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The Climate Change Controversy - What's It Really About?

Aug 29, 2011

In the bitter high-stakes debate about man-made global warming, it's often hard to feel that you're getting the straight story from either side.

One side claims that the earth is heating up because of human activity, that the science is settled, and that anti-science zealots are seeding doubt to slow down the urgent steps that must be taken to save the planet.

Power plantThe other side claims that the earth is not getting warmer, or at least not from human activity, and that the promoters of the global warming narrative are charlatans trying to reshape government and the world economy. (Photo: Power plant, Finland. Credit: eutrophication&hypoxia, CC BY 2.0)

I hope to identify here some of the key arguments in the debate. This is my third article in a series about the climate change controversy. The first article, "Does the Public Really Believe Humans Are Causing Climate Change?," examined public attitudes about climate change. The second article, "All This Wrangling Over Climate Change - What's Up With That?," discussed climate change as a social controversy.

The debate over climate change swirls around certain foci:

  • Scientific conclusions
  • The honesty and motives of various players
  • Political and economic implications

The Science Is on My Side!

The "scientific consensus" asserts that global warming is proven through multiple indicators (taken from "The State of the Climate," U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration," 2009):

  1. Land surface temperature is rising.
  2. Sea surface temperature is rising.
  3. Air temperature over the oceans is rising.
  4. Lower troposphere temperature is rising.
  5. Ocean heat content is increasing.
  6. Sea level is rising.
  7. Specific humidity is rising in tandem with temperatures.
  8. Glacial ice is decreasing.
  9. Northern hemisphere snow cover is decreasing.
  10. Arctic sea ice is shrinking.

10 indicators of a warming world

The chief scientific group studying climate change is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to "provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts," according to the organization.

Since 1990, IPCC has released four assessment reports, with the fifth underway now. The most recent is the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), released in 2007. The AR4's "Summary for Policymakers" provides a fairly accessible overview of the 2007 findings, including charts showing changes in greenhouse gases from prehistoric to modern times, and changes in global average temperature, average sea level, and Northern Hemisphere snow cover. The report asserts that

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level.


Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic [man-made] greenhouse gas concentrations.

The "skeptical" view usually argues that:

  • The earth's climate is really not warming.
  • Or the earth's climate is warming, but this is not caused by human activities.
  • Or the earth's climate might be warming, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

In an article for Forbes, Warren Meyer writes that

... few skeptics doubt or deny that carbon dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas or that it and other greenhouse gasses (water vapor being the most important) help to warm the surface of the Earth. Further, few skeptics deny that man is probably contributing to higher CO2 levels through his burning of fossil fuels, though remember we are talking about a maximum total change in atmospheric CO2 concentration due to man of about 0.01% over the last 100 years.

What skeptics deny is the catastrophe, the notion that man's incremental contributions to CO2 levels will create catastrophic warming and wildly adverse climate changes.

Meyer's Climate Skeptic web site offers a useful "Layman's Guide to Man-Made Global Warming," which examines the scientific arguments from the skeptic's side. He also provides a PowerPoint presentation and video, "Catastrophe Denied: The Science of the Skeptic's Position."

Skeptical Science offers rebuttals of numerous skeptic arguments here.

What I've given here is just a brief overview to lay out what I understand to be the scientific points of contention, along with some resources for those who want to investigate the scientific issues further. This topic really deserves to be examined at greater length, which I plan to do in future articles.

Those Bald-Faced Liars!

Some of the criticisms of the global-warming consensus rest on the alleged dishonesty of scientists or popular promoters of the consensus view.

One of the most notorious examples is what came to be know as the "Climategate" scandal. In 2009, someone hacked into an email server at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in the UK and selected and published over 1,000 emails from the server, including email exchanges among prominent climate scientists. Critics have maintained that the emails reveal collusion among scientists to manipulate data and suppress the activities of critics. For example, see excerpts from the emails published at the time by The Telegraph's James Delingpole. The Guardian has dedicated an entire mini-site to the controversy, including a timeline, a "who's who," and news items and analyses.

Supporters of the CRU claimed that the emails were taken out of context and did not reflect any conspiracy to distort scientific evidence. Investigations into the affair were undertaken by the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, an Independent Climate Change Email Review group (aka the Muir Russell panel), an International Panel set up by East Anglia University (aka the Oxburgh panel), Pennsylvania State University, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Department of Commerce Inspector General.

These investigations found that the climate researchers did not try to falsify, manipulate, or suppress scientific data, and that the revelations from the emails did not change understanding of man-made global warming.

The Russell panel did identify "a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness" at CRU and said that "CRU's responses to reasonable requests for information were unhelpful and defensive."

