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Are you losing faith in climate science?

February 26, 2010

climatechangeWhile attending a meeting of prominent climate sceptics during the U.N. Climate Conference in Copenhagen in December (an anti-COP15, if you will), I listened to each of the speakers put forward their theory on why conventional evidence on the primary causes of climate change should be dismissed as, for lack of a better phrase, complete hokum.

Among their denunciations of widely-accepted truths regarding global warming, greenhouse gases, melting glaciers and rising sea levels was the assertion that a change in attitude was afoot; the public may have been duped into believing the mainstream scientific assessment of climate change, but not for long.

There was something in the air, the sceptics said, and soon people would begin to question their trust in the majority view.

I’m no scientist and am in no position to comment on the validity of any of the evidence on show; as journalists we were there to make sure both sides of the argument were being heard. This group of climate outcasts were in every sense on the fringes of COP15, but after a series of controversies in recent weeks it seems they were right about one thing at least — the public conviction about the threat of climate change is slipping.

Well, it is in Britain anyway. An Ipsos Mori poll of over 1,000 UK adults found that the proportion of people who believe climate change is definitely a reality dropped from 44% to 31% in the past year.

Meanwhile, 31% said the threat was exaggerated, up 50% on last year – worrying statistics for the government and charities trying to convince the public to change its behaviour and to accept higher priced energy and goods as a small price to pay for saving the planet.

Why the sudden drop off? The poll follows weeks of suggestions that mainstream climatologists have, in the past, manipulated data and that an influential study by the U.N.’s main climate science body contains inaccurate information.

The arguments of sceptics were fuelled late last year by the incident dubbed “Climategate”, when hundreds of emails and documents passed between leading climate scientists were leaked online. The deniers claimed this was evidence that some climatologists were colluding to distort data and mislead the public on climate change.

Elsewhere, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) admitted its claim that Himalayan glaciers  could melt by 2035 was unsubstantiated. The U.N. has since announced it is setting up an independent board of scientists to review the IPCC’s performance.

Meanwhile a 2009 report which claimed sea levels would rise by as much as 82 centimetres by the end of the century has been withdrawn by its author, who now says the true estimate is in fact unknown. At the sceptics conference in Copenhagen I spoke to Nils-Axel Mörner, an expert in sea levels, who questioned the general conception that sea levels are rising — in the video clip below he explains why, in his opinion, they are in fact falling.

And, of course, the failure of world leaders at COP15 to agree a successor to the Kyoto Protocol didn’t help matters either.

If this trend continues, the climatologists, politicians and activists who subscribe to the mainstream view may find that the real challenge now isn’t getting the public to change their behaviour, it’s getting them to trust their evidence.

Has your faith in mainstream climate science been knocked by recent controversies? In your view, how much of a threat is global warming?

Comments

The controversies are tempests in the publicity teapot, stirred up by people who were waiting for an opportunity to do so. These people utilize the same techniques used by the tobacco companies for many years – create doubt among the public regarding the validity of the science without having to offer alternative answers to the scientific questions, such as “is smoking strongly associated with cancer?” and now “is human behavior strongly associated with climate change?”. The PR firms and individuals made their name (and considerable earnings) during the tobacco fight, and have now moved on to their next project – climate.

The science hasn’t been affected by the publicity barrage. The work of thousands of scientists over the last 150 years is not made invalid by a few immoderate comments on stolen emails or a few mistakes in a (3,000 page) document. This body of work is one of the most widely and intensively reviewed in the history of science. All of the world’s professional scientific bodies concur with the IPCC findings. The evidence is stronger than any of us – individually or on behalf of our organizations – would usually require to make important decisions.

The statistics you quote about changes in public perception ought to be viewed in the same way we review statistics about the effects of any other advertising campaign. Market figures show that soap brand “A” outsells soap brand “B” by 20%. Is soap “A” any better than “B”? Testing by an independent source suggests that “B” is superior. If we further discover that advertising expense for product “A” was 100% more than product “B” we might conclude that advertising quality and/or quantity made the difference in sales. This is exactly what is being measured when members of the public are asked about their opinion regarding human-caused climate change. The members of the scientific community are not as skilled at public communication and advocacy as people in the PR and advertising business, nor do they have the budget to pay academics in “think tanks” to write opinion pieces for distribution in the mass-market press. The scientists do their work, publishing in the professional journals where the process and results of their work is reviewed and critiqued by their peers – the process known as “peer reviewed publication”. This process weeds out most of the mistakes in process, procedure or interpretation that any project is subject to (although not 100%) and over time provides the basis for the general advancement of the science. True “skeptics” operate in the midst of this process, offering their insight to other’s work, suggesting alternative explanations for observed phenomena, and publishing their own experimental results. The professional critics (or “denialists” as they are sometimes called) have no such standing. Taking advantage of the lack of science education on the part of (mass market) reporters and editors, they have no compunction about making misleading statements to the public or making outright lies about the state of the science that would never make it into the scientific press. These professionally written, non-scientific attacks are placed alongside the scientific person’s somewhat awkward attempt to express the complex facts to a lay audience. It should not be surprising that the professional communicators are better at convincing people of their case. However, this does not mean they have been truthful or that the truth of the matter has in any way been affected.

