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.
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.
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