Chapter 2 (Skeptics Guide to Global Warming): Is it OK to be a Skeptic?

The table of contents for the rest of this paper, A Layman’s Guide to Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) is hereFree pdf of this Climate Skepticism paper is here and print version is sold at cost here.

For the first time since the Catholic Church dominated western man’s affairs, it has suddenly become a sin again to be labeled a “skeptic.”  For most of my lifetime, “skepticism” was considered an essential element in the makeup of any good scientist (or journalist, for that matter).   However, leading world figures are declaring skepticism to be immoral.  Take one example, from this UPI story:

A former chief of the U.N. World Health Organization who also is a former prime minister of Norway and a medical doctor has declared an end to the climate-change debate.

Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, one of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s three new special envoys on climate change, also headed up the 1987 U.N. World Commission on Environment and Development where the concept of sustainable development was first floated.

"This discussion is behind us. It’s over," she told reporters. "The diagnosis is clear, the science is unequivocal — it’s completely immoral, even, to question now, on the basis of what we know, the reports that are out, to question the issue and to question whether we need to move forward at a much stronger pace as humankind to address the issues."

In its most extreme form, this approach has AGW supporters labeling skeptics as equivalent to “holocaust deniers” and “tobacco lawyers.”  Efforts have been made in several quarters to decertify climatologists or meteorologists who show any skepticism for AGW theory, making public adherence to the theory a minimum qualification for publication and professional standing.  Enormous efforts are made to squelch skeptical speech.  Just as one example, the BBC has run a zillion shows and specials sympathetic to AGW.  When Channel 4 ran one single show (called the “Global Warming Swindle”) which outlined parts of the skeptics’ position, 37 scientists attempted to have it suppressed by the government.

This is all the more incredible given that AGW theory has only really been researched seriously and with any critical mass for about 20 years.  Anyone who has studied the history of science will understand what incredible hubris it is to declare any new scientific theory, particularly one that concerns the unbelievably chaotic climate, as “done” after just 20 years work. 

Let me give two quick examples of just how unsettled the science of climate change is.  Both of these will be reviewed in more depth later in this paper, and both analyses figured prominently in the third IPCC report (2001) as well as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.  The first is a 100,000 year temperature and CO2-level reconstruction from ice-core data.  Anyone who saw Gore’s movie will remember the data in one of his Really Big Charts.  And it looks compelling – in fact, when I first saw the chart five years ago, it was compelling to me.  It shows CO2 levels and temperature moving in lock-step for 100,000 years.  When CO2 is up, temperature is up and vice-versa, the clear implication being that CO2 seems to be a key, maybe the key, driver of climate   However, since that chart was first prepared, laboratory procedure has improved, and scientists have found (and there is very little disagreement about this, even among strong AGW supporters) that temperature increases occur on average 800 years before the CO2 starts to increase.  Huh.  There is a lot of debate about what this means, but in the last five years, this formerly definitive analysis is clearly no longer definitive, since it is hard to cause something after the fact.

The other example is the very famous Mann hockey stick chart, prominently featured in Gore’s movie and a key part of the IPCC report in 2001.  I will go into the details later, but since 2001 this analysis has been effectively discredited, so much so it was almost entirely missing from the fourth IPCC report in 2007.  In 2003 or so, Al Gore and many AGW supporters would have called the Mann hockey stick chart the single most important analysis “proving” AGW, and Gore treated it as such in his PowerPoint deck and his movie.  Then, in 2007, it is repudiated and expunged from the record.  Is this really what any reasonable person would call a “settled” science?

It is a true perversion of the scientific process to find that skepticism is no longer welcome or accepted in scientific debate. Which is one reason that AGW is sometimes called a secular religion. Because it is religion, not science, that burns skeptics at the stake.  Climate Scientists Garth Paltridge wrote:

A colleague of mine put it rather well. The IPCC, he said, has developed a highly successful immune system. Its climate scientists have become the equivalent of white blood cells which rush in overwhelming numbers to repel infection by ideas and results which do not support the basic thesis that global warming is perhaps the greatest of the modern threats to mankind.

