Matt Ridley, a science writer and the author of The Rational Optimist, frequently uses his Wall Street Journal column to dismiss the threat of climate change and argue that climate scientists should not be trusted. But experts say that Ridley, who is an advisor to the right-wing Global Warming Policy Foundation, is misleading readers about climate science.
WSJ Columnist Matt Ridley Distrusts Climate Scientists
Ridley Often Disputes Climate Science In His Regular Journal Column. Since 2011, Matt Ridley has written about climate science and policies to reduce carbon emissions 18 times in his column at The Wall Street Journal, excluding articles on energy that did not explicitly discuss climate policy. At least seven of these articles, as detailed below, contained distortions of the science. Ridley has also distorted climate science in his work for the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a right-wing group that opposes actions to address climate change, and writing for other publications. [Factiva search, 10/15/12]
Ridley Compared Climate Scientists To Eugenicists. Matt Ridley compared climate science to eugenics in part because eugenicists “insist[ed] that its tenets were beyond reasonable challenge.” Ridley argued that due to the scientific consensus on manmade global warming, climate science is subject to more “confirmation bias,” and suggested that it is more like a “cult” than a scientific discipline. From Ridley's pamphlet for The Global Warming Policy Foundation, including an excerpt from a Wall Street Journal column by Ridley:
[T]here are many examples of scientific orthodoxies that brooked little dissent in their heyday and yet were often wrong, such as behaviourism and Freudianism. In one case, the parallel with climate science is uncomfortably close. In the first half of the twentieth century, eugenics was a theory about future danger, based on prediction, demanding short-term pain for long-term gain and insisting that its tenets were beyond reasonable challenge.
When a discipline defers to a single authority, and demands adherence to a set of beliefs, then it becomes a cult.
[T]he way to combat confirmation bias - the tendency to behave like a defence attorney rather than a judge when assessing a theory in science - is to avoid monopoly. So long as there are competing scientific centres, some will prick the bubbles of theory reinforcement in which other scientists live.
For constructive critics, this is the problem with modern climate science. They do not think it is a conspiracy theory, but a monopoly that clings to one hypothesis (that carbon dioxide will cause dangerous global warming) and brooks less and less dissent. Again and again, climate sceptics are told they should respect the consensus, an admonition wholly against the tradition of science. [The Global Warming Policy Foundation, October 2012]
Ridley Compared People Who Accept Climate Science To Conspiracy Theorists. In a September 2011 Wall Street Journal article, Ridley said that writer Michael Shermer's guide to diagnosing a conspiracy theorist who is wrong “describes many who strive to blame most climate change on man-made carbon dioxide emissions,” as well as those who deny global warming (a false equivalence as one side has peddled conspiracy theories, while Ridley cites no examples of climate activists doing so):
Here is Mr. [Michael] Shermer's final diagnostic of a wrong conspiracy theory: “The conspiracy theorist defends the conspiracy theory tenaciously to the point of refusing to consider alternative explanations for the events in question, rejecting all disconfirming evidence for his theory and blatantly seeking only confirmatory evidence to support what he has already determined to be the truth.”
This describes many of those who strive to blame most climate change on man-made carbon dioxide emissions. Of course, they reply that it also describes those who strive to blame most climate change on the sun.
That's how belief systems work: On both sides, there is huge belief, buttressed by confirmation bias, and equally huge belief that the belief and the conspiracy are all on the other side. Rick Perry, Al Gore -- each thinks the other is a mad conspiracy theorist who will not let the facts get in the way of prejudices. Maybe both are right. [The Wall Street Journal, 9/10/11]
Science Writer Chris Mooney: Ridley's Argument Is “Quite Predictable” And Unconvincing. Chris Mooney, a science writer who has written extensively about confirmation bias and climate science, noted that Ridley's argument relies on the premise that there is a “unique reason not to trust” climate scientists, yet there is no reason to think “they're acting differently than other scientists.” Mooney said that while Ridley is correct that any one scientist is subject to confirmation bias, there is “no reason to think climate scientists are more susceptible or that the scientific process doesn't work here.” He explained that Ridley, who identifies as a libertarian, has views that are “quite predictable -- we always see this with highly intelligent libertarians.” He added that it was “disappointing” that Ridley, who Mooney said is normally a good science writer, would try to dismiss one area of science. Mooney stated, “I don't you think you get to pick and choose” which bodies of science are legitimate. [Phone conversation, 10/15/12]
Climate “Skeptics” Often Cherry-Pick Evidence To Maintain Their Worldview. John Cook of SkepticalScience wrote about how the concept of confirmation bias, which Ridley was referring to, applies to those who reject the science of climate change:
A growing body of research has found that when a person's worldview is threatened by scientific evidence, they interpret the science in a biased manner. One issue where this influence is strongest is climate change.
