Watch Out for Wooden Nickels...and Fake Government Reports

Got Science? | November 2012

When it comes to official government documents such as driver’s licenses or birth certificates, there’s a term for mimicking their look to try to pass off a fake: it’s called fraud. Now consider the tactics of the libertarian, Washington, DC-based Cato Institute in its new report, Addendum: Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States.

As shown above, Cato’s report (on the right) is designed to look just like the U.S. government’s official 2009 National Climate Assessment, presented to Congress as the federal government's best single evaluation of the science and potential impacts of climate change. (An updated official version is expected later this year and will be presented to Congress in 2013.)

What’s more, the title of the Cato report naturally leads a casual reader to think that the highly respected Federal Advisory Committee responsible for the original report has added to or amended it.

But, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Here’s what eleven authors of the original government report had to say about that in a recent letter protesting what they called the “deceptive and misleading” Cato report:

“The Cato report is in no way an addendum to our 2009 report.  It is not an update, explanation, or supplement by the authors of the original report.  Rather, it is a completely separate document lacking rigorous scientific analysis and review.”

Getting the look right—but the science wrong

Sadly, the charade in Cato’s report continues well beyond the cover into the 219-page report’s interior layout, which uses the same font and format as the original.

While the look is similar to the government’s report throughout, however, the same cannot be said about the caliber of the science. The chicanery starts with the graphs at the bottom of each report’s cover: the bar graph on the government report charts the dramatic and all-too-real rise in global temperature since 1900. The Cato report’s ersatz graph depicts a small subset of 19 years of U.S. temperatures in order to portray a seemingly random pattern.

Throughout, the Cato report replaces the government’s careful assessment with cherry-picked data and long-since discredited sources in support of dubious conclusions—declaring, for instance, that the impact of climate change will have “little national significance” or that “sea level rises caused by global warming are easily adapted to.”

Déjà vu all over again

The poor quality of the Cato report’s analysis comes as little surprise to us at UCS because the report was edited by a well-known and oft-discredited climate contrarian named Patrick Michaels, whose handiwork we have tracked for some time. Our 2007 report, Smoke, Mirrors, and Hot Air, detailed ExxonMobil’s campaign to use front groups to fund misinformation about climate change. In it, we documented that Michaels was affiliated with no fewer than eleven groups funded by ExxonMobil—the most such ties of any of the scientific spokespeople we reviewed.

Two of the six-member author team on this new Cato report were also highlighted in our 2007 report. We documented that one of them, Robert Balling, was affiliated with no fewer than five “front groups” funded by ExxonMobil. The other, Craig Idso, headed one group underwritten by ExxonMobil and was affiliated with two others.

When it comes to bogus science and ties to industry misinformation campaigns, we’ve seen this movie before.

Counterfeit credibility

Legitimacy in science is hard earned. The federal advisory panel that wrote the original government report includes some of the nation’s most respected climate scientists. Empaneled to provide the most accurate information it could to Congress, the panel drew upon the best available and most up-to-date information to reach its conclusions in 2009 and is currently at work to do so again. Furthermore, the official government climate assessmentis subjected to rigorous scientific peer review and an extensive public comment period.

The Cato Institute report clearly seeks to cloak itself in respectability by mimicking the look of the official National Climate Assessment. But it lacks any of the substance of the government’s assessment and bypassed the processes that give that assessment its authority and legitimacy. Today’s blogosphere and social media no doubt make it easier for such cheap counterfeiting tactics to succeed in confusing people. But that is why it is all the more important to call out and condemn Cato’s underhanded tactic.

As James McCarthy, UCS Board president, Harvard climate scientist, and co-author of the original 2009 government report puts it: “The expression in the old days to warn one against being duped by hucksters was to say ‘Don’t take any wooden nickels.’ The same holds here. The promoters of this pseudo-science Cato document are attempting to fool readers, but an attentive person will see this for what it is: a bogus attempt to misrepresent the findings of climate science.”