Climate Debate Should Finish. The Case is Closed. The Debate Must Now Solely Focus on Mitigation

Proof that there are still many who doubt science backed warnings about impending human influenced catastrophe, despite overwhelming evidence, was apparent recently in the Irish editions of the Sunday Times. It is a reminder that these deniers hold prominent positions in media, politics and business. And they are supported by an army of lay believers in the general population who are misguided and confused. 

The director of the Irish catholic advocacy institute, The Iona Institute (link), David Quinn, published a column in the Sunday Times 12 May 2019 casting doubt on the veracity the recent UN report on biodiversity loss, entitled:

“Scare stories won’t help us save the planet: Unfounded claims about species extinction won’t affect environmental policy, especially if ministers prefer virtue-signalling”.

It is in fact astonishing that it appeared in a best-selling Sunday broadsheet newspaper, which later published some readers letters further denying climate change (using misleading information) the following week (in “Letters to the Editor”, The Sunday Times, 19th May 2019).

The UN report that irked Mr. Quinn was published by the UN the week previously on 6 May 2019 (link).

It is a subtle attack piece, with Quinn framing himself not as a climate denier, as he believes climate change is happening, but as a critic of how the report was presented, reported and interpreted. Quinn clearly has had quite enough of being told about the planets impending doom.

The main crux of the article takes umbrage with the UN for not specifying how likely it is that a million species will die within decades as a result of human activities.

“Telling us in a vague manner that a million [species] might die within an undetermined time period is unhelpful, to put it mildly. What is a policy maker supposed to do with that information, if it can even be called information?” he blithely retorts.

When referring to a major report published by the US government in 1980, called the Global 2000 Report (link), Quinn claims the dire predictions of that report has not come to pass. The article also takes a veiled swipe at Greta Thurnberg (link), describing her as someone “who has somehow become the lead prophetess of the Green movement worldwide”. He also dismisses the  recent Irish declaration of a “climate emergency” (link).

In addition, and even more worryingly, there was that spurious letter referred to above published the following week in support of Quinn’s column. The writer of that letter wheeled out three well known tropes in support of their climate denial stance: 1) That 98% of carbon is released from natural sources and that the 2% from human sources is negligible; 2) That 30,000 graduate scientists petitioned the US government to reject the Kyoto climate protocols of 1997; 3) That 1000 of the world’s top climate scientists have contacted the environment committee of the US Congress to state that they do not accept that climate change is the result of human activities.

Such is the seriousness (and inaccuracies) of these stances, statements and objections in an international newspaper, that we need to have a look at all those points one by one, starting with Quinn’s issues with the UN Biodiversity report.

The report was a global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services. It was compiled by 145 scientists from 50 countries, with further contributions from 310 more experts. It was a systematic review of 15,000 peer reviewed scientific and government sources (published research and government reports).  It took three years to complete.

Those statistics alone give this report considerable weight. It is a consensus report, and all 455 contributing authors agree on the report’s findings. They are all experts in their respective areas; these guys work and think extremely deeply, and research data is generated, collected, and interpreted very carefully. Fifteen thousand reports, and 455 scientific experts, are not going to weigh in on the side of an erroneous set of conclusions. So, it is a pretty good bet that the conclusions are valid. This is not a conspiracy. For Quinn to question the science, and to doubt the veracity of reports at this stage of the debate is downright stupid and extremely dangerous. Considering that many people do not read beyond the headlines this objection was also an exercise in monumental cynicism.

Next let us have a look at that Global 2000 Report from 1980 that he refers to. That report was another assessment report, this time to attempt to get a picture of what the planet would look like in 20 years’ time (which was the year 2000). It was compiled with the best prediction models of the day (1980), and with the most up to date science of that time. It predicted the extinction of thousands of species, vast desertification, mass deforestation, water insecurity, over population and problems of increasingly detrimental pollution and acid rain, among many other problems.

