Is there a scientific consensus about global warming? Yes, but it is not quite what climate change activists claim. We do not have a controversy between science-based arguments and climate deniers. Plenty of scientists offer climate change dissent. They find themselves in the middle between climate change deniers and the junk science of many of the most vocal climate change activists.
By junk science, I mean demonstrably wrong claims pushed to advance someone’s economic or political interests.
According to NASA’s climate change page,
Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities. In addition, most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.
Most of it quotes official scientific organizations and agencies. But members of one of them vigorously opposed a sentence not quoted on NASA’s page. Plenty of other scientists question the accuracy of the statistics behind the best-known predictions.
In any case, no scientific climate change consensus backs up wild claims of looming disaster. Yet this junk science gets much more media attention that scientific climate change dissent. Everyone knows of Al Gore and his followers. Hardly anyone can name a professional climate scientist.
I would like to provide a more nuanced look at the issues than most people get to see.
A short historical review of climate science
Climate science first came to general public attention in the 1960s. Unfortunately, Paul Ehrlich and others used Earth Day as platform for junk science. They made dire warnings about a coming ice age.
I have read articles by real climate scientists of the time monitoring carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. I have not found that any of them publicly corrected the ice age fearmongers.
The development of today’s climate change “consensus”
The United Nations established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988. It was formed to provide accurate and objective scientific evidence. It concluded that humans have caused climate change. And that only swift action by the world’s governments can prevent catastrophe.
In 1999, a team of researchers led by Michael Mann published a graph based on new statistical techniques. It showed relatively flat global mean temperatures from 1000 AD until about 1850. After that, it showed a sharp increase. It projected higher temperatures than Earth had seen in the previous thousand years. The graph became popularly known as the hockey stick. It soon became a chief support for the IPCC position on climate change.
Al Gore’s documentary film An Inconvenient Truth appeared in 2006. He and the IPCC shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for their role in leading the debate on climate change.
Scientific climate change dissent
By 2008, Gore declared the debate over except for “a few remaining skeptics.” But he was wrong.
In May 2008, chemist Arthur Robinson released a petition signed by 32,000 American scientists who stood against the IPCC’s stance. It was not the first time thousands of scientists had signed similar petitions. They questioned the science behind the fear-mongering. Apparently, most who signed had medical degrees, but 9,000 had PhDs. Robinson declared that they represented fifteen times more scientists than took part in the IPCC’s work.
Unfortunately, it has become an act of courage for scientists to take issue with the IPCC’s conclusions. At best, any media coverage they get brands them as climate change deniers.
No one should consider it unusual when scientists disagree about an issue. Especially in the case of a novel theory, not everyone will accept it at first. Nor should they. The new idea may be wrong. Science works by examining it carefully and testing it for weaknesses.
Before we look specifically at climate change dissent, we need to consider the role of dissent in science more generally.
The problem of dissent in scientific inquiry
Scientific progress actually depends on dissent. Every new scientific study must undergo peer review. Then further study can expose unjustified assumptions, weaknesses in methodology, and bad reasoning. Eventually, the experts will come to agreement on an issue. But then, eventually someone will find something new that calls it into question.
It would be nice if this process always took place in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Also, researchers ought to have proper skepticism of their own position. But scientists are human, and they often have other agendas beyond science.
Junk science and public relations
Rachel Carson worked as science editor at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There, she became interested in the environmental effects of synthetic pesticides. Scientists had begun to implicate them in the deaths of animals, birds, and fish. Carson published Silent Spring, in 1962.
It provoked a fire-storm of controversy. Only some of it was legitimate scientific disagreement over her methods, data, and conclusions.
Velsicol manufactured of two pesticides prominently featured in the book. It aggressively attempted to halt its publication. It threatened to sue the publisher. The company also mounted a public relations campaign. Numerous “fact” sheets challenged the book’s conclusions.
