles such as El Niño explain most of the warming, and that human activity explains most of the warming but it’s nothing to worry about because technology will save us (cached copy, as the original was taken down).

While examining these arguments from skeptical scientists, something quickly becomes apparent: many of the arguments are contradictory. For example, how can the world be cooling if it is also warming naturally? Not only do the skeptics as a group seem unable to agree on a consistent explanation, some of the individuals either change their mind every year or believe two contradictory theories at the same time. Additionally, none of these arguments are supported by the peer-reviewed literature. They are all elementary misconceptions which were proven erroneous long ago. Multiple articles on this site could be devoted to rebutting such claims, but easy-to-read rebuttals for virtually every objection to human-caused climate change are already available on Skeptical Science. Here is a list of rebuttals relevant to the claims of Singer, Lindzen and Michaels:

With a little bit of research, the claims of these skeptics quickly fall apart. It does not seem possible that they are attempting to further our knowledge of science, as their arguments are so weak and inconsistent, and rarely published in scientific venues. However, their pattern of arguments does work as a media strategy, as most people will trust what a scientist says in the newspaper, and not research his reputation or remember his name. Over time, the public will start to remember dozens of so-called problems with the anthropogenic climate change theory.

Why Trust Science?

Part 1 of a series of 5 for NextGen Journal.

What’s wrong with these statements?

  • I believe in global warming.
  • I don’t believe in global warming.
  • We should hear all sides of the climate change debate and decide for ourselves.

Don’t see it? How about these?

  • I believe in photosynthesis.
  • I don’t believe in Newton’s Laws of Motion.
  • We should hear all sides of the quantum mechanics debate and decide for ourselves.

Climate change is a scientific phenomenon, rooted in physics and chemistry. All I did was substitute in other scientific phenomena, and the statements suddenly sounded wacky and irrational.

Perhaps we have become desensitized by people conflating opinion with fact when it comes to climate change. However, the positions of politicians or media outlets do not make the climate system any less of a physical process. Unlike, say, ideology, there is a physical truth out there.

If there is a physical truth, there are also wrong answers and false explanations. In scientific issues, not every “belief” is equally valid.

Of course, the physical truth is elusive, and facts are not always clear-cut. Data requires interpretation and a lot of math. Uncertainty is omnipresent and must be quantified. These processes require training, as nobody is born with all the skills required to be a good scientist. Again, the complex nature of the physical world means that some voices are more important than others.

Does that mean we should blindly accept whatever a scientist says, just because they have a Ph.D.? Of course not. People aren’t perfect, and scientists are no exception.

However, the institution of science has a pretty good system to weed out incorrect or unsupported theories. It involves peer review, and critical thinking, and falsifiability. We can’t completely prove anything right – not one hundred percent – so scientists try really hard to prove a given theory wrong. If they can’t, their confidence in its accuracy goes up. Peter Watts describes this process in more colourful terms: “You put your model out there in the coliseum, and a bunch of guys in white coats kick the s**t out of it. If it’s still alive when the dust clears, your brainchild receives conditional acceptance. It does not get rejected. This time.”

Peer review is an imperfect process, but it’s far better than nothing. Combined with the technical skill and experience of scientists, it makes the words of the scientific community far more trustworthy than the words of a politician or a journalist. That doesn’t mean that science is always right. But, if you had to put your money on it, who would you bet on?

The issue is further complicated by the fact that scientists are rarely unanimous. Often, the issue at question is truly a mystery, and the disagreement is widespread. What causes El Niño conditions in the Pacific Ocean? Science can’t give us a clear answer yet.

However, sometimes disagreement is restricted to the extreme minority. This is called a consensus. It doesn’t imply unanimity, and it doesn’t mean that the issue is closed, but general confidence in a theory is so high that science accepts it and moves on. Even today, a few researchers will tell you that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, or that secondhand smoke isn’t harmful to your health. But that doesn’t stop medical scientists from studying the finer details of such diseases, or governments from funding programs to help people quit smoking. Science isn’t a majority-rules democracy, but if virtually all scientists have the same position on an issue, they probably have some pretty good reasons.

If science is never certain, and almost never unanimous, what are we supposed to do? How do we choose who to trust? Trusting nobody but yourself would be a poor choice. Chances are, others are more qualified than you, and you don’t hold the entirety of human knowledge in your head. For policy-relevant science, ignoring the issue completely until one side is proven right could also be disastrous. Inaction itself is a policy choice, which we see in some governments’ responses to climate change.

Let’s bring the whole issue down to a more personal level. Imagine you were ill, and twenty well-respected doctors independently examined you and said that surgery was required to save your life. One doctor, however, said that your illness was all in your mind, that you were healthy as a horse. Should you wait in bed until the doctors all agreed? Should you go home to avoid surgery that might be unnecessary? Or should you pay attention to the relative size and credibility of each group, as well as the risks involved, and choose the course of action that would most likely save your life?

The Pendulum

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

A few years ago, climate change mitigation became a major political issue. Before 2005, governments certainly knew that human-caused climate change was a serious problem – but the public knew next to nothing about it, so there was no incentive to act. However, between 2005 and 2007, a perfect storm of events splashed the reality of climate change onto the world stage.

The Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, finally came into force in early 2005, after years of negotiation. The United States refused to sign, and Australia signed on a little late, but every other developed nation in the world agreed to emission targets. Here in Canada, the Liberal government enthusiastically pledged its support for Kyoto. My local newspaper ran editorials exploring the different ways we could meet our targets, through combinations of clean energy, green infrastructure, and efficiency standards.

The summer of 2005 was a wake-up call for the United States, as Hurricane Katrina mercilessly demonstrated the amount of damage that extreme weather can bring. It’s impossible to say, at least with our current technology, whether or not Katrina was caused or even worsened by a warming planet. However, such devastating storms will become the norm as climate change progresses. Scientists aren’t sure whether or not hurricanes will become more frequent in a warming world, but the average hurricane is expected to become stronger and more damaging, and we are already beginning to see this rise in storm intensity. Katrina gave us an example of what we can expect from climate change – even if it wasn’t a direct effect in itself – and the world was shocked by the suffering that ensued.

2006 marked the release of An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning documentary about climate change. For scientists studying climate, the film was an admirable, up-to-date example of science communication, albeit with a few minor errors and oversimplifications. However, for citizens new to the issue (I particularly remember my classmates in grade 9 social studies discussing the film), An Inconvenient Truth was a disturbing reality check – scarier than any horror movie, because it was real.

