Bogus climate course “a source of embarrassment to the institution”
An energy industry public relations man and lobbyist with no background in climate science has infiltrated Carleton University in the Canadian capital of Ottawa, teaching a course on climate change denial that other Carleton professors describe as “a source of embarrassment to the institution.”
Tom Harris, who originally trained as a mechanical engineer, has been a strategist for the climate change denial industry for at least a decade. A favourite presenter misrepresented as a PhD at the Heartland Institute’s regular climate change denial conferences, Harris has worked directly for companies like the international PR giant APCO Worldwide or for energy industry lobby firms such as Toronto’s High Park Group. More recently, he has launched or led at least three phony “grassroots organizations” – energy industry front groups that promote confusion or denial in climate science.
Now, Harris is teaching at Carleton, passing on a mix of climate denial mythology and flat out fiction, telling students that the planet isn’t really warming, that (if it is), humans aren’t to blame, that (if they are) if might be a good thing and that, regardless, it’s just too complicated for mere scientists to figure out. (“The climate problem is so difficult that we might never solve it.”)
Harris’s ridiculous claims have been laid bare in a new report by the Canadian Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism (CASS), which has gone through videotapes of lectures from Climate Change: An Earth Sciences Perspective (ERTH2402), identifying 142 errors, exaggerations or outright prevarications.
The CASS report states:
“We have documented a large number of examples where the science that is taught is at least incomplete if not incorrect. There are a number of examples where Harris cites studies that were later rebutted …, and still more where he appears to have missed key publications … and this may indicate that he is unaware of the current scientific literature and prevailing scientific opinion.”
The existence of this course represents a coup for the climate change denial movement, which as documented with the release of internal documents from the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, has been trying to infiltrate the U.S. school system with a K-12 curriculum promoting the notion that climate change is not real, not caused by humans or just too confusing to understand. (Heartland, a prominent proponent on behalf of its tobacco industry sponsors, has, in fact, been promoting climate disinformation in schools for many years.)
In the Carleton course, Harris has promoted a series of irrelevant, misleading or flagrantly incorrect bromides, including:
- “The only constant about climate is change.”
- “Carbon dioxide is plant food.”
- “There is no scientific consensus about climate change causes.”
- “Prepare for global cooling.”
- “Climate science is changing quickly.”
Notwithstanding, Harris has proved to be a popular teacher, who readily gives out high marks to the students who most willing to parrot the denier line that he and his (often industry-associated) guest lecturers promote.
I know a guy who knows a guy
One of the biggest problem that CASS reported in trying to assess the content in Harris’s course is that he generally does not refer to primary sources – to references in peer-reviewed literature against which his contentions can be tested. Instead, he constantly tells students that he has been in personal or email contact with prominent scientists who have given him information – the vast majority of which is dubious, outdated, unsupported by science or simply wrong.
The CASS report offers the possibility that Harris is merely incompetent – that he has got the science wrong purely because he is out of his realm of expertise. But the authors also note the coincidence that “all the mistakes (Harris makes) support his thesis of no climate change effects.“
More likely, it seems, for someone who has made his living dessembling about climate change on behalf of energy industry compan-funded front groups, Harris has taken that campaign into the classroom with a disregard for the science and evidence that is somewhere between reckless and irresponsible.
There will almost inevitably be an argument about whether someone like Harris deserves protection under the principles of academic freedom – and certainly legitimate academics should be free to pursue their own course of study and to make whatever arguments they can support.
The question here is whether an institution such as Carleton can be forgiven for employing an instructor with no relevant credentials and significant and obvious economic conflicts. And, if Carleton is going to wrap Harris in a cloak of academic freedom – if the university is prepared to defend an industry front man’s right to dilute the university’s credibility by promoting views that are demonstrably incorrect and obviously grounded in a corporate agenda to deceive – then that should be a signal to prospective students and parents that they may want to exercise the freedom to choose a real university, one that values the accuracy of its curriculum and the integrity of its (other) faculty.
