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Toronto Star: The science of climate change is alive and well July 25, 2010

Posted by maggieknight in Media Work.

This op-ed by scientists Barry Smit and Tristan Pearce was published in today’s Toronto Star here. I’m posting it here not just because I did the media work that got it published, but because I think the message is incredibly important (and it’s great to have scientists communicating directly with the public).

The science of climate change is alive and well

Barry Smit & Tristan Pearce

An inquiry into the “climategate” controversy reported recently what the scientific community and most Canadians have known for some time: the climate is changing and human activities are a major influence.

The salient facts of climate change (including human-induced global warming) are accepted by the science academies of all G8 countries. These facts are persistently challenged by climate change deniers and skeptics.

In climategate, scientists’ emails were stolen and misrepresented to suggest manipulation of research findings. The independent inquiry, like two previous investigations, concluded that the scientists acted with integrity and did not manipulate data. The inquiry was strongly critical of the unfounded and selective attacks by climate skeptics.

Unfortunately, the reputation of climate science has been damaged. The climategate accusations made front-page news, yet the debunking is hardly reported. For those not wanting to see policies or changes in consumer behaviour to address climate change, the skeptics’ attacks were successful.

The strategies of the skeptics are not new. The effects of smoking on human health were well established in the scientific community for decades, yet interests in the smoking industry continued to deny the link. While thousands of medical scientists and professionals supported the overwhelming evidence, a few so-called experts would appear from time to time to challenge the science.

The influence of skeptics was amplified by the media seeking either a controversy or “balance.” The effect of skeptics in the link between smoking and health was that public acceptance of the science was delayed, policies were postponed, changes in personal choice were delayed, and hundreds of thousands of lives were lost as a result.

Another target of climate skeptics is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC was established after early attempts to reach an international agreement on how to deal with climate change got bogged down in disputes over the science. It involves the world’s top scientists (over 3,000) summarizing the current state of knowledge and presenting the science in a form intelligible to policy-makers.

The IPCC does not do science, it summarizes it. IPCC reports are among the most thoroughly and comprehensively reviewed scientific assessments ever. Each statement is checked by chapter authors, two review editors, several outside experts, and reviewers nominated by each country. It is no wonder that IPCC reports are so conservative.

In 2007, the IPCC reported on the worldwide depletion of glaciers and on the likelihood that Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035. Of the tens of thousands of statements, the skeptics challenged this one. It, too, made the headlines — an “error,” it was claimed, and it was used to undermine the legitimacy of the IPCC and the credibility of climate science.

The estimate was based on a scientific study, so it was entirely legitimate for inclusion. The skeptics’ attack effectively directed attention away from the main message that there is incontrovertible evidence that glaciers on all continents are diminishing, and disappearing, at an alarming rate, with serious consequences for economies and societies.

An unbiased critique of the IPCC would yield numerous statements which are clearly errors. The IPCC estimated that a seasonal ice-free Arctic would occur around 2080-2100, yet given the rapid ice shrinkage, experts now project ice-free conditions by 2030-2050. This “error” — of underestimation — has not been highlighted by the skeptics.

The climate-induced spread of the mountain pine beetle and its devastation of western pine forests, communities and industry management were completely underestimated by the IPCC. Numerous examples of errors of underestimation exist but apparently do not serve the interests of skeptics.

The selective and manipulative tactics of climate skeptics have been effective in slowing public acceptance of climate change, and hence stalling policy.

But perhaps the Canadian public is less affected by spurious attacks on climate science than we think. A 2010 Leger poll found that more than half of Canadians believe greenhouse gases produced by human activity are a key factor spurring climate change, and they say the planet is in peril if significant action isn’t taken soon. A Gandalf poll in June 2010 showed 74 per cent of Canadians believe that the government must go further in the fight against climate change.

While the skeptics will likely continue their attacks, climate science is alive and well, and the public is smarter than we think. All we need now is the political will to take action.

Barry Smit is Canada Research Chair in Global Environmental Change and Tristan Pearce is Vanier Scholar, both in geography at the University of Guelph.



1. David Gray-Donald - July 25, 2010

Good article, but in the future be more precise in what you mean by “the world’s top scientists” when you say “It involves the world’s top scientists (over 3,000) summarizing the current state of knowledge and presenting the science in a form intelligible to policy-makers.”

Climate skeptics can have a field day with this statement. How do you classify scientists as best? What field are the best scientists in? Are all those fields of scientists represented in the IPCC? Cancer researchers, cellular biologists, and engineering physicists represent a huge proportion of human scientists. Are they represented here.

It is a small point in the article but climate skepticism is based on amplifying those points to the public to discredit the validity of very well founded claims. Constant vigilance and education on the subject is necessary to get the right message across.


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