Death Rattles of the Climate Change Sceptics


With the sharp turn in public opinion leading to the election of the Rudd Government, in part on a climate protection platform, many of us thought that climate scepticism in Australia was dead and buried.

The most recent flicker of life in climate scepticism in Australia is a paper by Don Aitkin titled "A Cool Look at Global Warming", given to the Planning Institute of Australia on 2 April, followed by various opinion pieces and radio appearances based on it.

Usually, lay people are loath to enter into debates involving complex scientific questions for fear of exposing themselves to ridicule. Yet the wisdom of humility seems to evaporate when it comes to global warming and any number of people with no qualifications in atmospheric physics, climate modelling or related disciplines feel the urge to lend their opinions to the debate.

When challenged, these amateurs are wont to claim that they "have done a lot of reading". According to Professor Aitkin, a historian and political scientist, he has read a lot, an achievement that — along with the fact that his two brothers are a mathematical statistician and a neurophysiologist and he himself had considered becoming a geologist — qualifies him to challenge the foundations of climate science. One of the arguments he deploys is that climate systems are so fiendishly complex that no conclusions can be drawn about human-induced warming; yet it seems that the science is not so complex that it cannot be understood by lay persons such as himself.

Some years ago, when I first joined the climate change debate, I decided there was no way I could pretend to have a comprehensive grasp of climate science — just as I could not pretend to be an expert in genetics, chemical engineering or population ecology — and that the prudent stance is the one we always take in questions of public importance involving complex science. I had to decide not what to believe but whom to believe.

While lay people cannot be expected to speak with any authority on climate science, any well educated person should be able to understand the process of scientific inquiry and how it leads to scientific advance. Certainly, one would expect that Don Aitkin — who for some years chaired the Australian Research Council — would have as good an understanding as any. Yet he seems to be woefully misinformed.

The work of climate scientists is subject to the most rigorous testing by the peer review process before it gets the accolade of publication in respected journals. The peer review process is not infallible, but no other comes near it for effectiveness, which is why it is so widely used. It is how funds are allocated to academic research by the ARC, until it was corrupted by the political meddling of then-education minister Brendan Nelson.

Of course, not every published paper on climate science proves correct, which is to be expected in a rapidly evolving area. But in climate science the integrity of the review process has been heightened because of the enormously politicised nature of the climate debate fed by the small number of highly vocal sceptics, ever-ready to go on the attack by highlighting weaknesses, uncertainties and contradictions.

The charged environment in which climate science operates has meant that the experts have exercised more than the usual scientific caution in making claims about the results of their work. Many climate scientists believe that the IPCC has consistently understated the dangers of global warming. As James Hansen — perhaps the world’s foremost climate scientist — has written, the culture of scientists is such that they would rather be accused of fiddling while Rome burns than of crying wolf.

Climate scientists are more aware than anyone of the uncertainties in their work, and go to great lengths to emphasise them, leading many to blame themselves for the slowness of the world to act on what is nevertheless an overwhelming case for action to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But the painful honesty of the scientists has merely provided an opening for the sceptics and denialists who have no empirical work of their own on which to base their contrary opinions. They feed on the inevitable weaknesses and uncertainties in the work of real climate scientists, which they distort and exaggerate to cast doubt on the whole body of evidence.

The truth is that if any of the sceptics — especially those who do have some claim to expertise in the area — were to undertake a study that cast genuine doubt on the global warming hypothesis and it could pass the tests of professional scrutiny, it would cause a sensation. If it were confirmed, we could all utter an enormous sigh of relief and shower those responsible with prizes and accolades. Yet none of them has carried out any original work that challenges the consensus view. Nevertheless, whenever they raise a non-trivial objection, the serious scientists — including the IPCC — go back and look hard at their conclusions to see if any change is required.

So when I read the musings of an amateur climate scientist like Aitkin, who reproduces the claims of the sceptics, I know that he cannot have read the reports of the IPCC and the other leading institutions carefully because he would have understood that all of the arguments he recycles have been carefully considered and rejected or, if they suggest a lack of clarity, corrected.

Aitkin wants us to believe that he is a disinterested observer whose views are based strictly on the evidence, yet his assessment leads him to reject all of the major claims about global warming. He claims to be "agnostic", willing to change his mind should the evidence become sufficient. This was the same claim made by former Prime Minister John Howard, who said he wanted to see the evidence for global warming before taking any action. In truth, the evidence had been piling up on his desk for years, yet he refused to look at it.

Contrary to the insinuations of the denialists, genuine scientific scepticism is alive and well in the scientific community. Every advance in our understanding about climate change has had to run the gauntlet of doubt and questioning before being accepted, until better evidence or a more persuasive hypothesis displaces it. However, as former CSIRO climate scientist Barrie Pittock argues, most of those who, like Aitkin, pose as scientific sceptics are better described as "contrarians" because they are not interested in weighing the balance of evidence, but rather approach one position with extreme scepticism while failing to question the opposite view.

