This week, Ellen Davis posted what she probably believes is a $5,000 dagger at the throat of climate change skeptics. On a site called Truthmarket, she offered a $5,000 bounty for anyone who could:
Provide verifiable evidence that significantly less than 95% of American scientists believe in the reality of Global Climate Change and that humans are a likely cause.
Ms. Davis’s flourish (and associated PR campaign) is an absolutely perfect example of how the climate debate is broken. Why? Because she has offered a statement that not only most scientists, but most skeptics would agree with! How is that possible? Because this has been the central tactic of strong advocates of anthropogenic global warming theory for years: bait and switch. When skeptics criticize one issue, they respond by defending another.
I explained all this a while back in another Forbes piece. The key to understanding the disconnect is to recognize that the catastrophic man-made global warming theory is a two-part theory. In part one, man-made CO2 causes some warming, about a degree Celsius for every doubling of its atmospheric concentration. In part two, feedback effects in the climate multiply this initial relatively small amount of man-made warming by 3, 5, or even 10 times (depending on the computer model). I can’t speak for some Conservative talk show hosts, but the vast majority of science-based skeptics accept part one, where man-made CO2 causes some incremental warming. What they do not accept is the science behind part 2, the massive positive feedback effects. And it is part 2 that causes the catastrophe. Without these feedback effects, there is no catastrophe.
Thus we see how folks like Ms. Davis argue. She wants you to accept the catastrophe, which requires proof of both parts 1 and part 2 of the theory, but she has a hard time proving part 2. So she claims that part 1 is settled, and then pretends that proving that proposition proves the catastrophe. It does not, but for a variety of reasons, from scientific illiteracy to business incentives for reporting catastrophic news stories, the media plays along.I will remind you what I concluded previously about the climate scientist surveys that inspired Ms. Davies to run this challenge:
we need to ask ourselves what actual proposition do the 97% of climate scientists agree with. And, we need to understand what it is, exactly, that the deniers are denying….
So let’s come back to [this] original question — what is it exactly that skeptics “deny.” As we have seen, most don’t deny the greenhouse gas theory, or that the Earth has warmed some amount over the last several year. They don’t even deny that some of that warming has likely been via man-made CO2. What they deny is the catastrophe — they argue that the theory of strong climate positive feedback is flawed, and is greatly exaggerating the amount of warming we will see from man-made CO2. And, they are simultaneously denying that most or all of past warming is man-made, and arguing instead that the amount that is natural and cyclic is being under-estimated.
So how about the “97% of scientists” who purportedly support global warming? What proposition do they support? Let’s forget for a minute a variety of concerns about cherry-picking respondents in studies like this (I am always reminded by such studies of the quote attributed, perhaps apocryphally, to Pauline Kael that she couldn’t understand how Nixon had won because no one she knew voted for him). Let’s look at the actual propositions the 97% agreed to in one such study conducted at the University of Illinois. Here they are:
1. When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?
2. Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?
The 97% answered “risen” and “yes” to these two questions. But depending on how one defines “significant” (is 20% a significant factor?) I could get 97% of a group of science-based skeptics to agree to the same answers.
So this is the real problem at the heart of the climate debate — the two sides are debating different propositions!
This attempt to win a debate through obfuscation and switching topics is a political tactic that does nothing but corrupt the scientific method. In fact, we can see other evidence of this tactic in Ms. Davis’s challenge.
Take the phrase “Global Climate Change.” Ms. Davis has put it in capitals, made it a proper name. We use capitalized proper names for specific well-defined things: ”Aghanistan” is an identifiable country in Asia, the “President of the United States” is a very specific job, the “Brookings Intitute” is a well-known think tank. So what the heck is “Global Climate Change?”
Well, despite Ms. Davis’s use of capitals, the term is undefined. No one knows. Climate is a system that we know to have seasonal, annual, decadal, and even thousand and ten-thousand year cycles, which we have only really observed in earnest for thirty years or so. Climate change is thought by most people as some sort of variation from normal, but we really have no idea what “normal” is.
Using such an amorphous term, and then pretending it is well-defined, is a typical tactic in the climate debate. Let’s suppose scientist X writes that man is very likely changing the climate (almost certainly a true statement since we were changing local climate by our land use choices long before we even started burning fossil fuels for energy). Ms. Davis will then say that scientist X supports “Global Climate Change”. Since this term is totally without meaning, she can then claim that the latest forest fire, the latest hurricane, the latest drought, flood, snow, cold snap, heat wave, or tornado were cause by man, and that scientist X said so. In fact, X said no such thing.
I don’t know Ms. Davis. It may be that she is not playing rhetorical games but is an honest dupe of the terrible media handling of climate issues. So I will help out. If you really want to understand what scientists’ positions are on issues that truly matter to the climate debate, ask them if they believe in the catastrophe. Ask them if they believe in climate sensitivities of 3C or higher. As them if they really support the idea that a long-term stable natural system can be dominated by extraordinarily high levels of positive feedback. That would be an interesting poll. And yes, I would bet $5,000 of my own money that you wouldn’t get anywhere near 95% on those questions.