Scientific Consensus, Courtesy of Lawyers
If we have such an overwhelming scientific "consensus" about the supposed threat of catastrophic man-made global warming—and about the political and economic solutions to it—then why do advocates have to sue scientists to prevent them from questioning it?
That's the question raised by a $10 million lawsuit lawsuit filed by Stanford engineering professor Mark Z. Jacobson accusing other scientists of defamation for critiquing his scientific work in favor of "renewal energy."
That's not how science works. That's not how any of this is supposed to work.
Jacobson made a name for himself and became something of a media celebrity for publishing a study in 2015 which claimed that the US could provide 100% of its energy needs from wind, solar, and hydroelectric power by 2050—and do so at a lower cost than with fossil fuels.
It was a ridiculous claim, for reasons I outlined in response to the Obama administration's now-abandoned "Clean Power Plan" fantasy. It's not just that wind and solar aren't reliable sources of energy, requiring massive fossil fuel backup systems or extremely expensive energy storage to compensate when the wind isn't blowing or the sun isn't shining. The deeper problem is the enormous investment in materials and energy required to build a whole new infrastructure for wind, solar, and hydroelectric power. This pushes the economics up to and well beyond the point of diminishing returns, where you are expending far more energy to build the infrastructure than you can ever get back from it.
As one study put it:
Even if one were to electrify all of transport, industry, heating and so on, so much renewable generation and balancing/storage equipment would be needed to power it that astronomical new requirements for steel, concrete, copper, glass, carbon fiber, neodymium, shipping and haulage, etc., etc. would appear. All these things are made using mammoth amounts of energy: far from achieving massive energy savings, which most plans for a renewables future rely on implicitly, we would wind up needing far more energy, which would mean even more vast renewables farms—and even more materials and energy to make and maintain them, and so on.
It's a scientific and technological Catch-22.
Earlier this year, a group of 21 experts led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Christopher Clack definitively debunked Jacobson's claims in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper's abstract sums up the case: "In this paper, we evaluate that study and find significant shortcomings in the analysis. In particular, we point out that this work used invalid modeling tools, contained modeling errors, and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions. Policy makers should treat with caution any visions of a rapid, reliable, and low-cost transition to entire energy systems that relies almost exclusively on wind, solar, and hydroelectric power."
Notice, by the way, that the issue here isn't just about pushing "renewable energy" as an alternative to fossil fuels. Jacobson was specifically attempting to exclude nuclear power from the energy mix, which is one of the reasons why he got pushback from some of the saner environmentalists who accept nuclear as the only remotely viable alternative to fossil fuels.
So how does Jacobson respond to having his article critiqued by other scientists in the peer-reviewed scientific literature? He sued Christopher Clack and the National Academy of Sciences, specifically claiming that they are defaming him by asserting that he made a "modeling error."
Ironically, Jacobson is the same thin-skinned jerk who initially responded to the debunking of his report by going on that well-known peer-reviewed scientific forum, Twitter, to declare that the critique was "intentionally scientifically fraudulent with falsified data." But sure, he's really concerned that scientists might be defaming each other.
More to the point, criticism of Jacobson's use of models is not defamation. The law on libel, slander, and defamation covers maliciously false statements of fact, not evaluations or opinions. Describing the use of a scientific model as erroneous is not merely an opinion but a very complex opinion that can only be properly evaluated by experts. So under any circumstances, this would be an abuse of defamation law to suppress freedom of speech. But it is even more egregious to apply this to scientific debate.
Scientists already have well-established forums and procedures for debating competing models and hypotheses. They have peer-reviewed journals in which they publish findings that are deemed by the reviewers to be of adequate scientific quality. Then other scientists publish their peer-reviewed critiques—and readers draw on their own scientific expertise to draw their own conclusions. These decisions are made by scientists, without the aid of lawyers.
Jacobson is trying to short-circuit that process. The goal is to harass his scientific rivals with frivolous lawsuits. Even if his suit doesn't win, you can see the deterrent effect. The next time rival scientists consider debunking a sloppy paper, they will think twice about whether they can afford the lawyers' fees.
It's not the first time this sort of thing has happened. Another celebrity global warming scientist, Michael Mann, filed a similar defamation lawsuit against writers who disparaged him for his statistically manipulated "hockey stick" graph of historical temperatures. That case tried to establish the idea that it is a violation of Mann's rights to "question his intellect and reasoning."
So now calling in the lawyers to assert your immunity from questioning is becoming a trend. Backing it up is all the rhetoric we hear about how anyone who doubts the evil of fossil fuels or questions the viability of the future environmentalist utopia is a wicked "science denier." It has even become acceptable to demand that such "deniers" be thrown in jail. So far, Jacobson's effort has not been all that well received. But the talk about prosecuting global warming skeptics provides the ideological support for an attempt to shut down normal scientific discourse.
Environmentalists have to face up to the fact that they have a problem with unscientific zealotry—but I doubt they'll be able to do it. The whole point of the global warming scare is to take an uncertain and unproven scientific hypothesis and insist on it as an absolute scientific certainty requiring immediate action—which just so happens to be a very specific agenda that aligns perfectly with a certain political outlook. Then they have to demonize all skeptics as enemies of science in the pay of nefarious special interest groups.
An attack on free scientific inquiry is already baked into the global warming cause. It is the reigning culture of the scientific establishment on this issue. So don't be surprised when it produces unhinged zealots who try to use the power of the state or harassment by frivolous lawsuits to subvert the rules of open scientific debate.