When Is a Consensus on Climate Not a Consensus?

Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a series of consensus documents under the auspices of the United Nations. They claimed that accumulating data are now strong enough to conclude that human activities are warming the planet and that Earth’s slowly building fever threatens to alter life and geography as we know it. For the IPCC’s efforts, it shared last year’s Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

HOT TOPIC This report by the IPCC, last year, irritates some 30,000 scientists for the certainty with which it links growing releases of carbon dioxide to global warming.

But the idea that the IPCC’s conclusions represented a consensus is nothing short of bunk, according to Arthur Robinson, a protein chemist and co-founder of the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine in Cave Junction. He matintains that the UN was wrong in suggesting to the public that the IPCC’s findings “settle the issue” of whether fossil-fuel combustion’s emissions can be linked to climate. Indeed, he argued, in the United States alone, a great many scientists don’t subscribe to this view.

At a very sparsely attended press briefing, this morning, Robinson reported that his organization had compiled a list of more than 30,000 scientists who have signed onto a petition saying that “There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate.

“Moreover,” the petition continues, “there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and animal environments of the Earth.”

The petition’s signatories “urge the United States government to reject the global warming agreement that was written in Kyoto, Japan . . . and any other similar proposals. The proposed limits on greenhouse gases would harm the environment, hinder the advance of science and technology, and damage the health and welfare of mankind.”

Robinson doesn’t dispute that Earth’s temperature is rising. He only takes issue with the contention that increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases – especially CO2 – drive temperature. In fact, he argues, it’s the other way around: Temperature drives atmospheric increases of CO2. As temperature rises, the partial pressure of CO2 in water will cause increasing amounts to volatilize from the oceans and enter the atmosphere. He likened this to the way heating a carbonated soft drink causes its CO2 to quickly bubble out.

Plenty of people trained the in the physical sciences have read climate-science papers or digested reviews of those papers and realize that the IPCC consensus statements’ conclusions are silly, at best, and dangerous at worst, Robinson said. If the IPCC’s conclusions are used to justify regulations that limit use of fossil fuels, this will deny many people across the globe of their “human rights” to a safe and affordable fuel to propel their societies’ growth and development, he charged.

When I (one of perhaps eight to 10 reporters in the audience) asked whether there were any climatologists who had signed the petition, Robinson said yes, 40 of them. Another 341 were meteorologists, and 114 were atmospheric scientists, he said. Add in environmental scientists and the total in this composite category jumps to 3,697. Some 900 were trained in computer science, math, or statistics. Roughly 9,900 were trained as engineers or in general science (whatever that means). An additional 5,690 were trained as physicists, 4,800 as chemists, and 2,923 as biochemists. Several thousand more were trained in still other fields. Of the total, roughly one-third said they held PhDs.

But there’s an important caveat. There’s been no vetting of the petition’s signers to confirm that they indeed trained in the field they claimed to have had. What’s more, Robinson’s group made no attempt to find out whether people worked in the field for which they trained. So someone educated as a physical chemist or computer scientist might actually be working today as a stock broker, pianist, or taxi driver.

Before asking scientists to sign the peition, Robinson’s group sent many of the individuals a packet containing the document’s wording together with a 12-page paper that he, his son, and another scientist had written. It claims to have reviewed much of the same climate literature that the IPCC did.

Also in the package sent out to potential petition signers: a letter from the late Frederick Seitz, president emeritus of Rockefeller University and former president of the National Academy of Sciences. His imprimatur was likely a weighty and influential part of the package. Seitz asked recipients to carefully read Robinson’s review paper – published in, of all places – the quarterly Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons.

Why in a journal for doctors? Robinson says it had no copyright objections to his distributing the paper far and wide. Because climate journals would likely have offered up such an objection, he said he wanted to wait until after the petition drive was over before he reformulated the material and submitted it for publication in one of them.

Although I don’t buy Robinson’s facile castigation of the IPCC process and its conclusions, he does have a point. The consensus statements that IPCC issued don’t represent the views of all scientists. But then I, for one, never thought they did.

Let’s see who else has problems with Robinson’s opus and the nonvalidated qualifications of his petition’s signatories …

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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