Contrary to what Mr. Quinn writes stating that the report was way off the mark, it is in fact quite accurate. The problems it predicted are indeed the most pressing issues we now face today. Millions of species have not yet been rendered extinct as predicted, but thousands have (link; link 2) and populations of most species have plummeted. This year, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warned that we are on track to losing 60% of populations of vertebrate species by 2020 (link). That is next year. In 2014 they compiled a large assessment report, again based on research, stating that population sizes of vertebrates have declined by 52% since 1970. The 1980 report warned of dangerous environmental degradation. In 2019 the UN biodiversity report (and many others) are warning ever more clearly of existing environmental degradation and for worse to come. The reports correlate, and research overwhelmingly agrees that we need to act.

To gripe about its inability to be accurate on its future predictions belies a complete inability on how to interpret it. We cannot dismiss it. For Quinn to present the data and facts the way he did in his article is highly disingenuous. And again, dangerous

Next, to his swipe at Greta Thunberg, the teenager on a weekly school strike to force climate policy to the fore of world governance. Thurnberg stands for her generation, not ours. It is those who are presently young who will be dealing with the near future extremes of the climate crisis and all that that entails. She has met leaders from around the world who pat her on the head and solemnly pledge support. But I guess they really do not know what to do.  The problems she (and her generation) want addressed are immense. And Quinn, and many others, are growing irritated by being scolded by smart teenagers such as Thurnberg and think they should just be quiet and go to school. (link). To dismiss Thurnberg and her generation and fail to take her issues seriously merely highlights their own haughty incompetence in understanding climate science, the future, the young, and indeed reality.

On to Ireland’s climate emergency declaration. That Ireland declared it is a positive step, regardless of whether it will mean anything in the short term. More powerful countries are sure to follow, and only then its intentions will maybe begin to bleed into policy. This is a first step, among a long series of painful and complex steps that we must take if we are to mitigate a crisis that is the greatest threat to our civilisation that we have known.

So, next to the supporting letter and the three points raised to help deny human caused climate change.

First, the letter writers claim that “98% of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes from natural sources, and merely 2% is produced from human related sources” is entirely correct (link). But to leave that statement at that is extremely misleading. In fact, 98% of the carbon in the atmosphere that comes from natural sources is in fact part of the natural carbon cycle of the planet, and indeed is a process that is vital to the health of the planet. The release of this CO2 is almost entirely balanced by being absorbed and recycled through the planets natural carbon sinks.

That humans produce a “negligible” 2% of CO2 is also true, but most of this carbon is not recycled. Approximately 60% of this remains in the atmosphere and accumulates. Carbon rates are rising rapidly, and even this small amount of CO2 increase (by relative standards) is having an exponential atmospheric heating effect (link).

Next: the claim that 30,000 graduate students petitioned the US government to reject the Kyoto protocol. This is a deceptive (and widely refuted) claim that has been circulating for years. The petition was organised by the Oregon Institute of Science & Medicine (link). There was little means provided by the institute to verify the qualifications claimed by the signatories (it is claimed there was over 9000 PhD’s and 7000 MSc graduates among the signatures).  And there is nothing to suggest any of them were experts in the climate science fields, even though they claim 12% have degrees of any kind related earth sciences. And a mere degree does not make one an expert.  Other issues with it include:

  • The originators were unreliable and politically motivated (link, link).
  • When Scientific American investigated the qualifications of a random 30 signatories of the petition, they found that some did not remember such a petition, or that they would not sign it if asked again today. Only three had relevant climate expertise, some signed based on “informal evaluations” and some even did not reply to the magazine’s enquiries.
  • One of the leading authors of the petition has published demonstrably false claims about the safety of chlorofluorocarbons and second-hand tobacco smoke. (link). So, he is basically a discredited scientist with conflicting motivations.
  • The presentation of the report was highly misleading, insinuating that it was linked to the American National Academy of the Sciences. It was not. The actual NAS released a statement refuting any involvement. (link).

In light of all the above, clearly this document is not scientifically valid. In fact, it is demonstrably untrue, and cannot be used to support a climate issue.

Finally; the claim that 1000 of the worlds “top climate scientists” have contacted the environment committee of the US Congress to say they do not accept the theory of anthropogenic climate change.

