What I Learned about Climate Change: The Science is not Settled
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What is your position on the climate-change debate? What would it take to change your mind?
If the answer is It would take a ton of evidence to change my mind, because my understanding is that the science is settled, and we need to get going on this important issue, that’s what I thought, too. This is my story.
More than thirty years ago, I became vegan because I believed it was healthier (it’s not), and I’ve stayed vegan because I believe it’s better for the environment (it is). I haven’t owned a car in ten years. I love animals; I’ll gladly fly halfway around the world to take photos of them in their natural habitats. I’m a Democrat: I think governments play a key role in helping preserve our environment for the future in the most cost-effective way possible. Over the years, I built a set of assumptions: that Al Gore was right about global warming, that he was the David going up against the industrial Goliath. In 1993, I even wrote a book about it.
Recently, a friend challenged those assumptions. At first, I was annoyed, because I thought the science really was settled. As I started to look at the data and read about climate science, I was surprised, then shocked. As I learned more, I changed my mind. I now think there probably is no climate crisis and that the focus on CO2 takes funding and attention from critical environmental problems. I’ll start by making ten short statements that should challenge your assumptions and then back them up with an essay.
1Weather is not climate. There are no studies showing a conclusive link between global warming and increased frequency or intensity of storms, droughts, floods, cold or heat waves. The increase in storms is simply a result of improved measurement methods. There has been no real increase.
2Natural variation in weather and climate is tremendous. Most of what people call “global warming” is natural, not man-made. The earth is warming, but not quickly, not much, and not lately.
3There is tremendous uncertainty as to how the climate really works. Climate models are not yet skillful; predictions are unresolved.
4New research shows fluctuations in energy from the sun correlate very strongly with changes in earth’s temperature, better than CO2 levels.
5CO2 has very little to do with it. All the decarbonization we can do isn’t going to change the climate much.
6There is no such thing as “carbon pollution.” Carbon dioxide is coming out of your nose right now; it is not a poisonous gas. CO2 concentrations in previous eras have been many times higher than they are today.
7Sea level will probably continue to rise — not quickly, and not much. Researchers have found no link between CO2 and sea level.
9No one has demonstrated any unnatural damage to reef or marine systems. Additional man-made CO2 will not likely harm oceans, reef systems, or marine life. Fish are mostly threatened by people, who eat them. Reefs are more threatened by sunscreen than by CO2.
10The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and others are pursuing a political agenda and a PR campaign, not scientific inquiry. There’s a tremendous amount of trickery going on under the surface*.
I won’t present all the science. Instead, my goal is to give you a platform for investigating the other side of the debate, so you can form your own opinion. I have noted important and quick reads with an asterisk* — if you have time for further study, start with those videos and documents. Here are the sections:
- Critical Thinking
- Four Hard Questions
- The Climate Consensus
- Manufacturing Consensus
- Who Can We Believe?
- What Should We Do?
- What Do You Think?
This nine-thousand-word essay represents over 400 hours of research boiled down into a half-hour reading experience, with links to 250+ carefully chosen documents and videos. I’m building the argument from the bottom up, so take your time and see if it makes sense. Along the way, I’ll list five “smoking guns” that I think make the argument for decarbonization unsupportable. Before we dive in, I want to talk about …
M y journey into critical thinking has taught me to hold strong opinions loosely. I’ve been more wrong in my life than I thought was possible. Now I try to put my reactions aside and look at all the evidence before coming to a conclusion.
Policy always involves politics. Governments often make policy decisions by starting with a social objective and then bring in the “facts” to justify the goal (think of the Vietnam war, the Iraq war, Prohibition, the War on Drugs, and others). We shouldn’t be surprised to find social agendas driving at least some of the “science” of global warming.
In addition, studies show that political beliefs cloud our ability to process information. Strong political beliefs can cause us to look at one side of an issue and ignore the evidence. We should try to avoid shortcuts and look directly at the data.
Forecasts are mental constructs; they are not properties of the physical world. Forecasts are tools, not truth. In most cases, the size of the error bars (uncertainty) around the number is more important than the number itself.
Consensus is not an argument for any scientific principle. Many important scientists toiled alone to make discoveries that were less than popular. One key paper can be worth more than thousands of papers reinforcing a myth. The claim that 97 percent of scientists believe in man-made global warming is one such myth. Almost all scientists expect a small man-made contribution to warming, so the claim is misleading.
Metastudies are important. One key paper can be a breakthrough, but there are very few of those. A better source of information is properly done metastudies (reviews of all the literature on a topic) conducted by qualified statisticians. They help find the signal in the noise.
There is a big climate conference coming up in Paris in December, 2015. Diplomats will debate the merits of an agreement that promises to steer hundreds of billions of dollars toward reducing carbon emissions, mostly in large developing countries. Is it based on sound science? Let’s ask four hard questions and see what we can learn …
- What are the natural drivers of temperature and its variability?
- What does the projected natural increase in temperature mean for the environment and people?
- What does the increase in greenhouse gases from human activity mean for oceans, environment, animals, habitats, and humanity?
- Is Decarbonation the Right Solution?
Let’s look with fresh eyes and see what we can learn.
1. What are the natural drivers of temperature and its variability?
Incoming solar radiation is the primary driver of temperature. A second factor is the atmosphere, which traps heat and reflects some of it back to earth. Other factors play smaller roles. I’ll start with the familiar greenhouse-gas model and then present a more accurate picture based on solar activity.
