Who's the Climate Expert?

11/20/2012 11:39 am 11:39:19 | Updated Jan 20, 2013

If you have a heart problem, would you seek advice from a skin specialist or a cardiologist? The answer is obvious - a cardiologist. So why should it be any different for climate change? Climate scientists are the authority on climate change the same way as the cardiac specialist is the one who you want to personally seek help from when you've got a heart problem.

However, the media generally tend to portray non-experts (mostly deniers) as experts in climate change, and give them the same amount of credibility as climate scientists, which has been adding to the public confusion of an issue that is already complex.

Here are a few things to consider before obtaining expert opinions:

First, it's important to recognize that those that deny climate change usually have high stakes in the fossil fuel industry, and if they acknowledged that climate change is happening they'd have to act on it, which would mean spending money to make changes. Even more important is the billions of dollars sitting in the oil wells yet to be realized by the fossil fuel industry.

This is of particular significance now more than ever before for North America, as recent reports point to the discovery of abundance of fossil fuel in parts of the USA and Canada.

In its annual report entitled World Energy Outlook 2012 the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggests the USA is on track to overtaking the Saudi oil production,

"By around 2020, the United States is projected to become the largest global oil producer (overtaking Saudi Arabia until the mid-2020s) and starts to see the impact of new fuel-efficiency measures in transport."

Just a week before the IEA release another study in Canada identified huge amounts of oil and gas resources in Alberta's emerging shale industry, implying that a string of recent takeovers and land buys will yield tremendous production gains for some of the world's largest oil companies.

Clearly the North American fossil fuel sector isn't about to slow down any time soon despite scientific evidence that directly links greenhouse gases (mostly emitted by fossil fuels) to climate change.

In an interview for my MA thesis, Dr. Gordon McBean, a climate scientist, who co-authors reports for the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), who is also the Director for Research and External Relations at the University of Western Ontario (Canada) said, the fossil fuel industry is becoming smarter in propagating so called "experts" to counter the credible climate science, "who are being thrown into the mix, but don't really have the credibility."

The key question then is, "Is there science to support the climate denier campaign?"

Dr. McBean denies the existence of any such science. He says,

"There isn't anything based on solid scientific analysis and information. There is misinterpretation and misuse of statistics. They'd like to point out that it hasn't warmed in the last ten years. First of all that's incorrect but more importantly it's irrelevant in that sense because climate is a decadal - several tens of years you must look at to see the changing climate and so it's not one year at a time. So we need to look at these things in the right context. The deniers largely pull random bits of information that support their case and ignore or downplay or dispute the evidence that is supporting the issue of climate is warming."

It seems climate deniers will go to extremes and do whatever it takes to trash the climate science. One denier went so far as to proclaiming himself a "Lord" (apparently to buy himself some clout), which was brought to light during a special congressional hearing on climate science at Washington D.C. this past May. In this You Tube video Rep. Jay Inslee cross examines "Lord" Monckton, making him look like a sad witness to an argument that he couldn't really defend, as everyone else other than "Lord" Monckton was a credible climate scientist. Even more amusing is "Lord" Monckton's admission that he never sat or voted in the House of Lords. And yet he continues to call himself a "Lord".

Here's a small portion of the heated exchange between Rep. Inslee and "Lord" Monckton:

Rep. Jay Inslee:
"Lord Moncton when did you start serving in the House of Lords? I notice you brought fraternal greetings from the Mother of Parliaments to Congress to our athletic democracy. When did you start serving in the House of Lords?"
Lord Moncton:
"Sir I have never sat or never voted in the House of Lords as you've probably been informed."
Rep. Jay Inslee:
"Thank you. You've answered my question. You come here, call yourself a Lord, to try to convince the world to ignore something that threatens our grand kids, and you're not even a Lord."

This is the kind of cross examination the media need to carry out, in addition to conducting background checks. Some deniers may hold a PHD degree but not related to climate science, in which case they should be disallowed from pontificating on a topic they have no expertise in.
Unfortunately in the hectic pace of the 24-hour television news cycles some of the deniers' claims go unchallenged, creating room for misinformation in the public domain.

Overall the media have to become more vigilant and search out credible corroboration for everything they read or hear, according to James Hoggan, who recently authored a book, entitled "Climate Cover-up - the crusade to deny global warming". Hoggan suggests journalists should meticulously scrutinize the credentials and potential biases of those who offer easy answers, and in doing so will most often discover that these sources are desperately trying to protect their interests by seeking out information to support their views - even if inaccurate and untrue.

It's called "Confirmation Bias" - which according to the online dictionary "is a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true."

Joshua Laughren, the Climate Change Director of World Wildlife Fund Canada, explains why deniers tend to cling on to their biases,

"Acting on climate change means challenging a whole number of deeply held assumptions by certain people. It means there are going to be losers, there are companies and industries that don't do as well under carbon free economy as they would otherwise. So there's a strong push to protect interest. There are countries that would react when it has to change and Canada is one of them. It's a fuel based economy and it's a big change for Canada. So it's difficult. There are deeply held values around free market, around believing that market will solve all problems; that technology is good and we are on an ever increasing path to a higher standard of living; deeply held beliefs in individualism and suspicious about government entities. So when a problem comes in like climate change which says we have to reign in this industrial growth we have to develop big international governance structures --- that makes people very nervous."

Consequently people, especially in the fossil fuel industry, continue to deny although "the science is settled: Manmade carbon pollution is to blame for the climate crisis. We're already seeing the results, with extreme weather happening more frequently around the world," according to a new Reality Drop campaign by The Climate Reality Project, which is about to be launched in a bid to debunk the deniers' "false claims"

An interesting book called "Merchants of Doubt" explores how certain corporations and other vested interests in the fossil fuel industry are supporting a small number of deniers to communicate effectively by providing financial support for media coverage.

This makes it all the more imperative for the media to seek out climate scientists for stories on climate change, just as they feature qualified experts for relevant topics. There's no apparent reason as to why climate change should be treated any differently.