Margaret Wente, a right wing columnist for the Globe and Mail, recently argued that it is wrong and disastrous to science to suppress debate on climate change. She puts forward a string of anecdotal and disproven information to weave a web of doubt of climate change for the innocent and less-educated reader. She refers to Roger Pielke Jr. “one of the saner voices on the climate scene”, yet doesn’t point out that he presents no peer-reviewed empirical evidence to oppose the 97-98% (tens of thousands) of scientists who argue and have proven that climate change is real and man-made.
The question of whether Canada should or should not support a renewal of the Kyoto Protocol is a separate issue from what Wente is referring to here. Her objective is to create doubt when there is none in the science on climate change. It is perhaps no coincidence that this story has been published in the lead up to the UN Climate Conference on Monday, Dec. 5th, 2011 in Durban, South Africa. At this conference, Canada is expected to represent one of the strongest opponents to renewing the Kyoto protocol and, for that matter, any international commitments to mitigate climate change.
I fear that the newspaper’s decision to publish this highly inaccurate and misleading column is a political one rather than one that is in the best interests of the public. Here’s why:
The problem with these opinion pieces is that they plant seeds in the minds of readers that climate change is still debatable. That is, readers walk away with the belief that there is perhaps a 50% chance that the science behind climate change is accurate. The amount of news coverage in mainstream media reflects this with half the stories arguing that climate change is real and man-made and half the stories arguing the opposite. Yet if the media were doing its job and communicating to the public the truth based on sound science, we should see 97-98 out of 100 stories on climate change indicating that it is real and man-made and 2-3 out of every 100 stories with arguments against this science.
In effect, readers should understand that there is no longer any debate on climate change. The science is therefore clear. And by clear I don’t mean 100%. This is impossible. No concentration of scientific studies on a complex issue like this can claim 100% accuracy. We go on probabilities. Decisions are made everyday and conclusions to guide theory are made everyday based on 95% probability levels and sometimes 90% probability levels. This means that if we were to run experiments on a particular scenario, 19 out of 20 experiments would produce the same result. For climate change, we’re at a similar level of probability. This doesn’t dismiss the opportunity to prove these 97%ers wrong. But there needs to be a mountain of peer reviewed empirical studies to raise such doubt and there are few credible studies denying that climate change exists or is man-made.
Wente’s writing is outdated and completely inaccurate. Like most scientists who claim that climate change is not happening, she picks out isolated statistics yet overlooks the overwhelming evidence that opposes these outliers. The fact that we’ve experienced the warmest weather in 13 of the last 15 years is not discussed, nor is the rather remarkable rate at which the polar ice caps are melting, or the dramatic increase in freak weather events in the last decade. The list goes on and on and she speaks as if these rogue scientists represent mainstream thought.
Claims like “no one knows with any certainty the exact impact of carbon dioxide emissions” is completely inaccurate. So is, “what long-term climate trends will be or the effect of other factors, such as the sun”. These alternative explanations have been disproven time and time again and are therefore unrelated to the changes in climate we’re seeing today. She spends time talking about climategate despite the fact that three independent studies were conducted to see if the science behind climate change was compromised as a result of these emails. All three independently concluded that there is absolutely no evidence that the science on climate change has at all been put into doubt as a result of these scandals. Recently Exxon and other climate-change deniers funded an independent study which concluded that climate change is happening and that it is caused by man. Finally, she refers to old quotations from rogue scientists, many of whom, are not even experts in climatology and in some cases have been funded by oil and gas companies (see Climate Cover-Up by James Hoggan)
So Wente is completely hypocritical when she says that science needs healthy debate yet doesn’t produce any empirical evidence that such a debate is warranted. Put another way, she’s advocating for sound science based on healthy debate without using the very scientific principles upon which this is meant to occur.
I respect the views of the conservative right. They are legitimate and important in our society. But when these views ignore the unbiased science that is meant to provide society with knowledge to make decisions, they become an obstruction to democracy. A democratic society requires accurate information and opinions based on sound science. It needs media outlets that publish stories that reflect the findings of unbiased sources rather than stories that create inaccurate views in society.
The fact that this article has been published in Canada’s top newspaper is disgraceful. Wente’s views sadly align closely with the expected stance of our government in Durban on Monday. One has to wonder whether this column was published intentionally by the Globe and Mail as a political statement to defend against the tidal wave of criticism our country will face in the next week. When a media outlet like the Globe and Mail compromises its purpose of helping the public distinguish rhetoric from fact and myth from science, they have lost their role in society and, in my view, are no better than the infamous and highly misleading Fox News. Recently a study found that Fox News viewers were less informed than people who don’t watch the news at all. Is The Globe and Mail heading in that direction?