Thursday, December 18, 2014

How the Media Keep Climate Denial Alive



Climate denial remains active despite the overwhelming consensus that human activity is causing the warming of the planet and that action to reduce carbon emissions is immediately necessary. Professional climate denial lobbyists are a big reason for the continued anti-science sentiment, but the media have played a critical role in climate denialism as well.

To begin with, the media have been lax in reporting man-made climate change commensurate with its importance to current and future policy needs. Earlier in 2014 several Senators called for the media to increase climate coverage. Whether media coverage of climate has increased is debatable, especially given the release of so many critical climate change reports this year. But even when the media do report on climate issues they often misinform as much as they inform. This post looks at a few of the reasons why this is so.

Intentional denialism

In some cases this media role is overt and intentional.Time after time studies have shown that Fox News, to name the best known and most egregious example, intentionally misrepresents the science of climate change and actively foments distrust of scientists while giving false credence to non-scientists. One recently published study demonstrates that partisan media, especially the conservative media, effectively turns the public away from science.

While these ideologically motivated anti-science venues are obvious, at least to impartial observers, in most cases the role of the media in spreading climate denial is more subtle and a function of the differences between how the media works and how science works. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that most media outlets have cut back on professional journalist staff, in particular on dedicated science reporters. Which means people who cover politics – or travel – one day are covering science stories the next. The tendency toward limited science expertise, short deadlines, and an inclination toward “balanced” reporting, sets the media up for both internal and external manipulation by climate denial lobbyists.

Accidental denialism

In most cases the failure of the media is less about ideological bias and more about the way “journalism” works.  Since most of the denialist industry comes from the realm of political lobbying, the media tend to treat climate science as if it were  some sort of political philosophy. This is in direct conflict with how science itself works, where everyone’s goal is to advance our knowledge and taking that knowledge wherever the data will defensibly take us. This sets up an inherent conflict between the normal incremental movement as scientists do studies to address small aspects of the bigger picture and the tendency for the media to treat each new paper as if it were the science in and of itself. Such reporting often seems to say one thing one day and the opposite the next - an unintentional media glitch that professional denial lobbyists willfully exploit.

Let's take a look at the problem of "balance" in media. Ironically, the desire to provide “balance” in principle can lead to massive imbalance in practice. For example, consider a scenario in which a news anchor wants to discuss the state of climate science. The young producer calls up the National Academy of Sciences and asks for an expert on climate science. Good start, right?

Maybe. Already this interview has the potential for incompletely informing (and possibly misinforming) the public because the news anchor will presume that the expert called will be an expert in every facet of the science. Rarely is that the case. One scientist may be an expert in Arctic ice thermodynamics while another may be an expert in atmospheric physics. Each may be able to discourse for hours on their topic (usually putting the audience to sleep) while possibly not quite getting all of the minute details right on other facets of the science. Any errors or hesitancy to opine on an area outside their specific expertise is painted as ill-informed or hedging. Further, the anchor could ask politically charged questions, which the expert is likely not in a good position to answer (most scientists are not very political). The potential for miscommunication is huge.

But let’s take this a step further.  Themedia, especially the political media, are used to staging debates betweenopposing sides. That may work when you have two parties with different views of how to finance job creation where either view may have merits on its own. But it doesn’t work for discussing the state of the science. Certainly there are dramatic debates between scientists on specific studies, but by the time the totality of the science has reached a point where the vast majority of scientists agrees on its meaning, i.e., a scientific consensus, that is the state-of-the-science. 

Unfortunately, the media rarely present this state-of-the-science, usually because the discussion can get too technical and it just is not enough drama for ratings. In order to "turn up the dial" enough to attract viewers the media willoften choose to contrast the science with a denial of the science. Doing so creates a false equivalence that just doesn't exist. Since there is a tendency to give equal time to opposing "views" you have the situation where a non-valid and usually non-factual denial appears to have equal weight with what is the end point of tens of thousands of studies by thousands of scientists all over the world.  To the viewer this comes off as:


“Well, Scientist A says global warming is happening but Scientist B says it isn’t.  It seems like scientists are still divided over this issue, so I can relax and wait until they figure it out.”