For supporters of an unregulated free market, regulating polluting industries to reduce global warming is so unpalatable that they are far more likely to reject that climate change is happening.
The mechanism by which ideology such as this influences our scientific views is confirmation bias. We place greater weight on evidence that confirms our beliefs, while ignoring or resisting conflicting evidence. This can be a challenge when confronted with a convergence of evidence and a scientific consensus, but confirmation bias is up to the task. Let's look at some examples.
The most common manifestation of confirmation bias is cherry picking, where one carefully selects a small piece of data that paints a friendly picture and overlooks any inconvenient evidence.
So what happens when 97 out of 100 of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming?
Those who reject the scientific consensus lavish their attention on the 3% minority, magnifying their significance and turning a blind eye to the 97% of scientific experts. [The Conversation, 9/6/12]
Attempts To Explain Recent Warming Without Significant Greenhouse Gas Contribution Have Failed. As Mike Brotherton, a professor of astrophysics, noted in a blog post responding to Ridley's columns, climate scientists have one incentive to go against the tide -- they would likely become quite famous if they were able to overturn manmade global warming. However, competing hypotheses have repeatedly failed to explain the warming over the last century. For instance, climate contrarians often point to changes in solar activity and cosmic rays to explain away manmade global warming. But as the New Scientist explained, cosmic rays “cannot explain global warming”:
Changes in the number of cosmic rays hitting the atmosphere due to changes in solar activity cannot explain global warming, as average cosmic ray intensities have been increasing since 1985 even as the world has warmed - the opposite of what should happen if cosmic rays produce climate-cooling clouds.
NRC: Significant Manmade Global Warming Has Been “So Thoroughly Examined And Tested” That There Is A “Vanishingly Small” Likelihood It Would Be Overturned. From a comprehensive study of climate change by the National Research Council:
From a philosophical perspective, science never proves anything--in the manner that mathematics or other formal logical systems prove things--because science is fundamentally based on observations. Any scientific theory is thus, in principle, subject to being refined or overturned by new observations. In practical terms, however, scientific uncertainties are not all the same. Some scientific conclusions or theories have been so thoroughly examined and tested, and supported by so many independent observations and results, that their likelihood of subsequently being found to be wrong is vanishingly small. Such conclusions and theories are then regarded as settled facts. This is the case for the conclusions that the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities. In other cases, particularly for matters that are at the leading edge of active research, uncertainties may be substantial and important. In these cases, care must be taken not to draw stronger conclusions than warranted by the available evidence. [National Research Council, 2010, via Professor Scott Mandia]
Matt Ridley Downplays Evidence Of Climate Change Threat
Ridley Suggested “The Threat Of A Dangerously Large Warming Is So Improbable As To Be Negligible.” Ridley reportedly denies that he is a “climate skeptic,” and instead calls himself a “lukewarmer.” In a speech last year, Ridley suggested that “the threat of a dangerously large warming is so improbable as to be negligible”:
I am not a 'denier'. I fully accept that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, the climate has been warming and that man is very likely to be at least partly responsible.
The problem is that you can accept all the basic tenets of greenhouse physics and still conclude that the threat of a dangerously large warming is so improbable as to be negligible, while the threat of real harm from climate-mitigation policies is already so high as to be worrying, that the cure is proving far worse than the disease is ever likely to be. Or as I put it once, we may be putting a tourniquet round our necks to stop a nosebleed. [Speech by Matt Ridley, 10/31/11, via Watts Up With That?] [The New Scientist, 6/10/10]
Ridley Incorrectly Contended Antarctic Sea Ice Growth Casts Doubt On Global Warming. In a Wall Street Journal column on Arctic sea ice retreat last month, Ridley contended that Antarctic sea ice growth casts doubt on global warming:
There's also the puzzling fact that Antarctic sea ice shows no sign of summer retreat, and the current winter's peak extent is well above average. The sea-dominated Southern Hemisphere is certainly warming more slowly than the land-dominated Northern Hemisphere, but it has still been warming. If warming is supposed to be “global,” shouldn't sea ice retreat at both ends of the world? [The Wall Street Journal, 9/21/12, emphasis added]
But The Associated Press spoke to experts who explained that scientists have “long predicted that Antarctica would not respond as quickly to global warming as other places”:
The Arctic ice responds more directly to warmth. In the Antarctic, the main driver is wind, [Ted] Maksym and other scientists say. Changes in the strength and motion of winds are now pushing the ice farther north, extending its reach.
