All Over the Map

The climate change debate is usually categorized into two sides. One side claims that humans are causing the Earth to warm. The other claims that they are not.

But does the second side have an alternate scientific explanation for why humans are not causing climate change? When they are the extreme minority of scientific opinion, the burden of proof is really on them. So let’s look at the scientific theories of some of the more prominent skeptics.

Dr S. Fred Singer

Dr S. Fred Singer

Dr S. Fred Singer is an atmospheric physicist and a professor of environmental science at the University of Virginia. He is widely known for his opposition to the mainstream opinion regarding climate change, and has a history of being funded by oil companies and conservative think-tanks to promote this skepticism. (He was similarly funded for his opposition to the theory of tobacco causing cancer, as well as the theory of CFCs depleting ozone.)
Dr Singer claims that the observed warming is a natural phenomenon that occurs every 1500 years. He uses data from the Greenland ice core to support this theory. The data illustrates repeating D-O events, a well-known phenomenon from the last ice age, in which ocean currents caused the Greenland ice cap to warm while the Antarctic ice cap cooled. There was no change in the energy balance of the Earth, and little, if any, change in average global temperatures. Peter Sinclair created a fantastic video about Dr Singer’s D-O theory which you should all check out here.
With the training and knowledge he has, you’d hope Dr Singer would know to always use data from both poles when addressing issues of paleoclimatology. But, given his track record, there’s a good chance he’s deliberately trying to deceive us.
Dr Richard Lindzen

Dr Richard Lindzen

Dr Richard Lindzen is an atmospheric physicist and professor of meteorology at MIT. He was one of the many lead authors of the third IPCC report. His scientific work seems to follow the mainstream opinion……but he seems like a skeptic in the media. He is just as prominent as Dr Singer – between the two of them they’ve probably written most of the skeptical newspaper editorials out there. Like Dr Singer, Dr Lindzen is known to have been paid by the oil industry to promote his views on climate change.

But what are those views? It’s hard to know. Given his publications and participation in IPCC, it seems like he agrees with the basic physical processes of climate change. In an interview with Canadian climatologist Andrew Weaver, he seemed to acknowledge that humans were changing the climate, but didn’t think the consequences would be too bad. But he also likes to claim that there is little agreement or confidence, regarding anthropogenic climate change, in the scientific community. He told the Boston News that the Greenland ice sheet was thickening, indicating cooling – while it is well known that the thickening is due to an increase in snow from warmer temperatures. He’s also claimed that climatologists made up global warming so they would get more grant money.

Richard Lindzen says so many different things – it’s hard to tell whether or not he has a consistent opinion. Again, in scientific circles, he’s working just fine with the mainstream opinion. But then he goes to the media and spews out all the contrary arguments he can think of. My best guess is that Dr Lindzen is trying to confuse the public on climate change, because he doesn’t want action to be taken. But who knows?

Dr Anthony Watts

Anthony Watts

Anthony Watts is a weather forecaster, but now spends most of his time running the websites Watt’s Up With That? and Surface Stations. He believes that temperature data stations are producing flawed data, showing a false warming trend. He spends a lot of time trying to explain how observed signs of warming, such as melting ice sheets, are irrelevant.
However, we could forget the temperature data altogether, throwing out all the GISS graphs of temperature changes. We could instead look at changes in the timing of physical and biological events, such as when birds migrate, when snow melts, or when flowers bloom. NASA recently conducted such a study, and found that 90% of the 29,500 data sets studied indicated warming temperatures.
These are three of the most prominent skeptics who are actually qualified to understand climate change. If this small community – perhaps no more than a few dozen scientists worldwide – had a consistent scientific theory to explain why humans are not causing climate change, perhaps we’d pay more attention to them.
But they’re all saying different things. Their ideas are all over the map. I don’t think I’ve even seen two skeptics who share the same theory.
They’re working as hard as they can to disprove climate change, but they can’t even agree on an alternate explanation.

A Retraction?

