Why we should be sceptical of climate sceptics

Issue: 129
Posted: 4 January 11

Suzanne Jeffery

Climate science came massively under attack in 2010. Leaked emails from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia were spun by the right wing media to claim that climate scientists had hidden and manipulated data. The affair was dubbed “Climategate”. Newspapers echoed right-wing politicians, claiming the emails questioned the whole theory of human caused global warming. Climategate and the cold winter gave an opportunity to both rehabilitate the idea that there is “scientific doubt” about human caused climate change and raise political doubt about the need for action to halt it. The emails were leaked weeks before the crucial UN climate change talks at Copenhagen. The speculation in the press about the veracity of climate scientists no doubt helped blunt the impact of the criminal failure of the world’s richest countries to reach any deal to tackle climate change at Copenhagen.

Meanwhile 2010 was the hottest year on record.1 Extreme weather events have affected millions of people. From the devastating heat in Russia, where a state of emergency was declared in 23 regions as temperatures reached close to 40 degrees and forest fires raged outside the cities, to the devastating floods in Pakistan. In the worst catastrophe of its kind, widespread flooding has left thousands dead and 20 million people homeless. The increase in such extreme weather events is a consequence of a warming planet, and as we have seen with Hurricane Katarina in 2005, it is the poorest people who suffer most.

In the run-up to Copenhagen, the UK saw its largest ever climate protest. Over 50,000 people took to the streets calling for the UK government to take the lead in huge reductions in carbon emissions. The failure of market solutions to climate change and the spectacular failure of the banks in 2008 made the case for solutions to climate change that challenge the market much stronger. On the streets of Copenhagen itself, 100,000 people demonstrated, despite massive police repression, many under the anti-capitalist banner of “system change not climate change”.

The climate sceptics have a political agenda rather than a scientific one. They want to defeat the argument that global warming requires action, regulation and legislation. But while they have been emboldened in their attempts to do this over the last year, the case for radical action to tackle climate change has become greater than ever.

The truth about the leaked emails.

It is unclear who leaked the emails and loaded them onto a number of notorious climate sceptic websites ensuring they quickly became widely publicised.2 It has been suggested that dissidents within the University of East Anglia may have been involved, or that climate sceptic bloggers with technical expertise may have been the culprits. Another possibility is that the hackers may have represented a corporation or a state wanting to undermine the talks at Copenhagen or the climate bill coming to the US Senate. This final theory would not be entirely inconsistent with previous efforts of lobby groups to whip up negative publicity about climate science before major climate negotiations. George W Bush used some of these “controversies” to justify his refusal to ratify the Kyoto protocol.

However, no clear evidence has emerged about who leaked the emails. It is a sign of how successful the climate sceptics have been in setting the agenda that little attention has been paid to how the emails were hacked and by whom.

Instead the focus of the right wing media has been on the claim that the emails reveal that the scientists involved “manipulated and hid data” to give the results they wanted and suppressed the work of other scientists who challenged their conclusions. A small number of quotes, from over 1000 emails, are taken out of context and twisted from their original meaning, to support this claim. A handful of examples that hit the headlines illustrates the lack of substance in these arguments.

One of the most quoted passages from the emails is from Phil Jones, the director of the CRU, whose work has involved assembling the past 160 years of global temperature records from around the world. In one email Phil Jones says “I’ve just completed Mike’s nature trick of adding in the real temps for each series for the last 20 years (from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline”.3 The word and phrase “trick” and “hide the decline” have been blasted across front pages claiming that data was manipulated to hide a decline in global temperatures. Sarah Palin accused him and other scientists of being a “highly politicised scientific circle” who “manipulated data to ‘hide the decline’ in global temperatures”.4

The comment made by Phil Jones in his email was not a conspiracy to hide temperature decline. The decline referred to was not in recorded temperature, but in data from modern tree rings. This data had historically correlated to temperature rises and has been used to plot temperature from years prior to thermometer records. However, some modern tree rings were no longer reflecting the recorded temperature rises—this is the “decline” that Jones was referring to. The break down in correlation between temperature and tree rings is something that scientists have no explanation for.

