Climate science deniers, sceptics and changing the world

Climate scientists are under attack by science deniers, who try to downplay the dangers of global warming. Often these deniers pose as “sceptics”, i.e. pretend they are questioning new findings in a constructive way.

How are the rest of us, non-scientists, to pick our way through these controversies? And for socialists who hope that the majority (“the 99%”) will change the world by taking matters into its own hands – as opposed to trusting “policymakers” and surrendering power to elites – what difference do the climate science controversies make to our efforts to overcome exploitation, poverty and hardship?

Heavy stuff, I know, but in my view it’s the best way to think about global warming. In a previous article I asserted that climate science deniers are “fundamentalist and dogmatic”. In the comments section, Robin Guenier questioned this and advanced a supposedly “sceptical” argument. This is my response to his response. It covers (i) “scepticism” about climate science; (ii) the question of whether climate science deniers (who I compared to creationists) don’t exist; and (iii) some related wider issues about changing the world.

Sceptics and sceptics

Robin says he has never come across any “fundamentalist and dogmatic” deniers of climate science, but knows many people who are “sceptical of catastrophic anthropogenic [i.e. caused by humans] global warming”. Robin’s “sceptical” friends accept that the climate always changes, that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and that human activity adds it to the atmosphere … but they query (i) “whether mankind’s CO2 emissions, and not natural influences, were the principal cause of that warming” and (ii) “whether, if such emissions are not reduced, the consequences will be catastrophic climate change”. Let’s deal with those points in turn.

1. Are mankind’s CO2 emissions, and not natural influences, the principal cause of global warming?

As a non-scientist, I think it’s important to rely on scientists to answer such questions. There is a wealth of material published by national and international associations of scientists, the UN’s Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other quasi-governmental bodies. In addition, climate scientists have written articles, books and set up web sites to communicate to the rest of us. All such sources agree that global warming is anthropogenic.

For example, the only document Robin refers to, Climate change: a summary of the science, published by the Royal Society, states (paragraph 25): “Various lines of evidence point strongly to human activity being the main reason for the recent increase, mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) with smaller contributions from land-use changes and cement manufacture.” This statement appears in a section entitled “Aspects of climate change on which there is wide agreement [among scientists]”, as distinct from sections on “Aspects of climate change where there is a wide consensus but continuing debate and discussion” or “Aspects that are not well understood”.

The Royal Society recommends, as background reading, the 2007 Fourth Asssessment Report of the IPCC working group on climate change. The summary for policy makers at the start of this long report says: “most of the observed increase in global average temperatures is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations. This is an advance since the Third Assessment Report’s conclusion that ‘most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations’.” In IPCC parlance, “likely” means the hundreds of scientists involved in the drafting and review collectively agreed that they were two-thirds confident of the statement. “Very likely” means they were 90% confident. So, between 2001 and 2007, the scientists collectively agreed that they were 90%, and not 67%, confident that most global warming is anthropogenic.

In an article in Science, geoscientist Naomi Oreskes surveyed 928 papers that came up when she searched refereed scientific journals published in the decade up to 2003 for the keywords “global climate change”. Not one of the 928 papers disagreed with the consensus position that “most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations”, i.e. that global warming is anthropogenic.

So Robin’s friends, who are sceptical about whether “mankind’s CO2 emissions, and not natural influences”, were the “principal cause of warming”, are probably not climate scientists.

2. If greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced, will the consequence be catastrophic climate change?

It all depends what you mean by “catastrophe”, a word introduced into this discussion by Robin. As far as I know, global warming is currently catastrophic for many farmers in Africa (because of temperature changes) and south-east Asia (because of rising sea levels) – but that to discuss its consequences in terms of a global catastrophe, disaster-movie style, simply detracts from the very real problems it is posing, and will pose, to billions of people now and in future.

Scientific enquiry into future consequences of global warming is much less certain than enquiry into its causes … simply because those consequences are in the future. Robin claims that uncertainty about the consequences of global warming is “increasingly shared by many scientists”, and cites paragraph 46-50 of the Royal Society’s Summary.

These paragraphs do not shed doubt on the consensus opinion of most scientists that global warming is currently heading for a 2-4.5° centigrade increase in average temperature. Paragraph 46 says that “observations are not yet good enough to quantify, with confidence, some aspects of the evolution of either climate forcing [i.e. changes in the amount of energy absorbed from the sun or the amount of infrared energy emitted to space, of which the “greenhouse gas effect” is the most important] or climate change, or helping to place tight bounds on climate sensitivity [i.e. the correlation between a given amount of forcing and a given amount of climate change].”