This describes Aitkin’s paper precisely. He has objected to any suggestion that he is a denialist because of the association of the word with Holocaust denialism. If denialism is the assertion of a position using analytical and rhetorical tricks to undermine a position based on overwhelming evidence, then it is apt in this case. It often tries to create the illusion of a debate among experts over fundamental questions when in fact there is none. Denialism works backwards from an ideological position to deny the facts.

Rather than the Holocaust, a closer analogy to Aitkin’s position is HIV/AIDS denialism. These denialists put forward a number of bizarre theories that ignore a vast accumulation of medical and epidemiological evidence collected over a long period, claiming that health experts have misunderstood or deliberately misreported their data because they want funding from governments or drug companies and are caught up in a "group fantasy".

The denialists have won over some influential friends, including South African President Thabo Mbeki, whose public statements and actions slowed the roll-out of anti-AIDS treatment leading to many unnecessary deaths. The ideological beliefs that lead to this form of denialism include the conviction that AIDS is a colonialist plot and that gays receive too much sympathy and funding (a position taken by some right-wing American groups such as the Heritage Foundation).

Despite their use of evidentiary language, the denialists are not interested in weighing up the evidence but in skewing it to support a conviction reached by non-scientific means. Like other climate sceptics, Aitkin calls for an independent inquiry to get at the facts of climate science. This is a spurious and misleading claim: we already have a process of independent, evidence-based inquiry among the community of climate scientists, one that reaches a head every five years with the IPCC reports. When he calls for "a public inquiry into this matter in which scientists openly argue about the data", one has to ask: Where has Aitkin been for the last 15 years?

Aitkin wants an inquiry marked by "careful reasoning, humility before nature, understatement, respect for inherent uncertainties, care with language and definitions, grounded in evidence, presentation of theoretical frameworks, respect for contestability, and so on". Point by point, this describes precisely the IPCC process, which is painfully exacting and comprehensive, yet calling for independent inquiries has become a tactic of choice for sceptics who want to bolster the claim that the consensus is biased and all they want are the facts.

This brings me to the most indefensible aspect of Aitkin’s intervention. He maintains that the hundreds of climate scientists who have been working on climate science for years have got it wrong and that, by implication, they have exaggerated or misrepresented their studies, been biased in the construction and interpretation of the models, and have been acting in bad faith because they have distorted the science in order to protect and build up their research funding. He accuses these eminent and accomplished scientists of adopting a "quasi-religious view" and even goes so far as to accuse academies of science of promoting climate science because they want more power.

After accusing climate scientists of bad faith and environmentalists and the media of religious zealotry, Aitkin takes offence at any suggestion that he is a denialist. Yet his analysis draws heavily on denialist papers and websites. When I turned to look at the references Aitkin had read I expected to find that the author — who has said that he spent a year researching the topic so that he could speak with some authority — had referred to a large number of papers in refereed journals which he had assessed in order to reach his conclusions. In fact, although he claims that he was "careful and systematic" in his research, he refers to a grand total of two articles published in climate science journals. Yet for him this is enough to make a series of strong claims that, if true, would blow out of the water 20 years of research by hundreds of climate scientists around the world.

If Aitkin does not refer to the enormous body of climate science literature, what is the basis for his claim that global warming is a myth? We do not have to look far to find out.

In his acknowledgements he singles out Ian Castles and Bob Carter, declaring that he is "enormously grateful" for their guidance in preparing the paper. Castles and Carter are two of Australia’s foremost climate sceptics; both are associated with the denialists of the Lavoisier Group, an organisation that sees the Kyoto Protocol as a European plot for a "new imperial order" that would see our sovereignty "relocated from Canberra to Bonn". The Group has links to Exxon-funded organisations in the United States, including far-right think tanks.

As his primary source on climate science, Aitkin directs readers to a paper published by the Heartland Institute and posted on the website of the "Science and Environmental Policy Project" (SEPP), a well-known denialist website run by Fred Singer. Singer, the editor of the paper Aitkin cites, is sometimes referred to as the godfather of climate scepticism.

His "scepticism" is not confined to the science of global warming. Singer also rejects the association between CFCs and ozone depletion, and between passive smoking and lung cancer. Before becoming a climate denialist, Singer worked for organisations funded by the tobacco industry to sow doubt in the public mind about links between smoking and cancer.

