By Professor Dr. Heiner Flassbeck
Although it is by now clear that humanity finds itself in major trouble, deniers are not stopping their attempts to manipulate public opinion.
These people have been a curse for many decades.
As I said in the first part, a new study by Friedrich et al. shows that the IPCC prediction of an increase of the Earth’s average temperature of 2.6 and 4.8 degrees above pre-industrial levels by 2100 is an under-estimation.
Instead they predict that the range could be between 4.78C and 7.36C by 2100.
Nothing less than the survival of our species – and many others (or perhaps all) – is at stake.
But the deniers go on. They publish op-eds, papers (although not in peer-reviewed journals) and books in which they either deny that climate change is real or that it is a problem. I will give some examples. The real question is what to do about climate change denial.
A couple of examples
Hundreds of examples of hocus pocus pseud0-science can be given. I choose one, more or less at random: the idea that it is the sun’s variability – not CO2 emissions – that is responsible for climate change. This thesis has been defended in a book by Vahrenholt and Lüning, Die kalte Sonne: warum die Klimakatastrophe nicht stattfindet (The Cold Sun: Why the Climate Crisis Is Not Happening).
To my amazement, Vahrenholt is (or was) a member of the SPD. He was actually Umweltsenator (senator for the environment) in Hamburg from 1991 to 1997. Before that, Vahrenholt worked at the federal Umweltbundesamt (the environmental protection agency) in Berlin and the Ministry for the Environment in Hessen. Vahrenholt then entered the energy industry. Until 2011, he was on the Board of Deutsche Shell AG. In 2001, he became the CEO of the wind turbine company REpower Systems AG and remained there until 2007. From February 2008 to June 2012 he was CEO of the electric power company RWE subsidiary RWE Innogy and remains on the supervisory board. According to Stefan Rahmstorf from the Potsdam Centre for Climate Change (see here), RWE is Europe’s largest CO2 emitter. In 1999, Vahrenholt was made Honorary Professor of Chemistry at the University of Hamburg (see here).
In 2012, Vahrenholt, together with geologist Sebastian Lüning, who has also been employed by RWE, published The Cold Sun. Vahrenholt and Lüning predicted that the Earth is entering a cooling phase due to periodic solar cycles and that it will cool by 0.2 to 0.3 degrees C by 2035. Other contributors were Nir Shaviv, Henrik Svensmark (see here for an excellent article on Svensmark’s “cosmoclimatology”) and Nicola Scafetta. Numerous scientists, including the Council for Sustainable Development, criticised the book. According to Wikipedia, the book’s underlying assumptions were “either outdated or highly speculative.” In fact, they are flat out, radically, completely wrong.
The last three years have set records in global warming. 2010 was globally the hottest year on record, until it got topped by 2014. 2014 was overtaken by 2015 and there is no doubt that 2016 will be warmer than 2015.
Three record years in a row are unprecedented in all those decades of global warming.
As Stefan Rahmstorf writes in an article in RealClimate (see here – Realclimate.org is one of the best and most solid climate change science blogs on the internet), one aspect of climate change that barely receives attention is that the heat records occur despite a colder sun. The last solar minimum (2008-2010) was the lowest since at least 1950. This is shown, among others, by sunspot data (see figure 1) as well as measurements of the solar luminosity from satellites.
Figure 1: Time evolution of global temperature, CO2 concentration and solar activity. Temperature and CO2 are scaled relative to each other according to the physically expected CO2 effect on climate (i.e. the best estimate of transient climate sensitivity). The amplitude of the solar curve is scaled to correspond to the observed correlation of solar and temperatures (Source: Stefan Rahmstorf, here).
This, in itself, is enough to close the Vahrenholt and Lüning case. There is ample and clear evidence that variations of the sun’s activity have, in the words of Stefan Rahmstorf,
“played a completely subordinate role in climate change over the last 65 years. (…) Global warming is driven by greenhouse gases, which is a long-standing consensus in science. The current IPCC report, for example, limits the natural contribution to global warming since 1950 to less than plus or minus 0.1 ° C (it might have been negative, e.g. because of the fading sun). (…) (S)ome unsupported claims by “climate skeptics” about the importance of solar variability are now clearly falsified” (see here).
While it is absolutely undeniable that the Earth is warming up faster than ever before in human history, Vahrenholt and Lüning argue that it is cooling because of reduced sun activity. It is just wrong. As Rahmstorf says, solar activity has been essentially constant, except for the well-known 11-year Schwabe cycle (which also has little effect on global temperature) and a slight downward trend.
