For thirty or so years, from 1980 to 2010, a good deal of my professional life was taken up with assessing applications for money to allow individuals and groups to carry out the research they wanted to do. That led me into the arcane world of peer review and careful assessment. I learned a lot — about intellectual mafias, about arrogance, about the search for knowledge, truth and beauty. I have written about some of it, in part in essays here (search for ‘peer review’ for example.
More recently I have come across a new aspect of peer review, essentially its shift into the world of politics, where a policy proposal is advocated on the ground that ‘the science’ or ‘research’ or the work of ‘scientists’ must make the implementation of the policy proposal imperative, as well as immediate. There was some of that thirty years ago, mostly in the world of social science: education, criminology, indigenous affairs, and the like. Here the world of peer review would produce quite contrasting assessments of the proposal, from total support to outright condemnation. Today the area where it is most obvious is ‘climate change’, and once again we find advocates calling on ‘science’ to support or defend policy proposals. But what ‘science’ are they calling on?
Much of it is based on computer models, which forecast dire futures if things are left to go on as they are. Climate science is so complex a domain, and the disciplines needed to make sense of it, let alone the disciplines necessary to change human behaviour to ensure that the implementation actually happens, are so many, that there are no real experts. Each scientist, each group, works away at a single aspect of the problem, hoping to throw light on it and its connections to the rest of the problem. And there is not really one problem, but many. Is the earth actually warming? Is the warming significant? Is the warming like to be beneficial or harmful? Would carbon taxes and their like make any difference?
As in the rest of the research world, there has grown a group of scientist/advocates (indeed, some of them are not natural scientists at all), who think their work is so important that they become politicians who see the end as more important than the means. So they exaggerate the importance of their work, do their best to prevent rival views from being aired or heard, and can be found lobbying MPs and Ministers to get their point of view accepted as ‘truth’, or, if that is too hard, accepted as orthodoxy. That the earth is warming, that the warming is harmful to human beings, that the cause is carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, and that we will all go to hell in a handcart unless we move quickly to alternative sources of energy — these assertions have become the orthodoxy, and are powerful in the counsels of governments, even when governments know that there are other perspectives.
That these propositions have an uncertain status in the world of real science is not much talked about, partly because they arethe orthodoxy, and partly because rival points of view have been hard to find in the literature — editors can be reluctant to publish articles that are flatly opposed to orthodoxy, and most reviewers will feel the same. Not only that, as the Climategate emails showed, the orthodoxy were in a strong position to influence journals, and used their power accordingly.
More, some of the scientist/advocates claimed that the great body of climate scientists agreed with the orthodoxy — 97 per cent of them, was the claim. The claim was rubbish, and I wrote a few trenchant pieces (search for ‘consensus’) showing why that was so. Nonetheless, it persisted, and has become an article of faith. One of the paradoxes of this whole contested area is that as the orthodoxy grew in strength, so did rival perspectives find it easier to be published. That didn’t matter, as governments were now so committed to at least the talk of climate change that it was difficult for them to adopt contrary policies, at least quickly.
Pierre Gosselin, a climate realist or sceptic who has a background in engineering and science, has compiled lists of sceptical papers that have actually been published. You can read his analysis by following the link at the end of the essay. His personal view is that humans have had a modest impact on climate, and he is open to persuasion, but only on evidence, not on appeals to consensus or simple assertion. On his account, more than 500 such sceptical papers were published in 2018, and around 1500 peer-reviewed papers between 2016 and 2018.
What is his methodology? I’ll set it out in a long extract:
‘More specifically, the papers in this compilation support these four main skeptical positions — categorized here as N(1) – N(4) — which question the climate alarm popularized in today’s headlines.
N(1) Natural mechanisms play well more than a negligible role (as claimed by the IPCC) in the net changes in the climate system, which includes temperature variations, precipitation patterns, weather events, etc., and the influence of increased CO2 concentrations on climatic changes are less pronounced than currently imagined.
Solar Influence On Climate (103)
ENSO, NAO, AMO, PDO Climate Influence (22)
Modern Climate In Phase With Natural Variability (8)
Cloud/Aerosol Climate Influence (4)
Volcanic/Tectonic Climate Influence (3)
N(2) The warming/sea levels/glacier and sea ice retreat/hurricane and drought intensities…experienced during the modern era are neither unprecedented or remarkable, nor do they fall outside the range of natural variability.