The Greenhouse Effect
In this section, I focus on CO2 because it’s regarded as the main greenhouse gas after water vapor. Looking at the 750-million-year graph below, we see some extreme cold periods, then warm epochs punctuated by ice ages, all while CO2 (yellow) was far above what it is today. There is almost no correlation between temperature and carbon dioxide until about ten million years ago.
Starting around a million years ago, the curves start to sync up, and we see a pretty definitive supercycle of about 100,000 years for both:
Think about that: CO2 had no correlation with temperature for more than 2 billion years, and now it’s causing temperature to rise? Something’s going on, but what? Let’s zoom in:
Notice that temperature generally changes first, and CO2 changes some 800+ years later. Blue line to the left, red line to the right. This is called the temperature lag — an inconvenient truth for CO2-warming enthusiasts; it’s well known but not well understood. It could easily be a complex relationship, but CO2 changes do not initially cause historical temperature changes.
On a shorter time scale, we start to get some perspective:
At this scale of 11,000 years, it doesn’t seem like CO2 is “driving” temperature. We are in the middle of an upswing coming out of the Little Ice Age, but there is also an overall cooling trend.
Before the twentieth century, there was plenty of temperature variability, and it continues today. If you have heard about the hockey-stick controversy, it’s about whether this graph created by Michael Mann, which Al Gore likes to stand in front of on a scissor lift, represents reality:
It doesn’t. Despite what you read on Wikipedia, this graph was manufactured by carefully cherrypicking the data from tree rings. Looking at tree rings is about the least accurate way to measure ancient temperatures. Better methods involve looking at drilled ice and sediment cores. Using those methods, we see a pronounced period warmer than today from 1000 to 1300 AD, called the Medieval Warm Period, and then the Little Ice Age about 400 years ago (same time period as above):
This single issue invalidates many of Al Gore’s claims* and undermines the IPCC’s predictions of man-made CO2 catastrophe. (You’ll find a list of relevant studies at CO2Science.org*.)
Smoking gun #1: The Hockey Stick is Wrong; The Medieval warming period was real and worldwide.
Once I understood that the IPCC was playing games, I realized I had a lot of work to do to uncover the rest of the story. It starts with data manipulation.
Where Does the Data Come From?
For the last 80 years, we have far more accurate ways of recording temperature, so the far right hand side of the graph above should come from direct measurements. Weather stations that gather this data differ in quality and consistency, especially over decades as the areas around them develop. A large-scale reassessment of all US weather stations from 1979 to 2008 carefully divided the stations into five classes, from best quality (I) to worst (V). For this period of time, they calculated the per-decade average temperature increases, and found:
- Class I and II only (most accurate): 0.155 C
- Class III, IV, and V sites only: 0.248 C
- NOAA 2015 “adjusted” calculation: 0.309 C
What does that tell you? NOAA is “adjusting” their data to increase warming figures far out of the realm of possibility. The IPCC relies mostly on NOAA data and other similarly adjusted data, which conveniently provides an instant doubling of temperature increase, making all the graphs much steeper after 1980.
The science is extremely complex and uncertain. If you have blind faith in the wrong numbers, you’re going to jump to the wrong conclusions. Anthony Watts has carefully reviewed NOAA’s data and found unscientific manipulation. Watch this 15-minute video* and decide for yourself*:
NOAA continues to “adjust” their data, manufacturing graphs that support the cause.
Smoking gun #2: Government agencies have rigged climate data to support man-made global warming.
Note: It’s easy to find nonscientific articles and videos that “prove” the hockey stick has been validated by updated research and that the sun’s energy doesn’t fluctuate. However, one central tenet of journalism is that you can’t fact-check a source by asking the source, and that’s exactly what most journalists are doing. To fact-check the IPCC, look at the peer-reviewed literature written by scientists who are not in the IPCC.
That’s the greenhouse-gas theory. Now on to more recent research.
Many solar variables contribute to the variance we see in temperature: distance, orbit cycles, axis tilt, magnetic fields, sunspots, solar wind, cosmic rays, the passage of earth through our galaxy, etc. Even though the total energy coming from the Sun is nearly constant, a) those tiny fluctuations can make a difference, and b) there are many other factors that can and do change. In particular, magnetic field changes can have significant influence on the shape of the jet stream, and that can influence cloud formation.
Willie Soon, a solar physicist, showed that the tiny variations in incoming solar radiation can have a more direct effect on temperature than CO2 does, but it takes very sensitive measurements and careful analysis to see the signal. Willie and his team first did many months of inspecting data from weather stations in the Northern Hemisphere*, throwing out spurious and made-up measurements, to put an accurate temperature picture together (blue line):
Then they plotted total solar irradiation (TSI) and found a very good first-order correlation, much better than with CO2. The graph above is probably the most accurate picture we have for that time period. Below is a similar exercise for the United States:
Note that this graph accurately shows the most recent cooling trend since 1998 without any hand waving.
Smoking gun #3: Solar fluctuations correlate better with observed temperature fluctuations.
Not only do fluctuations in solar energy drive changes in climate, the oceans react to increases in solar energy by generating clouds that help regulate temperature. Since 2013, much research has been aimed at constructing a more accurate picture of past temperature/solar radiation correlation and developing a realistic solar-driven climate prediction model*, taking the greenhouse effect into account.
