A gap in the denial of climate change science

Terrific article by Nicole Hodgson first published in http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/2778378.html

For climate change ‘sceptics’, denialists, contrarians or what Barry Jones recently called ‘confusionists’ to be right about the science of climate change, an alternative reality must be both plausible and logical.

Firstly, the consensus amongst climate change scientists that human activity is a significant contributing factor to climate change must be misguided at best. The 97 per cent of active publishing climate scientists surveyed in 2009 or the 97 to 98 per cent of climate experts who support the consensus, as evidenced by a 2010 study, must all be wrong.

In addition, the Joint Science Academies from the G8+5 countries statement on climate change must also be misguided, as must be the large number of scientific bodies from around the world which support the consensus on anthropogenic climate change (just part of the long list includes NAASA, American Institute of Physics, in Australia – the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology, in Europe the European Federation of Geologists, and the Royal Society of the UK).

In this alternative reality, climate scientists exhibit impressive worldwide powers of persuasion to be able to mislead their scientific peers so decisively.

In this alternative reality, consensus on climate science is anyway irrelevant in the case of climate science – “the language of consensus is the language of politics not science” – but curiously only half the time: consensus in this alternative reality is important when lists are compiled to demonstrate the ostensibly large number of “scientists” who do not support the consensus.

The expertise of those “scientists” is not important when it comes to demonstrating an opposition to the scientific consensus – geologists with links to the mining and fossil fuel industries are just as valid as climate scientists here. Those inhabiting this alternative reality, who cannot help but notice that the actual scientific consensus is quite compelling, procure another explanation: the consensus only exists because of malpractice, a stifling of critics and a misuse of the peer review process.

The argument appears to be: the vast majority of publishing climate scientists agree with the basic hypothesis of anthropogenic climate change, therefore it demonstrates that climate scientists are just ‘following the pack’, primarily because they want to keep their funding grants.  Those scientists with views contrary to the consensus therefore cannot get funding or cannot be published in the peer-reviewed literature. This is where the narrative of this alternative reality becomes extremely illogical.

Somewhere in the process of doing science around the world, this alternative reality presumes that there must be an inherent bias towards the confirmation of anthropogenic climate change.  That is, some people, somewhere (in government perhaps, or the public funding institutions such as the Australian Research Council) only want to see research that confirms the human causes of climate change, and somehow those people monopolise the funding process to secure that outcome.

Given that climate research is mostly conducted by universities or research institutes funded out of the public purse, this means that in this alternative reality, governments right around the world, regardless of their ideology, have funded scientists for decades and, for reasons unknown, only to affirm anthropogenic climate change.

This is despite the fact that the outcomes of this research are in conflict with the same governments’ status-quo economic interests, energy systems and transport systems. In this alternative reality, governments around the world have conspired to fund the creation of a problem that they prove incapable of solving. Why the public research funding bodies of countries such as the US and Australia, whose governments were so opposed to action on climate change in the early to mid 2000s, would at the same time be perverting the independence of the scientific process and directing the science towards enshrining anthropogenic climate change defies a plausible explanation – except in this alternative reality.

In the real world, one could argue that it speaks volumes of the relative independence of the scientific process that important research on climate change could continue to be published in the US and Australia during the early to mid-2000s when the governments in both countries refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol and actively undermined the global policy making efforts. Additionally, in the case of the US, the federal government was shown to have significant political influence in preventing the communication of the current climate science.  In Australia, the self-styled greenhouse mafia consisting of key figures from the fossil fuel industry was shown by whistleblower Guy Pearse to be responsible for much of the Federal Government’s policy on climate change at the time.

Back to the alternative reality, where the bias surrounding climate research is ensuring that only outcomes supportive of anthropogenic climate change are produced. Given the global spread of climate research institutes, this must be happening in every country with a major scientific research program, and in just about every university with a climate research program. In the alternative reality, there is some kind of globally orchestrated program to influence the public funders of science in every country, to in turn influence all the universities and other scientists, to ‘toe the line’ on climate change and keep developing this apparently fundamentally flawed body of science.

Pause for a moment and consider the plausibility of this scenario in the real world. Is there any group of people clever enough to be able to sustain this level of deception for three decades or more?  This would require the orchestration of a staggering number of people, funding processes and scientists right across the world.  Where are the whistleblowers?  Where are the exposés?  Where are the investigative journalists uncovering this conspiracy? Where are the Auditor-General departments (or their equivalents) monitoring such a blatant and indefensible misallocation of public funds?

The explanation, in the alternative reality, that there must be implicit vested interests behind the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change is one way of explaining away yet another striking anomaly – the demonstrated links between the fossil fuel industry and the manufacture of doubt about the validity of climate science.  The logic here seems to be if there are demonstrated vested interests on one side of the so-called debate, then there must be vested interests on the other side to explain the scientific consensus on climate change.

In 2006, BBC journalist Richard Black invited so-called sceptics to send in documentation or other firm evidence of bias, undertaking to look into any concrete claims. Expecting a deluge, he received only “one first-hand claim of bias in scientific journals, which was not backed up by documentary evidence; and three second-hand claims, two well-known and one that the scientist in question does not consider evidence of anti-sceptic feeling”.

So far the sum total of published explanations of this alternative reality seems to be Michael Crichton’s fictional State of Fear. The underlying motivation for this scale of scientific fraud is even more difficult to fathom. Most people who subscribe to this alternative reality rely on some creative conspiracy theory, ranging from neo-fascism or Communism (often in the same breath), or the creation of a new world order, to a plot by environmentalists who have a secret agenda to bring down industrial society.

Yet, this bizarre alternative reality is what many in the Australian community are (implicitly) choosing to accept in escalating numbers when they dismiss the science of climate change.  It is no real surprise that many people would not want to accept the existence of anthropogenic climate change.  The full implications of the process we’ve set underway are daunting. Taking meaningful action on climate change will require an economic and energy revolution in societies who appear paralysed by the status quo.

For those with conservative political views, in an increasingly ideologically polarised debate, the prospect of action that requires some level of government intervention is fundamentally at odds with their neo-liberal views.

Yet it is time that we started to recognise this alternative reality for what it is – an elaborate, illogical and implausible work of fiction.

Nicole Hodgson lectures in sustainability at Murdoch University