Those changes in wind are tied in a complicated way to climate change from greenhouse gases, Maksym and [Ted] Scambos say. Climate change has created essentially a wall of wind that keeps cool weather bottled up in Antarctica, NASA's Abdalati says.
Mark Serreze, director of the snow and ice data center, says computer models have long predicted that Antarctica would not respond as quickly to global warming as other places. Since 1960, the Arctic has warmed the most of the world's regions, and Antarctica has warmed the least, according to NASA data.
And the slight rise in Antarctic sea ice cannot be compared to the record breaking Arctic sea ice decline: daily sea ice extent for the Arctic is well outside of two standard deviations from the 1997-2000 average, while the Antarctic daily sea ice extent is only slightly outside of this range for 2012, as illustrated in these charts from the National Snow and Ice Data Center:
Ridley Misrepresented Ocean Acidification In His WSJ Column. A Media Matters study of Wall Street Journal coverage from January 2011 to June 2012 found that the paper only mentioned ocean acidification, which poses a serious threat to ocean life and is caused by the same carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming, three times. All three mentions were in columns that downplayed the threat. The most information that Wall Street Journal readers got about ocean acidification during that time was a column by Ridley dedicated to distorting and cherry-picking the science on ocean acidification. That article “confuse[d]” the effects of short-term natural variation in pH with the effects of longer-term changes and “misstate[d]” the effect of higher acidity on marine species overall, according to Lisa Suatoni, a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
And experts said the section of Ridley's book on ocean acidification, which mirrored his column at times, contained “misconceptions,” “cherry-picked evidence,” and “unsupported” claims. Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg noted that Ridley claimed that ocean life can simply adapt to the changes, for example stating that some coral reefs grow in warm areas of the ocean, but he overlooked that the rapidity of the changes in the ocean's chemistry is what poses a threat to ocean life. Andy Ridgwell echoed this point, noting that Ridley cited one period in the past as “an example of successful adaptation to temperature rise” but that adaptation occurred over the course of “about 4000 to 5000 years. In the future, we are looking at a few degrees in a hundred years - perhaps 50 times faster.” Ridgwell added that a large body of scientific literature shows “increasing acidification leading to decreased calcification” in organisms such as corals that use carbonate to build their skeletons, but Ridley cherry-picked one study that examined a hypothetical scenario rather than the observed and projected changes. [Media Matters, 6/28/12] [Natural Resources Defense Council, 1/12/12] [New Scientist, 6/10/10] [Wall Street Journal, 1/7/12]
Ridley Invalidly Compared Predicting The Climate To Predicting The Weather. Ridley compared predictions about the climate to predictions about the weather in a pamphlet for the Global Warming Policy Foundation:
Climate scientists and their media champions equate such scepticism with scepticism about, say, the theory of evolution. Yet evolution is an explanation of facts; dangerous man-made climate change is a prediction about the future. Theories about the future are always less reliable than theories about the past. I can have confidence that the reports that it rained last Tuesday are true, while doubting the forecast that it will rain next Tuesday. [The Global Warming Policy Foundation, October 2012]
But as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change explained, comparing climate science to meteorology is invalid:
[L]ong-term variations brought about by changes in the composition of the atmosphere are much more predictable than individual weather events. As an example, while we cannot predict the outcome of a single coin toss or roll of the dice, we can predict the statistical behaviour of a large number of such trials. [Media Matters, 8/31/11]
And science writer Chris Mooney said that despite Ridley's dismissal of comparing climate science to evolution science, “some aspects of climate research are fundamental in the same sense as evolution.” [Phone conversation, 10/15/12]
