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The Latest Denialist Plea for Climate Change Inaction

Posted on 31 January 2012 by dana1981

As they tend to do from time to time in an effort to distract from the climate science consensus, a group of scientists who are also climate "skeptics" have published an opinion-editorial (op-ed), trying to make the case against taking action to address climate change.  As usual, the article is little more than a regurgitation of a number of climate myths we have debunked at Skeptical Science

The signatories of this newest letter are also worth noting for their lack of noteworthiness.  Although the climate denialist blogs have labeled them "luminaries" and "prominent scientists", the list is actually quite underwhelming.  In fact, it only includes four scientists who have actually published climate research in peer-reviewed journals, and only two who have published climate research in the past three decades.  Nearly half of the list (at least 7 of 16) have received fossil fuel industry funding, and the list also includes an economist, a physician, a chemist, an aerospace engineer, and an astronaut/politician.  These are apparently the best and brightest the climate denialists can come up with these days?

  • Claude Allegre, former director of the Institute for the Study of the Earth, University of Paris
  • J. Scott Armstrong, cofounder of the Journal of Forecasting and the International Journal of Forecasting;
  • Jan Breslow, head of the Laboratory of Biochemical Genetics and Metabolism, Rockefeller University;
  • Roger Cohen, fellow, American Physical Society;
  • Edward David, member, National Academy of Engineering and National Academy of Sciences;
  • William Happer, professor of physics, Princeton;
  • Michael Kelly, professor of technology, University of Cambridge, U.K.;
  • William Kininmonth, former head of climate research at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology;
  • Richard Lindzen, professor of atmospheric sciences, MIT;
  • James McGrath, professor of chemistry, Virginia Technical University;
  • Rodney Nichols, former president and CEO of the New York Academy of Sciences;
  • Burt Rutan, aerospace engineer, designer of Voyager and SpaceShipOne;
  • Harrison H. Schmitt, Apollo 17 astronaut and former U.S. senator;
  • Nir Shaviv, professor of astrophysics, Hebrew University, Jerusalem;
  • Henk Tennekes, former director, Royal Dutch Meteorological Service;
  • Antonio Zichichi, president of the World Federation of Scientists, Geneva.

red - no climate science publications, member of at least one climate denialist group - GWPF (advisory board), George C. Marshall Institute (board of directors or roundtable speakers), Australian Climate Science Coalition (advisory panel), Heartland Institute (board of directors), and/or ExxonMobil

blue - published climate science research

orange - both a member of a climate denialist group and has published climate science research

black - no climate science publications or climate denialist group membership

Shaviv has published some research on galactic cosmic rays, and Kininmonth and Tennekes published a couple of climate-related papers in the 1970s (although most of Tennekes' research as been in aeronautics). Lindzen is the only climate scientist of note on the entire list, and is mainly noteworthy for his history of being wrong on climate issues.

The lack of expertise and numerous conflicts of interest aside, let's evaluate their arguments on their own merits (or more accurately, lack thereof).

Denying the Consensus

The op-ed begins with the wholly unsupported assertion that:

"...a large and growing number of distinguished scientists and engineers do not agree that drastic actions on global warming are needed."

The fact that only 16 scientists and engineers signed this letter casts serious doubt on this assertion.  The fake skeptics were able to get ~100 signatories on a similar letter 5 years ago - this seems more like a small and dwindling number of fake skeptics.  It's also worth noting that 255 National Academy of Science members (truly prominent scientists) signed an opposite letter, urging action to address climate change.

"We urge our policy-makers and the public to move forward immediately to address the causes of climate change, including the un-restrained burning of fossil fuels."

Moreover, why should we care what these few self-proclaimed "distinguished scientists and engineers" think we should do about climate change?  If I need heart surgery, I'm not going to allow a dentist to perform it, even if it's the best dentist in the world.  Virtually all of the climate science experts agree that actions to address global warming are needed.  Their informed opinions are the ones we should heed when it comes to climate science, not those of astronauts and physicians.

