After my last blog on the scientific method, I’d like to write today about the ongoing attempt by vested interest to discredit climate change and carbon emission. Using the example of the “hockey stick” graph, I will try to describe in detail how the propaganda machine surrounding the science of climate change or global warming has been working for several decades now to discredit the science linking climate change to human activity, particularly in the US. In Europe (I am European and therefore confident that what I say regarding my continent is correct, but I believe I might as well have said “in the rest of the world”) there is virtually no serious debate over whether or not global warming or climate change is one of the, if not THE biggest challenge we face today.
There are of course discussions on the details of the impact of human activity on the climate and the predictions for the future – and in some areas of the debate a consensus on what is going to happen hasn’t yet been reached by the scientific community – and of course there are a lot of discussions on the political implications of climate change. And more often than not European countries promise more than they actually do, or use climate change as a means to push their own agenda, for example by investing heavily in nuclear power. Enough material for several more blogs, I am sure. But in general, the leaders of European countries know of – and believe in – the dangers we face. The main stream media here frequently discuss climate change related issues(1), even though – from our point of view here – not nearly enough in light of the gravity of the situation. Propaganda here also exists, but with a different spin. Germany, for example, announced last year and end to nuclear power by 2022, greenwashing the fact that this would mean at least an intermediate return to coal until renewable energy sources are sufficiently developed. But at least there is some serious discussion on how to deal with climate change, and the basic facts are not disputed. Unlike in the US.
I can understand that as a US citizen you can get the impression that “less and less people believe in the premise that C02 emissions are causing climate change”, or that “less than 50% of people buy into the sham that is man-made global warming” and that therefore you come to the conclusion that we should all focus on issues that “are already considered fact by the masses” so we are not wasting time and effort on issues that will only distract us from the “real” challenges ahead. If you only have access to the US media (although there are very good sources such as Democracy Now!) and if you get bombarded day after day by the concerted effort of politics in general, right-wing politics in particular, heavy-weight industry and their billion dollar propaganda machine, you may easily be persuaded that indeed there are at least legitimate doubts as to whether or not this is all true, and that a big part of the US (or even the world’s) population today has taken a step back from the theory of man-made global warming. However, an estimated 400 million EU (15 core countries, not 27) citizens, and the majority of the Japanese (and other developed Asian countries) and Latin American population – and let’s not forget the other half of US citizens either – as well as the entire scientific community beg to differ.
So, why are so many Americans convinced that “climate change is a hoax”, and how come they think that the rest of the world agrees? I think the story surrounding the “climate gate scandal” is a good example on how propaganda is done, particularly in the US:
“Climate gate” started in November 2009, when a server at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia was hacked and thousands of emails and computer files from climate scientists around the world were stolen and copied to various locations on the Internet. This took place just weeks before the Copenhagen Summit on climate change in December 2009, which would have been the first opportunity to make progress on dealing with climate change in years. Emails of Michael E. Mann(2) (who was one of 8 lead authors of the "Observed Climate Variability and Change” chapter of the IPCC(3) Third Assessment Report from 2001) were featured prominently in the attempt to discredit climate science across the board. The emails were selectively leaked and quoted with phrases taken out of context and strung together to make people believe that climate change was indeed the big hoax that Senator Inhofe(4) would like Americans to believe. Almost certainly this was an attempt to distract policy makers and to take their eye of the ball at this critical moment in history and potentially set all of us back years in confronting the problem of climate change.
Professor Mann became a particular target for the right-wing media and bloggers who accused him and others of “hiding the data that did not support global-warming claims” or “hiding the temperature decline”, arguing that the emails showed that global warming was a scientific conspiracy, in which scientists manipulated climate data and attempted to suppress critics. Because Professor Mann’s emails seemingly contained words or phrases which “disproved” the theory of climate change, his whole work came under scrutiny.
One of his studies came under particular attack because it contained a graph which was highlighted in the 2001 IPCC Third Assessment Report as supporting the mainstream view of climate scientists that there had been a relatively sharp rise in temperatures during the second half of the 20th century. It became a focus of dispute for the climate change deniers precisely because it was such an iconic figure, since it was so easy to understand and visible.
The hockey stick graph
The famous – or rather, the now infamous – hockey stick graph was produced by Mann and his collaborators more than a decade ago (in 1999)(5). At the time, it was an attempt to extend the temperature record back in time, since widespread thermometer records around the globe are only going back a century. From these records we know (and here we can say, without a doubt, because temperature measurements are direct evidence) that the globe has warmed by 0.8°C (1.5 F) in the past century. But what was not clear – and what is still disputed by the climate change deniers today – is whether this raise in global temperature is a consequence of human activity or whether it might occur naturally, or even whether this change in global temperature is at all unusual.