The major scientific event of 2007 was a drastic, unexpected drop in Arctic summer sea ice. That season’s melt was exacerbated by coincidental weather conditions, so the next years weren’t quite as bad, but the trend was still worrying, to say the least. The research community had assumed that summer ice would stick around for at least a century, but this timescale was soon halved and quartered as ice melt exceeded even the worst projections.

By 2007, lead-up to the 2008 US presidential election was underway, and political awareness of climate change was obvious. It was no surprise that Democrat Barack Obama had ambitious plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but even the Republicans seemed to be on board. During his time in office, George W. Bush had insisted that, since climate change could be natural, any mitigating action was not worth the economic risk. Republican presidential candidates seemed to realize that continuing to adopt this attitude would be political suicide. The most extreme example, John McCain, who would eventually win the Republican presidential nomination, had emissions targets only slightly less extensive than Obama’s. As he said in 2007,

The world is already feeling the powerful effects of global warming, and far more dire consequences are predicted if we let the growing deluge of greenhouse gas emissions continue, and wreak havoc with God’s creation…The problem isn’t a Hollywood invention nor is doing something about it a vanity of Cassandra like hysterics. It is a serious and urgent economic, environmental and national security challenge.

However, McCain, once an author of a bill designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions, would soon completely change his stance. By 2010, he was asserting that cap-and-trade legislation was unnecessary and carbon dioxide posed no harm to the American people. He even went so far as to question the political motivations of science he once wholly accepted:

I think [global warming is] an inexact science, and there has been more and more questioning about some of the conclusions that were reached concerning climate change. And I believe that everybody in the world deserves correct answers whether the scientific conclusions were flawed by outside influences. There’s great questions about it that need to be resolved.

The story of John McCain isn’t too surprising. Politicians frequently base their statements on public sentiment rather than personal opinion. They say what people want to hear, rather than what they truly believe is important. This aspect of our political system is depressing, but persistent. The real question, though, regards what changed public sentiment so quickly. Why did politicians like McCain feel compelled to denounce the importance of action on this problem, or even the existence of the problem itself? What happened since 2007 that made the pendulum swing so far in the other direction?

Strike one was the economy. The global recession that began in 2008 was the largest since the Great Depression, and concern for all other problems promptly went down the drain. It’s understandable for citizens to not worry about the environment when they don’t even have the means to feed and clothe their children properly. However, for governments to not realize the long-term economic implications of allowing climate change to continue, along with the potential job-creating benefits of a new energy economy, was disappointing, even though it wasn’t surprising.

Strike two was the all-out war on climate science, spearheaded by the fossil fuel industry and the far right. This PR campaign has been underway since the early 1990s, but was kicked up a notch just over a year ago. Since public understanding of the causes and effects of global warming was growing, and the science was becoming more solid by the month, the PR tactics changed. Instead of attacking the science, they attacked the integrity of the scientists. The most extreme example occurred in November 2009, when private correspondence between top climate researchers was stolen, spread on the Internet, and spun in an attempt to cast doubt on the scientists’ motives. This event, known as “Climategate”, spurred a great deal of anger among the political right, and everything from bitter editorials to death threats against scientists ensued. Perhaps most distressingly, by the time investigations found that the scientists involved were innocent, and the reality of climate change untouched, Climategate was old news and media outlets failed to adequately follow up on the story. Citizens heard the accusations, but not the exonerations, so political will to cut greenhouse gas emissions slipped even further.

Strike three – well, there has been no strike three, and a good thing too. Strikes one and two were so bad that some are hoping the pendulum has swung as far as it can go. It’s certainly difficult to imagine how the situation could get worse. The Kyoto Protocol is set to expire next year, and the Copenhagen meetings failed to create a replacement. As it was, many developed nations failed to meet their targets, and the Canadian government backed out completely.

The possibility of federal climate legislation for the United States is laughable now that not a single Republican Senator thinks action is necessary, and most doubt the reality of the problem, choosing to believe that the entire scientific community is out to lunch and/or an agent of conspiracy. President Obama’s director of climate policy, Carol Browner, recently left her position, although none of her major goals had been met. Obama’s recent State of the Union address included lots of hopeful statements about clean energy, but absolutely no mention of climate change, as if merely acknowledging the most pressing reason for a new energy economy would be political suicide. The time-honoured tradition of saying what the public wants to hear has even reached Obama, the man who promised change.

In Canada, legislation to simply set targets for emission reduction passed the House of Commons (made of elected representatives), but the Senate (composed of appointed politicians) chose to use their newfound Conservative majority to strike down the bill with no debate whatsoever, in a blatantly undemocratic move that has not happened since the 1930s. The Canadian government is all for a new energy economy, but not one based on environmental and social responsibility. The Alberta tar sands, which are substantially more polluting and carbon-intensive than traditional oil, continue to expand, and both federal and provincial governments are worryingly enthusiastic.

From 2005 to 2007, politics was high on promises of mitigation, but low on delivery. Since then, it has been devoid of both. It’s starting to seem as if it will take a major global disaster that can be unquestionably tied to climate change for governments to get their act together.

This would all be very well if there was no lag time between cause and effect in the climate system, but it doesn’t work that way. It takes several decades for all the warming in the pipeline to show up. If we waited until climate change became unbearable, and then cut off our emissions completely, the situation would still get worse for decades before it stabilized.

The worldwide failure of governments to take action on climate change is baffling. It seems that the best they can do is occasionally promise to fix the problem, but never actually get started. If this continues for much longer, we’re all going to pay the price for their mistakes – and so will people for generations to come.

The Real Story of Climategate

A year ago today, an unidentified hacker published a zipped folder in several locations online. In this folder were approximately one thousand emails and three thousand files which had been stolen from the backup server of the Climatic Research Unit in the UK, a top centre for global temperature analysis and climate change studies. As links to the folder were passed around on blogs and online communities, a small group of people sorted through the emails, picking out a handful of phrases that could be seen as controversial, and developing a narrative which they pushed to the media with all their combined strength. “A lot is happening behind the scenes,” one blog administrator wrote. “It is not being ignored. Much is being coordinated among major players and the media. Thank you very much. You will notice the beginnings of activity on other sites now. Here soon to follow.”

This was not the work of a computer-savvy teenager that liked to hack security systems for fun. Whoever the thief was, they knew what they were looking for. They knew how valuable the emails could be in the hands of the climate change denial movement.

Skepticism is a worthy quality in science, but denial is not. A skeptic will only accept a claim given sufficient evidence, but a denier will cling to their beliefs regardless of evidence. They will relentlessly attack arguments that contradict their cause, using talking points that are full of misconceptions and well-known to be false, while blindly accepting any argument that seems to support their point of view. A skeptic is willing to change their mind. A denier is not.

