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What Consensus?
Volume 2, Number 15: 1 August 1999

On 28 June 1999 some fifty-plus scientists converged on the U.S. Capitol "to urge lawmakers to heed their warnings about global warming," as reported in a news release from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS, 1999).  In their press conference, as reported by Wadman (1999), the scientists said that Congress "should not be distracted by the 'contrarian' views of a handful of scientists who dispute what they described as a mainstream scientific consensus on climate change."

We wonder just what "consensus" the fifty-plus scientists were talking about.  The Union of Concerned Scientists' news release quotes Walter Oechel of San Diego State University as stating that "climate scientists from around the world are in wide agreement that global warming is real and could greatly disrupt society."  Wadman's report also mentions the "Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations-sponsored group of 2,500 scientists who found [according to their hastily-written and controversial executive summary] that human activity was raising atmospheric temperatures."  Hence, we suppose that the "consensus" is the standard CO2-induced global warming hypothesis, which is regularly proffered as a prod to get the nations of the earth to reduce their CO2 emissions that are claimed to be leading to all sorts of catastrophic consequences as a result of rapid warming.  If you are a regular reader of our editorials, however, you should recall from our last issue's contribution that this consensus is currently in process of crumbling.

In the July-August issue of American Scientist, in an article entitled Rapid Climate Change, Taylor (1999) states that he and other climate scientists "are concerned that anthropogenic additions of carbon dioxide to earth's atmosphere may alter the hydrologic cycle of the North Atlantic sufficiently to trigger a rapid switch from the present warm climate to a cold one."  That's right.  Many reputable - indeed, outstanding - climate scientists, who have worked and published on this subject for well over a decade, are concerned that continued CO2 emissions will lead to dramatic cooling, not warming, first in eastern North America, Europe and Scandinavia, and then, perhaps, the world at large.

Which of these "mainstream" views - CO2-induced warming or CO2-induced cooling - represents the "consensus"?  This is a very important question, for one should really know the answer before he decides which club to swing at the Congress and the American people.  Is it the club of being drowned by rising seas?  Or is it the club of being crushed under tons of ice?  You can't have it both ways at one and the same time and still maintain credibility.

So who's right?  Well, there now appear to be three sides to the story.  Part of what the fifty-plus scientists who gathered in Washington call "mainstream science" is at one extreme, another part of it is at the other extreme, and the rest of us - the "contrarians," so-called - are right in the middle, which is where the mainstream, by definition, is supposed to be located.  The specification of this arrangement, of course, does not answer the question of who's right; but it should give one pause to think.  The "middle way" - now occupied by the contrarians - has long been a path of considerable virtue and reason, not always right, but generally not too wrong.  Ought we not, therefore, begin to pay more heed to what this much-maligned "handful of scientists" has been saying for lo these many years?

Considering the fact that we are part of that illustrious group, we feel that the answer to this question should be a resounding "yes."  We could give as another reason the fact that the great climate consensus is looking more and more like the great climate confusion.  Indeed, it's getting harder and harder to decide with whom we should be arguing: those who predict global warming or those who predict global cooling.  Perhaps if we let them fight it out between themselves they'll all end up where we are now.

Whatever the outcome of the current uncertainty over earth's climatic future, it should be abundantly clear that consensus can no longer be used as a tool to leverage decisions about why we should do what relative to this subject.  Sometimes - and this may be one of those times - it is better to wait until we have a clearer vision than do that which we may later deeply regret.

Dr. Craig D. Idso
Dr. Keith E. Idso
Vice President

Taylor, K.  1999.  Rapid climate change.  American Scientist 67: 320-327.

Union of Concerned Scientists.  1999.  Global warming experts educate lawmakers.  UCS Website

Wadman, M.  1999.  US 'wastes vital time' as climate-change minority sows confusion.  Nature 400: 5.