No Net Warming Since Mid/Late 20th Century (36)
A Warmer Past: Non-Hockey Stick Reconstructions (76)
Lack Of Anthropogenic/CO2 Signal In Sea Level Rise (16)
Sea Levels Multiple Meters Higher 4,000-7,000 Years Ago (18)
Nothing Unusual Occurring With Glaciers, Polar Ice (33)
Polar Bear (and other) Populations Not Decreasing (10)
Warming, Acidification Not Harming Oceanic Biosphere (10)
Coral Bleaching A Natural, Non-Anthropogenic Phenomenon (2)
No Increasing Trends In Intense Hurricanes/Storms (8)
No Increasing Trend In Drought/Flood Frequency, Severity (7)
Global Fire Frequency Declining As CO2 Rises (2)
CO2 Changes Lag Temperature Changes By 1000+ Years (3)
N(3) The computer climate models are neither reliable or consistently accurate, the uncertainty and error ranges are irreducible, and projections of future climate states (i.e., an intensification of the hydrological cycle) are not supported by observations and/or are little more than speculation.
Climate Model Unreliability/Biases/Errors (27)
No AGW Changes To Hydrological Cycle Detectable (6)
The CO2 Greenhouse Effect – Climate Driver? (12)
N(4) Current emissions-mitigation policies, especially related to the advocacy for renewables, are often ineffective and even harmful to the environment, whereas elevated CO2 and a warmer climate provide unheralded benefits to the biosphere (i.e., a greener planet and enhanced crop yields, lower mortality with warming).
Failing Renewable Energy, Climate Policies (17)
Wind Power Harming The Environment, Biosphere (19)
Elevated CO2: Greens Planet, Higher Crop Yields (20)
Global Warming Saves Lives. Cold Kills. (9)
Global Losses/Deaths From Weather Disasters Declining (2)
Gosselin goes on to make the obvious point that these papers do notsupport the orthodoxy:
‘In sharp contrast to the above, the corresponding “consensus” positions that these papers do not support are:
A(1) Close to or over 100% (110%) of the warming since 1950 has been caused by increases in anthropogenic CO2 emissions, leaving natural attribution at something close to 0%.
RealClimate.org: “The best estimate of the warming due to anthropogenic forcings (ANT) is the orange bar (noting t1?uncertainties). Reading off the graph, it is 0.7±0.2ºC (5-95%) with the observed warming 0.65±0.06 (5-95%). The attribution then follows as having a mean of ~110%, with a 5-95% range of 80–130%. This easily justifies the IPCC claims of having a mean near 100%, and a very low likelihood of the attribution being less than 50% (p < 0.0001!).”
A(2) Modern warming, glacier and sea ice recession, sea level rise, drought and hurricane intensities…are all occurring at unprecedentedly high and rapid rates, and the effects are globally synchronous (not just regional)…and thus dangerous consequences to the global biosphere and human civilizations loom in the near future as a consequence of anthropogenic influences.
A(3) The climate models are reliable and accurate, and the scientific understanding of the effects of both natural forcing factors (solar activity, clouds, water vapor, etc.) and CO2 concentration changes on climate is “settled enough”, which means that “the time for debate has ended”.
A(4) The proposed solutions to mitigate the dangerous consequences described in N(4) – namely, wind and solar expansion – are safe, effective, and environmentally-friendly.’
There is a link to each paper, and while I have not read them all, I have read enough of them to see that the attributions Gosselin has made seem fair. So the next time someone says something like, ‘Oh yes, and which peer-reviewed scientists have said that?’ you can provide a link. My take-home message is that we simply don’t know about climate change, but what we do know does not suggest that humanity is in crisis or danger. Gosselin says much the same.
A note on syntax
Having been taught to parse and analyse when I was small, I have respect for syntax. Alas, younger generations don’t seem to know what it is, or care. This is especially the case on TV news, where the text can sometimes seem like a string of subordinate clauses without a subject or predicate — or verb. And the outcome is sometimes hilarious, as on Channel 9 a few days ago, where a story about public support for retaining some old buildings at Circular Quay in Sydney began with (something like) ‘Looming over the harbour for decades, the public action group…’ Another had the judge being the criminal, rather than the offender. Syntax is actually important.
Doesn’t anyone edit these news texts for sense, if not for syntax?