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Can a Reasonable Skeptic Support Climate Change Legislation?

Commentary

Stuart Jordan

Volume 33.5, September / October 2009

CFI vets list of 687 ‘dissenting scientists’ in Senate minority report; 80 percent haven’t published peer-reviewed climate research.

Skeptics are rightly challenged to assess claims made by all parties when an issue of major public importance arises. This is especially true when any action taken may have unpredictable economic consequences for the entire country. Questions related to global warming, climate change, and national energy policy represent such an issue today.

Both proponents and opponents of action are now arming themselves for a major political fight. Proponents have collected a large body of scientific evidence predicting that maintaining the status quo will consign the world to climate disaster. Opponents are arguing that an economic collapse could result from expensive, dramatic action. Some opponents also argue that we need more research. In light of this, a continuing effort for objective assessment is needed.

This year, the current administration in Washington is preparing legislation that would, if fully implemented, mandate significant reductions in carbon dioxide emissions and also collect several hundred billion dollars in carbon taxes over a ten-year period. These taxes would be collected through a mechanism known as cap-and-trade by selling carbon credits—allowances to produce carbon dioxide—to industries that generate this known greenhouse gas. President Obama has endorsed this approach, which has been in place for several years in the European Union. Not surprisingly, there are opposing views on how well cap-and-trade has worked in Europe.

In response to this legislation, proponents and opponents have embarked on a major effort in Washington to pass, modify, or defeat it. Nearly every environmental organization, the majority of scientific organizations, and most Democrats support the legislation; most spokespersons for the energy industry, some scientists, and the more conservative Republicans tend either to oppose it or at least to seek major modifications. For example, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Physical Science Report-2007 summarizes the work of approximately 2,000 scientists worldwide and supports major initiatives to curb carbon emissions. Representing the opposition according to Environment Maryland, a citizen-based environmental advocacy organization, are approximately 2,000 lobbyists who have been engaged by American energy industries to identify flaws in the IPCC-2007 arguments and in the administration’s legislation.

Both sides have made significant efforts to establish scientific credibility with the public. Those favoring action rely heavily on the IPCC-2007 science report and note some alarming recent research that suggests the Greenland icecap may be melting at a faster rate than even IPCC-2007 reported. In contrast, a well-known opponent of human-induced global warming, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, has sought to persuade people that the current scientific majority view is misguided. (Inhofe is the ranking Republican member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.) In consequence, his office has issued a Senate Minority report titled United States Senate Minority Report on Global Warming. It can be found at epw.senate.gov.

The minority report lists a number of individuals identified as scientists who allegedly dissent over man-made global-warming claims. As of January 2009, the number of such persons listed was 687. Noting that there were indeed some quite well-known scientists on the list, and in view of the importance of the issue, the Center for Inquiry/Office of Public Policy decided to vet the list carefully to establish how credible it is overall.

This research produced the following information on the 687 people listed in the Senate minority report. Categories included name, education, summary of publications in the refereed literature based on the better-known climate science and solar physics journals, current institutional affiliations, and professional identifications.

The proportion of them who have published articles on climate science proved to be slightly less than 10 percent. Rounding off, a total of 15 percent exhibited a significant publication record in subjects at least related to climate science. We found no evidence that 551 (~80 percent) had any peer-reviewed publications bearing on climate science. At least fifty-five had no science credentials at all, and many others identified as meteorologists proved to be weather reporters. Almost 4 percent expressed support for the general consensus supporting anthropogenic causes of global warming, the near-consensus expressed by the IPCC-2007 science report, and therefore should not have appeared on the list in the first place.

How should a skeptic deal with this information? All trained scientists admit that scientific truth is ultimately probabilistic, even when the probabilities appear to be approaching certainty. It is also true that the climate scientists I know grant that there are still a few “dark corners” in the realm of cloud theory that need to be explored in more detail using new data obtained on a smaller grid. Finally, it cannot be ruled out that some as-yet undiscovered natural process may be playing a larger than anticipated role in global warming. Opponents of human causation often propose the sun as the likely driver of contemporary global warming. While no one can say with certainty that the sun plays only a small role in climate change today, as a solar physicist I can say that the various solar mechanisms proposed to date have either been discredited by current research or have been presented in highly speculative arguments not now supported by observations.

Where does this leave us? As concerned citizens we need to recognize that we are dealing with a two-step decision process. The first step is getting the science right. There is no doubt that a large majority of the scientific research community thinks global-warming-driven climate change is due primarily to anthropogenic greenhouse gases. That there remains a much smaller number of research scientists who disagree and that no one can claim certainty about this complex problem is equally true. This makes it relatively easy for those who wish to delay or prevent action to claim to the public that there is a big controversy over the science, implying that action, and especially expensive action, would be unwise. However, the evidence suggests otherwise. That there is a big and growing scientific controversy over anthropogenic sources of global warming is almost certainly untrue.

The second step in the decision process is the political one, which necessarily brings in the economic issues. This brief piece cannot address those issues except to acknowledge their critical importance. Nevertheless, we can ask the skeptic who is not acquainted with the relevant science where he or she thinks the most credible scientific assessment lies—with the scientists whose published research is reported in the IPCC-2007 science report or with the much smaller group of scientists collected for the Senate minority report.

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Stuart Jordan, PhD, is the former Science Advisor to the Center for Inquiry Office of Public Policy.