Fake Signatures Hurt Climate Change Petition

By Guy Crittenden

In the first week of November a news release was widely reported in national media promoting a petition signed by "11,000 scientists" warning that the climate emergency is more dire than previously believed and extolling that much more needs to be done. Most of the initial media reports uncritically repeated the contents of the news release, which claimed to be based on a study by 11,258 scientists in 153 countries from a broad range of disciplines. They warn that the planet "clearly and unequivocally faces a climate emergency," and provides six broad policy goals that must be met to address it.

Unfortunately for its organizers, serious problems emerged with the petition soon after its publication. First off, the petition contained false names, including some from people clearly having fun at the petition website's expense. Signatures included one "Mickey Mouse" and even an "Albus Dumbledore" as was later reported by mainstream media outlets. While a few media outlets caught on to these embarrassing gaffes (revealing that Mickey Mouse was in fact a Hamilton cab driver, as reported in the Hamilton Spectator) most outlets didn't correct the story, or (at best) indicated website administrators had suspended the signature function on the website in order to review and clean up the list.

That the admins are cleaning up the list is good, but ignores the fact that this petition was fatally flawed from the start. It's doing damage  where it was supposed to be constructive. Why? Because its methodology was not credible to start with. The petition was published by BioScience — a journal of Oxford Academic. The organizers established the website and apparently invited people to sign the petition. Signatures were invited from the membership of something called the  Alliance of World Scientists which claims to have 23,000 members. Given past controversies over petitions from scientists and public relations catastrophes such as Climategate, the importance of sound methodology cannot be overstated in maintaining public trust in both scientific opinion and the media's reportage of that scientific opinion.

Climate change skeptics were quick to point out the phoney names on the list to discredit the petition.

Ergo it was simply not credible that the organizers set up a website petition on which any member of the public could enter their name, or a made-up name. A vetting process was needed to screen out signatures from non-scientists. Beyond screening out obviously false entries like Mickey Mouse, allowing anyone in the public (however passionate) to sign the petition handed a cudgel to skeptics, some of whom wasted no time going through the list in order to show that many of the signatures were simply from concerned people, and not scientists at all. (See the Ezra Levant video clip below and note the caution there.) In other words (and unlike what was stated in some naive media reports like this one from the CBC) it wasn't simply that a handful of fake names made their way onto an otherwise credible list: potentially hundreds if not thousands of the names are from individuals from all walks of life with no special insight into climate science. That the petition organizers would design their project so unscientifically undermined the credibility of the exercise and will likely lead to a shrinking of the Overton window for informed discussion of the climate change topic going forward, at least for a while.

One blogger pointed out that as impressive as the 11,000+ signatures sounds, that's less than the 17,000 attained in previous petitions (i.e., is support declining?) and reflects less than half of the 23,000 membership of the Alliance of World Scientists. In other words, why did the majority of members — almost 12,000 people — not sign this petition? Especially if it's an alliance that filters for concerned scientists.

Something is important to clarify here: I don't provide this critique in order to promote that anthropogenic climate change is not happening. In fact, I'm not saying anything at all in this article about climate change science. My position is (and has been for a long time) that I'm not a scientist and cannot offer a meaningful interpretation of the data. Instead, I promote what I call the "insurance policy" option which I think is a savvy way to square the circle on this controversy. I claim no originality here; the idea comes from an excellent article Canadian journalist Andrew Coyne wrote in the 1990s in which he calculated the percentage of world GDP needed to mitigate against dangerous scenarios, and found a low single-digit investment would do the trick. Why, Coyne asked, would any sane person not be willing to make such an investment — even if they're skeptical of the global warming narrative — especially if it's in pollution abatement strategies we should make anyway, and switching to renewable energy, the price of which has declined steadily?

In November 2009, the servers at the University of East Anglia in Britain were illegally hacked and emails were stolen. According to the website SkepticalScience (which supports the climate change narrative), "When a selection of emails between climate scientists were published on the internet, a few suggestive quotes were seized upon by many claiming global warming was all just a conspiracy. A number of independent enquiries have investigated the conduct of the scientists involved in the emails. All have cleared the scientists of any wrong doing." Nevertheless, the incident serves as a cautionary tale that should lead academics (especially in the UK) to be very cautious about publishing only credible information about what are, or are not, the opinions of scientists on important matters of public policy and environmental protection.

I've warned elsewhere of the risk that the environmental movement is in the process of being hijacked by the very same neoconservative/neoliberal forces that gave us predatory hyper-capitalism and the current ecological crisis in the first place (along with the expanded surveillance state, perpetual war and corporate capture of the media and regulatory agencies). The best voice in that regard among activists belongs to Canadian journalist Cory Morningstar, who rightly objects to the potentially dubious "solutions" being floated by those neoliberal forces to fix "problems" defined in self-serving ways. (Think of massive new investment in nuclear plants, vast liquid natural gas terminals and ports, robotics and technocratic solutions such as carbon capture... the issue being not only whether or not these are the best approaches, but who will decide? Will the process be democratic? Will ideas from foundations like those of Ford or Rockefeller be imposed without public consultation — solutions that benefit oligarchies and not ordinary people [much less people of colour in poor countries]).

In the end, the last thing that's needed in the discourse is another flawed and easily lampooned survey of scientific opinion, especially one that uses a flawed method to defend a thesis that skeptics already consider flawed. Again, I'm not saying climate change is or is not occurring, how extensive it will be, and the degree of human causation. I leave that to experts. My concern here is what this incident reveals about the sloppy manner in which climate change science is reported, with editors and reporters not bothering to read the actual report (which in this case is only four pages long and not really a report in any UN IPCC sense of the word) but only the news release, which they then publish with screaming headlines that align with their own confirmation bias.

To illustrate how damaging this is, watch the video clip below from notorious Canadian right-wing pundit Ezra Levant in which he drags out reading the names of non-scientists from the list, and searches their identities via Google or Facebook to reveal their status as ordinary people. Note that this video clip is being widely shared among conservative media and climate skeptic groups. (I dislike giving any platform to Levant; I offer this clip as a negative example here, though he's not wrong in trashing this particular survey and in taking exception [as I do] to its uncritical promotion in the media.)

All of this points to the need for another survey, this time one that surveys only climate scientists and asks them meaningful questions about what climate change may be underway and what human actions are contributing to that change. The survey needs to screen out non-scientists and (of course) people signing as Mickey Mouse. Anything less rigorous is potentially damaging and undermines serious discussion of this complicated subject. I'd be interested in reading the results of a survey that gets very specific about technical matters and such things as historic temperatures derived from ice cores or the challenges in modeling aerosols in computer models. Such quality information will help us collectively elevate our understanding and make informed decisions, and engage in debates that shed light and not just heat. (Pun intended.)


Guy Crittenden: 
Environment and business journalist and award-winning book author (The Year of Drinking Magic: Twelve Ceremonies with the Vine of Souls, Apocryphile Press) based in Innisfil, Ontario, Canada and Principal of Crittenden Communication. Contact Guy at guy@crittendencommunication.com