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Experts: Climate Scientists Have Obligation to Political Impartiality

Mia Shaw's picture

Associate editor for Fair Observer, regular contributor to IVN News. Former columnist, reporter and editor for the Daily Californian. Political economy, rhetoric and society & environment...

  • Member since 2018
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  • Sep 26, 2013

A recent study from the University of Texas-Austin, one of the most comprehensive on methane leakage from shale gas emissions to date, found that 99 percent of the greenhouse gas escaping from wells being prepared for production could be captured by state of the art equipment.

The study’s findings were celebrated by environmentalists, but immediately criticized by two Cornell University scientists, Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea, whose 2011 study found fracking operations responsible for catastrophic levels of methane. Howarth claimed fracking could push the world over a tipping point and send world temperatures irreversibly higher, though many independent researchers have discredited his conclusions.

Howarth’s projections were deemed “absurd” by Michael Levi, director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council of Foreign Relations, who explained that most methane gas is either “delivered to sales” with no leakage or burnt off through flaring, diminishing its greenhouse impact.

Cornell geologist Lawrence Cathles also argued that Howarth appeared to have deliberately used 2007 data in his study, increasing his estimates by at least 10-20 times. The US Energy Department, University of Maryland, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University and the Worldwatch Institute rejected Howarth’s findings as greatly inflated.

According to Forbes contributor Jon Entine, Howarth’s opinions may have been influenced by the Park Foundation, an organization said to have poured millions of dollars into anti-fracking ventures in recent years:

“It’s more than likely Park money is funding organizations behind the coordinated response campaign to the Texas study and the attempt to smear the Environmental Defense Fund. Howarth has established money ties to Park.

Two years ago in an interview for an investigative story on Park and Howarth for Ethical Corporation, the Cornell professor blurted out to me that he was recruited by a Park Foundation family member who thought a university study criticizing fracking and challenging the ‘green credentials’ of shale gas would advance the cause… He pocketed $35,000 of Park’s money—before beginning his research.”

In light of the controversy surrounding Howarth’s opinions, climate scientists are stressing the importance of keeping political views private. Tamsin Edwards, a climate scientist at the University of Bristol, in a statement to the Breakthrough Institute said:

“I believe advocacy by climate scientists has damaged trust in the science. We risk our credibility, our reputation for objectivity, if we are not absolutely neutral. At the very least, it leaves us open to criticism. I find much climate skepticism is driven by a belief that environmental activism has influenced how scientists gather and interpret evidence.”

Emphasizing the importance of retaining a distinction between science and politics, she explained, “In this highly politicized arena, climate scientists have a moral obligation to strive for impartiality. We have a platform we must not abuse…. Science doesn’t tell us the answer to our problems. Neither should scientists.”

This article was originally published by IVN a non-profit news platform for independent journalists.
Michael Berndtson's picture
Michael Berndtson on Sep 26, 2013

As an engineer I find myself having to defend scientist way too much lately. The last straw will be when I’m backing up a geologist. What is the premise of this blog post? Is it something like: “only cool scientists like Mike Levi and consultants at URS are cool. Robert Howerth is an uncool jerk.” Levi’s not really a scientist. I think he’s a neocon at CFR or something. Maybe he studied science in college. I don’t really know. Not all science is coordinated by PR and interest groups. There are some scientists still following scientific methods rather than just following orders from think tanks, non profits and corporate sales and marketing departments.

As I was told a long long time ago about technical consulting: “Technical consultants don’t do science. They do clients.” In this case of the EDF study on fugitive emissions, the client is a strategic partnership or consortium facilitated by University of Texas. I don’t believe concerned landowners above Shale Play X are consortium members.  

John NIchols's picture
John NIchols on Sep 26, 2013


The level of compensation does not determine integrity. (See Bernie Madoff) 

Scientists who follow the scientific method and don’t prostitute themselves for money and prestige seem to be a rarity these days. 

Ethical scientists exist, and who pays them is irrelevant, as long as the results of their experiement are transparent, verifiable and repeatable.

The problem is climate modelers do not follow the scientific method.  Thus, we live in an era of “post-normal science”, which is not science at all – it is politics.