There are many examples of denial in our society, but perhaps the most powerful and pervasive is climate change denial. We’ve been hearing the movement’s arguments for years, ranging from illogic (“climate changed naturally in the past, so it must be natural now“) to misrepresentation (“global warming stopped in 1998“) to flat-out lies (“volcanoes emit more carbon dioxide than humans“). Of course, climate scientists thought of these objections and ruled them out long before you and I even knew what global warming was, so in recent years, the arguments of deniers were beginning to reach a dead end. The Copenhagen climate summit was approaching, and the public was beginning to understand the basic science of human-caused climate change, even realize that the vast majority of the scientific community was concerned about it. A new strategy for denial and delay was needed – ideally, for the public to lose trust in researchers. Hence, the hack at CRU, and the beginning of a disturbing new campaign to smear the reputations of climate scientists.

The contents of the emails were spun in a brilliant exercise of selective quotation. Out of context, phrases can be twisted to mean any number of things – especially if they were written as private correspondence with colleagues, rather than with public communication in mind. Think about all the emails you have sent in the past decade. Chances are, if someone tried hard enough, they could make a few sentences you had written sound like evidence of malpractice, regardless of your real actions or intentions.

Consequently, a mathematical “trick” (clever calculation) to efficiently analyse data was reframed as a conspiracy to “trick” (deceive) the public into believing the world was warming. Researchers discussed how to statistically isolate and “hide the decline” in problematic tree ring data that was no longer measuring what it used to, but this quote was immediately twisted to claim that the decline was in global temperatures: the world is cooling and scientists are hiding it from us!

Other accusations were based not on selective misquotation but on a misunderstanding of the way science works. When the researchers discussed what they felt were substandard papers that should not be published, many champions of the stolen emails shouted accusations that scientists were censoring their critics, as if all studies, no matter how weak their arguments, had a fundamental right to be published. Another email, in which a researcher privately expressed a desire to punch a notorious climate change denier, was twisted into an accusation that the scientists threatened people who disagreed with them. How was it a threat if the action was never intended to materialize, and if the supposed target was never aware of it?

These serious and potentially damaging allegations, which, upon closer examination, are nothing more than grasping at straws, were not carefully examined and evaluated by journalists – they were repeated. Early media reports bordered on the hysterical. With headlines such as “The final nail in the coffin of anthropogenic global warming” and “The worst scientific scandal of our generation“, libelous claims and wild extrapolations were published mere days after the emails were distributed. How could journalists have possibly had time to carefully examine the contents of one thousand emails? It seems much more likely that they took the short-cut of repeating the narrative of the deniers without assessing its accuracy.

Even if, for the sake of argument, all science conducted by the CRU was fraudulent, our understanding of global warming would not change. The CRU runs a global temperature dataset, but so do at least six other universities and government agencies around the world, and their independent conclusions are virtually identical. The evidence for human-caused climate change is not a house of cards that will collapse as soon as one piece is taken away. It’s more like a mountain: scrape a couple of pebbles off the top, but the mountain is still there. For respected newspapers and media outlets to ignore the many independent lines of evidence for this phenomenon in favour of a more interesting and controversial story was blatantly irresponsible, and almost no retractions or apologies have been published since.

The worldwide media attention to this so-called scandal had a profound personal impact on the scientists involved. Many of them received death threats and hate mail for weeks on end. Dr. Phil Jones, the director of CRU, was nearly driven to suicide. Another scientist, who wishes to remain anonymous, had a dead animal dumped on his doorstep and now travels with bodyguards. Perhaps the most wide-reaching impact of the issue was the realization that private correspondence was no longer a safe environment. This fear only intensified when the top climate modelling centre in Canada was broken into, in an obvious attempt to find more material that could be used to smear the reputations of climate scientists. For an occupation that relies heavily on email for cross-national collaboration on datasets and studies, the pressure to write in a way that cannot be taken out of context – a near-impossible task – amounts to a stifling of science.

Before long, the investigations into the contents of the stolen emails were completed, and one by one, they came back clear. Six independent investigations reached basically the same conclusion: despite some reasonable concerns about data archival and sharing at CRU, the scientists had shown integrity and honesty. No science had been falsified, manipulated, exaggerated, or fudged. Despite all the media hullabaloo, “climategate” hadn’t actually changed anything.

Sadly, by the time the investigations were complete, the media hullabaloo had died down to a trickle. Climategate was old news, and although most newspapers published stories on the exonerations, they were generally brief, buried deep in the paper, and filled with quotes from PR spokespeople that insisted the investigations were “whitewashed”. In fact, Scott Mandia, a meteorology professor, found that media outlets devoted five to eleven times more stories to the accusations against the scientists than they devoted to the resulting exonerations of the scientists.

Six investigations weren’t enough, though, for some stubborn American politicians who couldn’t let go of the article of faith that Climategate was proof of a vast academic conspiracy. Senator James Inhofe planned a McCarthy-like criminal prosecution of seventeen researchers, most of whom had done nothing more than occasionally correspond with the CRU scientists. The Attorney General of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, repeatedly filed requests to investigate Dr. Michael Mann, a prominent paleoclimatic researcher, for fraud, simply because a twelve-year-old paper by Mann had some statistical weaknesses. Ironically, the Republican Party, which prides itself on fiscal responsibility and lower government spending, continues to advocate wasting massive sums of money conducting inquiries which have already been completed multiple times.

Where are the politicians condemning the limited resources spent on the as yet inconclusive investigations into who stole these emails, and why? Who outside the scientific community is demanding apologies from the hundreds of media outlets that spread libelous accusations without evidence? Why has the ongoing smear campaign against researchers studying what is arguably the most pressing issue of our time gone largely unnoticed, and been aided by complacent media coverage?

Fraud is a criminal charge, and should be treated as such. Climate scientists, just like anyone else, have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. They shouldn’t have to endure this endless harassment of being publicly labelled as frauds without evidence. However, the injustice doesn’t end there. This hate campaign is a dangerous distraction from the consequences of global climate change, a problem that becomes more difficult to solve with every year we delay. The potential consequences are much more severe, and the time we have left to successfully address it is much shorter, than the vast majority of the public realizes. Unfortunately, powerful forces are at work to keep it that way. This little tussle about the integrity of a few researchers could have consequences millennia from now – if we let it.

Update: Many other climate bloggers are doing Climategate anniversary pieces. Two great ones I read today were Bart Verheggen’s article and the transcript of John Cook’s radio broadcast. Be sure to check them out!

