OFA and the ‘climate change deniers’

Organizing For Action v2“The national science academies of every major country in the world have confirmed that climate change is real. NASA and 97 percent of scientists confirm that climate change is real. But 135 members of Congress are in denial.”

—Organizing For Action (formerly Organizing For America), Aug. 13, 2013

 

Overview

We find at least one significant error in every sentence.

The Facts

On Aug. 13, 2013 Organizing For Action published an announcement of a new campaign intended to “call out climate deniers.” Part of the campaign would involve presenting “Climate Denier” awards, shaped like unicorns, to Republicans it identified as climate change deniers.

Along with the awards, the campaign involves publicizing a video presentation intended to help rid Congress of climate change deniers.

The national science academies of every major country in the world have confirmed that climate change is real. NASA and 97 percent of scientists confirm that climate change is real. But 135 members of Congress are in denial.

Watch OFA’s new video calling them out:

 

The video:

Analyzing the Rhetoric

In our analysis we’ll look at three claims from OFA’s announcement.

  1. “The national science academies of every major country in the world have confirmed that climate change is real”
  2. “NASA and 97 percent of scientists confirm that climate change is real”
  3. One hundred thirty-five members of Congress “are in denial” about climate change

“The national science academies of every major country in the world have confirmed that climate change is real”

The end of the video offers a scrolling list of organizations in support of the claim. The list proceeds alphabetically before cutting short with the “Institute of Professional Engineers (New Zealand).” The list as-is mentions academies representing the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Europe.

We asked the author of the post, J. D. Bryant, for his source. We have not yet detected a response.

We found a joint statement from the National Science Academies of the G8 nations plus five in addition. Perhaps OFA bases its claim on that statement:

Climate change and sustainable energy supply are crucial challenges for the future of humanity. It is essential that world leaders agree on the emission reductions needed to combat negative consequences of anthropogenic climate change at the UNFCCC negotiations in Copenhagen in December 2009.

 

The joint statement makes a relatively strong implicit claim that human activity causes climate change, though to an unspecified percentage. As to whether it represents “every major country in the world,” we’ll treat that as an opinion and leave it to the reader to agree or disagree. The countries represented include Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States.

We also found a page at NASA’s website pointing toward a list of professional scientific organizations that have made statements supporting the science of climate change:

The following page lists the nearly 200 worldwide scientific organizations that hold the position that climate change has been caused by human action.
http://opr.ca.gov/s_listoforganizations.php

 

We found NASA’s description vague. Caused by human action to what extent? We spot-checked NASA’s claim, and our first test case, not counting a site written in Spanish, illustrates the problem with NASA’s description:

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) notes that human impacts on the climate system include increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which is significantly contributing to the warming of the global climate. The climate system is complex, however, making it difficult to predict detailed outcomes of human-induced change: there is as yet no definitive theory for translating greenhouse gas emissions into forecasts of regional weather, hydrology, or response of the biosphere. As the AGU points out, our ability to predict global climate change, and to forecast its regional impacts, depends directly on improved models and observations.

 

Above, the American Astronomical Society expresses its agreement with the AGU’s statement on climate change. It stops short of identifying human activity as the cause of climate change, though it allows that the effect from human activity on greenhouse gas emissions is “significantly contributing” to climate change.

Ordinarily government-sponsored websites provide reliable information, but our survey gives reason to suspend judgment on the list compiled by the state of California and referenced in turn by NASA.

If the OFA claim ultimately relies on the same or similar information, then we should understand the professional agreement on climate change to extend to a significant role for human activity, not, as the NASA site implies, as referring to a primary role for human activity.

“NASA and 97 percent of scientists confirm that climate change is real”

Does NASA confirm that climate change is real? We went to NASA’s website:

In its recently released Fourth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of 1,300 independent scientific experts from countries all over the world under the auspices of the United Nations, concluded there’s a more than 90 percent probability that human activities over the past 250 years have warmed our planet.

 

The above quote comes from NASA’s climate change page’s section on “The Role of Human Activity.” There is no stronger statement in the section than the one quoted above, stating human activity as a cause in a range greater than 90 percent probability. The NASA statement relies on the IPCC report from 2007. And in 2012 NASA’s chief scientist said it does not endorse climate change but instead reports the science done by scientists, including NASA scientists.

