Anatomy of a Fake Consensus

Anatomy of a Fake Consensus
December 1, 2007

Joseph Bast

Joseph L. Bast c.v. Joseph Bast is president and CEO of The Heartland Institute, a 29-year-old... (read full bio)

The August 13 issue of Newsweek featured an article on its front cover titled "Global Warming Is a Hoax. "The text following the asterisk at the bottom of the page read, "Or so claim well-funded naysayers who still reject the overwhelming evidence of climate change. Inside the denial machine."

Wow, a front cover story devoted to attacking scientific debate! Newsweek's publisher must be very proud.

Similarly, the August 28, 2007 issue of Editor & Publisher carried an essay by letters editor Steve Outing, telling reporters to stop being "objective" and become strong advocates of global warming alarmism. He writes, "the few critics of the consensus are a small and shrinking group, who to most observers seem irrelevant. To the mainstream, they may as well be flat-earthers."

You might well ask yourself, is there really a "consensus" on global warming? And what, exactly, does that consensus say?

Survey Says ...

There have been only two recent surveys of scientists on the issue of global warming, one an international survey of 530 climate scientists conducted in 2003 by German scientists Dennis Bray and Hans von Storch (http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=20861), and the second a 2006 survey of U.S. members of the National Registry of Environmental Professionals (http://www.globalwarmingheartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=20512).

The surveys come to similar conclusions. Most scientists (more than 80 percent) believe some global warming has occurred. The best estimate is that global temperatures have risen about 1 degree Fahrenheit during the past 100 years.

A majority of scientists, but certainly not all, believe the human presence is responsible for some part of the warming that occurred after 1940. Most scientists, however, don't agree on how much of the modern warming is the result of natural cycles and how much is due to human activities.

The scientific community is split down the middle on whether future warming would be moderate and benign or severe and harmful.

Most scientists don't believe we can predict what future climates will look like: They are deeply skeptical of the reliability of computer models, the basis for all claims that future warming will be any different from the moderate warming of the past century. And there is no agreement at all on what, if anything, we should about global warming.

Trust the United Nations?

Claims of a consensus that global warming is man-made and will be a crisis rest mainly on the assertions by a United Nations agency, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that its reports represent the consensus of some 2,000 scientists. But the United Nations is a political body, not a scientific one, and its assertion in this case is simply false.

The great majority of scientists who participate in the IPCC comment on or contribute to only a few pages of the much larger report. Many do not address the question of whether human emissions are likely to have any impact on the global climate. They expressly do not endorse the claims that appear in the "Summary for Policymakers," which they do not help write or approve.

Scientists Criticize IPCC Claims

Some of the scientists who participate in the IPCC process are, in fact, outspoken skeptics of manmade global warming. The peer review comments submitted during production of the latest IPCC report, which are available online, show extensive dissent from the "party line" that global warming is manmade or would be harmful.

The IPCC reports are also odd because the executive summaries are written by a small group of government officials, environmentalists, and government scientists before the full studies are finished. The full reports are revised and edited after the fact to agree with the "findings" claimed by the executive summaries. Obviously, that's not how real scientific reports are produced.

The best that can be said about the latest IPCC report is that it represents a negotiated political statement by about 50 scientists and many politicians, U.N. bureaucrats, and green activists.

Literature Surveys

There is one empirical study claiming to support a consensus that global warming is manmade. It is a widely cited (but seldom examined) study by Naomi Oreskes, a history professor in the Department of Gender Studies at the University of California-San Diego.

Starting with the odd credentials of its author, this study falls well short of showing that a scientific consensus on global warming exists.

Oreskes examined abstracts of 928 articles published from 1993 to 2002 and found "none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position" that the recent warming of the Earth was due to human activities. Note she didn't claim a consensus in support of the idea that warming would be severe or harmful, or even that all of the papers agreed with the consensus position. No literature survey has ever shown consensus on those claims.

When other researchers tried and failed to replicate Oreskes' findings, she was forced to admit she had mis-identified the search terms used in her study. One scientist, Benny Peiser, reported his own analysis of the scientific abstracts supposedly studied by Oreskes found only 13 (1 percent) explicitly endorse what she called the "consensus view," while 470 (42 percent) of the abstracts include the keywords "global climate change" but do not find or endorse any link to human activities.

In August, DailyTech.com reported new research by Klaus-Martin Schulte, accepted for publication by the journal Energy and Environment, finds no consensus on global warming in academic journal articles appearing between 2004 and early 2007. Nearly as many articles explicitly refute the theory of manmade global warming as endorse it, while most articles are simply silent on the issue.

What Consensus?

Despite the lack of evidence of a true scientific consensus, we are inundated with claims such a consensus exists. They typically come from five sources:

  • The news media, including Newsweek, The New York Times, writers for The Associated Press, and others, are filled with claims that global warming is manmade and a crisis, and that the scientific debate is over.
  • Politicians and former politicians--most obviously former Vice President Al Gore and leading Democrats but also including many Republicans and even President George W. Bush--proclaim their deep concern over global warming and propose solutions that will cost taxpayers or consumers hundreds of billions of dollars a year.
  • Liberal advocacy groups such as Greenpeace, Union of Concerned Scientists, and Pew Center on Global Climate Change generate daily news releases claiming new evidence that global warming is going to be worse than we thought and that immediate action is necessary.
  • Government agencies, including NASA and NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), feed the notion of a false consensus by producing news releases claiming recent temperatures and ice melts are setting new records, while only quietly admitting to errors in their own data and ignoring contradictory evidence appearing in peer-reviewed journals.
  • Some corporations, such as BP and DuPont, and entire industries, such as the solar and wind power industries and to a lesser extent the natural gas industry, are quick to recognize profits can be made from the public panic over global warming. They paint themselves "greener" than their competitors and lobby for subsidies, tax breaks, and mandates forcing consumers to use their products.

The Real Consensus

Climatology is a relatively young discipline, and some of its practitioners say the more they learn, the more they realize how much they do not know. Science, particularly at this stage of the game, doesn't advance through a show of hands or other demonstrations of "consensus."

But there is a real consensus in the global warming debate. It exists among the global warming alarmists, and it has nothing to do with science.

The alarmists, whether they speak for Greenpeace or BP, all agree on two points. First, they argue the coming crisis is so dire that conventional cost-benefit or risk-risk analysis has to be suspended, meaning no sacrifice made now would be too great in light of the great danger we face. Second, they claim only government action can save us from a climate apocalypse. Private-sector initiatives and responses are dismissed as inadequate, "too little and too late."

Neither of these points is justified by the facts of the situation, yet they go to the heart of the public policy question that global warming raises: What should we do about it? Rather than debate these points, the media and all the other advocates of global warming "consensus" simply assume a bigger role for government is the answer.

Big-Government Agenda

This "flight to government" is proof, if any more is needed, that very few advocates of global warming alarmism are sincere about why they are so concerned about the issue. Bigger government is, in fact, the reason they care about global warming in the first place. Everything else--the science, the predictions, the computer models, and all the rest--is just eyewash.

The assertion of a consensus on global warming supports an ideological agenda, making it practically immune to scientific refutation.


Joseph Bast (jbast@heartland.org) is president of The Heartland Institute and publisher of Environment & Climate News.

Joseph Bast

Joseph L. Bast c.v. Joseph Bast is president and CEO of The Heartland Institute, a 29-year-old... (read full bio)