The “trick” Phil Jones refers to was a graphic technique to merge tree ring data from earlier times with thermometer data for recent decades. This was something Michael Mann had done in his famous 1998 paper for Nature,5 and subsequently became known as the “hockey stick” paper. This was because of the way global temperatures took on the shape of a hockey stick, with the hook representing the rise in temperatures during the industrial period. Michael Mann had not hidden his “trick”—he explained the methodology he was using and the reasons why at the time.

The second most used comment from the emails is from Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. He had previously drawn the wrath of climate sceptics after linking hurricane intensity with global warming after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In one email Trenberth said, “The fact is we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t”.6 The two quotes relating to the “trick to hide the decline” and Trenberth’s “travesty” are often strung together implying one is a response to the other. In reality the comments have nothing to do with each other—they were ten years apart! Trenberth’s comments relate to a very public discussion he was having with other scientists about how to understand the “natural variability” that produced a series of years cooler than earlier ones, within the overall picture of global warming. The “travesty” was that scientists could not explain variability, not a suggestion that global warming was not happening.

He had been arguing that better measures of the planet’s energy budget were needed. This would allow scientists to distinguish between the increase of overall heat in the atmosphere and oceans and the short-term natural cycles of variability that merely redistribute heat. The issues raised were being debated in the pages of scientific journals.7

Three enquiries have now completely cleared the scientists involved of scientific malpractice and any question of the validity of their results and conclusions.8 After the report of the Muir Russell Review, Myles Allen, head of the climate dynamics group at the University of Oxford said:

What everyone has lost sight of is the spectacular failure of mainstream journalism to keep the whole affair in perspective. Again and again, stories are sexed up with arch hints that these “revelations” might somehow impact on the evidence for human impact on climate. Yet the only error in actual data used for climate change detection to have emerged from the whole affair amounted to a few hundredths of a degree in the estimated global temperature of a couple of years in the 1870s.9

Who are the sceptics?

The climate sceptics were successful in restoring a “false balance” to the debate about global warming. Climate sceptics present a picture of an unresolved and contentious debate within the scientific community about climate change, with equally weighted camps still producing evidence that continues to contradict each other. They claim powerful and politically motivated scientists
have unfairly and prematurely closed down this debate, and that a large number of eminent, dissident scientists have been prevented from publishing their work. The “dissidents” are often cast in the same mould as Galileo.

The picture painted by climate sceptics is not accurate. There is not an equal number on either side of the debate with relatively equally compelling evidence to support theories of global warming and theories that challenge it. A recent study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that human activity is changing the climate. There is an overwhelming consensus based on the weight of evidence. The report also found that the relative expertise and scientific prominence of researchers unconvinced of anthropogenic climate change are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.10

The climate sceptics who have risen to prominence during Climategate, such as Steve McIntyre, often don’t have a background in climate science. Steve McIntyre said in 2009 that he had “worked most of his life in business, mostly on the stock market side of mineral exploration deals”. 11 His sometime collaborator Ross McKitrick, environmental economist at the University of Guelph, Canada, and senior fellow at libertarian think-tank the Fraser Institute, has a background in economics.

Nor are the “dissident scientists” facing the censorship of a powerful establishment. In fact, many mainstream climate scientists have faced politically motivated attacks on their work, funding and careers. Ben Santer, a climate modeller at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, came under attack for his involvement with the 1995 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which stated that it was possible to see the hand of man in climate change. In Fred Pearce’s Climate Files he claims that, “there is a strategy to single out individuals, tarnish them and try to bring the whole of science into disrepute.” Trenberth told Pearce, “The attacks on me are clearly designed to get me fired or to resign”.12

The Republican ex-chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Republican, James Inhofe, who has consistently opposed environmental legislation and supported oil industry interests in the US senate, upped the stakes in response to Climategate, leading a “McCarthyite witch-hunt” calling for a criminal investigation of the scientists.13

There is a reasonably well documented history of some of the ways that the fossil fuel industry in particular has worked with specific scientists to try to influence public opinion and policy on the issue of global warming.14 In 1998 the American Petroleum Institute, whose members include among others Exxon Mobil, Shell and Halliburton, aimed to find “independent scientists” so that “those promoting the Kyoto treaty on the basis of science would appear out of touch with reality”.15