This was a was a report compiled and written by a former spokesman for Republicans (US) on the Senate environmental committee, Marc Morano (link). Morano is a notoriously prolific climate denier, and closely associated with another notorious climate denying Senator James Inhofe (link). Morano’s report was published by his website, which (and this is an extremely important point) is funded by The Committee For a Constructive Tomorrow – an Exxon Mobile funded organisation. Other donors include the extreme conservative The Carthage Foundation (link) and The Sarah Scaife Foundation (link). This information is easily found a few clicks away.

The claimed 1000 plus scientists and experts in the report have been revealed as being mostly non experts with no advanced degrees, or those with negligible climate expertise such as weather broadcasters (link). One actual climate scientist who was listed was actually horrified that he was listed, and that his work was misrepresented in such a way and demanded to have his name and references removed (reference needed).

The actual scientific experts listed who made climate denying claims appear to be contrarians with expertise in non-climate areas. Here is what climate scientist Matthew Huber of Purdue University’s Climate Dynamics Prediction Laboratory said about the Nobel prize winning physicist, Professor Robert Laughlin from Stanford University no less, whose bizarre climate statements were quoted in the report:

“He needs to take some courses in paleoclimate — I suggest he start at the undergraduate level. I hear there might be something appropriate being taught on his campus. His know-nothing approach hearkens back to the pre-scientific era of the flat earth, vapors and phlogiston.” (link).

So again, this report is invalid as a scientific information document. It’s originators clearly have serious conflicts of interest; they are not politically neutral. Their report misleads as to the expertise and qualifications of its references, and where actual climate experts and scientists are quoted it appears that they are misrepresented. The claims of the report are demonstrably false and unsound. It cannot be used to contradict the published peer reviewed research supporting anthropogenic climate change.

Reading over all the above one aspect of these climate denial communications is clear. All denial publications are composed exclusively of letters, blog posts, newspaper articles, statements, and whatnot. They are not citing valid peer reviewed data or research. If they do, that research is usually shown to be flawed in fundamental ways. Most climate denial communications are first and foremost personal opinions of climate denying individuals and organisations. Even prominent and eminent scientists who have spoken out against climate change are voicing opinions, not research. They almost exclusively are not involved in the climate sciences. And it is important to note that although they are questioning the established climate research, they are not putting forth their own climate data that contradicts the established research.

This is simply because if they formulated a hypothesis that, for example, wanted to prove that a steady CO2 increase was not causing climate disturbances, their data would return a result that confirmed that CO2 is indeed causing climate disturbances. So, their opinion, expressed as a scientific hypothesis, would have been invalided.

If indeed their data returned to state CO2 is not causing a heating of the planet’s atmosphere, then the work would be unlikely to pass peer review as such an unlikely result would probably have been generated with unsound technical or scientific methods. Peer review would most likely flag such issues.

If such work actually did show that CO2 levels are not increasing and are not contributing to atmospheric heating and yet passed peer review and got published, then that would be a considerable scientific earthquake. We certainly would know about it. But that has not happened and is unlikely to happen.

All of this points to increasing desperation among the climate denying community. That the climate and the environment is in major trouble (and by extension human civilisation) is more accepted now than ever before, in part due to significant improvement in communication skills from the relevent expert communities. The reasons for those maintaining denial are legion – religious, economic, political, stupidity. We must resist this denial and maintain the momentum.

And we must continue to call out the platforms that allow them to speak. Again, this is not about closing down free speech. Not at all. It is about that this debate is now over; or should be. It has been debated now for decades. It has been decisively proven. The case is closed. The debate must now focus on what we do help ourselves and the planet.

Therefore, it is one thing when these objectors and cranks pipe up on their own right-wing conspiracy spouting blogspheres and echo-spheres. But for an international newspaper of “of record” to allow these articles to be published is another. David Quinn’s article was deliberately misleading at the most, but to publish a supporting letter from a reader who listed a series of claims which are known to be verifiably false, is a lapse in editorial oversight. Why did the editors not think that claims of 1000’s of “top” climate scientists officially questioning the veracity of climate science was outrageous? The letter should not have been published no more than letters claiming that people are alien lizards in disguise should be published.

I cannot request that David Quinn should be so censured, despite the general irresponsibility of his article. His piece employed the tools of deniers: misstating and misrepresenting facts, sowing doubt and committing logical fallacy. Thankfully it was just his opinion, and not evidence-based research.

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