What Kevin Trenberth Has to Say

A comment from Steve Bloom several months ago got me thinking about a new kind of post that would be a lot of fun: interviewing top climate scientists, both on their research and their views of climate science journalism and communication. When I emailed Dr. Kevin Trenberth to see if he would be interested in such an interview, he responded with an entire essay that he had written about recent events in climate change communication. Although this essay is unpublished as of yet, he graciously suggested that I quote it for a post here.

It’s no surprise that Dr. Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, is angry about the way stolen emails between researchers were trumpeted around the world in an attempt to make them seem like something they were not. He was “involved in just over 100” of the emails, and from the looks of things, hasn’t heard the end of it since they were stolen.

One oft-quoted statement of his went viral: The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t. Climate change deniers portrayed this quote as an admission that the world wasn’t warming after all, or even that scientists were trying to cover up a cooling trend. Taken in the full context of the email in which it was written, however, it’s clear that Trenberth was referring to a recent paper of his, which discussed our incomplete understanding of the factors affecting short-term variability in the Earth’s temperature. There were a couple years between 2004 and 2008 that weren’t quite as warm as scientists expected after looking at all the forcings, such as solar irradiance and ENSO. The paper and the subsequent email in no way mean that global warming has stopped. In fact, we’re well on our way to the warmest year on record. “It is amazing to see this particular quote lambasted so often,” says Trenberth.

Another quote, this time from a stolen email he was not even a recipient of, was written by Phil Jones, the director of CRU. I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report, wrote Jones, referring to several studies that were not regarded very highly by the climate science community, one of which was later retracted. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer-reviewed literature is!

Dr. Trenberth offers an insight for this comment that was previously unknown to me. The IPCC’s 2007 report “was the first time Jones was on the writing team of an IPCC Assessment,” he says. “The comment was naive and sent before he understood the process and before any lead author meetings were held…As a veteran of 3 previous IPCC assessments, I was well aware that we do not keep any papers out, and none were kept out.” Indeed, both studies were discussed in the 2007 report, offering proof that the private emails of scientists do not always correspond to their ultimate actions.

To date, four independent investigations (five if you count the two Penn State reports as separate) “have confirmed what climate scientists have never seriously doubted: established scientists depend on their credibility and have no motivation in purposely misleading the public and their colleagues.” Referring to the only major criticism that the investigations had for CRU, Trenberth notes that scientists “are also understandably, but inadvisably, reluctant to share complex data sets with non-experts that they perceive as charlatans.”

Despite the complete absence of evidence for scientific fraud, the fact that no papers were changed or retracted due to these emails, and the obvious innocence of scientists like Dr. Trenberth, public confusion over climate change has grown in recent months. Almost everyone who keeps up with the news will remember hearing something about climate researchers accused of malpractice. “There should be condemnation of the abuse, misuse and downright lies about the emails,” says Trenberth. “That should be the real ClimateGate!”

After all this experience as the subject of libelous attacks and campaigns of misinformation, Kevin Trenberth can offer suggestions for other scientists in the same position. He does not recommend debating the conclusions of climate change research in the public sphere, as “scientific facts are not open to debate and opinion because they are evidence and/or physically based.” He has learned, like so many of us here at ClimateSight, that “in a debate it is impossible to counter lies [and] loudly proclaimed confident statements that often have little or no basis.”

“Moreover,” he adds, “a debate actually gives alternative views credibility,” something that climate change deniers haven’t earned. He and his colleagues “find it disturbing that blogs by uninformed members of the public are given equal weight with carefully researched information backed up with extensive observational facts and physical understanding.”

Much of the online climate change community has lost faith with climate journalism in recent months, and Dr. Trenberth is no exception. He asserts that the mass media has been “complicit in this disinformation campaign of the deniers”, and has some explanations as to why. “Climate varies slowly,” he says, “and so the message remains similar, year after year — something not exciting for journalists as it is not “news”.” He also notes the stubborn phenomenon of artificial balance, as “controversy is the fodder of the media, not truth, and so the media amplify the view that there are two sides and give unwarranted attention to views of a small minority or those with vested interests or ideologies.”

“The media are a part of the problem,” says Trenberth. “But they have to be part of the solution.”

All Is Not Lost

I really enjoyed reading two recent polls conducted by George Mason University’s Center for Climate Communication. In particular, the results made me wonder why the US government still hasn’t passed a climate bill.

For example, US presidents have been saying for over a decade that it is unfair to force their industries to reduce emissions if developing countries do not have similar targets. However, only 8% of American adults share this view, and 65% believe that “the United States should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions regardless of what other countries do.” 77% agree that CO2 should be regulated, and 65% would like to see an international treaty signed.

The only solution which had less than 50% support was a tax on gasoline, even if it was revenue-neutral: offset by a decrease in income tax rates. This opposition can’t really be a case of people worrying about money. In this hypothetical situation, taxes aren’t being increased – they’re just being moved around, in a way that actually gives people more control over how much they are charged. Perhaps the public would prefer a more laissez-faire approach, or perhaps they had a knee-jerk reaction to the word “tax”. It’s not like the revenue-neutral aspect of this solution is well-known to most.

When the poll was broken down by political party, there were some surprising results that ran contrary to what one hears in the halls of Congress. 64% of Republicans support regulating CO2. Only 30% think that protecting the environment reduces economic growth and costs jobs.

Overall, the poll showed very strong support among Americans for action that still hasn’t happened, largely because a very vocal minority has had a disproportionate influence on the policy debate. If there was a referendum today, Kyoto targets and the cap-and-trade bill would pass with flying colours.

This support was even more interesting when compared to the questions regarding science. Only 61% of Americans think that the Earth is warming, and only 50% think that it is due to human activities. 45% think “there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening”, and only 34% were aware of the existing consensus.

The discrepancy between scientific understanding of the issue and support for mitigation shows that Americans, in general, practice risk management when it comes to climate change. Even if they’re not sure whether or not there is a problem, they understand what is at risk, and are willing to take action to prevent major consequences. Greg Craven, you got your wish.

I think that the misconception of a voracious scientific debate, apart from being perpetrated by the media, stems partly from the fact that most of the public lacks the experience to distinguish between scientific and quasi-scientific debates. Competing hypotheses, published in leading journals, seen as the frontier of the field….that’s a scientific debate. Editorials, written by anyone other than a scientist publishing in the field, claiming to refute an overwhelming consensus? Can’t even come close. However, I suspect that many would categorize the second as “scientific debate”, simply because it’s their only encounter with science.

All is not lost, though. 81% of Americans trust scientists as a source of information about global warming. That’s more than they trust any other source that was mentioned in the question. And 20%, 27%, and 29% say that they need a lot more, some more, or a little more information, respectively. Maybe all that needs to happen is for us to speak louder – because people are ready and willing to listen.