Do 97 percent of scientists confirm that climate change is real?

We found this claim in more than one form. Ninety-seven percent of climate change scientists, according to reports, accept that humans cause climate change. Other reports said 97 percent of scientists, not just climatologists, accept that humans cause climate change.

We found the foundation for both claims flawed enough to warrant a separate fact check. For purposes of this fact check, we’ll simply note that we found no study supporting the claim that 97 percent of scientists accept that humans cause global warming. Stories making that claim apparently either misunderstood or misrepresented studies intended to represent support among climate researchers.

Do the national academies, NASA and 97 percent of scientists “confirm” climate change?

None of the groups mentioned above “confirm” climate change.  At best, they affirm climate change. The term “confirm” connotes proof.  Opinions do not confirm, but one can affirm via opinion. We will charitably assume that OFA intended to communicate that the three groups affirm the reality of climate change.

“But 135 members of Congress are in denial.”

What do 135 members of Congress supposedly deny? OFA says they deny the reality of “climate change” affirmed by various academies of science, NASA and 97 percent of scientists.

In a fact check that partly overlaps ours, PolitiFact gave meaning to the term:

In the policy context, the term “climate change” refers to rising temperatures and sea levels caused by human beings and their use of carbon-dioxide-emitting fossil fuels.

 

We think PolitiFact offers a superficially reasonable understanding of “climate change” as used in today’s political conversations. But it’s important to point out that using “climate change” interchangeably with “human-caused climate change” is not necessarily a benign rhetorical device. Changing the meaning of the term helps illicitly discredit a person who does not specifically affirm humans as the cause of climate change.

Accurately checking OFA’s charge against 135 members of Congress requires us to use the same measure of “climate change” that OFA used for the three groups that supposedly affirm climate change, a definition in line with the one PolitiFact identifies. And right away we run into a problem:  The language we’ve reviewed from scientific organizations and NASA is probabilistic and does not match the unequivocal understanding suggested by PolitiFact’s  “caused by human beings.” To fully agree with NASA’s statement, for example, one would merely have to believe that it is likely that human activity has caused most or even just some climate change over the past 250 years.

In short, we’re in dire risk of running into a fallacy of ambiguity. Is NASA itself is a “climate change denier” for stating climate change is over 90 percent likely instead of simply stating that climate change is real? Don’t people tend to equate “real” with things that are 100 percent likely?

The Climate Change Deniers (Two of One Hundred Thirty-Five)?

Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.)

OFA’s video shows Broun addressing fellow members of Congress in June 2009, saying “Climate change … it is a hoax.” The video obviously shows two different segments of Broun’s speech.

Here’s the context (bold emphasis added):

Now, we hear all the time about global warming. Actually, we have had flat-line temperatures globally for the last 8 years. Scientists all over this world say that the idea of human-induced global climate change is one of the greatest hoaxes perpetrated out of the scientific community. It is a hoax. There is no scientific consensus.

 

Broun at the time was speaking in response to the House version of cap-and-trade legislation. Earlier debate had referenced the threat of rising temperatures, rising oceans and stronger hurricanes. Did Broun deny climate change with his statement? Perhaps.  Or perhaps he was addressing the idea of catastrophic climate change from the earlier debate.  Broun makes the judgment particularly difficult, for he apparently has not clarified his position on the issue since 2009.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)

OFA uses a Rubio interview with BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith to make its case that Rubio denies climate change. The video shows a clip of Rubio saying the following:

“I understand that people say there’s a significant scientific consensus on that issue, but I’ve actually seen reasonable debate …”

 

With context (bold emphasis added):

BEN SMITH

Do you see global warming as a threat to Florida?

MARCO RUBIO

Well, first of all, the climate’s always changing. That’s not the fundamental question. The fundamental question is whether man-made activity is what’s contributing most to it. And I understand that people say there’s a significant scientific consensus on that issue, but I’ve actually seen reasonable debate on that principle.

 

Rubio says he’s seen reasonable debate over whether climate change is mostly caused by human activity. If Rubio thinks human activity accounts for 20 percent of climate change, does that make him a climate change denier? OFA’s video takes Rubio out of context and produces a misleading impression (note:  PolitiFact ruled it “Mostly True” that Rubio denies climate change, and we’ll critique that ruling in a separate article).

