Where do conservatives get the nerve?

| June 3, 2011

First, it was creationism as a ‘theory’ which should be taught alongside evolution in schools; now, it’s a denial of the realities of climate change.

The list of baseless nonsense dressed-up as informative and informed theorizing looks set to grow with each new challenge to the possibility of ‘business as usual’  – at least for those who are anxious to preserve the American way of life as it was circa 1984.

It seems that commentators on the far-right of the US political spectrum have developed a convenient habit of confusing – or, in technical terms, conflatingopinion with fact. Or, if it isn’t that, it’s the even worse offense of deliberately confusing the scientific use of the term ‘theory’ with ‘personal’ theorizing (i.e. belief, or simply dreaming up a hypothesis to support the prejudices of your largely unexamined ‘worldview’). A good example of this is the repeated charge from creationists – including education executives, such as these two from the Fremont School Board – that ‘evolution is just a theory…’

Despite the staggering level of ignorance required for anybody to insist on this conflation, it seems to have proven successful enough for those of a like mind to turn a similar kind of attention to the issue of global warming, particularly as it concerns the notion of man-made climate change. And so it is that recently four board members of the Los Alamitos Unified School District voted (unanimously) that a new environmental science class for the fall should be listed as a ‘controversial topic’, and the teaching of the class contain provision for ‘multiple perspectives’ on the issue of climate change.

All of this sounds innocuous enough, especially as being made aware of the fact that the man-made climate change hypothesis is a simplified indicator of a very broad kind of consensus, one which contains differing individual viewpoints regarding the nature, scale, causes and effects of the climate change under scrutiny. But what is emphatically not in question is the fact that (1) global warming is occurring; and (2) there is an overwhelming consensus amongst scientists, science-based organizations and national and international academies of learning endorsing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) position of January 2001 which states:

“An increasing body of observations gives a collective picture of a warming world and other changes in the climate system… There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.”(IPCC, 2001)

In fact, as has been noted by many commentators, there is not a single body of national or international standing which has maintained a dissenting opinion to this position.

Despite this, Fremont School Board member Dr Jeffrey Barke has gone on record to depict such consensus as a “liberal dogma of belief”, and has asserted in a Guardian article that “there are almost an equal number of reputable scientists who would disagree with many of the tenets that say global warming is unarguably happening, whether it’s caused by man, and whether it will have devastating consequences.”

This is, of course, absolute rubbish. The group of ‘reputable scientists’ who disagree are not merely a severely disproportionate minority (under 3% of the expert field in this area, according to peer-reviewed articles by Doran et al (2009), and Anderegg et al (2010) ), but of their number the only two names Barke is able to cite as being ‘reputable’ are Ian Pilmer and Bjorn Lomborg. What is interesting, not to say highly revealing, about these two figures is that Lomborg is a Business professor (with an MA and PhD in Political Science, rather than an empirical science) who in a 2010 interview summarized his position on climate change as maintaining:

Global warming is real – it is man-made and it is an important problem. But it is not the end of the world.”

And Pilmer has been extensively criticized for repeatedly mis-stating, doctoring and making erroneous claims about climate data in his books on the subject. Indeed, his reputation has become tarnished to such an extent that an article in the same newspaper which interviewed Dr Jeffrey Barke concluded:

“His book has been criticised by mainstream scientists as riddled with errors and misrepresentations of climate data. The first graph in the book purports to use temperature data from the Met Office’s Hadley Centre and the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, but many of the data points are in the wrong place.

Another graph in the opening pages shows the global temperature record during the 20th century. Plimer does not give a source in the book but it looks remarkably similar to a graph used by Martin Durkin in his documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle. The programme was castigated for its inaccuracies by Ofcom and the graph was subsequently withdrawn by Durkin.

Potentially more damaging – because geoscience is his specialist field – is his claim that volcanoes are responsible for more CO2 emissions than human activities. The US Geological Survey says that humans in fact create 130 times the CO2 volcanoes do. Plimer now claims that the USGS figure only includes volcanoes on land, not undersea eruptions at mid-ocean ridges. But Dr Terrence Gerlach of the USGS said the 130 figure includes the underwater volcanoes. [emphases mine]”

And, just in case you are left in any doubt as to the extent of the consensus amongst mainstream (i.e. not religiously or economically motivated) scientists, here is a list of the scientific organizations which endorse the consensus position that “most of the global warming in recent decades can be attributed to human activities”:

American Association for the Advancement of Science
American Astronomical Society
American Chemical Society
American Geophysical Union
American Institute of Physics
American Meteorological Society
American Physical Society
Australian Coral Reef Society
Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO
British Antarctic Survey
Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences
Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
Environmental Protection Agency
European Federation of Geologists
European Geosciences Union
European Physical Society
Federation of American Scientists
Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies
Geological Society of America
Geological Society of Australia
International Union for Quaternary Research (INQUA)
International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics
National Center for Atmospheric Research
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Royal Meteorological Society
Royal Society of the UK

The Academies of Science from 19 different countries all endorse the consensus. 11 countries have signed a joint statement endorsing the consensus position:

Academia Brasiliera de Ciencias (Brazil)
Royal Society of Canada
Chinese Academy of Sciences
Academie des Sciences (France)
Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina (Germany)
Indian National Science Academy
Accademia dei Lincei (Italy)
Science Council of Japan
Russian Academy of Sciences
Royal Society (United Kingdom)
National Academy of Sciences (USA)

The nature and process of man made climate change is certainly controversial. But let’s not pretend that the idea that it isn’t happening, or that human activity of the last 50+ years hasn’t had a discernible impact on its manifestation, is a contrary viewpoint to which we should give any credence.