Defending Climate Science Today

“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt,” Mark Twain famously quipped. After almost a decade of delay in addressing the climate changes brought on by well-documented global warming, certain segments of American society are still in a state of denial, while others continue to have difficulty deciding what to do about steady changes in the earth’s climate and the drastic effects they portend. This hesitation is abetted by the persistent efforts of climate-change contrarians to discredit climate science, despite an overwhelming body of evidence and peer-reviewed research that has identified anthropogenic greenhouse gases as the culprit.

So how is it that a comparatively tiny community of trained scientists and a much larger community of nonscientists (unfortunately often identified as scientists) are able to persistently argue against the near-consensus, stating—incorrectly—that there’s a substantial scientific controversy over the main issues, often dredging up long-discredited scientific arguments against climate science, and most recently attacking individual scientists and even science itself with arguments that reveal a pathetic misunderstanding of how it actually works?

It is helpful at this point to define global warming as the abrupt rise in the mean global surface temperature of the earth over the past three decades, a rise so abrupt that it has produced fourteen of the fifteen warmest years in the instrumental record, globally. This abrupt rise is sometimes called the “hockey stick,” from its appearance when graphed. The term was the subject of controversy when introduced, due to an error in the initial analysis. However, the error was corrected, and the appearance of the global temperature curve continues to resemble a hockey stick laid on its side.

The Science Itself

A perceptive observer will note a pattern in the effort to discredit climate science. Many arguments have been introduced to “demonstrate” that the study of global climate change has no value, often because of claimed inadequacy of all climate models and frequently supplemented by an uninformed critic’s personal statement on what is causing global warming other than human activity. As soon as one such claim fails under scientific investigation, another argument tends to pop up. Not a single one of these claims for nonhuman causation has stood the test of investigation when carefully studied.

Climate change contrarians often point to the sun as the driver of extra-human global warming. The fact that the sun has been ruled out as the cause of global warming by solar physicists themselves, as well as by climate scientists, hasn’t prevented this argument from continuing to be used to suppress regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.

But could the sun indeed be a cause? The solar sunspot cycle was a popular choice for solar-driven global warming among many climate change contrarians over a decade ago. Two cycle-dependent phenomena were presented: variable solar ultraviolet radiation and variable solar magnetic fields that are both solar-cycle dependent. Many detailed investigations have since ruled out both as contemporary terrestrial climate drivers, but the simplest argument against either is the absence of any significant correlation between global warming and the solar cycle, even if phase shifts are taken into account. The skeptic may check this in Solar Variability and Its Effects on Climate (141 in the American Geophysical Union Monograph Series), in which solar physicists reported their search for such a correlation and failed to find it. This also bears on the false claim sometimes heard that scientists manipulate results to get more grant money. Had a strong positive correlation been found, funds would have flowed to support this research and solar researchers, including this author, were aware of this. As usual, however, scientific integrity prevailed. Although these solar-cycle hypotheses have been thoroughly discredited, they continue to be presented in Washington by people who have clearly not kept up with the field.

The other more recent speculation is that the solar intensity is increasing. Solar irradiance observations taken above the earth’s atmosphere do not support that claim, and subtle analyses of solar spectra taken at the National Solar Observatory suggest either no change in the solar radiative output or even a tiny decrease over this period. As for the truly bizarre, one sometimes hears that an alleged increase of water on Mars shows that the solar radiative output is increasing. Aside from the complexity of Martian planetary physics and the ongoing, inconclusive search for water there, along with that planet’s constantly changing distance from the Sun, superior measurements of solar irradiance above the earth’s atmosphere put that speculation to rest quickly. So much for solar driving of global warming today.

Other failed attempts to discredit climate science simply jump the gun. When the aforementioned error was made in the analysis that showed an alarmingly rapid rise in the global terrestrial temperature since the late 1970s, joy erupted in the contrarian community, only to subside when correcting the error showed a persistent temperature rise that had only changed in detail. When early weather balloon data and preliminary analyses of satellite data suggested the troposphere was not warming like the earth’s surface, thus “demonstrating” that climate models had little value because they predicted otherwise, further study revealed that the models were right, and now all working climate scientists agree that the tropospheric temperatures do increase with the earth’s surface temperatures.

Some of these scientific questions were legitimate when they were first asked, but they and many others have now been answered in favor of the current scientific near-consensus, a fact that has escaped the attention of many contrarians who insist on revisiting them. The urban heat island hypothesis that was offered to explain “apparent” global warming is another example. Here, the idea that climate scientists failed to weigh in the greater number of thermometers in relatively warm urban areas when analyzing temperature data was and is absurd. And yet I have encountered this hypothesis in presentations made to Congress.

