Outside the ‘Consensus’–
Notes of a Climate Change ‘Denier’

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As a child I relished picking through rocks to find fossils of the lush tropical swamp that once covered my corner of southwest Pennsylvania. On trips to Ohio I collected specimens of the briny brachiopods that littered the floor of an inland ocean. Climate changes. I knew that by age seven. Whether it is changing now in the manner of a tea kettle on slow boil is another matter. And whether such changes as can be observed, large or small, have much to do with human carbon dioxide emissions is still another.

Gradually I have found myself more impressed with the arguments of the climate change skeptics–the reviled “deniers”–than with the Michael Mann school of hockey stickology or the IPCC striptease in which it discards its pretences to “settled science” a glove at a time without ever getting down to bare truth.

Unheard of Diversity

But these are my personal opinions and I preside over an organization that takes no official position on climate change. The National Association of Scholars isn’t a body that can weigh the substantive merits of competing scientific models. We are referees, concerned that all sides play by the rules, not goalkeepers, much less goalmakers. And we have members who have diverse opinions about whether, how much, and where from climate change happens.

That diversity, of course, is nearly unheard of in the academy itself, where a hardened orthodoxy is enforced with increasing determination. The enforcement itself tells a story. No one has to enforce an orthodoxy on plate tectonics, quantum theory, or Andrew Wile’s proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. All of these were once controversial. Wile’s original proof was shown to be defective. He fixed it. The theories advanced by the accumulation of hard evidence and the rigor of the analysis.

In my own field, anthropology, I have lived through the replacement of “consensus” on the idea that the makers of the so-called Clovis spear points, which go back 13,500 years, were the first Native Americans. The “Clovis First” theory always had doubters but it dominated from the 1930s until 1999, when archaeologists in large numbers accepted the evidence of older populations. Likewise, there was a long-established consensus that Neanderthal and modern Homo Sapiens did not successfully interbreed–though here too there were always some dissenters. We now know for a certainty (based on the successful sequencing of the Neanderthal genome) that our species did indeed mix, and modern Europeans carry a percent or two of Neanderthal genes.

The Wall of Artificial ‘Consensus’

In time, scientific controversies get resolved, often by the emergence of new kinds of evidence that no one originally imagined. Views that are maintained, to some degree, by a wall of artificial “consensus” die hard. That, of course, was one of the lessons of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), which inaugurated the long vogue for the word “paradigm” to describe a broadly accepted theory. Kuhn’s work has often served as a warrant for those who see science as a social project amenable to political manipulation rather than an intellectual endeavor with strict standards of evidence and built-in mechanisms for correcting mistakes.

Thus when the “anthropogenic global warming” (AGW) folks insist that they command a “consensus” of climate scientists, they fully understand that they are engaged in a political act. They intend to summon the social and political dynamics that will create a “consensus,” by defining the skeptics as a disreputable minority that need not even be counted. It is a big gamble since a substantial number of the skeptics are themselves well-established and highly respected scientists, such as MIT’s Richard Lindzen, Princeton’s Will Happer, and Institute of Advanced Studies’ Freeman Dyson. But conjuring a new “paradigm” out of highly ambiguous data run through simulation computer models is tricky business and isn’t likely to produce a “consensus” all on its own.

What’s needed is the stamp of authority. And if that doesn’t work, just keep stamping. Or stomping.

Drew Faust Is On Board

The latest example of the just-keep-stomping approach to establishing scientific consensus was an announcement this month, “Confronting Climate Change,” from Harvard president Drew Faust. She lets the reader know from the first sentence that she is fully on board with the orthodoxy:

Worldwide scientific consensus has clearly established that climate change poses a serious threat to our future–and increasingly to our present.

I don’t need to belabor that. She explains that Harvard has a big role to play; Harvard is accountable to the future, & etc. The university, she owns, already has a breathtakingly large investment in promoting this doctrine, including 200 faculty members working on environmental issues, “some 250 courses across the University focusing on aspects of environmental sustainability,” and $120 million raised in funds earmarked for “energy and environment” research.

The hard news in her announcement comes in the tenth paragraph:

Today I am pleased to report that we have decided to become a signatory to two organizations internationally recognized as leaders in developing best-practice guidelines for investors and in driving corporate disclosure to inform and promote sustainable investment.

The two organizations are the United Nations-supported Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) and the Carbon Disclosure Project’s (CDP) climate change program. The rest of president Faust’s statement is best understood as scaffolding for these points. Background: last October President Faust took heat from Harvard students for refusing to accede to a popular demand that Harvard divest its holdings in carbon-based energy companies. She said at the time that the cost to Harvard from the lost value of these investments would be too great. By now joining the PRI and the CDP, President Faust attempts to buy herself and Harvard some breathing room from the continuing pressure of students who support Bill McKibben’s pro-divestment movement, 350.org.

