Politifact or Politi-fiction

By Andy May

This is a critique of the coverage of the man-made climate change debate by Politifact.com. It’s an update of a post I wrote last year. Journalism has not improved in the last 19 months and may actually be worse. Because Politifact is often characterized as an unbiased and credible source by the rest of the media it must be held to a very high standard. This is why finding two well documented cases of the organization deliberately mischaracterizing the facts and misquoting sources on the climate change debate is so shocking. As a result of these “fact checks” it is annoying that the press cites Politifact as if it were objective and honest, it is neither.

In their fact check of Senator Rick Santorum they misquoted Professor Richard Tol on several points. Tol pointed out the errors and Politifact refused to correct them. This is all well documented here. They also erroneously labeled Santorum’s statement false, Santorum did confuse his numbers a bit, but got the basics right. As Professor Tol put it in an email to Politifact:

“I think you were unfair on Santorum. He mixes up his numbers here: “The most recent survey of climate scientists said about 57 percent don’t agree with the idea that 95 percent of the change in the climate is caused by CO2.”

In fact, the statement is that 57% disagree that there is 95% confidence that 50% was caused by greenhouse gases. In other words, Santorum had the spirit right but the letter wrong.”

Politifact, like many in the news media, conflate “anthropogenic global warming” (man has some unknown amount of influence on climate) with “catastrophic anthropogenic global warming” (man is driving climate change with his emissions and causing a climate catastrophe). The debate is not whether man affects climate, I think everyone agrees with that. But by how much and whether or not it’s a problem. In Professor Tol’s words:

“There is vigorous debate about how much humans have contributed to climate change, but no one argues the effect is zero. By emitting greenhouse gases, changing the landscape, rerouting rivers, and huddling together in cities, we change the climate – perhaps by a little, perhaps by a lot – but not one expert doubts we do.”

As Professor Tol, Professor Bjorn Lomborg, Dr. Randall Donohue, Professor William Happer and others have pointed out there are many benefits to global warming and increased levels of carbon dioxide. Computing whether global warming is net positive or net negative is very complex and Professor Tol is an expert in the subject. In fact, Professor Tol has concluded in his working paper 75-2015 that

“The impact of climate change on the economy and human welfare is likely to be limited at least in the 21st century.”

Where Politifact has gone off the rails here is their implicit assumption (from ignorance, presumably) that warming is all bad and without any benefits. This is clearly wrong as can be seen here and in Tol’s Figure 1 from his 2009 paper, “The Economic Effects of Climate Change,” below. The figure shown is the corrected figure from Tol’s 2014 correction.  The consensus of climate economists, according to Matt Ridley’s article, is that global warming impacts are positive for mankind’s welfare until 2080 at least, then they may turn negative.


Figure 1

Linda Qiu and Politifact claim Professor Tol parted ways with the IPCC, which is not true. He did refuse to allow his name to be associated with a summary of the IPCC AR5 Working Group 2 chapters due to a disagreement on the negative tone of the summary. He believes that there are many benefits to global warming that the summary ignored. But, he has not left the IPCC. The IPCC still call him an author here and here.  Politifact claim he is affiliated with the Global Warming Foundation and this is true, but only in the way he is affiliated with the EPA or other organizations that he has advised. They try and show he supports the 97% (or at least 91%) consensus when he clearly does not. In particular Qiu writes:

“Tol takes issue with Cook’s methodology. By his analysis of Cook’s data, the real figure is around 91 percent. (Cook replied critiquing Tol’s methodology and standing by his survey’s original finding of 97 percent.)”

This is Ms. Qiu misreading what Professor Tol has written. Below I’ve quoted from an email from Professor Tol to her (2 September 2015):

“Cook’s analysis is a load of old bollocks.  Cook did not study 1,300 papers, but close to 12,000; not that Cook has been [able] to give the exact number. (http://richardtol.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/ppps-cooks-missing-papers.html)

Cook’s 97% is the consensus rate, rather than the percentage. The percentage is 0.6%.  I never claimed that the consensus rate is 91%.

I see that you have yet to correct yesterday’s post on the same topic.  Please correct these errors post haste.”

Additional criticism of Cook, et al. from Tol can be seen here.

They also twisted other comments. The emails that Professor Tol wrote were very clear. Seeing the email exchange on climatedepot.com we can only surmise that Ms. Linda Qiu deliberately misquoted Professor Tol. Politifact presented only one side of the debate, thus acting as a political advocate.

This debate is serious because currently 87% of the energy we use comes from fossil fuels. In order to reduce our carbon emissions, we need to curtail fossil fuel use, raise the cost of energy and slow the development of poorer countries. This will increase poverty in the western world and prevent many of the existing poor in the rest of the world from rising out of poverty. As Professors Tol and Lomborg have said, we need to make sure that the net effect of any actions we take is positive for mankind. Many people claim that all fossil fuel use is bad and will harm mankind, but Professor Richard Tol has demonstrated that even if carbon dioxide emissions cause a two degree increase in average temperature the net effect on man may be positive. Even if the entire Paris climate change agreement is ratified and the proposed carbon dioxide emission cuts are accomplished, it will only reduce temperatures by 0.05°C by 2100. How is this worth the cost?

Ms. Kliegman’s Politifact article claiming that Marco Rubio’s statement that human activity is not “causing these dramatic changes to our climate” is false is incorrect and not very honest.  Rubio’s full statement from the article is carefully worded and very reasonable:

“I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it,” he said. “And I do not believe that the laws that they propose we pass will do anything about it. Except it will destroy our economy.”

