Queen's University

The folly of denial

Climate change deniers are playing a dangerous game says Queen's biologist John Smol, PhD’82, one of the world’s leading climate change researchers.

[John Smol]Dr. John Smol is one of the
world's leading climate
change researchers.

The Spring 2010 issue of the Review focused on some of the research being conducted at this institution addressing the problem of climate change. This elicited various comments from readers, some of whom accused scientists such as me of being ignorant, deluded, and/or purposely deceptive in the pursuit of research money or promotion.

These charges puzzle me and other researchers, given the overwhelming evidence on the subject and the simple absurdity of some of these accusations. My view on this matter is quite clear: human-induced climate warming is the most important issue facing society today. This problem is not restricted to the environment, but also impacts security, health, and the economy, to name just a few issues. This opinion is shared by the overwhelming majority of scientists who have objectively examined the extensive evidence. Perhaps a personal historical perspective may allow me to explore and illuminate some of my points.

I began my career at Queen’s in the 1980s, when I cut my teeth on the major environmental issue of that time – acid rain. Like climate change, it would not have been my first choice as a research focus (my main interests were with more esoteric questions dealing with the long-term development of lakes!), but at that time it was the most important environmental issue and acid rain was a problem that needed solid scientific data (as opposed to opinions and wishful thinking) to inform the policy decisions that had to be made. When I look back to that time, and then at some of the recent comments stemming from the Spring issue of the Review, I think there is much we could learn from the acid rain debate when we talk about climate change today.

It is true that many of us reading this magazine, due to our age, may escape the worst repercussions that are still to come from our greenhouse earth. However, for the sake of our children and grandchildren, it is time for action.

The arguments and tactics used by some climate change deniers now are essentially identical to those used about 25 years ago with acid rain. The sequence also follows similar patterns.

Stage One was simple denial: Acid lakes have not acidified, because they have always been acidic. The foundation of this claim was that given the lack of direct long-term monitoring data of lake acidity we could not determine if lakes were naturally acidic. This gave the acid rain deniers some satisfaction – well at least until our Queen’s lab and other colleagues showed that we could reconstruct long-term trends in pH (using statistically robust and ecologically sound methods) from information contained in dated lake sediment profiles (just as we now can do with climate change studies). Science clearly demonstrated that many lakes had acidified.

That led to Stage Two – shift the blame: This argument ­acknowledged that lakes had acidified, but suggested that acidification was not caused primarily by industry but by ... and you fill in the blank with almost anything, including trees, ducks, etc.. With further scientific work, it was shown how closely emissions were linked to acidification, and the deniers deleted Stage Two from their portfolio.

Many then moved to Stage Three: The problem is too expensive to fix, which can be summarized by saying, “OK, so lakes are acidifying, and it is our fault, but now it is too late to do anything. So why waste money on trying to stop it?!” Of course, this was a final, desperate plea, but things had to be done, and thankfully some actions were taken, and the situation started to improve, albeit slowly.

The “economic card” was and is commonly played, but in such cases the cost of doing nothing or too little is seldom calculated. When this type of economic analysis was done for acid rain mitigation, it showed what enormous savings occurred when appropriate action was taken, rather than resorting to delaying tactics and obfuscation. Quite frankly, the stakes involved in climate change are too high to allow this issue to reach Stage Three.

As noted above, the process of denial and the manufacturing of doubt have been remarkably similar with these two environmental problems. However, many other analogies can also be made. I will limit myself to two remarkably incorrect, yet frequent, assertions made by climate change deniers (and earlier by acid rain deniers). The first is that scientists, like sheep, simply ‘follow the leader’ and have either been hypnotized or are walking in some trance, unwilling or unable to critically examine the data. The reasoning offered for this communal sleep-walking is that, in order for scientists to thrive and get promoted and recognized, they have to follow prevailing dogma.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Scientists are trained to be inherently skeptical and to make their careers by challenging accepted concepts – one does not gain recognition or promotion by “following the herd”. Importantly, scientists do not hold these debates in unchallenged newspaper op-ed pieces or on web sites, but in peer-reviewed scientific publications and at scientific meetings, where all ideas are open to scientific scrutiny (what some have referred to as organized skepticism, the foundation of scientific inquiry).