Deniers?

I really enjoyed New Scientist’s Special Report: Living in Denial. What a fascinating phenomenon, and a fascinating batch of articles exploring it.

The denial of science is a growing problem. It’s not restricted to a particular ideology – while denying the harmful effects of smoking or the existence of climate change is typically a position of the far right, vaccine denial and H1N1 conspiracy theories are largely restricted to the left.

It occurs even among the well-educated, or among youth who are still immersed in up-to-date curricula. For example, this year at the university, a student group put up signs saying “Don’t get the swine flu shot – it contains mercury!” The chemistry students got mad, and said that labelling thimerosal as toxic mercury was comparable to saying “Don’t eat table salt, it contains chlorine gas!”

As Michael Shermer’s article explains, the defining mark of science denial is a refusal to change one’s mind based on evidence. This is easy to identify for something like Holocaust denial, where evidence is abundant in the public sphere.

It gets a little harder for more technical issues like climate change or vaccines. Scientific opinion is overwhelmingly on one “side”, but the average person does not know or understand the evidence to support this consensus. An article about the thermodynamics of the stratosphere won’t sell a lot of papers. Most people unconsciously follow the credibility spectrum and trust what their doctor or NASA scientists say.

However, some don’t realize that scientific credibility is not the same as an appeal to authority, and so express contrarian opinions. Vaccines cause autism. Global warming is nonexistent/natural/inconsequential. The way that the Twin Towers fell proves that it was orchestrated by the US government.

There are two groups of contrarians: the skeptics, and the deniers. The skeptics are the ones who will change their minds based on evidence – they just haven’t encountered that evidence yet. My favourite example of this is from the Friends episode when Phoebe declares she doesn’t believe in evolution. When Ross starts talking to her about fossils, she says, “Oh. I didn’t know there was actually evidence.”

It’s amazing how many insights you can get out of a supposedly “fluffy” sitcom. I could write an entire essay analyzing that clip…..

I have met dozens of very reasonable people who doubt climate change because they don’t know about the evidence for it. People my age throw around the phrase “it’s a natural cycle” a lot, until I explain that the climate doesn’t act like a pendulum. It doesn’t have to compensate for past periods of warming or cooling – it simply responds to forcings. If the forcing is cyclical, then the climate will be cyclical, but some forcings are a different shape altogether. Similarly, I know a teacher who previously thought that natural causation of the current warming was a legitimate scientific theory, due to a presentation from a teacher’s conference….until I did a bit of probing and discovered that this presentation was given by Tim Ball.

These people are very reasonable. They are willing to change their minds based on evidence. They’ve just been unlucky enough to be misinformed by our flawed system of science journalism.

Then there are the deniers. They call themselves skeptics, but they will not change their minds, no matter what evidence you give them. They either move the goalposts, change the subject, or continue to repeat the same claim even after you have rebutted it patiently multiple times. Go check out some YouTube comments to see what I’m talking about.

Often their ideology or worldview is extreme in some way. For many members of the far right, any problem that would be solved by the government (think cap-and-trade or smoking legislation) will be rejected out of hand. On the far left, anything that would benefit corporations (usually vaccines or traditional medicine) will face a similar reaction. As Michael Specter says, “We hate Big Pharma. We run away from Big Pharma….and leap right into the arms of Big Placebo.”

This phenomenon suggests that science communication is not the answer – for deniers. I learned long ago that trying to change the minds of deniers is a complete waste of time. However, I still feel that science communication and the rebuttal of common misconceptions is absolutely vital. The true skeptics need access to the evidence they are lacking, so that they will be more informed, and our population will move farther towards solving the many science-related problems we face.

These skeptics deserve our time, our efforts, and our respect. They are the target audience of my blog, even if my most active commenters and supporters are a different group altogether. The reason that any of us here do all this work in communication, I believe, is for the true skeptics.

Michael Fitzpatrick argues that we shouldn’t use the label “deniers” at all. I wouldn’t want to alienate the true skeptics by coming across as someone who insults others. However, I think that calling deniers “skeptics” is unfair to the skeptics. They are two completely different groups that we must distinguish between. Skepticism is a worthy quality in science, and giving the complimentary title of “skeptic” to someone who doesn’t deserve it is unfair to those who do. We need to cater to the people who are willing to learn and who don’t want to waste our time. Science communication shouldn’t have to be like No Child Left Behind.

Michael Shermer’s second article, similarly, says that we should participate in debates with deniers and give them a chance to be heard. The truth will prevail, he argues, even if the deniers refuse to give in. I would agree with this position if it were a matter of opinion or policy, which is wholly democratic. Yet science is completely different. Science isn’t about free speech and giving equal time for all views. It is about giving time to those who have the most accurate analyses and robust conclusions. In science, you shut up and listen until your ideas are strongly supported by evidence. Then you publish.

When papers skeptical of climate change get published (all three per year!), such debates are worthy. The authors passed the test of peer-review, and even if their papers are obviously sub-par and are soon to be retracted, they deserve some debate and discussion. Let’s debate contrarian science when it is actually science – when it is actually published.

By paying close attention to and publicly debating with the authors of blog science, however, we are further confusing the public’s already skewed image of science. “It doesn’t matter whether or not you publish,” we seem to be telling them, “it’s all about free speech.” The scientific process has rules, and if deniers can’t pass the necessary, but not sufficient, condition of peer-review, their work doesn’t deserve to be treated as scientific research, and we shouldn’t give them our attention.

Let’s ignore the people who aren’t worth our time, because we have limited time, and there are people out there who deserve every minute of it.

Uncertain Science….Uncertain World

Several months ago, I wrote a generally favourable review of geophysicist Dr. Henry Pollack’s newest book, A World Without Ice. So when I came across his earlier book, which was about the nature of the scientific process  – something that fascinates me – I couldn’t wait to read it.

Uncertain Science, Uncertain World is about uncertainty in science, as you may have guessed from the title, and it is absolutely fantastic. If you’re pressed for time, just read the first three chapters – they’re the best. They discuss how the public’s tendency to “equate science with certainty, rather than uncertainty” has been fed by the American school system and the mass media, and what the consequences are.

He talks about how everyone is born a scientist, how children observe the world around them with a fierce curiosity, instinctively exploring and experimenting. Then they go to school, and decide that science is boring. In elementary school, and to some extent in high school, science is presented as a memorization of facts and theories, rather than an exploration of the boundaries of and barriers to our knowledge, which is what scientists actually study. “Science is presented as answers rather than questions,” Pollack writes.