Paragraphs 47-50 lay out the areas of uncertainty – the part played by clouds, by the land and oceans soaking up carbon dioxide, by retreat of ice sheets, etc, and the limitations of computer models.

But all of this, placed under the heading “Aspects that are not well understood”, has to be contextualised by paragraph 36, which states (under the heading “Aspects of climate change where there is a wide consensus but continuing debate and discussion”): “Climate models indicate the overall climate sensitivity (for a hypothetical doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere [that’s the expected result of economic activity, not in serious dispute]) is likely to lie in the range 2-4.5° C; this range is mainly due to the difficulties in simulating the overall effect of the response of clouds to climate change”.

In other words, no serious climate scientist doubts that temperature change is heading into that range. There is a similar consensus that warming of 2° C or more will probably have serious impacts on the welfare of billions of humans. The disputes among scientists are about e.g. where in that range the temperature might go, and how quickly, and how progress can best be forecast. They also disagree e.g. over whether to advise governments and the public that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere need to be held at 450 parts per million (ppm) or reduced to 350 ppm to avoid dangerous and unpredictable impacts.

Robin claims that an article in the Economist this week shows that climate scientists share “uncertainty about the consequences of failure to reduce CO2 emissions”, and that “fears of catastrophe may be ill-founded”.

Well, no it doesn’t show that. The main fact reported is that the rise in global temperature has slowed down over the last 10 years, and that this “does not mean global warming is a delusion” but it is a “puzzle that needs explaining”. The article reports a study that has “not been peer-reviewed” and “may be unreliable”, that suggests that doubling CO2 emissions may result in a 1.2-2.9° rise in temperature, rather than the 2-4.5° rise mentioned above. It surveys other developments in climate modelling. Insofar as there is any conclusion, it seems to be that the puzzle of the last decade’s temperature is as yet unsolved, but that the answer is unlikely to change the big picture substantially. So the article quotes climate scientist Reto Knutti saying: “my personal view is that the overall assessment hasn’t changed much”.

The Economist takes the opportunity to editorialise in favour of “adaptation” strategies rather than “mitigation”, an important discussion that I won’t try to cover here.

For me, such uncertainties in the research process do not detract from a larger issue: since the climate scientists are nevertheless unanimous that global warming’s effects seem sure to be extremely damaging, and since they can not forecast accurately how damaging, or how soon, wouldn’t it be logical for humanity collectively to put every effort in to learning how to generate the power we need without tampering irrevocably with earth systems that are bigger and more powerful than we are?

Healthy scepticism means taking science seriously, and not jumping to conclusions from the latest newspaper headline. Robin does the opposite, by exaggerating what is reported by the Economist, and failing to take seriously the science (trying to sell us the fiction that there is any serious doubt about warming being anthropogenic). This type of “scepticism” plays into the hands of climate science denial.

Does climate science denial exist?

In October 1997, Lee Raymond, then chief executive of Exxon, the world’s biggest oil company, famously declared that “only 4% of the carbon dioxide entered the air due to human activities” and that “leaping to radically cut this tiny sliver on the greenhouse pie on the premise that it will affect climate defies common sense”. Although 1997 was at that time the fifth-warmest year in the last several thousand, Raymond said that “the earth is cooler today than it was twenty years ago”. (See Steve Coll, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, pp. 81-82.)

The purpose of these lies and distortions was to block political action to reduce CO2 emissions. Raymond was in Beijing, lobbying against the then US president Bill Clinton’s support for the Kyoto protocol. He argued that action to restrain emissions would damage China’s rapid economic growth. (Sixteen years later, Robin approvingly cites a similar argument.)

After George Bush was elected president in 2000, ExxonMobil (as Exxon became after its 1999 merger) and other oil companies funded lobby groups that rubbished climate science in order to resist state regulation of carbon dioxide emissions. They have carried on doing so ever since. Once elected, Bush sent a letter to Congress repudiating his previous stance that CO2 was a pollutant. He refused to ratify the Kyoto protocol.

These are the sort of fundamentalist, dogmatic statements and activities I describe as “climate science denial”. Anyone who follows these debates, as Robin obviously does, knows about them. So when he says he has “never come across” any fundamentalist and dogmatic climate science deniers, I think he is taking the mickey. And that’s putting it politely.

China and the future

China and other developing countries have undergone a “near miraculous” change over the last thirty years, Robin argues. Electricity is essential to this process of urbanisation and modernisation – and therefore “global leaders should give up their fixation on cutting carbon dioxide emissions”. I’ll try to comment, while ignoring his condescending tone. (“I suspect you may not understand what’s happening in China”. Oh yeah? How would you know?)

Robin’s comments on these big issues of human development brought home to me the gulf between his way of thinking and my own.

