American climate change deniers all at sea

Posted on 24 May 2018 in

This is turning out to be a bad month for American climate change deniers who have been embarrassed by demonstrably false claims about sea level rise.

On 16 May, the ‘Wall Street Journal’ published a bizarre article by Fred Singer, a veteran climate change denier, which suggested that the indisputable rise in global sea level is not due to climate change.

Mr Singer, who is an emeritus professor of environmental science at the University of Virginia, presented a confused and incomprehensible argument that sea level rise was both accelerating and staying constant at about 1.8 millimetres per year.

He acknowledged that the melting of glaciers and the land-based polar ice sheets are adding water to the world’s oceans, but also stated that “currently, sea-level rise does not seem to depend on ocean temperature, and certainly not on CO2”.

This is nonsense. There is an enormous collection of scientific research documenting both that sea level rise has been accelerating and that the main drivers are the melting of land-based ice and the thermal expansion of sea water, as a result of man-made global warming.

Last month, the results of the latest analysis of sea level by scientists for the European Space Agency were presented at the General Assembly of the European Geosciences Union in Vienna, Austria. They showed that satellites have recorded a clear increase in the rate of sea level rise over the past 13 years, with an average over that period of about 3.3 millimetres per year.

The study concluded that most of the rise was due to melting of glaciers and land-based ice sheets as well as thermal expansion.

The ‘Wall Street Journal’ was inundated with complaints from climate scientists about the errors in Mr Singer’s article, and forced to publish corrections by Dr Andrea Dutton, Professor Michael Mann and others.

So why did the newspaper publish Mr Singer’s inaccurate and misleading article in the first place? It is well-known that the editorial pages of the ‘Wall Street Journal’ are not fact-checked and that contributions are selected on the basis of their alignment with the political beliefs of editor-in-chief, Gerard Baker, and his team. The newspaper has become a favourite propaganda outlet for both American and British climate change deniers.

However, it is also clear that executives at News Corp, the owners of the ‘Wall Street Journal’, do not believe the constant stream of climate change denial that the newspaper publishes. On its website, the company boasts of having reduced its carbon footprint by 42 per cent since 2006.

But the newspaper continues to promote climate change denial to its readers through its opinion columns. For instance, last year it published an article by Steve Koonin arguing that the Trump administration should no longer base its policy on climate change on the peer-reviewed scientific literature, but should instead stage a ‘red team-blue team’ debate with mainstream climate scientists on one side and deniers on the other side.

The idea for this stunt, which would allow the Environmental Protection Agency to elevate climate change deniers to the same level as climate scientists, was originally put forward by the Heartland Institute, a ‘free market’ lobby group.

The Institute is among the most prolific sources of climate change denial in the United States. It achieved notoriety five years ago with a billboard campaign that linked the acceptance of climate change with mass murderers.

The Institute also publishes a series of volumes under the guise of the “Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC)”, which present inaccurate and misleading assessments of climate change research.

Mr Singer was a founder of the NIPCC. Its 2013 report attempted to make the case for a ‘red team-blue team’ showdown.

However, it is not just Mr Singer and the ‘Wall Street Journal’ that has been caught out recently after creating fake news about sea level rise. On 16 May, the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology demonstrated yet again that some of its members do not grasp the basic scientific facts about the issue.

During an exchange with Dr Phil Duffy, the President of the Woods Hole Research Center, Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama challenged the conclusion that climate change was the main driver of sea level rise.

In an extraordinary outburst, Representative Brooks said:

“What about erosion? Every single year that we’re on Earth, you have huge tons of silt deposited by the Mississippi River, by the Amazon River, by the Nile, by every major river system, and for that matter creek, all the way down to the smaller systems. And every time you have that soil or rock or whatever it is that is deposited into the seas, that forces the sea levels to rise because now you’ve got less space in those oceans because the bottom is moving up. What about the white cliffs of Dover? California where you have the waves crashing against the shorelines and time and time again you’re having the cliffs crashing into the sea. That displaces water that forces it to rise, does it not?”

This is not the first time that a member of the Committee has openly displayed their lack of understanding of sea level rise. During a hearing in September 2014 with Dr John Holdren, President Obama’s science adviser, Representative Steve Stockman of Texas said:

“How long will it take for the sea level to rise two feet? I mean, think about it, if an ice cube melts in your glass it doesn’t overflow, it’s displacement. This is some of the things that they’re talking about that mathematically and scientifically don’t make sense.”

It is not clear why members of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology participate in hearings without being properly briefed. Indeed, a visit to the website of the United States Geological Survey would provide them with the basic facts about sea level rise.

Or perhaps the confusion created by Mr Singer and the Congressmen is not entirely unintentional?


Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.