Magazine | November 19, 2015, Issue

Climate Coercion

Predicting catastrophe is a lucrative business. By doing so, the big environmental groups, such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Sierra Club, have grown into leviathans with annual budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars. They stir up a media frenzy about present or future harm (population, pesticides, famine, acid rain, sperm counts, the ozone layer, and so on); get their most articulate spokespeople on television, preferably with a celebrity or a gimmick involving rappelling; and sit back and watch the dollars roll in.

What is different about the present climate scare is twofold.

First, the mainstream scientific community joined in. Scientists had been the enemy in some previous scares, for example finding themselves mostly at odds with environmentalists over genetically modified organisms. But this time, academics were part of the funding gold rush — and not just climate scientists, but almost every type of academic. Biologists found that grants came their way if they said they were studying butterflies or turtles with a view to understanding the impact of climate change. Sociologists found that they could trouser big sums just for studying why people didn’t “believe” in climate change. You can now get degrees in “climate communication” — whatever that is. And so on. Climate science, once a quiet backwater, exploded into a huge scientific endeavor, reaching something like $2 billion per year in federal funding today. And it has turned into a scientific cuckoo’s nest in which other disciplines are elbowed aside and best practices are disregarded.

The line between environmentalist and scientist has become blurred. Several prominent climate scientists moonlight doing paid work for Greenpeace or the World Wildlife Fund. In one case that recently came to light, a climatologist named Jagadish Shukla, on a six-figure salary from George Mason University, spent his spare time as president of his own global-climate-change institute, which was so massively endowed with federal funds that he was able to draw down as salary over $1.5 million in three years for himself, his wife, and his daughter. This came to light only after he had had the cheek to sign a letter demanding that those who contested the dangers of climate change be prosecuted under organized-crime laws.

The second difference between the climate scare and previous environmental panics is that, because this catastrophe is always in the comparatively distant future, predictions of it are largely immune to debunking. The failure of the climate over the past three decades to warm anywhere nearly as fast as predicted has mattered little. Activists just reached for some excuse to explain away the dearth of warming and then asserted that the future would be even worse than we had thought.

That’s a scientific sin. Making predictions that fail, and then making excuses for failure, is what distinguishes pseudo-science from science. But it’s now routine in climate science. The best example of it is the reaction to the “pause” or “hiatus” in warming that even mainstream scientists agree has occurred roughly since 1997.

This pause was not predicted. In fact, several prominent climate scientists have stated that a pause of more than 15 years would undermine the claim that anthropogenic climate change poses a danger. Here’s what one of them, Phil Jones, head of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, wrote in 2009, when the pause was only a decade old: “Bottom line: the ‘no upward trend’ has to continue for a total of 15 years before we get worried” that climate projections are inaccurate. A statement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration asserted in 2008 that its simulations “rule out (at the 95% level) zero trends for intervals of 15 yr or more.” The pause is now around 18 years long.

Some observers are eager to declare that the pause has ended, since it’s looking like 2015 will prove to be the warmest year yet, by a few tenths of a degree, in at least some of the surface-data sets (although not necessarily in the satellite data). But another way of putting this is that, in this era of supposedly rapid climate change, it has taken 18 years for the global average temperature to clearly break the record it set in 1998. Whether this represents the start of a surge in temperatures or a resumption of the gradual warming of the 1990s remains to be seen.

More than 20 “explanations” of the pause have now been published in the scientific literature, many of them little more than hand-waving guesses. But the explanation that makes the most sense — that climate models have overestimated the sensitivity of the climate to carbon dioxide and underestimated natural influences on climate, implying both that the warming of the 1990s was partly natural and that the warming of the 21st century will be less than expected — is strongly resisted.

There is nothing unusual about scientists’ pushing their pet theory, seeking evidence that supports it, and ignoring evidence that does not. This is a normal human tendency known as “confirmation bias.” It is a myth that scientists challenge their own theories. But they do challenge one another’s, and that’s what keeps science honest.