First, I do not see the changes in China and other developing countries in such an unambiguously positive light. Yes, hundreds of millions of people have been raised up from some of the harshest forms of poverty in China and that is important. But it is also important (i) that while absolute levels of poverty have decreased in China and India, inequalities have multiplied; (ii) that the developing countries are very uneven: most African countries have continued to fall further and further behind in terms of human development indicators, and Robin is simply wrong to say that the Chinese pattern is being “repeated throughout the emerging economies”; (iii) that the way in which millions of rural people are being driven off the land and into the slum cities of the developing world may register as an improvement in economists’ spread sheets, but the reality is much uglier and more complex; and (iv) that the shock waves resulting from the 2008 financial crash are still reverberating through the world and are poorly understood, but we know, first, that they have caused two rounds of food price hikes that threw the shadow of hunger over hundreds of millions of families and, second, that their long-term effects on human development are negative (it’s not yet clear how negative).

Second, electricity is central to modernisation, for sure. Neither I nor any other socialist worthy of the name is sitting in Europe suggesting that people in China should go without. But if the vast majority of climate scientists are correct, and burning fossil fuels at the current rate is causing potentially dangerous global warming, then humanity collectively has to find more and better ways of generating and using electricity. To think that the only technologies available are large-scale fossil-fuel-driven ones demonstrates a monumental failure of imagination. So does that idea that the paths of capitalist expansion followed by Europe in the 19th century or by China in the 21st are the only ways that society might develop. In reality, humanity is in transition to the post-fossil-fuel age, and the question is whether we will go collectively and effectively, or go painfully (in a manner that would certainly justify use of the word “catastrophic”), with the yoke of the profit-driven oil-centred economy around our necks. People’s relationship with nature has gone through, and recovered from, damaging ruptures time and time again for as long as there have been people on earth. In my view, the issue of how we will go through this most serious rupture in the relationship with nature will most successfully be settled by changes in the social relationships between people, i.e. in the transition to a post-capitalist society in which the imperative is human need, not profits generated by economic growth.

Third, to think of these problems in terms of what “global leaders” or “policymakers” are going to do is inimical to my outlook on life. What is important to me is the way that people collectively remake their lives. As we have seen in the Middle East and north Africa over the past couple of years, their efforts to do so bring them into conflict with all sorts of “global leaders” and “policymakers”. As the Chinese population becomes more urban, more working-class and more highly educated, it will no doubt engage in similar struggles. How to improve people’s lives and well-being – and how to do so in concert with nature and not by trashing it – is something that needs to be discussed and done collectively by all people, not by “policymakers”. GL.

Note. I have written this post, responding to comments, because I think the issues are serious. On the other hand, as I have argued, assertions e.g. that there is serious doubt that global warming is caused mainly by human activity, or that there is no such thing as “fundamentalist” climate denial, are frivolous. So I will not be returning to them. To help me deal with comments, I have put a comments policy on the “About” page.


7 Responses to Climate science deniers, sceptics and changing the world

  1. BitBucket says:

    The problem with supporting your arguments with references to the IPCC reports or to publications from the Royal Society is that, except where they can use quotes from them to bash CAGW and its proponents, sceptics reject the contents of these documents and blacken the names of the authors. You might convince the general reader, but sceptics are beyond reach.

    It is like arguing with a creationist using the scientific evidence for evolution; your opponents don’t just reject that evidence, they don’t accept the scientific foundations upon which your evidence is based. There is no possible meeting of minds.

  2. Gabriel Levy says:

    Thanks for that. You sound as though you have more experience than I do in dealing with these one-dimensional “sceptics”. I am very happy to leave them to grind their axes elsewhere, and talk with general readers – including those with a healthily sceptical outlook on life (i.e. testing and questioning assumptions and presumptions).

  3. geronimo says:

    “In October 1997, Lee Raymond, then chief executive of Exxon, the world’s biggest oil company, famously declared that “only 4% of the carbon dioxide entered the air due to human activities” and that “leaping to radically cut this tiny sliver on the greenhouse pie on the premise that it will affect climate defies common sense.””

    I don’t know Lee Raymond, but I doubt he was lying about the percentage of CO2 put into the atmosphere by humans, he made a mistake, because in 1997 humans put less than that in the atmosphere, it was around 3.25% of the total CO2 emissions and remains around that number to this day. I’m puzzled as to why you say he’s lying, he exaggerated the figure for the human contributions to CO2 in the atmospher and made the point that it is unlikely that the human contribution of 4% would have had a major contribution to temperature increases. Looks like a good starting point for the science to me.