Ridley Falsely Claimed Most Polar Bear Populations Are Growing. According to The Guardian's George Monbiot, Ridley claimed in his book, The Rational Optimist, that “11 of 13 populations” of polar bears are “growing or steady.” In fact, there are 19 subpopulations of polar bears, and according to the most comprehensive research by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Polar Bear Specialist Group, 8 are declining, 3 are stable, 1 is increasing, and there is insufficient data to assess the other 7 subpopulations, as can be seen by this map created by the group:
Ridley Downplayed Sea Level Rise And Arctic Ice Melt To Claim Global Warming Is Just A “Nosebleed.” Ridley repeatedly compares global warming to a “nosebleed.” In a column for the British paper The Times, Ridley claimed that one area that will only experience a “nosebleed” type impact is Arctic sea ice retreat. But as The Carbon Brief has noted, Arctic sea ice loss “leads to further regional warming.” Ridley also cited a paper that concluded that sea-level rise is “occurring more slowly than expected,” according to The Carbon Brief. But Ridley cherry-picked a paper that runs counter to the majority of other recent research, and a review found that “Most recent developments indicate that sea level is currently rising, slightly faster since the early 1990s than during the previous decades.” [The Carbon Brief, 4/7/11]
Ridley Claimed Climate Sensitivity Is Low In Contrast To The Body Of Scientific Literature. SkepticalScience noted many “misleading and inaccurate claims” in an article that Ridley wrote in WIRED, including his suggestion that he “suspect[s] that the net positive feedbacks from water vapor in the atmosphere [is] low, so that we face only 1 to 2 degrees Celsius of warming this century.” But SkepticalScience writer and environmental scientist Dana Nuccitelli explained that the “literature consistently shows” that water vapor has a strong positive feedback, amplifying warming. She added:
Ridley suggests that “lukewarmers” also think we only face 1-2°C warming this century, but under what emissions scenario does this belief apply? For example, if we reach an atmospheric CO2 level of 900 ppm by 2100 (which is entirely plausible if we follow Ridley's advice and don't worry about global warming or take action to mitigate it), a resulting 2°C warming over the next century (~2.8°C since pre-industrial times) would correspond to a climate sensitivity of only about 1.6°C for doubled CO2.
Do “lukewarmers” really believe that climate sensitivity cannot be higher than 1.6°C when the body of scientific literature puts the likely range between 2°C and 4.5°C for doubled CO2[?] [SkepticalScience, 8/29/12]
Ridley Misled On Natural Carbon Emissions. In an August 6, 2011 Wall Street Journal column, Ridley misleadingly said that “97% of the carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere each year is from nature” in order to argue that cutting carbon emissions might “hinder us, in adapting to” a volcanic eruption:
The possibility of another [volcanic eruption like] Katla or Laki reminds us of the need to prepare for dangerous climate change of the natural as well as the man-made variety. Abrupt climate change has been a sporadic feature of history since long before the industrial revolution, mostly in the form of cooling caused by volcanoes.
[A]lthough it is a myth that volcanoes produce more carbon dioxide than fossil fuels do, the natural world far outpaces our cars and factories. Roughly 97% of the carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere each year is from nature, not human activity.
Savage lurches in the global climate will happen one day, whether by manmade warming or volcanic cooling. Cutting carbon emissions might mitigate the former, but it will not help us, and may even hinder us, in adapting to the next Katla or Laki. [The Wall Street Journal, 8/6/11]
Scott Mandia, a professor of Physical Sciences, wrote in an email to Media Matters that it is “silly” to argue that we should “keep drastically warming the world” to avoid “temporary volcanic cooling”:
To argue that we need to keep drastically warming the world for generations in order to “protect” us from temporary volcanic cooling is about as silly an argument I have ever heard. Recall the massive Mt. Pinatubo volcano in 1991 that caused about 0.5C cooling for a few years? Where are we now? Obviously much warmer than we were in 1991 and Pinatubo is a distant memory.
Ridley also repeats the very misleading meme that nature emits more CO2 than humans. He fails to tell his readers that nature also absorbs about the same CO2 that it emits. Consider this analogy: There are two massive gorillas on a see-saw. One is CO2 entering the air from nature and the other is CO2 removed from the air by nature. Both very large but are in balance. Now humans hand one gorilla a small dog. See-saw now tips and one can say that ALL of the tipping was due to that human-caused doggy.