A recent comment by a long-time reader brought a new piece of information to my attention. “What about the JSER?” they asked. “[Someone claimed] that it was a Japanese scientific society that endorsed the falsity of global warming…..What do you think?”

Did this bring the absense of disagreement among professional scientific organizations, at the top of our credibility spectrum, to a close?

I mulled it over and decided to do what seemed to be the most honest course of action. I would research this claim as thoroughly as my resources allowed, and if it turned out to be true, I would publish a retraction of my former statement regarding organizations.

First, however, I needed to get more information. I researched with the following questions in mind:

1) Is the JSER a professional scientific organization? This part of the claim appeared to be true – according to the English section of their website, they published a scientific journal, held conferences and seminars, and boasted over 1500 members.

However, the JSER – the Japan Society of Energy and Resources – likely has a high chance of bias. Its goal is “to promote the science and technology concerning energy and resources and thus to facilitate cooperation among industry academia and governmental sectors for coping with the problems in this field.” With today’s fossil-fuel dependent economy, the JSER likely has a lot of members representing the oil and gas industry. Oil and gas officials can easily fall prey to confirmation bias – their jobs depend on a resource which is causing dire problems for our planet. In their situation, it’s often easiest to deny such problems. In fact, the final scientific organization to change its statement from “humans aren’t affecting the climate” to “oops, yes they are” was the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.

2) Did the JSER officially state that humans aren’t affecting the climate? I found no evidence for an official statement.

3) So where did the claim come from? It started with a written discussion between five JSER representatives. One, the only climatologist of the five, defended the mainstream opinion that humans are causing climate change. One was undecided. The remaining three rejected the theory.

However, this discussion was mistakenly perceived as a “report” by The Register, a British media news source. I found no evidence that this so-called “report” was peer-reviewed (and how could it possibly have passed peer-review – it claimed that global warming stopped in 1998!). For example, the Register article noted, “Remarkably, the subtle and nuanced language typical in such reports has been set aside.” One of the authors is alleged to have compared climatology to ancient astrology.

I think we can safely leave this source as an email debate between colleagues. I cannot imagine how it could be a peer-reviewed document worthy of consideration.

However, as always, I could be wrong. There is little on the Internet regarding the JSER and its report. If any readers have additional information, please comment.

Update: Thanks to John for pointing me to the website of James Annan, a climatologist living in Japan. He knows the authors of the document personally and says, “The “report” is simply the collation of one of these popular-but-pointless sceptic-vs-scientist debates, and has no official status.”

When Authority is Relevant

When it is appropriate to use an argument from authority?

The most common criticism of arguments such as Doran and Zimmerman’s poll or a list of statements from organizations is, “That doesn’t mean they’re right.” Just because a topic has overwhelming agreement doesn’t mean it’s true.

I agree with that criticism. But I still believe that such arguments are appropriate at times. How can this be?

Firstly, to a scientist who has relevant experience, arguing from authority is not usually appropriate. If someone understands all the technicalities of a topic such as climatology, what others say shouldn’t necessarily influence them. If there is overwhelming agreement on an issue, they should certainly examine its evidence, but shouldn’t be subject to peer-pressure. If someone understands the science behind the issue, their own experience and analysis makes the popular opinion barely relevant.

However, to the individual with no climatology training, their own analysis can’t cut it. They simply need to trust those with relevant experience – who else are they going to trust? As Greg Craven says in Risk Management,

“Ask yourself this: does the Earth go around the sun, or does the sun go around the Earth? No one even seriously questions that anymore, right? Try this sometime. Stand and point to the sun in the sky. A few hours later, stand in the same spot, facing the same direction, and do it again. Is your arm pointing in the same direction as it was before? No! Clearly, the sun is the thing that moved, and clearly, the Earth is too large to have gone anywhere, and is right where you left it.