See the problem there?  Scientist A is, in fact, a scientist and has either presented a summary of the sum total of all of the science from thousands of scientists or merely offered his insight on one particular area in which he has expertise. On the other hand, “Scientist B” is often not even a scientist at all – he is a political operative hired by a free market lobbying organization to deny the science. The viewing public generally doesn’t understand this; all they see are two people arguing. The very fact that these two guests are being interviewed implies that they have comparable expertise and credibility on the topic being discussed. That is most definitely not the case. So in an effort to provide “balance,” the media actually tips the scales towards the non-scientist lobbyist who really shouldn’t even be part of the discussion.

This is exactly the scenario that the denialist industry strives to achieve. That is their goal – make it look like there is a disagreement where there really is none. The goal is to manufacture doubt in the minds of the people and give their favored politicians cover to deny the science. And the media are complicit in this - sometimes unintentionally but ofttimes intentionally.

Future posts will look closer at the media, including the "semi-accidental" denialism. One thing that the media can do now, however, is to stop referring to climate deniers as "skeptics." As shown before, denialists are not skeptical at all. Skeptics look at evidence and are simply harder to convince. Denialists dishonestly reject all scientific evidence and unskeptically accept any conspiracy blogger or lobbyist misinformation no matter how obviously false it is. It's time to call denialists what they are - science deniers.

[Note: Photo credit/source]

Thursday, December 11, 2014

How (and Why) Professional Climate Deniers Create Deceptive Graphics

Graphics can be an extremely useful way to communicate science to the public. Simple graphs related to climate change can be used to show the increasing CO2 concentrations taken at Mauna Loa, increasing global temperatures, and how we know that it is human activity causing the warming.

But graphics can sometimes be deceiving, and professional climate deniers intentionally create deceptive graphics to mislead the public about the science of man-made climate change. For example, take one of the "most popular deceptive climate graphs" around. The following "widget" can be downloaded from one of the biggest climate denier blogs on the internet, Watts Up With That? (WUWT). The blog was founded in 2006 by a former TV weatherman with no apparent college degree and no climate research expertise. WUWT receives funding from Heartland Institute (a science denial lobbyist) and relies on posts by its founder, several non-science policy commentators, anonymous and pseudonymous bloggers, and the occasional contrarian climate scientist.



At first glance the widget above looks useful. It shows temperature, CO2 trend and concentration, and for some unexplained reason, a picture of the sun showing current sunspot activity.

But the graphic is incredibly deceptive. In fact, its goal is to misinform the unsuspecting public.

This intentional deception by the creators of the WUWT widget was recently examined by a science-based blog called Real Climate (RC). The site was created ten years ago by a group of respected climate scientists as a means to help explain the science to technically oriented readers. All of its current contributors are real climate scientists, each with hundreds of peer-reviewed climate publications to their credit.

Real Climate has annotated the WUWT graphic below to document four separate ploys used to deceive the public.



As can be seen, WUWT intentionally chose the data plotted to increase the "noise" (i.e., make it harder to understand), cherry picked a data set to create greater variability, manipulated the scales used to falsely suggest lack of corellation, and added extraneous information to "lead on" viewers to a false conclusion. See the Real Climate site for a more detailed discussion.

These intentional deceptions are obvious to actual climate scientists, so why do climate denier organizations do something that is easy to expose? The answer is because the goal of professional deniers' posts isn't to debate the science but to manipulate public opinion. WUWT and other denial sites target the generally ideologically-driven amateur deniers who are often willfully ignorant of the science. Professional deniers know that whatever they say (no matter the lack of qualifications of who is saying it) and whatever they provide as graphics (even obviously deceptive ones) will be accepted uncritically and unskeptically by amateur deniers, who then will saturate the internet, Facebook, and comment threads all over the blogosphere.

Finally, note that in my initial paragraph I linked to three science sites - NOAA, NASA, and the IPCC. It's always preferable to get data and explanations from the web pages and reports of the scientific organizations (or directly from the peer-reviewed papers if you have access and can weed through the highly technical scientific terminology). That said, in this age of blogs there are several that offer some accurate and useful explanations in more human language (e.g., Real Climate). Unfortunately, with the good also comes the bad, and there are plenty of denialist blogs out there that either intentionally misrepresent the science (e.g., WUWT) or push along the latest conspiracy claims.