Because science has become so politicized, it is imperative ethical scientists speak up expose the unethical ones.   

In the end, proof always win out, it only a question of how long it takes.



Paul Ebert's picture
Paul Ebert on Sep 27, 2013

The problem is climate modelers do not follow the scientific method.

This seems like quite the blanket statement.  I’d be interested in what you base it on.

I’m not sure I agree that science has become politicized, but I do agree that ethical scientists need to try to “call out” the less ethical ones.  I think we (those of us who aren’t scientists) also need to become as educated as we can and try to encourage ethical science.

Mitchell Beer's picture
Mitchell Beer on Sep 27, 2013

If news that Howarth is connected to the Park Foundation, and that Park is “said to have” contributed millions to anti-fracking activities, comes from Forbes Magazine, it’s important to bear in mind that Forbes is not nearly a balanced observer on climate science. And you can see their leaning reflected in the unstated assumption that an anti-fracking connection is automatically a negative or a source of bias.

Given that Entine’s accusations are in print, it’s more than likely that Howarth and Park have responded. If they haven’t been invited to respond, I suspect that one or both would have relished the opportunity. Either way, this article would have been more credible if they’d been quoted.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 27, 2013

Mia, you’re confusing politics with conflicts of interest, which exist in politics, academia, and free market capitalism. Howarth’s comments and study have received a lot or criticism and much of it is justified. Neither are political, and quoting Michael Levi on two topics which no one disputes just muddies the water (fugitive methane constitutes a minor percentage of recovered gas, and flaring methane is less harmful than releasing it).

The idea that any study is entirely impartial is a myth. It’s up to peer review to look at the evidence as presented and render judgment, and if we’re going to accept poisoning the well as a valid criterion, we’d be equally justified in noting the sponsors of the UT study are the thoroughly-partial institutions Shell Oil, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, Exxon Mobil and Chevron.

Where science does intersect with policy I’d suggest the opposite is true – the people who understand the most on a topic of public interest or concern should have the loudest voices. In the tradition of the renowned political activist Albert Einstein, James Hansen has gotten himself arrested defending the Earth’s climate with no harm to science nor his professional reputation.

Michael Berndtson's picture
Michael Berndtson on Sep 27, 2013

I was just going to ask that question. Climate scientists may include a field geochemists collecting data of all kinds all over the world, chemical engineers developing transport equations, mathematicians and computer scientists programming models. And that’s only a small fraction of disciplines. My guess is that the commenter never met a scientist or engineer studing climate change, spent six months in the field or got lost in Laplace space while working on equations of change. Must be a Breakthrough guy.

John NIchols's picture
John NIchols on Sep 27, 2013

There has to be a way to falsify the model.  For example, if temperature increases, that is evidence of global warming.  If temperatures decrease, that is evidence of global warming.  What senario proves the theory wrong? What would it take to “prove” that rising CO2 is NOT linked to global warming.  If there is nothing, then it is a non-falsifiable process and no longer science.  See – Karl Popper.  

Randy Voges's picture
Randy Voges on Sep 27, 2013


Glad you mentioned this, and I’m really curious why very few people bring it up, although some folks do it satirically.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 27, 2013

John, no there doesn’t “have to” be a way to falsify a theory for it to be useful. Popper alluded to that very idea himself, when he commented on the untestability of evolution:

“And yet, the theory is invaluable. I do not see how, without it, our knowledge could have grown as it has done since Darwin. In trying to explain experiments with bacteria which become adapted to, say, penicillin, it is quite clear that we are greatly helped by the theory of natural selection. Although it is metaphysical, it sheds much light upon very concrete and very practical researches. It allows us to study adaptation to a new environment (such as a penicillin-infested environment) in a rational way: it suggests the existence of a mechanism of adaptation, and it allows us even to study in detail the mechanism at work.”

Mitchell Beer's picture
Mitchell Beer on Sep 27, 2013

Are you looking for a way to disprove the model or to falsify the data?

If it’s to disprove the model, go ahead — if you can counter the weight of many thousands of scientific studies, all pointing to a correlation between broad climate patterns and human use of fossil fuels, be my guest. I think it’s pretty clear what it would take to disprove the model; what’s frustrating for climate deniers is that it can’t be disproven because, as you say in your earlier comment, “proof always win out.”