The latest crusade to find serious errors in the scientific near-consensus on global warming was the release of more than a thousand hacked emails from the British Climatic Research Unit (CRU). Dubbed “Climategate” in the media, the story broke last November, just weeks before the Copenhagen Climate Conference and as major climate legislation was about to reach the floor of Congress in Washington. Critics claimed that the emails revealed exaggerated climate-change predictions and others based on unsound calculations.

A more rational explanation for Climategate is that the climate contrarians had run out of alternative scientific hypotheses for global warming and were desperate to find another way to discredit the prevailing science. Several independent reviews of the controversy, completed in the UK this past spring, found no evidence of malpractice on the part of CRU, nor did they find anything to contradict the consensus that human-caused global warming is a threat. A Pennsylvania State University review of the work of faculty member Michael Mann (he of hockey stick and now Climategate fame) likewise found no evidence of wrongdoing. Yet Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has revisited the case. In April Cuccinelli ordered the University of Virginia, where Mann was formerly employed, to turn over more than a decade’s worth of emails, documents, “things or data” related to Mann’s research (most federally, not state funded). This tactic has been used before to intimidate scientists, or at least to waste their time.

A distinguished group of 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences published a letter in the journal Science on May 7, 2010, striking back hard against those who egregiously misrepresent science to a vulnerable and confused public in support of “special interests or dogma, not by an honest effort to provide an alternative theory that credibly satisfies the evidence.” They note that no serious study has found anything wrong with contemporary climate science, even though scientists have “quite expectedly and normally, made some mistakes.” They go even further in connecting their letter to Climategate in calling for “an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them.”

In sum, as serious scientific bodies examine renewed attempts to discredit climate science, it becomes increasingly apparent that the science picture reviewed in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, titled The Physical Science Basis,has notchanged.Acknowledging that a very small number of climate scientists were indiscreet or foolish, one is tempted to ask the contrarians, “Is this really the best you can do?”

Clearly much more than science is influencing the debate today, and the time has come to address these other forces openly. In spite of the fact that climate science continues to be sound, the field has been put on the defensive in the minds of many in the general public, thanks in part to the admittedly sad state of general science education in the United States today and also through well-lobbied congressional offices. Thus it becomes necessary to penetrate the politics of the global warming debate more effectively.

Because of the recent partial collapse of the U.S. economy, and the concern of both American labor and almost equally anxious politicians in Washington, it is necessary to recognize how clever marketing can make use of these conditions to generate anxiety among those fearful of losing their jobs. Indeed, the current situation is made to order for those who wish to defeat any legislation that may seem to threaten certain established sectors of our economy. The challenge facing the scientific community and responsible government officials is how to respond effectively to these conditions.


Climate science does need continuous rational defending, but one does not win a political battle by staying on the defensive. The time has come to carry the argument forcefully to the other side. The false claims and exaggerations of the contrarians need to be more effectively, and publicly, exposed. Even absent full disclosure of the funding behind some of the attempts to discredit climate science, there are a number of things that can be said, based on the public record alone.

We can begin with the contradictory behavior of the George W. Bush administration, which often argued that more research was needed as the climate situation was becoming measurably worse, while simultaneously cutting the NASA budget for the relevant earth science by approximately half a billion dollars during the same period. The same administration also tried to muzzle Jim Hansen of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, through a young man who lied about having a college degree but who attempted to rewrite Hansen’s assessments of the climate problem from a position in NASA headquarters. Thanks to a Congressional investigation led by Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA), this latter outrage was exposed in 2007.

Early in 2009 the Center for Inquiry Office of Public Policy, for which I serve as the science advisor, examined a document released by the U.S. Senate bearing the title Senate Minority Report: More that 650 International Scientists Dissent over Man-Made Global Warming Claims. Since this conclusion seemed to fly in the face of the IPCC-2007 report already mentioned, we decided to investigate the background of these alleged 650 scientists. Not surprisingly, we discovered that over 80 percent of the individuals mentioned had no peer-reviewed publication record related to climate science.

Later in 2009 a slick book was published by the Heartland Institute, titled Reconsidering Climate Science. The book is large and heavy, and was obviously made to look like the IPCC-2007 Physical Science Basis volume. This book names between 20,000 and 30,000 “experts” who challenge the IPCC-2007 conclusions, a number that may be ten times the number of competent climate scientists in the world. While distributed gratis to Congressional offices, it is heartening to report that many copies landed in wastebaskets. Many of the arguments were seriously out of date, if not simply wrong.

There was also a full-page ad from the same Midwestern “think tank” that appeared in the Washington Post several times last year, when the Obama administration seemed poised to push through an energy bill while the president’s ratings were high. The ad featured a clearly worried working man. The fellow looked tough, but there was real concern in his expression that said “I may lose my job.” This ad was Madison Avenue at its best. Someone was paying for it. They weren’t climate scientists, and they probably weren’t labor unions either.