Posted by MichaelOHara | Report as abusive
 

I cannot add much to MichaelOhara’s comments, save to say that climate science is not something that one must have faith in. All it takes is a basic understanding of physics. Carbon dioxide heats the Earth because it has to; there is no avoiding it. There is some room for variability as to time lines and effects, but the basic science, first espoused by Tyndall 150 years ago, is irrefutable. Even skeptics within the scientific community do not dispute greenhouse warming; they merely suggest that there may be mediating mechanisms like increased cloud cover – but their colleagues don’t concur with them.

But the science is hard. You have to know what an absorption spectrum is. You have to know what the Milankovitch cycles are (to understand why this isn’t a natural fluctuation). Few people get that far in science, even if they are otherwise well educated.

That gives the conspiracy theorists and denialists room to operate. If most people knew what I know, there wouldn’t be room for skepticism.

Posted by Fishrl | Report as abusive
 

I have not lost my faith in climate science, I have lost my faith in journalists who are either not able or not willing
a) to read original publications .
and/or
b) to do simple research about their sources

Here are two examples:
1) The paper referred to in the sentence “Meanwhile, a 2009 report which claimed sea levels would rise by as much as 82 centimetres by the end of the century has been withdrawn by its author, who now says the true estimate is in fact unknown …”, is “Retraction: Constraints on future sea-level rise from past sea-level change” . The full paper is behind a paywall, but the summary only states “Thus we no longer have confidence in our projections for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and for this reason the authors retract the results pertaining to sea-level rise after 1900.”
a) This withdrawal concerns only the original publication in question (“Constraints on future sea-level rise from past sea-level change” ) and does not affect the validity of any other papers in the field.>
b) The paper is withdrawn because the method used to project future sea-level increases has been shown to be faulty.

2) With regard to Nils-Axel Mörner as “an expert in sea levels”:
a) Examination of the Wikipedia(*) entry for the “sea-level expert” Nils-Axel Mörner, reveals that his conclusions concerning sea-level variation in the Maldives are highly disputed (see the series of articles starting with Reference 13 (‘Nerem et al. (2007) Comment on “Estimating future sea level change from past records” by Nils-Axel Mörner, Global and Planetary Change 55 (2007) 358–360′ (paywall, but available on the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies web site )). The Wikipedia article also provides a link (Reference 8) to a letter from John J. Clague (President, INQUA) which informs the Russian Academy of Sciences that
i) Dr. Mörner “misrepresent[s] his position with INQUA” and
ii) INQUA … does not subscribe to Mörner’s position on climate change” (s/a “INQUA STATEMENT ON CLIMATE CHANGE” ).
b) A Google search for Nils-Axel Mörner produces a number of web pages concerning his views and his believability, including “Damning evidence of fraud by Nils Axel-Morner”

If journalists would do their jobs properly, I wouldn’t have to look all this stuff up.

C. Mather

*) Not valid as a source of primary information, but useful as a source of search terms and for links.

1> http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/vaop/ ncurrent/full/ngeo780.html
2> http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v2/n8  /abs/ngeo587.html
3> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nils-Axel_M örner
4> http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob =ArticleURL&_udi=B6VF0-4MBT25Y-1&_user=1 0&_coverDate=02%2F28%2F2007&_rdoc=9&_fmt =high&_orig=browse&_srch=doc-info(%23toc %235996%232007%23999449995%23641861%23FL A%23display%23Volume)&_cdi=5996&_sort=d& _docanchor=&_ct=10&_acct=C000050221&_ver sion=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=8016 652a301caf406e3fd7d097f258f6
5> http://www.imedea.uib.es/goifis/OTROS/VA NIMEDAT/documentos/intranet/Bibliography  /Nerem_et_al_Global_Planet_Change_2007. pdf
6> http://www.edf.org/documents/3868_morner _exposed.pdf
7> http://www.inqua.tcd.ie/documents/iscc.p df
8> http://circleh.wordpress.com/2009/11/10/ damning-evidence-of-fraud-by-nils-axel-m orner/

Posted by cmather | Report as abusive
 

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