Below is a selection of some of the 142 points of disinformation identified in the CASS report. The full report, with references, is available here:
Claim 29. “Generally speaking, we’re at about the same temperature as the medieval warm period.”
RESPONSE: The Medieval Warm Period was only warm in some regions of the planet. Globally we are now far warmer than that period.
Claim 33. “The rate of retreat of glaciers has stayed about the same since around 1850… There hasn’t been an acceleration in glacier retreat worldwide.” …and… “Glacier retreat does not always correspond with a warming temperature.”
RESPONSE: There has been an acceleration in the loss of global glacier volume. After remaining relatively constant between 1850 and 1900, global glacier volume declined slowly between 1900 and 1950, increased to 1970, and then decreased at an accelerating rate to the present day . While increasing temperature can increase precipitation which causes growth in glaciers, the warming-induced melt remains the dominant force affecting glacial mass. Finally, the World Glacier Monitoring Network report has shown that the majority of glaciers that are being monitored are receding and that that rate of glacier recession is increasing.
Claim 34. “It may be more than a coincidence that the 18th century, which was getting slightly warmer… than previously, they saw a more cheerful social and political mood.”
RESPONSE: See Table 19.1 in  for a list of projected impacts associated with climate change.
Claim 57. [Quoting the famous Australian climate change denier Bob CARTER]: “OK, so against that background you get the alarmist figures by invoking positive feedbacks and ignoring negative feedbacks, Stephen Schwartz, a very well respected climatologist published a new paper where he’s analysed, using empirical data, the amount of warming that we should get for a doubling of carbon dioxide and here’s his conclusion. He looks at the relationship between surface air temperature and ocean heat content and he concludes that for a CO2 doubling you will get a degree of warming, which is right on the line of what that theoretical curve showed in the first place. IN other words, the positive and negative feedbacks cancel each other out. Here I’ve plotted that and you’ll see that even the error bars that only just overlaps with the error bars of the alarmist IPCC estimates so torpedo number 3 is another devastating torpedo. There’s no answer for this at the moment, this is good, sound, empirical science. It’s not arm-waving, it’s not a computer model, it’s empirical science.”
RESPONSE: Stephen Schwartz did publish a paper in 2007, and that paper did suggest a climate that was less sensitive to doubling in carbon dioxide than the IPCC reports had suggested. However, this paper was roundly criticised by a number of researchers on the basis of Schwartz’s modelling of autocorrelation of temperature through time. These criticisms led Schwartz to revise his own estimate of the effect of climate sensitivity from 1.1 ± 0.5 K to 1.9 ± 1.0 K. This may not seem like a big deal, but his estimate is now within the error margin for the IPCC estimate (3 degrees), suggesting yet more consensus on climate sensitivity. Neither Carter nor Harris mention Schwartz’s revised estimate (published in 2008), leaving the students misinformed as to the current state of the science.
Claim 59. [Quoting CARTER again]: “Well there’s a gentleman who deserves a Nobel Prize, or a prize of some sort, called Anthony Watts who is an amateur – well he’s not amateur – he’s a weather forecaster in the States… [cites Watts] “Urbanisation has placed many sites in unsuitable locations – on hot black asphalt, next to trash burn barrels, beside heat exhaust vents, even attached to hot chimneys and above outdoor grills!”
RESPONSE: Some measurement sites do have shortcomings with respect to location. However, NOAA is aware of these kinds of problems and has responded by comparing the best 70 stations with the full 1218 station dataset and found almost identical trends. Also, the BEST project found no evidence of an effect of the urban heat island effect on temperature trends.
Claim 65. “So, the interesting question is, is the overall ice cover of the earth going down, and the answers I get from scientists is, probably not, OK.”
RESPONSE: Without more details, it isn’t possible to establish who these “scientists” are that are giving Harris his facts. We know that in Greenland ice is being lost and the loss is accelerating, most glaciers worldwide are losing mass and thickness and the loss is accelerating, and Arctic sea ice loss is accelerating and is faster than was forecast. Harris is likely referring to the fact that only in Antarctica the sea ice level is actually increasing and has been doing so since the beginning of records in the 1970s. This is thought to result from warmer oceanic water being trapped at lower depths due to weak stratification of the Southern Ocean. This means that ice can continue to grow.
