Sound science can only be produced in an environment of skepticism. Every time a scientist publishes, he or she is subject to challenge, which helps weed out bad theories and enhance our understanding of the world. Why are climate change skeptics different?
While climate change science has indeed attracted some genuine skepticism, professional skeptics who are not interested in dispassionate evidence dominate the debate, employing dubious tactics. They cherry pick data, distort evidence and are unwilling to perform studies to generate new credible data. Instead, they throw tomatoes at those who are dedicated from the bleachers.
If the debate was to be settled solely by scientific literature, the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor that climate change is a tangible threat. The vast majority of research papers (about 97.5 percent according to a couple of recent estimates) reinforce the paradigm that accelerated greenhouse warming is occurring. However, professional skeptics have pricked this bubble by simply bypassing the scientific literature and spinning a story for media consumption; this is as simple as it is dishonest.
The world of professional skeptics has attracted ideologues who see climate science as a conspiracy against capitalism. Then there are those poor souls who have never amounted to much during their scientific career and welcome the limelight (and healthy book sales) that come from being a professional skeptic. There are talks to give and books to sell to rightwing groups who hungrily lap up evidence of the “Green Menace,” which has replaced the “Red Menace.”
One of the genuine skeptics is Richard Muller, a professor of physics at University of California Berkeley. In recent times, he has been one of the most outspoken and credible opponents of global warming science. He has also been willing to undertake serious scientific work to support his skepticism.
In 2009, Muller founded the “Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature” team (BEST). After analyzing more than 1.6 billion temperature measurements dating back to the 1800s from fifteen sources around the world, sourced from more than 39,000 temperature stations worldwide, the group has submitted four papers for peer-review and publication in scientific journals.
Prior to publication, Muller announced his findings. The BEST analysis found that the average global land temperature has risen by 2.5°F since 1750, with 1.5°F of that increase occurring in the past fifty years. This finding is in line with past studies performed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and others. Moreover, Muller concluded that his findings are even stronger than those found by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Faced with such compelling evidence, Muller told the New York Times in July 28, 2012,
Call me a converted skeptic. Three years ago I identified scientific issues that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. Now, after organizing an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I’ve concluded that global warming is real, that the prior estimates of the rate were correct, and that cause is human.
Muller and his team at Berkeley further found that natural variations in Earth’s climate variability from solar cycles, El Niño, La Niña and shifts in the Atlantic sea surface temperatures, did not account global warming as suggested by other skeptics.
Writing about his results in the Wall Street Journal Muller said:
When we began our study, we felt that skeptics had raised legitimate issues, and we didn’t know what we’d find. Our results turned out to be close to those published by prior groups. We think that means that those groups had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that. They managed to avoid bias in their data selection, homogenization and other corrections.
The problem with this debate is that on one hand we have dedicated scientists who live in a world of facts and doubt. There are no natural phenomena that they can nail down with 100 percent certainty. Their quest is to reduce that uncertainty, but they can never banish it. This is the chink in the armor that professional skeptics have exploited with such skill and verve. Instead of confronting the evidence, they play up the doubt, question the motives of scientists working on climate change and wrap this up in an interesting story line that is often amusing, engaging and simple—eschewing the difficult science involved.
Muller is a rare example of a genuine skeptic, but he is seen as a turncoat by his former allies. Their response has been to either ignored his work or cast doubt on his analysis.
In all likelihood, Muller’s work will not be a game changer because professional skeptics play up to people’s natural inclination to avoid inconvenient facts that demand drastic changes in the way they live, particularly when preventative action on climate change will undoubtedly be costly (although not as costly as it will be if climate change goes unchecked).