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Heartland’s NIPCC Report in US Schools – Notes for Educators

October 28, 2013

“Despite criticizing climate scientists for being overconfident about their data, models and theories, the Heartland Institute proclaims a conspicuous confidence in single studies and grand interpretations…it makes many bold assertions that are often questionable or misleading and do not highlight the uncertainties… Many climate sceptics seem to review scientific data and studies not as scientists but as attorneys, magnifying doubts and treating incomplete explanations as falsehoods rather than signs of progress towards the truth. … The Heartland Institute and its ilk are not trying to build a theory of anything. They have set the bar much lower, and are happy muddying the waters.”

“Heart of the Matter”, Nature 475 editorial (28 July 2011)

Many US teachers have been sent a memo by The Heartland Institute, an organisation whose mission is to “promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems”. The topic of the memo was a report on climate change by the NIPCC, an acronym for “Not the International Panel on Climate Change”.

In essence, educators are being asked by Heartland to review climate change science at a remove. By distributing the NIPCC report “Climate Change Reconsidered II – Physical Science” (CCR2) to teachers, Heartland hopes that the view they sponsor via the NIPCC – one that entirely contradicts the official findings of the IPCC – will prevail in the classroom, or at least feature in the curriculum.

Such initiatives present educators with a problem. Both the official IPCC AR5 report and that of the NIPCC run to thousands of pages. Even Summaries for Policy-Makers (SPMs) make demands that busy schedules may not easily accommodate.

Armed with only a modest knowledge of climate change science, it is all too clear that the NIPCC report is not scientific, does not accurately reflect current climate science, and deliberately and systematically seeks to misinform and mislead.

By presenting logical arguments, credible observations and rational comparisons, it is hoped these notes will help readers decide for themselves what our children should be taught, free from pernicious influence, disinformation and meretricious propaganda.

The Credibility of Sources

The IPCC is an organisation created and operated under the auspices of the United Nations. It is a democratic institution; over 150 countries participate, review its work and approve its reports. Those reports are created by hundreds of scientists elected from a candidate list comprising several thousand names. The chosen scientists  (lead authors) review and report on the work of thousands of others, and anyone – including members of the public – can involve themselves as reviewers. The process is open, transparent and strives to be egalitarian. More than 60% of contributors to the latest report (AR5) have not previously contributed, adding fresh insights and views. No contributors to IPCC reports are paid for their work.

Conversely, the NIPCC was created by the Heartland Institute, a privately run organisation with significant connections to the fossil fuel industry, from whom it receives funding. Heartland was previously associated with campaigns funded by the tobacco industry to discredit science attesting to the damage caused by smoking tobacco.  Its several reports have contributions from a number of the same lead authors. The 2009 report had 35 contributors; the 2011 report had 8 contributors. NIPCC contributors are paid for their contributions.

This latest report (CCR2) claims to be written by “a team of some 50 scientists”.  In fact, there are 52 listed contributors, of which 5 are duplicate entries. Of the 47 people who authored CCR2, and despite claims to the contrary, only 35 appear to have professional scientific backgrounds. Of that 35, 16 of the listed contributors are retired e.g. emeritus positions. And while the IPCC purposefully seeks representation from developing nations (30% of contributors), the NIPCC authors are drawn from only 14 developed countries – no developing countries had any input. 53% of contributors were from the US or Australia. (See this XLS spreadsheet for an annotated list of contributors).

 

The Quality of the Report

Both the IPCC and its parody are ‘synthesis reports’. They purport to summarise the science of climate change. You might expect that both reports would draw on all the recent climate science available to them. This is true of the IPCC, but in the case of the NIPCC, it has been noted that their work is highly selective. The report claims to be ‘independent’, yet its authors constantly cite their own work, that of other contributors, and frequently quote each other. Numerous papers widely discredited within climate science are still cited by the NIPCC.

Perhaps more importantly, the latest NIPCC report repeats many of the myths about climate change that it published in previous work. While the IPCC catalogues recent scientific developments, the NIPCC appears to find very little has changed since its last ‘rebuttal’, a position seemingly at odds with the increasing amount of climate change research around the world. The following arguments were published in previous NIPCC reports, and are reiterated in this one: Temperature record is unreliable, Models are unreliable, It’s a natural cycle, It’s the sun, Sea level rise predictions are exaggerated, It’s not bad

The CCR2 report also exhibits a flaw so basic it would not be condoned in the submission of a 1st year science student. In all scientific documents where scientific papers are cited, it is standard practice to append a numbered list of the papers referred to, and to add corresponding superscript numbers to any statement that depends on a citation for validity. This is the only way it is possible to check that what the authors claim is supported by the science they claim it for.