Rubio is correct. The Kliegman article chooses not to address what Rubio actually said, but illogically (perhaps due to ignorance to be sure) changes his statement to:

“Rubio said human activity isn’t causing changes to the environment…”

This statement is false, but very different from what he said. This is a high school level straw man logical fallacy.

Rubio has been criticized a lot for saying climate change legislation will destroy our economy, but he is in line with climate economists Richard Tol and Bjorn Lomborg on this point, both are very concerned about the negative impact of fighting climate change on the world economy. Professor Bjorn Lomborg has written:

“The World Health Organization estimates that the effects of climate change are currently responsible for 141,000 deaths annually. If we look far ahead, to 2050, the death toll is expected to climb to 250,000. By contrast, some 4.3 million people will die this year from indoor air pollution. That is the direct result of poverty, of almost three billion people using dung and wood to heat and cook.”

He also states in the same article:

“… the elimination of fossil-fuel subsidies. This would free up resources for education and health while at the same time cutting air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions. The benefits would be worth more than $15 for every dollar spent in direct support for the very poor who are unable to afford higher fuel prices. By contrast, trying to drastically increase the production of renewable energy would return less than a dollar for every dollar spent, despite the carbon dioxide reduction, because renewable forms of energy remain expensive and are available only intermittently.”

These are not simple issues and the first rule in fighting climate change, like in medicine, should be to do no harm. Rubio’s assertion that fighting climate change “will destroy our economy” may well be true, if we do it stupidly. It may very well lose more lives than it saves.

The notorious and widely discredited Cook, et al. 2013 “97% consensus” paper is also cited in Kliegman’s Politifact article. As Richard Tol notes in an email to Linda Qiu:

“Cook found 64 papers (out of some 12,000) that support the consensus. It is a long story why Cook thinks that 64 is 97% of 12,000.”

A similar flawed study by Doran also claims a 97% consensus that is based on 75 papers out of 77. Even the authors of many of the papers “classified” by Cook, et al. (Cook and his co-authors are not climate scientists) say their papers were misclassified. Criticism by an actual climate scientist, Professor Judith Curry, can be seen here. There are other studies claiming to have demonstrated a scientific consensus on dangerous man-made climate change like Anderegg, et al., Oreskes, et al. But, all are flawed studies and a wide array of articles are heavily critical of them. Other looks at the “97% consensus” can be found here and here. Professor Tol’s criticism of the “97% consensus” is particularly well documented in his US House of Representatives testimony and here.

Climate does change and some of the climate change is probably caused by man, but the magnitude of man’s impact is unknown. There is certainly no proof that man-made climate change is dangerous. Can climate change in a catastrophic way? Certainly, it has happened many times in the past, but the catastrophes were not caused by man, they were natural. And, of course man being man, he always blames other men or women for these natural disasters as shown by Professor Wolfgang Behringer in his excellent book “A Cultural History of Climate.” With all of the scientific and technical advances of the past 2,000 years, we still seem to need to blame all natural catastrophes on the “sins” of men and women. Below is Wolfgang Behringer’s portrayal of anthropogenic climate change in 1486 AD. It is a woodcut of a sorceress conjuring up a hailstorm with the jawbone of an ass. The climate change alarmism of today has as much evidence behind it as this woodcut in 1486.

Figure 2, titled “Anthropogenic Climate Change”

Further on this topic, the Archbishop Agobard of Lyons (769-840AD) said the following in his sermon “On Hail and Thunder:”

“In these parts nearly everyone – nobles and common folk, town and country, young and old – believe that human beings can bring about hail and thunder…We have seen and heard how most people are gripped by such nonsense, indeed possessed by such stupidity…”

Today we are in the same place. Hopefully, the silly idea that man can control the weather and climate with his carbon dioxide emissions will not lead to the execution of over 50,000 so-called witches as it did in 1600. The arrogance of non-scientists, like the journalists at Politifact, Senator Whitehouse, Al Gore, John Cook (cartoonist, blogger and sometime psychology graduate student), Naomi Oreskes (Historian) have in claiming actual climate scientists such as Professor Judith Curry, Dr. Tim Ball, Professor Richard Tol, Professor William Happer, Professor Richard Lindzen, Professor Patrick Michaels, Nobel Prize winner Ivar Giaever, and over a thousand other qualified scientists are wrong is spectacular. And, just because of a group of unsubstantiated surveys by other non-scientists? This doesn’t count the 31,487 American scientists who signed the Global Warming Petition Project.

As Albert Einstein once said when ask about the book A Hundred Authors against Einstein

“Why one hundred? If I were wrong one would be enough.”

Being quantitative and skeptical are the life blood of science. “Consensus” has no place in science, “consensus” only plays a role in politics and mobs.

Given the obvious mischaracterization of the statements made by Professor Tol, Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Rick Santorum discussed above, one wonders why would a journalist do this? You change what someone says so the statement goes from true to false and then attack the changed statement? Is this journalism today? Is it no wonder that only 28% of people believe journalists contribute a lot to society? Another poll shows that fewer than 25% of Americans think journalists are honest. A whopping 78% of people have an unfavorable view of the press. Certainly the Politifact articles discussed in this post don’t help the profession and they certainly do not inform the public about the climate change debate.

August 6, 2016

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