I couldn’t agree more. I wasn’t always the self-professed science addict that I am now. Until I reached high school, I thought that science was dry and boring, and until I started researching climate change, I didn’t see the creativity and problem-solving in it. In science class you memorize facts and do calculations, so it’s very hard for students to realize how cool it is to discover facts and derive calculations, rather than just repeating what someone else did before you. Intelligence is defined as how many facts you can stuff into your head, not how good you are at figuring things out for yourself.

The media doesn’t help, either. Pollack explores the well-known ails of science journalism, and the stigma against public communication in the scientific community. He shares a great example of how the media turned an amateur earthquake prediction, with no support from geologists, into a national frenzy that led to evacuations and the closure of schools. Mainstream journalists, in general, are not good at assessing credibility for scientific issues, but their influence on the public is so great that frequent mistakes by journalists lead to worldwide misconceptions.

This public illusion of certainty, in a field that actually thrives on uncertainty, can be easily exploited by vested interests. “When scientists acknowledge that they do not know everything about a complex natural phenomenon,” writes Pollack, “the public sometimes translates that to mean that scientists do not know anything about the subject,” and, for issues such as climate change, there are many people actively encouraging this jump in logic.

After the stellar beginning, the rest of the book is somewhat more mediocre, albeit still enjoyable. Pollack uses a series of examples and metaphors to explain irreducible measurement error, confidence expressed as statistical probability, conceptual and numerical models, experimentation, and forecasting vs hindcasting. As Pollack is currently studying how rocks retain heat and provide a record of past temperatures that can be used as proxy paleo data, facets of climate science are used as examples in nearly every chapter, and the last chapter of the book is devoted to climate change. However, he also uses examples from economics, plate tectonics, election polling, and the legal system. It is truly a multidisciplinary approach that will appeal to scientists and science enthusiasts from every field. Highly recommended to all.

We Have Slides!

After a marathon PowerPoint-session yesterday I finally got my 63 slides out of the way. Here is the presentation for anyone who is interested. The script is written in the notes beneath the slides.

I like to have things fading in and out of my slides, so sometimes the text boxes and images are stacked on top of each other and it won’t make sense until you view the animation.

Researching the median lethal dose of arsenic during my spare at school was really awkward. I had to do a lot of hasty explaining to my friends about how it was a metaphor for small concentrations having large effects, and no, I wasn’t planning to poison anyone.

Anyway, enjoy.

Mind the Gap (12 MB)

Mind the Gap

This is the script of a presentation I will make to several groups of high school students on Earth Day. I was originally going to use the same script from my PowerShift presentation, but in light of recent developments and my ever-expanding thoughts on climate change, I decided to create an entirely new presentation.

I would greatly appreciate any thoughts, input, suggestions, etc. Keep in mind that I don’t have my PowerPoint created yet, so some of the text may seem a little confusing without the visuals I’ll be pointing to.

Enjoy!

Update: Thanks for all the helpful comments and critiques. I’ve made some changes here, but feel free to keep them coming.

Welcome everyone, nice to see you all here. My name is Kate, I’m in my last year of high school, and I am here to talk to you about climate change, or global warming. After I graduate I want to be a climate scientist, so until then, I’m channelling my obsession into a website. For the past year, I’ve been writing the blog ClimateSight.org, which has allowed me to meet a lot of cool people and correspond with a lot of scientists.

I’ve spent several years doing a lot of research on climate change, and something that’s been really interesting to me is the link between climate scientists and the public – the communication between these two groups. And the very first thing I want to talk about is assessing credibility, which is probably the most important tool I can give you. How much weight should you give different statements from different sources about scientific issues?

The scientific community that is actually studying the issue is going to be more credible than the media and the public. And that scientific research starts with scientists. They write peer-reviewed articles, published in journals like Nature or Science. Anything that is a serious scientific idea will be in one of these journals at some time or other. But there are thousands of journal articles published every month, and because they’re generally studying the frontier of their field, it’s inevitable that some of them are going to be proven wrong later. That’s why there are scientific organizations and assessment reports that look back at all these papers and compile what we know about the major issues. So statements from organizations like NASA, or from assessment reports like the IPCC, means that something has stood the test of time.

Among all the people who are not scientists, some know more than others. People who communicate science, like journalists and high school teachers and some politicians, are held a little more accountable for what they say than just any random person on the street.

So let’s see what the different levels of the credibility spectrum say about global warming. Who would disagree – who would say that humans are not causing the Earth to warm? 0% of scientific organizations say no. Pretty much 0% of peer-reviewed articles say no – there is the odd one out there, but they’re so small in number that they round right down to zero. And less than 3% of publishing climatologists say no. But 57% of articles in leading newspapers say no (or probably not, or maybe, maybe not), and 53% of the public says no.

As you can see, there is a big gap right here. The top half of the credibility spectrum is very confident about human-caused global warming, and the bottom half is very confused. Why is this? How can an issue that is so important to public policy have such drastically different levels of support between those who study it and everyone else?

There are all kinds of common objections that you and I hear about global warming. What if it’s a natural cycle and we’re just coming out of an ice age? What if the Sun is heating up? And how could there possibly be global warming when it is so cold outside? There are all kinds of arguments against the idea of climate change that everybody knows. But the scientific community is still saying this. They are still sure that yes, it’s going on and yes, it’s us.

So there are three possible explanations. Scientists could be ignorant and overconfident. Maybe they never considered the idea it could be a natural cycle. Scientists could be frauds, part of some Communist conspiracy to take over the world somehow. Or, maybe scientists know what they’re doing, and have evidence to say what they’re saying. So let’s look at the evidence that they do have.

We’ve been studying this problem for a long time, and it all started in the 1800s, when the greenhouse effect was discovered – the gases in the atmosphere that trap heat and keep the planet warm enough for life. The idea that emissions of carbon dioxide from our burning of fossil fuels – like coal, oil, and natural gas – would eventually cause warming was first proposed in 1896. So this is not a new theory by any means.

We began measuring the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere in the 1950s, and we can see that it’s steadily going up. Over the last 2.1 million years, CO2 never exceeded 300 ppm, but right now it’s at 390. This might not seem like a lot, but 390 ppm of arsenic in your coffee would kill you.

We can confirm that this increase in CO2 is due to human activity because of its isotopes. The carbon in CO2 from fossil fuels has fewer neutrons, on average, than CO2 from natural sources like volcanoes or the ocean. That makes it lighter, so we can tell the difference in samples from the air.

So we know that an increase in greenhouse gases causes warming, and we know that we are increasing greenhouse gases. So it’s not really a surprise that we’re starting to see the warming show up. There are five independent research teams worldwide that measure the average global temperature, some from weather stations and some from satellites, and all five of them are finding a very similar pattern of warming since about 1975.