The full NIPCC report fails to provide any numbered citations. Although the authors list many scientific papers, at no point can a reader determine to which scientific paper any statements in the report refer to. In other words, it simply isn’t feasible to check anything contained in the report, to see if any claims in it are accurate reflections of what the science says, or to determine whether the scientific papers cited relate specifically, or at all, to anything said in the report. This kind of obfuscation is either very sloppy, or patently devious.

 

The Quality of the Science

The NIPCC report features a table of ‘summary of NIPCC findings’ and for the sake of brevity, these notes will attempt only to rebut or contextualise these claims.

Claim No. 1: Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) is a mild greenhouse gas that exerts a diminishing warming effect as its concentration increases.

While it is true that the effect of CO2 does not scale linearly (doubling the concentration doesn’t double the warming effect), calling it a ‘mild greenhouse gas’ has no scientific meaning. CO2 contributes between 9 – 26% of the ‘greenhouse effect’, and has increased in atmospheric concentration by 40% over pre-industrial levels due to the burning of fossil fuels and changes in land use. While water vapour has a stronger day to day effect on the weather than CO2, increases in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 last hundreds of years.  Technically, water vapour is not a forcing, but a feedback – water vapour is a function of temperature, not a precursor of it. Water vapour
concentrations react much more quickly to changes in temperature, a matter of days, which is why absolute humidity during the winter is on average much lower than in the summer.

Calling CO2 a ‘mild’ greenhouse gas is not scientific, but it is consistent with an agenda seeking to imply a reduction in risk.

Claim No. 2: Doubling the concentration of atmospheric CO2 from its pre-industrial level, in the absence of other forcings and feedbacks, would likely cause a warming of ~0.3 to 1.1°C, almost 50% of which must already have occurred.

Because of a lack of adequate citation references, it is difficult for readers to determine the validity of this claim. In fact, it originates from a single paper written by one of the NIPCC report’s contributors, Nicola Scafetta. It was published in the journal Energy & Environment, whose output consists largely of ‘alternative’ climate science. It remains unclear whether Scafetta’s paper was ever peer-reviewed.

For reference, the IPCC AR5 report assesses Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity (ECS) – the total amount the Earth will warm if the amount of CO2 is doubled from pre-industrial levels – as likely to be in the range 1.5°C to 4.5°C. Transient climate response (TCR) – the amount immediately following the reaching of a doubling of CO2 (but ignoring later warming) as likely to be 1°C to 2.5°C and extremely unlikely to be greater than 3°C.

Since the NIPCC figures are quite extreme in comparison to the majority of estimates over the last 5 decades (which in fact have changed very little), the claim that “almost 50% of [the heating] must already have occurred”  is speciously self-referential.

Claim No. 3: A few tenths of a degree of additional warming, should it occur, would not represent a climate crisis.

This claim appears to be unrelated to any science at all. The Earth has already warmed by 0.8°C, and many scientists believe that at least another half a degree is already ‘locked in’ – warming that is said to be ‘in the pipeline’ due to the very slow reaction of the oceans. The claim is unscientific, but attempts to imply that there will be far less warming than the science predicts is consistent with the Heartland agenda.

Claim No. 4: Model outputs published in successive IPCC reports since 1990 project a doubling of CO2 could cause warming of up to 6°C by 2100. Instead, global warming ceased around the end of the twentieth century and was followed (since 1997) by 16 years of stable temperature.

This claim is wrong on several counts. The IPCC has never reported a single figure for temperatures in 2100, but a wide range of possible outcomes based on differing environmental, social and economic circumstances (scenarios). The claim that there has been no increase in temperature since 1997 is one of the most widely debunked pieces of contrarian propaganda in the literature, and an example of egregious cherry-picking: 1997 was anomalously hot (a statistical outlier). Subsequent annual temperatures appear lower only when compared to that specific year. Surface temperatures have not increased as fast in the last decade as in previous ones. According to the IPCC and the WMO, the
last decade was hotter than any in the previous century
. According to the science, the rate at which extra energy is accumulating has actually accelerated.

