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No longer taken seriously, we're seeing the last gasp of climate denial groups

Posted on 19 October 2016 by dana1981

The Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) is an anti-climate policy advocacy group in the UK that often releases misleading scientific “reports.” The group also hosts annual lectures, and this year, they booked a room at the Royal Society. Many members of the Royal Society expressed concern that the GWPF would exploit the organization’s credibility, and asked that the event be cancelled

The Royal Society’s governing council met and decided to allow the event to proceed, for fear that cancellation would give it “an unwarranted higher profile.” As a spokesperson for the Royal Society told DeSmog UK:

The evidence shows us that the earth is warming and that recent warming is largely caused by human activities. Once that is accepted, there is scope for debate on the policy responses and that is the area that the GWPF claims to be interested in.

If the GWPF uses this opportunity to misrepresent the scientific evidence it would undermine the legitimacy of its views on policy responses to climate change.

The lecture was delivered by writer Matt Ridley, and predictably, as is the norm for Ridley, the first three-quarters of his talk indeed misrepresented the scientific evidence. While Ridley doesn’t deny the most basic aspects of human-caused global warming, he is a self-prescribed “lukewarmer;” a group that falls into the category of Stage 3 climate denial.

Ridley’s lecture is a 5,600-word Gish Gallop that would require a novel to fully debunk. However, he condensed his main arguments into four key points that are easily refuted:

Why do I think the risk from global warming is being exaggerated? For four principal reasons.

1. All environmental predictions of doom always are;
2. the models have been consistently wrong for more than 30 years;
3. the best evidence indicates that climate sensitivity is relatively low;
4. the climate science establishment has a vested interest in alarm.

We’ve solved previous environmental problems, so let’s not solve global warming?

Ridley’s first argument against the dangers of global warming is incredibly ironic. He claims that we have nothing to worry about because previous “environmental predictions of gloom” were wrong. But the reason his cited predictions of danger didn’t come to fruition, in most cases, is because we took action to stop them.

For example, Ridley lists acid rain and cancer-causing pesticides among his purported “exaggerated” environmental concerns. Many pesticides that were widely used in the 20thcentury are indeed carcinogenic, and their agricultural use was banned under theStockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. Acid rain caused by sulfur pollution was also a widespread problem until it was similarly addressed, for example through the Helsinki Protocol and a cap and trade system in the USwhose economic benefits have outweighed its costs by a factor of roughly 100.

Proposed solutions to global warming involve international agreements and cap and trade or other pollution pricing systems – the same mechanisms that successfully solved these previous environmental threats. Yet Ridley remarkably uses those threats as examples in his argument against taking similar steps to address the threats posed by climate change. It defies logic.

Climate models have been remarkably accurate

I’ve written a book focused on the accuracy of climate model predictions, and in December I’ll be presenting a talk on the subject at the annual American Geophysical Union conference. In fact, the most recent research shows thatclimate models are even more accurate than previously thought. So, were I not familiar with Ridley’s long history of misrepresenting climate science, I would have been surprised that climate model accuracy is one of the main premises of his argument against climate concern.

To make his case, Ridley relies on material from a few scientists like John Christy, presented not in peer-reviewed journals, but instead for example in Congressional hearings. Recently, as John Abraham wrote, climate scientists published a paper explaining the errors in those presentations. Models have also accurately predicted other key climate changes, for example in ocean heat content. There is simply no factual basis to Ridley’s argument against climate model accuracy.

Ridley’s climate sensitivity cherry picking

Joanna Haigh, Royal Society fellow and council member, told DeSmog UK of Ridley’s of third key argument:

Ridley claims not to dispute the science, he then disputes climate sensitivity estimates with selective citations.

This is a nice way of saying that Ridley cherry picks the evidence he prefers and ignores the rest. Cherry picking is one of the five telltale techniques of science denial. Being a self-described “lukewarmer” like Ridley generally means believing that the climate is relatively insensitive to the increased greenhouse effect, and that climate change is therefore of little concern. In his talk, Ridley claimed:

recent attempts to measure the sensitivity of the climate system to carbon dioxide using real data nearly all find that it is much lower than the models assume.

This claim is nonsense. There have been a few papers suggesting a relatively low climate sensitivity, and several subsequent studies have found those papers to be flawed. There have also been other studies “using real data” – for example,measurements of cloud and humidity changes – suggesting that the Earth’s climate sensitivity to the increased greenhouse effect is relatively high. It’s also important to note that were Ridley right about low climate sensitivity, it would only buy us perhaps a decade or two before the worst climate change consequences hit.

In short, Ridley cherry picks the few papers that support his preferred position, neglects to mention that subsequent research has identified flaws in those studies, and ignores the vast body of research contradicting his beliefs.