The OFA video goes on to mention three more GOP politicians, but presents them as offering alternative explanations for climate change, not as denying the science.

The Logic and Rhetoric of Denial

The term “denier” is not a simple descriptive. It’s a loaded term.  Matthew Nisbet, Associate Professor of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C., explains (bold emphasis added):

It’s difficult to trace the precise origin, but having followed the literature closely for more than a decade, it appears as if at some point advocates and journalists coined the use of “denier,” scholars of similar outlook and related networks adopted and applied the term, and journalists and advocates justified their subsequent use of “denier” by its “well-established” use in the literature. In this case, social science research becomes adopted, diffused, and applied for political purposes, where language and framing from the academy is used to stereotype, problematize, and stigmatize a social group or segment of the public.

 

So the term “denier” serves to help stigmatize the 135 Republicans OFA plans to call out. But what about the logic of the term?  What does it mean to deny, and how to we apply the term properly to the scientific view of climate change?

1. to declare (an assertion, statement, etc.) to be untrue he denied that he had killed her
2. to reject as false; refuse to accept or believe

Either definition above could describe the meaning OFA intends, but we take the second one as more likely since the definition fits without requiring any explicit statement of denial. Applying this definition to climate change, as PolitiFact recommended understanding the term, a “denier’ rejects as false (refuses to accept or believe) “rising temperatures and sea levels caused by human beings and their use of carbon-dioxide-emitting fossil fuels.” Above we touched on the problem with identifying a denier according to a definition like this. To what level must a politician accept a human role in rising temperatures and sea levels to avoid the description “denier”? Twenty percent? Forty?  Sixty?

We can’t just pick a number to suit ourselves, or allow OFA to pick one to suit the aim of their ad. OFA used outside endorsements of climate change to support its claim, so we properly use the content of those endorsements to judge the 135 Republicans. But who knows the content of those endorsements? The average viewer of the OFA video probably doesn’t, and that’s the key to using a fallacy of ambiguity to mislead an audience.

Summary

“The national science academies of every major country in the world have confirmed that climate change is real”

True Statement iconCharity med Booby Trap FallacyIcon Ambiguity

As a rule, we favor offering a charitable interpretation where appropriate. In this case, we’re treating the G8 plus five as representing “every major country in the world” and assuming that the OFA statement means “affirmed” where it says “confirmed.” We don’t have anything from the joint Academies of Science statement describing the specific degree to which human activity explains climate change, which creates a logical booby trap encouraging a fallacy of ambiguity:  The reader is led to assume strong agreement that all climate change is the result of human activity when the academies do not necessarily agree on that.

This statement also represents an appeal to authority, which is fallacious only if OFA uses it with the aim of absolutely proving the reality of (anthropogenic) climate change. The scientific expertise of professional societies legitimately adds weight to their claims, but it does not make them true. We’re granting the benefit of the doubt on this point as well.

“NASA and 97 percent of scientists confirm that climate change is real”

True Statement Maximum Charity Booby Trap FallacyIcon Ambiguity

NASA as an agency does not officially endorse climate change, though it presents information on its website treating climate change as a real phenomenon. The 97 percent figure is typically used of climate scientists in particular, not scientists in general. Taken literally, then, this part is almost certainly false. Moreover, the three sets of evidence offered in favor of a 97 percent consensus have problems that prompt us to do our next fact check on the consensus claim. Also, we’re assuming “affirm” is meant where “confirm” is used, as with the former statement from OFA. In addition, “real” must be understood in a strong sense, tolerating no serious doubt, to fuel the argument that members of Congress like Rubio count as climate change “deniers.”

“But 135 members of Congress are in denial.”

OFA does not try to show that 135 members of Congress are in denial of climate change. The video makes a weak case against Rep. Broun and a weaker one against Sen. Rubio.

The case against Broun might work if we could confidently assume that Broun uses “human-induced global climate change” to mean the exact same thing OFA means when it uses “climate change.” Perhaps Broun denies climate change science as the context suggests we understand the term, but the evidence isn’t clear.

