Why Don’t Climate Change Deniers Publish Papers?

The entire universe in blog form
Jan. 14 2014 8:00 AM

The Very, Very Thin Wedge of Denial

To me, one of the most fascinating aspects of climate change denial is how deniers essentially never publish in legitimate journals, but instead rely on talk shows, grossly error-laden op-eds, and hugely out-of-date claims (that were never right to start with).

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

In 2012, National Science Board member James Lawrence Powell investigated peer-reviewed literature published about climate change and found that out of 13,950 articles, 13,926 supported the reality of global warming. Despite a lot of sound and fury from the denial machine, deniers have not really been able to come up with a coherent argument against a consensus. The same is true for a somewhat different study that showed a 97 percent consensus among climate scientists supporting both the reality of global warming and the fact that human emissions are behind it.

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Powell recently finished another such investigation, this time looking at peer-reviewed articles published between November 2012 and December 2013. Out of 2,258 articles (with 9,136 authors), how many do you think explicitly rejected human-driven global warming? Go on, guess!

One. Yes, one. Here’s what that looks like as a pie chart:

global warming denial
Denial is a thin wedge indeed.

Graph by James Powell

Huh. Here’s the thing: If you listen to Fox News, or right-wing radio, or read the denier blogs, you’d have to think climate scientists were complete idiots to miss how fake global warming is. Yet despite this incredibly obvious hoax, no one ever publishes evidence exposing it. Mind you, scientists are a contrary lot. If there were solid evidence that global warming didn’t exist, or that CO2 emissions weren’t the culprit, there would be papers in the journals about it. Lots of them.

I base this on my own experience with contrary data in astronomy. In 1998, two teams of researchers found evidence that the expansion of the Universe was not slowing down, as expected, but actually speeding up. This idea is as crazy as holding a ball in your hand, letting go, and having it fall up, accelerating wildly into the sky. Yet those papers got published. They inspired lively discussion (to say the least) and motivated further observations. Careful, meticulous work was done to eliminate errors and confounding factors, until it became very clear that we were seeing an overturning of the previous paradigm. It took years, but now astronomers accept that the Universal expansion is accelerating and that dark energy is the culprit.

Mind you, dark energy is far, far weirder than anything climate change deniers have come up with, yet it became mainstream science in a decade or so. Deniers have been bloviating for longer than that, yet their claims are rejected overwhelmingly by climate scientists. Why? Because they’re wrong.

earthonfire_250
So this is happening while Sen. Inhofe fiddles.

Fire photo by peasap on Flickr; Earth photo by NASA; composite by Phil Plait.

Of course, if you listen to some politicians, you’d never know. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), for example, still claims it’s all a hoax. Of course, he still thinks Climategate was a thing, when it’s been shown repeatedly to have been totally manufactured. He also thinks global warming must be wrong because it got cold outside. With all due respect to the senator, he’d fail middle school science. Good thing he’s on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. His denial of reality is joined by three-fourths of the Republicans on the House Science Committee, who still have their heads firmly buried in the sand.

Happily, though, there is opposition. Democrats in the Senate are pushing for Congress to take this situation more seriously, forming a “Climate Action Task Force” whose goal is to “wake up Congress.” They want to help organize civil groups to pressure senators into taking action about climate change.

Let me make a none-too-subtle political point here. Climate change deniers in politics and in the media are overwhelmingly Republican (or “free market libertarians,” who have aligned themselves to virtual indistinguishability from the GOP, or more likely vice versa). When I write on the politics of this issue I get accused of being biased, which is ironic indeed. I didn’t start this fight, nor did I draw the partisan lines. I’m just shining a light on them. I know some pro-science Republicans, but the ones in elected office are few and far between.

The basic science of global warming is independent of party line. It doesn’t care if you’re left, right, black, white, straight, gay, pro-gun, pro-abortion rights, pro-GMO, or pro-vaccine. It’s real, and it affects all of us. Mission No. 1 is to get people to understand this, and then to get them to elect politicians who do as well.

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