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Climate change and Heartland: will they ever tell the truth about anything?

June 14, 2013

Today’s climate change spat – there seems to be no end of them – revolves around a thoroughly specious claim made by the Heartland Institute. (If you don’t know who they are, just Google them – I don’t have time to document so many examples of egregious dissembling and a staggering lack of ethics evident when their ‘official’ views are bought and sold in the market like so much offal).

The story, in a nutshell, is this: Heartland funds an ‘alternative’ organisation which calls itself the NIPCC (Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change), although it’s also referred to more irreverently as  ‘Not the IPCC’. The principle actors on this stage comprise a handful of scientists well known for their fringe scientific views, whose names pop up in every climate denial blog, and all too frequently at the top of some pretty duff science.

Anyway, the NIPCC put out two documents, full of the usual guff, called “Climate Change Reconsidered” and “Climate Change Reconsidered: 2011 Interim Report”. You can find any number of critiques – here’s one from Skeptical Science. Then a curious thing happened; according to a report in the Guardian by climate scientist Dana Nuccatelli, a branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences recently decided to translate the NIPCC report. Before we proceed, let’s see what the translators said of their work, and the reason for it:

“Since 1990s the topic of climate change has become a central focus of international environmental and political affairs. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issues four assessment reports synthesizing scientific findings on climate change. The most recent [IPCC] report [AR4] found that most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely (>90%) due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations, represents the consensus scientific opinions on international climate change studies.

Yet, as with any academic topic, there are still differing viewpoints and debates on the causes, facts, impacts and trends in climate change. In 2009 and 2011 the Nongovernmental International Panel on Cliamte change (NIPCC) issued two reports titled Climate Change Reconsidered. These two unusual reports too a sceptical ‘second opinion’ against the IPCC assessment reports based on different scientific studies.

“In order to help Chinese researchers to understand different opinions and positions in debates on climate change, at the end of 2011, we contact The Heartland Institute, the publisher of these two reports [who] gladly authorized our centre to translate the Chinese Language edition of the two NIPCC reports.

“The work of these translators, organizations and funders has been in the translation and the promotion of scientific dialogue, does not reflect that they agree with the views of NIPCC”

Now compare this modest rationale with the claim made subsequently by Heartland president Joe Bast:

“This is a historic moment in the global debate about climate change,” Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast said. “The translation and publication of Climate Change Reconsidered by the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences follows strong statements by the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Polish Academy of Sciences dissenting from claims that global warming is either man-made or a crisis.

“The trend toward skepticism and away from alarmism is now unmistakable,” Bast said.

Actually, it’s the Heartland hyperbole that seems unmistakable to me, and – according to the Guardian’s article, to the Chinese themselves, since this is what the Chinese Academy of Sciences had to say:

“…this is only a book cooperation between the Lanzhou Branch of the National Science Library and Heartland Institute, and is limited only to copy right trading, with no academic research work involved.

A few CAS experts participated in the translation of the book, aiming to demonstrate different voices in the global scientific field to the Chinese science community, however, that does not mean that we CAS joined the research or agree with their view point; neither does it mean that CAS will decide “promote” the climate “skeptic” view or group.”

(By the way, it seems Bast also grossly misrepresented both the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Polish Academy of Sciences. You can read a quick deconstruction of this bit of shoddy propaganda in the same Guardian article: The Heartland Institute’s Skeptical Chinese Fantasy)

*******

Being surprised by any of Heartland’s capers seems rather redundant. I’ve written about them before, and the web is chock full of information about their association with the tobacco and fossil fuel industries, and the stuff they get up to. Nothing new, it seems. But I do think it’s important to consider why climate change deniers spend so much time trying to lie, distort and deceive the public – apart from the money they make doing so, of course.

You see, the NIPCC report serves to demonstrate the most problematic aspect of all climate change denial: the lack of an alternative hypothesis.

I’m entirely open to any arguments (and yes, I know the usual suspects will splutter breakfast cereal all over the table reading this claim). But the fact remains that I’ve never expressed any opinions about climate change science, nor do I have a social or political agenda of any kind, beyond wishing for the facts and good science to be taken seriously (and to take issue with those who believe that the means justifies the ends, allowing them to make things up, misrepresent others, distort available information, and accuse good people of crimes and misdemeanours without offering a shred of evidence in support).

What I do when I write about climate change science is express what the science says, hopefully in terms that lay people like me can understand. Because I have no position, I also have no fear of ridicule, embarrassment or humiliation, for I cannot be wrong. If there is a massive, global mistake being made, it is not mine, but of thousands of scientists across dozens of disciplines. (Even as I write this, I can’t help but notice how very unlikely this is, but that doesn’t stop the deniers).

If, tomorrow, science shocks the entire world by announcing they were wrong, the planet isn’t heating up, or it is but it isn’t us causing it, or it is but it’s nothing to worry about because climate sensitivity is very low – and they can prove it…well, then that’s my position tomorrow. I have nothing to lose, and because I trust climate science and the scientists that do it, I will trust them equally if, by improving their science, they find they were wrong, or their projections were grossly inaccurate.

What I can’t trust are people who ask me to do something quite irrational, and the Heartland report – indeed all its work – is an abject demonstration of people making such a demand (and regrettably, being closely affiliated with people whose self-interest is served by the same demands).

What Heartland is asking me to do, and what the NIPCC report wants of me, is to abandon the existing science, ignore the consistency and consilience of it (the harmony between findings across many disciplines, none of which contradict the other – like atomic theory, weight, number, electron arrangement etc being consistent with the ordering of the periodic table of elements). They want me to dismiss a theory, or significant parts of it, despite its ‘best fit’, sharpened at the edge of Ockham’s razor, without offering a better theory in its place.

It takes only a brute with a sledgehammer to knock something down. It takes skill, resources, determination, invention, application and intelligence to build something. When Heartland stops putting out reports full of bad science, misdirection, and outright lies, perhaps it might consider why it feels obliged not only to support such mendacity, but to make fatuous claims about its influence which, as the article documents, it clearly doesn’t have.

When people spread such self-aggrandizing propaganda, based on deliberately distorting the truth, we should ask why they are doing this. I suggest the answer is simple: they cannot produce any science at all that lowers the probability that the climate is being rapidly changed by human agency. They can’t test a hypothesis they can’t formulate, so they put out crap reports and bluster about how seriously it is taken. They can’t tell us, if climate change isn’t the cause, where all the energy is coming from to melt the ice. They can’t explain anything, can’t offer any evidence; all they can do is try to bludgeon science into submission with a sledgehammer.

It isn’t good enough, and they offer me nothing at all I can find credible. Current climate science can only be shown to be wrong, or inaccurate, by one thing alone: better science. When Heartland find some, I’ll be the first to congratulate them and take them seriously. Until then, I’m not holding my breath.

(Apologies – I reposted this because I forgot to add a title first time around)

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