A hiker crosses a shrinking perennial snowfield in the Wind River Range near Desolation Peak. When it comes to the debate on climate change, guest columnist Chris Madson asks whether the public should listen to scientists who collect hard data, or lawyers whose corporate clients expect a pre-determined conclusion. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr. / WyoFile – click to enlarge)
A hiker crosses a shrinking perennial snowfield in the Wind River Range near Desolation Peak. When it comes to the debate on climate change, guest columnist Chris Madson asks whether the public should listen to scientists who collect hard data, or lawyers whose corporate clients expect a pre-determined conclusion. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr. / WyoFile – click to enlarge)

Who should we trust in climate change debate?

Guest column by Chris Madson
— June 24, 2014

The ongoing discussion of climate change and the science we’re using to understand it is generating more heat than light, as usual.

The details of any technical research are often difficult to grasp, wrapped as they are in statistical tests and confidence intervals, and trying to grasp the mechanics of a system as complex as the world’s weather is particularly challenging. Most Americans don’t have the time or inclination to wade through mountains of technical journals and reports to confirm the details— they’re going to have to make up their minds about who they trust to analyze the problem and talk straight about it.

Chris Madson (Courtesy photo)

There’s been a lot of noise about the venal motives of climate researchers. These professional eggheads, the argument goes, will say or do anything to extend their grants for another year. It’s certainly true that the federal budget for climate research is substantial— nearly $2.5 billion for fiscal year 2013. But that money is spread across five major agencies— the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Interior— and it involves tens of thousands of people, full-time employees in the public and private sectors as well as a host of contractors and grant recipients. Hard to believe that a group that large, diverse, and dispersed could hatch a conspiracy to defraud the federal government, let alone keep the plot secret all these years.

While the accusation may not hold much water when it’s made against the scientific community, following the money is a good way to find out who may profit from distorting the facts. There’s another major revenue stream in the climate debate, one that’s generally ignored when accusations start to fly. Last year, the four major oil conglomerates alone reported annual earnings of $84.2 billion. Revenue like that can buy a lot of support.

It’s never been easy to track down the sources of funding that support private organizations like the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, and Competitive Enterprise Institute. Neither the donors nor the groups themselves are anxious to reveal their relationships or motives, but reports the IRS requires shed some light on both.

According to IRS form 990 reports filed between 2000 and 2005, ExxonMobil donated $1.4 million to the American Enterprise Institute, one of the most aggressive opponents of the idea of climate change. In that same span, Exxon donated $1.6 million to the Competitive Enterprise Institute and $331,000 to the Heartland Institute, two other groups that have led the denial of climate change science.

In 2006, after several years of growing challenges to its overt support of climate change denial, Exxon stopped its contributions, but as support from Exxon waned, two other groups, Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, took up the slack. In 2012, Donors Trust sent $1.4 million to the Competitive Enterprise Institute and more than $100,000 to the Heartland Institute.

Most of the Donors Trust money can’t be traced to specific sources, but an investigation by Robert Brulle, a sociology professor at Drexel University, managed to identify some of the contributors. Between 2003 and 2010, they included Exxon and other oil interests like the Koch Brothers and the Scaiffe family.

So, when someone quotes an attorney like Chris Horner from the Competitive Enterprise Institute or James Taylor from the Heartland Institute as an authority on climate change, I’m not surprised.  Either one of these gentlemen probably knocks down a salary four or five times the money NASA pays the most senior of its climate scientists, paid by the companies who have a major economic interest in the way the climate debate proceeds — that lawyer better find convincing arguments against climate change, whether they’re based on sound data or not.

The question is: When it comes to climate change, who do you believe— Chris Horner or Dr. James Hansen of NASA?

Hansen and his colleagues across the country don’t indulge in flights of fancy or invention when it comes to analyzing climate. They collect hard data from high orbit to the bottom of the ocean, from the migration of warblers to the recession of glaciers.

Everything they do — the way they collect information, how they analyze it, the conclusions they draw — is scrutinized by the scientific community as well as the public at large. If, for example, you’re interested in looking at NASA’s estimates of global temperature, month by month, from January, 1880, through April, 2014, you can find them on the internet.

The scientific approach to understanding climate has yielded impressive results. We’re capable of measuring the world’s temperature with a precision that was unimaginable thirty years ago. We can measure changes in sea level and the thickness of glaciers to a fraction of an inch almost instantly. We have accurate measurements of the composition of the earth’s atmosphere that stretch back tens of thousands of years.

The science of climate certainly isn’t settled. Any reputable scientist in the field will tell you that. The technical community continues to refine its understanding of the way the world’s oceans respond to changes in temperature and concentrations of carbon dioxide; it continues to study patterns like El Niño and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. There’s much still to be known about the effect greenhouse gases are having on the planet.

