OPINION: Ungrounded denial of climate-change consensus

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In the words of the popular saying, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” It’s also a major problem facing irrational people who cannot or won’t accept the logical conclusions derived from scientific evidence.

This is a particular problem facing scientists, policymakers, and educators who are confronted by organized efforts enabled by fake experts to spread doubt, denial, and rejection of the scientific community’s consensus that humans are causing global climate change.

It’s also a problem for a public unable to distinguish pseudoscientific opinions spouted by fake experts from established scientific evidence and facts produced by real experts.

Denialists rationalize their rejection of scientific evidence by cloaking their factually ungrounded beliefs in a mantle of science without being restricted by or adhering to its requirements. This includes the requirement that conclusions about how nature works be rooted in evidence-based tests, not opinions or suppositions that lack an evidential basis. They also share other characteristics, including making logical fallacies that lead to invalid conclusions, and misrepresenting and ignoring any evidence that conflicts with their predetermined beliefs.

These characteristics are demonstrated in Ed Berry’s response (Daily Inter Lake, March 6) to a guest opinion by Matt Bradley that pointed out Berry’s baseless and illogical opinions about climate-change science and the important effect of CO2 on climate. While Bradley freely admitted that he is not a climate expert, he understands the scientific method and is able, as a non-expert, to realize the preponderance of evidence that humans are causing climate change. Berry’s attempt to discredit Bradley was both illogical and unscientific. Berry doesn’t understand either climate science or modern biology.

For example, he grossly misreports results of a study by John Cook et al. published in 2013 in Environmental Research Letters (https://iopscience.iop.org/article /10.1088/1748-9326/8/2/024024) that quantified the level of consensus in the scientific literature on climate science about the cause of global warming.

Berry claims that only 64 of 11,944 peer-reviewed papers published over a 21-year period in scientific journals agree with the consensus position that humans are causing global warming. But the actual finding of that study is that 3,900 peer-reviewed papers accept the consensus position, a number 60 times larger than that stated by Berry. The approximately 8,000 remaining papers analyzed in the study expressed no position on the cause of global warming because it was not germane to the issues addressed in those papers.

In my opinion, the only reasonable explanation for the large difference in the level of consensus expressed in the scientific literature about the cause of global warming between what Berry claims and what the study actually shows is that he intentionally misreported the true number because he is unwilling, as a denialist, to acknowledge the high level of consensus among scientists actively engaged in and publishing results of climate change research that humans are causing global warming.

Of course, he has every right to disagree with the findings and conclusions of any published study, but purposely misreporting the actual findings and ignoring other important results is scientifically irresponsible, casting doubt about his scientific honesty and integrity.

Berry believes that people should simply accept as truth whatever he says about the cause of climate change because he proclaims himself an expert on climate science and it fits with the denialist culture that exemplifies the majority Republican thinking on the subject. An examination of his background and credentials, including his publication record, however, reveals that his self-proclaimed expertise on the subject is unwarranted.

For example, his resume states that his Ph.D. thesis was about the science of rain formation, which is about a different subject, meteorology, not climate science. Further, based on the list of his published papers posted on Google Scholar, there is no evidence that Berry published anything dealing with climate science during his entire career as a practicing scientist. While he published papers in the mid-60s and early ’70s dealing with raindrop formation, none of his papers are about climate science, and he hasn’t published anything at all in the peer-reviewed literature since the 1970s, well before the vast majority of research on climate change has been conducted.

To bolster his self-proclaimed expertise, Berry also brags about the continual citation of his raindrop (but not climate science) publications every month by other scientists, but none of his papers have been cited since the 1980s, an indication that his work has become irrelevant and that he misrepresents it. Thus, Berry’s claim of being a climate expert is not supported by information posted on Google Scholar about his publication record and the citation of his papers in the scientific literature.

To further justify his climate denial position, Berry also likes to invoke the names of other fake experts, including Ivar Giaever (a Nobel laureate in solid-state physics) who also denies that humans are causing climate change. Some scientists, like Giaever, from non-climate fields believe they have sufficient expertise and knowledge to understand and comment on climate science despite not being familiar with the body of published scientific knowledge on the subject and having done minimal, if any, research on it.

Both Giaever and Berry fit this mold. Their contrarian, uninformed opinions come from a position of extreme ignorance on the subject, which Giaever himself readily admits. He personifies the classic stereotype of the physicist who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else and understands all scientific fields of study, and therefore that everyone should heed his opinions. But the fact that someone is a Nobel laureate in a non-climate field does not mean he or she knows anything about climate science.

Another characteristic of Berry’s denial is that his arguments may seem grounded in scientific evidence when, in fact, they are not. These falsehoods include his bizarre claims that water vapor and clouds keep the earth’s greenhouse effect constant when CO2 changes and would do so with or without any CO2 in the atmosphere, including even under conditions of increasing CO2.

Those claims are illogical, pseudoscientific nonsense and are contradicted by both theory and data. If the addition of more water vapor from the vaporization of ice was necessary to maintain the current greenhouse effect in the absence of any CO2, then logical deduction alone tells you that CO2 has to be important to the overall greenhouse effect of our planet, which Berry denies.

Secondly, Berry fails to explain how the addition of more water vapor to the atmosphere from vaporization of ice (referred to as sublimation) would occur in the absence of CO2 if the greenhouse effect remained constant. Under those conditions, it would be impossible for sublimation to increase and the capacity of the atmosphere to hold more water vapor above that already present unless the climate warmed, and that would not occur if the current greenhouse effect was maintained in the absence of CO2.

In fact, physics of the greenhouse effect tells you the climate would cool without CO2, which would mean there would be less, not more, water vapor in the atmosphere from sublimation and evaporation.

With regard to Berry’s claim that increasing CO2 causes water vapor to decline to maintain a constant greenhouse effect, Berry ignores data which shows that water vapor is increasing, not decreasing, and the greenhouse effect is increasing, not staying constant, with the increase in CO2. So Berry’s claim about the greenhouse effect remaining constant with or without CO2 not only defies logic but also is completely inconsistent with observational data, with well-accepted facts about the physics of the greenhouse effect, and with established knowledge about the factors that control the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere.

Lastly, results of a modeling experiment also refute Berry’s claim about a constant greenhouse effect with or without any CO2. An experiment to answer that question was conducted by Andrew Lacis and others at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and published in Science in 2010. The study’s conclusion is that earth’s greenhouse effect would collapse if the atmosphere contained no CO2, leading to a runaway glaciation that would produce an ice-ball Earth. So, Berry’s claim is also refuted by experimental evidence.

The reality is that Ed Berry and other climate change deniers of his ilk have not provided any scientific evidence or theory that refutes the overwhelming scientific consensus of human-caused climate change. The important thing about this scientific consensus is that it isn’t a result of peer pressure or someone policing scientists’ opinions. It results from the scientific method.

The contrarian opinions and ideas put forward by denialists like Berry about the cause of global warming have been tested and rejected because they fail to withstand scientific scrutiny. It is how science works.


Jerry W. Elwood, of Kalispell, has a Ph.D. in environmental science. He is the retired director of the Climate Change Research Division in the U.S Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

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