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Friday, March 22 , 2019, 5:51 am | Fair 44º


Ken Macdonald: The 97% vs. the 3% in Climate Discussion

I read Trent Benedetti’s column March 15 in Noozhawk and found it very interesting. In particular, I agree with him that it is important that “name-calling” and other forms of rudeness should be avoided when discussing something as important as climate change, and we should try to stick to the facts.

One relevant fact is that 97 percent of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening now and is important (published in the journal Science last year).

So what about the remaining 3 percent who disagree? This is an important group because they have wielded significant influence over many in our Congress who think that human-caused climate change is a flimsy idea, or worse, a huge hoax. They also write widely cited editorials in The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere (Mr. Benedetti quotes three of them).

As a career scientist (bachelor of science degree in engineering from UC Berkeley; Ph.D. in oceanography from MIT) with a thorough grasp of research related to climate change and experience working side-by-side with climate scientists for decades (at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Scripps Institution of Oceanography and UCSB), I personally know some of the 3 percent. While a few of them do not have good intentions (for example, there are some scientists in the 3 percent who also worked for tobacco companies to cover up the link between smoking and lung cancer), many among the 3 percent have their own scientific reasons for being doubters or “naysayers.”

Within the scientific community, there is an important role played by these contrarians, who continue to probe and ask tough questions about prevailing theories. Their role is especially critical where popular important theories are concerned, because these scientists push the rest of the science community to test and re-test their ideas using better data and methods. The end result is usually stronger scientific theories, which have been improved to agree with new information. However, some scientists get attached to the contrarian role and get a bit stubborn about moving on even after the evidence becomes overwhelming.

Besides the contrarians and those with private agendas, there is a third group in the 3 percent holding sincere beliefs that run counter to the scientific evidence. After all, scientists are people, too, and even though as a group they tend to be very rational, some may hold close to beliefs based on culture, religion or other influences.

I know one of the 3 percent who is a brilliant scientist, but he is quite emotionally opposed to the 97 percent based on his religion (he believes God would not let climate catastrophe happen), and, based on his love for his children and grandchildren, he simply cannot accept the dire predictions made by the 97 percent — he finds it unthinkable.

Lastly, a fourth category includes very senior scientists with great accomplishments in the past who now find it quite difficult to change their long-held opinions about such an important subject. I know one of these people well; he is famous and very accomplished, but also very stubborn and showing some signs of dementia in his late 80s (being a great scientist does not spare one this kind of unfortunate aging process). But, he is still coherent and is widely quoted from his editorials in The Wall Street Journal.

There may be other categories in the 3 percent, but I think this summary covers most of them.

So what about the 97 percent? Various commentaries imply that they are either misled, incompetent or partners in a vast hoax. While there may be a few eccentric personalities in this group, as a whole they are very bright and highly educated (almost all with Ph.D.s from top-notch universities) and they are hardworking and sincere. Most are working on behalf of the greater good for salaries far less than what they could earn in the industry.

If we examine the conclusion that they must be in on a conspiracy to scare the public, then what is their motive? To get more money? They would be much better off saying that the science is still inconclusive — “we need more money to figure it out.” By saying that human-caused climate change is settled science, they are actually reducing their ability to get more research funds.

Are they trying to scare the public into Big Government, or worse, World Government to solve the problem? The 97 percent span the full spectrum of political positions, including conservatives and libertarians who would never sanction such a move. The famous Charles Keeling (after whom the well-known “Keeling Curve,” showing a steady historic increase in atmospheric CO2, is named) was a staunch Republican. President George W. Bush presented him with the National Medal of Science in 2002.

Finally, this 97 percent is a bunch of very independent thinkers with their own ideas, and it’s even hard to get them to agree on when to take a lunch break at meetings.

So, let’s take the position of the vast majority of climate scientists a little bit more seriously. They are the experts, they have studied this problem and they know what they are talking about. Especially in Congress, please listen to reason. And listen to the 97 percent, not just the 3 percent. We cannot afford to get this wrong.

— Ken Macdonald is a professor emeritus in UC Santa Barbara's Department of Earth Science. Click here to read more columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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