If your senses—and your common sense—are so easily fooled, then how do you decide what to believe about the natural world? Well, why do you so firmly believe that the Earth orbits the sun, despite all evidence and common sense to the contrary? You believe it because: smart people told you so. And you trust them, when it’s their area of expertise, and enough of them agree. Of course authority matters. That doesn’t mean it’s infallible—just ask Galileo. But it’s certainly a better bet than armchair analysis.”

Additionally, to the average non-scientist, the physical truth does not matter as much as the probability of the event in question. They don’t really care about D-O events, Milankovitch cycles, or the relative strength of different greenhouse gases. The real question they are asking is, “What do we need to do about climate change?” People care about what will impact them. For scientists, that means data and conclusions, as that’s their job. For average individuals, that means risk management and mitigation, as that determines which policies they will support and what individual action they will take.

And when over 97% of the scientific community agree that humans are causing the Earth to warm, the probability of emission reduction being worthwhile seems pretty high.

It’s important that the authority used to argue the probability of a point is large and diverse, however. It’s easy to cherry-pick one of the outspoken 3% of scientists who reject climate change and say, “See, they know more than you do, so you should vote against Waxman-Marley.” Statistics such as “97% agreement” or “every professional scientific organization that has issued a statement on climate change” gives the audience a much better sense of the mainstream scientific opinion.

Therefore, to the average person, arguing from authority is appropriate, because it reflects probability and risk management. And that’s really all that the general public cares about.

Ignore the Petition Project

Many of you have probably heard of Ron Paul’s recent statement in Congress regarding a petition signed by thousands of scientists claiming that there was no scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change, no evidence that burning hydrocarbons was harmful, and, in fact, evidence that burning hydrocarbons would be beneficial for the Earth. The purpose of this statement was to persuade the American people to reject the cap-and-trade bill being negotiated in Congress.

I was skeptical of this petition. I did a little research to find out its legitimacy. Before long I discovered that it was an updated edition of the Oregon Petition, which was created to persaude America to reject Kyoto.

The Oregon Petition has some major problems. Firstly, attached to the petition was an article supporting its claims. The article was designed to look just like an article from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a reputable peer-reviewed journal. However, the article was created by three skeptics and was not peer-reviewed at all. The NAS was subject to a lot of inquiries and controversy following the publication of this petition. It eventually had to publish a statement saying that the NAS had nothing to do with the article.

Secondly, the petition could be signed by scientists from any discipline, even if they had no experience studying climatology. As British physics student Michael Ashcroft writes,

“The problem is that, as science is such a vast field, you can spend your entire life studying one branch of science and still know absolutely nothing about another. For example, I am a physics student, and I can honestly say that I know nothing about medicine. I also wouldn’t expect an ecologist to understand the processes behind the formation of stars, for example.This is precisely what the Petition Project does assume, though. If we look at the qualifications of the signers, we see that even medical doctors are eligible to sign. Take a look. Some of the more amusing backgrounds, that supposedly give these people enough special knowledge about global warming to deny its existence, include:

Mathematics – without a special interest in the climate, this is worthless in the field.

Physics – I have almost finished a Bachelor’s degree in Physics and there has been only one, optional course about “Environmental Physics”, so I can argue from experience that a degree in Physics does not necessarily equip someone with the information they may need to decry global warming.

Biology – unless there’s a large degree of specialisation of the effects of climate change on some biological variable (growth, change of ecosystems etc), this has no bearing on the subject.

Medicine – What?!

Aerospace Engineering – I happen to live with an Aeronautical Engineering student, who has had no training in any environmental subjects whatsoever.

Computer Science – see Aerospace Engineering

It is like asking celebrities what they think of the economy of Chad. They may be famous, and therefore carry some weight, but their opinions are nothing more than opinion. Asking “Dr X” what he thinks of the manufacture of steel may be all well and good, except that “Dr X” has a PhD in ancient history. He may be qualified in something, but it is misleading to assume that because he is a doctor of something, he must know everything about everything.”

Thirdly, the scientists who did sign may have been misrepresented. An article in Scientific American conducted a study regarding the participants.