To help people sort out which is which, I'll do a future post in this Exposing Climate Denialism series on Blogs - The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

How Climate Deniers Create Fake Experts

In a high-expertise area of science like man-made climate change we by necessity have to rely on experts. But what is an expert? For most people, including the scientific community, a climate expert is someone who is trained in one or more aspects of climate science, has conducted substantial and substantive research in climate science, and has published significant and voluminous findings in climate science. That seems reasonable - climate experts must have substantial research expertise in climate science.

But climate deniers appear to have a different definition of "expert." To climate deniers, the vast majority of climate scientists are arbitrarily deemed to be insufficiently knowledgeable about the science most of them have spent their lives studying. To climate deniers, an "expert" appears to be defined as "whomever says something that goes against the body of climate science," no matter how unqualified they are or how unsupportable their views might be.

This climate denier version of "expert" was reiterated recently as someone (a non-scientist claiming that all scientists are religious zealots, etc.) offered up the following:


To reiterate, this was a list provided by a climate denier as "proof" that there were respected "skeptics" out there who refuted the undeniable consensus among climate scientists that warming of the climate system is unequivocal and humans are the dominant cause of that warming. Supposedly this is the best deniers can offer to counter all the world's climate scientists, scientific research organizations, peer-reviewed publications, and physics. These are the "10 Most-Respected Skeptics" out there, according to the climate deniers themselves.

Not one of them is an active climate scientist.

In fact, almost half aren't scientists at all. Here's a quick run-down:

Bjorn Lomborg: Economist. Zero climate research. Ironically, he actually agrees with the scientific consensus; his beef is that he doesn't like the policy options.

Myron Ebell: Economist. Zero climate research. Corporate executive at a libertarian lobbying group (CEI) and several of its front groups.

Alan Carlin: Economist. Zero climate research. "Borrowed" extensively from serial denialists like Fred Singer, "Lord" Christopher Monckton, and Pat Michaels.

Michael Crichton: Science Fiction writer. Zero climate research. Seriously, unless you think Jurassic Park was real too.

Ian Plimer: Professor of Mining Geology and former Director of several mining companies. Zero climate research. Affiliated with various non-science climate denier lobbying groups.

Freeman Dyson: Retired Physicist (Electromagnetics). Zero climate research. He actually agrees with the scientific consensus but thinks climate models (none of which he's ever worked with) are "too simplistic."

Kiminori Itoh: Retired Industrial Chemist. Zero climate research. Affiliated with Heartland Institute, an infamous non-science climate denier lobbying group.

Ivar Giaever: Retired Physicist (Tunneling in Superconductors). Zero climate research. Hilariously announced he was a "skeptic" after admitting he had "googled the internet for 15 minutes" to find out what man-made climate change meant.

William Happer: Physicist (Atomic, Optics, Spectroscopy). Zero climate research. Chairman of the George C. Marshall Institute, the infamous science denier lobbying group profiled in "Merchants of Doubt." Affiliated with other climate denial lobbyists as well.

Patrick Michaels:  Former State Climatologist. Climate research? Michaels is the closest thing to a climate scientist in this "10 Most-Respected" list. He did do some climate research many years ago, but for the last two decades has largely been a climate denial spokesperson for the libertarian CATO Institute. He famously admitted that he receives a large percentage of his funding from fossil fuel interests to advocate on their behalf.

Remember that this is a list provided by an amateur climate denier and published in one of the climate denier media outlets. It's revealing both that amateur deniers would cite such a list of people with zero climate research expertise as "experts" and that the professional denialists would think that such a list is somehow not damning of their own disregard for science.

This list isn't an exception to the rule; it is the rule. Deniers routinely raise up to "expert" level people with absolutely no climate research expertise. Non-scientists like the political activist "Lord" Christopher Monckton, the pseudonymous comic book writer Joanna Nova, the ex-weather presenter Anthony Watts, the Heartland Institute lawyer/lobbyist James Taylor, and the aforementioned science fiction writer Michael Crichton are routinely touted as "experts" in a field that they have no actual expertise.

These same climate deniers then
dismiss actual scientific organizations like NASA, NOAA, the IPCC, the National Academies of Science, the UK Royal Academy, and all the other scientific organizations and active climate researchers.

No wonder amateur denialists remain ignorant of the state-of-the-science. And no wonder the professional climate denialist lobbies continue to feed falsehoods to the blogosphere knowing that there are plenty of amateurs out there to unskeptically saturate the internet with those falsehoods.

