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Unsettled Science, IPCC-style

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- February 18, 2020

“It’s never been remotely plausible that [Exxon] did not understand the science.” – Naomi Oreskes (Harvard University), Scientific American, 2015.

“We didn’t reach those conclusions, nor did we try to bury it like they suggest…. [Critics] pull some documents that we made available publicly in the archives and portray them as some kind of bombshell whistle-blower exposé because of the loaded language and the selective use of materials.” – Allan Jeffers (ExxonMobil) Scientific American, 2015.

The conclusion that the physical science of climate change was “settled” or “proven” in favor of crisis is a major history-of-thought fallacy. Naomi Oreskes, Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University (quoted above), must make peace with the quotations below from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as well as many others, to show that ‘settled science’ on the human influence on climate unambiguously pointed toward alarm.

ExxonKnew — Or James Black ‘Knew’?

The origins of the ExxonKnew campaign was described in the aforementioned Scientific American article, “Exxon Knew about Climate Change almost 40 Years Ago”:

In their eight-month-long investigation, reporters at InsideClimate News interviewed former Exxon employees, scientists and federal officials and analyzed hundreds of pages of internal documents.

They found that the company’s knowledge of climate change dates back to July 1977, when its senior scientist James Black delivered a sobering message on the topic. “In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels,” Black told Exxon’s management committee.

A year later he warned Exxon that doubling CO2 gases in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by two or three degrees—a number that is consistent with the scientific consensus today. He continued to warn that “present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to 10 years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”

In other words, Exxon needed to act.

With all due respect to Mr. Black (1919–1988), Scientific Advisor in the Products Research Division of Exxon Research & Engineering, he must have tuned out:

  • Scientific talk about global cooling from sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions
  • The embryonic state of climate science in general
  • The physiological benefits of carbon dioxide (CO2) on plants and trees

Did Black or the Exxon committee discuss climate economics ? The energy density of carbon-based minerals? The scaleability of alternatives to oil, gas, and coal in either the transportation or stationary market?

As it turned out, Black’s conclusion was one generality among many, which inspired my recent summary, “Unsettled Climate Science: 30 Years Apace.” Here are some quotations from that 2,100-word article:

“… climate models give no consistent indication whether tropical storms will increase or decrease in frequency or intensity as climate changes; neither is there any evidence that this has occurred over the past few decades.” – IPCC #1: 1990, p. xxv

“Overall, there is no evidence that extreme weather events, or climate variability, has increased, in a global sense, throughout the 20th century, although data and analyses are poor and not comprehensive.” – IPCC #2: 1995, p. 173

“There is no compelling evidence to indicate that the characteristics of tropical and extratropical storms have changed…. For some other extreme phenomena, many of which may have important impacts on the environment and society, there is currently insufficient information to assess recent trends…. – IPCC #3: 2001, pp. 33, 15

“There is no clear trend in the annual numbers of tropical cyclone activity…. Changes in tropical storm and hurricane frequency and intensity are masked by large internal variability.” – IPCC #4: 2007, pp. 9, 308

“[T]he set of available models may share fundamental inadequacies, the effects of which cannot be quantified…. The potential for missing or inadequately parameterized processes to broaden the simulated range of future changes is not clear….” – IPCC #4: 2007, p. 805)

“Current data sets indicate no significant observed trends in global tropical cyclone frequency over the past century and it remains uncertain whether any reported long-term increases in tropical cyclone frequency are robust….” – IPCC #5: 2013, p. 216

“… every bit of added complexity [in climate models] … also introduces new sources of possible error (e.g., via uncertain parameters) and new interactions between model components that may, if only temporarily, degrade a model’s simulation of other aspects of the climate system…. [S]cientific uncertainly regarding the details of many processes remains.” – IPCC #5, 2013, p. 824

And perhaps looking at the forthcoming IPCC’s 6th physical science assessment due out next year:

“The idea that the science of climate change is largely ‘settled,’ common among policy makers and environmentalists but not among the climate science community, has congealed into the view that the outlines and dimension of anthropogenic climate change are understood and that incremental improvement to and application of the tools used to establish this outcome are sufficient to provide society with the scientific basis for dealing with climate change.” – Tim Palmer and Bjorn Stevens, “The Scientific Challenge of Understanding and Estimating Climate Change” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: December 3, 2019).


  1. John Garrett  

    I have always been told that, “Truth will out.”

    I remain hopeful that this will ultimately prove to be the case with climate “science.”


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