Sustainability Pressure Groups

PRI, as she puts it, makes Harvard part of “a network of international investors” who aim to integrate “environmental, social and governance factors into investment analysis and ownership.” CDP “works with investors to request that portfolio companies account for and disclose information on greenhouse gas emissions, energy use and carbon risks associated with their business activities.”

These are, in other words, sustainability pressure groups–where “sustainability” is understood as embracing social and economic factors as well as environmental ones. Maybe they will give Harvard the cover to hold onto to its prospering carbon energy stocks. After all, many of the carbon energy companies position themselves as ardent public supporters of sustainability that just happen to be in hydrocarbon extraction business.

President Faust’s effort to buy peace with sustainability extremists is almost certain to fail. A few days after her announcement, for example, the “Responsible Investment at Harvard Coalition” rallied on the steps of Widener Library to protest Harvard-owned timber plantations in Argentina. There will be no end to this sort of thing because, as the French social theorist Pascal Bruckner has put it, sustainability is a secular salvation cult with a “seductive attraction to disaster.” It cannot give up on its apocalyptic narrative no matter how many battles it wins along the way. President Faust’s appeasement has so far resulted only in an open letter signed by “nearly 100” Harvard faculty members demanding the university sell off its fossil fuel investments. Desmond Tutu lent his voice as well by calling for “an anti-apartheid-style boycott and divestment campaign against the industry for its role in driving climate change.”

President Faust may have failed to soothe the hard-core divestment activists, but that doesn’t mean her actions have no significance. For one thing, Harvard told the Boston Globe that it is the first U.S. university to sign the United Nations’ PRI, which gives PRI instant cachet in American higher education. We should expect many colleges and universities to follow suit.

Perhaps even more to the point, the signing of both agreements means that the largest university endowment in the world will now be managed more or less in accord with the “consensus” on climate change. Harvard, of course, is free to do what it wants with its money.  Who am I, an anthropologist, to disagree with the judgment of President Faust, a historian of the Civil War, on how many parts per million carbon dioxide are right for the Earth’s atmosphere? These decisions come from some place, but not, pace President Faust, from “worldwide scientific consensus.”

Perhaps eons hence someone picking through the rocks in what once was Cambridge will find fossils of delicate imprint showing that once intelligent life once lived until it was lost in a mass extinction brought on by “consensus.”

Peter Wood

Peter Wood

Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “Diversity: the Invention of a Concept.”

18 thoughts on “Outside the ‘Consensus’–
Notes of a Climate Change ‘Denier’

  1. Peter Wood:
    Thank you for your thoughtful essay, which I enjoyed reading.
    I share your concerns.
    The current “consensus” almost feels like a religion, based on belief, rather than hard facts.
    One senses a great hope that the potential el nino will wipe out the pesky hiatus and get the trend lines back on the what the belief is, rather than the actual observations.
    It feels a little like what I imagine the temperance movement must have felt like.
    I slowly building movement of partial insanity which washed over the country, leaving millions scratching their heads in its wake.
    Ultimately reversed by the hard reality of experience and people shaking off the fevered religious thinking which gave rise to the movement in the first place.
    In my opinion, the “consensus” will drastically change between now and when we hit 560 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, and we have can compute a sort of real life climate sensitivity.
    All we have to do is take the global mean temperature in the year we hit 560 ppm and subtract the global mean temperature in the year we were at 280 ppm – and voila, we have the delta T from a doubling of CO2 (with all other variables allowed to vary unfortunately).
    Still – it will be a real number, rather than all the model output, in which we average a large number of crappy models together, hoping the average will cure the defaults of the individual models.
    I predict it will be very low (perhaps around 1.2C) and the “consensus” will have to deal with that fact.
    I just hope we don’t have to undo a great many stupid actions taken by our government (or others for that matter), like rolling back prohibition.

  2. So Desmond Tutu is against the fossil fuel industry for “its role in driving climate change.” The fossil fuel industry wouldn’t exist if there weren’t customers for its products, which one presumes includes Bishop Tutu and all facility & students of Harvard.

  3. Just as an aside, it seems odd that the intention is to punish the providers of a product that consumers demonstrably want rather than the consumers themselves. People want energy in its most useful and reliable form at the lowest possible price and the fossil fuel companies do just that.
    Still I suppose it folds in better with the left wing hatred of corporations than trying to actually provide an equivalent alternative to a recalcitrant consumer base. Much easier to bully a company than change the minds of the masses using political methods, sort of democratic principles and the like.