And that is where certain climate scientists pulled off a trick. They managed to impose a monopoly hypothesis, a “consensus,” and deny funding, publication, and support to anybody who dissented from it. They did so through the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose compendious reports have defined what one may and may not say about the changing climate.

As Professor Judith Curry of Georgia Tech, a distinguished climatologist who has broken ranks with the mainstream, has put it: “One of the norms of science is organized skepticism. Those working at the climate science–policy interface (including the IPCC) have worked hard to kill organized skepticism by manufacturing a consensus on climate change.”

This trick is subtle, because the consensus actually acknowledges the possibility that global warming will be harmless, or even beneficial, for many decades: It gives a range of possible outcomes. But while most scientists know this, very few laymen, politicians, or journalists do. President Obama, for example, tweeted that 97 percent of scientists “agree that climate change is real, man-made, and dangerous.” That third adjective is simply untrue.

Speaking of Obama, he is keen on criticizing those who think the climate-change threat is exaggerated, often calling them “deniers.” Yet he recently told the audience at a town-hall meeting in Des Moines that his own experience of universities was of “this space where you could interact with people who didn’t agree with you and had different backgrounds from you. . . . I started testing my own assumptions, and sometimes I changed my mind.” Except on climate change, apparently.

The list of scandals in climate studies is now embarrassingly long. There’s the case of John Cook, of the University of Queensland, and his co-authors, whose peer-reviewed paper showing a consensus of scientists agreeing on climate change used an unrepresentative sample, left out much data, used biased observers to categorize the data, and used a methodology that allowed the authors to adjust their preliminary conclusions as they went along. When others could not replicate the findings, Cook threatened legal action to hide his data.

There’s the case of Peter Gleick, of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, Calif., who stole the identity of a member of a skeptical institute’s board of directors and leaked confidential documents, adding to them a “strategy memo” that proved to be a forgery. (Gleick said that he had not forged the memo himself, and no charges of forgery were filed against him.) He remains a respected climate scientist.

There’s Stephan Lewandowsky, who, while at the University of Western Australia, tried to link climate skepticism to the belief that the moon landing was a hoax, when his own data showed that only ten respondents out of 1,145 thought that the moon landing was a hoax and seven of those did not think climate change was a hoax.

There’s Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC itself until he resigned after being accused of sexual harassment, who dismissed as “voodoo science” a report by India’s leading glaciologist, V. K. Raina, about Himalayan glaciers because it criticized a highly implausible claim that they would vanish by the year 2035. This claim originally came from Syed Hasnain, who had taken a job with the Energy and Resources Institute, of which Pachauri is the director general, and whose presence there was essential to the institute’s winning a share of a €3 million grant from the European Union.

There’s the famous “hockey stick” graph, which purported to demonstrate that 20th-century temperatures were unprecedented but was later shown to rely heavily on just a few misleading tree-ring-data sets and on a statistical filter that exaggerated recent changes.

There are the adjustments to temperature records to make the past appear cooler than it was; the paper cited by the IPCC that was based partly on nonexistent data from 49 weather stations in China; the “upside down” Scandinavian lake core, a case in which the scientists who had collected the data interpreted a change in siltation rates as a cooling, but others turned the graph the other way up and claimed a warming; the Antarctic-warming record that can be explained entirely by a move of the station at which temperatures were taken; the graph that relied on just one larch tree in the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia; the Southern Hemisphere hockey-stick graph that omitted an inconvenient data series; the infamous “hide the decline” episode, in which a graph was truncated because tree-ring data showed an inconvenient 20th-century temperature decline for a time when the temperature was thought to have been rising.

And then there’s Climategate, the scandal in which leaked e-mails revealed that senior climate scientists had repeatedly bullied and ostracized colleagues who had not toed the line.

With few exceptions, the media have chosen to ignore all of these stories or portray the people who uncovered them as the true villains.

Of course, most climate scientists are honest and principled. But the apparent lack of interest at top science academies in doing something about the bad apples is disturbing. It has certainly shaken my faith in science as an institution.

Mr. Ridley, the author of The Evolution of Everything, has written about climate change and other scientific topics for more than 25 years.

In This Issue


Politics & Policy

Climate Coercion

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