In this way, it provided a model for the tobacco industry and others. It showed them how to defend their products with public relations bluster and junk science.
Science, junk science, and public policy
The general public has little understanding of science. When scientific controversy makes the news, it has no way to know who’s right. And elected officials know no more about science than the general public.
Take the case of vaccinations. Science has debunked the supposed link between childhood vaccines and autism. But for whatever reason, discredited ideas continue to circulate. Some parents still fear to vaccinate their children.
Scientists who work for regulatory agencies or otherwise advocate for public policy positions find that dissenters can undermine their efforts.
So, should they seek to silence dissent on matters of public policy? Some have developed ways to neutralize it:
- They can mask disagreements by sharing only broad areas of agreement with the public.
- They can try to silence dissenters by refusing to publish their papers or denying tenure.
- Or they can discredit them with accusations of bias or questioning their credentials.
These tactics present a real danger to the scientific process. After all, the dissenters may be right. Dissent is a normal part of science. Viewing it instead as a problem to be can result in withholding important information from policy makers. And the public will never learn what makes real science if the controversy remains hidden. The end result of these tactics may well be loss of public trust in science and scientists.
Also, science can never be the only grounds for public policy. Plenty of other political, social, and economic considerations have their part.
Take, for example, a scientific consensus about the harmful effects of some aspect of the American diet. It may lead to calls for draconian regulation. Considerations of people’s right to choose and the economic cost of enforcing regulations can legitimately point in the other direction.
Climate change dissent taken to court
The IPCC published four reports between 1990 and 2007. They projected the likely increase in temperature over the long term. Their reports depended heavily on Mann’s hockey stick. Other scientists challenged both the projections and their statistical basis.
For example, 16 scientists wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2012: Actual measurements of the atmosphere and oceans consistently failed to match IPCC projections. The climate didn’t respond to increasing carbon dioxide as the IPCC predicted.
They concluded, “Apparently every generation of humanity needs to relearn that Mother Nature tells us what the science is, not authoritarian academy bureaucrats or computer models.”
That dissent should have been business as usual for science. Instead, Mann copied Velsicol’s strategy He sued the Competitive Enterprise Institute and National Review for defamation of character.
I’ll not try to weigh in on the scientific merits of Mann’s methods. But he essentially asked the courts to settle a scientific argument. That is dangerous. He stooped to junk science tactics. The case worked its way to the Supreme Court, which in 2019 declined to become involved.
Climate change dissent and political terrorism
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse further dragged the question into the political arena in 2015. He asked the Justice Department to bring legal action against Mann’s critics. His supposed legal authority? The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). What a flagrant abuse of that legislation! It’s aimed at organized crime and drug cartels.
Other Democratic senators joined Whitehouse. They demanded that private companies and policy institutes disclose information about their climate research and funding sources. Attorney General Loretta Lynch referred the matter to the FBI. The Attorneys General of New York and California took similar junk science actions.
There is no justification for using the power of government to take sides in a scientific issue. Yet these politicians threatened lawsuits and prosecution for conducting legitimate scientific inquiry. This act of government-sponsored terrorism threatens not only the normal process of science but everyone’s free speech rights.
The American Physical Society chooses political correctness
I mentioned earlier NASA’s quotations of scientific groups. Their quotation from the American Physical Society (APS) lacks one sentence that ignited a firestorm within the organization:
The APS published a policy statement in 2012. It said, “The evidence is incontrovertible. Global warming is occurring. If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security, and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now.”
“The evidence is incontrovertible” is more politically correct than scientifically correct. According to a widely accepted principle, a scientific hypothesis must be falsifiable.
Suppose someone proposes a hypothesis that all data that supports a particular theory is fake. No amount of evidence can falsify it. After all, it would be fake by definition.
But if a statement is both falsifiable and supported by evidence, it can be accepted as scientific truth.
Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity falsified previously accepted ideas. It was also backed up by evidence. Albert Einstein partly falsified his theory. Later research has, in turn, partly falsified Einstein.