In Rubio’s case, the Florida senator has made statements indicating he accepts human activity has some role in causing climate change. That fits the consensus position as PolitiFact describes it, so Rubio doesn’t qualify as a climate change denier on the evidence presented.

icon False

 

The OFA presentation gives an overall misleading impression. With so much of the argument couched in ambiguous terms, it fails to seize on any definite meaning except as an effort to discredit politicians who oppose legislation like the cap-and-trade carbon tax. The factual content of the attack escapes in the fog on close examination.

 

Clarification, Sept. 15, 2013:

Our description of Matthew Nisbet failed to mention “American University” until today.

References

Epstein, Reid J. “Obama’s Top-down Grassroots Army.” POLITICO. POLITICO LLC, 6 Apr. 2013. Web. 21 Aug. 2013.

Bryant, J. D. “Watch OFA’s New Video Calling out Climate Deniers.” Barackobama.com. Organizing for Action, 13 Aug. 2013. Web. 19 Aug. 2013.

Climate Deniers in Congress. YouTube. YouTube, 24 Apr. 2013. Web. 19 Aug. 2013.

Consensus.” National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA, n.d. Web. 19 Aug. 2013.

Causes.” National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA, n.d. Web. 19 Aug. 2013.

Revkin, Andrew. “On Astronauts, NASA, and Climate Concerns.” Dot.earth.blogs.nytimes.com. The New York Times Company, 12 Apr. 2012. Web. 19 Aug. 2013.

G8+5 Academies’ Joint Statement: Climate Change and the Transformation of Energy Technologies for a Low Carbon Future.” Nationalacademies.org. National Academy of Sciences, May 2009. Web. 19 Aug. 2013.

Joint Science Academies’ Statement: Global Response to Climate Change.” NationalAcademies.org. National Academies of Science, n.d. Web. 20 Aug. 2013.

List of Worldwide Scientific Organizations.” Office of Planning and Research. State of California, n.d. Web. 19 Aug. 2013.

American Astronomical Society Endorsement of AGU Statement on Climate Change.” Council Resolutions | American Astronomical Society. American Astronomical Society, n.d. Web. 19 Aug. 2013.

EFG Website.” EFG Website. European Federation of Geologists, n.d. Web. 19 Aug. 2013.

Cook, John, Dana Nuccitelli, Sarah A. Green, Mark Richardson, Bärbel Winkler, Rob Painting, Robert Way, Peter Jacobs, and Andrew Skuce. “Quantifying the Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming in the Scientific Literature.” IOPscience.iop.org. IOP Publishing, 15 May 2013. Web. 20 Aug. 2013.

Wihbey, John. “The 97 Percent: Three Key Papers Quantifying Scientific Concensus on Climate Change.” Journalists Resource. Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, 20 June 2013. Web. 20 Aug. 2013.

Donovan, Jennifer. “Most Scientists Agree: Humans Are Causing Global Climate Change.” Michigan Tech News. Michigan Technological University, 16 May 2013. Web. 20 Aug. 2013.

Doyle, Alister. “97 Percent of Scientists Say Global Warming Is Man-made, Study Finds.” MSN News. Microsoft, 16 May 2013. Web. 20 Aug. 2013.

97 Percent of Scientists Agree Climate Change Is Man-Made.” EcoWatch. EcoWatch, 16 May 2013. Web. 20 Aug. 2013.

Couric, Katie. “Katie Couric’s Notebook: Climate Change.” CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 30 Nov. 2010. Web. 20 Aug. 2013.

Jacobson, Louis. “Group Backing Barack Obama Says Marco Rubio Is a “climate Change Denier”PolitiFact. Tampa Bay Times, 16 Aug. 2013. Web. 20 Aug. 2013.

  1. PROVIDING FOR CONSIDERATION OF H.R. 2454, AMERICAN CLEAN ENERGY AND SECURITY ACT OF 2009 –(House of Representatives – June 26, 2009)

March, William. “Rubio Questions Climate Change.” TBO.com. Tampa Media Group, LLC, 13 Feb. 2010. Web. 20 Aug. 2013.

Marco Rubio Not Concerned About Climate Change. Buzzfeed. YouTube, 05 Feb. 2013. Web. 20 Aug. 2013.

Nisbet, Matthew. “Questioning the Wisdom of Denier Discourse.” The Breakthrough Institute. The Breakthrough Institute, 25 Sept. 2012. Web. 20 Aug. 2013.

 

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