  4. Gabriel Levy says:

    In response to Geronimo. You wonder why I said Lee Raymond was using “lies and distortions”. Well, I had in mind his statement about the global temperature, which implied that the trend between the 1970s and the mid 1990s was downwards. Clearly not the case. His statement about the proportion of CO2 entering the atmosphere due to human activity was a distortion, rather than a lie, designed to underplay its effect. Like I said, lies and distortions.

    You have submitted three other comments to my site today, in aggregate nearly as long as my article, and I have not approved them. The comments (i) summarise the results of a criticism of the Oreskes study that I quote, by Benny Peiser of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (the “sceptical” group founded by Lord Lawson prior to the Copenhagen climate policy summit) and conclude that “a sound and unbiased analysis of the full ISI databank will find hundreds of papers (many of which written by the world’s leading experts in the field) that have raised serious reservations and outright rejection of the concept of a ‘scientific consensus on climate change’”; (ii) argue that the temperature measurements mentioned in the New Scientist article show a need for the hypothesis that human emissions caused global warming to be challenged; and (iii) say that you don’t know about flooding in Asia and problems in Africa, but you do know they have not been caused by global warming.

    If people want to read Peiser’s argument, they can find his unpublished letter to Science here and his answers to a journalist’s questions, where much of his point appears to unravel, here

    Geronimo’s enthusiastic “climate scepticism” is obvious. If readers share that enthusiasm, I direct them to the GWPF or other similar sites. I don’t. I intend to carry on reading what scientists say about this stuff, not enthusiastic amateurs. A good place to start reading what scientists say are the sites listed here under “Links: climate science”.

    Please have a look at my comments policy, which is supposed to encourage people to exercise a sense of proportion and think about what conversation they might be joining. Also the “about” page which tells you the purpose of this site. I don’t have the capacity to conduct an endless to-and-fro with Geronimo and his “sceptical” friends.

  5. Gabriel Levy says:

    In the above post, I said that Lee Raymond, then head of Exxon, the world’s largest oil company, had in 1997 used “lies and distortions” in order to argue against state regulation of carbon dioxide emissions. My use of the phrase “lies and distortions” has been challenged. I answered rather hurriedly yesterday. Here’s a fuller answer.

    Raymond said: “The earth is cooler today than it was twenty years ago”. All the evidence collected by thousands of meteorologists and climatologists shows the opposite. This information sheet from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia shows the global air temperature. It has links to masses of data. But the graph in the information sheet itself is enough to see clearly which direction things moved between the 1970s and the 1990s. They got warmer. Lee Raymond was lying.

    There is more detail on the relevant page of the Met Office web site.

    Raymond also stated that “only 4% of the carbon dioxide entered the air due to human activities”. Geronimo says this figure was a little high: he reckons it’s 3.25%. But both these figures are irrelevant to the issue Raymond was addressing, i.e. anthropogenic global warming. The vast bulk of the CO2 contributed to the atmosphere, by plants, and by oceans, is taken back via natural processes. The problem with industrial activity by humans, mainly fossil fuel burning, is that it contributes CO2 to the atmosphere but does not take it back again. Another human activity, clearing forests, slightly reduces the natural flow of CO2 back to the earth, exacerbating the problem. Here’s how it is explained by the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre of the US Department of Energy.

    In its Frequently Asked Questions section, the CDIAC explains further:

    This is basic stuff, for the scientists concerned. And thanks to the internet, it’s easy to find. Here for example are Dr V.J. DiVenere’s lecture notes from his “Introduction to Earth Sciences I” course at Columbia university.

    Lee Raymond was educated at undergraduate and post-graduate level as a chemical engineer, so I assume he understands this much better than I do. To talk about the anthropogenic contribution to CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere in the way that he did was a distortion.

    So, like I said, these were lies and distortions. And their purpose was to lobby against state regulation of emissions.

    Why does Geronimo feel the need to defend Lee Raymond from my criticism? He claims to be a “sceptic”. But sceptics look at statements and try to double-check the underlying assumptions. Geronimo didn’t do that, either with my statements or Lee Raymond’s. He just went rushing to the comments section of this site to pontificate.

    Such “sceptics” play into the hands of climate science deniers like Lee Raymond.

  6. […] For us non-scientists who are trying to make sense of the issues, the conclusion is surely that we need to look at the all-round picture. Beware of isolated pieces of information that are often emphasised by climate science deniers, with the aim of deliberate obfuscation. (I wrote about their initial reaction to temperature information for the 2000s here.) […]

  7. […] Climate science deniers have pointed to the slowdown in global average temperatures and claimed that it throws doubt on the link between society’s greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. (I myself faced an abusive torrent from these so-called “sceptics”, about which I wrote here.) […]

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