Conspiracy theories

Ridley’s fourth key argument, and a theme throughout his talk, exemplifies another telltale sign of science denial – conspiratorial thinking. He accuses climate scientists of having “vested interests,” of delaying publication of their results (refuted by the accused scientists here), of deleting and “mysteriously…adjusting” inconvenient data, and so on. 

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Comments 1 to 8:

  1. Good article. I recently bought Ridley’s book on evolution on impulse, never having heard of the guy. The back cover looked interesting and appeared to be about evolution as applied to organisations.

    The theory of evolution applied to organisations was actually rather weakly developed, but many of the chapters were nothing to do with evolution, and totally about climate change denialism and quite extreme neoliberal theories about the virtues of private education, deregulation, and neoliberal economics.There was nothing about this on the back cover, so the title and back cover was misleading.

    His ideas on climate make very selective use of evidence, and so do his ideas on economics and social issues. I know because I'm reasonably familar with some of these issues. So Ridley is true to form I guess.

    Most of what the book said on economics and social issues was utter nonsense. I put the book in the rubbish after a few chapters.

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  2. nigelj and others may be interested in a review by Jerry Coyne of what is at guess the Ridley book indicated above:

    My review of Matt Ridley’s new book, “The Evolution of Everything”

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  3. Recommended supplemental reading:

    Donald Trump Is the First Demagogue of the Anthropocene by Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic, Oct 19, 2016

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  4. This is always the problem.  You need the disaster first so that the deniers can't make this argument.  The trouble is, that in this case we are likely to flip the climate to a new state and with no chance of moving it back to the present setting for eons.  Let's hope for some smaller but highly scary disasters to shake the world to its core before we reach the tipping point.  A new study from New Zealand suggests that at about 425ppm Carbon dioxide, the climate begins to change and doesn't revert even when Carbon dioxide concentrations go down.  There is absolutely no chance we will not pass this possible threshold by a large margin.

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  5. Lionel @2, thanks for the review link. It was most interesting, I totally agree with it, and it confirms what I said. Ridley is an extreme libertarian and his book is on “evolution” is a sort of "trojan horse" for his libertarian views on completely unrelated matters.This is what annoyed me in particular. Some of his views are reasonable, but most aren't.

    I read somewhere in the mainstream, responsible part of the media that Ridleys company Northern Rock went bankrupt. The article noted Ridley had previously argued for minimal financial regulation and was quite successful at this goal. He also rubbished government bail outs of financial institutions. Then Northern Rock, (which he managed) went bankrupt and this was largely his own fault due to a high level of risk taking,  yet he blames everyone else, and asked for a big handout from the tax payer to bail his company out. The arrogance and hypocrisy is breath taking.

    Regarding Ridley and climate change, he subscribes to every sceptical argument imaginable including the truly silly ones, which just goes to show you can have an advanced degree in biology and still embrace ludicrous notions.

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  6. nigelj, we previously covered the debacle of the collapse of Northern Rock and how Ridley's catastrophic risk management was to blame. 

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  7. Andy Skuce @6, thanks for the reference.  I hadn't read that before, and I agree with the points made.

    One thing caught my eye and is worth a comment. Your article quotes Ridley “But what made the bubble of the 2000s so much worse than most was government housing and monetary policy, especially in the United States, which sluiced artificially cheap money towards bad risks as a matter of policy and thus also towards the middlemen of the capital markets. The crisis has at least as much political as economic causation, which is why I also mistrust too much government.”

    I have read plenty about causal factors in the GFC. Government housing policy probably didn’t help, but the government is not responsible for monetary policy! That is the privately owned Federal Reserve, which was run by Alan Greenspan. He is a libertarian like Ridley and implemented very low interest rates that caused the housing bubble, and convinced the government to reduce banking regulation, a major factor in the crash. Ridleys own ideology was instrumental in the crash, but he can’t or won’t see it.

    Of course business can benefit from “risk taking” and the creative destruction of capitalism. But it’s a fine line. Bank crashes can bring the entire global economy down. Some sections of the business sector benefit from regulation.

    Ridley is taking his penchant for risk taking, and concerns about freedom of the individual and applying this ideology to the management or conservation of the planet. In other words leave it to markets.

    Markets are brilliant at some things, however the record of markets and the environment is not good. Its a dysfunction that requires regulation of actvity that impacts on the environment, something that overall has a very successful history. Ridley refuses to acknowledge the obvious evidence so cannot call himself "rational" as he tends to do.

    Individuals do not have the right to cause reckless harm to their community. This is virtually the basis of western law and order and is a fundamental values decision. Therefore the community as a whole also have rights to ensure business does not get carried away and undermine the foundations of the global environment, provided business has a decent level of freedom, so its a balancing act. Ridley has to accept there have to be boundaries of some sort.