Sunspots fluctuate in roughly 11-year cycles. It’s complicated, but in general these cycles show a moderate amount of correlation with temperature. The period of no sunspot activity 400 years ago corresponds to the Little Ice Age, when winters were significantly colder than they are today.
The current cycle peaked in 2014. Solar experts speculate that the next cycle, which starts in 2020, will have fewer sunspots. If that turns out to be true, temperatures could be heading down, rather than up. Reactions to this cooling prediction range from “unlikely,” to “plausible,” to “probable.” Whatever mechanism causes sunspots could be part of the picture, but there are several different solar cycles, different research approaches, and competing theories. They are converging, but it’s a complex work in progress. A single predictive model is still years or decades away.
Hottest Year on Record?
When you hear claims of this year being “the hottest year on record,” you should understand that 1922, 1998, and 2010 were also extremely hot, and the El Niños were extreme then as well. That’s not a trend; that’s a local peak. Look at the last 18 years from satellite data:
How many peaks do you see that are higher than this year’s? Now look at the scale — it’s one degree Celsius from top to bottom. To give you a sense of how up and down this really is, I traced the graph above and put it in perspective of the 20 degrees C (36 degrees F) we might experience in a single day:
Same data, different perspective. Can you see the hottest year on record now? In any given year, several weather stations will record dramatic “all time highs” with no effect on global temperatures.
No one knows what will really happen. We can’t see the future. We know CO2 is increasing relentlessly, yet temperatures are not. If you believe in the IPCC models, then you need worldwide temperatures to start going up, and soon. A few more hurricanes wouldn’t hurt, either. If you agree that solar activity primarily drives climate changes, then you will probably agree with the current scientific consensus outside the IPCC and with the conclusions of a recent metastudy on temperature forecasts: one degree C of warming this century, plus or minus one degree. That’s the 90%-confidence prediction at this point, but there’s always a chance that they are wrong, or that things will change unexpectedly. We’ll know a lot more in another twenty years or so.
2. What does the projected natural increase in temperature mean for the environment and people?
Sea level won’t likely rise in response to increased CO2. For starters, sea level rises and falls more than people think. Global mean sea level rose about 15 cm (6 inches) in the twentieth century. The IPCC models predicted higher levels by now, but researchers have found no link between CO2 and sea level. Sea level rises linearly; the rate of rise is not increasing. Any rise so far is very much in line with natural factors, not man-made. Estimates range from 5-20 cm (2–8 inches) of sea level rise (naturally) by the end of this century.
Reef systems and marine life will not likely be harmed by additional CO2. Researchers use tank experiments and computer models to predict doom and gloom (this approach is full of errors). Despite what you read in the press, no one has yet seen any verifiable signs of manmade CO2 effects, or even pollution. Coral bleaching is a natural phenomenon caused by temperature changes, especially in El Niño and La Niña years — it’s been going on forever. Live reef experiments have shown that coral polyps adapt well to changes in pH, but sunscreen is toxic. Furthermore, a recent metastudy found no evidence of harm due to “ocean acidification” and no likely harm in the future. If you care about ocean life, stop eating it! Stop developers from replacing estuaries, wetlands, and mangrove swamps with condos. And please stop eating shrimp immediately.
Freak storms are a far bigger threat. Again, storms are not caused by global warming. Over the next hundred years, as our population reaches nine billion or so, we should expect extreme events to have catastrophic consequences around the globe as a result of massive-scale urbanization and natural variance . Damage figures will rise significantly as we build larger cities on the coasts and expensive buildings with sea views. Don’t be fooled by graphs showing rising damage figures — they are guaranteed! The science is settled on this — even the IPCC admits that none of it is driven by CO2.
Let’s talk about polar bears. The health and numbers of the Arctic’s 19 polar bear populations are in very good shape, better than in decades*. Mitch Taylor, who has studied polar bears for over 30 years, says populations are increasing and very resilient. Each year at least 600 polar bears are shot, killed, and eaten by hunters — did your favorite news source tell you that? Arctic sea ice grows and shrinks by an area almost the size of the continental United States every six months. As the planet gently warms, the overall trend for slightly less ice each year continues; all the animals who live there have been dealing with this kind of fluctuation for millions of years. International fishing and seal hunting quotas have more to do with polar bear numbers than temperature does.
Far from the land of polar bears, we hear tales of extreme temperatures melting Antarctic ice sheets the size of Wyoming. Despite the fact that glaciers fall into the ocean dramatically each year, Antarctica’s ice is actually increasing (reason: it snows in Antarctica, but snowfall doesn’t make good news footage). Imagine a time-lapse movie of Antarctica over the past million years or more: we see huge amounts of ice accumulating, moving, dropping into the sea, over and over. We shouldn’t be surprised to watch the Larsen B ice shelf fall into the sea — it should take extraordinary evidence to convince us that this is not natural. To think Antarctica should stay the same as it was when we were children is to commit the error of base-rate neglect. Remember this: the Arctic is losing a bit of ice each year, and the Antarctic is gaining a bit. Not much. And not quickly.
3. What does the increase in greenhouse gases mean for oceans, environment, animals, habitats, and humanity?
This is the domain of climate models. I could write twenty pages, but I’ll summarize my research:
- According to Bob Tisdale, a researcher I respect after reading his book Climate Models Fail, the IPCC models simply aren’t skillful. They failed to predict the past twenty years, they don’t realistically model the cloud response, and there is simply too much uncertainty about the inputs to get decent outputs.
