Climate Denial 101

A User’s Guide to the arguments of global warming skeptics

The scientific community was understandably horrified. Michaels was widely condemned for his fraudulent behavior in the media and scientific forums (Hansen, 2005; Krugman, 2006; Lambert, 2006; 2008; etc.), but not surprisingly, the skeptic community had a ready string of excuses for him. Michaels himself bristled at being labeled a fraud, and defended his actions by claiming that (get this…) in his opinion, “business-as-usual” means baseline—regardless of what the authors meant by either term.

my purpose was to demonstrate that commonly held assumptions about climate change can be violated in a very few short years.

One of those is that greenhouse gas concentrations, mainly carbon dioxide, would continue on a constant exponential growth curve. NASA scientist James Hansen had a model that did just this, published in 1988, and referred to in his June 23, 1988 Senate testimony as a ‘Business as Usual’ (BAU) scenario.

BAU generally assumes no significant legislation and no major technological changes. It’s pretty safe to say that this was what happened in the succeeding ten years.” (Michaels, 2006)

Other skeptics echoed similar rationalizations. One even went so far as to claim that Scenario A was Hansen’s real baseline because it was “arguably more prominent graphically” in his figure (McIntyre, 2008; Lambert, 2008) … again, in his opinion.

The problem with all this of course, is that it wasn’t his own work, nor that of any other skeptic that Michaels was representing in his testimony—it was Hansen’s. And the only definition of “baseline” that’s germane to his work is the one he clearly presented in his publications and 1988 Congressional testimony as his team’s most plausible case (Hansen, 2005). The scenarios they modeled are specifically spelled out, not only in the body of their published research, but in the paper’s abstract where even a minimal attempt at due diligence would’ve made them evident (Hansen et al., 1998). The responsible thing to do (not to mention, the ethical one) would’ve been to present all three transparently with a justification for why one thinks the exponentially increasing emissions case should be treated as the baseline rather than the most plausible one. Unfortunately for Michaels, it was 1998. Had he done that it would’ve been clear that the actual greenhouse gas emissions that had taken place since Hansen’s testimony were much closer to Scenario B than the one that was more favorable to his agenda, and the spectacular agreement between the green and black curves in Figure 10 would’ve stood out like a sore thumb. The Committee would’ve put two and two together and drawn the obvious, but politically inconvenient conclusion… and we certainly can’t have that, now can we? 😉

So, he did the only thing he could’ve done to serve his deep-pocketed industry benefactors… he erased everything but the worst-case scenario lest the Committee be allowed to judge for themselves.

Error #4)   Skeptics assume regional weather events apply to climate change.

As we’ve seen, climate change is the global system response of the earth’s oceans, continental land mass, ice sheets, and atmosphere to various long-term forcings. Individual weather events such as storms or temperature records cannot be tied to it, although a clear upward (or downward) trend in their frequency and/or intensity can be. For the most part, professional climate deniers with official-sounding think-tank titles and big industry paychecks are aware of this, and rely on errors of the previous sort. But in the popular press and blogosphere, a veritable legion of talking heads and wannabe climate commentators regularly show up to feed at this trough. Now to be fair, climate activists are often as guilty of this as any skeptic (how often have we heard someone from Greenpeace or the Sierra Club blame global warming for Hurricane Katrina or a nasty heat wave in Palm Springs?). But unlike their environmental counterparts, skeptics routinely compound the error with a glaring ignorance of basic high-school science.

To wit, in a 2015 Forbes editorial one James Taylor (not the singer) tells us that,

“Yet another bitterly cold, snowy winter is destroying alarmist global warming claims, proving once again that over-the-top global warming predictions are proving no more scientifically credible than snake oil... blizzard after blizzard is burying much of the nation with record winter snow totals, with winter snowfall records beings set from Boston to Denver. Global warming activists are in full-throttle damage control, desperately claiming global warming causes record snow and cold.” (Taylor, 2015)

Sentiments like these are hardly new. As far back as 2003, conservative polemicist Ann Coulter (her chosen label BTW, not mine) echoed similar thoughts.


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