Commentary

Live Earth’s Inconvenient Truths

By Patrick Basham
This article appeared in the Washington Times on July 11, 2007.

The theme of Saturday’s worldwide Live Earth concerts was a call for action against climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent reports, heralded as the final word on global warming, inspired both organizers and performers, from Al Gore to Madonna.

Opening the Washington concert leg, Mr. Gore denounced climate change skeptics “who don’t understand what is now at stake.” Strong words from a public figure flaunting an Oscar comprised of junk science.

Sadly, the IPCC encouraged deeply disturbing departures from sound scientific research that significantly undermine Live Earth’s alarmist message. Yet, the problems with the IPCC report go much further than politicized science. They extend to the core of the climate change debate, namely the degree of scientific certainty about the causes and consequences of global warming.

Scientific uncertainty: What level of scientific certainty do IPCC’s global warming claims really have?

The gold standard level of scientific certainty is the 95 percent confidence level. This allows a researcher to attest that he or she is 95 percent confident his or her findings are genuine and not due to chance. Claims that fail to meet this standard carry little scientific weight.

Applying this scientific concept to the IPCC report reveals how uncertain are the alarmists’ claims. For example, not a single IPCC conclusion about the human sources of global warming meets a 95 percent confidence level standard.

There are, however, 26 claims termed “likely,” meaning their chance of being true is greater than 66 percent. To put this into context, you might ask yourself how comfortable you would feel driving a car whose brakes worked only 14 times out of 20.

This has importance for understanding how much genuine scientific knowledge, as opposed to mere political posturing, the IPCC report offers. For example, the key claim — that there has been significant human-caused warming over the last 50 years — is merely “likely,” according to the IPCC.

Not one of the IPCC’s seven projected man-made weather trends reaches a 95 percent confidence level. This fact makes implausible the claim that human activity is the driver of climate change.

Politicized science: The IPCC’s Rules of Procedure mandate not the normal scholarly peer review process but “review by governments.” Furthermore, the IPCC states that, “In taking decisions and approving, adopting and accepting reports, the Panel, its Working Groups and any Task Force shall use all best endeavors to reach consensus.”

Both rules suggest something other than a process committed to sound science. Science does not proceed by consensus or government review but by reliably replicable, public results always open to doubt and falsification.

Injecting government review into the scientific process corrupts the process by switching from one in which science drives policy to one in which policy drives science. In truth, these rules reveal the IPCC process for what it really is: politicized science in the service of government, rather than science in the service of the truth.

Some commentators say casting doubt on the science of climate change is the equivalent of Holocaust denial. Such thinking can only come from those who either fail to understand or choose to disown the scientific enterprise.

At the heart of the scientific enterprise is a curious and always difficult tension between certainty and the possibility that certainty can suddenly dissolve. Respectful of that tension, the climate change skeptic asks for two things: first, to bring the normal standards of scientific evidence to the climate debate; and, second, to make certain there is not some politically driven and premature closure of what is a scientific controversy.

Live Earth’s inconvenient truth is that Al Gore and his friends are wrong about the strength of the climate change evidence. Using normal scientific standards, there is no proof we are causing the Earth to warm, let alone that such warming will cause an environmental catastrophe. To claim otherwise is to be untrue to the skepticism at the heart of science.

Patrick Basham directs the Democracy Institute, teaches research methods at Johns Hopkins University and is a Cato Institute adjunct scholar.