But one thing is settled: All of the increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and most of the increase in global temperature over the last century are the result of our activities. The National Academy of Sciences accepts it. The American Association for the Advancement of Science accepts it. The American Meteorological Society accepts it. And the overwhelming majority of climatologists accept it.

Even the leaders at Exxon have changed their tune and admit it. Last April, Ken Cohen, chief of government affairs at Exxon, said, “We know enough based on research and science that the risk is real and appropriate steps should be taken to address that risk.”

So, there’s a decision to be made: We can listen to the well-heeled attorneys who’ve been hired to make a case for their corporate clients.  Or we can listen to the scientists who’ve been studying the problem for decades.

We can buy what the high-dollar think tanks are selling, the same think tanks who made their living thirty years ago trying to convince us that smoking wasn’t a health hazard. Or we can listen to the researchers who’ve been collecting and analyzing data for more than a generation.

Take your choice.

— Chris Madson writes on conservation and environmental issues from his home in Cheyenne.
— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@wyofile.com.

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  1. This is not just a war of ideas and words, but of power. How did the predicted Ice Age in the 1970’s fail to develop? How did the Global Warming prediction fail to develop? Certainly, any sane person knows the term “climate change” is factual. However, the premise of immediate action to prevent cataclysmic change is ridiculous. We don’t know enough, and we should not prevent human beings from advancing in decent lives that power generation provides. Continue the study, let us explore viable options to greenhouse gas production, but stop the insane rhetoric.

  2. No matter which way this is all looked at, it is all a money making scheme and snow job. NO ONE, man, woman, scientist can predict as accurately as they claim, and common sense needs to play a larger part in the processing of all of this. IF this was TRULY FOR the people’s sake, then WHY is more time and money not spent on trying to make things right with and FIX the problems, rather than a ‘snow’ people in order to put money in their personal pockets and cause more chaos and take the people’s money? One thing you can stop and think about, is ever since this ‘global warming’ and ‘war on coal’ business started, I have seen a climate change all right, it has gotten colder with each winter seeming to be longer than it ever has all over the US. including the south. NO ONE can predict what the climate will do, except God!

  3. Dewey:

    – President Obama has made no secret of his war on coal. During his 2008 campaign, he told the San Francisco Chronicle, “If somebody wants to build a coal-fired power plant, they can. It’s just that it will bankrupt them.”

    Maybe not in in those exact words, but I am not sure what else you call the Administration’s approach to anything coal related other than a “war on coal.” Sure, they call on clean coal technology, but do little to promote the research or funding necessary. Instead, they impose more and more regulation in a effort to make the use of coal so expensive a burden that we shift to other sources of energy.

    Follow the money….. follow the rules, regulations, the EPA. The best coal fired power plant emits 2,000 tons of carbon…….the current EPA regulations imposed by the Obama Administration’s call for 1,100 or better. Watch as plants currently in use fall by the wayside……watch as the next battle is against natural gas and fracing.

  4. rbd—there is no “War” on coal, except on bumper stickers , or mouth volleys fired by fatuous partisans from the keynote podium of a fundraiser. War On Coal is just weasel words.

    A long overdue discussion on the downside of burning coal, the cradle to grave consequences, and statement of intent to act on updating coal policy ? That we do have , but it is not a war.

  5. Gregg R hits the nail on the head with his argument about climate change – at least the from a political left mainstream media perspective – today it is a war on coal. When coal has been removed as a viable energy source, next is a war on natural gas, then oil………..the anti-fracing community is ready and waiting for the anti-coal money to be used for anti-natural gas.

    In reality, what we need is an honest discussion about energy use and how best to diversify our energy sources to have the least impact on the environment. How best to conserve energy. Instead, we choose to have a war on coal with no discussion of the ramifications to a world without coal. No discussion about giving up our SUV’s, pickup trucks, big screen TV’s, lighted signs, heating our 3,000 to 5,000 square foot homes, manufacturing all of the gadgets we have come to love…….and the list goes on.

    There are pros and cons with every energy source we currently have the technology to use. Do not kid yourself, so called green energy has environmental impacts the mainstream media chooses to ignore.

    Lastly, for Dewey. The various industries you outline would not need to spend the money they do for lobbying if it wasn’t for the biggest pot of money of them all – the government – mucking things up. It is not just corporate America that is the bad guy, it’s the government doing the same things to the same people – except under the guise of protecting us.

