The climate change debate should focus on evidence rather than on smearing opponents.
To dismiss the findings of any scientist due to his or her funding sources is a logical fallacy referred to as “motive intent”—assuming that what someone is saying is wrong because of a suspect ulterior motive.
While it may be a convenient shortcut for those who do not want to take the time to learn the science, it makes no sense unless a particular scientist has a history of dishonesty, or suddenly changed his or her opinion after funding from a vested interest is known to have started.
In the case of the climate scientists who work with the International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC), this has never been the case. Indeed, the research of professors Tim Patterson, Bob Carter and Chris Essex has never been funded by special interests such as energy companies or environmental lobby groups, and all three of these experts have displayed a consistent and balanced stance on climate change for years before it became an intense political issue.
Scientific research into the causes of global climate change is almost always funded by governments, no matter which side of the debate experts come down on. For that reason, one would expect that whatever bias may exist would be primarily on the side of supporting the proclamations of our political leaders, most of whom promote climate alarmism.
As Dr. Tim Ball, former climatology professor at the University of Winnipeg states, “I didn’t choose to be a climate skeptic for my health.” That is an understatement as Ball, whose climate research has also never been funded by energy interests, has received numerous death threats for his outspoken candor on the issue.
Clearly, climate skeptics would have much easier lives, and likely more research and consulting dollars, if they said what governments expected them to say.
On the rare occasions when climate scientists do receive funding from energy companies (which, at least in Canada, is uncommon), scientific authors must reveal the sources of their funding when they submit papers to leading journals, and reviewers take that information into account when deciding if their scientific analysis has sufficient merit to justify publication. Yet, any hint of industry funding for skeptics research, though not that of those on the other side, is enough to send many in mainstream media on a witch hunt.
Consider the case of Dr. Willie Soon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. On Oct. 1, 2008, The Guardian newspaper (U.K.) published a piece titled, “Revealed: oil-funded research in Palin's campaign against protection for polar bear.”
In this piece, the reporter implied that Soon’s research was influenced by the funding sources for a 2003 scientific paper he coauthored with Dr. Sallie Baliunas, which, The Guardian “revealed,” had been funded by the American Petroleum Institute.
Completely ignored by the newspaper was the fact that the majority of the funding for the research came from three official government sources—the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, none of which are known for climate skepticism.
All four funders were clearly listed in the heading of the paper but Guardian readers were not informed of this. Instead they were told that Soon was a former senior scientist with the George C. Marshall Institute, which had received funding from ExxonMobil, implying therefore that his research could not be trusted.
This is simply “guilt by association,” another logical fallacy. Besides, Exxon also funds hundreds of philanthropic programs, including millions of dollars to an African health initiative, the promotion of women in science and mathematics, saving endangered species, even literacy classes for women in rural China.
They are also the largest donor ($100 million) for The Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford University focused on researching energy systems with significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions. That investment alone dwarfs the company’s past contributions to groups that promote an alternative perspective on climate change science.
The Guardian also made an issue of Soon having accepted funding from Exxon for a 2007 paper he wrote with Ball and others that demonstrated that the threat to polar bears was merely speculative.
Not mentioned by the newspaper was the fact that, as Soon explains in a later letter to the editor of The Guardian, “Since 2002, ExxonMobil has also supported 22 other studies on Arctic wildlife and ecosystems. Main authors of these papers included researchers who proposed the (pointless) listing of polar bears under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. There is, therefore, no more basis for your damaging and erroneous implication that my results were tainted by ExxonMobil's funding than that other similarly-funded results that better suited your declared but now outdated editorial prejudice in favor of the collapsed alarmist ‘consensus’ were tainted.”
It was only after Soon formally complained to the U.K. Press Complaints Commission that the issue was partially resolved when The Guardian published Soon’s letter to the editor. The original article attacking Soon is still found easily on The Guardian website by doing a search on his name. Soon’s letter to the editor should obviously be linked to the article or the original piece removed.
The Hard Stuff
In the final analysis it makes absolutely no difference to nature who funds whom in climate research. The only question that matters is: does the most reliable research convincingly support the hypothesis that human emissions of greenhouse gases are causing a climate crisis? It is the job of scientists to try to answer this question to the best of their abilities and it is the responsibility of the rest of us to try to understand them.
Attractive though it may be for reporters rushing to meet deadlines, broadcasters trying to boost ratings, celebrities trying to “save the planet,” or politicians pandering for votes, to shortcut the “hard stuff” and focus instead on logical fallacies simply impedes constructive decision making.
Without learning the basic science, the only rational response anyone can give to the question “Is humanity causing a climate crisis?” is simply, “I don’t know.” “Bill Nye, The Science Guy” was right when he said, “Climate change is not rocket science.” It is much harder. If rocket science were as hard as climate science, we’d still be trying to get off the ground.
Tom Harris is executive director of the International Climate Science Coalition (www.climatescienceinternational.org
). He teaches a second year climate science course in the Department of Earth Sciences at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.