Vahrenholt and Lüning and other “sceptics” replied that there is a time-delayed reaction to an increase in solar activity before 1950 and, as Rahmstorf says, this idea is not wrong: of course the climate system has a certain inertia. This effect has been quantified with the help of model simulations (see here). Researchers have shown that 60% of the temperature reaction occurs within the first 20 years. But this does not help their case. Around 80% of global warming since the 19th century has taken place after 1970. It is completely illogical to argue that the slight and gradual increase in solar activity before 1950 could have contributed significantly to the strong warming since 1970 (see here). Furthermore, solar activity could affect climate either by variation in the sun’s output or, more speculatively, by an indirect effect on the amount of cloud formation (as in Svensmark’s “cosmoclimatology” (see here)). But this has also been completely refuted. For example, Lockwood and Fröhlich concluded an article on solar variability by writing that “the observed rapid rise in global mean temperatures seen after 1985 cannot be ascribed to solar variability, whichever of the mechanisms is invoked and no matter how much the solar variation is amplified” (see here).
The problem with Vahrenholt and Lüning is not that they are wrong. Scientists are often wrong. Science advances through a process of rejecting and accepting hypotheses.
But this is not science. Its aim is not to find the truth, but to create confusion, to plant the seeds of doubt.
Write a book and suddenly you are an “expert” and the media will give you attention. Vahrenholt once claimed that Greenland was nearly free of ice in the Middle Ages (because it is cooling, you see?).
In 2010 Vahrenholt (who was then in a leading position with the energy utility RWE), published a newspaper article arguing that the winters are becoming noticeable harsher and that this worries all those who are concerned about why global warming is obviously pausing. In fact, global warming was not pausing, it never did, but Vahrenholt knew the cause anway: it is the sun, stupid! (see here).
In their 2012 book, The Cold Sun, Vahrenholt and Lüning presented their own forecast for the global temperature evolution until 2030. Rahmstorf compares it in the next figure to the measured data (i.e. reality). As he says: “No comment required” (see here).
Figure 2: Measurements of global temperature (NASA GISTEMP, moving average over 12 months) compared to the forecast for global temperature by 2030 by Vahrenholt and Lüning, after Figure 73 of their book. (Image by Stefan Rahmstorf, Potsdam Climate Centre).
Another “argument” of the sceptics – that one, unfortunately, hears very often, is that increased levels of CO2 are actually benign as plants need CO2 and makes them grow more.
The truth is that increased levels of CO2 will be detrimental for almost all life on earth (see Liebig’s Law of the Minimum here). It is not just a matter of increasing CO2 concentrations. The nutrient available in least supply (following Liebig’s law) is likely to be water and climate change increases drought. It is true that open air enhanced CO2 trials have shown that higher levels of CO2 promotes faster and more robust plant growth in only some species, but even then it mainly promotes increased production of cellulose and lignin in the plant stem and leaf structure, rather than in increased fruit and seed yields. Other research shows that increased heat will be detrimental to many domesticated cereal crops and that it will promote increased loss of soil moisture and mineral uptake, both of which will promote reduced crop yields (see here).
The wider picture: the funding of the denier movement
Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, has argued that the appearance of overlapping groups of “sceptical” scientists, commentators and think tanks in seemingly unrelated controversies results from an organized attempt to replace scientific analysis with political ideology. Organised campaigning to undermine public trust in climate science and in science in general (for example evolution) is associated with conservative economic policies and backed by industrial interests opposed to the regulation of CO2 emissions. Climate change denial has been associated with the fossil fuels lobby, the Koch brothers, industry advocates and libertarian think tanks, advancing the agenda of “free markets,” small government and anti-Keynesianism ‘intervention.’ According to Mooney, more than 90% of papers sceptical on climate change originate from right-wing think tanks (see here).
The total annual income of these climate change counter-movement-organizations has been estimated at roughly $900 million. Between 2002 and 2010, nearly $120 million was anonymously donated via the Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund to more than 100 organisations seeking to undermine the public perception of the science on climate change. Do not forget that, as the The New York Times and others wrote in 2015, that oil companies knew that burning oil and gas could cause global warming since the 1970s but that they nonetheless funded deniers for decades and also that historically, just under 70 companies are responsible for two thirds of all emissions (see here).
The Greenpeace research project ExxonSecrets, and George Monbiot writing in The Guardian, as well as various academics, have linked several skeptical scientists—Fred Singer, Fred Seitz and Patrick Michaels—to organizations funded by ExxonMobil and Philip Morris for the purpose of promoting global warming skepticism. These organizations include the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation. Similarly, groups employing global warming skeptics, such as the George C. Marshall Institute, have been criticized for their ties to fossil fuel companies (see here).
