Challenging the Climate Change Skeptics: Part 1


Scientists publish in peer-reviewed journals, but the public get their information from the popular media, the Hodsons observe. (Image courtesy of scottchan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

As we approach the crucial climate change talks in Paris in November, politicians, scientists and the general public will be discussing the topic and it will be aired on the media.

Some will suggest that climate change is not happening, is not caused by humans, or is too expensive to do anything about. But why is there so much skepticism?

In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their fifth report.

Surface temperature warmed 1.5 degrees F between 1880 and 2012, and they considered it extremely likely that this was due to increased emissions of greenhouse gases.

This has led to warming of the oceans, melting of ice sheets, sea level rise and more extreme weather events. If we continue to emit greenhouse gases, further warming will result.

A rise of at least 2.7 F is predicted by 2100, relative to 1850-1900 temperatures, under almost all scenarios. We are committed to some warming whatever we do, and an increase of 7.2 F is possible.

The IPCC findings have been endorsed by scientific academies around the world.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science asserted in 2014 that, "Based on the evidence, about 97 percent of climate scientists agree that human-caused climate change is happening."

While most climate scientists support the IPCC consensus, surveys frequently show that the general public is less convinced. Many people are simply not interested while others think it is too late to do anything.

But there are also a growing number of activists who believe anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is real and human-induced. They take a variety of actions, including changes in personal lifestyle and campaigning.

Skeptical politicians, industrialists, lobbyists, scientists and journalists are often influential and oppose the consensus on AGW in the face of overwhelming evidence.

Scientists publish in peer-reviewed journals, but the public get their information from the popular media.

Despite the consensus among climate scientists, skepticism about AGW is prevalent in the media.

Skeptical media have made much of a so-called pause in global average surface temperature since 1997.

However, the 2000s were warmer than the 1990s, and these were the warmest decades on record.

The overall trend is still upward, and 2014 was the warmest year, with 2015 on the way to breaking that record.

Moreover, these are surface temperature measurements, and more than 90 percent of the heat from global warming goes into the oceans. The "pause" is not a reason to stop being concerned about climate change.

One tactic used by skeptics has been to take quotes from climate scientists out of context.

In "Climategate," the server was hacked at the Climate Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom, and in November 2009, more than 1,000 emails were released onto the Internet.

Attention focused on one email and the use of the word "trick" and the phrase "hide the decline."

This email came from Professor Phil Jones, the head of CRU, who was writing to colleagues about plotting a certain graph.

The U.K. House of Commons Science and Technology Committee investigated in 2010 and found the following: "'Trick' appears to be a colloquialism for a 'neat' method of handling data, and 'hide the decline' was a shorthand for the practice of discarding data known to be erroneous."

Skeptics appear to have switched tactics recently, away from attacking the science. They now often focus on the "advantages" of fossil fuels for the poor in developing countries and say that development will not happen without them.

The truth is that it is quite possible to develop by skipping past fossil fuels onto renewables. Developing countries are those who suffer most because of climate change.

What motivates skeptics? The prime suspect is financial interest.

In "Merchants of Doubt," Oreskes and Conway suggested that industry, aided by a small number of politically influential scientists, set up institutes that funded campaigns around scientific issues including climate change.

These skeptic organizations have spread confusion. The funding for such institutes remains a secret, but in the United States the sources include fossil fuel companies and free market supporters.

Collective action is needed in response to AGW. Governments need to take action internally as President Obama has recently tried to do in the United States. They also need to work together in making international agreements.

Those political parties committed to free markets may find this harder and be more receptive to skeptic voices.

Politics and science have a different approach to debate. Political debate engages with differences in ideologies and policies stemming from them.

Scientific debate is based on researched evidence, and once a consensus is reached, science moves on.

The problem comes when a scientific consensus is overwhelming but has major political and economic implications.

Powerful institutions, whose interests are threatened, may seek to challenge a consensus view.

If politicians could accept the scientific consensus on AGW, they might move the discussion forward to consider the best ways to respond. This is where political debate should begin. And so to Paris.

Martin J. Hodson is a plant scientist and operations manager for the John Ray Initiative. He has more than 90 research publications and speaks widely on environmental issues.

Margot R. Hodson is an environmental theologian and an Anglican pastor of four churches near Oxford in the United Kingdom. The Hodsons have jointly taught environmental ethics at Oxford Brookes University and are authors of several publications in this area, which can be found through their website. You can follow Martin on Twitter @MartinHodson1 and Margot @MargotHodson.


Editor's note: This article is an adaptation of the more detailed Grove booklet "The Ethics of Climatic Scepticism" E177 by Martin J. Hodson and Margot R. Hodson. It is available in PDF format at
Grove Books and is used with permission. It is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here.

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