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Climate Science: Calling Out The Cranks

A striking letter just appeared in the Wall Street Journal signed by 38 leading climate scientists from around the world. They strongly protested a previous opinion piece in the same paper titled “No Need to Panic About Global Warming,” signed by other scientists of good repute in their fields — but not in climate science. The 38 co-singers of the new letter don't counsel “panic” but they do state unequivocally that “the world is heating up and humans are primarily responsible.”

Ironically, but perhaps not coincidentally, on the next page there appeared an opinion piece by Theodore Olsen, a lawyer for the Koch brothers, oil baron multibillionaires who fund all manner of right-wing causes — including climate denial (and some good stuff too, it must be said). Titled “Obama's Enemies List,” this is an astonishing complaint about governmental “McCarthyism,” and “tyrannical power,” supposedly meant to “oppress” the poor Koch brothers. While not getting too deeply into the Koch business practices here, we'll just say this is an astonishing whine and leave it at that.

But back to the 38 climate scientists: They aptly note that in many scientific debates, at least a few outlier scientists exist who disagree with the majority opinion. Which is fine, often even healthy, but most of those, however, eventually come to accept the consensus, but some stick it out, curmudgeons for so long that eventually it would be too embarrassing to admit one's error. They note that some researchers held for years that tobacco was really not so bad, and that “there is a retrovirus expert who does not accept that HIV causes AIDS.”

That rings a bell — I know who that guy was. They must be referring to Peter Duesberg, an otherwise distinguished UC Berkeley virologist who became the leading voice of “AIDS denialism,” in the 1990s, holding that the disease was actually caused by drug abuse and the medications approved to fight HIV disease (which only a little thought, such as about transfusion-associated HIV, renders absurd). No amount of evidence would deter him, or a few others of otherwise good repute, such as Nobelist Kary Mullis (whose own Nobel-winning work had nothing to do with HIV), who also held that HIV was no real problem even as it sickened and killed millions around the globe.

I met both Duesberg and Mullis at a scientific meeting at the time of their denialist “stardom” and was stuck by how much they reveled in the attention their statements brought their way. There seemed to be more “abnormal psychology” than real science at play. And I wonder how much of a similar dynamic is at play with some “contrarian” climate science deniers — those not being paid to deny it, at least. Eventually it's no often longer about real science and those in the know just get frustrated and give up on even debating the cranks (as the veteran environmental journalist Mark Hertsgaard has called them) — which said cranks of course call “conspiracy,” and dig in with ever more specious critiques of said conspiracy and nitpicking which does not really address the issues. In this case, now they have to argue that not only thousands of independent scientists are in on the plot, but also NASA, the National Academy of Sciences, and even many big businesses who have come to accept that climate change is real and we are part of the problem. The American Physical Society also weighed in, complaining that the “don't panic” gang had misrepresented what most physicists now believe about climate too. And then the other all-to-common factor in this issue was highlighted when a little investigation turned up the fact that at least half of the original “don't panic” signers had some sort of connection to oil, energy, or other interests which have been funding the climate denial effort. Once again, the ultimate admonition was shown to be “follow the money.”

The climate scientists' opening medical analogy is one I and others have used before; If you or somebody you love was seriously ill, and nine out of ten, or in this case 97 out of 100 doctors shared an opinion on what should be done, would you go with the tiny minority opinion, even if many in that minority were “on the take"? With AIDS denialists, some public health efforts were diverted and wasted due to their intransigence, and some people may have died, especially if they bought into the denial and did not protect themselves from HIV.. With climate cranks, the stakes are even bigger. The climate scientists' new letter is unlikely to resolve the debate, as the many online comments on it immediately indicated. But it's good to see the responsible majority speak out in such a forceful manner.

Their letter is here:

Check With Climate Scientists for Views on Climate

Do you consult your dentist about your heart condition? In science, as in any area, reputations are based on knowledge and expertise in a field and on published, peer-reviewed work. If you need surgery, you want a highly experienced expert in the field who has done a large number of the proposed operations.

You published “No Need to Panic About Global Warming” (op-ed, Jan. 27) on climate change by the climate-science equivalent of dentists practicing cardiology. While accomplished in their own fields, most of these authors have no expertise in climate science. The few authors who have such expertise are known to have extreme views that are out of step with nearly every other climate expert. This happens in nearly every field of science. For example, there is a retrovirus expert who does not accept that HIV causes AIDS. And it is instructive to recall that a few scientists continued to state that smoking did not cause cancer, long after that was settled science.

Climate experts know that the long-term warming trend has not abated in the past decade. In fact, it was the warmest decade on record. Observations show unequivocally that our planet is getting hotter. And computer models have recently shown that during periods when there is a smaller increase of surface temperatures, warming is occurring elsewhere in the climate system, typically in the deep ocean. Such periods are a relatively common climate phenomenon, are consistent with our physical understanding of how the climate system works, and certainly do not invalidate our understanding of human-induced warming or the models used to simulate that warming.