  6. When one feels they have to hide their donor base, then they lose the argument, PERIOD!
    That also includes our politicians, all bought and paid for by “special interest”, we are no longer our government!
    Whether or not you believe in the science it is a fact that burning fossil fuels produce not only CO2 but mercury, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide. Many people die from inhaling coal soot each year – the United Nations place the figure at 40,000.
    “All coal burning creates ash and clinker. The ash often contains traces of heavy metals such as cadmium, lead mercury and arsenic. The electricity generators simply dump the ash and clinker, burying it in landfill. The ash and clinker has about as much use as those slag heaps, now largely grassed over, that surrounded coal mines – both ugly and dangerous. It has no use, so it is dumped.”
    If you add up all of the harm that burning fossil fuels causes, health and environmental, it is NOT cheap, we just have not received the invoice yet!
    http://robertkyriakides.wordpress.com/2009/03/08/the-by-products-of-burning-coal/

  7. JARED-

    Your argument is hollow. of course green groups and environmentally oriented NGO’s and even a few green 501 (c) 4’s are in hte mosh pit of the LCimate Change debate. But they are in fact outspent and outlawyered by 10 to 1 up to 100 to 1 by industry and climate change denial cabals, depending on your source data. It is grossly assymetric.

    Here is one evidence line along that trend: The Center for Responsive Politics ( nonpartisan) tabulated the spending done by above board registered lobbyists who worked Congress. The data is from the required financial and disclosure reports.

    In the 3rd Quarter of the scoped 2008 election year, Environmental lobbyists spent $ 4.6 million plodding the halls of Congress . In that same quarter, here’s the tally by industry sector for the non-Environmental organizations and lobbyists: Oil & Gas- $ 38.4 million ; Electric Utilities- $ 49.4 million ; Mining – $ 9.1 million ; Natural Gas transmission and distribution – $ 2.1 million ; ALTERNATIVE ENERGY production and services- $ 5.6 million ( emphasis mine).

    Bottom Line: Congressional lobbyists representing industry outspent lobbyists representing environmental causes by 21 to 1. If you include the Alternative Energy reps, that drops to 10 to 1.

    I followed the money and this is where it led me.

    Perhaps you would like to publish here your own attributed info to back up your assertion that ” Big Enviro” is as profligate as Industries affected by climate change.

  8. AGW/climate change is scientific hypothesis, which is much different than scientific theory (Darwinian Evolution). Our children have a third choice, don,t believe the far right or far left.

  9. If you wish to leave science out of the climate change debate, please leave it out of your health care. It amazes me that people will believe in many things including their deities but those pesky facts about climate change and the droughts, wildfires, and other observed phenomenoa is just too over the top. Our children and grandchildren are far too important for the politicians and armchair “experts” to steer these debates. We need change now.

  10. Both the author of the post and I agree that climate change is (1) real; (2) human caused; and (3) a problem.

    So it’s funny that I am nitpicking his topic sentence. But when you say “The science of climate certainly isn’t settled” you obscure more than you clarify, you hurt the debate more than you help the debate. Yes, the human project of studying the climate isn’t settled; it never will be. Scientific investigation and inquiry is ongoing. But to a climate skeptic, your sentence is ammunition for political fights–e.g. the scientists don’t even agree so we don’t have to worry about it. Actually, scientists do agree. Climate change is a BFD and we should do something about our CO2 emissions.

    Also, since 2011 the US Navy has been publicly extremely concerned about climate change and sea levels rising. See the TED talk by this Admiral: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7udNMqRmqV8

  11. “So, when someone quotes an attorney like Chris Horner from the Competitive Enterprise Institute or James Taylor from the Heartland Institute as an authority on climate change, I’m not surprised. Either one of these gentlemen probably knocks down a salary four or five times the money NASA pays the most senior of its climate scientists…”

    Ho ho ho, I am rolling on the floor in laughter! Chris Madson, you really display your “writing from my home basement” street cred with that doozy. Please contact James Hansen, Gavin Schmidt, and Michael Mann. Find out what the lowest annual income of the three is. Tell them I will trade all of mine for half of theirs. I will be waiting by the phone for any of them to accept my offer.

    Best,

    James Taylor

  12. The United States is the only country in the world where global warning doubters, delayers and deniers have such a strong foothold — probably because they control the GOP and right-wing media. People who pride themselves on their critical-thinking skills in general, become highly selective about sources and data when the topic turns to global warming, simply because it is too inconvenient and traumatic to consider the widely verified, peer-reviewed data — the gold standard for the scientific process. For decades, Big Tobacco successfully used doubt, delay and denial to forestall being pinned down by science. Now Big Energy employs the same tactics and often the same people (Heartland Institute) to run the same scam. Do we ever learn?

  13. This would be a very interesting debate for scientists, unfortunately it has become almost totally political and the political voices are those most reported. As a geologist I am amazed each time that I drive (or fly) from Riverton to Dubios and through the Teton area just how much ice existed there just 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Ice almost a mile thick covered much of Yellowstone. I for one am thankful that most of it is now gone!

