The ‘Urban Legend’ of Climate Change

Media Appearances, Climate, Frontier Centre

In December, a prominent scientist named Peter Gleick testified before the U.S. Congress to defend the science behind the hypothesis of man-made global warming.

The environmental scientist, a member of the National Academy of Science and co-founder of the respected Pacific Institute, made it clear he believes wholeheartedly that human activity is warming the planet’s atmosphere.

But he acknowledged there was always room for dissent. The scientific process is “inherently adversarial,” he said, and “scientists build reputations and gain recognition … for demonstrating that the scientific consensus is wrong and that there is a better explanation.”

The trouble is that, in his opinion, skeptics about anthropogenic global warming had yet to provide a better theory for the unusual climate effects being observed.

“Every major international scientific organization … agrees that humans are changing the climate,” he said.

But there’s a big difference between believing that humans are changing the climate and that we’re doing so in significant and dangerous ways that must be urgently addressed by dramatic policy measures, points out Tom Harris, author of a study released this week by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a Winnipeg-based, free-market-friendly think-tank. And, he says, Getting Society Off the Climate Change Bandwagon aims to expose that difference, reminding policymakers that while there may be agreement that humans affect their environment, there remains frequent and active dispute over the extent — and whether it would be efficient or advisable to direct vast public resources to remedying it.

In just the past few days, Democratic congressional members fighting Republican efforts to block the government from regulating carbon dioxide have contended that the GOP’s thinking “directly conflicts with the consensus of climate scientists and the world’s most authoritative scientific organizations” that CO2 emissions must be curtailed. A book critic in The Boston Globe mentioned in passing the “scientific consensus that the world may be heading toward a climate Armageddon if nothing is done to reverse the present course.” And in the National Post, the executive director of the Ontario advocacy group People for Education asserted: “There’s no longer a debate around how much conservation is needed about what we’ve done to our atmosphere.” None of these people were actual scientists, yet this language of “consensus” about dangerous global warming has become accepted wisdom.

“It’s laziness. An urban legend,” says Mr. Harris, director of the International Climate Science Coalition, a league of researchers who maintain that the science of climate is copiously unsettled and, therefore, caution against premature policy prescriptions to address it. “You can say thousands of scientists agree, and then you don’t have to get into the actual facts.”

Since, Mr. Harris points out, there has never been any global poll of scientists to assess the unanimity of views on the scale and threat of environmental impacts, such claims are dubious enough. But, he notes, even among scientific groups whose leaders publicly and broadly endorse the findings of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that human activities are driving ruinous climate shifts, there’s no evidence of consensus from their own membership. One news story in 2009, for instance, suggested that “3,000 scientists” had called on the federal government in an open letter to take immediate action in curtailing carbon emissions. But among the members of the Canadian Geophysical Union, one of the organizations represented by the letter, a low response rate had only 28% of members explicitly declaring themselves behind the statement.

“They’re way overstepping their mandate,” Mr. Harris says of the executives of these groups. “In an issue this controversial, they should be having proper polling of their members and only releasing statements of support of climate alarmism if the majority of their members actually support it.”

In some cases, groups have been pressured by members to retract alarmist statements. Though the president of the prestigious Royal Society of London initially gave his organization’s sanction to the predictions of warming and its effects in the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report, Royal Society members pushed later to adjust the position to assert instead that “it is not possible to determine exactly how much the Earth will warm or exactly how the climate will change in the future.” And a challenge last year by the membership of the Geological Society of Australia forced its executives to retract, pending a poll of the group’s members, its position that “strong action be taken” to prevent “rising sea level, harmful shifts in the acid balance of the oceans and long-term changes in local and regional climate and extreme weather events.” And the Frontier Centre study documents tens of thousands of scientists who have signed their names to open declarations contesting the dangers of man-made climate change, and Mr. Harris believes there are many more scientists — he says he hears from them all the time — uncomfortable with the drastic predictions proffered by various scientific leaders, but reluctant to put their names to public documents for fear it might harm their careers.

Ray Weymann, a retired California astronomer and co-founder of the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, designed to straighten out journalists handling dissenting global-warming viewpoints, maintains that despite all this, most scientists published in peer-reviewed journals support the IPCC’s line on climate change. “In fact, among this group, the number who doubt the AGW hypothesis is very nearly zero,” he writes in an email. Still, a study last year published by the National Academy of Science found nearly 25% of published, peerreviewed climate researchers were “unconvinced” about the hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming generally. That’s hardly a consensus, although the proportion fell significantly the more publications a researcher had under his or her belt. That might be because more senior researchers, with more publications, know more than their lesspublished peers. Or, it could be because t he peer-review process itself has been “corrupted,” as Mr. Harris believes, and that top scientific journals, as revealed in the emails exposed in the 2009 Climategate scandal, actively suppress the work of dissenting researchers.

Whatever the case, the survey didn’t measure what even those scientists convinced of man-made global warming thought about its dangers to humans.

It is here, Mr. Harris believes, that activists mislead policymakers with claims of “consensus,” insisting that because most scientists believe humans are having some impact on the climate, that it must be stopped through rigorous policy measures, though clearly one does not necessarily follow the other.

And until someone actually determines whether there truly is broad agreement among researchers to support the billions of dollars committed by governments to counter human effects on the climate, he says, we might better devote our resources to adapting to climate change, or on remediating “toxic waste dumps, [poor] urban air quality and ocean pollution.”