But what if it’s a coincidence? What if something else was causing the warming, and it just happened to be at the same time that we were dumping fossil fuels into the air? Something that a lot of people don’t know is that there are ways that we can confirm that the warming is caused by us. First of all, there’s nothing else going on that could be causing it. Actually, if you took human activity out of the picture, we would be slowly cooling: the cycles of the Earth’s orbit show that we should be very very slowly going into a new ice age.

There is also a specific pattern of warming we can look at. If warming were caused by the sun, the entire atmosphere would warm in a uniform fashion. But if greenhouse gases were causing global warming, the first layer of the atmosphere (the troposphere) would be warming, but the next layer up, the stratosphere, would be cooling. This is referred to as the “fingerprint” of greenhouse warming, because it’s like DNA evidence or the smoking gun. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing – stratospheric cooling. (Randel et al, 2009).

So we can be very sure that yes, our activities are causing the Earth to warm, at a rate that we haven’t seen for at least the past 55 million years, which was before humans even existed. That’s really the problem – the rate of change. It’s not the actual temperature that poses a threat, it’s all about how much it changes and how fast. The world has been plenty warmer than this at times, like when dinosaurs were around. And dinosaurs were okay with that because it had been like that for a really long time and they had adapted to it. But a change in temperature at the rate we’re seeing now? It might seem slow to you and me, but on a geological timescale, it’s incredibly quick, too quick for species – including humans – to adapt. Yes, the climate has changed many times before, but it never really ended well.

For example, the largest extinction in our Earth’s history, the Permian extinction 250 million years ago, was most likely caused by warming from greenhouse gases that came out of supervolcanoes much larger than anything we have today. It got so warm that the ocean couldn’t hold any oxygen and produced hydrogen sulphide instead. That’s what makes rotten eggs smell bad, and it’s actually poisonous in large enough quantities. It killed 97% of species in the ocean and 70% of species on land. It has been nicknamed “The Great Dying”. So this is the absolute worst-case scenario of what can happen when too many greenhouse gases go into the atmosphere at once. It means a whole lot more than just nicer Winnipeg winters.

So, to the people who really look at this issue, the evidence is undeniable. In academic circles, there really is no argument. All the objections that we have – they thought of them long ago, and covered them all, and ruled all of them out, before you and I even knew what global warming was. The evidence for climate change is not a house of cards, where you take one piece out and the whole theory falls apart. It’s more like a mountain. Scrape a handful of pebbles off the top, but the mountain is still there.

As for the second option, that scientists are part of a conspiracy – if you stop and think about it, like, really? Scientific fraud happens, but on the scale of one paper, or at the most one scientist, not an entire field stretching back for over a century. Scientists are not that organized. And that only leaves one explanation – that the field of climatology does know what it’s doing, and does have evidence to say what it’s saying: that humans are causing the Earth to warm, and it’s not going to be good.

We’ve established that the top half of the credibility spectrum is the one that we can trust on this issue. So what’s going on in the communication between the top and the bottom so that the public has got totally the wrong idea? This is what I spend most of my time working on, and there are a lot of factors involved, but it really comes down to three points.

Firstly, climatology is a complex science, and it’s not a required course in high school, so the public doesn’t understand it the way they understand Newton’s Laws of Motion. Most people do not know all this stuff I just told you, and that’s only scratching the surface; there is so much more science and so many more lines of evidence. And when you only have bits and pieces of this story, it’s easy to fall prey to these kinds of misconceptions.

Second, there are, sadly, a lot of people out there trying to exploit number one. There are a lot of very prominent people in the media, politics, and industry who will use whatever they can get – whether or not it’s legitimate, whether or not it’s honest – as proof that global warming is not real. You’ll hear them say that all scientists said an ice age was coming in the 70s, so we shouldn’t trust them now. In reality, most scientists were predicting warming by the 70s, and the single paper to talk about an ice age was proven wrong almost immediately after its publication. You’ll hear them say that volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans, but volcanoes only emit about 1% of what we do. They’ll say that the Greenland ice sheet is getting thicker, so therefore, it cannot be warming. But the reason that Greenland is getting thicker is that it’s getting more snow, caused by warmer temperatures that are still below zero.

Some of these questionable sources are organizations, like a dozen or so lobby groups that have been paid a lot of money by oil companies to say that global warming is fake (Hoggan and Littlemore, 2009). Some of them are individuals, like US Senator James Inhofe, who was the environment chair under George W. Bush, and says that “global warming is the greatest hoax ever imposed upon the American people.” Some of them have financial motivations, and some of them have ideological motivations, but their motivations don’t really matter – all that matters is that they are saying things that are inaccurate, and misleading, and just plain wrong.

The third reason that the public is so confused about climate change is that the media has been very compliant in spreading the message of these guys. You would expect that newspapers and journalists would do their research about scientific issues, and make sure that they were writing science stories that were accurate, but sadly, that’s not what’s happening.

One of the major problems is that there are fewer journalists than there used to be, and there are almost no science journalists in the mainstream media – general reporters cover science issues instead. Also, a few decades ago, journalists used to get a week or two to write a story. Now they often have less than one day, because speed and availability of news has become more important than quality.

And, finally, when it comes to climate change, journalists follow the rule of balance, or presenting “two equal sides”, staying neutral, letting the reader form their own opinion. This works really well when the so-called controversy is one of political or social nature, like tax levels, a federal election, how we should develop infrastructure. In those cases, there is no real right answer, and people usually are split into two camps. But when the question at hand is one of science, there is a right answer, and some explanations are better than others. Sometimes the scientists are split into two equal groups, but sometimes they’re split into three or four or even a dozen. And sometimes, like we see with climate change, pretty much all the scientists are in agreement, and the two or three percent which aren’t don’t really publish, because they can’t prove what they’re saying and nobody really takes them seriously. So framing these two groups as having equal weight in the scientific community is completely wrong. It exaggerates this extreme minority, and suppresses everyone else.

All these problems are perfectly explained by a man named James Hrynyshyn, a journalist himself. He says, “Science journalism….is too often practiced by journalists who know so little about the subject they’re covering that they can’t properly evaluate the reliability or trustworthiness of potential sources. The result is that sources with no credibility in the field routinely appear alongside genuine experts as part of an effort to provide balance.”

One of the best examples of how this kind of journalism can really go wrong happened quite recently. Someone hacked into the email server of the Climatic Research Unit in the UK, stole thirteen years of emails between scientists, sifted through them all to find the juiciest ones, and put them on the Internet. The police are trying to figure out who did this, because it’s quite illegal, but it wasn’t some teenage kid in their basement.

