WASHINGTON (CN) — With one week to go until President Donald Trump marks 100 days in office, protesters gathered across the country Saturday for the first-ever March for Science. Courthouse News caught up with some of the men and women at the center of the raging climate debate.
Polarization over climate science has been deepening of late, but a decade ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had been responsible for bridging a consensus about the link between human activity and climate change.
When the panel and Vice President Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, the panel had just released what is known as its fourth assessment report. The panel’s upcoming sixth report is the subject of what Jessica O’Reilly has been studying as part of a 2016 grant by the National Science Foundation.
Whatever consensus there is about climate change — that it “is happening, is projected to worsen, and it is accepted that some of it is caused by humans, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any gaps in knowledge or small uncertainties,” said O’Reilly, an assistant professor of international studies at Indiana University at Bloomington.
“These uncertainties are often picked up by climate deniers, so I’m very interested in these matters,” O’Reilly added.
Studying how assessments end up in the IPCC is critical because without the process, information can be skewed. For example, when the second and third IPCC assessment reports were published, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet was stable.
New information about the ice sheet’s disintegration was available when the fourth assessment was released, but was not ready in time for publication.
“What they ended up doing, which some scientists thought was prudent and some thought was a mistake, they left out the disintegration of ice sheet from the sea level rise projection, and that piece of Antarctica has a potential 5 meters of sea rise,” she said. “So it’s not inconsequential to leave out. Climate skeptics were able to say that scientists were saying, ‘See, it’s not as bad as it could be; they were just being alarmist.’”
O’Reilly said the mounting evidence makes it harder for climate skeptics to maintain their position.
“Climate change is no longer something that is happening in the future but is happening now,” she added.
Extreme events are another theme that O’Reilly’s team will study. “Like how much more intense hurricanes are going to get under our projected climate changes,” she noted. “Or where the science isn’t fully conducted, how do they represent the range of opinions and findings, and how are they presented, and how will it make sense for policymakers?”
John Cook’s 2013 climate study famously concluded that 97 percent of climate experts are in a consensus about the role mankind has played in climate change.
Even by Cook’s measures, that number is in flux. Last year Cook, a climate communications fellow for the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, Australia, put the consensus at 80 percent to 90 percent of climatologists.
Two people who have criticized Cook’s methodology are Judith Curry, president of the Climate Forecast Applications Network, and David Legates, a former climatologist at the University of Delaware.
A frequent guest on congressional panels, Curry called Cook’s numbers a brilliant marketing tool but “meaningless in terms of the science.”
“I and other so-called ‘deniers’ are members of the 97 percent consensus, which refers to the following: Yes, the earth’s climate has been warming overall for more than a century. Yes, humans emit CO2, and CO2 has an overall warming effect on the climate,” Curry said.
Where the consensus ends, Curry added, is “whether the dominant cause of the recent warming is humans versus natural causes, how the 21st century climate will evolve, and whether warming is dangerous.”
Legates explained in an email that the “sad” state of climate science is keeping skeptical climatologists in the shadows.
“Tak(ing) a stand that is anything short of an activist with a catastrophic view of climate change at a liberal university — which is supposed to be the champion of diverse views and positive discussions — will get you branded as a scientific heretic,” Legates said.
Though he and Curry both said IPCC assessment reports can be useful, Legates warned that the reports are not gospel.
“The problem is that many pundits and activist scientists proclaim, ‘Thus sayeth the IPCC,’ when the IPCC has not sayeth thus,” Legates said. “Cases in point are hurricanes, tornadoes, and droughts. The 2012 IPCC report on extreme weather was very reserved in describing trends in these variables and attributing them to greenhouse gases, but that is not what often is portrayed in media.”
Legates believes funding for climate studies lacks direction and is mired in special interests. He says the United States has embarked on a path of “environmental determinism,” which forces scientists to think and act alike.
“We need to get back to teaching the basics of climate science,” he said. “Climate science has become too much of a social science and has lost its pure scientific roots.”
Curry, former chairwoman of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said she would like to see climatology turn toward study of natural climate variability factors and indirect effects of the sun on the climate.
Climate-change skeptics have a friend in Washington with Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general whom President Trump installed at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Pruitt has already redirected EPA climate-adaptation scientists to general policy study, and the word “science” was scrubbed from the mission statement that the EPA’s Office of Science and Technology posts online. The statement now emphasizes “economical and technological performance standards.”
Hoping to restore scientific integrity to the topic, billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer founded a Super PAC called NextGen Climate.
The group donated roughly $87 million to liberal candidates during the 2016 elections cycle. A Steyer-founded hedge fund also donated generously to John Kerry and Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful presidential bids in 2004 and 2008.
Steyer called the description of climatology as junk science a pure political ploy.
“I don’t care what people say at this point,” said Steyer. “Their actions are clear. Start with who he has appointed, Scott Pruitt, a creation of the oil and gas industry who is now trying to get rid of the protections for clean air and clean water to support corporate bottom lines.”
Pruitt called for a rollback of fuel-efficiency standards in March, and the EPA announced that that its new budget would cut more than 50 environmental programs and lay off 25 percent of its staff.
“It’s embarrassing to have to say it. I don’t like to say it. But that’s what we’re seeing,” Steyer said. “And until they stop, we won’t stop.”
A climate-change study that Steyer developed in 2013 with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulsen predicted dire economic repercussions if climate policies were killed.
“It will cost us 36 percent of our GDP by 2100,” Steyer said of his findings. “That’s the cost of not dealing with. We’ve also done analysis to show what the impact would be to rebuild the U.S. in an intelligent, clean way. And regardless of any path you take to get there, investing in this will make us richer and healthier.”