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A discussion leader’s reference to a study said to challenge the climate change ‘consensus’ omits key points the audience should have been advised of .. such as whose views, exactly, were surveyed?

KILMARNOCK, VA. — Picture the U.S. Capitol.

Now picture it with the caption “If you knew what they know, would you do what they do?”

That captures the notion behind the 96-year-old nonprofit Foreign Policy Association’s annual “Great Decisions” meetings, now in their sixtieth year and held each winter across the nation in communities large and small.

A little background: The writer of this piece for the past three years has attended these briefings, typically including about 40 community representatives, in the tiny community of Kilmarnock, Virginia. It’s in the state’s “Northern Neck,” a rural five-county region bordered by the Potomac River on the north and the Rappahannock River on the south, with the Chesapeake Bay its backyard.

Located in Lancaster County, population about 11,300 people, Kilmarnock is home to about 1,400. Both population numbers are pretty much stable for decades now, and they are expected to remain that way. There’s little to no sizeable local industry, no major interstates, no railroad, and an aging population comprised largely of retirees, with the balance consisting mostly of those in general contracting, retail, farming and fishing, lawn and property care, and care for the aged.

Got the picture? There’s more.

Along with quaint beauty and charm flowing from the dominant feature, the Chesapeake Bay and its countless tributaries, there’s the population itself, and in this case primarily the population of retirees and near-retirees who come together for the weekly “Great Decisions” series over a period of about two months. They come from all walks of lives and backgrounds, but a disproportionate number have had impressive international careers in the Departments of State or Defense, in high military positions, the private sector, and academia, in commercial piloting, in international affairs and diplomacy, and so forth. It is for sure quite an impressive collection of “formers,” many bringing their own first-hand experiences to the discussions of the week on issues crossing the globe.

In 2014, for instance, those discussions have focused on issues such as “Defense Technology,” “Israel and the U.S.,” “Turkey’s Challenges,” “Islamic Awakening,” “China’s Foreign Policy,” “U.S. Trade Policy,” and, newly added, the “Prospects in the U.S.S.R./Ukraine/Crimea Situation.”

Oh. And “Food and Climate” the focus of the group discussion on March 14. And the focus too of this first-hand account.

Each discussion is led by a volunteer charged with framing and then leading the group dialogue. In the food and climate case considered here, the volunteer discussant, accompanied and actively assisted by his spouse, happens also to be the leader of the local Tea Party. The food-climate session is the only one of six held to that date that they have attended, and both were fully engaged in leading the discussion.

The introductory “framing” remarks were peppered, in this writer’s view, with dubious assertions and suggestions, concerning, for instance, the relative importance of CO2 given that it is a trace gas, and the relative atmospheric compositions of all greenhouse gases cumulatively contrasted with that of far higher concentrations of water vapor.

The opening remarks also included a reference to research said to point to widespread disagreement in the science community on humans’ contributions to warming and to the importance of climate change overall.
The ensuing discussion over the course of the two hours brought forth numerous assertions challenging those and other points. But the reference to the purported peer-reviewed research elicited no further comments, few in the audience (including this writer) having heard of it.

On that point, the speaker referred to what she said is a “Canadian university peer-reviewed study” and said it indicates that only 37 percent of scientists concur with what I’ll here call the IPCC/National Academy of Sciences/Royal Society, etc. “consensus” on climate science.

My curiosity piqued, I asked during a break for a citation, graciously provided by e-mail the next day. Why had I not have heard of such an important study? I wondered. So I eagerly settled down to read it.

Published in a journal called Organizational Studies, the piece opens with the italicized and centered 2003 statement from U.S. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) pointing to “all of the hysteria, all of the fear, all of the phony science” and asking rhetorically if human-caused global warming is “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American public.”

But in this “peer-reviewed study” showing only 37 percent of scientists accept the “consensus” on climate science evidence, here’s what most leapt out at me, and here I quote from the study’s authors in their published report, with the bold font my own:

To address this, we reconstruct the frames of one group of experts who have not received much attention in previous research and yet play a central role in understanding industry responses — professional experts in petroleum and related industries.

Our study demonstrates that the majority of ‘command posts’ (Zald & Lounsbury, 2010, p. 963) within organizations, especially in the petroleum industry, seem to be manned with opponents to the IPCC and anthropogenic climate science who are actively engaged in defensive institutional work.

To answer this question, we consider how climate change is constructed by professional engineers and geoscientists in the province of Alberta, Canada.

Yet, the petroleum industry is particularly divisive and controversial. The oil industry in Alberta (especially the oil sands) is the largest source of greenhouse gases (GHG), in a country with rapidly growing (not decreasing) emissions.

We show that the consensus of IPCC experts meets a much larger, and again heterogeneous, skeptical group of experts in the relevant industries and organizations (at least in Alberta) than is generally assumed.

We find that climate science skepticism is not limited to the scientifically illiterate (per Hoffman, 2011 a), but well ensconced within this group of professional experts with scientific training who work as leaders or advisors to management in governmental, nongovernmental, and corporate organizations.

Oh. Say what?

So the sample group consisted solely of those employed as “professional engineers and geoscientists” … in the petroleum and related industries … and then only in Alberta, Canada, where the petroleum industry is “the largest source” of GHGs in a country with “rapidly growing (not decreasing) emissions.”

Oh. That “peer-reviewed” study, represented to the group as casting doubt on any general agreement among relevant scientists on the current state of the evidence.

So as a communicator of what I consider to be the peer-reviewed and evidence-based science on climate change, where does that leave me? Bite my lip, and calmly move on to next week’s scheduled “Great Decisions” topic, the unquestionably important and timely discussion of Crimea? Pass those direct quotations on back to the discussion leaders, and ask why that context was not provided to the larger group? (Already done.) Say nothing to the soon-to-be-reassembled group about the broader context of the study cited to them last week?

So consider again: “If you knew what they know, would you do what they do?” And if you didn’t know what should have been made known about that study … what might you think?

To be continued in next week’s follow-up post. It will briefly describe, again from the writer’s first-person perspective, the quick follow-up at the March 21 “Great Decisions” confab to the pressing discussion of all-things-Crimea. Again, in Kilmarnock, Virginia.

Photo source: Bethesda [Md] Magazine.

FOLLOW-UP NOTE:

When some three-dozen residents of rural Virginia met March 22 for their weekly “Great Decisions” meeting, focusing on China’s foreign policy rather than the Russia/Crimea situation because of a schedule change, they opened with a short context-setting review of the so-called “peer reviewed” study described to them the previous week.

With the prior approval of the session moderator, and with notice to the previous week’s presenters, I offered the context for the study cited as refuting any broad consensus among scientists on important climate change issues.

The follow-up discussion by design was brief and factual: the cited study had involved surveying solely of “professional engineers and geoscientists,” and solely of those working for petroleum industry and related companies … and solely in Alberta, Canada, where the industry is the lynchpin.

Hardly the basis for challenging, let alone rejecting, the notion of strong agreement among scientists worldwide. That didn’t need to be stated: It was obvious to those attending.

By previous agreement, no further discussion of the subject, in order to allow ample time for the subject of that day — China’s foreign policy. The usual applause after the presentation by those present, but nothing special about that. A few follow-up “thanks” during the 15-minute break, along with an invitation to speak before a group of Virginia science teachers when they next meet, in 2015, in the area … and that was it.

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