Over the last few weeks, in the run-up to the official UK release of my new book A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilization on 4th October, I've been inundated with angry and often exasperated claims that one of the key crises I address in the book human-induced climate change is merely a myth, lacks serious scientific evidence, and/or is the sinister result of deliberate "scare-mongering.'
My experience is that public opinion is now seriously confused about the science of climate change, and that increasingly people either feel they fall into an agnostic camp, or categorize themselves as wholesale "sceptics'. Recent polls of American public opinion in August found that as much as 45 per cent of people believe that global warming "is caused by long-term planetary trends", while only 40 per cent are convinced that "human activity is the main contributor." In the UK, the number of people who believe climate change is "definitely" a reality dropped by a massive 30 per cent over the preceding year, from 44 to 31 per cent.
There's no doubt that this has been a direct result of a series of scandalous stories which received worldwide press coverage, starting with the leaked emails from the climate science unit at the University of East Anglia, and finishing with a whole range of claims attempting to discredit the IPCC's landmark Fourth Assessment Report published in early 2007, which confirmed a 90 per cent certainty that current global warming was due to human-induced fossil fuel emissions.
One of the purposes of writing my book was precisely to explore the so-called "sceptic-alarmist' debates across a whole range of global crises, not just climate change to get at the truth of the matter. The sheer repetitive nature of the misconceptions has led me to decide to deal with them systematically here.
One of the earliest and loudest self-styled "sceptics' of anthropogenic global warming is Senator James Inhofe, the ranking minority member of the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. In late 2007, Inhofe released a list of over 400 "prominent scientists" who "disputed man-made global warming claims." By 2009, Inhofe had expanded his list to just under 700 people. The Inhofe list has been regularly cited by climate sceptics as evidence that there is no scientific consensus on climate change, and that most scientists actually challenge the idea that global warming is human-induced.
I discuss Inhofe's fraudulent list at some length in the book, but it suffices here to note that a thorough study of the curiously ever-expanding Inhofe list was completed in summer 2009 by the Center for Inquiry in the US. Among other things, the study found that fewer than 10 per cent of the people on Inhofe's list could be identified as climate scientists; that a further 4 per cent actually favoured the IPCC consensus on anthropogenic global warming; and that 80 per cent of the list had no peer-reviewed publications related to climate science.
The Inhofe list was widely publicized by the media even though, as of the end of 2009, Senator Inhofe has received at least a million dollars in campaign contributions from individuals and companies linked to the US oil and gas industry. This should not come as a surprise.
In the period from January 2009 to June 2010, the world's top 35 companies and trade associations linked to fossil fuels, mining and electric utility companies invested more than $500 million "in lobbying and campaign contributions... to defeat clean energy legislation", successfully convincing enough US senators to oppose energy reforms. The lobbyists included the usual "special interest' players: ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, BP, Koch Industries and Shell. This is nothing new. Oil tycoons at Koch gave a total of $50 million to climate "sceptic' front groups from 1998 to 2007. ExxonMobil gave $16 million to similar groups in around the same period to support their activities, and have been exposed again this July, giving $1 million this year to "organisations that campaign against controls on greenhouse gas emissions" including several groups which led attacks on climate scientists at the University of East Anglia. These are all simply isolated cases that are part of a wider ongoing campaign by the fossil fuel industries to promulgate disinformation and confusion about climate change, so as to consolidate their own control over the global political economy.
It is not a surprise then that Inhofe himself was among the first to jump on the 2009 climate email "scandal' bandwagon, when thousands of emails from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit from a period of more than ten years were obtained by hackers. One of the emails most cited by "sceptics', by the head of the unit, Professor Phil Jones, reads: "I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) amd from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline".
Inhofe's press blog commented that the email "appears to show several scientists eager to present a particular viewpoint that anthropogenic emissions are largely responsible for global warming even when the data showed something different".
But the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), analyzing this and other leaked emails, explained the language and scientific context in detail:
"Jones is talking about how scientists compare temperature data from thermometers with temperature data derived from tree rings. Comparing that data allows scientists to derive past temperature data for several centuries before accurate thermometer measurements were available. The global average surface temperature since 1880 is based on thermometer and satellite temperature measurements...
In some parts of the world, tree rings are a good substitute for temperature record. Trees form a ring of new growth every growing season. Generally, warmer temperatures produce thicker tree rings, while colder temperatures produce thinner ones. Other factors, such as precipitation, soil properties, and the tree's age also can affect tree ring growth.
The "trick,' which was used in a paper published in 1998 in the science journal Nature, is to combine the older tree ring data with thermometer data. Combining the two data sets can be difficult, and scientists are always interested in new ways to make temperature records more accurate.
Tree rings are a largely consistent source of data for the past 2,000 years. But since the 1960s, scientists have noticed there are a handful of tree species in certain areas that appear to indicate temperatures that are warmer or colder than we actually know they are from direct thermometer measurement at weather stations.