Singer agreed to a plan from a PR firm in the pay of British American Tobacco to undertake an "aggressive media interview schedule" attacking the US Environmental Protection Agency’s claims about passive smoking. Among its "Top 5 Environmental Myths", the PR company included global warming. Singer has admitted doing climate change work for oil companies including Exxon and Texaco. The tactic of creating doubt about the science in the public mind was developed by the tobacco industry and adopted, often using the same "experts" such as Singer, by climate sceptics groups sponsored by the fossil fuel lobby. (I am not suggesting, and have no reason to believe, that Don Aitkin has taken any money from Exxon or any other company or group.)

Among the contributors to the paper edited by Singer, which forms the basis of Aitkin’s paper to the Planning Institute of Australia, are: Craig Idso, a former employee of Peabody, one of the world’s largest coal companies, and now president of a climate sceptics group partially funded by ExxonMobil; Dennis Avery, a campaigner against organic agriculture at the Hudson Institute, a right-wing Washington think tank; and William Kininmonth, an Australian denialist whose 2004 anti-greenhouse book was launched at an event organised by the Lavoisier Group. The paper concludes that higher CO2 levels will be beneficial for the planet and, in contrast to the expectation of widespread catastrophes should the global average temperature rise by 3 degrees, the paper claims that such a warming would be in our interests.

The Heartland Institute, the publisher of the paper, is an American free-market think tank. Although it is secretive about its sources of funding, it is known that it has ties to the tobacco lobby, especially Philip Morris. In addition, over the period 1998–2006, the Institute received around A$1 million in donations from ExxonMobil. Its Board has included former senior executives of Philip Morris and ExxonMobil. The Heartland Institute sponsored the 2008 International Conference on Climate Change, which posed as a scientific conference but was in fact organised to promote the views of climate sceptics.

An innocent reader of "A Cool Look at Global Warming" might interpret Aitkin’s intervention as one man’s struggle to find the truth; that is certainly how the author presents himself. It reads as if he has spent a long time sifting through the competing claims in the scientific literature, weighing them up and reaching a considered view — one that runs counter to the "consensus".

The problem is that there is no body of literature with competing claims about the validity or otherwise of human-induced global warming. There is a very large and diverse body of science in a range of journals and, while there are acknowledged uncertainties and disagreements about the extent of the effects of warming and the role of various causal factors, the literature confirms all of the contentions of the IPCC, which Aitkin claims has got it so wrong.

Against this huge body of scientific research, Aitkin draws on a small number of repetitive, stale and wholly discredited papers cobbled together by sceptics groups, papers that circulate on sceptics websites and never find their way into the professional literature. The thinness of Aitkin’s reference list confirms this; we can be certain any paper that seriously challenged the consensus view about warming would be seized upon by the sceptics and milked for all it’s worth.

It seems clear to me that, in forming his views, Aitkin has not spoken to any serious climate scientists who are doing research and getting it published. If he had, he could not but be struck by their humility, caution and commitment to good science. At the end of his paper he thanks two well-known sceptics, but not John Church, Graeme Pearman, Andy Pitman, Barrie Pittock, Penny Whetton, David Karoly, Kevin Hennessy or any of the other Australian climate scientists who have made genuine contributions to the field. Nor did he make any reference to their work. Instead he accuses them, by implication, of being driven by a "quasi-religious view" which they cling to because of the "large amounts of money that have flowed to institutes and universities" that employ them.

The implication of Aitkin’s paper is that these eminent climate scientists are not sincere, cautious and astute scientists committed to uncovering the facts about global warming, but are zealots who have for years been massaging their research for personal or political gain. So clever have they been at doing this that they have managed to get past the academic gatekeepers in professional journals. To anyone who has met them, nothing could be more insulting to these researchers, who have dedicated their lives to uncovering the facts through best scientific practice.

While Aitkin is happy to address the Planning Institute of Australia and have his views reproduced in The Australian, which continues to publish any climate sceptic opinion no matter how outlandish, he has rejected requests to debate climate scientists in public. This is prudent on his part, as his scientific ignorance would be exposed. Aitkin is willing to attack the science — and by implication the reputations of climate scientists — in circumstances that he can control but is unwilling to confront those he accuses of bad science.

I have often wanted to put the following question to sceptics like Don Aitkin: What if you are wrong? What sort of moral responsibility will the sceptics have if they succeed in their aim of stopping the world from taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

If scientific advances cause scientists to reject the conclusions of past IPCC reports and agree that there is nothing to be alarmed about, it will be mildly embarrassing for people like me; but not too much harm will have been done — according to all of the economic studies, the costs of reducing emissions are low.

But if Aitkin and his fellow sceptics were successful in stopping policies to cut emissions and the IPCC projections turn out to be correct, then environmental catastrophe will follow and millions of people will die. Do they lose sleep over this? Do they worry about how their grandchildren will see them? Or are they so consumed by their crusade that they know they will never be proven wrong?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.