Gish Gallop of Fake Facts

After making a number of unsubstantiated and false assertions about the "growing number" of climate "skeptics," the letter then lays out what they see as the evidence supporting their fake skepticism.  In reality, it's the same sort of Gish Gallop we've come to expect from climate denialists.

Global Warming Continues

The first myth in the article is the well-worn "global warming stopped in [insert year]".  In this case, the fake skeptics have inserted "the last 10 years."  This myth is easily debunked with the escalator graphic (Figure 1).

skeptics v realists v3

Figure 1: BEST land-only surface temperature data (green) with linear trends applied to the timeframes 1973 to 1980, 1980 to 1988, 1988 to 1995, 1995 to 2001, 1998 to 2005, 2002 to 2010 (blue), and 1973 to 2010 (red).

Not-So-Missing Heat

The second myth is that Kevin Trenberth's quote-mined comment "The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't" is an admission that global warming stopped.  In reality, the quote simply referred to the fact that while the planet is warming, we do not have adequate global monitoring to determine where all the heat is going.  However, recent research by Loeb et al. (2012) has concluded that there may no longer be any "missing heat," so this particular myth really has no leg to stand on.

Positive Feedbacks

The denialist op-ed continues to confuse the issue by claiming

"...the warming is only missing if one believes computer models where so-called feedbacks involving water vapor and clouds greatly amplify the small effect of CO2."

Aside from continuing to misunderstand that the "missing heat" is about having an inadequate global climate observational network (mainly because we don't have good measurements of deep ocean heat), observational data have demonstrated that water vapor, and likely clouds, are indeed positive feedbacks.

Earth Has Warmed as Expected

The fake skeptics then repeat one of Lindzen's favorite myths, that the Earth has warmed less than predicted by the IPCC.  This is simply untrue - in fact, the IPCC climate predictions have been amongst the most accurate thus far, much better than Lindzen and his fellow fake skeptics have done (Figure 2).

jg gif

Figure 2: Various global temperature projections vs. observations

CO2 is a Pollutant and Not Necessarily Beneficial for Plants

The op-ed then repeats the old "CO2 isn't a pollutant" myth.  In reality, because its emissions endanger public health and welfare through its impacts on climate change, by definition CO2 is a pollutant according to the US Clean Air Act

They couple this with the grossly oversimplistic "CO2 is plant food" myth.  While it's true that in a controlled setting like a greenhouse, increased CO2 levels will generally improve plant growth, the global climate is not so simple.  Increasing CO2 in the climate also changes temperatures, precipitation, drought and flood frequencies, and a number of other factors which impact plant growth. 

The global increase of CO2 is a grand biological experiment, with countless complications that make the net effect of this increase very difficult to predict with any appreciable level of detail.  To gloss over these complexities with the simplistic "CO2 is plant food" argument is an insult to the readers' intelligence.  It also ignores the other adverse impacts of increasing CO2, like ocean acidification.  Apparently these "concerned scientists" don't think very highly of their audience.

Follow the Money Indeed

Just when we thought the op-ed letter couldn't get worse, these fake skeptics have the gall to suggest that we "follow the money," because climate "alarmism" supposedly brings bountiful research funding, "an excuse for governments to raise taxes", "big donations" for environmental groups, and other similar tinfoil-hattery.  Considering that at least 43% of the letter's signatories have received money from the fossil fuel industry, being given large sums of money just for being climate "skeptics" and publishing error-riddled nonsense like this op-ed, the sheer nerve it must have taken to make this "follow the money" argument is astounding.  Do follow their advice: research the signatories of this letter and follow their money trail, which leads straight to the fossil fuel industry.

CO2 Limits Will Help the Economy

The "concerned scientists" then follow with the myth that CO2 limits will harm the economy.  This particular myth is primarily based on ignoring the fact that failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will have a tremendous cost, much greater than the cost of action (Figure 3).  Relative to the alternative (inaction and trying to adapt to the damaging consequnces of climate change), CO2 limits will help the economy.  This is why there is a consensus among economists with expertise in climate that we should put a price on carbon emissions (Figure 4).

