Thursday, July 25, 2013

Climate Change: Global-warming deniers try to deceive the U. S. Senate

On July 18, the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on global warming. The Republicans on the committee invited prominent global-warming deniers to testify. The deniers did what they usually do, create fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

On July 21, an article by Marita Noon appeared on describing the proceedings under the headline, “Why is Obama Lying on Climate Change?". Noon quotes Obama as saying that “we also know that the climate is warming faster than anybody anticipated five or 10 years ago.” She accuses him of spreading lies with this statement. She doesn't attempt to prove him false. She just assumes that he is lying and asks why.

I don't consider that statement false. The same statement occurs almost verbatim in an article on the Union of Concerned Scientists(UCS) web site, which states that “recent research indicates that Earth's climate is changing more quickly than scientists had projected just a few years ago.” The article points out that 2010 was the warmest year so far recorded. So the answer to Noon's question is simple: Obama was citing one of the most respected scientific organizations in the world.

The president's statement was not only derived from a respectable source. It was also true. Climate change deniers have a frequent habit of pointing to temperatures reported in the press and saying that a single temperature or a single month proves that global warming has stopped. The truth is more complex than that. The temperature of a single year can be affected by ocean currents, like El Nino, and volcanic events, like the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991.

The El Nino current raised temperatures around the Pacific so much that 1998 became the hottest year on record. A cold current made 1999 a relatively cool year. Temperatures fell after 1998, but the trend did not change: The world is still growing hotter. The temperatures are rising faster, too. The decade from 2001 to 2010 got hotter at a faster rate than the previous three decades. So the President was not only telling what he believed to be true, he was also telling the plain truth.

Now that we have that straightened out, we deserve an answer to the following question, “Why is Marita Noon writing a deceptive article slanted against climate science and attacking the U.S. President?” I believe I can answer that one, too.

Noon writes for the Heartland Institute, an organization that has specialized in attacking legitimate scientists on behalf of corporate sponsors and large donors since 1984. The corporate sponsors largely remain in the shadows, making large donations to Heartland in return for favorable articles. Sometimes the veil is lifted, however, as when there is a lawsuit or someone leaks information to the press.

In 2002, Heartland sponsored a report urging the states not to file Medicaid suits against tobacco companies over second-hand smoke. The report did not disclose that part of Heartland's funding came from R. J. Reynolds and Altair, both large tobacco companies. Heartland also supported an effort by the tobacco and asbestos industries to reduce the amount that asbestos victims could receive in court damages. They called this effort “tort reform” and used the American Legal Exchange Council (ALEC) as their front group. ALEC has recently lost some high-profile backers because it successfully pushed stand-your-ground laws that have proved problematical.

Heartland published an article by Matt Swetonic, “Taming the Asbestos Monster”, in 2002. Swetonic for years had written articles for companies like Johns Manville, articles that claimed either that asbestos was not harmful, or that companies that profited from the sale of asbestos should not be held liable for deaths and disease caused by the product. Apparently Heartland is embarrassed by this association with Swetonic, because they recently restricted access to the article. In 2002, Heartland's president, Joe Bast, wrote an article urging tort reform because corporations who bought the assets of asbestos abusing companies also inherited the liabilities to their employees. He wrote that not all the proceeds from class action judgments against asbestos abusers went to their victims. He did not mention that without class action suits, the victims would get nothing.

Heartland has been called a leading organizer for climate science denial. It organizes international climate control conferences with experts who have written few, if any, peer reviewed articles. Heartland listed funders in 1999 as, among others, Exxon, the Koch Brothers, Phillips Petroleum, and the American Petroleum Institute in this enterprise, although it has kept its donor list secret in recent years.

In 2012, the Guardian reported that several insurance companies, including State Farm, stopped contributing to Heartland because of a billboard bearing the image of the unabomber, Ted Koczynski. Heartland was forced by protests over the bad taste of the billboard to cancel the publicity campaign after one day.

Leaked documents showed that Heartland received $200,000 from the Charles G. Koch Foundation in 2011, even though Koch denied any donations after 1999. The same documents revealed that Heartland was paying $5,000 a month to Fred Singer, a prominent climate change denier.

So the probable answer to the second question is that Noon attacks climate scientists and President Obama because she is paid by oil companies and anonymous climate-change deniers to do so.

The source of funding is suggestive but not absolute proof that Noon's opinions are wrong. Let us examine the rest of the article, bearing in mind that Noon works for an organization whose entire reason for existence seems to be attacking reputable scientists whose discoveries bother large polluters.

