Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Global Warming: Part II

Development of a Scientific Consensus

*Note that my references are incomplete; I am struggling to get my Bibliography software to work on my computer.  Here I have written what I felt, but I may later have to edit out some of the harsh criticisms in order to avoid the appearance of bias. - John

Although I study the earth, scientific research today is very compartmentalized, so that scientists are often not aware of developments even in closely-related subdisciplines. In some respects, this compartmentalization was necessary to allow some scientists to focus their energies on developing knowledge in narrow domains. This has led the public to perceive many areas of research as irrelevant: “why would anyone spend their life learning the reproductive cycle of fruit flies?” However, these seemingly small problems are all inter-related, and understanding in one narrow area often promotes advances in other areas. The truly large problems like global warming consist of countless overlapping problems. To develop a comprehensive understanding of a global problem requires that scientists from many subdisciplines must collaborate. The trend in scientific research in recent years has been to promote interdisciplinary research, because it is the areas of overlap between subdisciplines where progress is often made. This is because, when forced to communicate, scientists in closely-related fields are confronted with unfamiliar ideas, and they must reconcile their understanding with that of their colleagues, who often have a different perspective on the bigger problem.

Because of the compartmentalization of science and the fact that I was not involved in climate research, I was not aware of the early research on global warming. It wasn’t until the mid- to late-1990’s when I was teaching an introductory Environmental Geology class that I started tracking the issue, first in newspaper reports and then in the scientific literature. My recollection is that the issue had not yet become thoroughly politicized, and I personally pride myself on my objectivity, so I believe that I was able to interpret the scientific data in an unbiased manner. I concluded in the late 1990’s that global warming was occurring; then in the early 2000’s I first became confident that humans were contributing, and then that they were the primary cause of warming.

The development of the climate science communities’ understanding of the global warming issue tracked my own. In 2001 the IPCC concluded that warming was occurring at that time, that “There is a discernible human influence on global climate”, and that the mean surface temperature will ↑ 1.5° to 6.0° during the 21st century. President Bush was skeptical & asked the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (the most prestigious scientific organization in the U.S.) for an independent report, which was published in 2001 and fully supported the conclusions of the IPCC report[1]. In 2003 (?) the American Geophysical Union published its position paper which stated that “In view of the complexity of the Earth climate system, uncertainty in its description and in the prediction of changes will never be completely eliminated…AGU believes that the present level of scientific uncertainty does not justify inaction in the mitigation of human-induced climate change and/or the adaptation to it.” In 2004 the American Association for the Advancement of Science concluded that “even if measures to reduce global warming are put into place today, some increase will still occur and ways will be needed to adapt to it; that adapting will be challenging, costly and imperfect; that ecosystems around the world are already being affected by global warming; and that acting in advance of problems is necessary to reduce damage.” Finally, in 2007 the IPCC released its 4th report, for which the committee received the 2007 Nobel Prize. It stated that “"Warming of the climate system is unequivocal...Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations", where “very likely” means a greater than 90% probability. Yet for all of the reports, and the huge amount of research that informed the report writers, and the enormous amounts of money spent on that research, the U.S. government chose to ignore and even distort the findings of the reports. My question is, why pay scientists to do the research and then ignore their advice?

I will refer to those who continue to deny the reality of global warming as climate contrarians. Hansen (2006) points out that “contrarian” is a better description than “skeptic” because healthy skepticism is necessary for good science. In contrast, contrarians ignore all evidence except that which supports their beliefs, and that evidence usually turns out to be anecdotal. MIT climatologist Richard Lindzen has accused global warming supporters of advocating a “religion”, but it is contrarians who ignore all of the evidence and rely on faith. My guess is that many of the contrarians are also creationists, because both show contempt for science and are adept at ignoring evidence.