Meanwhile, the science is undeniable: warming of the climate system is unequivocal and humans are the dominant cause of that warming. Responsible people are offering policy options to deal with the science. To deny the science in an effort to avoid making policy choices is simply irresponsible.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Discussing Climate Change Over the Thanksgiving Turkey

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving, along with Christmas, are a time for families and good cheer. And football. But they can also be a time of stress, especially if members of your family arriving from out of town hold divergent beliefs on politics, or religion, or climate change.

Unlike politics and religion, where differing opinions can each have validity, one can't have different opinions on the science of climate change. The science is based on, well, scientific study, published research that must go through peer-review to ensure basic validity and long-term scrutiny and testing by other scientists. Only the sum total of all of the scientific study defines the science. In many cases there isn't a clear-cut conclusion that can be drawn, which is why scientists are always doing more research and trying to identify yet another piece of the puzzle.

So when scientists finally do reach a consensus such as they have on climate change, that means the scientific data so overwhelmingly demonstrate "warming of the climate system is unequivocal" and humans are "the dominant cause of that warming" that the picture on the puzzle becomes undeniably clear, even if there are a still a few tiny pieces to put together.

There aren't two sides of this. There is the science, and there is the denial of the science.

Of course, people do choose to believe one thing or another, claiming that their lack of understanding, or something they read on a blog, is somehow equivalent to the entire body of science published by climate scientists. So how do you have that "science" conversation with a climate denier?

In short, I recommend you don't.

There is no value in a group of people who aren't scientists "discussing" science when understanding of the science is dwarfed by predefined conclusions and misinformation. It just isn't worth it.

Thanksgiving, Christmas, and every other family get-together, should be about family. The time should be focused on catching up on the distant lives of visiting relatives, playing with the niece or nephew or grandchild you haven't seen before (or since last Thanksgiving).

That is what Thanksgiving is for. Be there for your family.

Happy Thanksgiving!

P.S. For those who desperately feel the need to ignore this advice, check out this article.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Climate Science Too Technical? Check Out "The Climate Crisis" by David Archer and Stefan Rahmstorf



One of the problems with the IPCC 5th Assessment Reports (AR5) is that they are highly technical. Even the Summary for Policymakers is technical, and you can be sure that reading the thousands of pages that summarize the tens of thousands of scientific studies evaluated for the AR5 are mind-numbingly technical. But you still want to learn about climate science. The Climate Crisis: An Introductory Guide to Climate Change is a great book for you.

Written by climatologists David Archer and Stefan Rahmstorf, The Climate Crisis was published in 2010 so isn't quite as up-to-date as the most recent IPCC report, but it does a decent job of explaining the status of climate science to non-scientists.

That doesn’t mean the book isn’t technical. It is chock full of color graphics, charts, tables, and photographs documenting every aspect of climate science. But the authors work hard to present the information in language that educated non-scientists and scientists, as well as professionals in other fields, can more readily understand. Overall they accomplish this goal, though I do think that parts of the book are still technical enough to confuse your “average Joe” (i.e., most of us). Conversely, I don’t think they explain some of the charts well enough – there is a tendency to have a narrative and reference a chart or graph, but then not explain the graph in detail. This is intentional as the book is designed to communicate the information on a level that non-climatologists can understand, but I did find myself wanting to drill into the figures more than was enabled.

Still, these are minor quibbles and I find the book to be a very useful addition to the reading list of anyone interested in the topic of global warming or climate change. The authors are both practicing climatologists and professors of climate science. Rahmstorf has been a lead author in recent IPCC assessment reports and so has intimate knowledge of both the science and the process for review. Both authors contribute to the RealClimate.org blog, a useful, though still technically oriented, source of information that delves deeper into certain aspects of the science.

The book itself focuses on the state of the science and examines the evidence of climate change already being observed, what is happening with snow and ice in various parts of the world, how the oceans are changing, and how climate is measured. They also have chapters on what we might see in the future with respect to climate change, impacts of those changes, and how we can avoid the worst of it. They briefly touch on climate policy in the last chapter, but they focus on the need for action, the global nature of the cooperation required, and the differences between developed and developing nations, rather than discussing any specific policy solutions.

I definitely recommend the book. Readers will find it both informative and enlightening.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

John Kerry: Our Historic Agreement With China on Climate Change

The science is unequivocal - human activity, primarily our emissions of carbon from the burning of fossil fuels, is warming the planet. It's happening, we are the dominant cause, and the ramifications on our economic and political stability, our economic and human health, and our social and societal values are serious. Action is necessary.