Thus, climate experts also know what one of us, Kevin Trenberth, actually meant by the out-of-context, misrepresented quote used in the op-ed. Mr. Trenberth was lamenting the inadequacy of observing systems to fully monitor warming trends in the deep ocean and other aspects of the short-term variations that always occur, together with the long-term human-induced warming trend.

The National Academy of Sciences of the US (set up by President Abraham Lincoln to advise on scientific issues), as well as major national academies of science around the world and every other authoritative body of scientists active in climate research have stated that the science is clear: The world is heating up and humans are primarily responsible. Impacts are already apparent and will increase. Reducing future impacts will require significant reductions in emissions of heat-trapping gases.

Research shows that more than 97% of scientists actively publishing in the field agree that climate change is real and human caused. It would be an act of recklessness for any political leader to disregard the weight of evidence and ignore the enormous risks that climate change clearly poses. In addition, there is very clear evidence that investing in the transition to a low-carbon economy will not only allow the world to avoid the worst risks of climate change, but could also drive decades of economic growth. Just what the doctor ordered.

Kevin Trenberth, Sc.D.

Distinguished Senior Scientist, Climate Analysis Section, National Center for Atmospheric Research plus 37 more (list available on


  1. Chuck Becker February 23, 2012

    This is a controversy that’s taken on a life of its own, over what amounts to a common dynamic. People who take the time to form an opinion end up on one side of the other. The side with science on their side shake their heads in wonder at the folks on the other, seemingly non-scientific, side. How can this be? How can otherwise seemingly normal, rational people believe such seemingly utter junk as … “climate change is no (big deal)(not real)” … “MMR vaccine causes autism” … “etc, etc, etc”.

    I think this seemingly lunatic approach to science lies not in the science, but in the public policy associated with that science. The science of climate change is sound, solid, and robust. A person would have a long uphill struggle to prove that human activity isn’t exponentially increasing atmospheric carbon (albeit that human population is the best predictor of atmospheric carbon levels) leading to increased temperatures on our home plant. Why deny it?

    The reason for denying it, since the topic of the debate is already set, is to reject not the SCIENCE, but the SOLUTIONS (speaking for Joe here):

    Joe hears about AGW and how we have to “stop driving cars” to solve the problem. Joe doesn’t take a month to decompose the issue and figure out how to respond, he just doesn’t want to stop driving his car. So Joe decides that global warming is “no big deal”, he finds some glory-hound iconoclast ‘experts’, and there you go.

    If Joe really thought about it, he’d realize that his problem isn’t with AGW. Joe’s problem is with the policy solutions that the scientists and AGW activists have attached as a rider to the science. If the science were presented on its own, without any tie to “giving up his car”, Joe would probably buy it. Here’s a simple test:

    Next time you’re talking to a climate scientist or AGW advocate who calls for moving away from a “carbon-based energy economy”, make them an offer. Offer to build enough new, GenIII+ nuclear power plants to replace all fossil based electrical generation. In fact there’s nothing else we can do, fast enough and with lesser consequences, to eliminate carbon emissions. If the climate scientist or AGW advocate agrees and supports that proposal, then they really are concerned about AGW. If they object, then the logical conclusion is they’re more interested in controlling the public policy (‘the agenda’), and picking the winners and losers (political power).

    And that’s why Joe denies global warming.

    We need to fix AGW, so we need the scientist to get out of the policy side and stick to the science and engineering side of this issue. Every solution has costs and benefits. Weighing those costs and benefits is not the job of science. Deciding how society will value this cost or that benefit is far outside the realm of expertise of any scientist. Predicting outcomes and scoring solutions is their role, in their professional lives they need to stick to it. It would be nice to see the scientists and activists put solving the problem ahead of getting the solution they like best. I suspect that rather than an optimum solution, we’ll end up stumbling through as we usually do.

  2. Harvey Reading February 24, 2012

    Three-Mile Island, where people are still afflicted from radiation damage to their bodies, Chernobyl as well, Rancho Seco where people finally got fed up with coolant leaks and shutdowns and voted for its down in the 80s, and Fukushima, a work still in progress, are all examples of how dangerous nukes are, generation III or generation X. That’s why the smart-money people listen to their actuaries and won’t touch nukes with a 10-foot pole, leaving we the people to foot the bill for the monstrosities, from construction through cleanup. No damned thanks.

    We’d be much better off if the guvamint would simply mandate installation of solar panels on all existing and new structures, with the bill for installation, maintenance, and eventual replacement footed by 1) a massive tax on the wealthy and 2) a reduction of 75 percent in military expenditures, including consignment to the scrap heap of the Osprey, the F-22 and F-35, which are nothing but expensive junk.

    As a retired muleskinner for the war department and not a nuclear engineer by a long shot, you are a bit hypocritical in your call for scientists to stick to their own field. Oh, but maybe there’s an exception made in the case of self-designated “philosophers” like you.