- NASA GISS, in realizing that global temperatures refuse to conform to their models, has said that the increase in heat is trapped in the oceans. This bit of model trickery also does not stand up to careful analysis.
- The IPCC models are falsifiable — if temperature doesn’t go up over the next ten years or so, we will have to agree that the IPCC models are, and always were, dead wrong. It is not looking good.
- According to J Scott Armstrong, all climate models so far don’t meet the minimum criteria for a skillful forecast. He has testified before congress on climate forecasts, polar-bear counts, and other misconceptions. Here is his 15-minute talk:
Armstrong and other modeling experts say the simple “no change” prediction is often far superior to a complex one with many independent variables. In that case, we can predict about another one-degree C rise for this century, and another 3–7 centimeters of gradual sea-level rise.
Smoking Gun #4: Rigged Inputs and Wrong Assumptions About Feedback Lead to Computer Model Failure.
Correlation is not Causation
Killer storms. Bee colony collapse. Mosquito-borne diseases. Ticks heading south for the winter. Heat-related deaths. Arctic lobster populations. Algae blooms. Global temperatures. These things may or may not be increasing, but let’s assume they are. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is also increasing. So are the number of toilets made every year and the number of vinyl records sold. When a particular scientist issues a press release describing the future collapse of ecosystems, I recommend asking “What evidence do you have?” When they say something we can see today is due to “anthropogenic global warming,” they are saying that the extra 120 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere — about 30% of the total — are causing the phenomenon right now, as opposed to all other possible natural explanations, including variance. I recommend asking, “How can you be sure?” Just because we haven’t seen something in the past century doesn’t mean it wasn’t going to occur anyway.
This is the scientific method — ask hard questions, develop hypotheses, and try to disprove them. Not only do we need better models, we need to be empirical, not hysterical. We need to look at the data and separate the signal from the noise. The majority of single papers showing research results are simply wrong. To get a better picture of scientific findings, one of the best tools is the metastudy.
Smoking Gun #5: All metastudies so far disagree with the IPCC projections.
We only have two so far, but they are significant: one on temperature, and one on ocean acidification. Anyone who claims otherwise is going to have to explain why his/her claim invalidates the metastudies. That’s a lot to ask, but this is the level of proof science demands.
4. Is decarbonization the right solution?
Okay, but even if there’s a lot of uncertainty, what about the small possibility that something really bad could happen? Shouldn’t we put money and resources into doing something, just as an insurance policy?
We could, but we have to balance that against buying other things with the same money and effort*. Right now, some ecosystems are fragile and threatened by humanity, while many others are already repairing themselves*. The focus on CO2 may be misplaced. It’s not the CO2 that causes choking smog in Los Angeles, it’s the rest of the mix that comes from the power plant and out of exhaust pipes. It’s the fact that China needs to build a new city the size of Phoenix every month for the next 15 years. More people are eating a western diet, contributing to deforestation and wasting resources. Overfishing is a crisis in progress. This and much more is actually happening today, not in a computer model.
The Bush administration held up the Kyoto agreement, yet they spent trillions on a war based on no verifiable evidence to prevent a future that was never going to happen. Should we really do the exact opposite?
Enter Bjorn Lomborg, the “skeptical environmentalist,” who has spent his mediagenic career trying to prioritize our efforts to save the earth and humans along with it. According to his calculations, the EU’s goal of spending $250 billion per year until the end of the century will result in — and this is not a typo — 0.1 degree lower temperatures.
Lomborg’s book, Cool It, and movie of the same name, are excellent (though for some reason he believes the IPCC projections). He says we should switch to renewable sources of energy, but for the right reasons at the right price.
That’s my attempt to answer the four questions. For a good summary, see Nir Shaviv’s paper or Bob Tisdale’s excellent ebook. In the next three sections, I’ll quickly list people not to listen to and why, then I’ll list people I think we can trust.
This section is a guide to the IPCC and people sounding the alarm of impending climate doom.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
The “mainstream climatologist” view is generally embodied by the IPCC. In 2007, the IPCC shared the Nobel Prize with Al Gore. Once I started to learn about the IPCC and the people who have left it and why, I started to question their motivations. The big shift came when I read a book called The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World’s Top Climate Expert by Donna LaFramboise, detailing the methods and motivations of the IPCC. I highly recommend reading Laframboise’s book*; here are a few highlights:
- The IPCC operates in secrecy, leaves out critical pieces of data, relies too heavily on unproven measuring schemes, and tends to make unsupported sensationalist claims that support a politically-motivated, pre-determined agenda.
- Chris Landsea, a hurricane expert, resigned from the IPCC after a lead author for the IPCC and its chairman claimed that there would be more intense and more frequent storms as a result of man-made greenhouse gases. In his resignation letter, he wrote “I personally cannot in good faith continue to contribute to a process that I view as both being motivated by pre-conceived agendas and being scientifically unsound.”
- There is a growing list of scientists who have resigned from the IPCC* on the grounds that “scientific conclusions are re-written by politicians and presented to the public as valid science.”
- The IPCC claims to only use peer-reviewed papers from respected journals, but as Laframboise and a team of volunteers showed, thirty percent of the source material — more than 5,000 articles — for the IPCC reports is not peer-reviewed, and some of it is Greenpeace literature and press releases.