So says the IPCC, NASA, NOAA, the US National Academies of Sciences, the UK Royal Society, every other National Academy and major scientific organization around the world, and virtually every climate scientist. The world is warming, we are the cause, and we must take responsibility.

Which is why this week's surprise announcement is such an important step. As Secretary of State John Kerry notes in his Washington Post Op-Ed,

"the United States and China are the world’s two largest economies, two largest consumers of energy, and two largest emitters of greenhouse gases. Together we account for about 40 percent of the world’s emissions."

That fact is why the next sentence in Kerry's piece is so true:

"We need to solve this problem together because neither one of us can solve it alone."

Needless to say, this agreement cannot simply be lip service; it must be followed by action. The prospects for that action remain uncertain. In the US, the Republican Party, which just gained control of both houses of Congress, has been arguing for US inaction because "we can't solve the problem alone." This agreement removes that fallacious argument. And yet, the immediate reaction from the Republican Party to the promise of Chinese action was as expected - partisan and disingenuous.

Uncertainties in China also exist. China recently surpassed the United States as the largest annual emitter of greenhouse gases, though the United States and Europe remain the "champions" of total historical contributions. Chinese industrial growth will continue given their overall population, as will their reliance on fossil fuels for a long time to come. But China is also a leader in the development and construction of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Those realities are reflected in the terms of the agreement.

Clearly this is a first step, and a baby step at that. Political dynamics in both countries could negate these honest attempts to deal with the realities of man-made climate change. That would be both irresponsible and destructive to our mutual future economies. One hopes the Republican Party in the US and the authoritarian regime in Beijing will find that working for the common good of their respective nations and populaces will overtake the partisan dishonesty that is the rule.

The Presidents of the United States and China have shown leadership in a world afraid to be honest with the public. Let's hope others follow their lead.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Science and Politics - Two Big Events in Climate Change This Week

It's been a big week for climate change. There was one huge event that went largely unnoticed, and one less consequential event that was the talk of the town. That fact represents a major obstacle for action to deal with the unequivocal science that says humans are warming the planet.

Let's start with the big event. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international organization that summarizes the state-of-climate-science every seven years, issued its Synthesis Report on November 2nd. As the name suggests, this is the final report in the series and synthesizes the voluminous data from the three scientific working group reports issued over the past year. As their "headline" document notes, the combined reports state unequivocally:

1) Warming of the climate system is unequivocal,

2) Humans are the dominant cause of this warming,

3) Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems,

4) Man-made climate change is a threat to sustainable development, and

5) We must act now.

The unequivocal science that led to all of these conclusions has been documented in great detail in the working group reports already issued; this final report simply summarizes the main points so that policymakers can discuss options to deal with the ramifications of the science. Action is necessary, and necessary action must begin now. The consequences of inaction are dire.

Unfortunately, this critical IPCC report was largely ignored by the media and policymakers alike because....ooh, there was an election!!

What the election means....

Which gets us to the second big event that will, in fact, likely be inconsequential when it comes to taking action. The mid-term elections in the United States occurred on Tuesday, November 4th. As expected, in large part due to the huge Democratic wins in Republican-leaning states six years ago, the Republican party took control of the Senate. Republicans have already controlled the House since 2010. With a united Congress (such as it is), this increases the chances that bills will actually be passed and sent to the President.

That sounds good, right? Not really. Because the Republicans gained control due both to vagaries of the calendar and indebtedness to the tea party, all bills will have to pander to the most extreme elements in both houses of Congress. With respect to man-made climate change this means no bills that honestly deal with the science will ever reach the President. Instead, denial of the science and attacks on science organizations and funding will be the main order of business. This is exactly what the Republican-led House has been doing for four years, and now the Senate can do it too.

So with the conservative climate denial machine (both the tea party and climate denial get major funding and organization through the Koch brothers lobbying network) now in positions to attack science, why is this so inconsequential?

On the one hand it is very much consequential. Efforts to defund science and block action are likely to get further along than in the previous Congress. But on the other hand, no bills honestly dealing with climate were getting to the President anyway because of House denial. Meanwhile, the Republican minority in the Senate successfully manipulated the closure process such that not even the simplest bills could get through without multiple 60-vote majorities. True, now that they control both houses, Republicans can pass bills, but that means they have to take responsibility for them. While most of the Republican leadership has willingly pandered to the denialist elements (and will make those denialists chairs of the relevant science committees), they know that the science is unequivocal and some action must be taken. They've held back economic growth and jobs to hurt the President, but are they willing to throw America under the bus forever? Unfortunately, the answer isn't all that clear.

