– By Simon Carter –

Scepticism about climate change science should be embraced, but not denial. This article sets out five tests to help you dissect the so-called debate about climate change and enable you to distinguish the denier from the sceptic.

– 8 April 2010 – As someone who frequently discusses climate change in public, I am often told that there are two sides to the debate and we must listen to the arguments of the so-called climate change sceptics.

I agree with the need to include well-informed scepticism in the discussion, as the science of climate change needs rigorous testing, challenging and improving. Sceptics play an important role in this process. One example is the recent unsubstantiated claim regarding the rate of Himalayan glacier melt in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 4th assessment report.

However, many of those being referred to as “sceptics” are, in fact, not sceptics; they are deniers.

The denier’s motivation is not one of wanting to improve understanding of climate change. They are in denial about the possibility of anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change and a group of them appear to be motivated to promote confusion and mistrust about climate change in the public sphere, often motivated by the fossil-fuel lobby.

For example, the highly respected British science organisation The Royal Society released a report in 2005 showing that Exxon Mobil had distributed $US2.9million to 39 different groups who allegedly “misrepresented the science of climate change by outright denial of the evidence” (source: Wikipedia).

It is this group that we should be aware of, and work towards distinguishing from the true sceptics. Coupled with the media’s continued desire to create sensation by promoting a two-sided debate, deniers are confusing the public and supporting a political and commercial environment in which progress towards addressing climate change is difficult, at best. Their actions, ultimately, when we consider the serious impacts of climate change, are highly damaging.

The science of climate change is not perfect, and nor will it ever be. For example, there will never be a long historical record of cloud cover, and this is an important factor in climate models. Given the enormous amount of scientific research now being undertaken around the world, and the great challenge of pulling this work together into a cohesive picture for the global community, faults will occur. Nothing like this has been done before. We must expect scientists, like any other group of human beings, to make mistakes.

The use of the unsubstantiated Himalayan glacial retreat information in the IPCC 2007 assessment was one error in 938 pages of the Impact, Adaptations and Vulnerability section. In other words, the science behind climate change, as compiled by IPCC, remains robust.

Imperfections by no means discredit the overall case for anthropogenic climate change. This case is only improving and we must support this process being carried out in the best way our society is capable of. This includes stepping back and rationalising the debate about climate change that continues and excluding deniers from it.

As such, here are five tests to use when interpreting the so-called debate and help distinguish the deniers from the sceptics.

What is the motivation behind the person, or group, challenging the climate change science? Are they true sceptics looking to further test it for the good of the science, or are they a denier with a vested interest? This test can be difficult as many deniers actually promote themselves as sceptics in order to present themselves as acting in the public’s best interest.

What are the credentials of the person? Are they as credible as promoted? A number of leading deniers have esteemed academic backgrounds, but not in climate-change science. It also does not necessarily hold true that because they delivered high-quality science in the past that they do so now.

A famous example is the petition of 30,000 scientists garnered by the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, rejecting the science of anthropogenic climate change. This survey was cited widely in order to discredit the scientific case and the work of the IPCC. When the survey was analysed it was found that anyone with a bachelor degree was included (they could be your kid’s maths teacher). Any type of scientist was included, such as computer, nuclear or food scientists, but only 39 climate scientists had signed. There was also no verification of their credentials, with luminaries such as Hawk Eye Pierce and Ginger Spice included in the roll! (www.skepticalscience.com)

It is also revealing to look at the types of conferences they attend. Are they mainstream scientific conferences, or are they fringe groups of fellow “sceptics”?

Peer review
Is their science peer reviewed? In the scientific world, peer reviewing is the basic standard for establishing the credibility of work. Journals of standing will only publish work reviewed by two or more scientists who are experts in the field. Scientists cannot develop academic careers without peer reviewed work. When a denier (or the media, for that matter) puts forward scientific findings that challenge human-induced climate changes, those findings must be published in established peer-reviewed journals to be considered credible. It is a form of quality control.

Does their logic actually hold true? Deniers will often make cases about the science, which, at face value, appear logical but are actually not. A classic example is the assertion that because, historically, atmospheric carbon increases have followed temperature increases, then the conventional climate-change science hypothesis that temperature increase will now follow carbon increase is false.

This does not hold true and the explanation is simple. Historically, on a geological timescale, temperature increase has been caused by the planet moving through its natural ice-age cycles, which are controlled by the amount of sunlight reaching Earth. As the planet goes into a warm period, heating, especially of the ocean, releases carbon dioxide that further enhances warming. A fossil-fuel dependent population of 6.8 billion has not existed before, so today we have a new type of trigger for temperature increase; the massive release of carbon from humankind’s industrial activities. Interestingly, there is likely to be further positive feedbacks, with even more increase in atmospheric carbon caused by the likes of thawing of Arctic Circle tundras and degradation of forests.

Does the sceptics’ argument actually disprove the case for anthropogenic climate change? Some deniers have actually changed strategy and will now acknowledge human impacts, but will work to distract from taking action on it?  A great example of this is the recent activity of high-profile Danish denier, Bjorn Lomborg. www.TED.com.

Lomborg tells us that as the world has limited resources, we cannot solve everything and so we have to choose which issues we address from a list of key global issues. Top of the list, he says, in terms of return on investment, is HIV/AIDS and bottom of the list, surprise surprise, is climate change.

Lomborg presents his argument in a manner that invokes sympathy and is easy for people to agree with. However, the argument itself is not relevant. Despite there being other issues, which might be cheaper to resolve, the world cannot ignore climate change and indeed cannot solve some of Lomborg’s cheaper issues,such as malaria or poverty, without doing so.

This is nothing short of a manipulative attempt to distract people from the real issue at hand, which is mobilising the world to move forward and solve all of the issues it needs to. We don’t ignore a cancer in our body because dealing with a sore throat is cheaper and easier!

Poles Apart, by Gareth Morgan and John McCrystal, is an excellent independent review of the science of climate change. Morgan, a leading New Zealand investor and commentator on economics, concludes: “The science is practically irrefutable. The evidence isn’t overwhelming, but it’s certainly mounting.” Poles Apart is recommended for those looking for a critical analysis of both sides of the debate, including an understand of where the science is weaker on certainty, and dissecting the key arguments against anthropomorphic climate change presented by the sceptics. See: www.polesapart.co.nz for more.

When the tobacco industry was found to have misled the public about the life-threatening effects of smoking, it was condemned. When the asbestos industry was found to have continued promoting asbestos products while having knowledge of its dangerous health impacts, it was condemned.

Simon Carter

History may well serve the same fate to those individuals and organisations that are trying to stall a serious response to climate change for their own interests. May today’s deniers soon change their mind, as many of their peers before them have, and may the true sceptics prosper and continue their valuable work.

Simon Carter is director of Morphosis, a sustainability vision and strategy consultancy in the property sector. He is an Al Gore Climate Project Ambassador and is related to one of the scientific reviewers engaged by Morgan and McCrystal for Poles Apart.