However, it has not been easy to find “independent” scientists who are willing to promote such a message. Instead big business has had to rely on a plethora of right wing think tanks who publish work, often not peer reviewed, challenging the work of climate scientists. A 2008 study published in the journal Environment Politics found that, of 141 English language “environmentally sceptical books published between 1972 and 2005, 92 percent have links to conservative think-tanks, 90 percent of which “espouse environmental scepticism”.16

Greenpeace has examined some of the best-known right wing think tanks and the funding they receive. Between 2005 and 2008 Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries, a petroleum and chemical company ranked second behind Cargill as a privately run US business, donated $8.9 million dollars and $24.9 million dollars respectively to organisations involved with challenging the science and politics of climate change. According to Greenpeace, “Koch industries’....funding of the climate denial machine… through a combination of foundation-funded front groups, big lobbying budgets… and direct campaign contributions makes Koch industries…amongst the most formidable obstacles to advancing clean energy and climate policy in the US”. 17

Many of the research papers that make it to the front pages of right wing newspapers have been produced by these think tanks. Many have a history that precedes the debate over global warming and have a background in promoting science that challenges the link between cancer and smoking. Some, such as the Heartland Institute, have links to organisations that purport to present scientific reasons for anti-gay and anti-abortion ideas.18

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway suggest in their book Merchants of Doubt that ideology rather than money has been the primary motivation for some scientists. They argue that some key figures in the climate sceptic camp were motivated to take on a scientific establishment which they saw as unsympathetic to the interests of capital and national security. These scientists
had originally cut their teeth politically and scientifically in a cold war environment which informed their opposition to government regulation promoted by those who had identified a link between cancer and cigarettes.19

According to Oreskes and Conway, these scientists, many of who had been drafted in to provide scientific backing for Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defence programme in the 1980s, believed government regulation equalled “communism” and was to be challenged. The methodology employed was to sow doubt about so called establishment consensus, whether over tobacco and cancer or, latterly, global warming and greenhouse gases. More public doubt meant less likelihood of government action. But as Conway argues:

There is a second generation but not one that is nearly as respected,” said Conway. “The think-tank network now exists and is self-perpetuating. They simply hire their own people who have some credentials, rarely actually climate scientists, who continue to do that kind of thing.20

There has been much debate about the motives of those who made the numerous freedom of information requests to scientists at the CRU. Judy Curry, a prominent climate scientist at the Georgia Institute, has argued that the old industry-funded scientists have been replaced by a new generation of “climate auditors” who “have no apparent political agenda, are doing this work for free, and have been playing a watchdog role, which has engendered them to the trust of a large segment of the population”.21 Curry has subsequently led the way in arguing that all data must be freely available. Refusing freedom of information requests and withholding data is not an answer to climate sceptics, who will, as indeed they have, claim this as evidence of “cover-up” and conspiracy. All data must be available for the professional scientist and lay-person in order to challenge and develop scientific research.

Nevertheless, unlike Curry, others such as Michael Mann are unconvinced of the independence of this new generation of fighters for open science: “I would imagine that much of what might appear to an outsider to be organic, to be grassroots, is actually connected, funded, and manned by those connected with the climate denial movement”.22

As Oreskes and Conway argue, an absence of industry money does not mean an absence of political motivation. Often the world view of many of the new breed of individual bloggers challenging the climate science is one which clearly sympathises with the notion that ideas of global warming have been cooked up by liberal scientists who want to see less individual freedom and more state control in people’s lives. However, more often than not, the attacks come from think tanks and research institutes that are industry funded but present themselves as independent. The Global Warming Policy Foundation, launched by the former Tory chancellor Nigel Lawson with amazing timing just three days after the emails first appeared on the web, aims to play that role in Britain. Lawson may refuse to say where the funding for the foundation comes from but his commitment to the free market and opposition to trade unions are a matter of public record.

Challenging the sceptics, challenging capitalism

There is no consistency to the arguments of the climate sceptics. Different arguments are deployed at different times, many of which contradict each other. They dispute whether global warming is taking place, suggesting that temperatures may be falling, yet also argue global warming is a good thing that will bring many benefits to human beings. They accept the science that increased concentration of greenhouse gases causes warming but argue that any warming taking place is caused by natural phenomena such as the activity of sunspots. They don’t dispute the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, or the role of fossil fuels in producing greenhouse gases, but argue that rises in carbon dioxide are a consequence of warming rather than a cause of it. They accept some global warming is taking place because of human activity but claim the impact will be negligible because factors such as aerosol particles in the atmosphere mitigate warming by blocking the sun’s radiation.