- Here is a list of more than one thousand published peer-reviewed papers questioning the science behind the IPCC reports.
- There is a growing list of distinguished climatologists who find no evidence for significant human-induced warming.
- The IPCC deliberately manipulates the peer-review process at the top journals*.
Because the IPCC narrative is so dominant, speaking up has consequences. A few people have put their careers on the line to defend scientific principles, several have been targeted by Greenpeace and others, while many scientists have simply played the game to win positions, research grants, publication, and lucrative consulting and side contracts.
Unfortunately, Wikipedia can’t be trusted on climate issues, thanks to the efforts of people who constantly maintain the alarmist message. While this sounds incredible, it’s far more common than people think. PR firms focus their efforts on Wikipedia articles because they rank high in search results. For climate change, the action is particularly fierce. This is called sock puppetry. One study confirms that political topics are carefully tended and defended.
So I did an experiment. I added a single sentence to one section of Michael Mann’s Wikipedia page. Here it is with my sentence highlighted:
I timed it. It took five minutes for the page to go back the way it was before. You can try this yourself on any of thousands of climate-related Wikipedia pages.
Set up by a PR firm and run by IPCC core elite, the site claims to bring a fair and balanced view of the debate. They don’t allow dissenting comments. This piece describes their tactics and gives several references. One of their founders, William Connolley, known as “the climate doctor,” was once banned by Wikipedia from continually revising thousands of climate-related pages, though he is now back on Wikipedia updating pages at a furious pace.
There are dozens of sites designed to promote global warming, demote skeptics, confuse the public, and get to the top of Google searches. An example is SkepticalScience.com, run by a former cartoonist who optimizes the content to dominate search engine rankings.
NASA and NOAA
As director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) from 1981 to 2013, James Hansen kept his team pumping out papers and articles to help evangelize his views, even though his predictions keep turning out to be wrong. Hansen’s former boss, Dr. John S. Theon, now joins the ranks of many ex-NASA employees who believe Hansen is wrong. Fortunately, things are starting to change. NASA recently acknowledged this important paper showing how even tiny changes in the sun’s output has dramatic effects on the earth’s temperature*.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration follows NASA’s lead in manufacturing data to suit the agenda. Did you know that NASA, NOAA, and the National Science Foundation together split about a billion dollars of a $2 billion US annual budget spend on climate-change research? Anthony Watts and others have shown the NOAA data to be strongly biased to support a global-warming scare.
Unfortunately, you can’t trust Nature or Science magazines, either. Like many of today’s peer-reviewed journals, they show strong publication bias. Dr. Marcia McNutt, chief editor of Science, is the latest in a long line of activist editors. They won’t publish any scientific findings that go against their agenda.
Gore built a PR business around decarbonizing the energy industry to save us from a looming apocalypse. The poster for his film depicts a factory with a (Southern hemisphere) tropical storm coming out of the smoke stack. He predicted an Arctic Ocean free of ice, more intense storms, a malaria epidemic, and many more invented plagues that haven’t and likely won’t come true.
I wish I could say that Obama — whom I voted for twice — is calm, cool, and collected on climate change, but he’s far too hot under the collar. He is dedicated to reducing carbon emissions and has built his faith-based initiative into the national security agenda. On the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton sees decarbonization as a vote-getter.
This effective political action group seems to have swallowed an entire bottle of Hansen/Gore pills, even though they are supposed to help Americans “move on” and do what really matters.
Greenpeace takes extremely complex issues and boils them down to a single slogan that promotes their agenda. Though they are usually wrong, they use simple messages, daring acts of vandalism, and paid street canvassers to raise money. Patrick Moore, a founder, now says, “I fear an intellectual Gulag with Greenpeace as my prison guards.”
The Mainstream Press CNN, the BBC, and the mainstream networks all buy the decarbonization agenda without question. The Atlantic, New York Times, Scientific American, National Geographic, Slate, The LA Times, and Rolling Stone all turned down my request to publish this essay. Fair and balanced? They never publish opposing views or research by respected scientists. Look at TED.com’s climate page — not a single dissenting voice (they don’t want to piss off Al Gore — he’s a big draw at the conferences). It’s sad that only FOX News is on the other side of this debate, since they are also politically motivated and can’t possibly understand the science.
How did things get this far out over the edge of reason? It helps to understand the history: In the 1950s, Roger Revelle and David Keeling documented the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere and came to the reasonable conclusion that it could have an impact on climate later. In the 1960s, Revelle taught undergraduate student Al Gore about climate science. In 1967, James Hansen went to work at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies doing climate modeling and other things. In the early 1980s, the green movement was gathering momentum. Temperatures had been rising steadily since the early Sixties. Hansen, who was by then running GISS, simply extrapolated twenty years of recent warming far into the future and saw the apocalypse coming.
The Critical Year
In June of 1988, Hansen testified before Congress, saying that “the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here.” As 1988 was a strong el-niño year, it was easy to point to the thermometer and talk about hottest year on record. That same year, the IPCC was created. It was also 1988 when Al Gore set up the Senate Science, Technology, and Space Committee, famously choosing the hottest day of the year and making sure the room was not air-conditioned for the first meeting, and Gore became the chief warming promoter.
In that same year, Revelle wrote two letters to congress saying “My own personal belief is that we should wait another ten or twenty years to really be convinced that the greenhouse effect is going to be important for human beings, in both positive and negative ways.”
