Alice in Climateland

Lawrence Solomon

December 14, 2008

A debate over whether the science of climate change is ‘settled’ turned into an unsettling exchange.

It was a global warming debate hosted by a pillar of the American establishment and my opponent was a respected scientist representing one of the most authoritative organizations in the field. I was there to dispute the conventional wisdom that the science is settled on climate.

No sooner did the debate start than I felt as if I had stumbled onto a set for Alice in Wonderland.

“I really detest phrases like the science is settled,” asserted Dr. Jay Gulledge, a climate specialist at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in his opening statement. “To characterize myself and the Pew Center as viewing the science as settled is a bit of a red herring.”

What an odd way for Jay to begin a debate, I thought (Jay and I were on a first-name basis). The only ones who claim that the science is settled are Al Gore and those who side with him — not the sceptics. Is Jay saying he detests the arguments made by those on his side of the debate?

But Jay’s comments were stranger still to anyone who knows the Pew Center. Like just everyone else on his side of the debate — from the world governments meeting this week at Poznan, Poland to the authors of the Ontario Climate Change Action Plan — the Pew Center paints the science as settled by claiming that an overwhelming number of scientists are overwhelmingly in agreement on the need for dramatic action to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the exception being scientists in the pay of industry.

The debate was hosted by the National Chamber Foundation, a wing of the United States Chamber of Commerce, which every year selects and promotes 10 “Books That Drive the Debate.” Earlier this year the foundation gave this honour to my book, The Deniers: The world-renowned scientists who stood up against global warming hysteria, political persecution and fraud, and those who are too fearful to do so. At my suggestion, the National Chamber Foundation decided to arrange a formal debate with someone who believed that the science is settled on climate change. It asked the Pew Center to participate and it agreed.

Jay’s opening statement continued his line of attack, which was that I was employing red herrings and straw men, leading to confusions in the debate on climate change. “For instance, a claimed link between hurricane activity and global warming,” he went on. “There’s never been any statement of consensus on this. It’s widely acknowledged within the media and within the scientific community that that is a very active area of debate within science.”

How odd, I again thought. When Kevin Trenberth of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change held a press conference in 2004 to link hurricane activity and global warming, it made headlines around the world. The Reuters headline was typical: “Global warming effects faster than feared — experts.” The news reports then and since linking hurricane activity and global warming said nothing about this issue being “a very active area of debate.”

But Jay is wrong about more than the existence of a widespread public debate here — he has it backwards as concerns the science. There actually was a consensus on the relationship between hurricane activity and global warming. This consensus appeared in the IPCC’s own reports, and was expressed by its own chief expert, Chris Landsea, who protested the 2004 press conference.

“Where is the science, the refereed publications, that substantiate these pronouncements?” an exasperated Landsea wrote to top IPCC officials following the press conference. “What studies are being alluded to that have shown a connection between observed warming trends on the Earth and long-term trends in tropical cyclone activity? As far as I know, there are none … the evidence just is not there with hurricanes, no matter how much it is trumped up for the media and the public.”

But Jay had more Alice-in-Wonderland oddities, or straw men, to announce.

“No one has claimed that anthropogenic global warming is melting ice in the Antarctic,” he asserted. What can he possibly be thinking of, I wondered? Most see the melting of Antarctica as one of the greatest potential climate change threats to the planet, and who hasn’t seen the dramatic footage of Antarctic ice shelves breaking off from the continent?

But the biggest straw man in my book, Jay claimed, involves my book’s “unstated” focus on the claims that global warming could lead to catastrophes. “There’s a doomsday case that he’s tearing down,” Jay complained, as if the doomsayer case was some side issue that was not worth discussing.

There is nothing “unstated” about the doomsayer case in The Deniers. My book explicitly and entirely focuses on the doomsayer case — it has been the fear of catastrophe, not the fear of a mild warming, that has spawned environmental protests around the world, that has led world governments to hammer out the Kyoto Protocol, that forced businesses to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to reinvent the economy, that caused citizens to pay more for their heating fuel, electricity and gasoline.

Jay’s positions flabbergasted me and others too, as evidenced by a question from the audience. “We’re making decisions now based on a catastrophe, both in government and also in businesses. So when I’m hearing somebody on the side of global warming saying, well the science isn’t settled, that’s kind of unsettling,” the questioner began.

“We’re firing people, now. We’re laying off people because we’ve got to make new products and we have to retool to make greener products. Don’t you think it’s pretty doggone important for people to understand that it isn’t settled?” Jay’s response was other-worldly, as if the climate change policies that he and others advocated had no consequences. “Since we haven’t implemented any policies regarding climate change or limiting carbon emissions nothing that’s happening now is the result of those policies,” he demurred.

During the debate, I came to realize that Jay, like most everyone else, has been taken in. The press and public believe that there is a consensus on climate change for only one reason — the widely repeated claim that 2500 scientists associated with the IPCC’s reports had endorsed the IPCC’s conclusions.

When I explained that the 2500 were merely peer reviewers and not endorsers of the final report — and that the Secretariat of the IPCC had confirmed this to me — Jay nevertheless claimed I was wrong, insisting that the 2500 were authors of the various chapters in the report.

To my amazement, he even claimed that he personally had counted the authors, and that people in the audience could confirm this by going to the IPCC’s website and counting them for themselves.

“Very factual and very verifiable,” he insisted. I invite readers to verify by visiting the IPCC website. They will see that the IPCC itself describes the 2500 as reviewers. Moreover, almost none of the 2500 reviewed the entire study and a large number of reviewers disagreed with the science that they did review.

Jay was wrong, in fact, on every single point of fact that he raised to contradict my book. The claim that sticks with me most, however, involves his treatment of geophysicst Syun Akasofu, the discoverer of the causes of the storms of the aurora borealis, twice named one of the “1000 Most Cited Scientists,” and founding director of the International Arctic Research Center of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, an organization created in 1998 with the mission, as Science magazine put it, “to plumb the consequences of climate change in the Far North.”

Jay refused to accept Akasofu’s climate change credentials, despite his extensive work in the area, claiming that Akasofu’s reputation rests on being a space physicist.

How audacious, to dismiss so easily so storied a scientist as Dr. Akasofu, who for two decades had led one of the world’s most important Arctic research centres. And yet, how necessary, if the case that the science is settled is to be sustained.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and author of The Deniers: The world-renowned scientists who stood up against global warming hysteria, political persecution, and fraud.


For some references on the debate, see here.


The IPCC Can’t Count

The IPCC 4th Assessment Report is coming out: A picture of climate change – the current state of understanding

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