    While vacationing in the Bahamas I noticed that carbonates formed in seawater perhaps a 100,000 years ago, now stand 50+ feet above current sea level in an area where no uplift has occurred; indicating of course that during a previous inter-glacial period sea level was at least 50 feet above current level. Was the climate warmer then? Probably. Will driving my car and enjoying a house heated by coal generated electricity endanger my grandchildren or their’s? I don’t think so. Do we really need to live in “A State of Fear”?

  14. Let me first state that you would have to have your head in the sand to completely deny that the human race has not had an impact on the environment. We have had and we always will have some level of impact on the environment and the weather. The question is, how much?

    With that said, the media/political frenzy around global climate change has distorted the facts on both sides of issue. “NASA’s estimates of global temperature, month by month, from January, 1880, through April, 2014.” While I am not a scientist, I have enough common sense to know that understanding and making estimates of something over the last 134 years cannot be substantiated to be hard 100% factual knowledge as it relates to an environment that has been in place millions of years. It is similar to pricking my finger with a needle and proclaiming we to fix it by removing my arm.

    Weather changes. You still cannot get an accurate weather report from Meteorologists, yet we readily accept their word that climate change is a direct result of the human impact on the globe?

    The weather is changing, we as the human race are having an impact on that change, but to conclusively state that the weather is changing because of CO2 and ignoring other impacts is reckless science, reckless politics. Let’s have a real discussion about climate change, not just CO2 and coal.

    Lastly, yes, let’s follow the money. Science is substantially funded by government. The high dollar Government entitlement trough has funded and continues to fund a number of less than successful propaganda projects. The same government that created Rocky Flats environmental catastrophe in Denver, the same government that created the Hanford Nuclear Waste Depository……I could go on and on. Government is no better, probably worse than corporate America. Sure, it is easy to jump on the big bad corporate band wagon, but the premise applies to the money trough provided by the Government – probably worse because the lack of accountability, waste, deceit and politics surrounding government.

    So, who do you trust? Neither, government lies all the time, is one of the most corrupt “organizations” on the planet and corporate America is in line right behind them. Mr. Madsen does present a good one sided argument though.

  15. Interesting that Mr. Madson asks us to “follow the money” when it comes to the climate change debate, and drills in on oil company revenues, yet completely ignores “Big Evironment” – groups with armies of lawyers and PR professionals that pour untold sums of money into the same debate. I think “following the money” is good advice, but you need to follow it from where it stems, even when it doesn’t support your political argument.

  16. Leave it to Chris to so clearly write the issues! Wyoming’s represenatives are doing their best to deny science wherever possible, and ignore the health of our envirornment. We are the biggest CO2 emmttors in the country, and have the most to finacially loose. However, cleaning up our coal can create jobs, like Texas’s clean energy project, unlike the current propoganda being put out by our State.

  17. It’s refreshing and convenient to learn that corporate money buys conclusions, but government money does not. Forget settled science, Chris Madson has moved on to redefining logic. I believe “follow the money” arguments amount to little more than obfuscation in policy debates (this piece is ample evidence), but I’m sure another commenter will quickly respond about how I can’t comment because Koch Brothers Kochtapus Exxon Reasons Guy.

    Heritage, the American Enterprise Institute and others will be surprised to learn that they “made their living thirty years ago trying to convince us that smoking wasn’t a health hazard.” That’s about as factual as the phrase “Chris Madson researched this piece using something besides the first ten hits on Google.”

  18. “We know enough based on research and science that the risk is real and appropriate steps should be taken to address that risk.” The question is, are we willing to risk the lives of our children, grandchildren, all living things and life as we know it on planet earth for money? Apparently, the extreme wealth that some of these corporations and individuals possess isn’t enough. They want more, and don’t care about the future as long as they get what they want now. It is difficult to understand what it will take to convince some people that the future of the planet is in our hands. If we don’t begin to address the problems now, there will be no reason to worry about our “economy.” We’ll all be struggling to merely survive.

  19. Trusting a lawyer to know all about Climate Change is like asking a scientist in Cambridge Mass to recommend a good Nevada brothel…

  20. Mr. Madson implores us to follow the science. Remember that the hypothesis of anthropogenic warming is based 100% upon modeling the atmosphere’s response to CO2 levels. This is a chaotic system and Dr. Roy Spencer has definitively shown these models’ predictions do not accurately describe the atmosphere’s measured and observed behavior even in the short decades since their construction . CO2 continues to rise, but no warming AT ALL since the late 90’s! Hence, the models are WRONG. The warmists’ admission of this “pause” implies the models can still predict the future. They have not, they can not. They are false if they neither reflect present reality nor accurately predict future climate. That is all we need to know. Next scare, please.