To answer this question the group around Mann used indirect measurements, so called proxy data that allow climate scientists to estimate how the climate has changed further in the past. Proxy data are, for example, data from tree rings, coral layers, or ice cores from polar and high regions. The data, or rather, these probes were not produced by Mann’s group itself, but are the result of a community wide effort by literally thousands of paleoclimate scientists around the world who have collected these probes or evidences over decades. In reference to my last blog on why we should trust in science, this is another example for how the scientific community is working together to develop a scientific theory. Groups like that around Mann take advantage of this wealth of data to synthesize the information contained within these records.
From these proxy data Mann determined that the globe was relatively warm about 1000 years ago, then cooled into the “little ice age“ (17th to 19th century), which would be the downward tilting handle of the hockey stick. The blade of the stick would then represent the warming of the planet over the past century. And the alarming conclusion from the data was that the current warmth appeared to be unprecedented as far as the records allowed them to go back (1000 years) at the time of the study (in 1999!).
The “Serengeti” strategy
The way in which Michael Mann and his research came under attack by the climate change deniers and the media in the wake of “climate gate” is best described by what Mann calls the “Serengeti” strategy. “Serengeti” strategy refers to the attempt to isolate a single scientist and try to make it sound as if the entire burden of proof for a complex scientific theory (theory here describing a “fact” or reality in non-scientific language, see last blog) stands and falls with this particular scientist or study; much like the lion in the Serengeti that cannot go for the entire herd but singles out this one isolated zebra. So, the attackers set up the straw man that climate science is like a house of cards resting on a single, more than 10 year old “hockey stick” study and a single scientist, thereby completely misrepresenting the whole field of climate science. In reality, climate science is much more like a puzzle that is almost filled in: there are still details scientists are trying to figure out, a couple of pieces are still missing, but the picture can be seen very clearly already.
Michael Mann is not the first scientist who came under attack in such a way. On the contrary, there has been a long standing effort to attack scientists, and particularly IPCC scientists, to discredit climate science. In 1995, Benjamin Santer, a climate scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California who played a role in second IPCC report, was fiercely attacked by the media (particularly the Wall Street Journal(6)) to discredit his work and challenge his integrity, in other words, to smear him. And the same now happened to Mann because the hockey stick graph had become this iconic symbol for climate change.
The tactic is also by no means new, the tobacco industry already used this strategy back when they tried to discredit science that linked tobacco smoke with human health problems such as lung cancer(7). In the case of climate change, it is the fossil fuel industry (with the gracious help from the automobile and other heavy industry) that now tries to deny the influence of their product on the global climate, and those who try to fool the public and discredit the science are allied with fossil fuel industry front groups and organizations – according to Mann, a small number of think tanks like the Koch brothers and other conservative foundations.
The propaganda strategy that is used serves a double purpose: on the one hand, the straw man makes it seem that the science depends on one person or one study only, misrepresenting the science and casting doubt on an entire field in order to distract (or shall I say brainwash?) the public, when in reality we can live very well without this one study and it does not change the overall picture. On the other hand, it sends a signal to the scientific community meant to scare scientists not to take part in public discourse by threatening that, should they take part in the public discussion, the same will happen to them: their science will be discredited, and their character will be smeared and ridiculed.
What the hockey stick really means for climate science
It cannot be stressed enough that the hockey stick study is only ONE piece of evidence for the larger theory of anthropogenic climate change (see part 1 of this blog). There are literally dozens of independent lines of evidence using different techniques, methods, probes or prediction models and relying on different data sets. What makes a theory scientific is that there are many independent scientific groups around the globe that come to the same conclusion: that humans are responsible (at least in great part) for the warming of the planet. Only because there is such a vast body of evidence does the scientific community accept the theory of climate change. Contrary to what the media will make people believe, climate science is not based on, nor does it stand or fall with ONE single thirteen year old study. On the contrary, since the study was published in 1999, many other studies(8) have come to the same conclusion.
The climate gate investigation
In response to “climate gate” eight (8!) separate independent investigations (amongst them the British Parliament and the highest authority for scientific misconduct, the National Science Foundation), looked at all the claims that climate change deniers made about Mann and came to the conclusion that there was NOTHING to it, that all accusations were fabricated(9). Several scientific associations (e.g. the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Meteorological Society and the Union of Concerned Scientists) also released statements supporting the scientific consensus that the global mean surface temperature had been rising for decades, and that "based on multiple lines of scientific evidence, global climate change caused by human activities is now underway and is a growing threat to society"(10). It might also surprise you to know that even amongst Republicans there are some who have taken a pro science rational approach, and who came out in defense of Michael Mann and climate science: Senator John McCain, Arnold Schwarzenegger and House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), amongst others.
