In Other Words

Heat-Seeking Missives

Climate Research, Vol. 26, No. 2, May 2004, Oldendorf/Luhe Since the international scientific community arrived at an overwhelming consensus on the reality of climate change, dissenting voices have garnered a disproportionate amount of attention. Nowhere is this truer than the United States. Whereas most governments have acknowledged the problem and are exploring policy options, a ...

Climate Research,
Vol. 26, No. 2, May 2004, Oldendorf/Luhe

Since the international scientific community arrived at an overwhelming consensus on the reality of climate change, dissenting voices have garnered a disproportionate amount of attention. Nowhere is this truer than the United States. Whereas most governments have acknowledged the problem and are exploring policy options, a small group of skeptical, dissident scientists — aided by a fair amount of media attention — successfully influences U.S. policy and public opinion.

Their most recent effort is an article by Ross McKitrick and Patrick J. Michaels in the journal Climate Research, published by the German scientific institute Inter-Research. At issue are the most recent findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme to study rising global temperatures. The IPCC’s three assessments to date offer strong evidence of humans’ role in accelerating climate change. More than 150 nations officially concurred with the latest report, released in 2001.

Scientists from around the world constantly review and revise IPCC temperature findings to eliminate the data bias of non-climate-related influences, such as artificially high temperature readings from densely populated urban hot spots. But McKitrick and Michaels contend that such bias persists. Using a selective sample of the IPCC’s surface temperature records from 1979 to 2000 (a short span for measuring global temperature trends), they adjust the temperatures to reflect their own assumption that data from countries with lower gross domestic product and literacy rates are less quality-assured. When compared to temperature data taken from satellites — which are notoriously undependable due to their varying height and orbit — the authors’ adjusted data show stable temperature trends. McKitrick and Michaels thus conclude that the IPCC’s results overstate the climate change crisis.

Of course, questioning assumptions is a healthy part of the scientific process. But by obsessing over one point of uncertainty, McKitrick and Michaels ignore the vast amount of data that prove human activity’s acceleration of climate change. In so doing, they obstruct answers to the vital question of how to mitigate climate change’s destabilizing effects — answers that could prove expensive for some of their patrons.

Michaels, a climatologist at the University of Virginia, is a senior fellow at the CATO Institute and a visiting scientist at the George C. Marshall Institute, both of which receive financial support from the energy industry. He also edits the World Climate Report newsletter, published and funded by the energy industry. A 1995 Harper’s magazine article claimed that Michaels received more than $115,000 from coal and energy interests between 1991 and 1994. McKitrick, an economist at the University of Guelph in Ontario and coauthor with Christopher Essex of the 2002 book Taken by Storm: The Troubled Science, Policy, and Politics of Global Warming, also publishes papers at the Marshall Institute.

Despite these real or perceived conflicts of interest, the arguments of scientists such as McKitrick and Michaels have gained traction among conservative legislators. U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, cited Michaels’s work in the debate last year that ultimately blocked the Climate Stewardship Act, which sought to control carbon dioxide emissions from energy producers. Articles about the scientists’ work have appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout North America, and their work is cited in Marshall Institute briefings for U.S. Congressional staffers on global climate change.

Their arguments also found a receptive audience in U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration, which withdrew from Kyoto Protocol discussions without proposing or discussing any alternatives for cooperation. Yet the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, directed by the Bush administration to conduct its own climate change assessment in 2001, found conclusively that global temperatures are rising due to anthropogenic, or human-induced, sources of greenhouse gas. In August of this year, the federally funded U.S. Climate Change Science Program reported to congress that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are the only plausible explanation for climate change in the last few decades.

Skeptics of climate change continue to make headlines. Danish scientist Bjørn Lomborg, famed for his 2001 work The Skeptical Environmentalist, left the Danish government’s environmental advisory panel earlier this year among much criticism. Four members of Climate Research‘s international editorial board resigned last year to protest its publication of a controversial study disputing that the 20th century has been the Earth’s warmest, generating a spate of articles in the academic press.

But these debates only contribute static to what should be a clear message. As the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gas, the United States should be broadcasting the message, not adding to the noise.

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