Scientific American took a random sample of 30 of the 1,400 signatories claiming to hold a Ph.D. in a climate-related science. Of the 26 we were able to identify in various databases, 11 said they still agreed with the petition—one was an active climate researcher, two others had relevant expertise, and eight signed based on an informal evaluation. Six said they would not sign the petition today, three did not remember any such petition, one had died, and five did not answer repeated messages. Crudely extrapolating, the petition supporters include a core of about 200 climate researchers; a respectable number, though rather a small fraction of the climatological community.”

The Seattle Times also investigated the Orgeon Petition, and found that some questionable people had signed.

“Several environmental groups questioned dozens of the names: “Perry S. Mason” (the fictitious lawyer?), “Michael J. Fox” (the actor?), “Robert C. Byrd” (the senator?), “John C. Grisham” (the lawyer-author?). And then there’s the Spice Girl, a k a. Geraldine Halliwell: The petition listed “Dr. Geri Halliwell” and “Dr. Halliwell.”

Asked about the pop singer, Robinson said he was duped. The returned petition, one of thousands of mailings he sent out, identified her as having a degree in microbiology and living in Boston. “It’s fake,” he said.

“When we’re getting thousands of signatures there’s no way of filtering out a fake,” Robinson, 56, said in a telephone interview from Oregon.”

 Finally, for a more thorough and visually appealing analysis of the Oregon Petition, including the motives and credibility of its creators, I’d encourage you all to watch this video by Peter Sinclair.

We should all assess the credibility of the Petition Project. Its first revision has some major problems. Should we trust it a second time? Can it compare with the G8 Statement, the Joint Academies’ Statments versions I and II, the survey of individual climatologists by Doran and Zimmerman, and the dozens of other organizations that have made indepent statements?

Which statements truly reflect the opinion of the scientific community?

Gambling on a Lie

All right, here it is. A list of professional scientific organizations that have issued statements saying that humans are causing the Earth to warm. Thanks to Logical Science for helping in the creation of this list. Keep in mind that, since the list is several years old, it is probably longer today.

  • Academia Brasileira de Ciéncias
  • Académie des Sciences
  • Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei
  • Russian Academy of Sciences
  • National Academy of Sciences
  • Royal Society of Canada
  • Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina
  • Science Council of Japan
  • Academy of Science of South Africa
  • Chinese Academy of Sciences
  • Indian National Science Academy
  • Academia Mexicana de Ciencias
  • Royal Society
  • Australian Academy of Sciences
  • Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for  Sciences  and the Arts
  • Caribbean Academy of Sciences
  • Indonesian Academy of Sciences
  • Royal Irish Academy
  • Academy of Sciences Malaysia
  • Academy Council of the Royal Society of New Zealand
  • Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
  • Union of Concerned Scientists
  • Woods Hole Research Center
  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate  Change
  • United Nations Framework Convention  on Climate Change
  • American Association for the  Advancement of Science
  • American Meteorological Society
  • National Research Council
  • Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
  • Federal Climate Change Science Program
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric  Administration
  • UN Project on Climate Variability and Predictability
  • American Geophysical Union
  • Geological Society o f America
  • American Chemical Society
  • Geological Society of London
  • Institution of Engineers Australia
  • American Association of State Climatologists
  • US Geological Survey
  • National Center for Atmospheric  Research
  • NASA
  • World Meteorological Organization
  • United Nations Environment Program
  • Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences
  • International Council on Science
  • State of the Canadian Cryosphere
  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • American Astronomical Society
  • Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
  • American Institute of Physics
  • Pew Center on Climate Change
  • InterAcademy Council
  • World Health Organization
  • American Quaternary Association
  • Network of African Science Academies
  • European Science Foundation
  • American Society for Microbiology
  • American Public Health Association
  • World Federation of Public Health Associations
  • Institute of Biology
  • Society of American Foresters
  • The Wildlife Society
  • European Federation of Geologists
  • European Geosciences Union
  • International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics
  • American Physical Society

As of 2007, no professional scientific organization in the world publicly disputes that humans are causing the Earth to warm. (No, the Heartland Institute is not a professional scientific organization.)

