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19,000 scientists doubt warming? I doubt that

After a Maryland senate hearing on a global warming pollution control bill this week, a business advocacy group sent out a press release with a claim that cast doubt on global warming.

The organization, called Maryland Business for Responsive Government, said that "more than 19,000 American scientists" have signed an online petition saying that "there is no convincing scientific evidence" that human release of carbon dioxide will cause "disruption of the Earth's climate." The group directed reporters to www.oism.org.

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That's a lot of scientists.  It certainly gives the impression that most -- or at least many -- experts don't think global warming is a serious problem.  But what the press release doesn't say is that this petition was circulated a decade ago, before many recent, highly authoritative reports showing that the scientific consensus is now overwhelmingly that industry is in fact causing global warming, and it's a big problem.

Nor does the press release reveal that this petition came from a fringe group called the Oregon Institute for Science and Medicine, which has been criticized by mainstream scientists.

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"They are totally discounted by anyone serious," said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. "And there are no signers who have any standing as experts on the global climate."

What is the Oregon Group? Source Watch, an online information service provided by the nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy, describes the Oregon Group as "a small research institute that studies biochemistry, diagnostic medicine, nutrition, preventive medicine and the molecular biology of aging. It is headed by... an eccentric scientist who has a long history of controversial entanglements with figures on the fringe of accepted research.  OISM also markets a home-schooling kit for 'parents concerned about socialism in the public schools' and publishes books on how to survive nuclear war."

None of the eight faculty members listed on the Oregon Institute's website are climate scientists.  Six are chemists, one is an electrical engineer and another is a professor of medicine.

After the publication of the "petition" in 1998, the prestigious Council of the National Academies of Sciences issued a statement saying that it was "concerned" that the petition was causing "confusion" because it was sent to scientists with a report printed to look like it came from the National Academies of Sciences.

"This petition does not reflect the conclusions of expert reports of the academy," the National Academies wrote. "Greenhouse warming poses a potential threat sufficient to merit prompt responses."

A reader emailed me to say that anyone -- even imposters -- could sign the Oregon petition claiming to be a scientist.  This included "a friend of mine who signed as 'Dr. Geri Halliwell' -- better known as Ginger Spice of the Spice Girls," wrote Charlie M.

A website run by climate scientists  calls the Oregon group the  "Oregon Institute of Science and Malarkey."  This scientific group, called RealClimate, says the petition has been "highly criticized" because it's full of "errors."

The real consensus of scientists is not reflected by the Oregon Institute.  It is reflected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international scientific organization with more than 2,500 scientists from 130 countries that recently won the Nobel Prize.

A year ago, the Intergovernmental Panel concluded it was more than 90 percent sure - having "very high confidence" - that global warming is being caused by human industry.

In November, the IPCC issued another report   that went even farther, saying: "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global
average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level.... There is very high confidence that the net effect of human activities since 1750 has been one of warming."

Dan Kirk-Davidoff, assistant professor of atmospheric and oceanic science at the University of Maryland College Park, said there is no question that the real scientific consensus is expressed by the IPCC report, and not the Oregon Institute.

"The IPCC has said in no uncertain terms that increasing carbon dioxide from humans is causing global warming," Kirk-Davidoff said. "For political reasons, people will complain about the IPCC but it's just crap….the people on the panel are the best and brightest."

A survey of more than 900 peer-reviewed articles on climate change published between 1993 and 2003 found that not a single one challenged the fact that human industry is playing a role in global warming, according to research by Naomi Oreskes, a professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego.

In his book, The Weather Makers, author Tim Flannery described a well-funded propaganda effort by industry lobbying groups to try to convince journalists and the public that scientists are still debating whether global warming is real.  That debate is over, but many in the public doesn't know it yet because of doubt manufactured by industries with billions at stake in avoiding regulation, Flannery writes.

"The industries who oppose action on climate change are little different from the asbestos and tobacco companies, who by constantly challenging and clouding the outcomes of research into the link between their products and cancer seek to buy themselves a few more decades of fat profits," Flannery writes.

Frank Luntz, an influential Republican communications strategist who helped craft Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America," wrote a memo in 2002 about how political leaders should inject the idea of scientific doubt into discussions of global warming.

Under the heading "Winning the Global Warming Debate," Luntz wrote, "Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming in the scientific community. Should the public ever come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly."

Since then, more scientific evidence has poured in -- and now even President George Bush and Newt Gingrich acknowledge that global warming is a real problem.

So for anyone to claim these days that global warming is not a reality -- as some AM radio talk show hosts and business groups do -- is clearly outside the scientific and political mainstream.

But that doesn't mean there isn't a legitimate debate about what -- if anything -- Maryland should do about climate change.  The Maryland Global Warming Solutions Act being considered by the state legislature could have a major impact on business. It calls for a 90 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from all industries across the state by 2050.

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The nonpartisan Maryland Department of Legislative Services issued a report saying that "costs could increase significantly" for businesses because of the act.  But because the Maryland Department of the Environment hasn't yet proposed -- or even thought up -- what steps it will require businesses to take to cut their carbon dioxide emissions, nobody knows exactly what the cost increases for business will be.  "Any such increase cannot be reliably estimated at this time and could be partially or entirely offset by energy savings," the Department of Legislative Services wrote.

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