It’s not so much that the pseudoskeptics who dominate the climate change denial camp are particularly clever, but they have been rather fortunate, and the forces aligned on the side of science have turned out to be human after all. The result is the denial camp is winning, and those on the defensive have some thinking to do.
First, consider the timing of recent events.
As the year began, climatologists were able to launch what should have been a devastating counterattack to the nonsensical but appealing notion that global warming has been replacing by global cooling. The records show that the first decade of the century was the warmest on record. Not only that, but 2009 tied for the second warmest year on record. This despite the recent La Niña, the phase of the irregular ENSO cycle that temporarily cools the surface waters of the oceans and consequently the lower atmosphere, and an unusually long solar minimum, which has the same qualitative, though not quantitative, effect on the Sun’s heating of the planet.
Then there was the nail in the coffin of the already moribund argument that the siting of U.S. weather stations lent a warming bias to temperature records. A new paper from the staff of the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., concluded the net bias came in the form of a cooling trend. If anything, temperatures in the U.S. have been rising more than previously thought. (Although the real bias is tiny, the important point is the absence of a warming bias.)
Given those facts, even a middle-school student can see the thesis that any warming trend was natural and short-lived is just plain false. And indeed, after a spate late last year of “there’s been no warming since 1998″ stories, largely in the UK but also to a surprising extent in the US, that particular fiction is no longer a favorite of the anti-intellectual pundits. But that hasn’t silenced them.
Instead, they’ve switched from attacking the science to attacking the scientists. The advent of the publication of hundreds of private emails among leading climatologists made this as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. We’ve all written things in haste that we’d love to retract, but that’s just not possible in the wired world. And everyone makes mistakes. Automobile manufacturers sell cars with faulty accelerators and brakes because they’re staffed by humans, just as IPCC authors cut corners and disregard protocol because they’re human.
Here’s IPCC author Phil Duffy, whose thoughts on the subject inspired mine:
Things happen, but let’s react appropriately. Medical doctors make mistakes every day. (In fact, medical errors in the US alone kill hundreds of people daily–the equivalent of a jumbo-jet crash.) And no doubt many of these errors happen because established procedures are ignored, sometimes knowingly. Does this mean the entire edifice of western medicine is wrong, or prejudiced, or the product of a conspiracy, and should be rejected? Of course not. Furthermore, the medical profession as a whole is still held in high regard, as it should be.
No one worth listening to is calling for a massive inquiry into the science underpinning modern medicine, or the engineering foundations of the car industry. But pseudoskeptics argue that the IPCC is systematically fraudulent simply because a couple of statements among thousands of pages of heavily edited and re-editing (and re-re-edited) documents cite gray literature instead of the peer-reviewed literature that supplied the science in the first place.
Is it controversial among those study such things that 40% of the Amazon is susceptible to drought? No. Is it controversial that Himalayan glaciers are receding? No. Only the way in which that science was presented and attributed was found faulty. To thrown out anthropogenic global warming because of such missteps is the climatological analog of dismissing an entire faculty of medicine because someone correctly diagnosed a patient because of a story they read in New Scientist instead of the medical journal article on which the story was based. Bad judgment? Yes. Fatal error? No.
Yet, that’s not the impression we get from reading the likes of George Will, or James Delingpole or Ian Plimer or Anthony Watts or any of the other questionable sources that find their way into Climate Debate Daily’s right-hand column. They would have you believe that climatologists are universally dishonest and/or stupid, more so than those of any other profession or trade. And after suffering years of insults to their intelligence and integrity, a few climatologists occasionally lose their cool in private correspondence, thus supplying the denial-mongers the fodder for this latest offensive in their war on reason and science.
There has been much gnashing of teeth among those who study the communication of science over the climate community’s poor “messaging.” But honest evaluation is there is no way scientists could have anticipated the challenges they face. The world has never before demanded so much of its scientists.They could not have been expected to self-censor their emails because there’s never been a comparable revelation of once-private correspondence among scientists. With 20-20 hindsight, the errors are evident. But that’s always the case with 20-20 hindsight, isn’t it.
So where does that leave those who care about getting the science message out to the public?
I have only one suggestion at this time, though hopefully more will become evident in the near future. The mainstream media has got to stop giving time and space to those who have no expertise in the field. Journalists who consider themselves in the business of supplying something akin to the truth have got to stand up to editors who insist on upon false equivalency or stop calling themselves journalists. News outlet administrators who pretend to respect their readers, viewers and listeners should read the riot act to anyone who blogs or otherwise works under their banner and insist they start respecting science if they want to continue in that capacity.
This isn’t about censorship. Thanks to the Internet, everyone can find a way to spread their point of view. It’s about applying the same standards to coverage of climate change that “respectable” media apply to fields like sports, business and other fields. Sports bloggers and journalists for major news organizations couldn’t get away with making up baseball statistics for long. They’d be laughed out of the office. Business reporters can’t supply false stock market numbers because that would be a violation of very essence of what they’re supposed to be doing. And yet climate science is somehow different. If you work for the Daily Mail or Telegraph in the UK, or Fox News (or the Washington Post‘s op-ed section) in the U.S., you can say or print anything you want about climatology, without regard for the facts. That should not be tolerated.
It’s not much, but it’s a start.