Charges of Bias

A funny thing has happened in climate science to scientific inquiry: the usual ethics of free discussion and fact-based criticism have been discarded in favor of ad hominem attacks on critics of AGW theory. The usual approach is to find some connection (even an imagined one) between any researcher who raises the smallest doubts about AGW theory and an oil or power company and then declare that the research is tainted by the bias of these companies that have a strong economic reliance on fossil fuel combustion (and thus the production of CO2).  A good example can be found in a Boston Globe article on MIT’s Alfred P. Sloan professor of meteorology Richard Lindzen.  Mr. Lindzen has become the bete noir of AGW supporters, since his skepticism is harder to dismiss given his scientific pedigree and his co-lead author status on the first IPCC climate change report.

"We do not understand the natural internal variability of climate change" is one of Lindzen’s many heresies, along with such zingers as `"the Arctic was as warm or warmer in 1940," "the evidence so far suggests that the Greenland ice sheet is actually growing on average," and "Alpine glaciers have been retreating since the early 19th century, and were advancing for several centuries before that. Since about 1970, many of the glaciers have stopped retreating and some are now advancing again. And, frankly, we don’t know why."

When Lindzen published similar views in The Wall Street Journal this spring, environmentalist Laurie David, the wife of comedian Larry David, immediately branded him a "shill." She resurrected a shopworn slur first directed against Lindzen by former Globe writer Ross Gelbspan, who called Lindzen a "hood ornament" for the fossil fuels industry in a 1995 article in Harper’s Magazine….

For no apparent reason, the state of California, Environmental Defense, and the Natural Resources Defense Council have dragged Lindzen and about 15 other global- warming skeptics into a lawsuit over auto- emissions standards. California et al. have asked the auto companies to cough up any and all communications they have had with Lindzen and his colleagues, whose research has been cited in court documents.

"We know that General Motors has been paying for this fake science exactly as the tobacco companies did," says ED attorney Jim Marston. If Marston has a scintilla of evidence that Lindzen has been trafficking in fake science, he should present it to the MIT provost’s office. Otherwise, he should shut up.

"This is the criminalization of opposition to global warming," says Lindzen, who adds he has never communicated with the auto companies involved in the lawsuit.

While I have no doubt that corporations are heavily influenced by their own economic interests, it is more of stretch to argue that anyone who has ever taken money from them or had any connection with them would purposely bias their research.  When I learned to debate, I was taught that understanding biases was useful in knowing when to apply more or less skepticism, but one still has to refute the opposing position by meaningful critique of procedures or data.   For example, one might say “given their strong desire to buttress the case for AGW, the researchers cherry-picked only the most extreme data, which I will demonstrate by showing the data they included and the data they chose to exclude.”  However, many modern AGW supporters believe that insinuating possible sources of bias is sufficient to exempt one from having to actually critique their opponents’ methods and findings. 

This is particularly odd given that public funding for AGW projects absolutely dwarfs any funding coming from private sources whose incentive might be to disprove AGW.  In fact, just this year, President Bush declared that the US Government alone spent more money on AGW research than on AIDS research, and the US is actually late in the climate funding game. 

Recently, Greenpeace criticized ExxonMobil for exercising its free speech rights and giving about $2 million to global warming skeptics

Still, the Greenpeace report is already receiving scrutiny in Washington, where Rep. Brad Miller, a North Carolina Democrat, has joined the environmentalist group in calling for Exxon to release its plans for contributions during the current year.

"The support of climate skeptics, many of whom have no real grounding in climate science, appears to be an effort to distort public discussion about global warming," Miller said. "So long as popular discussion could be about whether warming was occurring or not, so long as doubt was widespread, consensus for action could be postponed."

Incredibly, at these spending rates, skeptics are getting outspent by AGW supporters something like 1000:1 or more.  It is astounding that AGW supporters, with such a huge funding and publication advantage, still feel threatened by critics.

Climate research, once a sleepy academic backwater, is now a multi-billion dollar industry.  This boom in spending is because of fears of AGW, and should AGW theory be discredited, this funding will quickly dry up.  So funding for climate researchers exists only as long as climate researchers beat the drum that AGW is a large threat.   It strikes me that this is at least as large an incentive for bias as that of any Exxon-funded skeptic.   Here’s another way to look at it:  If AGW theory is proven correct, the likely political response might cut Shell’s revenues by 20-30%, at most.  If AGW theory is proven incorrect, then university climate research funding might be cut by 100%.   Directionally, all the incentives in academia are to inflate global warming projections.  No one is going to make the news, or even continue to get funding, if they argue that warming will only be a degree or two in the next century.  The guys that get the fame and the grants are those pushing the numbers higher and higher.

