This is the second part of a two-party series about conspiracies concerning climate change. The first part can be found here.
By Aishwarya Siva
A few weeks ago I published an article exploring the misinformation campaign aimed at spreading doubt about data proving that smoking was hazardous to health. The key campaigners were Frederick Seitz and Fred Singer, two physicists from the Marshall C. Institute, a politically conservative think tank. They were involved in an array of campaigns aimed at fighting the science on smoking, acid rain, ozone depletion and global warming, with the intent of preventing policies from being implemented, while being funded by corporate interests. This article is about the history of how the science on global warming was politicized and brought to the public forum where scientific debate cannot take place, in an empirical way. This was by the same people who fought the data on smoking through deceit, misinformation and telling half truths.
Scientists have been studying and warning about the greenhouse effect as early as the 1960s and in 1988 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established. Scientists were researching the various influences on climate. According to Oreskes and Conway, the authors of Merchants of Doubt, physicist Klaus Hasselmann worked on a method to study global warming and its causes called ‘fingerprinting’. The concept was that each causal factor of climate change would leave a unique mark on the climate or atmosphere, almost like a fingerprint. For example, if the sun caused global warming, the stratosphere (upper level of the atmosphere) could be expected to be as warm as the troposphere (lower level of the atmosphere) but that has not been observed. Only the troposphere has been warming, showing that the warmth is coming from the earth, not from the sun.
Fingerprinting aimed at separating phenomena innate to the climate system from external factors. For example, a meteorological phenomenon called El Niño occurs every 4-7 years where regions of the Pacific Ocean warm up. Hasselmann’s studies took both innate (El Niño) and external (volcanoes, sun, manmade CO2) factors into account to determine what was the cause of the warming.
Scientists also investigated the effect of sulfate aerosol particles, widely thought to have caused the cooling period in the 1940-1970s. While CO2 retains heat, these particles had the opposite effect and their ‘fingerprint’ look different. The cooling period has been used to counter the idea of global warming. However, many studies were being conducted to understand the complexity of the climate in an attempt to understand the full picture. By the 1990s, scientists had concluded that anthropogenic CO2 was the culprit.
Another point of argument in the 1990s was on how much manmade CO2 would affect the temperature. In 1990 the IPCC predicted that there would be a 1-3 degree increase in temperature within the next century. Fred Singer, leading skeptic, opposed this claim and asserted that the temperature would increase by less than one degree. This caused a lot of confusion in the media. Later, Singer collaborated with respected climatologist and father of global warming, Roger Revelle on an article for the Washington Post. Despite Revelle’s disagreement with Singer’s assertion, he collaborated with him though he insisted this stance be revised in the article.
Unfortunately, due to Revell’s ill health, Singer had control of the final draft which was published in the non-scientific journal called the Cosmos. This article has caused disarray among the community. Revelle’s intention was to raise awareness of global warming. Instead, his article was used as a tool to attack his mentee, Al Gore on his environmental stance during the presidential election. Unsubstantiated claims were published in non-peer reviewed journals and used as political ammunition.
Hypocritically, Singer later attacked the IPCC, claiming that it was politicized and that the research conducted was not according to scientific standards while his Cosmos article was being used as “fact”.
In 1995, climatologist Ben Santer was approached by the IPCC to be the lead co-author of a chapter: Detection of Climate Change and Attribution of Causes for the second assessment report on climate change. Santer advocated to include 6 pages, detailing modeling and observational variability to stay objective and transparent despite objections. Later in an interview Fred Singer attacked Santer saying that any data falling outside the IPCC’s political agenda was actively removed. However, 6 pages on modeling uncertainties proves otherwise.
Singer published an article in the journal Science claimed that Ben Santer made changes to manipulate the report and that the fingerprinting technique used in the report was not a verifiable technique as it had not been published in peer reviewed journals. Both of these claims are false. Santer’s edits were based on peer-review and Singer had no proof of wrongdoing since he had not been a part of the IPCC report or the review process. According to Oreskes and Conway, the fingerprinting methodology had been published in peer-reviewed journals.
The same arguments Seitz and Singer made in the 1990s against global warming are being used today. Note that Singer and Seitz did not conduct any research of their own but have actively rallied against scientists whenever their conclusions supported the negative influence of anthropogenic trends on the climate. Why are the skeptics not held to the same peer-reviewed scientific standard as those they oppose? Science is not an opinion, it is evidence-based truth. It cannot be discussed by laypersons or even scientists outside the field of study. However, there is enormous value in scientific skepticism and global warming skeptics should aim to balance the narrative on this topic with scientific evidence and not baseless accusations.
Why is it important to keep discussing this topic ad nauseum? According to the New York Times, by no means an objective reporter of Trump and his administration, President Trump rolled back on several policies requiring industries to report and reduce their CO2 emissions. While this has helped companies enormously, it raises some worrisome questions about the future. Global warming is a global problem that requires all countries, especially the superpowers, to participate in reducing carbon emissions and other pollutants.
Citizens skeptical about global warming are essential in keeping the government honest, especially when the science will be used to inform policies that will impact the economy. It is however important to balance the narrative with scientific evidence and not merely by listening to ‘both sides’.
Illustration: Michelle Sara Pencarski
Aishwarya Siva is currently working on her master’s in biology. When she is not languishing in the depths of BMC, she’s catching a beer with friends, trying to salvage pictures from her century old phone or making references to New Girl that no one knows. She wants to use her opinionated disposition and penchant for writing to work at the intersection of science and policy.