  4. Plate tectonics, quantum theory, Fermat’s Theorem, and Clovis First do not face the same level of opposition because they do not have significant political or policy implications that threaten the business-as-usual practices of certain industries or the viability of extreme libertarian political ideologies. (Though ask creationists about feathered dinosaurs and you will get a similar denialist reaction, again because of unpleasant implications for their worldview.) Anthropogenic climate change does have these implications, and its denial is politically motivated by those who feel profoundly threatened by acknowledging its reality. There is continued scientific debate about the precise magnitude of future climate change and about its regional impacts. However, no credible evidence or arguments have successfully disputed the basic conclusion that humans are significantly transforming the Earth’s climate by rapidly pushing greenhouse gas concentrations beyond levels experienced over at least the past 800,000 years. The evidence is multifaceted and powerful – it comes from physical science, paleoclimatology, myriad observations of the biosphere, and increasingly sophisticated climate models that bring all of the data together. Climate skeptics nibble at the edges of this vast compendium of evidence, pointing out isolated scientific errors to try to discredit all of climate science, misrepresenting or misreading data, taking comments by scientists out of context, citing a few errors in IPCC reports, or calling the very character of scientists into question (to the ludicrous point of more or less suggesting that the bulk of those involved in climate or ecological research are engaged in a vast conspiracy to secure research funding and overthrow capitalism). Moreover, as Peter Wood does, denialists make the fallacious claim that because those on the left are more likely to accept mainstream climate science, then the science itself is tainted by leftist politics. The denialists’ enterprise is disingenuous and dangerous. We should be having an intelligent debate on how much to focus on mitigation versus adaptation, what adaptation measures to undertake, whether to undertake experiments in geo-engineering, how to use market-based regulations to shift our economy away from fossil fuels, and, yes, even a debate over whether it is worth it to actually tackle climate change (I think it is, but that is a moral and political question, not a scientific one). The spread of misinformation about climate and the misrepresentation of the state of climate science is a kind of political malpractice that does nothing good for our society.

  5. When bigwig climate alarmists personally start living as if the earth depended on it, then I might start believing them. (There will be a 5-year lag time due to their continuing mendacity.) Until then, they are merely hypocrites deserving of nothing less than mockery.
    Ironic that the Harvard bigwig’s name is Faust!

  6. I rather enjoyed the subtle wit exhibited by this barbed indictment of the madness of the crowds that is the modern climate-hysteria movement. A few of the bolder adherents have even publicly called for the imprisonment or murder of thoughtful, often brilliant skeptics, which should serve as an immediate indictment of the underlying mentality of the “warmists.”
    A raving Earth-worship cult does not a scientific consensus make — rather, it shows only that large portions of the populace are still susceptible to the unreasoning urges that followed primitive apes like so many obnoxious parasites during the epoch that saw our ancestral primates gradually abandoning the trees that gave birth to them a million years ago.

  7. The hockey stick team has now abandoned all pretense of playing by the rules. Out of Harvard appeared a 2013 Science journal vindication of Mann’s life work in which the new hockey stick blade was created as a pure and simple artifact by bizarre re-dating of low lying Ph.D. thesis proxy data that created data drop-off at the end:
    http://s6.postimg.org/jb6qe15rl/Marcott_2013_Eye_Candy.jpg
    Bill McKibben created a 10/10/10 event supporting image alarm which resulted in an associated 10:10 organization that proudly hired a top notch director to create a school children explosive blood splattering snuff video against climate computer model skeptics that dared not toe the line:
    http://youtu.be/qAkfEX0sqAI
    They even released a cheerful feature about the making of the video, before the massive backlash had them delete it (and McKibbens name) from their site.
    -=NikFromNYC=-, Ph.D. in carbon chemistry (Columbia/Harvard)

  8. Consensus is not scientific evidence. No matter how many “scientists”agree, if the evidence does not play out their agreement is incorrect. As example I give flat Earth, Ptolemaic universe and phlogiston all widely believed for extended periods of time and all completely wrong. It certainly appears consensus was found lacking.

  9. Meh, universities and colleges are going to go broke sooner or later with their current financial structure. This will only speed up the process. Since most universities and colleges have long abandoned education in favor of indoctrination, I look forward to their collapse. Hopefully, what replaces them will concentrate on actual education.

  10. 97% of Climate “researchers” whose livelihoods depend on AGW being a reality have reached a consensus that AGW is a reality. See a problem? It’s all about keeping the grant money flowing.

  11. I’m not the first to notice this: humans seem to be “wired” for religion. I’ve noticed that many churches in the larger cities of Europe have become tourist attractions, have been repurposed for secular uses, or have closed their doors. In the U.S., it seems that traditional religion is at most peripheral to the lives of college-educated people, and of much less interest to them than partisan politics. I believe that the diminishment if traditional religion in the West has created a large cultural/spiritual void, and what you describe as a “secular salvation cult” has filled it. What is surprising to me is that so many very intelligent people (not being sarcastic) are completely uncritical about this.

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