In his book “State of Fear” author Michael Crichton claimed that anthropogenic global warming is a hoax perpetrated by scientists to increase their funding. It is accepted that scientists sometimes overstate the significance of their results to gain publicity and funding; however, it’s extremely cynical to think that nearly all scientists studying climate change are fabricating their data. Crichton’s mentor Richard Lindzen, one of the last respectable scientists who remains a climate contrarian, made the same claim in a 2006 editorial (*reference), but in fact the climate change advocates he referred to wanted the government to increase funding for research into alternative energy sources, not for their field of climate science. In fact, Lindzen and other contrarians have been back-pedaling for years, first claiming that warming was not occurring, then that it was occurring but that humans were not the cause, then that humans are the cause but that it is not an important issue (Begley 2007, Newsweek). Another prominent contrarian is Fred Singer, Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Virginia until 1994. Singer may have been at the cutting edge of climate science research decades ago, but now he is not even a scientist; rather, as President of an organization he founded called Science and Environmental Policy Project, he is a lobbyist who oil companies pay to spread uncertainty about climate change. In an ironic twist, he was involved in an effort to discredit the claim that second-hand smoke causes cancer ( In March 2009 there was a meeting of the Climate Change skeptics in Chicago, and I read in the paper how a beleaguered Singer was trying to set his contrarian colleagues straight on some of the science, reminding them that yes, CO2 is a greenhouse gas; that is a fact and we can’t legitimately claim otherwise. I hope Singer is enjoying the company of the dwindling number of contrarian wackos.

Why do a handful of prominent scientists like Lindzen resist accepting the consensus of the scientific community? I can think of three possible explanations: they simply delight in being contrarians; their scientific judgment is biased because they are unable to separate the political and scientific dimensions of the issue; or they are being paid by oil companies or other vested interests to publicly voice their opposition to the consensus. I like to think that Lindzen is not guilty of the latter, but decades ago there were many scientists who accepted payments from tobacco companies to make fraudulent claims. From the oil company perspective, it is a very effective strategy to pay relatively small amounts of money to a few respected and vocal dissidents in order to lead the public to believe that scientists are undecided on the issue, when in reality a consensus has existed for years. I’ve read that as a survivor of the Holocaust Lindzen tends to favor the underdog, and the same may be true of Singer, who had to flee Austria during the Nazi occupation (Begley, 2007).

Hansen (2006) gives one of many examples of the dishonesty of global warming contrarians when he describes a paper by Patrick Michaels, who deliberately deceived his readers into believing that Hansen’s (1988) global warming scenarios were inaccurate. To support this false claim, Michaels (*ref.) compared global mean temperatures measured between 1988 and 1997 with the only one of Hansen’s three “predictions” made in 1988 that did not agree with the data, which was a scenario for extreme warming. Hansen’s middle-of-the-road best estimate agreed with the data almost perfectly, but readers of Michael’s paper were led to believe that global climate models were completely inaccurate. Because many global warming contrarians now seem to be knowingly promoting false information, it might be tempting to scientists and global warming activists to stretch the truth or make false claims to promote their cause. The other side has an unfair advantage because they allow themselves to lie. Do not give in to this temptation. First, scientists must not tarnish the reputation of science and their host institutions by lying. Integrity is the most critical trait of a good scientist, and scientists who knowingly promote falsehoods should no longer be allowed to wear that noble title. Furthermore, it is not necessary to resort to falsehoods when the truth is on your side. I am an optimist who believes in the old adage “the truth shall prevail”; however, I often get frustrated because it takes so long to prevail.

Why did it take so long for a scientific consensus to develop? Because Earth's climate is a very complex system with many feedback loops; makes it very difficult to confidently predict future climate. Furthermore, science can’t prove anything; it can only increase our level of confidence that humans are causing global warming.

Response of the Public and Politicians to Global Warming

Denial and the politicization of global warming unfortunately has slowed our societies response to a potentially terrible threat. It is unclear to me why conservatives became the global warming skeptics as opposed to liberals. Global warming should not be a political issue, but rather a scientific and moral issue. As evidence mounts that global warming is human-induced, conservatives dig in their heels and deepen their denial. Rather than face the facts and make some hard decisions, they would rather bury their heads in the sand and label an entire field of human endeavor as fraudulent. Conservatives have adopted a conspiracy theory that requires that nearly every scientist in the world, each of who has devoted their lives to the search for truth, is knowingly contributing to a lie. They claim that all of the data has been fabricated. How cynical can you get?

