Why Don’t Climate Sceptics Actually Fund Research?

I have had many people tell me that I should read more George Monbiot, because I would really like him. Apparently we have similar ideas. Regretfully, I’ve never actually read anything he’s written until I was sent this piece. And I do like it. (A little too punchy and not enough parenthetical asides for my taste, but still good.)

In it Monbiot reflects on the staggering amount of money that’s been poured into (mis)information campaigns aimed at fostering scepticism among politicians and the general public about human-caused climate change. What’s more unsettling, argues Monbiot, is where the money is coming from and how it is being transferred. In summary, two money distributing organizations facilitate large transfers – $1 million or more – from donors to 102 smaller organizations, mostly libertarian or conservative “think-tanks” (like the always good for a laugh Competitive Enterprise Institute). Monbiot suggests that these smaller organizations are merely fronts, artificially multiplied by ultra-rich donors (who include the recently embarrassed billionaire Koch brothers).

The result is an illusion of many independent voices, where in reality only the interests of a select few are being expressed. The two main distribution organizations function like money launderers so that donors can be kept secret, not only to avoid political or professional complications, but also to further the façade that the smaller organizations are actually independent or even grassroots. And lots of money has been transferred – $118 million in the period between 2002-2010. There are a lot of troubling implications about all this, and there are many more details that need to be flushed out. However, issues of transparency aside, I simply want to briefly reflect on the amount of money involved and how it is being spent.

Now, admittedly, $118 million dollars is not an unbelievable amount of money over a eight-year period. But, it is roughly the same amount of funding the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences received from the Canadian government and used over a twelve-year period to support or fund more than 160 major scientific research projects including empirical studies of climatic changes in the arctic, climate modeling, and short-term weather forecasts (incidentally, the Canadian government has ceased funding for this foundation). In short, $118 million dollars could go a very long way in funding climate research.

Given that one of the most predictable refrains one hears from climate sceptics is that “the science isn’t settled” or that there is still a lot of uncertainty involved in our understanding of climate change, here’s a question: why don’t sceptics actually fund climate research? Uncertainty obviously cuts both ways. Sceptics cannot say with conviction that climate change is not being caused by burning fossil fuels (and indeed, it is clear that any alternative theories they offer for the observed warming over the last 130 years do not enjoy anywhere close to the corroboration and scientific support as the preferred AGW theory). So, presuming that any honest sceptic would have to admit that the AGW theory is a possibility, and presuming that sceptics are actually scientifically-minded and concerned with reducing the uncertainty surrounding climate science (possibly enormous presumptions), you would think that they would be just as interested as eager as everyone else to do more studies so that they could offer further support for their alternative theories of observed global warming (theories which, again, also suffer from problems of “uncertainty”).

They evidently have more than enough money to fund progressive, original research. They could do their own independent reconstructions of global mean temperatures, their own empirical studies of arctic sea ice, glacial melts, and sea-level rise. They could even buy their own supercomputers and build their own independent climate models. This way they could have their own independent evidence to challenge the supposed collusion and group-think that occurs in mainstream climate science. But they do none of these things. Instead, they spend most of their money on massive information and lobbying campaigns. Of course, people who are convinced of the reality of climate change also spend lots of money on information campaigns, and sceptics will be quick to point this out. But the ratio between this kind of spending and actual research spending is not so conspicuously disproportionate.

Some, like the Koch brothers, do occasionally fund scientific research. But how that turned out for them partly explains why sceptics do not fund studies. But beyond that, sceptics simply do not seem interested in reducing the uncertainty surrounding climate science. Uncertainty appears much more effective in fostering doubt than legitimately offering and supporting alternative theories of climate change, since in that case they might be shown to be wrong. Of course, there’s really no reason to expect that being wrong would make any difference to the sceptics.

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