Climate experts agree that global warming is real and is caused by humans. Yet last week in the House of Representatives, an amendment to a bill that would deny the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to regulate greenhouse gases was defeated 184-240. It stated, “Congress accepts the scientific findings of the Environmental Protection Agency that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare.” Thus, a majority of one chamber of Congress does not agree with the consensus among climate scientists that global warming is real and a serious threat to the planet. So how does a nonscientist citizen make an informed decision about global warming?
Fortunately, scientists use a process called “peer review” to maintain standards in their published research. Peer review, which can take months to years, requires that research papers submitted for publication are reviewed by anonymous qualified experts to ensure the research is sound and the conclusions are justified by the data. Analysis of thousands of peer-reviewed papers on global climate change have shown that well over 95 percent of climate experts agree that global warming is real and caused by humans burning fossil fuels and forests. Moreover, the Academies of Science from 19 countries have endorsed this consensus, as have dozens of scientific organizations in the U.S. Thus, there is a consensus on global warming supported by the global scientific community.
Unfortunately, global warming has been subjected to an organized campaign of misinformation through the use of “junk science.” Junk science is a set of claims about scientific data and research that is driven by political and ideological motives, and thus is not science at all. For the past two decades, the existence of global warming has been relentlessly attacked using tactics once used by the tobacco industry regarding the cancer risks of cigarettes: dissemination of misinformation, challenges to scientific consensus, and an emphasis on uncertainty by focusing on disagreement among scientists.
The goal of the campaign is to create “reasonable doubt “ in the public and stall or stop action on global warming. Most of these junk-science organizations, the so called “climate skeptic scientists,“ receive part or all of their funding from industries that have a direct short-term economic stake in policies to curb global warming. These groups, which include the popular websites CO2Science.org and Marshall.org, are funded to create and maintain campaigns that perpetuate global warming misinformation for their own political interests. However, if you examine the material disseminated by these groups, you will see that they rarely conduct scientific research, cherry-pick peer-reviewed papers to focus on uncertainty, conduct misleading analyses of valid scientific studies to dispute that a consensus exists, and in some cases, personally attack leading climate scientists.
As a result of this campaign of misinformation, some of the general public is at odds with the scientific consensus. A review of articles on global warming in four major newspapers showed that only 35 percent of the news articles reflected the scientific consensus on global warming. Some misinformation in the media results from the journalistic ethic of “balanced” reporting, which strives to present both sides of every story. However, since skeptics demand equal time, they receive a disproportionate share of attention, which perpetuates uncertainly about global warming.
As a policy issue, there may be many reasons why the EPA might not be the best choice to regulate climate change, reasons that have nothing to do with the climate science. However, as Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., succinctly stated during debate on the amendment, “We in Congress can certainly change the laws of this country, but last I heard we cannot change the laws of nature.” Overreaction to the consequences of global warming and action on reducing carbon dioxide emissions are trivial compared with the consequences of inaction. So let’s move past the science and focus on policy options to address the problem and take action.
Brian N. Tissot is a Professor of Earth and Environmental Science at Washington State University Vancouver.