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Should Congress fund climate-change skeptics?

A few scientists skeptical of the consensus on climate change want Congress to fund a 'red team,' but critics say doing so would undermine the organization tasked with doing just that for more than a century.  

A melt-lake lying on the surface of Greenland's Humboldt Glacier, the widest tidewater glacier in the Northern Hemisphere.
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Two high-profile scientists skeptical of the international scientific consensus on climate change urged Congress on Wednesday to fund a “red team” to probe the conclusions of a United Nations panel that perennially reviews the scientific basis for climate change and is considered an authority on it.

One of the scientists called for between five and 10 percent of US funding for the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to be reallocated for a “red team” – a “group of well-credentialed scientists,” he said, “to produce an assessment that expresses legitimate, alternative hypotheses that have been (in their view) marginalized, misrepresented or ignored in previous IPCC reports.”

“I would expect such a team would offer to Congress some very different conclusions regarding the human impacts on climate,” John Christy, director of Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, said in prepared testimony for the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. “The term ‘consensus science’ will often be appealed to regarding arguments about climate change to bolster an assertion.... Consensus, however, is a political notion, not a scientific notion,” he said, reciting his 2012 testimony where he advocated for a “red team” during another congressional hearing.

Dr. Christy and Judith Curry, president of Climate Forecast Applications Network, suggested that the creation of such a team would restore credibility in the way the scientific method is applied to climate change, as hypotheses would be tested and challenged. Christy, in particular, has repeatedly said groups associated with the IPCC suppress findings that contradict mainstream views about the impact of human activity on climate change.

But the skepticism he and Dr. Curry profess (they acknowledge human activity influences climate change, but question its extent) stands in contrast to the overwhelming scientific consensus on the subject that says climate change is, beyond a reasonable doubt, the result of humans releasing fossil fuels and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Ninety-seven percent of climatologists, earth scientists, and meteorologists say they believe humans are contributing to climate change, an assertion Politifact has said is “mostly true.” Of the 70,000 peer-reviewed articles on global warming published in 2013 and 2014, only four authors rejected the idea that human activity is the main force driving climate change.

Critics of the proposal by Christy and Curry warn that a team tasked with presenting an alternative viewpoint could undermine the credibility not just of the IPCC, but of the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Established in 1863 by President Lincoln to independently and objectively provide policy-relevant science to the federal government, NAS has reviewed and verified content of IPCC reports multiple times.

“There is no value added to adding an additional body. Their very premise assumes implicitly that the National Academy of Science is biased. That is a very serious charge and that’s unfounded,” Peter Frumhoff, director of science policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy organization headquartered in Boston, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

“I don’t see this as a financial issue. It’s really a fundamental issue of where should Congress and the administration go for its scientific advice,” he adds, referring to Christy’s proposal for congressional funding. “To cherry pick this topic and to try to create an additional body of what would clearly be hand-chosen politicians rather than chosen by scientists ... it’s not about money. It’s about credibility.”

This proposal comes as the politicization of climate science is shifting in the United States and abroad. Among the scientific and international communities, the subject has risen above politics in recent years, especially after 174 countries and the European Union signed the Paris climate agreement in April 2016. But a Republican controlled Congress and White House have brought the subject back into the political arena. In addition to President Trump slashing climate regulations and proposing doing the same for funding for research, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, has questioned the findings and motives of climate science researchers.   

Christy and Curry, two of three witnesses called by the committee’s Republican majority to testify on Wednesday on a hearing about the scientific method and climate change, suggested the IPCC reports were biased, and that Congress would be better served by a red team.

“Playing ‘devil’s advocate’ helps a scientist examine how their conclusions might be misguided and how they might be wrong,” Curry said in her prepared testimony. “Overcoming one’s own biases is difficult; an external devil’s advocate can play a useful role in questioning and criticizing the logic of the argument.”

“One way to aid Congress in understanding more of the climate issue than what is produced by biased ‘official’ panels of the climate establishment is to organize and fund credible ‘red teams’ that look at issues such as natural variability, the failure of climate models and the huge benefits to society from affordable energy, carbon-based and otherwise,” added Christy, who was a lead author of a section of a 2001 IPCC report, and the co-recipient in 1991 of NASA’s medal for exceptional scientific achievement for building a global temperature database, according to The New York Times.

In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, Christy pointed to his own research included in his testimony, which questions why certain climate models from the past overpredicted real-world results.

The concept of a red team is drawn largely from the defense community. The military and intelligence communities use it, as has the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as a way to look for weaknesses in the system. But critics of this proposal say science already has a tried-and-tested system to push back on findings in order to ensure it meets scientific standards: peer review.  

“Public policy needs to be based on the best available science. That science, as we’ve come to understand it, is based on a system of independent peer review,” says Dr. Frumhoff of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “That doesn’t mean every piece of it is final. It doesn’t mean there are not opportunities for new evidence to change our understanding.”

“But the pushback on this is not about available evidence that suggests that somehow the broad 97 percent of climate scientists who understand the risks based on science are somehow wrong,” he adds. “It’s based on a political view who find this inconvenient to fossil fuel interests who want to avoid regulation of their products and political leaders who are supported by them.”

The IPCC has previously weathered accusations of being political. In 2007, the panel released a report that said it is very likely – with more than 90 percent certainty – that the rise in global temperature over the past 50 years is because of greenhouse gases released by human activity. A minority (including Christy) said the report was politically skewed because the IPCC is an extension of the United Nations, the Monitor previously reported.

"Some of my comments and reviews were sort of rejected," Christy then told the Monitor. "I'm sure that [I] wasn't the only one."

But IPCC does not conduct research itself. Instead, it calls on a diverse group of scientists from around the world to review existing research.

A study at the time also found that not one of 928 papers on “global climate change” in a database of scientific journals questioned whether the event was human-induced or natural. This implied that since the IPCC must draw from scientific literature, it didn't find many papers that argued against human-driven change.

“Contrarian studies didn't make it through science's portal to respectability: scientific journals,” wrote Pete Spotts for the Monitor.

But IPCC’s public standing was shaken two years later by an email scandal known as “climategate.” Some of the emails hacked or leaked depicted a small but influential group of scientists trying to prevent skeptics of their work from gaining access to raw data, while others suggested researchers manipulated data and tried to block publication of papers that called their work into question. But a six-month investigation by British civil servant Sir Muir Russell found that the emails don't undermine the basic science behind man-made climate change.

Now, some climate scientists and political scientists warn that the actions of some Republicans, specifically the chair of the House committee on science, are politicizing a debate that has largely been settled within the scientific community. 

“It creates the appearance of a scientific debate when there isn’t one,” says Patrick Egan, a professor of politics and public policy at New York University. “It’s a very effective strategy for casting the scientific as political instead of a rigorous and objective investigation of this phenomenon.”