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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Graham Wayne: On why the bell is tolling for Richard Tol

Arson Attack on Ivory Towers

by Graham Wayne, "Small Epiphanies," June 4, 2014
Academic in-fighting is hardly the stuff of front-page news, yet the UK’s Times newspaper ran a front page story about a rejected paper. Now another journal has accepted a paper already turned down three times elsewhere…
Does the rejection of a scientist’s paper by a peer-reviewed journal constitute front page news, as featured in the UK’s Times under the splenetic title “Scientists In Cover-Up Of ‘Damaging’ Climate View”?
As the UK’s Guardian reported, the paper was turned down by prestigious journal Environmental Research Letters (ERL) not because it was part of some lurid conspiracy, but because the paper wasn’t very good. ERL were sufficiently incensed by the accusations to take an unusual step, and publish in full the peer-reviewers comments.
To his credit the author, respected meteorologist Lennart Bengtsson, also debunked the claim stating that “I do not believe there is any systematic “cover up” of scientific evidence on climate change or that academics’ work is being 'deliberately suppressed,' as The Times front page suggests.”
So what’s going on here?
Actually, it’s dirty politics. The story was yet another attempt by ideologues to undermine climate science, this time at the behest of secretive lobby group GWPF – the UK’s mini-me version of the Heartland Institute. Bengtsson had recently joined the GWPF executive. After only two weeks he resigned, claiming to have been subjected to intolerable pressure. The GWPF spun the story as Galileo-style persecution instead of political blundering by a naïve scientist, and concocted the cover-up story for The Times in order to shore up their specious claim – which The Times duly published, even though it wasn’t true.
Now there’s a new story brewing, which on the face of it should be equally arcane and abstruse but is likely to create more headlines for all the wrong reasons. A paper authored by Sussex University’s economics professor Richard Tol will be published shortly in the journal Energy Policy. (Tol is also on the GWPF’s ‘Academic Advisory Council,’ by the way.)
Tol’s submission seeks to show that the most downloaded paper in over 80 Institute of Physics journals, Cook et al. 2013 (and the winner of the ERL board’s award for the best paper of the year), is seriously flawed. Cook et al.'s paper confirms (yet again) the 97% consensus among climate scientists who back the theory of anthropogenic climate change.
Energy Policy is an international peer-reviewed journal addressing the policy implications of energy supply and use from their economic, social, planning and environmental aspects…” insists the journal. Why would they publish a paper so clearly outside their expertise? More curious is that before Energy Policy agreed to publish it, ERL and several other journals rejected previous drafts. The reasons for the rejection were as copious as they were blunt. In an ERL Board Members Report discussing the rejection, they say:
 “[Tol’s submission] raises a number of issues with the recent study by Cook et al. It is written in a rather opinionated style, seen, e.g., in the entire introductory section making political points, and in off-hand remarks like labelling Skeptical Science a “polemic blog” or in sweeping generalisations like the paper “may strengthen the belief that all is not well in climate research.” It reads more like a blog post than a scientific comment.
Perhaps more damning is their dismissal of his paper’s merit (emphasis added):
I do not see that the submission has identified any clear errors in the Cook et al. paper that would call its conclusions into question – in fact [Tol] agrees that the consensus documented by Cook et al. exists.
Given the previous rejections, you might wonder why Energy Policy is now going to publish it. We can only wait to see in what form the paper appears, and if Tol really has made any significant alterations that improve the paper. Indeed, the quality of his work has been subject to considerable criticism. Bob Ward at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, environmental economist Frank Ackerman, and Professor Andrew Gelman, director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University, writing in the Washington Post, have all found numerous errors in Tol’s previous work. (Tol has not taken kindly to the criticism, making a number of personal attacks on his critics, provoking 41 academics to sign a joint statement (PDF) calling for Tol to act in a more professional manner.)
Coincidentally, Tol was called by skeptical [global warming denying shills] Republicans to testify before the US House of Representatives last week. One might infer there is a political agenda at work here, in support of the constant attempts by ideologues to promote the false notion there is a scientific debate about the cause and effect of climate change.
Why is the consensus important? Why do demagogues constantly attack the 97% figure and manufacture dissent? It is because they know, as both fossil fuel interests (e.g., American Petroleum Institute (PDF)) and a political advisor to a Republican president have suggested, when the public believe that most scientists support a theory, they are much more likely to accept it.
The so-called skeptics cannot bring science to bear in support of their views. After the latest hearing (at which Tol testified there was a consensus), the Republicans could only misrepresent the facts. “The President and others often claim that 97 percent of scientists believe that global warming is primarily driven by human activity.  However, the study they cite has been debunked," they claim in a press release. Debunked by who, exactly? The GOP? The Koch brothers? Not Richard Tol, that’s for sure.
Climate scientists are not fooled by the manufactured doubt. The public, however, can be deceived, which is why Cook et al. is so valuable to the public discourse, and such anathema to those whose agenda serves vested interests like the fossil fuel industry. And since Richard Tol’s own work confirmed the consensus, one wonders what purpose his new paper serves except to obfuscate and inflame, to pour petrol on a fire any responsible scientist should be helping to extinguish.

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