I’m a professor at Weber State University, where I teach physical geography and atmospheric science. It’s my job to provide my students with the most accurate, reliable and up-to-date information on climate change available from the scientific community, so I stay current with the peer-reviewed literature and attend scientific conferences, such as the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting, possibly the leading climate science conference in the world. I’m also the father of two small children, and what I know from these scientific journals and conferences about our changing climate is disturbing when I think about the future they’ll face. Climate change is real, caused by humans burning fossil fuels, and potentially a serious threat to society. My students also face this troubling future, and I have a moral obligation to teach accurately about the realities that the science is telling us.
I’m also an active researcher myself, and, while I do still engage in weather and climate research, my passion at the moment is researching how best to communicate the alarming findings from climate science to people outside the scientific community. Social science research has found that we all have an innate tendency to reject information that doesn’t fit our existing views, and seek out information that does. For topics where people might have strong opinions for political or ideological reasons, such as vaccination and autism, or human evolution, or climate change, there can be strong psychological defense mechanisms to learning a different point of view. Although we all do this to some extent (myself included), it’s especially strong in intelligent, well-educated people.
This brings me to the recent guest commentary in the Standard-Examiner, by Joel Dickson. Mr. Dickson wrote passionately about several areas in climate science that troubled him, including: first, the idea that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is real, caused by humans, and a threat; second, the idea that government agencies had manipulated temperature records to fit a narrative of warming; and third, that China is developing its coal resources so fast that nothing short of radical population control will save us, if burning fossil fuels really does cause global warming. Mr. Dickson obviously has smarts aplenty—you don’t get to be an energy executive otherwise—but the sources he cites to support his views strongly suggest he’s fallen victim to listening only to the sources that fit his views, and ignoring the evidence to the contrary. Taking each point in turn:
The 97 percent consensus. At least four independent peer-reviewed studies, using different methods, have found that around 95-97 percent of climate scientists or their peer-reviewed work agree that global warming is real, caused by humans, and potentially a serious threat. The most recent of these was by a multi-author team led by my friend and occasional research partner John Cook, and more than any of the others it’s attracted the ire of those dismissive of the seriousness of climate change, I suspect because of John’s ability to communicate his findings clearly and effectively to the public. Against these four peer-reviewed studies, all independently finding an overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change, Mr. Dickson prefers an opinion column from ForbesOnline.
Adjustments to temperature records. Over many years, weather stations move, new instruments become available, and agencies change their methods. All of these changes, and many others, contaminate the temperature data with non-climatic effects, which need to be cleaned up. How do we know they’re doing it right? Again, multiple independent teams from several different countries all work independently on the temperature data, using their own methods. Most recently, the Berkeley Earth project, including Noble laureate physicists, received funding from the fossil-fuel billionaire Koch brothers to do their own completely independent analysis. They all find the same thing, give or take tiny differences due to their slightly different methods: a warming planet. Google “Berkeley Earth” to see their excellent website and look at the data for yourself. Mr. Dickson repeats the old conspiracy theory that government scientists working on temperature data are falsifying records, but his source, unspecified “analysis” by Joe D’Aleo, is unclear. Google Scholar shows up nothing in the peer-reviewed literature. Maybe it’s a blog post at the infamously misleading site, WattsUpWithThat.com.
Coal-burning in China means we’re all doomed—if the alarmists have their way. It’s true that China is the leading emitter of carbon dioxide due to burning coal, and this is a huge problem for global climate. But China is also leading the world in new renewable energy installation. According to an article in The Economist (We Make Our Own, January 17 2015—google it), China installed more wind and solar power generating capacity in 2013 than nuclear and fossil fuel capacity combined. China sees the need, and the promise, of clean renewable energy. We’re falling behind, but with the help of energy experts like Mr. Dickson, this could change. Relying on misleading websites instead of the peer-reviewed literature won’t make global warming go away, but smart investment in carbon-free energy just might.
Daniel Bedford is a professor in the Geography Department at Weber State University.