Petroleum Geologists and Climate Change, Revisited

Mon, 2011-01-17 06:16Chris Mooney
Chris Mooney's picture

Petroleum Geologists and Climate Change, Revisited

The last time I found myself paying attention to the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)–which calls itself “the world’s largest professional geological society”–the year was 2006. At the time, AAPG had caused something of an uproar by giving its “journalism award” to the late Michael Crichton’s anti-global warming novel State of Fear. This triggered a variety of criticisms–including this one by the council of the American Quaternary Association, remarking that “In bestowing its 2006 Journalism Award on Crichton, AAPG has crossed the line from  scientific professionalism to political advocacy. In our opinion, the group should be upfront about its new status.” (Later, the AAPG changed the prize’s name to the “Geosciences in the Media” award, which certainly removes one criticism–if not others.)

You can’t say the Crichton award was inconsistent: To this day, AAPG remains an organization that questions the seriousness of human caused climate change. Its website, for instance, has a policy statement on the matter that can be found here; while the language is somewhat careful, there’s a clear refusal to endorse mainstream scientific conclusions on anthropogenic causation:

In the last century growth in human populations has increased energy use. This has contributed additional carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases to the atmosphere. Although the AAPG membership is divided on the degree of influence that anthropogenic CO2 has on recent and potential global temperature increases, the AAPG believes that expansion of scientific climate research into the basic controls on climate is important….

And again: 

Certain climate simulation models predict that the warming trend will continue, as reported through NAS, AGU, AAAS, and AMS. AAPG respects these scientific opinions but wants to add that the current climate warming projections could fall within well-documented natural variations in past climate and observed temperature data….

AAPG also has put out a publication entitled Geological Perspectives on Global Climate Change, edited by Lee Gerhard, William Harrison, and Bernold Hanson. The first chapter is online here. And guess what it concludes about climate change?

Climate drivers are variable in both time and intensity and–regardless of the largely political belief that human consequences on global climate are pronounced–human influences are of comparatively low intensity and take place over short time spans. The nonequilibrium systems that control natural phenomena on earth very likely dwarf man’s ability to affect climatic conditions on a global scale.

Why bring all this up?

Well, I recently came across a review of my book Unscientific America (co-authored with Sheril Kirshenbaum) on the AAPG website. The review could not exactly be called loving–our book is labeled  “not only unscientific…but arrogant and unprofessional”–and sure enough, the issue of climate change seems at the heart of the dispute.

The review is by one Bob Shoup, who according to his bio on the website of the conservative Canada Free Press, was previously head of the AAPG’s Division of Professional Affairs (DPA). A few of Shoup’s Canada Free Press article titles: “Grand Theft Climate“ and “Agendaism and Fraud; the Sordid Tale of Climate ‘Science.’” Presumably Shoup does not speak for AAPG simply by penning a book review in what appears to be an AAPG newsletter. However, it’s worth nothing that he’s not the only person involved with AAPG who didn’t like the book, according to his review:

Several months ago, DPA President Dan Tearpock asked me to look at the book Unscientific America. He had bought it hoping to see why science literacy is on the decline in the U.S. and other western countries, and more importantly, what could be done to reverse the trend. Unfortunately, before Dan could get past the introduction he was so mad he threw the book away. Why? I’ll get back to that in a moment.

Once you read the review, it’s clear that the “why” involves our strong defense of climate science and climate scientists, and our calls for the latter to speak out about their work and combat misinformation. As Shoup writes:

One of the author’s principal arguments that most Americans are scientifically illiterate is the increasing size of the “science – society divide”. And their evidence for the increasing size of the divide is that most Americans no longer believe in Anthropogenic Global Warming. This incredibly arrogant position assumes that Americans are simply too stupid to understand the science of global warming.

That’s a misreading of our book. Yes, we’re pro-climate science; but we also make the point that people who resist science on topics like global climate change are often very well “informed” about the subject, in the sense of being quite conversant with the debate and even highly engaged in it. Shoup himself, for example, has written extensively about why he doesn’t accept the science of climate. I am certainly not calling him–or anyone else like him–“stupid.” This isn’t an intellectual problem–it’s a political one.

Shoup continues:

The authors argue that the “Climategate” scandal further proves their case that Americans are detached from science. The authors point out that in the scandal following the release of the climate e-mails, the climate science community were accused of withholding information, suppressing dissent, manipulating data, and worse. Instead of pointing out that these accusations flow directly from statements in the e-mails, the authors dismiss this as an attack on scientists by the “right wing media.”

“Flow directly” from the emails? That’s an interesting choice of language. Note that Shoup doesn’t say that the accusations are “fully substantiated by a thorough analysis of the emails”–and of course, they aren’t. Any serious analysis (and many have been done) instead shows that the charges rely on taking a few phrases (like “hide the decline”) out of context.

Anyways, you can read the whole review here. Presumably Shoup would have liked our book much more if it simply had a different stance on climate change, because he goes on about how scientific illiteracy is indeed a problem. And indeed, it would be great to have AAPG as an ally in the cause of broadening scientific literacy and engagement in our society.

But here’s the thing. If you really want to be pro-science, you don’t get to pick and choose which science to accept–and climate science’s core conclusions are, at this point, part of the essential knowledge base of every citizen. If Shoup and/or AAPG want to take a stand in favor of scientific literacy, they could start by revisiting that position statement that still, to this day, calls mainstream scientific conclusions about human-caused climate change into question.