Noon begins her report on the committee meeting by mentioning an “important” minority report. Near the beginning of this report, its authors (who are they? They don't say.) cite The Economist as its authority on the supposed flatness of temperatures over the last 15 years. Notice they start with 1998, which we have shown was affected by the el Nino warming current. The Economist is a popular business magazine, not a scientific journal. It does not publish peer-reviewed articles.

Next, the report cites an article for the BBC by Matt McGrath that calls the alleged slowdown in global warming “unexplained”. This is false. The slowdown has been explained and the explanation is well-known to the scientific community, though not to Noon or McGrath. McGrath goes on to say, in the next line but one of his article, that “long-term, the expected temperature raises will not alter significantly.” This conclusion was taken from Nature Geoscience, which does publish peer-reviewed articles.

The minority report fails to state the actual conclusion of the BBC article, which was not that global warming has stopped, or even slowed, but that the results of the last decade do not alter the pace of global warming in the long run. The minority views scientific studies from the viewpoint of lawyers, who try to find small discrepancies in witness testimony and use these discrepancies to create reasonable doubt in a jury.

A scientist views the entire theory, which encompasses hundreds of studies and thousands of bits of data which have all been woven together into a single theory. The scientist looks at minor discrepancies, not as disproving the theory, but as opportunities for further research and a greater understanding of the theory and its subject. Climate-change deniers, most of whom are not scientists, look for small discrepancies and report only the data points that support their viewpoint. This nit-picking is not the same thing as building a new theory that could challenge the old one.

We could also use a sports analogy. The Climate-change deniers view their confrontation with scientists as a contest, like a football game. They are doing everything they can to win the game. They get payoffs from corporations, write deceptive op-eds, send out scary emails, attack dedicated scientists, foment fear, uncertainty, and doubt. When the discussion is over, they assume, everyone will go home and enjoy their winnings.

Scientific discussions are not like sporting events. There is no winning side, no losing side. There is a right side and a wrong side. If we delay taking action on climate change, everyone loses. Problems that are manageable right now will become insoluble in a few years. Costs will decrease dramatically as the sea level rises, droughts become more severe, and weather patterns become more erratic.

The minority report calls scientists who accept global warming theory alarmists. This is paradoxical and untrue. While some non-scientists have tried to sensationalize global warming, the scientific community has been careful not to be alarmist. They avoid heated rhetoric and make conservative predictions.

Noon writes that Roy Spencer “eviscerates” the oft-cited figure that 97% of climate scientists support the global-warming theory. Spencer claims that these articles are not really pro-warming, but only non-committal or even skeptical. He relies on the average person's lack of understanding about how peer-reviewed articles work.

Scientific publication is the only way to place your ideas before the scientific community. When a theory is very much in doubt, there are many articles on both sides. Once a theory is well-established in the scientific community, there are many fewer articles on any theory aside from the well-accepted one. The well-accepted theory in climate science is that the primary cause of recent increases in global warming is the production of man-made greenhouse gases. When there are no articles that suggest alternative theories, the issue is settled.

The figure of 97% is now out of date. As might be expected, the number of skeptical articles has fallen while the number of supportive articles has risen dramatically. James Lawrence Powell has studied 13,950 peer-reviewed articles published between 1991 and 2012 that have the words “climate change” or “global warming” in them. So these articles are not just random articles about something else, as Spencer seems to claim, but articles that actually discuss global warming. Powell found just 24 articles that opposed the predominant theory. That means that not 97%, but 99.83% of all articles supported the theory.

Spencer's comment appears to be a red herring, a false statement intended to mislead and confuse the laymen who are trying desperately to reach a reasonable decision on this issue. If there were a single article that proposed a viable alternative to the currently accepted one, it would soon become the most cited paper in the history of climate science. The rules of the peer-review system require all articles to be placed before the public and subjected to open debate. We would know if there were an article that demolishes the accepted theory. There is no such article.

Spencer has proposed several counter-theories to global-warming in the past. All of them have been rejected by other scientists. Noon and her employers at Heartland don't care about Spencer's track record. as long as he agrees with them. He is, after all, opposed by 13,000 articles by 33,000 climate scientists. His opinions should be rejected by all rational people.

The number of peer-reviewed articles that Spencer published in climate science journals between 1991 and 2012 is zero.1

The final witness for the climate-change deniers was economist Diana Furcht-Gott Roth. She argued, and Noon agreed with her, that the poor would be harmed by any steps to reduce carbon-dioxide generation by the coal, oil and gas industry. This argument is being made by the same group of humanitarians who have voted to cut food stamps from the farm bill, cut head-start, cut medicaid, cut Social Security, abolish Obama's health care program. Their answer to the struggling middle-class has always been to give more tax breaks to the wealthy.

Their concern for the poor at this point can't pass the laugh test.

1 James Russell Powell, Science and Global Warming, 2012,

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