But Hansen was building an ideological platform. His people at NASA assembled confirming data, and by the mid-Nineties enough environmentalists had taken senior positions to really get the ball rolling. They quickly discovered they could use fearful and dramatic imagery to raise funds — nothing like a crisis to get people to open their checkbooks. News organizations sold more copies when they ran stories of doom and gloom — the more immediate the threat, the better.
Think tanks, NGOs, universities, the alternative power industry, consultants, government agencies, magazines, and others switched from scientific inquiry to rent seeking. Academics need to get their work published; an IPCC paper is a career mover, while publishing a paper finding no warming isn’t. The IPCC has an aggressive outreach/communications plan that has plenty of staffers. It’s a classic case of manufacturing consent.
It’s Not the Message, it’s the Messenger
The master consent-maker is a man you probably haven’t heard of: David Fenton. Fenton Communications is the leading “social change” PR firm. They are driven by their passionate belief that they are saving the planet and changing the world. Fenton is a charming man of the same vintage as James Hanson. He and his team have worked tirelessly to promote a few good causes that were substantiated by scientific research and many more causes that were not. His magic is powerful. He can put an image of polar bears on the cover of TIME Magazine. His firm is responsible for the propaganda sites RealClimate.org and IPCCFacts.org (an oxymoron), and probably for much Wikipedia manipulation. He has worked for Al Gore and the UN for at least the past twenty years. How many PR firms can claim they got a Nobel Prize for their clients?
Fenton’s powerful network, drives the image and credibility of the IPCC, so people automatically delegate their opinion without digging further. Fenton’s strategy: it’s not about the message, it’s about the messenger. Use brand names to promote the cause and attack skeptics with name calling, law suits, and character assassination.
Aside from a pile of leaked and embarrassing emails in 2009, and the chair of the IPCC stepping down under charges of sexually harassing a female researcher, the PR machine is working smoothly. Michael Mann has 30,000 Twitter followers (I’d love to know how he got them). The New York Times encourages the use of Nazi/genocidal language in describing skeptics. The word “denier” lumps legitimate skeptics with wing nuts like Rush Limbaugh. Even the Pope has shuffled into the CO2 spotlight, hurting the very people he vows to protect. James Hansen is now at Columbia University promoting a huge decarbonization campaign. The goal is now to produce a climate deal in Paris later this year, which now seems likely, but will probably be impossible to implement.
To sum up: a common statistical error called the law of small numbers led James Hansen to start a worldwide movement. He got help from a number of same-age cronies, took advantage of public fear and laziness, and now steers trillions of dollars via the budgets and subsidies of many governments toward decarbonization, undermining real environmental progress.
Just to be fair, both sides of the debate suffer from confirmation bias*. I am as guilty as anyone. It is complex, it’s not “settled,” and it makes sense to look for more evidence before we jump to conclusions.
Now I’ll list the protagonists — people I think accurately represent the other side of the climate debate. This is a biased list — I’m curating for you, leaving out a lot of names on purpose. Almost all these “deniers” have PhDs (many with peer-reviewed papers), or have received significant praise for journalistic integrity.
A professor of climatology at Georgia Institute of Technology, Curry changed from mainstream to skeptic after looking at the evidence. Here’s her testimony before Congress in April 2015*:
If you prefer reading, try the text of her speech to the House of Lords in London.
A very respected science writer has written a short essay on why he calls himself a climate lukewarmer*. Ridley’s essay, The Climate Wars’ Damage to Science*, should be one of the first things you read after finishing this one. Here’s an excerpt:
Look what happened to a butterfly ecologist named Camille Parmesan when she published a paper on “ Climate and Species Range” that blamed climate change for threatening the Edith checkerspot butterfly with extinction in California by driving its range northward. The paper was cited more than 500 times, she was invited to speak at the White House and she was asked to contribute to the IPCC’s third assessment report.
Unfortunately, distinguished ecologist Jim Steele found fault with her conclusion: there had been more local extinctions in the southern part of the butterfly’s range due to urban development than in the north, so only the statistical averages moved north, not the butterflies. There was no correlated local change in temperature anyway, and the butterflies have since recovered throughout their range. Parmesan’s paper continues to be cited as evidence of climate change. Steele meanwhile is derided as a “denier”.
Anthony Watts: a former meteorologist who specializes in temperature measurement, his blog is technical but popular. He has a Paleoclimate reference page with many good graphs of temperature history, he has formed an impressive group to measure and categorize weather stations, and he carefully debunks Al Gore’s claim that you can reproduce the greenhouse effect in a jar. His web site hosts an open debate on facts, figures, and scientific findings. I recommend his mailing list.
A journalist whose exposé of the IPCC, The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World’s Top Climate Expert* will remove your faith in the United Nations and the IPCC. If you are passionate about saving the environment, this book should be at the top of your list.
Bob Tisdale: You can read his blog, or his book, Climate Models Fail. If your belief is based on the supposed accuracy of UN climate models, you’ll change your belief after reading his book. His latest epic work is a free ebook taking you gently through all the arguments.
Jim Peacock, an ex-NASA engineer, has gathered a group of ex-NASA people at TheRightClimateStuff.com; they have produced their own independent report on the state of human-induced climate change.
Craig Idso produces a site full of peer-reviewed findings at CO2Science.org*. He has written Climate Change Reconsidered, and CO2, Global Warming, and Coral Reefs, and is featured in many videos. Idso is also a lead author on the alternative Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change. Their new book, Why Scientists Disagree about Global Warming, is available for free at climatechangereconsidered.org.
Steve McIntyre’s talk on paleoclimatology recounts the ClimateGate story (in which IPCC emails were leaked) from his perspective as a participant. His web site is very technical and a particular pain point for the IPCC.
Robert M Carter is a paleontologist, stratigrapher, and geologist who was fired for being critical of the mainstream stance on climate change. Here’s a good short talk on YouTube* where he separates the signal from the noise:
William Happer is a physicist at Princeton. His testimony before congress is worth watching. He says, “I, and many other scientists, think the warming will be small compared to the natural fluctuations in the earth’s temperature.”
Richard Lindzen is professor emeritus of atmospheric sciences at MIT and former contributing member of the IPCC. His bio is impressive. In a video interview*, he explains that many people simply don’t understand natural variance and have confused it with a made-up catastrophe. His paper on the distortion and misuse of science in the name of climate change is important.
Nir Shaviv is a solar scientist with a good clear introduction to the science*.
Jason Scott Johnson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Program on Law, Environment, and the Economy, has written an excellent “cross-examination” of the IPCC and reveals “what seem to be systematic patterns and practices that diverge from, and problems that impede, the application of basic scientific methods in establishment climate science.”
Michael Crichton, the late author, summed it up to Charlie Rose.*
J. Scott Armstrong, an expert in forecasting at the Wharton School of Business, teaches proper forecasting techniques. He cofounded PublicPolicyForecasting.com to give government agencies better forecasting tools. In his testimony before congress, he gives the IPCC model forecasts a failing grade.
The Breakthrough Institute takes a practical approach to finding technical solutions without penalizing the world’s poorest nations. Read their excellent report on climate pragmatism: Our High Energy Planet*.
Willie Soon is a solar physicist who has become a target of Greenpeace. His chapter in Climate Change, The Facts* convinced me that solar variations are largely responsible for earth’s temperature changes*.
Think about how you formed your opinion about climate change. Was it based on reading research papers, or was it from the popular press, movies, and stories? When it comes to the science, how much faith do you really have in the IPCC models? In tank experiments? In tree rings? In CO2 as the biggest threat to mankind since Hitler?
If we care about the environment, we shouldn’t be spending hundreds of billions of dollars on things that don’t work. Here are my suggestions:
Educate ourselves. This takes effort, but if it’s the defining issue of this century — if climate change can modify your behavior, direct your tax money, and tell you whom to vote for, it makes sense to spend some of your time learning more*. This rabbit hole is astonishingly deep — it takes time to learn what’s really going on. If you read/watch the * items and still have questions, please contact me, and I’ll do my best to answer: email@example.com.
Call for the dismissal of the IPCC, UNFCC, and the UNSDSN. These organizations are doing more harm than good, putting politics ahead of science. We must effectively make them ineffective.
Stop the carbon credits. There are perverse incentives to set up carbon credit markets, and they distract from the main goals of improving the lives of people and the environment. Thankfully, most carbon markets are already tanking by themselves.
Fund proper metastudies. We simply don’t have good metastudies of the literature. We have one on temperature* and one on ocean acidification*, both of which support my conclusions here, but we need more. Since we are spending hundreds of billions each year on decarbonization, our first priority should be to allocate $10m to a systematic literature review done by metastudy specialists, not by politicians, climatologists, or magazines.
Clean up smoke emissions. Coal-based energy can be cleaned up, but we’re spending the majority of our money trying to figure out how to capture the carbon rather than all the bad stuff. Let’s go after smog, which kills at least 3 million people every year, and indoor air pollution, which kills at least 4 million people a year. Not only do we have good technology now, support of this market will drive more innovation and lower prices.
Provide affordable energy for all. We could use some of the decarbonization budget to build energy infrastructure in developing countries that have none. Alternatives like solar are not getting close to replacing power plants, but they certainly have their place. Wind energy has its own problems. We will be burning fossil fuels for the foreseeable future — let’s do it right and help lift billions out of poverty.
Invest in adaptation. Sea level is going to rise no matter what, but not quickly and not much. Regional water shortages and powerful storms are real threats that are here today. We should prepare for those threats now and pursue practical solutions to medium-term problems.
Invest in better medium-range forecasts. One of the most sensible suggestions I have heard: if we had good forecasts 2–3 months out, we could better prepare for disastrous weather events.
Invest in next-generation nuclear power. We will build thousands of power plants this century. Most of the money we’re planning to spend on decarbonization should go into producing the next generation of nuclear reactors. Fourth-generation molten-salt nuclear reactors will be safer, cleaner, and more cost-efficient.
Reach Out to Corporations. Many companies support decarbonization, spending billions of dollars that could be invested in new solutions. A commitment to nuclear power might be less popular but better for all.
Use the Paris climate conference to get the word out. There’s a big PR event coming up in December. Undoubtedly, there will be another emotional film with apocalyptic images. The WWF has already started:
It’s serious. The (money) stakes are higher than you might think. Science has nothing to do with it — this is about strengthening the decarbonization lobby. Hillary Clinton and John Kerry will magically pop up. Shabby-chic celebrities will photobomb the event, trying to look good doing good. The only thing that can stop this train is brand names speaking out, raising doubts, promoting more sensible solutions.
Reach out to the press. Mainstream publications have already decided the issue. I challenge a media-studies organization, like the Pew Research Center, to look hard at the issues and create a report that guides editors toward a more neutral and inclusive tone. A group like the Science Media Centre should take their own advice and look critically at climate science and wrongheaded claims.
Reach out to people you know. I realize you don’t want to be seen as a climate “denier.” Take it a step at a time. Ask questions. Send links to this article to friends, family, and people you know. You can just say “Hey, can you please read this and tell me what you think?” Use the hashtag #climatecurious to get your Twitter followers to come check it out.
Talk with educators. Think of kids who are truly concerned and want to do something for the planet. Their text books predict a scary, hellish future. If everyone who reads this can get one teacher to start questioning the dogma, we may have a chance to start teaching children to be critical thinkers and investigate for themselves.
Reach out to prominent liberals. If you know Bill Gates, Jeff Skoll, Mike Bloomberg, Gwyneth Paltrow, George Clooney, Leo DiCaprio, @ev, Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Taylor Swift, Michael Moore, Laurie David, @vkhosla, @johndoerr, or others interested in the climate issue, please send him/her to this page. We have to face the issue of fear and intimidation. Can you imagine Matt Damon holding a press conference to say he’s now a climate skeptic? Bring this up at a Beverly Hills cocktail party and you’re going to lose friends faster than you can say “vaccination.” What if Hillary Clinton told a reporter she’s “not so sure” about climate change?
But think about the choice we make not to look into this issue. Can we really afford to let the decarbonization lobby hijack our priorities, when so much else needs to be done at a critical time for the environment?
I’m not asking you to “get involved.” I’m asking you to investigate and talk about it. Your active questions and conversations will do the job. I invite anyone who has read this to contact me to just spend some time learning and talking about how we can help open minds. Jon Stewart — I’d like to talk with you. Gates Foundation— I have a proposal for you. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m still vegan. I still want to help people, animals, and the environment. I’m still a Democrat. But I now believe that Al Gore, the United Nations, and many trusted institutions are Goliath — crisscrossing the globe in private jets selling the Chicken-Little climate narrative at any cost — and the Davids are the lone scientists and bloggers who are just trying to uncover the facts.
Changing your mind this much is like getting a tattoo removed, but I feel like I’m seeing more clearly. The earth is warming, but not quickly, not much, and not lately.
I guess the main thing that convinced me to doubt Al Gore & the IPCC was partially the increasing number of PhD scientists who have changed their views and become more vocal about the science. It wasn partially the many peer-reviewed papers debunking the claims of the IPCC. And it was the metastudies — if the IPCC is right, why do the metastudies disagree? So far, we only have two, but they are significant:
- Temperature: “Corrected for publication bias, the bulk of the literature is consistent with climate sensitivity lying between 1.4 and 2.3 degrees Celsius.”
- Oceans: “… marine biota may be more resistant to ocean acidification than expected.”
Besides, even if it were all true, we’re wasting our money and energy on decarbonization. It’s not going to change anything. If people like Bjorn Lomborg realize that the IPCC narrative is probably wrong, then we could start setting priorities guided by experiments, evidence, and efficacy.
Finally, I keep in mind that skeptics have nothing to prove. They are trying — as Richard Feynman would if he were alive today — to disprove the claims made by people who should welcome the scrutiny. Yes, some skeptics are too extreme and have their own agenda. But the very essence of science is at stake. In the skeptic movement, I see people asking hard questions, challenging the status-quo, downloading the data, and changing their minds when they get new information.
I expect some personal backlash for writing this (it’s already happened), and of course I am not paid by and have no financial interest in either side of the debate. I simply care and want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. I sympathize with people who have lost their jobs, can’t get their research funded, have had papers rejected, have been investigated, accounts hacked, and harassed — it’s really happening, and it’s costing all of us dearly.
Understanding this gives us hope — by using the money and effort we are currently dedicating to reducing carbon emissions, we can have a huge impact today and tomorrow. So let’s get on with it: there are hundreds of things more important than decarbonizing and not a moment to lose.
If you do agree, if this essay has changed your view, or if you’re a liberal who believes we should delete decarbonization, help me with my big plan to educate influential liberals. If you have a blog or web site, please add this badge and link it to climatecurious.com:
Want to Write Me?
Please don’t send me your list of reasons I’m wrong and the Earth is going to Hell in a hand basket unless we decarbonize. You can leave comments at the page for this essay on Wattsupwiththat.com. I welcome thoughtful email discussions with those who have read this (the answer to your question is probably here somewhere already) and media interviews.
My thanks to Kevin Dick, Richard Lindzen, Willie Soon, Brian Wu, and Rob Siegel for helpful comments as I was writing this.
The Story Continues
So many people have come to read, comment, and talk about this essay online, that I am now keeping a blog and answering frequently asked questions and more at the ClimateCurious Addendum Page*. Please come see and learn the latest.
November 10, 2015: I am flattered by a big response to this essay written by well-meaning decarbonistas Josh Halpern, Greg Laden, Collin Maessen, Miriam O’Brien, Ken Rice, and Michael Tobis. In return, two people have helped me respond. One is by Tim Hunter, who bravely defended my essay against this ad-hominous attack. The other is by me and Bob Johnson. If you read the attack piece, be sure to see the two rebuttals.
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