Certainly AGW supporters claim that academic researchers are only concerned about the science and are not concerned about the funding incentives.  This may be true (though a bit naïve, for anyone who has been in a university environment and sought research funding), but if pro-AGW researchers are not swayed by the funding, then it should be equally true that AGW skeptics are not swayed by much smaller amounts of money flowing to them.    Any argument that tries to claim that these situations are somehow different just ends up being circular, i.e. “it’s OK if our guys do it because our guys are right.”

One of the mistakes the IPCC process has systematically made is to make the lead author’s and reviewers of many of its report sections a scientist whose research is mostly in that area.  While this makes a certain sense, as these people will be expert in their particular area of review, it presents them with a huge conflict of interest.  For example, Michael Mann used his own historical temperature reconstructions as the lead analysis in the section of the third IPCC report for which he was lead author.  Clearly, one wouldn’t expect him to be (nor was he) open to any research or issues or criticisms aimed at his own work.  In the fourth report, the new lead author who replaced Mann on this section (Biffra) did the exact same thing Mann did – used his own work as centerpiece of the section, and has refused to even consider criticisms about that work. 

Just to avoid future argument, I will outline my potential biases.  I own a small recreation business which depends on people traveling to beautiful, natural settings.  I lose business when the climate changes (e.g. when lakes dry up next to my facilities, which has happened to me).  I generally gain business when gas prices increase, as they might under various anti-global warming mandates, since my facilities tend to be short-drive weekend destinations rather than cross-country destinations.  I grew up in Houston, Texas, so most of my family has worked in the oil industry at one time or another, and I worked for the Great Satan Exxon as my first job for three years out of college.  I am a libertarian blogger at, and am suspicious of government interventions but have historically supported emissions limits where they make sense.  No one has contributed any money to me for this paper or for the operation of my blog.

The Climate Trojan Horse

To fully understand the passionate, almost dogmatic dedication so many people have to AGW theory, it is a bit useful to look at a little history.  After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, there were a lot of Marxists, socialists, anti-corporatists and anti-capitalists who were looking for a new way to package and reinvent themselves, given that the vast majority of people (at least in the West) considered socialism failed and no longer wanted to hear about it any more.  For a while, many of these folks latched onto the anti-globalization cause.  Every interview I ever saw of one of these anti-globalization guys was a real mess of disorganized beliefs, but one could tell the movement was the new home for anyone who wanted to stop the spread of capitalism and privately-owned business. 

Then, along came anthropogenic global warming.  Here was a theory and movement that united many disparate interests:

  • Socialists, communists, and Marxists
  • Anti-capitalists
  • Anti-consumerists
  • Those opposed to large corporations
  • Those opposed to global free trade
  • Those opposed to economic development and growth, longing      for simplicity
  • “Buy local” movements
  • People who just hate oil companies

Suddenly, here was a big tent for all of these causes. I highly encourage you to view a global warming rally.  Don’t just watch the snippets on the evening news, those usually highlight the most reasonable speakers at the rally.  Actually go and watch the whole event.  What you will see is far more anti-corporate, anti-oil company, anti-capitalist rhetoric than you will hear climate science and discussion.  The two rallies I have seen with my own eyes were Marxist rallies under a climate banner.  As an admittedly extreme example, I will refer you to the words of Paul Watson, Founder and President of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, who offers his group’s vision.  While this particular vision pre-dated most discussions of AGW, I hope you can see how AGW fear-mongering provides quite a useful vehicle for groups of this type:

"We need to radically and intelligently reduce human populations to fewer than one billion…. We need to stop burning fossil fuels and utilize only wind, water, and solar power with all generation of power coming from individual or small community units like windmills, waterwheels, and solar panels. Sea transportation should be by sail…. Air transportation should be by solar powered blimps when air transportation is necessary. All consumption should be local. No food products need to be transported over hundreds of miles to market. All commercial fishing should be abolished. If local communities need to fish the fish should be caught individually by hand. Preferably vegan and vegetarian diets can be adopted…. We need to remove and destroy all fences and barriers that bar wildlife from moving freely across the land…. We need to stop flying, stop driving cars, and jetting around on marine recreational vehicles…. Who should have children? Those who are responsible and completely dedicated to the responsibility which is actually a very small percentage of humans…."

Of course what he doesn’t say, but is an explicit outcome of this vision, is that we can all go back to being dirt poor and having a life expectancy of about 40 years.