None of this could have happened if pre-Newtonian thought had been considered incontrovertible. Scientific progress depends on challenging previously accepted conclusions. With that sentence, the APS came dangerously close to junk science.
Many members requested that the APS remove the “incontrovertible” claim. When it refused, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ivar Giaever very publicly resigned from it.
Numerous other established scientists objected to the official global warming narrative. Measurements had stubbornly refused to support it for two decades.
Climate change dissent and academic terrorism
In 2003, the journal Climate Research published a peer-reviewed but politically incorrect article. It concluded that recent warming was not unusual when viewed over the previous thousand years. Global warming partisans immediately attacked the editor, Chris de Freitas. They wanted him fired not only from his editorial position but from his university position as well.
Fortunately, they did not succeed. I do not know if Dr. de Freitas had tenure, but if he did, the attempt to have him fired violated an important academic principle. Tenure exists precisely to protect faculty from being fired for taking different stands from their peers.
Such persecution is pure junk science. It occurred regularly in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China. It has no place in American or European universities, which ought to prize independent thinking.
Many younger scientists who also doubt the global warming narrative must keep silent. If they say what is on their mind, they will be denied tenure and no major journal will publish their research. They know well what happened to de Freitas for publishing a peer-reviewed article that upset the climate change inquisition.
Climate change consensus vs junk science
I have read opinions comparing scientific climate change dissent with the public relations tactics of the tobacco industry. I have listened to Greta Thunberg, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and others have pontificated on the looming global catastrophe. And call it the climate change consensus.
It’s no more of a scientific consensus than Paul Ehrlich’s warnings of doom 50 years ago. It’s junk science, shouted by people who have probably never read any scientific research papers.
Here’s some of what constitutes genuine scientific climate change consensus:
- Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have risen over the past century and a half.
- Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Higher concentrations lead to higher temperatures. (Carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas, but scientists mathematically convert the others to carbon dioxide for the sake of discussion.)
- Global temperatures have risen over the same period.
- Higher temperatures at the poles are contributing to sea level rise.
- Emissions of greenhouse gases from industrial processes and products account for much of the rise in both carbon dioxide. That is, global warming results from human activity.
- But the IPCC projections are wildly exaggerated.
Here’s some of what is not any part of a genuine scientific climate change consensus:
- We should all be scared of how rapidly the planet is warming.
- We have only a dozen years to fix the problem before the Earth turns into Venus.
- The only way to fix it is for everyone to give up all modern technology, abolish corporations and profit, and become vegan.
32,000 scientists dissent from global-warming “consensus” / AAPS News of the Day Blog [Association of American Physicians and Surgeons]. May 20, 2008
Concerned scientists reply on global warming / Claude Allegre et al., Wall Street Journal. February 21, 2012
No need to panic about global warming; there’s no compelling scientific argument for drastic action to ‘decarbonize’ the world’s economy / Claude Allegre et al., Wall Street Journal. January 27, 2012
Punishing climate-change skeptics / David B. Rivkin, Jr and Andrew M. Grossman, Wall Street Journal. March 24, 2016
Scientific consensus: Earth’s climate is warming / NASA
Scientific dissent and public policy / Inmaculada de Melo‐Martín and Kristen Intemann, EMBO Reports 14 (March 1, 2013) [European Molecular Biology Organization]
Supreme Court won’t throw out climate scientist’s defamation suit against National Review / Devan Cole, CNN. November 25, 2019
Shop related products
The Climate Chronicles: Inconvenient Revelations You Won’t Hear from Al Gore / Joe Bastardi
The Politically Incorrect Guide to Climate Change / Bjorn Lomborg
False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us . . . / Bjorn Lomborg
Love Your Monsters / Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus
Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All /
Breakthrough: Why We Can’t Leave Saving the Planet to Environmentalists / Michael Shellenberger