Other examples of manipulation abound. Consider the question of who might be paying for all this, since efforts at public influence are costly. How much money would a company that is making billions of dollars a quarter put into advertising to defeat legislation that might take a few billion a year off the credit sheet? A few hundred million? More? If this seems an exaggeration, consider the money trail exposed in Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming (2009), by authors James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore. In 2008 alone, their study reveals that the gas and oil lobby spent $128.6 million lobbying Capitol Hill, employing an average of four lobbyists for every member of Congress.

While it might be difficult to expose the full money trail here, we can ask if the resulting message that it buys is credible. It’s ironic that the contrarian community seems to be projecting a business model onto science, when science has a self-correcting process to discover the errors of individual scientists that the business community lacks. Scientists give almost as much credit to the one who finds an error as to the one who solves the problem correctly. The other community operates somewhat differently, through efforts to influence public opinion by advertising, as well as by the more valuable criterion, the quality of its products. In playing a game of credibility, we can legitimately ask which community is more likely to be credible on issues of science.


A Rational Solution


This may seem like an argument against the U.S. energy industry and big business in general. It’s not. It is an argument against those who misrepresent climate science for personal or parochial reasons, though some of them are indeed on the payroll of large corporations. The tactics of the contrarians have been perfected since lobbyists for the tobacco industry devised the perfect way to block government action to address the dangers of smoking. In Doubt Is Their Product, author David Michaels quotes a cigarette executive directly: “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with ‘the body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy (italics mine).” Similar tactics have worked all too well for climate change contrarians to date.

Ironically, these folks may actually be doing long-term harm to all U.S. business, including the largest enterprises that collectively still constitute the most powerful economic engine in the world, and which are essential contributors to the solution of the climate-change problem. These large corporations will suffer with the entire nation if Chinese, Indian, and European companies come to dominate the market for environmentally friendlier technologies before U.S. firms are ready. The once powerful and profitable Bethlehem Steel story is instructive. Choosing to make steel the old-fashioned way at Sparrow Point, Maryland—the largest seaside steel plant in the world when built—the company eventually went into bankruptcy, while German and Japanese steel makers cornered the market making better steel the new way. One hopes large American energy companies will not follow suit.

Al Gore may be the favorite target of the pace-setters in the contrarian community, but those who have actually read his latest book, 2009’s Our Choice, know that he’s advocating a distributed solution that offers many business opportunities for corporate America as well as for innovative entrepreneurs. Nor does any sensible person doubt that many of the largest projects will need existing energy enterprises for their successful implementation, both because of their scale and of the complexity of the challenge. Exxon-Mobil may wish to delay action until they are better prepared to participate in projects beyond the more traditional challenge of finding recoverable oil. However, one can be sure they are also working on future solutions beyond oil recovery alone.

All major enterprises that wish to remain profitable know they must conduct advanced research on technologies differing from those that are most profitable today, and there is evidence they are doing just that. It is mainly the ideologues who resist change entirely, and they are not always on the conservative side of the political spectrum. One example is nuclear generation of electricity. Granting that serious security and waste disposal issues remain, there are reasons why Energy Secretary (and Nobel Laureate) Steven Chu and Presidential Science Advisor John Holdren have advocated that the nation pursue a relatively green, nuclear energy generation program as part of the new energy mix, and are working toward a more efficient licensing process. They do this with the knowledge that once U.S. industry becomes convinced this program will be large enough to invite investment, costs will come down due to the economy of scale and also to currently improved, more secure technologies. While he does not openly advocate nuclear energy in his latest book, even Al Gore admits that secure nuclear waste disposal is a problem that can probably be solved. The Defense Department has been doing this for decades.

Nuclear power is but one example of reasonable people in both political camps, too often estranged in Washington today, coming together to find solutions to the climate change problem. The other environmentally friendly technologies such as wind and solar power, geothermal energy on large and small scales, smart power grids, and some biofuels, all offer business and investment opportunities. It is common knowledge that no one technology will suffice, but taken together they could make a huge difference a half century from now—if the effort were to start this year. The American Power Act introduced in May by Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) would be a useful step in the right direction. While it stands to be misrepresented as doing too much too soon, the bill actually represents a compromise by getting started with what we already know how to do—that is reliably measure carbon dioxide emissions and improve the fuel efficiency of vehicles—while allowing some global warming issues to be addressed later. This Senate measure will ultimately need to be reconciled with the House Clean Energy and Security bill introduced in 2009. However, if the country is to move forward toward a reduced carbon emissions future, both bills offer reasonable ways to get started.

Of course all reasonable people know that none of these developments will kick in overnight. Sea level rise won’t stop in the near future—it’ll just get a lot worse if we do nothing to address the problem now. That’s why people who understand climate science need to go on the offensive and call the climate contrarians to account. There is too much at stake not to.