If you’re looking for a way to falsify data, look no farther than the deniers. I’m sure they can help you out.

But, please, let’s show more respect for the work legitimate climate scientists and the severity of the crisis than to cherry-pick limited data points from a much wider trend, all to prove a false argument that is discredited by 97% of the research and mounting experience around the world.

With a lot of hard work and some lucky breaks, there’s a good chance that we still have time to confront and solve the climate crisis. We don’t have time to tie ourselves down in this kind of ridiculous, deliberately endless debate. I propose that we get to work.

John NIchols's picture
John NIchols on Sep 27, 2013

I did not say models could not be useful. However, to be anything more than a “theory”, and conform to the scientific method, the hypothesis has to be falsifiable. Since CAGW can not be falsifiable, it remains, at best, a hypothesis – untested and unprovable.

Major policy decisons should not be based on theory, they should be based on proof.

At this point, the “precautionary principle” is usually invoked.  Of course, the corollary to the precautionary princple is as follows:  no policy decision should be enacted based on theory, especially when the results are neccessarily, economically catastrophic.

Green jobs always destroy more unsubsdized (real) jobs than they create.  This occurs because the green subsidies are generally paid by adding the costs to the distribution expenses for electricity.  The rising costs of electricity then force energy dependent companies out of the country, or the state, as they seek lower cost energy supplies. The result is more jobs are lost than created.

You can decide for yourself why policies that promote this result are enacted. I have my own theories, which are beyond the scope of this discussion.  See – The Spanish Study of the Effects on Employment of Public Aid to Renewable Energy Sources, for more information.  Good luck!

John NIchols's picture
John NIchols on Sep 27, 2013


The don’t bring it up, because it doesn’t promote an agenda.  I search for proof. 

John NIchols's picture
John NIchols on Sep 27, 2013


I am looking for proof.  Corellation is not proof of anything, except correllation.  


John NIchols's picture
John NIchols on Sep 27, 2013


See my response.  I did not link to you .

John NIchols's picture
John NIchols on Sep 27, 2013


Please tell me what it would take to falsify the CAGW hypothesis. Since you are convinced the theory is proof,, what does not prove it. This is not my job, it is yours, as you are the proponent. So let me ask, is there anything in your mind that could do this?  If not, then it is a theory, 







John NIchols's picture
John NIchols on Sep 27, 2013



Please enlighted yourself.  


Good luck!

Mitchell Beer's picture
Mitchell Beer on Sep 27, 2013

John, in my original contribution to this thread, I think I was pretty clear in urging us all not to get tied down in endless, tangential debate. Not that there isn’t value and some interest in tangents, but that if we have only 36 years to hit an 80% reduction in GHG emissions and only 28 to 30 hours in every day, we don’t have time to go in circles. (Hmm. 28 to 30 hours in every day, and you’re asking me about something quantitative??) So I hope you won’t take offence when I say that I will respond to this once, but will not participate in extended dialogue on whether the reality in front of us is actually real.

Deniers might have a shot at disproving climate change if they could, y’know, find any evidence to counter the settled science. They claim — and you appear to agree — that the world is cooling, but that’s not what the actual research shows. You’ll sometimes see a very short-term graph that shows a temperature drop between 1998 and a year four or five years later (sorry, I don’t have that specific chart right in front of me). But the full data set since 1880 shows conclusively that the world is warming — quickly, alarmingly, and by our own hand. More recently, 2005 and 2010 were tied for the warmest years on record, and the 10 hottest years on record have all happened since 1998. And an overwhelming body of evidence points to the effects — rising temperatures, rising sea levels, melting glaciers, melting Arctic sea ice, and increased humidity over the last several decades.

A system as large and complex as the global climate is bound to show some variability and, unfortunately, that variability is convenient for organizations out there that are being paid very well to distort the evidence and postpone decisive action on climate change. But that doesn’t change the science.


John NIchols's picture
John NIchols on Sep 27, 2013


You provide all the evidence that you say proves the theory. Fine.

Please tell the readers what you believe would have to occur for the theory to be falsified. Is 15 years of observational data sufficient, is 20, 30?   If nothing ever falsifies the theory, it does not comport to the scientific method. 