Claim 66. “You know, one of the things that people don’t realize when they read these articles in the newspaper about it being super warm in the arctic in comparison with past years, they have to ask in the global historic network how many data points, does anybody know this, how many data points are there for all of northern Canada, that’s used for the Global Historic Climate Network to determine whether the earth is warming or cooling? You know how many data points there are? One. They’re using one data point for the whole of northern Canada in the whole global historic surface, uh, temperature measurement and that data point happens to be at Eureka, OK, very far north. Eureka however, is what’s called a refugia. It’s an unusual region that is much warmer than most of the surrounding area and it’s called a refugia because in wintertime that’s where a lot of the animals go, OK, because it’s much easier to survive there. So when it comes to, um, global historic records, all of Canada being represented by one data point, and it’s an anomalous location, you know it’s really sad, because it certainly does make you question the global record.”
RESPONSE: Harris claims that there is only one weather station in the Canadian Arctic that can provide information about warming trends. This is incorrect. First is that there are multiple weather stations in the Canadian Arctic. There are 42 weather stations that are part of the GHCN network in Canada above a latitude of 66.5 degrees and a further 7 that are located in the Arctic portion of the USA [Data from the station inventory data for GHCN v.3, available at ftp://ftp.ncdc.noaa.gov/pub/data/ghcn/v3/]. Second, these form only a part of the 111 stations that are currently recording temperatures in the Arctic.
Claim 80. “The Amazon jungle is a fairly new phenomenon, OK. There wasn’t an Amazon jungle not too many millennia ago.”
RESPONSE: This is untrue. The Amazon Rainforest has been geographically coherent for around 55 million years.
Claim 81. “When’s the next glacial gonna occur? It’s very, I mean, it could be starting now OK. We’re at a time period where we’re due for a glacial, based on previous interglacials, so it could be starting in the next century, it could start in 3,000 years, we really don’t know.”
RESPONSE: Orbital factors that contribute to Milankovitch cycles suggest that we should be cooling now, but anthropogenic forcings have reversed that trend and are continuing to warm the environment.
Claim 82. “Global warming, if actually occurring, may present only temporary reprieve from glaciation.”
RESPONSE: First, global warming is occurring . Second, the temperature decline that would lead to the next glaciation appears to have been reversed by anthropogenic forcings .
Claim 88. “When you look at most rural datasets, you don’t see global warming.”
RESPONSE: This is simply incorrect. Studies comparing rural and urban weather stations find negligible difference between the two.
Claim 106. “But right now, seen in a geologic sense, we’re at one of the lowest levels of CO2 in the whole geologic record.”
RESPONSE: We are at the highest level of CO2 concentrations in the past one million years, which is certainly a reasonable length of time even “in a geological sense” 
Claim 124. “You know, we haven’t had any warming since 2003 and CO2 is still rising. I know that’s not climate, but still it just doesn’t really make a lot of sense.”
RESPONSE: Harris makes an assertion that isn’t valid even within his own reasoning. His assertion is correct in the sense that there has been little warming since 2003. However, we understand that this is the result of a combination of natural climate variability mostly related to ocean heat uptake, reduced solar activity and a strong La Nina phase. When these effects are accounted for, the warming trend continues. This is more concerning, because when those mitigating factors cease, we should see a strong upward trend in warming. Recall also that in an earlier lecture he claimed there was no such thing as a global average temperature; if he really believes that to be true, it is not possible to draw any conclusions about temperature trends since 2003. Most importantly, it is not meaningful to discuss climate on such short timescales. Choosing 2003 as the start date is an obvious example of cherry picking; in fact, the last decade is one of the warmest on record.
