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Heartland Institute Replies to Physics Today: Spencer Weart’s One-sided and Incomplete History of Climate Policy

October 22, 2015

The following letter was submitted to Physics Today in response to an article by Spencer Weart titled “Climate Change Impacts: The growth of understanding."


[NOTE: The following letter was submitted to Physics Today in response to an article by Spencer Weart titled “Climate Change Impacts: The growth of understanding.” The authors received no response from the publication or Spencer Weart after two requests for follow-up. The PDF version includes footnotes that do not appear in the version below.]

Letter to Editor Submission:

Reply to “Climate Change Impacts: The growth of understanding”

In his September 15 article in Physics Today, “Climate Change Impacts: The growth of understanding,” Spencer Weart presented a decidedly one-sided and incomplete history of the intersection of climate science and climate policy. Since he refers dismissively to a publication (actually, a series of books under the title Climate Change Reconsidered) that we contributed to, we have asked for this opportunity to present an opposing view. We are grateful for this opportunity to share our perspective with Physics Today readers.

First, we largely agree with Weart on several aspects of his narrative. Before the mid-1980s, very few climate scientists believed man-made climate change was a problem. But Weart fails to report that this non-alarmist “consensus” on the causes and consequences of climate change included nearly all the leading climate scientists in the world, including Roger Revelle, whom Weart mentions specifically. This informed dissent by many leading scientists continues to this day.

Most of the reports purporting to show a “consensus” beginning in the 1980s came from and continue to come from committees funded by government agencies tasked with finding a new problem to address, or by liberal foundations that have little or no scientific expertise. These committees, as Weart writes, produce reports making increasingly bold and confident assertions about future climate impacts, but they invariably include statements “admitting deep scientific uncertainty.” The reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) are replete with examples of this pattern.

Weart interprets this pattern as part of a “cautious approach” typical of committees seeking consensus, which may be correct. However, in the climate debate this practice has been exploited by politicians (such as Al Gore), environmental groups (such as the Environmental Defence Fund), and rent-seeking corporations in the renewable energy industry. These groups routinely quote alarming claims and predictions without acknowledging the deep doubts and scientific uncertainties that belie them. As a result, the public is misled concerning the quality and solidity of scientific research underlying the forecasts.

Weart alludes to “a serious controversy during the discussions leading to the IPCC’s initial report of 1990” but fails to cite any authors or publications that voiced these concerns. And controversy didn’t end with the 1990 report, but has dogged every IPCC assessment since then. The criticism hasn’t come solely from conservatives or others outside the climate science community: the InterAcademy Council (IAC), the group created by the world's national science academies to provide advice to international bodies, produced a blistering criticism of the IPCC’s procedures for recruiting authors, conducting peer-review, and presenting its conclusions.

All this brings us to Weart’s reference to an unnamed “Heartland Institute publication” that, Weart says, “declared that ‘more carbon dioxide in the air would lead to more luxuriant crop growth and greater crop yields’ while taking no account of the likely heat waves and droughts.’ No careful study or hard analysis backed up such statements.”

Criticism of one’s work is a healthy and necessary part of scientific research, but dismissing a four-volume series totalling more than 3,000 pages of summaries of peer-reviewed climate science, with contributions by more than 50 scientists, with a single sentence and then failing even to reference the original reports is prejudicial and unfair to both authors and readers. All four volumes of the Climate Change Reconsidered series are available online (for free) and individual volumes in the series have been cited nearly 100 times in peer-reviewed articles.

There is indeed “a major problem in communicating climate realities to the public,” but it is not the one Weart describes in his conclusion. It is that, starting in the 1980s, “consensus by committee” replaced real science in the climate debate and interest groups exploited that transition to turn a genuine scientific puzzle into a social and political movement. The results have been tragic for science as well as for the billions of people who now suffer adverse effects from public policies adopted at the height of this scandal.


Joseph L. Bast, Heartland Institute
Robert M. Carter, Emeritus Research Fellow, Institute of Public Affairs, Melbourne
Laurence I. Gould, Past Chair (2004) New England Section of the American Physical Society
Craig D. Idso, Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change
S. Fred Singer, University of Virginia (Emeritus), Fellow of APS
Willie Soon, Independent Scientist

Dr. Idso is the founder, former president, and currently chairman of the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change.
Joseph Bast is a Senior Fellow at The Heartland Institute. He cofounded Heartland in 1984, serving as executive director then as president & CEO until January 2018. His research and writing focuses on climate change and energy policy. @JosephLBast
Robert M. Carter, Ph.D., a long-time policy advisor to The Heartland Institute and a world renowned authority on climate change, passed away on January 19, 2016. He was 74.
Dr. S. Fred Singer was among the first and most-prominent scientist in the world speaking out against global warming alarmism.
Willie Soon is an astrophysicist and a geoscientist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Laurence I. Gould is Professor of Physics at the University of Hartford and Past Chair (2004) of the New England Section of the American Physical Society. Dr. Gould earned his Ph.D. and M.A. degrees in physics from Temple University and his B.S.