Close this search box.

Pielke Jr.: ‘The Biggest Threat To Climate Science Comes From Climate Advocates’

By Dr. Roger Pielke Jr.

Ever since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was created more than three decades ago, it has faced challenges to its legitimacy. Over that time, these threats came almost exclusively from those opposed to action on climate change. Now that seems to be changing. Today, there is a new effort underway to delegitimize mainstream climate science, and it’s being waged by climate activists.

A common tactic of delegitimization is to characterize an entire group or organization to be in error simply by virtue of who they are or what they believe. An example of this tactic is the argument that the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are biased because it is affiliated with the United Nations. Sometimes delegitimization is entirely appropriate. Few would disagree that smoking research funded by tobacco companies should be viewed with deep skepticism. Similarly, undisclosed financial conflicts of interest among authors should lead to questions about the legitimacy of associated research.

Delegitimization campaigns are very different than evidence-based critiques of specific claims made by assessment bodies. Such critiques should be encouraged as they can help to make knowledge claims stronger and assessments more robust. In contrast, delegitimization seeks to weaken trust in the assessment process itself.

An example of the delegitimization of mainstream climate science from climate advocates can be found in today’s New York Times in an op-ed by historian Naomi Oreskes and economist Nicholas Stern. They advance a broad claim that “climate scientists have been underestimating the rate of climate change and the severity of its effects.” Scientists are not alone in their mistaken views, they argue, economists also show systemic biases too because they “underestimate the economic impact of many climate risks and to miss some of them entirely.”

Oreskes and colleagues have elsewhere argued that leading scientific assessments, most notably those of the IPCC, “underestimate the severity of threats and the rapidity with which they might unfold.” The alleged systematic bias results from personal characteristics of scientists, such as a “worry that if they over-estimate a threat, they will lose credibility, whereas if they under-estimate it, it will have little (if any) reputational impact.”

Other climate activists have levied similar complaints against the IPCC. For instance, Michael Mann of Penn State University, claimed in 2018 that “Once again, with their latest report, [the IPCC] have been overly conservative (ie. erring on the side of understating/underestimating the problem).” Others even see the IPCC as supporting those opposed to action. Salvador Herrando-Pérez, of the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute, stated of IPCC assessments, “what the IPCC and the majority of the scientific community regard as a paradigm of rigour and transparency is exactly what the ‘merchants of doubt’ put forward as a weakness.”

The message of delegitimization is a simple one in all political contexts: This entire group cannot be trusted because of who they are. Trust us instead.

Some climate advocates may see potential political advantage in trying to create a public perception of emergency and crisis. To achieve this perception may require undercutting legitimate scientific assessment bodies such as the IPCC, which has not endorsed the language of catastrophe or apocalypse. But delegitimization tactics also pose risks, as maintaining public trust in science and scientific institutions may be a key factor in securing a political consensus on policy action.

But is it even true that climate scientists and economists have collectively exhibited a systematic bias in their work toward understating climate risks? The evidence doesn’t support such claims.

Of course, for some time climate campaigners have sought to characterize climate change as far more catastrophic than presented by mainstream science. Mike Hulme, a geographer at Kings College London, wrote for the BBC in 2006 that “I have found myself increasingly chastised by climate change campaigners when my public statements and lectures on climate change have not satisfied their thirst for environmental drama and exaggerated rhetoric.” But until recently, few academics or scientists supporting action on such climate made such claims.

I too have been chastised for accepting the work of the IPCC as legitimate, particularly with respect to extreme weather. That is not to say that the IPCC is infallible, far from it. A number of errors in its third assessment report, including the inclusion of a flawed graph related to my work, led to an external review by the Interacademy Council in 2010. Constructive criticism and subsequent incorporation or correction helps to strengthen the work of the IPCC, not fundamentally strike at its foundations.

Since most climate scientists support action on climate, it may seem uncomfortable to push back against climate activists who are attacking the legitimacy of climate science. It should not be. Maintaining scientific integrity and advocating for effective action on climate and energy are perfectly compatible.

Defending the importance of the IPCC and the never-ending task of improving its work is crucially important, no matter what no matter what direction delegitimization comes from. As I testified before the United States Congress in 2017, “the IPCC, if it did not exist, would have to be invented.”

Follow me on Twitter @RogerPielkeJr

I have been on the faculty of the University of Colorado since 2001, where I teach and write on a diverse range of policy and governance issues related to science