In contrast the science of global warming is consistent. There is a “greenhouse effect”—certain gases can trap the sun’s heat in the atmosphere. Gases such as carbon dioxide, water vapour and methane do this. Human activity has massively increased the amount of “greenhouse gases” in the atmosphere. The burning of fossil fuels, which release carbon, and deforestation, which reduces the ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, has resulted in a 35 percent rise in the main greenhouse gases since pre-industrial times. Knowing this we would expect to see a warming of the atmosphere and the oceans. This has happened and is observable.

Global temperature has risen by just under one degree Fahrenheit over the last century. If the way society is organised is not fundamentally transformed, larger amounts of greenhouse gases will be produced. This will lead to greater warming. Within nature there are also feedback mechanisms that could amplify any warming that takes place. The most well known is the impact of a loss of arctic ice, which currently reflects the sun’s heat (unlike the open sea that absorbs heat). Warming will alter our climate and weather systems, which will affect the habitats and ecosystems of all life on earth.

It can be difficult for those of us who do not have a scientific background to follow the various twists and turns of the debate, but it is no more difficult than other scientific debates that have had important political consequences, such as the debate over tobacco or HIV. Global warming is not simply a scientific question, in which the task for activists is to become greater and greater specialists in the scientific debate. Scientific debates are not abstracted from society, from political debate and from the balance of forces in society. As the environmental campaigner George Marshall argued in response to the Channel 4 documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle in 2007, “It would be entirely possible to put together a similar programme, with a string of credible former academics, to argue that smoking does not cause cancer, that HIV does not cause AIDS, or that black people are less intelligent. However, Channel 4 would not dare broadcast the programme and we would not believe them if they did”.23

What concludes such scientific debates is not simply more and more scientific study, replicating and confirming previous ones, but political debate which shifts the balance of forces away from the interests of the rich and powerful to the wider interests of society. For example, increasing evidence about the relationship between smoking and cancer facilitated and framed a political debate about whether smoking was simply an individual act, in which regulation and government intervention should play no role, or a public health issue, requiring societal controls to protect both the individual and society.

Increasingly, the argument that smoking was a public health issue was won in the teeth of opposition from the tobacco companies (and many of the same think tanks that are now challenging the science on climate change). Various forms of regulation have now been introduced, including a ban on smoking in public places.

It is this political argument, which the sceptics feared they were losing, that has unleashed the campaign we have experienced. The leaking of the emails so close to the Copenhagen talks was clearly, as Michael Mann said, “an orchestrated smear campaign to distract the public about the nature of the climate change problem”.24 However, the absence of a powerful and united movement that recognises and identifies the right wing nature of the attack, and that is able to defend the scientists politically, not just scientifically, makes it possible for the agenda to be set by climate sceptics and the right wing rather than those fighting for action on climate change.

There often seemed little appetite amongst environmentalists to defend the scientists. A few days after the leak, leading environmental campaigner George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian calling for Phil Jones to resign.25 He retracted the call after the enquiries took place. Perhaps such a response represented the frustration of environmentalists that, having turned a corner on public attitudes to the problem, progress appeared to be jeopardised by the words of leading climate scientists in their emails. But there is often a belief within the environmental movement that it is ordinary people and their ignorance that is the root of the problem. Sadly, for many within the environmental movement, the success of the sceptics in grabbing the headlines confirmed their prejudice that the perceived greed and self interest of individuals is the real block to action on climate change, rather than the powerful vested interests.

This approach seriously hinders the environmental movement. The deep well of public cynicism that the climate sceptics tap into comes not from individual greed, but from the hypocrisy and weakness of politicians who profess the urgency of action on climate change and then fail to provide real solutions. Perhaps one of the reasons why the climate sceptics have made headway is because the rhetoric over climate change has never been matched by radical policies aimed at solving the problem. Instead nearly all climate change policy has been based on market mechanisms, such as the European Emissions Trading Scheme, which have failed to halt emission rises and have redistributed wealth from the poor to the rich. No surprise then that the climate sceptics have found some resonance from ordinary people, already angry and cynical about politicians, and who find it easy to believe they may have been lied to again by the scientists the politicians quote.

