More Fires Than Mongols: Illusions of Controversy in Climate Change

Posted on June 9, 2010


You probably saw a version of the tactic in an old Hollywood movie.  You might have read about it in an elementary school history text.  Settlers used it.  Aboriginal people used it.  But the earliest use I can track down is Genghis Khan, most likely the greatest general of all time, who used it almost 800 years ago.

For now we’ll call it the Mongol tactic.

Genghis worked it this way.  He had his army set up camp outside a walled city.  At night the army would light hundreds of campfires, most of them around dummy encampments, so that anyone looking out from the walls of the city would see campfires everywhere and presume a Mongol army much larger than the one that actually existed.  Thus Genghis could win the psychological war on his enemy without risking a single casualty, and provoked concessions and easy victories from deceived and frightened opponents.  With an army of 50,000 illiterate Mongols—trivial in the larger scheme of things—Genghis created the largest empire the world has ever known, and it was tactics like the above which allowed him to do it.

The climate denial camp is now using a similar tactic.  To create an illusion of numbers, they recycle the same old deniers over and over again.  But really, they aren’t many.  It may seem that way sometimes, but actually, they’ve just built a lot of campfires.  The Mongol hordes of medieval times have simply been replaced with a miscellaneous helter-skelter of climate deniers, who’ve got the oil and gas industry to build their fires for them.

Consider the following graph:

Fig. 1. Response distribution to  survey question 2.  The general public data come from a 2008 Gallup poll.

The graph is taken from a 2009 paper by Peter T. Doran and Maggie Kendall Zimmerman of the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department, University of Illinois at Chicago, “Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change.” (EOS, Vol.90, No.3, 20 Jan. 2009)

The paper details a survey of earth scientists about the issue of climate change.

The authors of the paper invited a comprehensive list of 10,257 Earth scientists to participate which included “all geosciences faculty at reporting academic institutions, along with researchers at state geologic surveys associated with local universities, and researchers at U.S. federal research facilities (e.g., U.S. Geological Survey, NASA, and NOAA (U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) facilities; U.S. Department of Energy national laboratories; and so forth).”

3146 persons completed the survey, a 30.7% response rate, typical for surveys of that kind..

Ninety percent of participants were from US institutions, 6% from institutions in Canada, and 4% from institutions representing 21 other nations.

More than 90% of participants had Ph.Ds and 7% had master’s degrees.

Professionally “the most common areas of expertise reported were geochemistry (15.5%), geophysics (12%), and oceanography (10.5%).  General geology, hydrology/hydrogeology, and paleontology each accounted for 5–7% of the total respondents.  Approximately 5% of the respondents were climate scientists, and 8.5% of the respondents indicated that more than 50% of their peer-reviewed publications in the past 5 years have been on the subject of climate change.”

The survey asked:

1.  When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?

90% of participants answered, yes, to “risen”,  indicating that they thought that, yes, global temperatures have generally risen.

The survey asked:

2.  Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?

82% of participants answered yes to question 2, meaning that they thought people and human activities were responsible for climate change.

So look again at the graph above.

The bar at the left under the “yes”, “no” and “not sure” categories represents US public opinion as measured in a 2008 survey.  This is the least scientifically qualified category, by far.

The bar on the right represents specialist climate scientists publishing actively primarily in the field of climate science.  This is the most scientifically qualified category, by far.

What the graph demonstrates—and as the authors of the paper conclude—is that the more active you are as a practicing scientist, and the more direct the connection is between your work and the scientific issues involved, then the more likely you are to agree that climate change is real and that human beings have caused it.

And the more ignorant you are, the more inactive you are as a scientist (if you are a scientist), and the further that your specialty is from climate science, then the greater are your chances of doubt.

But if you are a scientist at all, in the end, there really isn’t that much doubt.  (Unless you are an economic geologist or a meteorologist, apparently.)

Significant doubt really only exists among the non-scientific public.

Bottom line—scientific doubt about climate change is a media and energy industry created myth.

The authors conclude:

It seems that the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely nonexistent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes. The challenge, rather, appears to be how to effectively communicate this fact to policy makers and to a public that continues to mistakenly perceive debate among scientists.

So to return to our Mongols.

Examined closely, there really aren’t that many, and they really aren’t that well armed.

There may be a lot of campfires, but the denier camp version of the Mongol horde could probably be routed by a Boy Scout troupe armed with BB guns and sling-shots.


The full original study can be found here:

The Gallup poll at: