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Climate Hustle

Fossil fuel funded report denies the expert global warming consensus

Posted on 22 February 2016 by John Abraham

We all know about the various organizations that fund or support the climate-change denial industry. Perhaps the best known is the Heartland Institute, which actually puts on climate “conferences” and publishes materials that appear at first glance to be scientifically sound. We who work and follow the climate change science and public discussions know enough to be skeptical about anything produced by groups like the Heartland Institute – their veneer of scientific credibility is very thin. 

On the other hand, perhaps the intended audience isn’t scientists or even people who closely follow the science. Perhaps their intended audience is legislators, teachers, and others who have influence over society?

With this as a backdrop, I received a copy of a humorous report from an elected official in the USA. The report was entitled “Why Scientists Disagree about Global Warming,” published by Heartland. Since elected officials have too much going on to do a thorough debunking, I looked into this report to see what substance was there.

As a scientist, when I read any manuscript I ask a number of questions. Who wrote it and what is their expertise in the field? When statements and conclusions are made, what is the evidence? How do these conclusions fit into prior work in the field? Is the new study confirming prior work or in conflict with it? If there is conflict, why?

The authors of this manuscript are Craig Idso, the late Robert Carter, and Fred Singer. These three are not exactly (or even nearly) a trio of reputable climate scientists. According to a literature search performed using the search engine SCOPUS, neither Idso nor Singer published a credible paper on global climate change or its implications in years.

One way to measure the authors’ impact is by counting how many people have read and cited their work. For both of these authors, the number of people who have cited them is shockingly low. To put their impact in perspective, a scientist like Kevin Trenberth receives three times more citations each year than the combined citations of Singer and Idso in their entire careers. So, having these guys be lead author on a climate change document is a bit like hiring retired scientists or op-ed writers to do your research. 

But just because they are not active and reputable scientists, could they be correct? Sure, they could be. So let’s look at the content.

The central theme of this manuscript is an attack against the expert consensus on human-caused global warming. The consensus refers to the very strong and repeatable measure of what scientists think about climate change. What do the best scientists say?

It turns out multiple groups have measured the consensus. The measurements have been done many different ways, all leading to the same conclusion – the consensus is strong. Not only is the consensus strong, contrarian scientists are less talented than those in the consensus. They publish less on the subject, and peer review has found the work of most high-profile contrarians to be faulty. So, on the one hand, you have approximately 97% of the best scientists in agreement, and on the other hand, you have about 3% of the less-talented scientists in dissent.

Dr. Naomi Oreskes conducted the first major study that looked at consensus more than a decade ago. Dr. Oreskes examined the abstracts of hundreds of papers and found that they strongly confirmed the human influence on climate. In fact, she found no papers that dissented. The Heartland publication falsely calls Dr. Oreskes a “non-scientist.” In fact her scientific impact measured by citations is approximately four times that of the combination of Idso and Singer. Instead, they try to refute her with references to think-tank non-reviewed publications and websites.

Peter Doran and Margaret Zimmerman performed the second major consensus study in 2009. This was the first peer-reviewed study that quantified that 97% agreement among climate scientists. The authors accessed a large database of Earth scientists and created a secure polling system to ask about their level of agreement. 

The authors broke the scientists into groups based on whether climate change was their field of study and whether they published a majority of their papers in that field. Approximately 10% of the respondents were in the most expert category. There were a series of questions for the respondents and a very strong consensus that temperatures had increased and humans were the cause. The Heartland Institute falsely claimed that the survey was only two questions, and their sole reference used to rebut the paper was an article in the National Post.

William Anderegg and his colleagues completed the third major measure of consensus in 2010. They created a database of the most prominent climate scientists by searching the scientific literature for papers and citations. They found that only 2% of the experts were unconvinced on the extent of human impact. Importantly, the contrarian scientists were found to publish less and publish less impactful studies – simply put, the best scientists agreed. 

How does the Heartland document counter this study? They claimed that the mainstream scientists are “hyper productive.” They even accuse these scientists by saying “It is unlikely these scientists actually participated in most of the experiments or research contain in the articles bearing their name.” Next, they point out that the contrarians tend to be older and retired. I wouldn’t disagree with either of their conclusions. The 97% of scientists that agree are more productive and younger than those who disagree. The references that the Heartland uses to support its conclusions are from its own website, from the Wall Street Journal, and other non-scientific outlets. Not very convincing. 

The Heartland document finally attacks the 2013 study by John Cook and colleagues of the scientific literature. The authors examined over 12,000 abstracts and found that among those taking a position, less than 3% rejected or minimized human-induced climate change. Among the abstracts that gave a position, 97% were in agreement. Just like before, in response to this the Heartland document cites no peer-reviewed scientific sources — just think-tank literature, websites, and blog posts.

What was surprising was that the Heartland report actually cited a consensus in favor of their viewpoint. The article “Scientists’ Views about Attribution of Global Warming” was published in 2014. The authors found a strong correlation of expertise with recognition that humans are a cause of climate change. For instance, for scientists who have published more than 10 papers on the topic, there is a 90% consensus that human influences dominate. 

I could go on, but you get the point. What we see is that it doesn’t matter how you measure the consensus. Whether you ask the scientists, whether you read the papers, or whether you troll the literature in other ways. The results are reinforcing, which why we know there is such a strong consensus.

While I won’t spend too much time on the scientifically incorrect or misleading statements in the Heartland report, I will mention a few. In chapter 4, they claim that a doubling of carbon dioxide would result in approximately 1°C warming. They neglected to remind the readers that we have nearly already reached that and we are nowhere near doubling of carbon dioxide yet. The report claims that meteorological observations are consistent with a climate sensitivity of 1°C but they provide no support for this assertion and in fact, the research does not support this. 

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Comments

Comments 1 to 8:

  1. The frustrating thing is that scientists need to waste their time saying that they all agree on the problem. refuting the attack on the consensus must be taking some time away from actually doing vital research and communicating the finding. That must be part of the objective of these attacks.

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  2. It could be added that Richard Tol criticised the Cooke et al paper, and said that he had no doubt there was a strong consensus (high 90s).

    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2014/jun/02/republican-witness-global-warming-consensus-real

    Unwilling to read the Heartland document. I wonder if they mentioned this Tol's efforts in their 'literature review.'

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  3. This paper finds  "robust and replicated evidence that
    communicating the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change leads to significant and substantial changes in perceived scientific agreement among conservatives, moderates, and liberals alike"

    Communicating the Scientific Consensus on Human-Caused Climate Change is an Effective and Depolarizing Public Engagement Strategy: Experimental Evidence from a Large National Replication Study

    Deniers often argue that "consensus is not important", but clearly it is, and the Heartland Institute know it. The report is just another attempt to muddy the waters.

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  4. Seeing how important naming systems are to science I think it fair to say that consensus is ver important in science.

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  5. Although "Who wrote it and what is their expertise in the field?" is often relevant, is it really the first question one should ask about a manuscript?  Asking that question first leads to evaluation by source rather than evaluation by content.

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  6. My concern is that NOaa is trying so hard to maintain the human caused global warming thesis that they have turned to changing facts.

    NOAA has funded two studies to deny that there was ever a MWParound 1100 AD that lasted for about 100 years.

    NOAA funded a study to falsely lalim that the danes did not settle Greenland because of warming of the Atlantic and did not leave  because the climate cooled. 

    Most recently NOAA submitted a report denying the flattening of the warming curve betwee 1998 & 2015 by using the most subverted statistics. NOAA internal staff disapproved the report. 

    NOAA has recently changed the source of temperature readings, which coincidentally supports their prior report that there was no paise in the warming curve and indicates a big jump in the 2015 temperatures.

    Sorry to say but NOAA is losing credibility and is more susceptible to climate deniers by providing non-science backed support for their position.

    Oh, many of those climate scientists that support the human caused global warming have degress in climate fields, e.g, biologists, physicists, engineers etc.

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  7. Jeff T @ 5,

    The Critical Thinking course I took as an option when I pursued my MBA identified understanding who wrote something to be one of the first steps in evaluating a source of information.

    That understanding does not 'bias' a review by a conscientious responsible pursuer of better understanding. It helps establish the type of effort that should be put into the review. How much careful exclusion or deliberate deception to expect can make the effort to evaluate the information much more effective.

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  8. One Planet Only Forever @7 and Jeff T @6

    To evaluate a source of information you not only have to understand who the author is, but you need to pay careful attention to the language used, the style of writing and the material used to support the argument. Now, I suspect that some of the Heartland material is not written to seriously participate in the scientific debate. It is written to give a scientific veneer to the reference material used in non-scientific articles written by those who oppose the climate change argument in the popular media. These articles make it easier for denier motivated journalists who have a non-scientific background to make simple dismissive climate change denier arguments in the popular media. I have seen articles, particularly in the Murdoch press and some conservative journals like Quadrant, that use the word "discredited" when referring to John Cooke's Consensus Project. When reading opinion pieces in the Australian Press by the likes of Andrew Bolt, Miranda Devine, and Piers Ackerman, they often use a combination of words that are dismissive of the whole scientific basis for Climate Change without providing any real evidence. When they do provide "evidence", which is not very often, it is from institutions like Heartland and a few scientists attached to Australia's Institute of Public Affairs. I am sure that it is the same with the popular media in Canada, the US and the UK. It is very easy to make dismissive statements in this debate in the popular media. It is very difficult and not so easy for scientists and like minded journalists to refute those dismissive statements in the popular media. It requires the reader to have some understanding of scientific reasoning. Of course in scientific circles, where scientists argue in a scientific manner, dismissive arguments are not so easily made. They require evidence and logical argument. In science, it is the strength of the scientific argument and supporting evidence that wins the day, not necessarily who the author is.

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