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February 28, 2011 

Forbes Fails to Correct Misleading Story About Scientist Ben Santer

Forbes.com recently published a column by book author Larry Bell that recycled a discredited, 15-year old myth about Benjamin Santer, a climate scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. When presented with evidence that directly contradicted Bell's claims, Forbes refused to correct the story.

Bell’s column falsely claims Santer  made “illegitimate” changes to a key chapter in the 1996 U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report – a chapter which provided scientific evidence for a “discernible human influence” on global climate. This specious allegation was apparently fabricated by Fred Singer, a fossil-fuel-funded climate contrarian who has been spreading misinformation about climate science and climate scientists for decades. Singer wrote the foreword to Bell’s recent book, “Climate of Corruption: Politics and Power Behind the Global Warming Hoax.”

When Santer, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), and other scientists provided Forbes with evidence disproving Bell’s claims, Forbes refused to correct the story. Instead, according to emails Santer shared with UCS, a Forbes editor offered Santer the opportunity to write a comment to accompany a comment by Singer, essentially giving equal weight to Singer’s false allegation and Santer’s documented facts that contradict it.

Santer expressed his disappointment with the editor’s offer and never received a correction. Ultimately, Forbes published two comments, one by Singer, and another by John Abraham, who helps run the Climate Science Rapid Response Team.

Forbes should have corrected the story. The false claims Bell made against Santer are easy to fact check.

The IPCC’s second assessment report, which it issued in 1996, concluded that the “balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.” That conclusion was agreed upon by IPCC member countries and the scientists who wrote the report, including Santer, and was based on many dozens of peer-reviewed studies.

The conclusion was big news at the time. Climate contrarians, unable to discredit the evidence that heat-trapping gases from burning coal and oil were influencing the climate, instead attacked Santer personally, and falsely claimed that he alone wrote the conclusion based on his own research.

In this case, Larry Bell alleges Santer “excised denials of any scientific evidence of man-made warming.”

In fact, Chapter 8 of the IPCC report, which Santer helped write, addresses several areas of uncertainty related to the conclusion that human activities are having a “discernible” influence on the climate. This is standard practice for IPCC reports, which are careful to survey all the scientific literature on climate change. Further, the section specifically examined a paper by Pat Michaels, a climate contrarian associated with the fossil-fuel-funded libertarian think tank CATO Institute, and explained why its conclusions are flawed.

The 1996 IPCC report's summary was also careful to cite sources of uncertainty. “Our ability to quantify the human influence on global climate is currently limited because the expected signal is still emerging from the noise of natural variability,” the report acknowledged, “and because there are uncertainties in key factors.”

In any case, the evidence for human influence on the climate has grown significantly since then. The 2007 IPCC report, for example, concluded that at least a majority of warming since 1950 is attributable to human activities. A 2008 report by the United States Global Change Research Program reached a similar conclusion.

Bell’s column goes on to assert that the 1996 IPCC report’s conclusion “appeared to be based primarily upon two unpublished papers [Santer] himself had submitted….”

Not true. As Santer notes, the IPCC report “was able to draw on fingerprint studies from a half-dozen different research groups. Each of these groups had independently shown that they could indeed perceive a fingerprint of human influence in observed temperature records.”

In fact, Chapter 8 of the 1996 IPCC report includes a number of references to studies that were not authored by Santer that support its conclusion. Three scientists, including Bert Bolin, the chairman of the IPCC at the time, attempted to set the record straight in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, which first published false accusations against Santer. They wrote in 1996 that changes made to the report as it was finalized were done, “in accordance with the views both of scientists and delegates expressed at length during the meeting. The rules of procedure were strictly followed and none of the 96 countries represented at the IPCC meeting in Madrid have challenged either the changes or the procedures.”

The case here is clear. Fred Singer continues to disseminate false statements about the 1996 IPCC report and the role Ben Santer played in it. Over the last 15 years, Singer’s claims have been well-examined and repeatedly proven to be false. 

Regardless, instead of correcting Bell’s demonstrably untrue claims about Santer, Forbes tarnished its journalistic integrity and failed to set the record straight.

 

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.

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