As we discussed in Making Up Your Own Science, whatever objections an individual holds to the theory of anthropogenic climate change have almost certainly been addressed by the folks metioned above. They know that the climate has changed in the past. They know that the urban heat island effect can cause regional warming. They know that volcanoes emit carbon dioxide. And yet they are still saying that humans are causing the Earth to warm. What does this tell you?

1) They could be right. They could have satisfactory explanations for all of these objections.

2) They could be ignorant. You, the average individual who thinks global warming stopped in 1998, might be smarter and more thorough than 97.4% of climatologists and all of the aforementioned organizations put together.

3) They could be lying. The entire scientific community might be composed of liberal extremists who are plotting to destroy capitalism and free trade.

Which of these outcomes seems most likely?

How sure are you? What if you were wrong?

Are you willing to gamble that the entire scientific community is incompetent or lying?

Are you willing to bet your life, your civilization, and your species on it?

Making Up Your Own Science

Why do so many people believe they’re more qualified on the topic of climate change than the climatologists themselves?

Visit Youtube, the editorial page of a newspaper, or even the blogosphere. All over places like these, where opinions can be expressed freely, there are countless people who

1) have little to no scientific training,

2) rely solely on the popular media for information on climate change,

3) are obviously unfamiliar with elementary principles of climatology, such as the Milankovitch cycles, El Nino and La Nina, or the importance of long trend lines in graphical measurements. (Sorry, not all of these sources are that high up on our credibility spectrum, but their citations are great.)

But, most importantly,

4) They seem to believe that their opinion of the forcings and mechanisms of a complex system such as climate, as well as its basis in physics and chemistry, is more noteworthy than the opinions of the professional scientific organizations at the top of our credibility spectrum.

In simpler terms, “It doesn’t matter what the scientists say. I’m smarter than all of them put together.”

Why you need science

Climatology is not as simple as you might expect after watching An Inconvenient Truth. The folks at NASA don’t just look at two graphs that are both going up and automatically assume that they’re correlated.

Climatology is every bit as complicated, thorough, and dry as any other area of science. In fact, it is deeply entrenched in the physical sciences. As an over-eager student who is trying to understand more aspects of climatology than I have the scientific foundation for, I continually run into this entrenchment.

For example, the exact process of how a CO2 or CH4 molecule absorbs infrared energy and thus acts as a greenhouse gas involves quantum chemistry that I haven’t learned yet. I’m still puzzling over the difference between the direct cooling effect of aerosols versus the cloud albedo effect. I hear all the time that climate change is based on the Laws of Thermodynamics, but I have yet to find out what those laws are.

It’s not easy stuff. It’s not something just anyone could grasp entirely in an afternoon. It’s something that requires years of study.

If I told you that parts of the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets were thickening, chances are that you’d think, “More ice = cooling, therefore the world is not warming.”

In fact, these thickening ice sheets are a sign of warming. The thickening areas were previously so cold that the air could not hold enough moisture for significant precipitation. With warming, the air has more capacity for humidity, and precipitation falls in the form of snow. But it’s still too cold for that snow to melt, so it builds up and thickens the ice sheet.

It’s not as simple as temperature = climate. You have to look at changes in humidity and precipitation over time. You have to use a lot of maps. You have to factor in wind and ocean currents.

You have to know what you’re doing to make an accurate analysis of climate data. If you haven’t studied physical geography, atmospheric physics, or climate modelling at the post-secondary level, chances are that you hold misconceptions and assumptions that are skewing your interpretation.

I know this is true for me. I don’t pretend to know everything about climate change. I have an awfully long way to go. I’m just a student.

The more I learn about climatology, the more I realize how little I know.

So please, have some humility. Realize that it might be wiser to trust the experts than to try to analyze it all yourself. Don’t automatically assume that NASA, IPCC, the 32 national academies of science that endorsed the IPCC, and every other professional scientific organization on the planet are completely wrong just because somebody said they were.