I am sorry.

You can believe anything you choose to believe, but the can’t say it is science, unless it can be falsfied.

On this point there is very little to debate.  Please reference the link I provided.

Thank you for ending the discussion.




Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 27, 2013

John, you’re now demanding absolute proof as a requirement for action on climate change – like Popper’s abstruse linguistical puzzles, it’s another notion which might have value in undergraduate philosophy discussion but none whatsoever in politics or science.

Absolute proof does not exist outside of the conceptual realm. In truth, every premise upon which we act professionally, politically, or personally is based on hypotheses, some more supported than others, but which make it possible to move forward with our lives in a practical manner.

I think you betrayed your hand when you jumped unexpectedly to jobs – you’re allowing your political views to color your interpretation of this issue, and making statements which you not only can’t support but which are nonsensical:

Green jobs always destroy more unsubsdized (real) jobs than they create.

Without getting into a political discussion, which for me frankly isn’t that interesting, I’ll note that the real problem isn’t scientists politicizing the issue of climate change – it’s corporate interests which, recognizing an existential threat to unbridled economic growth, hire television pundits to blabber on their behalf.

Roger Brown's picture
Roger Brown on Sep 27, 2013

I like your comment about absolute proof and the practical necessity of acting on less than certain hypotheses which goes on every day in the real word. The real issue with the human release of fossil carbon into the atmosphere as CO2 is level of risk, not absolute certainty of the consequences of a particular level of release. People who favor unrestricted exploitation of reservoirs of fossil carbon should give evidence why they believe the level of risk is low rather than simply claiming that models are less than certain.

On the other hand, your claim that political discussions aren’t interesting is an unfortunate result of the fact the most people’s “politics” consists of the brandishing of dogmas which they have no interest in subjecting to a rational analysis. Such discussions do indeed tend to become strident and fruitless.

However, politics in its most basic sense of the set of the human associations which allow us to face the world with the aid of the specialized knowledge, skill, and intelligence of a wide circle of fellow human travelers is of the utmost practical importance. The currently dominant set of human associations, which are growth seeking credit  markets with privatized profits and socialized risks, are driving us to destruction.  We need to have a political discussion which moves beyond the brandishing of dogmas to an examination of the actual physical functioning of our system of economic production. Social engineering is going to be required as well as physical engineering if we are to find a solution to the current global human dilemma.  In my experience neither the conservative nor liberal sides of current mainstream thought are willing to abandon their political dogmas, and almost everyone is hoping for a techno fix which will allow them to avoid the very difficult problems of social transformation.

Michael Berndtson's picture
Michael Berndtson on Sep 27, 2013

Well said. I like your word “technofix.” I’m guessing that will be the big growth market for at least the next 100 years. Attracting every huckster, his brother and TV pitchman into the game. Instead of pitching Mr. Microphone he will be pitching Mr. Mitigationer.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 28, 2013

Roger, I wish social engineering was powerful enough to reduce our consumptive instincts but I’m afraid growth is hardwired into our nature, and evolution itself provides a reasonably strong argument.

Even if everyone in the developed world – those of us using far more than our share of energy – fell back to an average level of consumption, global energy use will grow exponentially as the standard of living in developing nations improves. There is no evidence whatsoever that civilization will deviate from this course – a point driven home by Roger Pielke, Jr. in his book The Climate Fix. Moreover, that energy use will increase regardless of implications for the environment, a concept Pielke calls the Iron Law of Climate Policy (as proof, he cites India’s resolute rejection of concessions which limit growth at climate talks).

Accepting growth as a given, there are few options available to us to get a handle on carbon. One is to build out nuclear at a rate of 1GW/week, a rate which seems absurd but approximates the industry of the early 1980s. Some calculations suggest it could stabilize carbon by 2050. Because other avenues (renewables, geoengineering) ask more questions than they answer it appears to be the only chance we have. I’m probably a liberal on social issues and that stance earns me little support among left-leaning friends, but as you say we’ll all have to be willing to abandon dogmas in the name of survival.

When I see evidence society will consent to live on a solar/wind energy diet, I’ll be more than happy to abandon mine.

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