Why the climate sceptics are wrong

August 22, 2009

Family First Senator Steve Fielding returned from a US international climate deniers' conference in June, armed with a shonky graph and some dodgy questions.

Fielding has used these tools of climate scepticism to try to reignite doubt about the science of global warming.

The questions, the answers from climate change minister Penny Wong and her scientific advisors, and the counter-response from Fielding's advisors formed the basis for numerous blog posts and news articles.

The problem confronting climate scientists is that when it comes to responding to the so-called "sceptics", they're damned if they do and damned if they don't.

To respond risks giving credibility to pseudo-science.

This was the position taken by Australian National University's Professor Will Steffen. Steffen is the executive director of the ANU Climate Change Institute.

Fielding invited him to debate climate sceptics Bob Carter and Jay Lehr, to "brief" senators, the day before the vote on the government's emissions trading scheme.

Although they are scientists (a marine geologist and hydrologist, respectively), neither "sceptic" has published peer-reviewed climate research.

After copping flak for his refusal, Steffen released his July 22 letter to Fielding, which included a damning assessment of the lack of scientific rigour displayed by the sceptics.

In part he said: "<193> you state in your letter that 'it is important that all Senators are given the opportunity to hear both sides of the debate <193>' In terms of the relationship between carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) and global warming, there is no debate in the climate change research community.

"That the Earth's surface is warming is unequivocal, and there is also strong agreement amongst the vast majority of climate change scientists that anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases <193> are the primary cause for the warming observed since the middle of last century.

"The counter argument put forward by Professor Carter and his colleagues do not constitute the 'other side of a scientific debate'. In fact, based on the written documentation that I have seen <193> these counter arguments do not constitute credible science.

"These documents demonstrate a serious misunderstanding of climate science and processes for assessing that science; they also contain violations of the fundamental principles of sound statistical analysis.

"In addition, there are numerous examples of flawed logic, misleading and inaccurate statements, and confused and inconsistent analyses. In my professional opinion and experience, science students at the ANU would be expected to do much better than this <193>

"My participation in your proposed event would thus send precisely the wrong message to your colleagues in the Senate", Steffen said.

Climate deniers often accuse others of shying away from the debate, having something to fear from open discussion, or lacking the answers. In reality, the answers have long ago been provided — but the distortions, half-truths and fabrications keep being recycled.

There is an added problem in engaging in public debate with climate deniers. Many sceptics employ "debating" techniques designed to win over audiences, rather than advance the development of evidence-based knowledge.

Such techniques have been developed by creationists — exaggerating the significance of inconsistencies or gaps in existing knowledge; refusing to respond to glaring holes in their arguments; and continuing to use untrue arguments long after they have been refuted.

Australian geologist Ian Plimer, a critic of creationism and author of Telling Lies for God, has apparently borrowed his method of climate denial from his former sparring partners.

British journalist George Monbiot has come up with a tactic that is proving effective. He criticised Plimer's recent climate sceptic book Heaven and Earth.

Plimer challenged Monbiot to a public debate. Monbiot agreed — on the proviso that Plimer agree to write "precise and specific responses to his critics' points in the form of numbered questions". Monbiot sent the questions to Plimer and posted them on his blog on August 6.

The questions present a series of alleged distortions in Plimer's book. Monbiot said he made the selection because: "These statements are either right or wrong, sourced or unsourced. They are critical to your argument. If they turn out to be false, they torpedo your thesis. If your claims are correct, you should be able to answer my questions briefly and easily."

So far Plimer has not answered the questions. The longer he goes without responding, the clearer it is that his claims are baseless.

There are numerous excellent responses to the climate sceptics. For the non-specialists who find papers in Nature, Science or the Journal of Geophysical Research hard to follow, there a number of useful websites.

A small sample of these include Realclimate.org, Skepticalscience.com and the classic "How to Talk to a Climate Change Skeptic" available on Scienceblogs.com.

Professional climate sceptics trade on their scientific credentials to present pseudo-scientific dogma to raise doubt about climate change. In the face of the evidence of global warming, we have to ask why they do it.

Like the apologists for the tobacco industry before them, the professional climate denialists serve the vested interests of wealthy corporations that stand to lose from widespread acceptance of the evidence. Only this time, the stakes are even higher.

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