The following is a guest essay by John Tirman, Executive Director of MIT’s Center for International Studies.


Recently I have encountered the counterattack on climate-change science, and it is a sobering experience.

When I was giving a talk at a book store on Manhattan’s Upper West Side late last month, a young man began to pester me with hostile questions. My book, 100 Ways America is Screwing Up the World, has "Altering the Earth" listed at No. 1, a chapter that briefly tours the science and politics of climate change. The young man (among other obstreperous comments) upbraided me for saying there was scientific consensus on climate change, telling the audience that he had a petition signed by 17,000 scientists denying the threat of global warming.

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It was the first I had heard of such a petition, but in the days to come I noticed emails from people I’d never heard of on this same topic. The book, I knew, was bound to stir some passions, and it has. I have a dozen ecological topics listed, so anti-green zealots were bound to find me. And the main way they have attacked the book is by wielding this Global Warming Petition.

The petition flatly states that "there is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gasses is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate."

A little investigation revealed that the petition is actually eight years old, although a "living" document in that signatures are still being solicited. Its originator is an obscure place called the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, which specializes — according to its own website — in civil defense, home-schooling materials, and health profiling, among a few other research areas of "science and medicine." Arthur B. Robinson, a chemist who is the prime mover behind the "institute" and the petition, appears around the country excoriating environmentalists as dangerous and responsible for millions of deaths.

The petition has been roundly criticized, and is prominent among a series of anti-green hoaxes that purport to counter broad scientific judgment about climate change. (The Union of Concerned Scientists has an informative list of "skeptics" that reveals them to be largely phony.) I call this a hoax because I did a little random survey of the names listed on the petition, those for my home state of Massachusetts. The results were revealing, to say the least.

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Of 100 names googled, only about 2 percent turn out to be scientists with any training relevant to climatology, usually physics. A small number — about 15 percent — were other kinds of scientists or physicians, but with no relevant training. Several in this overall pool of scientists were quite elderly. The remainder were either people with no scientific credentials whatsoever (40 percent), or names that did not appear in the search — highly improbable nowadays if indeed such people existed.

Scientific American similarly probed the petition list last year. The journal …

… took a sample of 30 of the 1,400 signatories claiming to hold a Ph.D. in a climate-related science. Of the 26 we were able to identify in various databases, 11 said they still agreed with the petition — one was an active climate researcher, two others had relevant expertise, and eight signed based on an informal evaluation. Six said they would not sign the petition today, three did not remember any such petition, one had died, and five did not answer repeated messages. Crudely extrapolating, the petition supporters include a core of about 200 climate researchers — a respectable number, though rather a small fraction of the climatological community.

So the petition is clearly a fabrication, and a nasty one at that.

Now, this would be fairly harmless except that the web and the blogosphere in particular keep such things alive and dangerous. The petition is featured on right-wing websites and by prominent bloggers. Robinson published an article in the Wall Street Journal in 1997 titled "Science Has Spoken: Global Warming Is a Myth" that is widely cited. Along with the other fabrications of skeptics (and with the tiny number of highly publicized scientists who are skeptics), this petition is used to feed industry-led efforts to block meaningful federal action.

It is part of a broader attack on science, which uses either superstition, phony "science," or fear-mongering about economic costs to undermine rational discourse. The same crowd decrying global warming is usually lining up to prevent new stem cell research and insist that schoolchildren be taught "intelligent design."

So beware the Petition on Global Warming. As ludicrous as it is in many ways, it has, like an urban legend, gained an inexorable life of its own.