However, the climate change deniers had reached their goal, as it took 2.5 years to conclude the investigations and, in the meantime, at least in the US the climate change deniers gained ground and had achieved to sidetrack any serious public discussion and to suppress any serious attempt to deal with the problems in time.
The propaganda continues
I think “climate gate” is a good example for the concerted effort to discredit science. Much has been achieved, particularly in the US. The number of people believing in climate change in the US has gone down while evidence has gone up in the past years. Conservatives have decreasing faith in science, and the most educated had the highest increase of skepticism(11). But climate change denial and science skepticism in general is no longer a domain of the right.
What can be done to restore trust in science? Scientists are at an inherent disadvantage, because for one they are only trained to do science, while the propaganda machine of Conservatives has been very successful in fooling the public on how science actually works. Many people in the US seem to believe that the goal of scientists is to just confirm each other’s opinion, when in fact the way to get ahead in science is by proving the other wrong, by finding the anomalies or showing something new, and not by reinforcing the prevailing paradigm! Scientists therefore are the true skeptics who, whenever new evidence comes out, try to find the holes in the evidence.
Scientific findings are neutral and scientists are not (or shouldn’t be) policy makers. Scientists have to ensure that – before policy makers even come together – a worthy and INFORMED discussion can be had, including the public, which is based on science and evidence. However, that seems no longer to be possible in the US, where we can no longer have a public debate on the reality of the problem, only on our reaction to it.
What’s most surprising to me is how effective the propaganda was in convincing the US public that it is, in fact, the scientists who have the well-funded machine behind them and who are gaining personally by coming to these conclusions. The reality is that most scientists live very modest lives. People often forget that, for every full professor you see on TV, there is an army of technicians, undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and assistant profs who do the actual lab work, who collect and analyze the data, who carry out the experiments and who depend on the results for their PhD thesis, publication records and the small chance of getting a full time position at some point in their lives. Trust me, I know. I have worked in Germany, Japan, Spain and France, and I think I have a good overview of how the majority of scientists in this world live. A Spanish postdoc earns 1000-1500 EUR per month. Italy used to be comparable, but is now getting worse. One of my colleagues from Poland earned 900 EUR/month as an assistant professor. And those millions of grant money that you might have heard about do not go into the pockets of the Principal Investigator. The money is always bound to paying for technical equipment and/or the lowly salaries of the numerous staff. Scientists in Europe also have a different standing in society compared to those in the US. While our work is generally recognized as socially relevant, it is by no means a career one chooses in order to become wealthy. The career prospects are abysmal.
So, what would all these people gain by falsifying data and conspiring to convince the public of a made-up threat? This would truly be the biggest, most successful, self-denying conspiracy in the world.
Another incomplete list of references
(1) I challenge you to do a little experiment: go to the English site of spiegelonline.de, one of the main stream news sources in Germany (traditionally a “left” journal, although that can be disputed nowadays) and put in the search terms “global warming” or “nuclear phase-out”. See what happens. And keep in mind: these are only the articles that have been translated into English. http://www.spiegel.de/international/search/index.html?suchbegriff=nuclear+phase-out
(2) A lot of what I am describing here I took from an interview with Michael E. Mann himself on Sam Seder’s Majority Report: http://majority.fm/2012/04/25/425-michael-mann-climate-wars/
(3) The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a scientific intergovernmental body established by (amongst others) the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme. Its mission is to provide comprehensive scientific assessments of current worldwide scientific and socio-economic information about the risk of climate change caused by human activity, its potential consequences, and options for mitigating the effects. Thousands of scientists and other experts contribute (on a voluntary basis) to writing and reviewing reports, which are reviewed by representatives from governments of more than 120 countries, with summaries for policy makers. The IPCC does not carry out its own original research, nor does it do the work of monitoring climate or related phenomena itself. The IPCC bases its assessment mainly on peer reviewed and published scientific literature. National and international responses to climate change generally regard the UN climate panel as authoritative.
(4) Senator James Inhofe’s opinion is so outlandish, it really is enough to just google his name to get an overview. But if you’d like to have some fun, try these:
(9) The eight major investigations covered by secondary sources include: House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (UK); Independent Climate Change Review (UK); International Science Assessment Panel (UK); Pennsylvania State University first panel and second panel (US); United States Environmental Protection Agency (US); Department of Commerce (US); National Science Foundation (US)
(10) Henig, Jess (2009). "FactCheck: Climategate Doesn't Refute Global Warming". Newsweek. 11 December.