Jordan Peterson’s ‘zombie’ climate contrarianism follows a well-worn path

<span>Photograph: Bo Amstrup/EPA</span>
Photograph: Bo Amstrup/EPA

Canadian psychologist and darling of conservatives and the alt-right, Jordan Peterson, has been on an all-out attack on the science of climate change and the risks of global heating.

Peterson has 6.3 million subscribers on his YouTube channel, and his videos also run as audio podcasts on platforms including Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

Since December, Peterson has been on something of a crusade publishing four interviews – each more than 90 minutes long – collectively amassing more than 2.2m views on YouTube alone.

The titles of Peterson’s latest offerings give a flavour of the content. “The World is not Ending”, “Unsettled: Climate and Science” and “The Great Climate Con”.

Last year Peterson came in for scathing criticism from climate scientists after claiming climate models were mostly useless. Peterson had badly misunderstood how models work, they said, with one saying: “He sounds intelligent, but he’s completely wrong.”

The criticism appears to have done little to discourage him from wading in even further. Peterson’s popularity among conservatives and, judging by many of the comments he receives, his almost God-like status among his fans, is helping to expose new audiences to old arguments on climate change.

One interview with retired MIT meteorologist Prof Richard Lindzen – a well-known veteran of contrarianism among climate science deniers – ran under the title “Climate Science: What Does it Say?”.

Let’s dive in. Lindzen’s answer was predictable. He has been arguing for three decades there is little to worry about from rising temperatures or adding CO2 to the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels.

During the interview, Lindzen repeated many of his beliefs related to the fundamentals of climate science, such as doubts about how much warming adding CO2 to the atmosphere will cause.

Prof Steve Sherwood, of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, described several of Lindzen’s arguments as “very old zombie points” that were never fair “and have become much less true over time.”

‘That’s not true’

For example, Peterson argued – and Lindzen agreed – the “putative contribution of carbon dioxide to global warming” might be swamped by the margin of error of the contribution of another important greenhouse gas – water vapor.

“That’s really sad if that’s true,” says Peterson.

“That’s not true,” says Prof Piers Forster, an atmospheric physicist at the University of Leeds. “For more than half a century laboratory measurements, balloon measurements and detailed radiative transfer calculations have been able to calculate the greenhouse effect of both CO2 and water vapour to within a few percent.”

Sherwood adds the effect of carbon dioxide on the atmosphere was “not putative,” but rather was “measurable from space and guaranteed by simple physical principles that has been understood for well over a century and have been used successfully for many decades in all sorts of technological applications such as infrared sensors and telescopes.”

Science from 2001?

Lindzen refers to the findings of a 2001 UN-backed climate assessment – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third Assessment report of which he was one of many lead authors – saying it had found the planet had warmed by 0.5C and that this was “mostly” caused by humans.

This was small, Lindzen claimed, and suggested the world was not very sensitive to adding CO2 to the atmosphere.

Putting aside the question of why a conversation about the findings of the IPCC should discuss a report from 20 years ago when there have been three more up-to-date volumes since, Sherwood says Lindzen’s statement on the sensitivity of the planet to CO2 “is complete rubbish.”

“Lindzen and other sceptics have produced no refutation to the extensive evidence-based calculations presented in the most recent IPCC report,” Sherwood said, pointing also to a study he led in 2020.

Lindzen also claimed there were almost as many temperature stations around the world showing cooling as there were showing warming.

This was “flat wrong”, Sherwood said, while Forster added “pretty much all the long-term calibrated stations show a warming”.

Raising sea level

As the oceans heat up and ice sheets and glaciers melt, the world’s sea level has been rising. This has the potential to reshape the world’s coastlines and increase the risk of flooding in coastal cities around the world.

But Lindzen claimed that in the next 50 to 75 years, there could be only a few inches of sea level rise “but there’s no evidence there will be much more”. Young people of today will have little to worry about, he said.

But observations of sea level tell a different story. Since 1900, the global average sea level has gone up by about 20cm, and studies show the rate of rise is accelerating and is now more than double the average across the 20th century.

Prof John Church, an expert on sea level change at the University of New South Wales, said even on the current annual rate of 4mm of sea level rise – which was accelerating – Lindzen was underestimating what was known to be coming in the future.

The latest IPCC report says the world can expect 20cm of sea level rise by 2050 from where they were at the end of the 20th century – regardless of how much CO2 is emitted. By the end of the century, the rise could be approaching a metre or more, depending on how much CO2 is emitted and how quickly ice sheets melt.

That’s more than a few inches.

Attack the consensus

There’s a whole field of academic study on the social and psychological dynamics of climate science denial. Manufacturing doubt erodes public support for climate action. Public awareness that almost all climate scientists agree climate change is real and is caused by humans is seen as an important part of the public’s climate literacy.

So attacks on that consensus have been consistent over decades. Lindzen was asked about this.

While he said most scientists – including him – would accept that adding CO2 to the atmosphere would cause some warming, he attacked one of the most high-profile studies on scientific consensus that found 97% of climate studies agreed global warming was caused by humans.

Lindzen said: “There are some studies like one by a man called Cook that were just bogus. They ended up looking at 50 papers specially selected… it was nonsense.”

That “man called Cook” is Dr John Cook whose 2013 study while at the University of Queensland assessed 11,000 scientific papers – not 50 – published between 1991–2011.

Cook said that of 4,000 studies that did state a position on the cause of global heating, 97% agreed that humans were the cause.

Cook said: “Lindzen cherry picks a small part of our data – narrowing in on the studies that quantify the amount of human-causation – then criticises our study for not including many studies.”

Cook’s study is one of at least seven to have found very high levels of agreement among climate scientists that humans cause climate change.

Consistently wrong

Cook adds: “Ignoring inconvenient scientific research is a common pattern from Lindzen.

“He ignores the many years of scientific research finding that reinforcing feedbacks make our climate sensitive to greenhouse warming. This is why he continues to make the same debunked arguments we’ve been hearing for decades now. “

Forster said Lindzen had been “consistently proved wrong” and since his involvement in the IPCC 22 years ago “warming is increasing at an unprecedented rate.”

“Experts have important roles but science is not just opinion,” he said “We all need to become fact checkers and look to trusted bodies such as the IPCC – which assesses all published work, including Lindzen’s, and objectively tells it how it is.

“There have been three major IPCC reports since [2001]. All the reports tell us that climate change is real, bad, and getting worse.”