Chances are, there are satisfactory explanations for whatever objections you may hold to their methods. Yes, they are making sure the sun is not responsible. No, they weren’t all saying an ice age was coming in the 70s. Yes, they are aware carbon dioxide is plant food. These are smart people. Accept that they might know more about climate change than you do. It’s not such a terrible thing.

To conclude, there are many things in life, such as fashion, political beliefs, and spirituality, where all opinions are equal, and nobody is justified to tell anybody what they should believe.

Science isn’t one of them.

Why They Don’t Debate on TV

I read an interesting article not long ago that claimed that scientists were not debating climate change enough. It said that they were refusing to debate skeptics on television and in the media, as they “knew they would lose”. Examples of “believers” who apparently refused such debates were Al Gore, David Suzuki, and well-known climatologists such as Hansen and Weaver.

Could it be that these advocates are refusing debates not because they “know they will lose”, but because they know that such a media-ravaged spectacle will have no scientific value?

If you look at these people, two – Gore and Suzuki – do not specialize in climatology. They are purely lobbyists and media figures (Suzuki is also a geneticist). For the purpose of determining how much debate goes into creating working conclusions on climate change, we should look at  the top of the credibility spectrum. Let’s exclude An Inconvenient Truth, editorials, films, and narrative non-fiction (such as Keeping Our Cool by Dr Weaver). These have not been peer-reviewed. They are (hopefully) based upon scientific conclusions, but would not be acceptable to cite in a research paper about climate change. They were created purely to reach the general public and to relay a certain political or ethical message.

What we will include are the documents which drive government policy, which have been peer-reviewed (or are peer-reviewed compilations of peer-reviewed science, such as the IPCC reports) and which have been created by sources at the top of our credibility spectrum. NASA is a good source. So is the IPCC. So are the 32 national academies of science that have approved the IPCC. Peer-reviewed scientific journals such as Nature, Science, or EOS are also credible.

This is where it all starts. This is where climate change theory began. It wasn’t cooked up by the government, the media, or someone like Al Gore. These are the people that objectively study details of global warming that you or I can’t even understand.

Back to the debate thing

There would be no point in Al Gore facing down a skeptical journalist in a “scientific debate” on prime-time TV. One of two scenarios would occur:

1) The debate would be of a true scientific nature (which would be surprising as neither of the sources are even climatologists). They would be talking about things like Dansgaard-Oeschger events, Milankovitch cycles, and the solubility of carbonic acid in water as a function of temperature. To the average viewer, it would be really boring. They wouldn’t understand a word of it. Nobody would watch. The television station would declare it a failure.

2) The debate would resort to name-calling and ridiculous claims. The journalist would go on about it all being a liberal conspiracy. Al Gore would go on about ethical responsibilities. The journalist would take advantage of the audience’s lack of scientific knowledge and claim that, as CO2 levels often lag behind temperature, climate change wasn’t real at all. Al Gore would take advantage of the audience’s lack of scientific knowledge and claim that Hurricane Katrina could be directly attributed to a warming planet. Scientists all over the world would shake their heads. The public would get even more confused.

You can have a scientific discussion. You can have a debate that becomes a media spectacle. It’s much harder to do both at once.

Scientists aren’t lawyers. They don’t each try to prove opposing arguments. Scientists aren’t politicians. They don’t try to make their ideas interesting for the general public. Scientists are seekers of truth, or the closest to truth humans can get, regarding the physical world.

Getting closer to that truth requires a lot of second-guessing, a lot of checking and revising and admitting that you’re wrong. It requires looking at every possible outcome and deciding which is the most probable. It requires inspecting new evidence whenever it comes up. It is “debating” in a gentler, more objective, more dry sense of the word.

So yes, scientists do debate in their own way. It’s called peer-review. It involves all that second-guessing, checking, and revising we just mentioned. It involves considering every objection. It involves addressing every objection that is deemed relevant. The sources we listed above – NAS, IPCC, Nature – peer-review all of their publications.