Figure 3:  Approximate costs of climate action (green) and inaction (red) in 2100 and 2200. Sources: German Institute for Economic Research and Watkiss et al. 2005

should US reduce emissions


Figure 4: New York University survey results of economists with climate expertise when asked under what circumstances the USA should reduce its emissions

The article references work by economist William Nordhaus to try and justify climate inaction.  When we actually listen to what Nordhaus has to say, the picture looks very different:

"We’ve got to get together as a community of nations and impose restraints on greenhouse gas emissions and raise carbon prices. If not, we will be in one of those gloomy scenarios."

Although he tends to be quite conservative about the costs of climate change relative to other economists, Nordhaus still supports putting a price on carbon emissions.  Nordhaus not appreciate his name being invoked to justify foolish calls for climate inaction, telling Andrew Revkin:

"The piece completely misrepresented my work. My work has long taken the view that policies to slow global warming would have net economic benefits, in the trillion of dollars of present value. This is true going back to work in the early 1990s (MIT Press, Yale Press, Science, PNAS, among others). I have advocated a carbon tax for many years as the best way to attack the issue. I can only assume they either completely ignorant of the economics on the issue or are willfully misstating my findings."

Is this the Best Climate "Skeptics" Can Do?

If we boil down this op-ed to its basics, we're left with a letter signed by only two scientists with peer-reviewed climate research publications in the past three decades, which exhibits a serious lack of understanding of basic climate concepts, and which simply regurgitates a Gish Gallop of long-worn climate myths.  The letter claims that climate "skepticism" is growing, and yet only has 16 signatories, at least 43% of which have received funding from the fossil fuel industry, and not one single new argument which hasn't been long-debunked.

If this is the best today's climate fake skeptics can do, perhaps, as Patrick Michaels suggests, they are losing the battle.  We can only hope that this is the case.

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Comments 51 to 59 out of 59:

  1. For the scoop on one of the letter signers, check out: “Australian Meteorology Bureau Corrects Record On Former Research Head William Kininmonth's Actual Climate Change Experience” by Graham Readfearn, DeSmog Blog, Feb 2, 2012 Click here to access this article.
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  2. For another excellent response to the WSJ letter. . . Brian Angliss does a superb job of trying to discuss science with Burt Rutan, Engineer to Engineer like, and Burt Rutan exposes himself as a ideologically driven demagogue he seems to have become - refusing to acknowledge anything other than his own shallow talking points. Brian's even tempered issue focused approach is a thing of beauty. Climate science discussion between Burt Rutan and Brian Angliss Posted on January 31, 2012
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    Moderator Response: Link fixed
  3. citizenschallenge- Thanks for the link.That was very disappointing to say the least.I was unaware that Rutan held those views.If he could have supported them in a factual way he might have come off better,but in the end he appeared to be simply parroting the denier party line.
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  4. Rutan's diatribe is downright embarrassing. It stands as a living testament to how even a successful, driven and intelligent man can be so violently ravaged by the onset of Dunning-Kruger disease in its advanced stages.
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  5. In my comment upthread noting characteristics of science denialism I forgot a component: (Psychological) Projection I'm not sure if the WSJ letter by Lindzen et al includes this component. It would not surprise me if it did.
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  6. Barry Bickmore has weighed in on this at RealClimate
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  7. Speaking of the Angliss-Rutan conversation, reading the full set of comments on the original thread is even more eye-opening. Commenters other than Angliss provide Rutan with a great deal of supplementary information demonstrating that many of his claims are indefensible - and in his responses to them in comments (which are not found in the summary post linked at #52) he ducks, weaves and gallops with the best of them. And speaking of psychological projection - Rutan's schtick is big on AGW communicators engaging in "data presentation fraud" which he argues inappropriately scares the punters - but his own anti-AGW slide deck is so full of it, it's difficult to find one single slide discussing science that presents a fair view of the data.
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  8. Dana might have missed John Mashey's comment at #42 pointing out that Scott Armstrong's name ought to be highlighted red.
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  9. Byron - thanks yes, I missed that. It looks like ICSC is at least funded by Heartland, so that appears to be a safe assumption. The post has been revised accordingly.
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