The average person, say in America, wants little to do with any of this.  But fear of AGW provides a way to engage everyone in the movement.  Socialists of all stripes no longer have to spew Marxist notions that turn most people off; now, they can talk the science of global warming and hurricanes and massive floods and such, and, using fear, trample the average guy into their socialist goals of stifling capitalism, growth, and having the government take over the economy through this environmental back-door.

The Need to Exaggerate

One of the hardest parts of really trying to understand what is going on in the AGW scientific debate is separating the scientists doing real science from the political advocates, who sometimes carry quasi-scientific titles.  A very, very small number of vocal climate scientists and a somewhat larger group of what I would call advocates and bureaucrats really determine what you hear in the media about AGW science.   A great example is the UN IPCC reports.  Unless you have gone online and dug into the detailed reports themselves, likely all you have seen from these reports is taken out of the management summaries “for policy-makers”.  These summaries are written by bureaucrats and advocates, not so much by scientists, and tend to wildly mis-characterize the true state of the science.   Careful language in the heart of the reports expressing uncertainty and low understanding of certain phenomena are cast aside in the summaries, in favor of a comforting certainty and absolutes.  In earlier IPCC reports, this caused notable disconnects between the summaries and the detailed science.  More recently, the UN has “fixed” this problem by having their non-scientists write the conclusions in the management summaries first, and then telling authors of the individual sections of the report to conform their writing, and their science, to the summary.  So, for the Fourth IPCC report, the summary was published over a half year before the science!

As a result, while the IPCC reports claim to be the consensus of 5000 scientists, actually less than half would willingly sign their name to the management summaries of their work that you see in the press.  The management summaries and related press releases have become more political advocacy than science, as UN bureaucrats use AGW-fear-mongering to increase their prestige and power.  Generally, these summaries and press releases are taken more seriously by the press than they are climate scientists. You can get an insight on the IPCC process just by looking at how they select their co-lead authors on certain sections.  A logical way to choose these authors would be to find scientists who bring a different scientific perspective – maybe a leading astronomer who studies the sun, maybe someone who studies hurricanes, or perhaps even, gasp, a skeptic or two.  This is not how the IPCC makes the selection.  Instead, they focus on including scientists, often with limited experience or expertise, who bring geographic or ethnic diversity to the panel.  Nothing better demonstrates that the IPCC is first and foremost a political entity, and a scientific body second (at best).

If I seem too hard on the climate science community, then consider this quote from National Center for Atmospheric Research (NOAA) climate researcher and global warming action promoter, Steven Schneider:

We have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we have. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.

Is that how you learned science in high school – that lying about the science was OK if it makes you more politically effective?  Der Spiegel, a magazine historically sympathetic to the AGW cause, published this analysis:

This doesn’t mean that Gore should necessarily be taken to task for his statements. He is a politician. But it is odd to hear IPCC Chairman Pachauri, when asked what he thinks about Gore’s film, responding: "I liked it. It does emotionalize the debate, but it seems that it has to do that." And when Pachauri comments on the publication of the first SPM by saying, "I hope that this will shock the governments so much that they take action," this doesn’t exactly allay doubts as to his objectivity. When Renate Christ, the secretary of the IPCC, is asked about her opinion of reporting on climate change, she refers to articles that mention "climate catastrophe" and calls them "rather refreshing." . . .

The problem is that the IPCC is not a political group whose goal is to exert pressure, but a scientific institution and panel of experts. Its members ought to present their results and analyses dispassionately, the way pathologists or psychiatrists do when serving as expert witnesses in court, no matter how horrible the victim’s injuries and how deviant the perpetrator’s psyche are.

I will end this section on an admittedly extreme example of a headline taken from the Canadian, a “progressive” magazine up in the Great White North.  In the great race to one-up other media outlets in creating a panic, and not happy with just a few more hurricanes or some melted icebergs, the Canadian has taken the prize.  Get ready for it…

"Over 4.5 Billion people could die from Global Warming-related causes by 2012"

In case you are struggling with the math, that means that they believe Global Warming could kill three quarters of the world’s population in the next five years.  And the media treats these people with total respect, and we skeptics are considered loony?

The table of contents for the rest of this paper, A Layman’s Guide to Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) is hereFree pdf of this Climate Skepticism paper is here and print version is sold at cost here.

The open comment thread for this paper can be found here.