If this skeptical journalist had a new idea about climate change, he or she should get a degree, study their idea meticulously, write it up in the form of an article and submit it to a peer-review institution. That’s the normal scientific practice. Spreading their scientific hypotheses around the media without first passing their work through a peer-review process shows that they’re trying to influence the public, not educate them.

Go do some reading about how claims like “climate change is caused by the sun” or “it’s a natural cycle” have stood up to peer-review. Go see what the qualified, credible, objective scientific theories have found. Go see just how much research the scientific community has done about solar activity or natural cycles.

Yes, scientists do debate about climate change.

They just don’t do it on TV.

Artificial Balance

All issues have two (or more) sides. We can probably all agree on that. But are they always two equal sides?

Journalists are trained to always present both sides of an issue with equal weight. This works well for matters of politics. Got the Conservative? Get the Liberal. (That’s Republican and Democrat, respectively, for our American friends.) It works for policy – reporting the pros and cons of building a new bridge vs not building a new bridge. Journalistic balance is appropriate for matters which concern personal opinion, where everyone’s view is as credible as anyone else’s, and you don’t need a PhD to understand the stuff.

But what about matters of science?

Remember high school science class? Did they present both sides of absolutely every topic with equal weight? Did they say to you, “This is the evidence for and against the existence of photosynthesis. You can form your own personal opinion”? Did they do the same with Newton’s Laws, chemical reactions, or the idea of a heliocentric universe? Of course not. It would just confuse you further, and it was unnecessary as the ideas being taught were widely accepted in the scientific community.

So why should climate change be any different?

“Climate change is still being debated,” you might say. “Scientists are split over whether or not it’s happening, and whether or not we’re causing it.”

And that, my friends, is where the media comes back into the story.

Let’s hear what Ross Gelbspan has to say in his book The Heat is On.

“The professional canon of journalistic fairness requires reporters who write about a controversy to present points of view. When the issue is of a political of social nature, fairness – presenting the most compelling arguments of both sides with equal weight – is a fundamental check on biased reporting. But this canon causes problems when it is applied to the issue of science. It seems to demand that journalists present competing points of view on a scientific question as though they had equal weight, when actually they do not.”

We’ve previously discussed how there is wide agreement over the existence of anthropogenic climate change among individual scientists. Among professional scientific organizations, the numbers are even higher. As soon as you tune into the discussions of scientists, instead of only what you hear in the media, it’s clear that climate change was accepted long ago. Right now, they’re debating technicalities such as when the Arctic will be free of summer ice, how quickly feedback mechanisms will work, and how much emission reduction is necessary.

But the media hasn’t caught onto this. The media likes a controversy, and they don’t want to be accused of only presenting one side. So they present the opinions of climate scientists as 50-50, instead of the 97-3 that Doran and Zimmerman determined.

What kind of balance is this, when the fringe opinions are hugely over-represented, and the vast majority are hugely under-represented? Does that not cause more bias than we were trying to avoid?

*Further reading: Misguided “Balance” in Science Journalism by Chris Mooney*

The Importance of Error Statements

Scientific error is unavoidable. There is a very good chance that whatever measurements we take will be slightly off. There is even a small chance that our conclusions are completely wrong. We accept that we don’t know everything. We live with it. We do the best we can.

Stating error and uncertainty is required in peer-reviewed science. Quite simply, it increases the author’s credibility. When you admit that you might be wrong, people feel more inclined to trust you. You seem like the kind of person that would admit to mistakes, and continually revise your findings to improve them as much as possible.

Something you hear a lot from climate change skeptics is something along the lines of, “We’re not completely sure if humans are changing the climate. Therefore, we shouldn’t waste money on reducing our emissions.” To me, it often seems like the people making these statements are exploiting the natural uncertainty of science, doing everything they can to make the uncertainty of climatology seem unusual. My favourite example of this can be read here.

