12/10/2015 01:12 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2016

The Corporate Conflation of Climate Change's Reality and Its Uncertainty

Geoffrey Supran

"Climate change is real and human driven": this statement is not up for debate within the scientific community. Yet as climate scientists we have an arduous time conveying the meaning of this statement to the public. Even as the need for improved climate policy has become clear, and the world presses on negotiating in Paris, the urgent implications of climate science are blurred by a vocal minority of deniers.

After decades of private-interest-funded-scrutiny, climate scientists present their findings to the public with exceptional caution. "The earth has warmed; sea levels have risen; there is uncertainty in how perilous the future will be." It's impossible to predict assuredly what future climate awaits us. "Uncertainty" to climate scientists refers to the range of future possible outcomes, but it shouldn't be confused with any doubt that the future climate will differ from the one humans have lived through to date.

When scientists focus on the scarier end of possibilities, they're flagged as alarmists -- on the tamer end, exploited by denialists. If science is adventurous discovery, speaking to the public about climate change is venturing through quicksand. Scientists' usual deliberate communication morphs into concerns about credibility. Few end up speaking at all, and corporate interests, ever-dependable manipulators of the political process, seize the opportunity to make a key, deceptive conflation: the fact that there is a range in possible severity means we can't trust any of it. Uncertainty has been equated with untruth and climate policy is worse off.

When an international report based on scientific research was published suggesting that bacon is carcinogenic, our friends stopped serving it at Sunday brunch. Immediately, the North American Meat Institute recognizes "it could take decades and billions of dollars to change that [response]", and gets to work buying their way out of the finding's social impact. What's different about climate change that allows coal-fired power plants to keep burning? The money's already been spent.

Scientific understanding of climate change could have influenced public policy back in the '80s. Instead, oil lobbyists and conservative think tanks kindly assuaged public concern with effective campaigns, designed to limit understanding of and response to the emerging threats and to polarize the debate on climate change. Even today the strategy remains consistent: conflate the real uncertainty about the range of impacts of greenhouse gas emissions with doubt about the mechanism causing climate change.

The savviest climate denialists don't dispense lies; they twist and color real events and facts to imply climate change is minor or nonexistent. For instance, take the "global warming hiatus," i.e. the slower-than-expected trend in atmospheric global warming over the past decade. It was preceded by an "anti-hiatus" of faster-than-expected warming. There are many plausible and compatible scientific explanations* for it being a natural phenomenon within the climate system even as it warms. It still represents a period of global warming. Yet, the "hiatus" has become a veritable chew-toy for denialists to sink their teeth into. As trivial as it is to dismantle any attempted connection between the hiatus and supposed invalidity of climate change, scientists have proven ill-prepared to counter this attack on their work. Scientists have mostly countered disinformation, or organized activities with the intent of misleading, with more information!

Industry pressure has also warped climate science itself. Climate denial has threatened funding for geoscience altogether, but individual attacks are part of the strategy too. During the "Climategate" scandal, when denialists hacked into researchers' emails just before the COP15 in Copenhagen, the same sort of conflation was made: uncertain interpretation of results is fraudulent scientific practice. After months of investigation, no fraud was found yet the story that was constructed in that time still fuels the denialist perspective. This external pressure on scientists has spilled over into internal pressure. When scientists engage politically, whether post-docs advising in DC or high profile scientists speaking out about the urgent need for political reform, they risk disownment from the scientific community as others try to preserve their collective legitimacy in the face of external attacks.

When it comes to projecting future outcomes, the climate science that tends to be communicated to policymakers centers on the "best guess" projections. Low-probability, high-risk events are rarely part of the discussion. One might ask how this compares to policy agendas for other low-probability, high-risk events? When framed as a national security threat, no expense is spared to avoid the low-probability, high-risk events. The TSA has doubled-down on airport security, attempting to eliminate any chance of a passenger with a badminton racket bringing a plane down. So why is climate change any different? Why shouldn't the possibility of dangerous climate outcomes be treated with the same seriousness in the policy arena? Why shouldn't climate experts, just like other specialists, be encouraged to describe the worst possible outcomes, so we can mobilize towards avoiding irreversible and dangerous climate change?

The world could use a bit more dialogue between science and policy, unfiltered by big oil. If the scientific consensus were freed from the grasp of corporate interests, the rest of us would find it easier to agree publicly, rather than in winks and whispers. As institutions and individuals, let's call attention to the distortion of science and hold those misleading the public accountable.

*To name a few: natural stochastic variability of the climate system, dominance of ocean heat uptake (which has not shown such a hiatus, and accounts for over 93% of the uptake of anthropogenic heat by the earth) vs. atmospheric heat uptake, more realistic understandings of how to interpret climate model data, better data sets indicating the slowdown in warming is overestimated, or natural climatic periodicity like the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

This post is part of a "Dangers of Denial" series produced by The Huffington Post, in conjunction with the U.N.'s 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris (Nov. 30-Dec. 11), aka the climate-change conference. The series will put a spotlight on politicians and their supporters who actively deny the existence of or greatly downplay the gravity of climate change. To view the entire series, visit here.