The panel found that a chart published by paleoclimate scientist Michael Mann in Nature, and which later appeared in the IPCC's third assessment, was "misleading." One of the CRU emails from East Anglia climatologist Phil Jones referred to this chart as a "trick," which critics took to mean a deception of some kind. Critics often misquoted Jones as mentioning "Mike's nature trick to hide the decline" in his email, and claimed that this proved climate scientists were trying to cover up evidence of falling temperatures. The controversy over Mann's chart has to do with the use of tree-ring growth data as a proxy for past temperature. For a non-hysterical explanation of Mann's chart and Jones's comment about it, see this article.

Promoters of the consensus view, in turn, have attacked the honesty and competence of their critics.

In their 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway trace the history of how money from large companies, foundations, and think tanks has been used to raise public doubts about issues like tobacco and second-hand smoke, acid rain, nuclear winter, the ozone hole, and global warming. Oreskes and Conway write that the scientists involved in these efforts "steadfastly denied the existence of scientific agreement, even though they, themselves, were pretty much the only ones who disagreed."

DeSmogBlog offers a database of "individuals involved in the global warming denial industry." The blog has bios on Willie Soon, Don Easterbrook, David Legates, and others. The database also provides information on skeptics' funding sources, if known.

On his blog Skeptical Science, John Cook has published a roster of climate-change skeptics, their publications, and claims. For example, he includes profiles of Christopher Monckton, Fred Singer, Roy Spencer, and others.

It's a Conspiracy!

According to one important narrative, the idea of man-made global warming arises from neo-communism. Some critics like to say that today's environmentalists are watermelons -- green on the outside, red on the inside.

In a 2009 op-ed for The Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer wrote:

With socialism dead, the gigantic heist is now proposed as a sacred service of the newest religion: environmentalism... Socialism having failed so spectacularly, the left was adrift until it struck upon a brilliant gambit: metamorphosis from red to green.

Krauthammer sees environmentalism, and especially the concern over global warming, as a ruse to shake down the developed nations and transfer their wealth to the Third World.

Climate rallyOne narrative on the other side is that the skeptics are really just free-market fundamentalists. Their opposition to the idea that humans cause global warming is a cynical tactic to keep business interests free from government interference. (Photo: Climate rally, Melbourne, Australia. Credit: Takver, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Longview Institute describes market (aka free-market) fundamentalism as "the exaggerated faith that when markets are left to operate on their own, they can solve all economic and social problems." The Institute asserts that market fundamentalism "has dominated public policy debates in the United States since the 1980's, serving to justify huge Federal tax cuts, dramatic reductions in government regulatory activity, and continued efforts to downsize the government's civilian programs."

In their Merchants of Doubt book, Oreskes and Conway write that, early on, the most influential scientists working against the consensus views on environmental issues were cold-war weapons researchers like Robert Jastrow, Fred Seitz, and Bill Nierenberg. They write that

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cold Warriors looked for another great threat. They found it in environmentalism, which just at that very moment had identified a crucial global issue that required global response... Global warming became the most charged of all environmental debates, because it is global, and it implicates everything and everyone. If the rules of economic activity are the central concern of contemporary conservatives, then global warming has to be central, too, because it stems from how we produce and use energy, and energy is involved in all economic activity.

Is the Cure Worse Than the Disease?

Some of the controversy over climate change focuses around the political solutions that get prescribed to mitigate global warming -- carbon taxes, cap and trade regimes, emissions limits, environmental regulations -- and especially the grand solution of a global climate treaty.

Walter Russell Mead expresses this point of view in his eloquent critique of Al Gore for The American Interest, "The Failure of Al Gore: Part Deux." Mead asserts that the idea of a Global Green Carbon Treaty (GGCT) is unworkable:

The changes such a treaty requires are so broad and so sweeping that a GGCT is less a treaty than a constitution for global government. Worse, it is a constitution for a global welfare state with trillions of dollars ultimately sent by the taxpayers of rich countries to governments (however feckless, inept, corrupt, or tyrannical) in poor ones...

The dream that the menace of global warming will cause humanity to overcome its ancient divisions and unite in a grand global coalition is sophomoric. Rising CO2 levels will not cause the world's governments to accept and enforce international policing of the most intimate details of their economic lives. If the menace of nuclear war can't create world government, the menace of global warming won't do it either...

The green movement's core tactic is not to "hide the decline" or otherwise to cook the books of science. Its core tactic to cloak a comically absurd, impossibly complex and obviously impractical political program in the authority of science. Let anyone attack the cretinous and rickety construct of policies, trade-offs, offsets and bribes by which the greens plan to govern the world economy in the twenty-first century, and they attack you as an anti-science bigot.

Windy landscapeI suggest that the concern voiced here by Mead lies behind much of the opposition to the concept of man-made global warming.

The debates around the science of climate change and the criticisms of some of the individuals involved in the controversy deserve more discussion, which I plan to do in future articles. In the meantime, please feel free to leave your reflections, observations, musings, or fanatical rant in the comment space below. (Photo: Wind turbine on landscape. Credit: MrsMinifig, CC BY-ND 2.0)