The most likely scenario is that the Senate won't allow the most egregiously denialistic House bills to get through the Senate. For the merely ceremonial denialist bills the Republicans in the Senate could send them to the President, who will promptly veto anything that doesn't begin to take responsibility for the science.

The science, by the way, that demonstrates warming of the climate system is unequivocal, humans are the dominant cause, has already had widespread impacts on human and natural systems, is a threat to sustainable development, and action is immediately necessary.

You know, the unequivocal science that is documented in the many thousands of pages summarizing the state-of-the-climate as put forth by the IPCC reports largely ignored this week.

Yeah, that science.

To paraphrase Leonardo da Vinci, "And yet it warms."

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Here's the Reason Climate Deniers Use Abusive Name Calling as a Tactic

Ever noticed how in "discussions" on the internet with climate deniers, especially the ideologically motivated amateur ones, you invariably start seeing references to "alarmists?"  Not surprised anymore to seeing terms like "algorian" [in honor of Al Gore] or "sheeple" or "communist" or "climate Nazi?" Ever wondered why such abusive name-calling has become so prevalent on the internet when discussing man-made climate change? It's actually an intentionally used tactic by climate deniers.

Think of this factual statement:

"Virtually every climate scientist agrees that the sum total of all of the peer-reviewed science over the last century demonstrate unequivocally that the planet is warming and human activity, primarily our burning of fossil fuels, is the dominant cause."

Supported by millions of empirical data points and well-known physics, the statement is easily demonstrated to be factually accurate. It's unequivocal - the planet is warming and human activity is the dominant cause.

This presents a problem for climate deniers. It's hard to get mileage by denying what "virtually all climate scientists say..." So, deniers replace "climate scientists" with "alarmists" and, Voila!, problem solved. We're no longer talking about science, we're talking about activists, extremists," political followers of Al Gore, and the more emphatically crazy, "warmists," "communist commissars," "libtard warmers," "warmageddonists," and all sorts of other mean and nasty names intended to deflect from the fact that virtually all scientists agree humans are warming the planet.

Name calling is a crutch. Designed to keep the illusion of movement when climate deniers know they don't have a leg to stand on. But it's also a tactic; designed as a means of harassing scientists and science followers. It's a form of violence. A way to inflict aggression on to people deniers have chosen to despise because the deniers don't want to take responsibility for the ramifications of continued warming.

So abusive name calling is intentional. You'll see demeaning names like those above, as well as calling people such blatantly offensive epithets such as "global warming Nazis," the "Branch-Carbonian Cult of Climate Thermageddon," "useful idiots," and various abusive expletives. Attacks are directed at scientists like Michael Mann, scientific communicators like John Cook at Skeptical Science (who has been called "John Crook" by amateur deniers), and every day people that comment on various blogs and social sites like Facebook.

When deniers use name calling to distract from having to admit that "alarmist" actually means "virtually every climate scientist in the world and well-known physics," they are 1) being dishonest, and 2) making it obvious that they understand, or at least sense, that they are intentionally being deceitful.

The harassment of climate scientists and others has a long history in the climate denial industry. Future posts will look closer at this aspect, as well as at what scientists and science followers alike can do to combat harassment by those who deny the science of man-made climate change.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Dissing the IPCC and other Scientific Organizations - How Climate Deniers Work


One of the recurring tactics used by climate deniers, especially the amateur ones, is to dismiss with prejudice any scientific organization that reports the state-of-the-science with respect to man-made climate change. The most egregiously - and falsely - attacked organization is the IPCC. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (which, thankfully, we all know as the IPCC), is written off as a political organization because, well, because it says "intergovernmental" right there in the title, doesn't it? So obviously it just makes stuff up to push an agenda, right? 

Wrong.