Claim No. 5: Over recent geological time, Earth’s temperature has fluctuated naturally between about +4°C and -6°C with respect to twentieth century temperature. A warming of 2°C above today, should it occur, falls within the bounds of natural variability.

While global temperatures have indeed ranged widely, there has always been a ‘forcing’ – a change in energy levels. All environmental change demands either a source of energy, or the loss of it, and the most common forcings are a change in the sun’s output, a change in the distance between the Earth and sun (the Earth’s orbit is an ellipse), or changes in greenhouse gas concentrations. These changes are gradual, often over thousands of years.

Describing the climate change we are experiencing as ‘natural variation’ isn’t an explanation of anything. It’s just a way of saying ‘nothing to do with us – it’s nature’s fault’. This isn’t science, which wants to understand the mechanisms, the driving forces; you can’t explain how a car works just by observing that ‘you press the accelerator’.  Science often deals with cause and effect; where there’s an effect, science asks ‘what’s causing it?’ The cause is very important, because no matter what it is, we need to understand the potential for disruption. To understand the risks of the effect, science has to identify the cause. ‘Natural variability’ is not a cause, but an association with a pattern.

Claim No. 6: Though a future warming of 2°C would cause geographically varied ecological responses, no evidence exists that those changes would be net harmful to the global environment or to human well-being.

We have very clear evidence of higher sea levels in the past. In the IPCC AR5 report, even under the most optimistic scenario, with stringent limits on new CO2 emission, a sea level rise of between 28 to 61cm is projected by 2100. (Unless emissions are essentially zeroed out, over longer periods of time the sea will eventually rise by meters). Even the lowest range represents a potential increase in flooding, coastal erosion, and storm surges. If, as suspected, climate change is already contributing to extreme weather events, changes in precipitation rates and levels across the world may be invoked, with stable agriculture the principle victim.

The rate of change is so fast that several recent papers predict failure to adapt, causing species extinction, loss of habitat and broad ecological destabilisation. Insect-borne diseases are already exceeding traditional geographic boundaries. A hotter climate also creates droughts and concomitant fires, of the kind seen in the US and Australia in recent years. This agenda-driven attempt to downplay the risks and potential dangers is not supported by credible science.

Claim No. 7: At the current level of ~400 ppm we still live in a CO2-starved world. Atmospheric levels 15 times greater existed during the Cambrian Period (about 550 million years ago) without known adverse effects.

This is a strange and extraordinary claim in a purportedly ‘scientific’ report. During the Cambrian, there was no life at all on the surface of the Earth, except microbes and maybe the odd mollusc foraging on the dusty shoreline. What ‘adverse effects’ could the NIPCC possibly be referring to, what creatures could suffer them, and what on Earth – literally – has this to do with climate change?

Claim No. 8: The overall warming since about 1860 corresponds to a recovery from the Little Ice Age modulated by natural multidecadal cycles driven by ocean-atmosphere oscillations, or by solar variations at the de Vries (~208 year) and Gleissberg (~80 year) and shorter periodicities.

This claim is a variation on the magical thinking of ‘natural variability’. It does not explain why, for example, the Arctic ice has melted away to a summer minimum not seen for thousands of years, and has done so in less than half a century.

Claim No. 9: Earth has not warmed significantly for the past 16 years despite an 8% increase in atmospheric CO2, which represents 34% of all extra CO2 added to the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution.

A repeat of claim no. 4.

Claim No. 10: CO2 is a vital nutrient used by plants in photosynthesis. Increasing CO2 in the atmosphere “greens” the planet and helps feed the growing human population.

Given the potential disruption to ecological systems, the loss of species, changes in precipitation, incidence of extreme weather, droughts and floods – all potential effects of climate change – what benefits there are to be gained from additional CO2 are very likely far outweighed by the adverse consequences. This is one of the most common contrarian myths, and has no place in a scientific report.

Claim No. 11: No close correlation exists between temperature variation over the past 150 years and human-related CO2 emissions. The parallelism of temperature and CO2 increase between about 1980 and 2000 AD could be due to chance and does not necessarily indicate causation.

