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 WSJ.com.)