Since there is so much misinformation out there about what exactly the IPCC does it seems appropriate to give a little background. The IPCC was "established [in 1988] by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic consequences." By definition it is both a scientific body and an intergovermental body. As a scientific body it "reviews and assesses the most recent scientific, technical and socio-economic information produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of climate change. " It is an intergovernmental body in that it is "open to all member countries of UN and WMO," and representatives from up to around 130 countries participate in the plenary sessions where decisions about adoption of the technical reports are done. Note that the governmental representatives only show up to adopt the technical reports; the technical reports themselves are written by scientists expert in the fields pertinent to the particular part of the report being written.

The IPCC didn't come into existence on a whim or from some political motive. It was established because there was already a vast amount of empirical evidence suggesting that human activity was causing a dramatic warming of the planet. At the time, this information was spread out in thousands of independent papers and reports all over the world, as well as observations such as retreating glaciers, increasing temperature readings, ice cap extent and volume measurements, and new data from satellites. It was becoming obvious that something was happening to our climatic system, but with the information scattered all over the place it was hard to tell what was causing it. In short, the IPCC was formed to bring all the data from all these sources together, and summarize it into something that could be understood by policymakers charged with making decisions.

While climate denialists like to make believe the IPCC is some sort of political behemoth created to push some agenda, this characterization couldn't be further from the truth. The IPCC staff are actually very few in number (about 10 people). The work of summarizing the state-of-the-science is done by thousands of scientists who volunteer their time to compile, review, and assess the tens of thousands of peer reviewed and related publications and studies. These scientists generally are academics at universities or at scientific agencies such as NASA and NOAA in the US, and their counterparts in countries all over the world. It takes several years to summarize the data for each report.

So contrary to the grand conspiracists that dominate climate denialism, the IPCC doesn't conduct any new research itself nor dictate what is to be written, it is merely an administrative vehicle to coordinate the compiling and evaluating being done by scientists across the globe. These scientists work in diverse teams to synthesize the vast amounts of available information and produce technical reports for each of the three working groups. Only after the technical reports are completed does the IPCC convene representatives from each group and each country to agree on a fourth volume called the Synthesis Report, which as the name implies, summarizes the three technical reports in a way that government officials and the public can understand. 

Since its inception in 1988 the IPCC has published five sets of Assessment documents, in 1990, 1995, 2001, 2007, and 2013/2014. Each succeeding report incorporates all the new research since the last report (plus a reevaluation of the previous studies), and the more we know and understand the more certain we become about the fact that the planet is warming and the likelihood that we are causing it. The most recent, Assessment Report 5 (AR5), concluded that "the warming of the climate system is unequivocal," [p.4] and that "it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century." [p.17] Using the IPCC's terminology, "extremely likely" means between 95% and 100% certainty, and "unequivocal" means clear and unambiguous (i.e., absolutely certain). In other words, climate change is happening and it's because of human activity.

Next up is the process of developing the Synthesis Report, and IPCC rules require 100% consensus among the representatives at the plenary session. This is done long after the three technical reports are completed by the scientists and the synthesis report must obviously conform to the science presented. Since some participating governments rely so heavily on income from the fossil fuels that are the primary contributor to global warming, these members tend to work hard to water down the conclusions in the synthesis report as much possible. Thus, the "100% consensus" process tends to result in estimates that are less dire (NOT more dire) than the science actually supports. So the problem is very likely much worse than the IPCC Synthesis Report suggests. 

As anyone at this point should be able to see, the IPCC itself is merely an administrative vehicle to coordinate the work of thousands of scientist contributors, expert reviewers, and myriad commenters as they pull together all of the scientific studies and synthesize the conclusions derived from those studies. Since these scientists come from a wide range of countries, backgrounds, and views (including contrarian and climate denier views), suggestions that there is a grand conspiracy to further some single agenda is, to put it nicely, bonkers. 

The professional denialist lobby and their spokespeople, of course, know that the science is unequivocal. But they are paid to further the interests of their benefactors and intentionally choose to ignore the science they find inconvenient, and routinely seed the blogosphere with misrepresentations and outright falsehoods so that amateur denialists have fodder to plagiarize. The professional lobby knows that the ideologically motivated amateurs won't really understand what they repeat, nor be particularly skeptical of the sources despite delusionally referring to themselves as skeptics. It's more than a little cynical on their part, for sure, but that's what they are paid to do and they do it well. So they dishonestly demean the IPCC and chuckle at the ideologues who further their goals. 

The amateurs? We'll discuss more about their traits and tactics as we continue the series. One ubiquitous trait of amateur denialists is contradiction (often in the same sentence). More on that soon.