The climate is chaotic; it does not respond in the short term in predictable ways (see Lorenz: the butterfly effect). The first part of this claim depends on demanding the impossible – a ‘close’ correlation between inputs (CO2) and output (temperature). Climate science looks at longer term phenomenon in order to determine trends. Since the industrial revolution, the trend of the temperature anomaly (the difference between ‘normal’ temperatures and a variation on them) is upwards. This trend is most notable in the second part of the 20th century, and while correlation does not prove causation, a cause must still be discovered if the question asked by science – ‘what’s causing this’ – is to be answered. (Actually, science already knows the answer: the cause is man-made greenhouse gases).

The NIPCC fails to mention that, other than man-made greenhouse gas emissions, there is no credible alternative explanation for the rapid temperatures rise. If contrarians wish to prove the cause of warming is not man-made, they need to provide evidence for an alternative.

Claim No. 12: The causes of historic global warming remain uncertain, but significant correlations exist between climate patterning and multidecadal variation and solar activity over the past few hundred years.

As the NIPCC have already pointed out, correlation does not prove causation. Solar output (total solar irradiance) has been flat in the last 50 years, during which temperatures have risen rapidly. Meanwhile, no correlation can be found between sunspot activity, cosmic rays and temperature increases. This is one of the most popular, over-used and clichéd contrarian myths about climate change.

Claim No. 13: Forward projections of solar cyclicity imply the next few decades may be marked by global cooling rather than warming, despite continuing CO2 emissions.

This claim is wholly speculative. Within the bounds of ‘natural variability’, surface temperatures will vary on short time scales, but most projections indicate that any reduction in warming will be modest, and temporary, merely disguising the build-up of energy in the climate system.

Conclusions

It would be helpful to direct readers to a comprehensive rebuttal of the NIPCC’s report. A Google search for such a document is therefore revealing on two counts.

First, nobody seems to have bothered to debunk the copious inaccuracies, the bad science, the repeated but unsubstantiated claims, the sophistry and what could be seen uncharitably as outright deceit. Considering how tissue-thin is the substance even of the “summary of NIPCC findings”, the damning record of the NIPCC’s previous work, the dubious reputation of its sponsor the Heartland Institute, and the all too clear relationship between Heartland’s agenda and the vested interests of the fossil fuel industry that sponsors such work, it is not surprising that so many qualified people have ignored the report.

The second notable result of a Google search is that virtually all the listings are contrarian; blogs, news outlets and others, many of whom could be described as ‘the usual suspects’. Credible media and the broader scientific community have comprehensively ignored the report.

The NIPCC report is akin to a confidence trick. It is pseudo-science, badly presented, made difficult to assess or check, and depends on ‘blinding the reader with science’ that may look credible until you actually try to verify those claims against the peer-reviewed published literature.

Heartland and the NIPCC know how busy educators are. They know perfectly well that teachers have neither the time, inclination or, in many cases, the necessary background, to determine the validity of the many and various claims contained in a 1000-page report.  They seek to appeal to the credulous, and those who trust Heartland or the NIPCC will have that trust betrayed.

Like others driven by an agenda, Heartland and the NIPCC are now attempting to influence the education of young people, at the behest of the vested interests who pay for Heartland’s services. It is hoped that these notes will help teachers and administrators determine for themselves the quality and purpose of the NIPCC report, and the manipulative agenda of those behind it.

Graham Wayne

October 2013

Further Reading

Click here to download these notes in PDF format

The Science:

IPCC AR5: The Physical Sciences – summary for policy makers (PDF)

 

On Heartland and its activities:

Nature Journal: The Heartland Institute’s climate conference reveals the motives of global-warming sceptics

Greenpeace: Dealing in Doubt Part 2: Denier Tricks and tactics

Sourcewatch: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Heartland_Institute

USA Today: Climate deniers meet Joe Camel

 

On the NIPCC

http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2008/11/not-the-ipcc-nipcc-report/

DenialGate Highlights Heartland’s Selective NIPCC Science

Heartland Institute and its NIPCC report fail the credibility test

 

On Climate Change Denial and its funding

IPCC report: sceptic groups launch global anti-science campaign

Merchants of Doubt

The 5 characteristics of climate change denial

Magical climate contrarian thinking debunked by real science

Why Climate Change Deniers Owe Us a (scientific) explanation

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