How to Shut Down the World
On 17 May 2013, then-President Barack Obama tweeted “Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree: change is real, man-made and dangerous.” This is the moment the climate debate changed. With one tweet Obama cast climate change sceptics as looney outsiders, akin to flat-earthers and believers in ancient aliens. They became deniers.
Let’s face it: there comes a point when it is simply unreasonable to be sceptical. If tough policy decisions on economic development, the environment and public safety need to be made, it is simply irresponsible to pay attention to fringe beliefs, no matter how poignant references to Galileo battling the world view of the seventeenth century might be.
Steven Novella, a clinical neurologist at Yale, discusses the distinction between deniers and sceptics in detail. He argues that in situations where “you yourself lack appropriate expertise” then “deference should be the default position, and your best bet is to understand what that consensus is, how strong is it, and what evidence supports it.”
It’s fair to refer to “global warming denial” as a phenomenon, especially since there is a solid-enough consensus on the basic conclusion that the Earth is warming and humans are causing it that it does create a reasonable starting position that anyone who disagrees is engaging in denial until proven otherwise.
Dr Novella, writing in April 2019, uses the 97% consensus to make his point: “That the Earth is warming at a faster rate than has historically been seen is fairly solid, with about 97% of climate scientists (yes, that is the real number) agreeing that this is almost certainly true.” Note the bracketed bit. We are supposed to be at the very least impressed, preferably overwhelmed.
I quote Dr Novella not because he is a climate scientist, but because he discusses how the climate debate is framed, and because he sounds so jolly reasonable in an area that long ago turned unreasonable. Certainly many jurisdictions, from US states to the UK, have bought the argument. And the insulting “denier” terminology, with its strong Holocaust connotations, has become entrenched in media reporting guidelines. The Guardian now advises staff on the appropriate terminology to use in reporting on the environment, encouraging the use of “climate science denier” rather than “climate sceptic”. It also notes that in September 2018 the BBC accepted it gets coverage of climate change “wrong too often” and told staff, “You do not need a ‘denier’ to balance the debate.”
This is institutionalised name calling and no-platforming from highly influential news outlets. Non-balance is policy, and readers and viewers are thereby guaranteed biased coverage – albeit with the best of intentions. And when these views are echoed in government, and bellowed on the streets by groups such as Extinction Rebellion, or pathetic, trembling pawns like Greta Thunberg, who could possibly argue?
Here I don’t want to get into the climate debate. I want to examine how it got no-platformed, how the whole thing got shut down when scepticism seemed to be gaining some traction after the Climategate scandal in 2009/2010.
Let’s start with that 97% figure. Obama’s tweet was made two days after a paper was published which established this overwhelming 97% in the global discourse. It was called “Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature”, by John Cook and eight co-authors. They were concerned that there were misapprehensions among the general public about the climate change debate, and they argued that “An accurate perception of the degree of scientific consensus is an essential element to public support for climate policy...”. This is a fair point. Decisions need to be made, and why go out on a limb for a minority view when so much is at stake?
They set out to discover what the consensus was by doing an internet search of abstracts of peer-reviewed journal papers dated from 1991 to 2011. This is a standard method, which allows thousands of articles to be searched efficiently, and they ended up with almost 12,000 papers to analyse. Their aim was “to determine the level of scientific consensus that human activity is very likely causing most of the current GW (anthropogenic global warming, or AGW)” by seeing how many papers endorsed this view. What did they find?
We find that 66.4% of abstracts expressed no position on AGW, 32.6% endorsed AGW, 0.7% rejected AGW and 0.3% were uncertain about the cause of global warming.
That’s correct. To quote Dr Novella, “Yes, that is the real number.” Two-thirds of these papers expressed no position. They didn’t endorse AGW or not endorse AGW.
Let’s step back for a minute and look at this in the light of what Obama said: ““Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree: change is real, man-made and dangerous.” First, the survey was not based on scientists generally, in the sense of everyone engaged in science around the world. We’re talking here about that tiny percentage of scientists who happened to mention climate change in their paper abstracts between 1991 and 2011. Admittedly this is a highly relevant group, but then of this very tiny percentage, two-thirds expressed no opinion.
Of course politicians are known for not letting facts get in the way of a good story, but such figures are crucially important to policy making, as the authors of this paper make clear: we need to know what the majority of scientists think. And this paper doesn’t tell us. That’s all there is to it. After reading and rereading the paper I was left asking myself, so the no-platforming of climate scepticism was based on this? The whole way the Western world is thinking is supported by this? Women are not having babies because of this?
As one would expect six years later, organisations such as NASA are a little more careful in their wording. NASA state that “97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree” (my bolding), and the references they give highlight the Cook et al. paper. This 97% meme is embedded at the highest levels of science, government, and media. So how did Cooke et al. actually come up with that figure?