This chart from SkepticalScience illustrates how that natural balance is upset by manmade carbon emissions:
The Journal Does Not Disclose That Ridley is An Advisor To The Global Warming Policy Foundation. The biography accompanying Ridley's weekly column for the Weekend Review does not disclose that he is a member of the “Academic Advisory Council” at The Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) when he writes about climate and energy issues in his column. The Foundation recently “gratefully acknowledge[d] the permission to reprint” three columns that Ridley had written for The Wall Street Journal. The only time the Journal has mentioned Ridley's ties to the GWPF was in quoting his work for the Foundation in the “Notable & Quotable” section, according to a Factiva search. [The Global Warming Policy Foundation, October 2012] [The Wall Street Journal, 9/21/12] [The Wall Street Journal, 3/7/12 and 5/5/11]
Journal Editor: Ridley “Has Never Received Money From The Global Warming Policy Foundation.” When asked by Media Matters reporter Joe Strupp why the Journal has not disclosed Ridley's connection to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, the editor of the Weekend Review, Gary Rosen, responded:
Matt has never received any money from the Global Warming Policy Foundation or donated to them. He told me that he doesn't necessarily agree with all their views but likes what they do to challenge what he considers misguided energy and climate policy in the UK. [Email exchange, 10/17/12]
GWPF Founder Is Chairman Of A Company That Represents Oil Companies. Lord Lawson, who founded The Global Warming Policy Foundation, is the Chairman of Central Europe Trust Ltd. While Lawson claimed in 2009 that the company has not had “any oil company clients for many years now,” its website still lists several oil companies as clients. From The Carbon Brief:
It is not clear who funds the foundation.
[Founder] Lord Lawson is chairman of Central Europe Trust Ltd, which on its website states it represents clients including BP Amoco, Texaco and Royal Dutch/Shell Group. This prompted Lord Prescott to say in Parliament of the foundation: “From what I can see of it, it is not so much a thinktank as a petrol tank.” Lawson has said that there are no links between the foundation and his chairmanship. In a letter responding to Lord Prescott, then Deputy Prime Minister, dated November 2009, he states: "[CET Ltd] has not, in fact, had any oil company clients for many years now, and at the present time its only involvement in the energy sector is a small interest in wind and other renewables." [The Carbon Brief, accessed 10/10/12]
The Global Warming Policy Foundation's Academic Advisory Council also includes Ian Pilmer, who is the director of seven mining companies. [SourceWatch, accessed 10/10/12]
GWPF Pushed Debunked Claim That Scientists Were Found “Fudging” Data In “Climategate.” The Guardian reported:
The foundation has been a vocal critic of climate scientists and climate policies since it launched on the eve of the Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009. Lawson's statement in the accounts says such timing was “deliberate”, but that it was “entirely fortuitous” that it coincided with the unauthorised release of thousands of emails from climate scientists working at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit.
The foundation called for a public inquiry into the contents of the emails and Lawson later criticised climate scientists for “fudging” data when he gave testified before the science and technology select committee at a parliamentary inquiry last March. The scientists denied the accusation and a parliamentary inquiry later concluded that there was no evidence to challenge the “scientific consensus” that global warming is induced by human activities. It did, however, scold the university for not tackling a “culture of withholding information”. [The Guardian, 1/20/11]
GWPF Pushes Misleading Claims On Climate Science. The Carbon Brief noted that The Global Warming Policy Foundation uses a temperature graph on their website that obscures the upward temperature trend:
A graphic used on the website at the launch of the foundation was criticized for showing an inaccurate temperature in 2003. Although now corrected, the graphic still present on the website shows a decline in temperature from 2001 to 2008; misrepresenting the overall trend in rising temperatures by cherry-picking just a few years of data to create a negative trend. The first decade in this century was in fact the warmest decade in the instrumental record, containing six of the hottest years on record. [The Carbon Brief, accessed 10/10/12]
Here is the chart that the Global Warming Policy Foundation uses:
[The Global Warming Policy Foundation, accessed 10/10/12]
Here is a chart from Skeptical Science showing why using this short-term trend is misleading:
The Carbon Brief further noted that the organization cherry-picked studies that were not clearly peer-reviewed and whose authors had ties to ExxonMobil:
The list of '900+' papers linked to by the Global Warming Policy Foundation as supporting climate scepticism included more articles published in Energy and Environment than any other journal.
We reported last week that nine out of the top 10 authors listed by the GWPF were linked to ExxonMobil. We also discovered that prominent scientists featured on the list didn't agree that their work supported skepticism about anthropogenic global warming - and had unsuccessfully asked for their work to be removed from similar lists in the past.
We used the same data analysis tools to examine where the papers on the list were published. The most cited journal by a clear margin was Energy and Environment, which provided 131 papers to the list - almost 15 percent of the total.
Energy and Environment's editor Sonja-Boehmer Christiansen has said that she is “following [her] political agenda” in editing the journal, which is co-edited by Benny Peiser, director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.
Christiansen noted in evidence submitted to the UK Parliament that E&E has been characterised as " a journal of choice for climate skeptics," also stating: “If this [is] so, it happened by default as other publication opportunities were closed to them...”
It is unclear whether E&E is peer-reviewed. [The Carbon Brief, 4/21/11]