Was ExxonMobil better at climate science than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)? This is the bizarre position now being adopted by climate activists such as Harvard’s Naomi Oreskes and 350.org’s Bill McKibben. As early as 1977, Exxon researchers “knew that its main product would heat up the planet disastrously,” McKibben claimed in the New Yorker last month. “Present thinking,” an Exxon researcher wrote in a 1978 summary, “holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”
Ten years later, in 1988, the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme jointly established the IPCC and, according to a U.N. General Assembly Resolution, tasked it with preparing “a comprehensive review” of the state of knowledge of the science of climate change. Two years later, the IPCC produced its first assessment report. By the late 1980s, the threat of human-driven climate change had, Oreskes wrote in the New York Times last week, “become an observed fact.”
The IPCC observed that the size of the 0.3 to 0.6 degrees Centigrade warming observed over the previous 100 years was . . . of the same magnitude as natural climate variability.
In Chapter 7 of the full report from 1990, the IPCC noted: “The evidence points consistently to real but irregular warming over the previous century. A global warming of larger size has almost certainly occurred at least once since the end of the last glaciation without any appreciable increase in greenhouse gases. Because we do not understand the reasons for these past warming events, it is not yet possible to attribute a specific proportion of the recent, smaller warming, to an increase of greenhouse gases” (emphasis added). In case anyone missed the message, in Chapter 8, the IPCC delivered an implicit rebuke to James Hansen, the excitable NASA scientist, who had told the Senate two years earlier, in 1988, that global warming had begun. The IPCC wrote:
Because of the many significant uncertainties and inadequacies in the observational climate record, in our knowledge of the causes of natural climatic variability and in current computer models, scientists working in this field cannot at this point in time make the definitive statement: “Yes, we have now seen an enhanced greenhouse effect.”
Contrary to what Oreskes and McKibben believe, unearthing the thoughts of Exxon scientists from the late 1970s and 1980s illustrates a tendency among some scientists — even those in the pay of an oil company — to be prone to alarmism and to overstate what is known. Predictably, Oreskes and McKibben draw a different conclusion, one entirely unsupported by the evidence. Had Exxon been up-front about the dangers of global warming, we might have started to decarbonize decades ago, Oreskes argues. Instead, Exxon had behaved like tobacco companies who had “long delayed” public understanding by suppressing the truth about the deadly nature of their products.
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Even this assertion about tobacco smoking is historically inaccurate. Medical researchers in Britain and then America had first found the link between tobacco smoking and lung cancer in 1949 and 1950; researchers in Nazi Germany had made the association before them. Notoriously, American tobacco companies in the 1950s had run campaigns claiming that their customers’ health was their overriding concern, a patently dishonest statement that subsequently put them in legal jeopardy. But smoking prevalence peaked and began its long decline shortly after the surgeon general’s first report in 1964 warned of the dangers of smoking.
Scientists were able to prove the threat to health from smoking because there is a very strong statistical relationship between smoking and lung cancer. The strength of those initial findings was further validated by passing a tough predictive test. In 1953, Richard Doll, one of the first researchers to have found the link, predicted that in 1973 there would be 25,000 lung-cancer deaths in Britain. In fact, there were 26,000. By contrast, climate models have been systematically over-forecasting temperature rises this century, demonstrating that climate scientists know much less about the climate system than they would have us believe. In the New York Times, Oreskes complains that climate scientists are ridiculed for predicting catastrophic climate change. If climate scientists’ predictions had been more accurate, they might be taken seriously.
Climate activists have highlighted the history of research on tobacco smoking and lung cancer not to illustrate the weakness of climate science compared with the epidemiology of lung cancer, but to intimidate those who disagree with them and close down debate. Last month, 20 climate scientists wrote to President Obama requesting that the government use the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) to bypass Congress and, they hope, muzzle dissenting views. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the letter’s organizer, Jagadish Shukla of George Mason University, and his family have been doing very well indeed out of federal research dollars, reaping more than $1 million in 2014 alone.
The belief that to reject climate catastrophism (aka climate denial) constitutes a moral failing is a hallmark of pseudoscience. Pseudoscience furnishes believers with an explanation as to why there are unbelievers. More than 60 years ago, Karl Popper wrote that unbelievers were
clearly people who did not want to see the manifest truth; who refused to see it, either because it was against their class interest, or because of their repressions which were still “un-analyzed” and crying out for treatment.
A confrontation he had with a young, uniformed member of the Nazi party armed with a pistol, Popper thought, might have planted the seed for his classic book, Open Society: “What, you want to argue? I don’t argue: I shoot.”The RICO statute was passed to fight the mafia. Now it’s being used by the climate mafia to silence dissent. “The fossil fuel industry is using a familiar playbook, one perfected by the tobacco industry,’ Rhode Island senator Sheldon Whitehouse declared in May. “But the government has a playbook too. It’s called RICO.”
An open society is one that not merely tolerates dissenting opinions but respects them. In a 1963 essay titled “Science: Problems, Aims, Responsibilities,” Popper wrote: “Democracy (that is, a form of government devoted to the protection of the open society) cannot flourish if science becomes the exclusive possession of a closed set of specialists.” Ultimately, the conflict over climate change will be a test of American democracy and whether the guarantee set out in the First Amendment can survive intact. At least climate alarmists have given notice what is at stake.
— Rupert Darwall is the author of The Age of Global Warming: A History.