Climate change

Cold light of day

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 March, 2012, 12:00am

Some people say global warming isn't occurring. Or it's not caused by humans, and is just natural climate variation. A small number of scientists and academics appear periodically in the mass media expressing such views. Sociologists, journalists, science writers and scientists have done some research on these 'global warming sceptics'. Here is what they have found.

First, most of them are not active climate researchers and have published little or nothing in peer-reviewed scientific journals about climates past or present. In a few instances where they have published work that disputes claims about global warming or its causes, their work was later shown to contain critical errors. Typically, they have little or no influence on the views of active climate scientists.

Second, many are affiliated with a 'conservative think tank', which are typically funded by corporations or billionaire industrialists.

Their common mission is to promote free-market ideology. They are typically libertarian: government regulation is viewed as a threat to freedom, and regulation of the economy must be resisted or rolled back. Many people affiliated with these organisations believe environmentalists are not much different from socialists, because they want to regulate business and impose constraints on the economy.

Most think tanks that promote scepticism about climate change have received funds from fossil-fuel corporations and industry associations. They know that one way to prevent regulation or special taxes on their product is to convince the public that there is legitimate scientific doubt about global warming.

If a group of scientists could demonstrate that global warming is not occurring, or is the result of natural processes rather than human activities, those scientists would be world-famous. But no scientists have been able to provide convincing evidence in peer-reviewed scientific journals for either of these claims. Instead, almost all active climate scientists agree that global warming is occurring, and that human activities are contributing to it.

Many business leaders have acknowledged the scientific consensus about global warming, and surveys show that people in most countries now also accept that global warming is occurring.

Even so, some libertarian think tanks and industry-funded organisations continue to misrepresent the current state of scientific knowledge in order to spread doubt or scorn about global warming. Such views are featured on websites and occasionally find space in mainstream media. They are also aggressively amplified by conservative television talk-show hosts in the US, and echoed by anti-regulation politicians, notably Republicans in the US Congress.

When many voters and conservative politicians are sceptical, in countries that are major greenhouse gas emitters, it can hinder attempts to reduce or tax carbon emissions. Of course, that is precisely the aim of these organisations and their patrons.

This is well-known among academics in the US, but not so well-known in Hong Kong. Professor Riley Dunlap, who has done extensive research on the organisation and funding of climate-change denial, will speak on this topic at City University tomorrow.

Graeme Lang is a professor of sociology in the Department of Asian and International Studies, at City University of Hong Kong