I asked my Sustainability class if they could explain why, until recently (2009), most Republican members of Congress tended to be contrarians. They hypothesized that the Republican party generally promoted legislation favorable to large business such as oil companies, and many were given political contributions by those companies. Due to the efforts of oil companies to spread doubt, most Republican congresspeople honestly believed there was no consensus on global warming, but others likely knew that warming was happening and either dismissed it as unimportant or allowed their votes to be swayed by oil money. But why did party members who are not politicians and therefore did not get “paid off” by oil companies so fervently believe that global warming was a hoax? How could so many subscribe to a belief that defied all of the evidence? It’s hard not to draw an analogy to religion. However, with religion, it’s easier to understand “faith”, because those beliefs are indoctrinated in people at an early age, and there is a very large, well-funded system to support their beliefs. Where does the faith of global warming contrarians come from? It comes from a very large, well-funded system of oil companies and politicians. But those oil companies and politicians did not speak directly to the voters and inculcate those beliefs. They had intermediaries who spoke to the masses, similar to the role that priests play in organized religion. In conservative politics the intermediaries who speak to the masses are in the media (note that media forms part of the word intermediary), and they have a powerful influence on listeners beliefs. It is well known that conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh talks not to the facts, but to the beliefs of his listeners (see Al Franken’s books “Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them” and “Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Idiot”). My brother Mike once told me that people don’t tune in to Limbaugh’s show to get information, but rather to hear excuses, e.g., “I don’t have to make sacrifices to reduce my carbon footprint because Rush Limbaugh says that global warming is a hoax.” What’s scary is the fervency of their beliefs and the anger they express when they talk about government funding of “junk science” (it’s so easy to dismiss any evidence you don’t agree with as “junk science”). They act like religious fundamentalists, but we aren’t talking about religion, are we?

Rush Limbaugh claims to be a patriot who only wants what’s right for this country. But when Barack Obama took office in 2009, Limbaugh said repeatedly that he hoped Obama’s economic policies would fail. Yes, he wanted America’s economy to go down the toilet just to prove that he was right and Obama was wrong. It is more important to Limbaugh that he be right than for America to succeed. Do you think Limbaugh will ever admit that he was wrong on global warming?

Rush Limbaugh and his audience should know by now that they have been bamboozled by big oil. The subtlety and effectiveness of the oil companies campaign against global warming science is frightening. The general belief in the U.S. is that you can accomplish anything if you have enough money, and the oil companies have proved it. The evidence suggests to me that lobbying by oil companies delayed political action on global warming by at least ten years, allowing them to earn record profits. They also eliminated competition (see the movie “Who Killed the Electric Car”). Governments around the world could learn a lot from the disinformation campaigns of big oil companies like Exxon-Mobil. Unfortunately, the world will not be a better place if they do. If you think that oil companies do not have such power, consider that Exxon Mobil is larger than the economies of 180 nations (Speth, p. 62). It has great power, and uses it to fight government regulation and oversight. Auto manufacturers were the same until recently, when they plunged into near bankruptcy and were essentially taken over by the U.S. government in 2009.

Another example of corporate shortsightedness and dishonesty is given by American auto manufacturers, in particular GM. These companies’ efforts to swindle consumers, mislead politicians, and silence consumer advocates like Ralph Nader are legendary (see the movie “Ralph Nader: An Unreasonable Man”). Over the years, there have been many good reasons to downsize cars, the generally unknown problem of peak oil being only one of them. Government and States (particularly California) have tried to regulate the industry and encourage or force them to build smaller, more efficient cars. Auto manufacturers fought them every step of the way. Companies like GM would regularly develop prototypes of such cars, only to shelve them. In one case they actually built and leased a remarkable electric car called the EV-1, but after successfully pressuring California into dropping their stricter emissions standards, the EV-1 program was shut down. Then, in an unbelievable display of corporate arrogance, GM forced the leasers to give up their beloved, nearly brand-new cars so that GM could make the cars disappear (in junkyards) and the public forget about electric cars (see the move “Who Killed the Electric Car?”). Once the price of gas went up to $4 per gallon in 2008, GM could not sell their gigantic Humvee’s and SUV’s, and taxpayers are now handing GM billions of dollars to stay afloat. Why are we all paying for the monstrous mistakes that GM executives made? Nearly everyone knew that this would eventually happen, but GM was always focused on short-term profits to maintain high executive bonuses and keep investors happy. Clearly, executives of auto manufacturers like GM never gave a thought to the long-term viability of their companies. Now that the U.S. government is spending billions of dollars to keep GM afloat, President Obama is insisting that they develop of sustainable business plan. Shouldn’t investors and the corporate boards have been demanding that all along? How could all of these people be so irresponsible?

It’s time to end the denial and take action. An April 2006 poll showed that 70% of Americans are willing to make sacrifices to stop global warming. Our country needs to invest in insurance against global warming. We spend trillions of dollars per year for national defense as an insurance policy against external aggression, but we spend zero dollars to insure ourselves against the threats posed by global warming (Pollack, 2005). In this case, the old adage “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is appropriate: it is usually a lot cheaper to prevent a problem than to deal later with its consequences.

[1] Note that in his second term Bush admitted that the earth was warming and that we were probably contributing, but he chose to do nothing about it.

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