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  8. Your ‘congregation’ could do with a little more of a balanced assessment of the points raised by Ridely (and many others).
    I have a degree in Physics and helped developed the first satellite communication satellite systems used around the world i.e. so while not an expert I can understand the science involved. I'm also a greenie, left winger by nature and was initially at least very concerned by Al Gore’s ‘famous’ work. After spending a LOT of time and effort looking into the issues involved I came away impressed by much of the science of global warming - particular the ice age reconstructions - but extremely disappointed by much of the work on 'climate modelling'. The CO2 modelling fails the most basic of tests in that it HAS CONTINUNALLY FAILED to predict current trends or more importantly replicate the past paleoclimatic cycle data. To match the short term recent temperature data the models have continually required after the fact hindsight tweaking to match the data or the data has required tweaking.
    So, when 'sceptics' point this out give them a little credit and admit the science is far from perfect. I've quoted your own assessment of Christies report below to point out the problem. You should acknowledge and THANK him instead you denigrate!
    'So, this recent paper did a few things. First, they took the contrarian argument that the mid-troposphere temperatures have been rising at only 1/3 the rate predicted by models. They found that Christy’s team neglected the contamination of the cooling in the upper stratosphere. When they applied this correction, they found that Christy’s claim was incorrect. Differences between modelled and observed warming rates were much smaller, and had known explanations'.
    The abstract is also provided below
    ‘We use updated and improved satellite retrievals of the temperature of the mid- to upper troposphere (TMT) to address key questions about the size and significance of TMT trends, agreement with model-derived TMT values, and whether models and satellite data show similar vertical profiles of warming. A recent study claimed that TMT trends over 1979 and 2015 are three times larger in climate models than in satellite data, but did not correct for the contribution TMT trends receive from stratospheric cooling. Here we show that the average ratio of modeled and observed TMT trends is sensitive to both satellite data uncertainties and to model-data differences in stratospheric cooling. When the impact of lower stratospheric cooling on TMT is accounted for, and when the most recent versions of satellite datasets are used, the previously claimed ratio of three between simulated and observed near-global TMT trends is reduced to ≈ 1.7. Next, we assess the validity of the statement that satellite data show no significant tropospheric warming over the last 18 years. This claim is not supported by our analysis: in five out of six corrected satellite TMT records, significant global-scale tropospheric warming has occurred within the last 18 years. Finally, we address long-standing concerns regarding discrepancies in modeled and observed vertical profiles of warming in the tropical atmosphere. We show that amplification of tropical warming between the lower and mid- to upper troposphere is now in close agreement in the average of 37 climate models and in one updated satellite record.’
    To get the models to match it was also necessary to mess with the basic satellite data itself as well - probably for good reason but none the less more after the fact hindsight fiddling - yet AGAIN. Now all this is fine - that's how science and the models advance but at least acknowledge the problem and the fact that the science is NOT OVER. (PS the factor of 3 error was reduced to 1.7 – WELL DONE)
    The other major problem is that none of these, what I call CO2 forcing factor driven models have manage to replicate the past ice age cycle data. Especially if the CO2 levels allowed to 'free run' rather than being artificially forced to match the ice core data response. The problem with the later should be obvious – does CO2 drive temperature or does temperature drive CO2 – obviously, a combination of both but the two factors need to be isolated.
    This is basic 101 stuff - you have to validate major model assumptions before they have any credibility. The ONLY work that managed to do this as far as I've been able to determine was a paper (peer reviewed) published in 2013 in Nature. ' Insolation-driven 100,000-year glacial cycles and hysteresis of ice-sheet volume.' This to me was a major piece of work which has largely been ignored. This group finally managed to replicate the past ice age cycle behaviour largely using insolation factors coupled with isostatic rebound of the continental plates. I'm sure you'll be aware of this work and its potential importance. Basically, they appear to have demonstrated that you do NOT need to assign an artificially high forcing factor to CO2 to replicate the cycles. As they noted from their sensitivity runs 'Carbon dioxide is involved, but is not determinative, in the evolution of the 100,000-year glacial cycles.'
    FINALLY, you avoided the other incredibly important issue totally - which is to question whether a warmer, wetter planet with higher CO2 levels is a BAD outcome. The greening of the planet since the end of the last ice age has directly enabled us to develop agriculture and societies to the point that we now all enjoy. Past geological data also readily indicates the planet has been much warmer in the past and lush as a result. Plants have done an incredible job in terraforming the atmosphere reducing CO2 to TRACE levels. I noticed that there was no response to Ridley’s and other’s arguments in this respect.
    These are important issues and as Ridley rightly points out the concern is that attention and resources are being diverted from much more important ecological and social concerns.
    PS I wonder whether this post will survive your ‘peer’ review?


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