If you go and read a peer-reviewed scientific report on any topic at all, you’ll see that the uncertainty over anthropogenic climate change isn’t really that unusual. We’re not completely sure about how gravity works. We’re not sure if light is a particle or a wave (or a particle that’s a wave, or a wave that’s a particle, etc). In fact, there are no conclusions in scientific articles that claim to be infallible.

This doesn’t mean there are two equal sides fighting over every topic you can imagine. In a lot of the cases, scientists have pretty much made up their mind. But they must, and always do, remain open to the possibility that they could be completely wrong.

Let’s look at the quantitative explanation of some terms of likelihood used by the IPCC. Extremely unlikely refers to a <5% chance. Virtually certain refers to a >99% chance. The numbers 0% and 100% are non-existent. They never say that something will definitely happen, or definitely not happen.

Check out the claims from the scientific organizations at the top of our credibility spectrum. Read the statements on climate change from the national academies of science of every major industrialized nation. Read what the folks at NASA have to say. Watch for the error measurements, and uncertain words like “evidence for” or “reason to believe”.

The important part

And then, more often than not, a lot of the people who said “Climate change is too uncertain” then turn around and make claims with no acknowledgement that they could be wrong. Let’s find some of the most extreme examples of this phenomenon….anonymous YouTube comments.

“The Earth has been heating up for thousands of years at a steady rate and it has nothing to do with people.”

“If these findings were anywhere near accurate, then I would see changes on at least a weekly basis. But nothing.”

“Nothing is significantly wrong that Mother Nature cannot put right.”

“I don’t think CO2 causes global warming, not at all.”

When I see comments like these – which are, sadly, extremely common – I wish I could say to every one of them, “What if you were wrong?”

I realize I could be wrong. It’s something I came to terms with long ago. I could be totally wrong about all this climate change stuff (in fact, I’d love to be). That’s why I support multi-benefit policies, that will help areas like the economy or health. If climate change turns out to be nonexistent/natural/a global conspiracy, at least our action will have brought us some good.

But what if all these anonymous YouTubers were wrong?

All those people who are so certain that we’re causing no change in the climate.

What if they were wrong? Can you imagine what the consequences could be?

Is this really something worth questioning, when there is so much agreement, and the stakes are so high?

Is this really a gamble worth taking?

Scientific Agreement Quantified

You hear the term “scientific consensus” thrown around all the time in climate change. Al Gore claims absolute consensus. Many skeptics claim none at all. Earlier this year, Peter Doran and his student Maggie Zimmerman, from the University of Illinois, published the results of a poll aimed at quantifying the degree of scientific agreement on climate change.

Peter Doran is a publishing climatologist, so he falls into the most credible category of individuals on our credibility spectrum. The poll was published in EOS, a publication of the American Geophysical Union. EOS is a peer-reviewed journal, which falls even higher on our credibility spectrum than a publishing climatologist. I think we can establish strong credibility for this poll.

Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change (click on the link for the most complete summary you can get without an EOS account) polled 3146 Earth scientists on their opinion on climate change. The summary describes the details of how the poll was carried out, for anyone who is questioning objectivity.

First, the poll asked, “When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?” Overall, 90% of participants answered “risen”, as did 96.2% of actively publishing climatologists, the highest level of specialization categorized in the study.

The second question asked, “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?” As seen below, 82% of participants answered “yes”, as did 97.4% of actively publishing climatologists. Note that the darkest blue bar represents the general public, as seen in a recent Gallup poll.

Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in chaning global mean temperatures?

Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?

The poll noted that the level of agreement on anthropogenic global warming increased with the level of specialization. They also noted that the public perception of debate was, obviously, largely unfounded. We’ll be talking a lot more about perceived debate in the weeks to come here at ClimateSight.

The results of this poll are not surprising to me. In a way they make me happy, as they confirm that my previous perception of scientific agreement was well founded. But they also make me sad. 97% of the world’s most qualified individuals on this topic agree that we’re affecting the climate – something which is generally very negative as, with climate, stability is best. As David Suzuki said, “We are playing a crap game with the only home we have.”