Well, of those papers that did take a position on AGW, 97.1% endorsed AGW. Or as they put it, “Among abstracts expressing a position on AGW, 97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming.” Wait a minute. Earlier, they defined “scientific consensus” as “human activity is very likely causing most of the current GW (anthropogenic global warming, or AGW)”. Now they are describing it as “humans are causing global warming” (my emphasis). I’m sorry but if, as many claim, the fate of humanity is hanging in the balance, we can’t afford to be indulging in this sort of vague, slippery talk.
It gets worse. We have just seen that “scientific consensus” drastically changes its meaning throughout the paper, but what exactly do they mean by endorse? The team examining these thousands of papers assessed whether they endorsed AGW, and endorsement was divided into three levels: explicit and quantified, explicit and non-quantified, and implicit. But in describing their results, Cook et al. say that, “to simplify the analysis”, they collapsed all the levels of endorsement into one “endorse” group.
This means that statements such as “Carbon sequestration in soil is important for mitigating global climate change” (their example) are counted in reaching the conclusion that the scientific consensus is that humans are causing global warming. So any paper that even suggests that climate change is occurring (for whatever reason), or agrees that greenhouse gases make some contribution to global climate change (which almost everyone would acknowledge), is being counted as agreeing that humans are causing global warming. By collapsing all the categories of endorsement “to simplify the analysis”, Cook et al. distort the results to the extent that no claim whatsoever can be made about how many scientists agree that humans are causing global warming, let alone put a percentage figure on it.
At this stage you may be thinking, “But what about the silent two-thirds? Who’s to say that all those authors who didn’t express a position wouldn’t endorse AGW if you actually asked them? Why not ask the scientists themselves rather than ruminating on their truncated abstracts?”
Good question. Cook et al. set out to do just that. They ended up emailing 8,547 authors to ask them. They got a 14% response rate. That’s right, one in seven. Most of these one in seven “endorsed” (whatever that means) the “consensus” (whatever that means), but we have no idea what the other 86% of authors thought. Bearing in mind that being classified as a denier can ruin one’s career (take as one example the hounding of Roger Pielke Jr), one might expect a more muted response from sceptics. We simply don’t know.
So what Obama should have tweeted – if he was feeling at all socially responsible – is, “The majority of scientists writing about global warming won’t be drawn on whether or not humans are causing climate change”. Not quite as catchy, is it? If one accepts the view that consensus is important – indeed crucial – in making decisions about climate change mitigation, then clearly we should be encouraging climate scientists to keep seeking and interpreting scientific data without fear of ostracism, career suicide and death threats.
Of course the argument I have just presented will have no effect. Plenty of people have criticised the Cook et al. article, but the debate has long left behind logic and evidence, and the 97% mantra has had a big part in ensuring climate debate is firmly in the realm of post-truth. In a delicious irony, its own faulty conclusions have helped to buffer itself from widespread criticism. There have been other surveys, but in this toxic environment it’s a bit like asking people in 1549 whether they believe in God. Who would say no? And the armoury of those wanting to shut down the debate is staggering, ranging from “The science is settled” to “Oh my God we’re all going to die!” to “You’re in the pocket of Big Oil”.
Paid off by Big Oil. What other motivation could anyone have? Casting about blindly for motivation is a facile game, but in these intersectionist times it is now the only game in town so let’s play it for a minute. Just for fun. Let’s ask: Who might benefit from widespread social dissension in the West, from a strong push to dismantle the traditional economic model of capitalism, from the catch-cry that democracy has failed? Who might be encouraging a politically irresistible movement that demands energy sources that could not reliably sustain a modern Western nation? Any ideas? Anyone?
Am I claiming that legions of state-sponsored internet trolls are hunched over PCs in dark rooms in China, generating fake news and manufacturing social media storms in order to utilise the latest cohort of useful idiots to bring about the downfall of Western economies? Of course not, because I don’t have any evidence for such wild claims, and so that would be hugely irresponsible. It’s just an example of where the unhinged, untethered motivation game can end up.
If climate change truly is an “existential threat” (Sartre must be spinning in his grave), then we simply can’t afford to treat it like identity politics and the ever-expanding no-platforming of diverse views. If we are going to accept some New Green Deal, it will have massive social and economic effects, so we owe it to ourselves to encourage scientists to work hard at real, open-ended, empirical research, free from the fear on internet lynch mobs. Some places may be hotter, some colder. The continental shelf is rising in some places and dropping in others, drastically affecting the influence of sea-level rise. Carbon emissions are dropping in the US and EU but rising massively in China, negating any possible effect of your bicycling to work. All of these things need to be discussed, rather than simply conjuring Medieval visions of hell and shutting down the world.
Note: Many of the links were originally sourced from What's Up With That. I have merely drawn the associated articles together and added my own analysis and interpretation.