  3. Chuck Becker February 26, 2012

    Airplanes used to regularly crash into the ground and each other, killing all onboard. We didn’t stop flying, we improved the technology. Advanced fission technologies are the stepping stone to fusion. A national program to get ahead of the curve now lets us identify and develop generating sites, build the grid, and re-engineer society and industry in terms of zero carbon, low cost electrical power.

    There absolutely are risks. Fukushima proves that. It also proves that the most dire predictions, even using obsolete technology in a badly flawed plant design, doesn’t result in worst case scenarios. Only Chernobyl, a Soviet engineered, built, and operated plant was able to accomplish that.

    I fully support reducing the DoD budget by 50% over ten years, re-engineering the force for the 21st Century, and putting the savings toward reducing the deficit, funding the space program, or some other tangibly useful purpose.

    Government mandates drive up costs. Rooftop solar is a very good thing. If it’s a great thing, it’ll stand on its own.

    I not only don’t question the science of AGW, I embrace it. The science isn’t the issue, the policy is. Especially a public policy that excludes nuclear (or any other useful technology) If debating policy in a policy debate forum (such as the AVA) is “philosphizing” … well, Okay.

    The tradeoffs:

  4. Harvey Reading February 28, 2012

    Naw, Chuck, energy futures speculators, some employed by big energy itself, are what drive up costs, far beyond what would be the case if simple supply and demand was the driving force. So do subsidies to the nuclear industry, which is not a useful industry, even based on your own statement about rooftop solar: ” … it’ll stand on its own,” something nuclear cannot do.

    When you get right down to it, everything government enacts is a mandate in one form or another. Some are good, some bad. Destruction of the Bill of Rights to fight the bogey men we created with our brutal foreign policy falls into the latter category. I support a mandate that puts lots of people to work, for a long time, which mandated installation and maintenance of rooftop panels would do, far more than nuclear power would, even if it was safe.

    • Chuck Becker February 28, 2012

      You support a solution that works best for about 8 hours a day during the summer and less than that during the winter. I do to. I also support a solution that works 24 hours a day, 12 months a year to provide baseload power, replacing first the obsolete nuclear plants, then the dirtiest fossil fuel plants. I’d be happy to see a valid comparison of the employment impact of pure solar (even if that were remotely practical) vs rooftop solar + nuclear.

      The government can jawbone an issue, no mandate involved. But once they legislate, it becomes coercive. If it’s “good”, we like it. If it’s “bad”, we object. So? The obvious lesson is to be careful what we wish for.

  5. Harvey Reading February 28, 2012

    By the way Chuck, Fukushima isn’t over yet. And, how many people have to die or get sick before it becomes a problem for you?

    • Chuck Becker February 28, 2012

      Every accidental and untimely human death bothers me, but that’s not the point. The right answer is “a number that’s smaller than the next less destructive option”. People need power. People are going to die in the pursuit of power.

      The objective is to get the power we need at the least human and environmental cost. So far, the only clear example of nuclear failing that test is Chernobyl: designed, approved, built, inspected, and operated by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

      Fukushima was a disaster of design, approval, operation, inspection, and emergency management. With all that, it’s nowhere NEAR Chernobyl. People used to die by the hundred in airplane crashes, but we didn’t stop flying; we worked to improve the technology.

  6. Harvey Reading March 1, 2012

    As usual, you’re peddling snake oil on behalf of your beloved kaputalism. Even if your figures on solar were accurate — and your eight-hour figure is nonsensical, as is your blabber about whether it is practical — the amount of energy produced would put a huge dent in dependence on fossil fuels, which would mainly be required at night, when usage is low. And, with adoption of solar (not panels or gruesome wind “farms”strung out in wildlife habitat in “flyover” country) would come research into even more efficient methods of producing energy, which has been almost totally nonexistent over the last 40-plus years, at the behest of big energy kaputalists, save for the continuing quest for the holy grail of fusion energy, which may never achieved.

    I find it hard to believe that every accidental death “bothers” you. You are so quick to brush it aside with the ridiculous statement that people are going to die (whether they want to or not, under orders of our current fascist government whose actions are dictated solely by kaputalists) in their pursuit of world control. Maybe you’re one of those who is willing to tolerate the execution of a few innocent people if it means that all the guilty ones are killed.

    Your analogy to flying is utterly without merit. No one forced those airline passengers to fly. Kaputalists and their toadies are doing their best to force nuclear power on everyone, like it or not, safe or not.

    • Chuck Becker March 1, 2012

      ” in their pursuit of world control” – – – The ‘power’ I referred to is electrical power, not political power. Context, it’s called context.

      What you find hard to believe about what I feel is a matter of conjecture on your part that you have no basis for, other than expediency.

      Your post provides nothing else to reply to.

  7. Harvey Reading March 2, 2012

    Just experience, Chuck, just experience with what I’ve heard propounded by numerous pompous, authoritarian blowhards throughout my life, including those of the pseudoliberal variety, also known as democraps. I figure if it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, then there’s damned good chance it is a duck.

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