According to Greenpeace, the climate change writer Willie Soon, who is at the Smithsonian and once said that nothing is happening in the Arctic and that polar bears like climate change anyway (yes – this is the level!) failed to disclose to to academic journals funding including more than $1.2 million from fossil fuel industry related interests including ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and the Southern Company. Emails show that Soon considered these papers as ‘deliverables’ for payment. The Union of Concerned Scientists produced a report titled ‘Smoke, Mirrors & Hot Air,’ that criticizes ExxonMobil for “underwriting the most sophisticated and most successful disinformation campaign since the tobacco industry” and for “funnelling about $16 million between 1998 and 2005 to a network of ideological and advocacy organizations that manufacture uncertainty on the issue” (see here).
This is not the only consortium of skeptics that Exxon Mobil has supported financially. The George C. Marshall Institute received $630,000 in funding for climate change research from ExxonMobil between 1998 and 2005. Exxon Mobil also gave $472,000 in funding to The Board of Academic and Scientific Advisors for the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow from 1998 to 2005. Dr. Frederick Seitz, well known as “the godfather of global warming scepticism,” served as both Chairman Emeritus of The George C. Marshall Institute and a board member of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow from 1998 to 2005. The Royal Society conducted a survey that found ExxonMobil had given US$ 2.9 million to American groups that “misinformed the public about climate change.”
No one knows exactly what the real consequences of these ideological misrepresentations have been. Have the deniers been successful? It certainly seems to be the case. In Europe, the notion of human influence on climate gained wide acceptance much more rapidly than in the United States. For example, a 2009 survey found that Europeans rated climate change as the second most serious problem facing the world, between “poverty, the lack of food and drinking water” and “a major global economic downturn”. Eighty seven percent of Europeans considered climate change to be a “very serious” or a “serious problem.” But there is no evidence of alarm over global warming in the United States – historically, by far, the biggest producer of greenhouse gases. Just 19% of Americans who have heard of the issue say they worry a lot about global warming—the lowest percentages in the 15 countries surveyed. Moreover, nearly half of Americans (47%) express little or no concern about the problem. It is of course much too simple to blame the deniers for these differences. Still, there is no doubt that their work had impact and, most probably, that it was a significant (see here).
What to do about it and the hypocrisy of the West
While all of this has been well documented in many reports, papers and books, the question remains what should be done about it.
Amost three years ago, Lawrence Torcello, an assistant professor at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York state wrote a piece for The Conversation, ‘Is misinformation about the climate criminally negligent?’ in which he argued that the funding of climate denial should be considered to be “criminally and morally negligent” (see also here). He wrote:
“Criminal negligence is normally understood to result from failures to avoid reasonably foreseeable harms, or the threat of harms to public safety, consequent of certain activities. Those funding climate denial campaigns can reasonably predict the public’s diminished ability to respond to climate change as a result of their behaviour. Indeed, public uncertainty regarding climate science, and the resulting failure to respond to climate change, is the intentional aim of politically and financially motivated denialists” (see here).
Torcello’s article sparked a rage among conservative media and climate science denialist bloggers, who went on to completely misrepresent what Torcello had actually said (see here about this ‘controversy’). Some claimed that Torcello had written in anger about “sceptical scientists,” when he had not mentioned climate scientists. Others said, he was calling for jail sentences, which he did not do either.
What he said was:
“I have been thinking about both scientific literacy and the legality of funded campaigns aimed at undermining public confidence in climate science. It may be the case that a different charge is more applicable than the one I suggest, for example, that “hate speech” more appropriately characterizes such funded campaigns. I would like more philosophers and scholars of jurisprudence to take up the subject of misinformation and harmful speech with regard to climate change” (see here).
I completely agree. Criminal negligence is normally understood to result from failures to avoid reasonably foreseeable harms or the threat of harms to public safety, consequent of certain activities. Why does this not apply to climate change denial? Mark Lynas, the author of Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, wrote that:
“I wonder what sentences judges might hand down at future international criminal tribunals on those who will be partially but directly responsible for millions of deaths from starvation, famine and disease in decades ahead.
I put (their climate change denial) in a similar moral category to Holocaust denial – except that this time the Holocaust is yet to come, and we still have time to avoid it.
Those who try to ensure we don’t will one day have to answer for their crimes.”
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