Some of the emails certainly were embarrassing, the scientists said some things that weren’t very nice and insulted some people. But can you imagine if all of your email was released to the world? Scientists are people too, and they say stupid stuff that they don’t mean over email just the same as you and I do – especially when there are so many people actively spreading lies about their work.

The most important thing, though, is that there was nothing in there that compromised any science, any data sets, anything that we know about climate change. Nothing actually changed…..but the scary part was that a striking amount of the media reported that the entire field of climate science was potentially a political scam.

For example, some scientists are working on reconstructing temperatures from before we had thermometers, using tree rings or ice cores or ocean sediment. In one of the most widely circulated emails, the scientists discussed how to “hide the decline” in a set of tree ring data that’s known to have some serious problems – the tree growth is going down while thermometers show local temperatures going up, which is the opposite of what you’d expect. It probably means there was a drought or something. So they were trying to see if they could still use the first part and cut out the useless part at the end. They’re only hiding it in a mathematical sense, they’re not hiding it from their colleagues or from the media. In fact, they’ve written about this decline in one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, so if they’re trying to pull off a conspiracy here, they’re not doing a very good job.

But somehow, in the media, the story changed. Instead of saying that scientists were “removing regional tree ring data known to be erroneous,” the media said they were “covering up the decline in global temperatures”. That’s so fundamentally different, so removed from the facts – these scientists don’t even work with global temperatures! – but you heard it everywhere. The story that reached virtually every newspaper in the world was that the world is cooling and scientists are trying to hide it from us.

That’s only one example of how a single phrase can be taken out of context and have its meaning completely twisted. It doesn’t surprise me, you see it from these guys all the time, but what absolutely amazes me is how the media just sat and lapped it right up without doing any research into the validity of these serious allegations.

Subsequently, two independent investigations into the contents of these emails have been released, and the scientists involved were basically cleared in both cases. The British Parliament found that “the focus on CRU has been largely misplaced”, that the scientists’ “actions were in line with common practice”, that “they were not part of a systematic attempt to mislead”, and that all of the CRU’s “analyses have been repeated and the conclusions have been verified”. (British House of Commons, 2010). The University of East Anglia found “no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the work of the CRU”, “no hint of tailoring results to a particular agenda”, and that “allegations of deliberate misrepresentation and unjustified selection of data are not valid”. (UEA, 2010) So this affirms what the climate science community already knew: the stolen emails do not change the science one bit.

But look at what newspapers told us for weeks on end. Every time the Winnipeg Free Press mentioned the emails, they would say something along the lines of, “The correspondence appears to suggest researchers may have manipulated data to exaggerate global warming.” These are very serious allegations to make, and they were made without evidence in serious, credible and widely read newspapers, and they’re not being retracted or corrected in the media now that the investigations are coming up clear.

Spencer Weart, who is a science historian, had some great words to say on this issue: “The media coverage represents a new low. There are plenty of earlier examples of media making an uproar without understanding the science….but this is the first time the media has reported that an entire community of scientists has been accused of actual dishonesty. Such claims….would normally require serious investigation. But even in leading newspapers like The New York Times, critics with a long public record for animosity and exaggeration are quoted as experts.”

Many of the scientists featured in the emails received death threats. Phil Jones, the director of CRU, says that he’s been suicidal. The story of these stolen emails is not a story of scientists engaged in conspiracy – it is a story of how desperate some people are to make it seem that way, and how gullible and irresponsible the mainstream media can be.

And not long after that, story after story broke that the IPCC, which is a huge UN publication about everything we know about the science of climate change, had all kinds of mistakes in it. So what were these mistakes? In 3 000 pages, two examples of overestimating climate change were found. First, the report said that the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035, and we now know that it’s going to take a lot longer than that. Second, it said that 55% of the Netherlands is below sea level, when in fact 55% of the Netherlands is susceptible to flooding, and only some of that is below sea level. This last one is background information. It really isn’t all that relevant.

So should that have happened? No. But does it actually matter to our understanding of the science? No.

Then several British journalists managed to invent five or six other “IPCC scandals”. When these were investigated more seriously, they were found to be completely false. But they were still reported in virtually every newspaper around the world. Again.

However, the IPCC has made a lot of mistakes, much more serious than these, that none of the newspapers are reporting. The difference is that the mistakes that make the media scream scandal are examples of overestimating climate change, while the ones you don’t hear about are examples of underestimating climate change. There was recently a report published that evaluated the last IPCC report, and this is what it found:

Over the past three years, there was about 40% less Arctic summer sea ice than the IPCC predicted, and melting in the Arctic is far exceeding its worst case scenarios. Recent observed sea level rise is about 80% more than the IPCC predicted.  Global sea level by 2100 is expected to rise at least twice as much as the IPCC predicted. (Copenhagen Diagnosis, 2009)

So which seems more important? The exact date at which a specific glacier is expected to melt? Or the amount of sea level rise we can expect all over the world? I have yet to find a newspaper in the world that covered this, but I have yet to find a newspaper in the world that did not cover this. Yes, the IPCC makes mistakes, but they are almost always mistakes that say, “oops, it’s going to be worse than we thought.”

So, as you can see, the real message about the reality and severity of climate change is not getting through. Communication of science is always important, but it’s especially important for climate change, because it could potentially screw up our civilization pretty bad, and we want to minimize that risk.

Scientists, in general, are not that great at public communication – that’s why they’re scientists and not journalists or salesmen or whatever. They want to sit in the lab and crunch numbers. And there’s always been sort of a stigma in the scientific community against talking to the media or the public. But the one good thing about all these rumours and all this awful journalism is that it’s finally making the scientific community wake up and realize how bad things are and how much their voice and their input is needed.

In the period of just a few months, over 300 American climate scientists signed an open letter to the US government about how two small mistakes in the IPCC do not impact the overall message that humans cause climate change, and should not impact our efforts to stop it.

And the National Academy of Sciences, which is one of the most prestigious organizations in the world – 1 out of 10 members have a Nobel Prize – has all sorts of plans for public lectures and articles in newspapers and a science show on prime time television.

The one good thing about things getting this bad is that it makes the people involved mad enough to step up and finally try to stop it. To finally narrow this gap that has existed for so long. That’s why I’m here today, that’s why I’ve been writing my blog for over a year, because I’m mad, and if I don’t do anything about it my head is going to explode. I cannot just sit and watch while these rumours threaten our ability to preserve a good future for me and for us and for everyone who will come after us. And I sincerely hope that all of you will not just sit and watch it happen either. We need to fix this together.