Claim 128. Harris cites (i) the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine petition project, (ii) the Bali open letter, (iii) the ICSC Manhattan declaration on climate change, and (iv) the Climate scientists register: “this is a very very very simple, non political document. We’re trying to strip the politics out of it.” “The bottom line is we don’t know what the consensus is of world scientists is. We know there’s a lot of dissent, and it’s dissent among some of the absolute leaders in the field.”
RESPONSE: This is untrue. Time and again, surveys of climate scientists and the scientific literature have demonstrated overwhelming consensus.
Claim 134. “Climate models have so far not been validated. Models have not been successful in simulating the past – consequently, they do not offer a reliable basis for predicting the future.”
RESPONSE: This is not true. Climate models are validated using hindcasting, an essential and important process in model development and a concept to which these students should be introduced. In fact, models have been very successful in predicting the past, and are unable to predict recent warming without considering increasing CO2 levels. Climate change deniers have yet to produce a GCM that can explain warming over the past century that does not include CO2 forcing. Models have also been able to predict future temperature trends; predictions made by Hansen in 1988 showed good agreement with real world observations.
Claim 135. “The role of the sun has been underestimated.”
RESPONSE: Solar activity has been declining over the past 30 years while temperature has continued to rise . Furthermore, solar forcings, while significant in climate models, are overridden in long-term trends by anthropogenic forcings .
Claim 137 “Why do we think we can do better with climate predication than we can do with weather?”
RESPONSE: Weather forecasting is an “initial value” problem – it depends on today’s weather. Over the period of a forecast the GHG forcing is constant. Climate projections are a “boundary value” problem – they depend of the forcing of the climate. Over the period of a climate experiment the GHG forcing changes – that is the whole point of the exercise. Understanding the distinction between weather and climate is critically important and a fundamental concept for students studying climate change. It is astonishing that Harris, the course lecturer, does not appear to grasp the difference nor seek to explain it. Climate and weather are two different concepts. Weather is a short-term phenomenon with complex, chaotic forces that make prediction almost impossible beyond a certain time window. Climate is averaged over a longer period with substantial inertia and, as such, has much of that chaos “ironed-out”. This makes climate more amenable to study and predictions. Also, climate models have been shown to be accurate in hindcasting and forecasting.
[Harris provides the following take-away slogans for his students to close the course]
Claim 138. “The only constant about climate is change.”
RESPONSE: Climate has always changed in the past and is changing now. However, the current phase of climate change, characterised by a 50-year phase of warming, coincides with (and cannot be accounted-for without reference to) anthropogenic change, particularly increases in atmospheric concentrations of CO2.
Claim 139. “Carbon dioxide is plant food.”
RESPONSE: Plants need CO2 to survive. However, CO2 has a hugely negative effect on the world’s oceans by causing acidification. Aside from that, the substantial role that CO2 plays in the greenhouse effect and the resultant global warming will have substantial negative effects on human populations, see Table 19.1 in. Finally, there is uncertainty over the extent to which plants will be able to use this extra CO2 in the event of climate change, as there will be a range of other changes to the environment including patterns of precipitation, distributions of plant pests and changes in human activity.
Claim 140. “There is no scientific consensus about climate change causes.”
RESPONSE: There is a very strong consensus that the current phase of climate change is caused predominantly by anthropogenic forcings, both among climate scientists and in the peer-reviewed literature.
Claim 141. “Prepare for global cooling.”
RESPONSE: There is no evidence that we are going to enter a phase of global cooling any time soon. Solar activity and orbital forcings, which are primary drivers of the glacial cycle, are fading already, indicating that we should be entering a phase of cooling , . Instead, the continued strengthening of anthropogenic forcings, which are the primary drivers of contemporary warming , , , are expected to produce substantial future warming .
Claim 142. “Climate science is changing quickly.”
RESPONSE: Harris paints a picture of an academic field in the throes of a revolution. However, the field is actually undergoing refinement. Previous predictions have been shown to be correct , new discoveries are producing refinements of models, and there is consistent and corroborative evidence from multiple studies that anthropogenic forcings are and will continue to be the primary cause of climate change for the next century.