In Britain, for example, New Labour was strong in its rhetoric about the necessity of tackling climate change. But government action did not match the rhetoric. This was most visibly demonstrated when workers at the Vestas wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight occupied to stop the closure of the only such factory in Britain. They sparked a national campaign of support and solidarity. Yet despite a stated commitment to renewable energy, and after using billions of taxpayers’ money to bailout the banks, the government refused to intervene to keep the factory open. An important opportunity to further the case for renewable energy and save jobs was squandered just months before the Copenhagen talks at which the government claimed it would be at the forefront of tackling climate change.

Meanwhile, the big corporate beasts of the oil, coal and nuclear industry were having a field day. The government’s energy policy embraced nuclear and coal fired power stations. They continued to back dangerous expansion by oil companies such as BP. People’s experience of seeing politicians fail to challenge the polluting companies while urging them to change aspects of personal and family lifestyle to help save the planet has created a political climate of cynicism in which the sceptics can find resonance for their dangerous ideas.

The climate sceptics do not need to disprove the science or even convince millions that the science is wrong. They simply need to muddy the water and raise doubts. This way they can make climate change seem less of a priority. They can ensure that even if people believe it is happening, they can hope that something can be done about it in the future or another part of the world. Such an approach can be even more persuasive in a recession.

The economic crisis is giving greater weight to those who want as little regulation as possible aimed at cutting carbon emissions. Many in the ruling class understand the dangers of climate change. But they are unwilling to shoulder the cost of dealing with it as individual corporations or collectively as nation states. Such unwillingness was the cause of the failure at Copenhagen. It is in this context that the political usefulness of climate scepticism becomes greater. There is a greater willingness to have the sceptics’ position aired by certain sections of the ruling class. It has a political impact over demands for action.

In a poll carried out after Climategate it was revealed that the number of people who were concerned about climate change had fallen from 91 percent in 2005 to 78 percent. Meanwhile, 40 percent thought the issue of climate change was exaggerated.26 For right wing governments like Cameron’s this is useful. They have not taken an overtly climate sceptic position but they want to shelve an approach based on government and business targets. Instead, they seek increasingly to individualise the cost of climate change through insurance and personal misery, as well as promoting the market rather than government as the solution.

With the economic crisis set to worsen, efforts to dispute the science that human activity causes climate change will continue. Those of us fighting for change should ensure that we mount a political battle against the climate sceptics, not simply a scientific one. We need to ensure that those waging that battle recognise that the real enemy is the capitalist system, which puts profit before the lives of billions of humans and the planet. Equally importantly, we need to recognise who the real allies are in this fight—the millions of working people around the world who have no vested interest in a system that prioritises profit over the world’s climate.

1: Grey, 2010.

2: Websites such as Anthony Watt’s “Watt’s up with that”, Jeff Id’s “Air Vent” blog, Warren Meyers’ “Climate sceptic” and Steve McIntyre’s “Climate Audit” website all carried links to servers holding the emails.

3: Pearce, 2010, p174. Pearce uses the CRU emails published online at
www.eastangliaemails.com. This email is given the reference 942777075.txt.

4: Washington Post, 9 December 2009.

5: Mann and others, 1998, p779.

6: Pearce, 2010, p175. Online reference 1255352257.txt.

7: Trenberth, 2009.

8: They were the Parliamentary Science and Technology Select Committee Report in March 2010, Lord Oxburgh’s Scientific Assessment Panel in April 2010 and Sir Muir Russell’s Review in July 2010.

9: Adam, 2010.

10: Anderegg and others, 2010.

11: McIntyre, 2008.

12: Pearce, 2010, p81.

13: Guardian, 1 March 2010.

14: See, for example, Hoggan and Littlemore, 2009, Gelbspan, 1998, and Monbiot, 2007.

15: Pearce, 2010, p84.

16: Jaques and others, 2008, pp349-385.

17: Greenpeace— www.greenpeace.org/kochindustries

18: Hickman, 2010.

19: Oreskes and Conway, 2010.

20: Quoted in Weber, 2010.

21: Pearce, 2010, pp227-228.

22: Pearce, 2010, p228.

23: Marshall, 2007.

24: Pearce, 2010, p180.

25: Monbiot, 2009.

26: Guardian, 11 June.


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