How can someone like me, who has repeatedly claimed “The science is in, it is time for action” be accused of concluding that greenhouse gases are causing climate warming for the simple reason of generating more research money? My main work on climate change has been completed. For me, the remaining issues are now largely political and policy related.

In order for ideas to successfully challenge a mainstream view, they must be supported by strong, clear evidence. For example, when our lab published its first paper on this topic in the journal Science in the early 1990s showing that striking ecological changes linked to warming had already occurred in High Arctic ponds, our paper was not only severely criticized by some people within industry, but it was also heavily scrutinized and challenged by the broad scientific community (as all new scientific ideas should be).

In the intervening years, we have successfully defended our work with many new studies that corroborated our initial observations, and the scientific community has now reached a broad consensus on this specific study. This is how science advances, not by unsubstantiated innuendos appearing in newspapers, brochures published by vested interest groups, or on web sites, but through open debate in peer-reviewed literature and participation in scientific conferences. Not all opinions have equal value – a good scientific idea has to be supported by reproducible data. Period.

The second recurring “red herring” is the equally absurd claim that scientists are blinded in their quest for research money and so have some conflict-of-interest in climate change research. Again, nothing could be further from the truth. Let’s just review the facts. It is the vast majority of scientists (me included) who argue that the scientific case for climate change has already been made and that it’s now time for action. It is the deniers who argue that not enough is known and more research is needed before action is taken. How can someone like me, who has repeatedly claimed “The science is in, it is time for action” be accused of concluding that greenhouse gases are causing climate warming for the simple reason of generating more research money? My main work on climate change has been completed. For me, the remaining issues are now largely political and policy related. My role as an environmental scientist is to move on to new problems and issues, while other scientists, engineers, and policy makers determine how best to deal with this serious issue.

I could discuss other mythologies that continue to be perpetuated, but such a list would be unproductive here and has already been addressed in many other avenues.

Climate change is a complex issue (including both natural and human-induced changes), and complex issues require complex solutions. We can influence the human-induced changes. Of course, there are ongoing open discussions on some details that researchers continue to try to iron out. But if you believe, for example, the medical science that links smoking tobacco to lung disease, then I would argue that the science linking greenhouse gas emissions and warming is equally strong.

The real question we should ask is this: Why, given the overwhelming scientific evidence showing that recent climate change is linked to human activities, are the mythologies such as large-scale uncertainty and that all the climate changes are “natural”, still accepted? Is it a form of denial because the message from the vast majority of scientists is generally bad news, saying that we have to take action and take it soon?
Opinions and wishful thinking do not mean very much in science – data and evidence matter.

[photo of John Smol]Biology professor, Dr. John P. Smol, PhD’82, FRSC

The time for obfuscation is over. The overwhelming weight of scientific opinion tells us that, if we want to avoid the worst impacts, we must reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases as quickly as possible. It is true that many of us reading this magazine, due to our age, may escape the worst repercussions that are still to come from our greenhouse earth. However, for the sake of our children and grandchildren, it is time for action. The longer we wait the fewer options we will have and the more expensive they will be. Failure is not an option – we will not get a second chance. I do not believe it is too late yet to take aggressive action, but it is very, very late.

It is true that many of us reading this magazine, due to our age, may escape the worst repercussions that are still to come from our greenhouse earth. However, for the sake of our children and grandchildren, it is time for action.

John P. Smol, PhD’82, FRSC, is a professor in the Department of Biology at Queen’s University, where he also holds the Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change. He has published about 400 peer-reviewed scientific papers and 18 books on environmental change, and has won over 25 research and teaching awards since 1990, including the NSERC Herzberg Gold Medal as Canada’s top scientist or engineer, and a 3M National Teaching Fellowship, considered by many to be Canada’s top teaching honour.

Queen's Alumni Review, 2010 Issue #3Queen's Alumni Review
2010 Issue #3
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