Monday, January 11, 2016

Northern Policy Institute Embraces Junk Science in Post Urging the Use of Evidence

Evidence-based decision-making is important for the implementation of sound public policy.  I don't know how many times I've written that.  That's why I was pleased today to discover a new post from Northern Ontario's Northern Policy Institute - a social and economic policy think tank which purports to advocate for the use of evidence in public policy decisions.  Today's post from President and CEO, Charles Cirtwill, "Government must avoid decision-based evidence seeking," (Northern Policy Institute, January 11, 2016) seemed to be one which would likely resonate with me.  I eagerly sat down to read Mr. Cirtwill's thoughts on the use of evidence to inform public policy.

Much to my surprise, I discovered that one of the examples of "evidence" which Cirtwill used in today's piece to suggest that decision-makers are engaging in decision-based evidence-making had to do with the junk science claims made by well-known climate change denier and University of Guelph professor of economics, Ross McKitrick (see McKitrick's entry in DeSmogBlog for more information about how McKitrick has been involved in systemically undermining the science of climate change over the past decade).  McKitrick has been advancing this notion that the small "pause" in the rate of global warming, not in keeping with the expectations of some climate modelling, leads to a larger question of whether warming is actually taking place at all ("an absence of warming over the past 15 to 20 years amidst rapidly rising greenhouse gas levels," see: "Junk Science Week: The global warming hiatus? Climate models all wrongly predicted warming, so let's call it a discrepancy," the Financial Post, June 16, 2014), and if there isn't any warming, that public policy created as if warming were real would lead to our economic ruin.

Why on earth would the Northern Policy Institute's head want to embrace anything which McKitrick has offered as "evidence" when his position is one which is clearly counter-factual and non-evidence based?  Not only has Charles Cirtwill devalued his own message about the need for good public policy to be informed by evidence (by holding up a junk-science example of "evidence" and chastising our governments and public institutions for not using it as a starting point), but he's brought the entirety of the Northern Policy Institute into disrepute by throwing in his lot with the climate change deniers.

Cirtwill suggests that since there remains a debate about the data, that public institutions ought to base their decisions on what essentially amounts to the lowest common denominator.  What Cirtwill fails to grasp is that the debate is not a reasl one - not one based on evidence anyway.  It's one which is manufactured by people like McKitrick.  By trotting out McKitrick and his debunked claims about the soundness of the IPCC's science, Cirtwill is suggesting that "nuanced evidence" should lead in terms of public policy development - even in a situation where the "evidence" is counterfactual.  Which really turns Cirtwill's original point completely on its head, and leads the reader to wonder whether he has a clue about what "evidence" actually is.

Again, there is no debate about the science of climate change.  Questions that we might have had about humanity's influence on warming the atmosphere have long been answered, and with each passing year, they've been answered with greater precision.  We know that the climate is changing and we're responsible for it with a higher degree of certainty than that which links cigarette smoking and lung cancer.  The only "debate" remains in the minds of the climate deniers like McKitrick and their junk-science disciples.

In its 5th Assessment Report, the IPCC acknowledged a small variation in the rate of warming versus expectations of warming based on modeling - which some have referred to as a "pause" or a "hiatus".  Neither are correct terms, as the world has continued to warm - it's just the rate of warming is fractionally less than what has been expected.  But this slowing of the rate has led to further scientific investigations and the clear conclusion that there is no evidence to support a "pause" or "hiatus" (see: "No substantive evidence for 'pause' in global warming," Science News, November 24, 2015).  The IPCC's 5th Assessment Report was clear: global warming is happening, and it presents a clear and present risk to society.

By repeating McKitrick's debunked claims about the "pause" in global warming (in which McKitrick uses the pause as a wedge to try to force the whole question of the validity of climate change modelling back onto the agenda, despite the IPCC and 97% of the world's climate science being in agreement that the world is, in fact, warming, based on actual evidence), the head of the Northern Policy Institute perpetuates the myth that what McKitrick has on offer is something akin to actual "evidence".  Again, McKitrick is *not* a climate scientist, but rather an economist. His "evidence" is cherry-picked and ignores the considerable volume of work which has been undertaken to determine that the world is actually warming.  Anybody who knows how to do a quick Google search could quickly turn up enough critiques of McKitrick's work to ascertain that it has little to nothing to add to the public policy discussion about how our governments and institutions ought to be reacting to the facts and evidence before them with regards to climate change.

But Cirtwill here goes further.  Not only does he put McKitrick into play by referencing his debunked "pause" position as actual "evidence", but Cirtwill suggests that since McKitrick and others are maintaining that there is a debate, that our government ought to be listening - and unbelievably - that our governments ought to be basing important public policy decisions on the lowest common denominator in that debate.  Finally, Cirtwill asserts that since governments, like individuals, are most likely to listen to evidence which agrees with their current biases, that we the public have to hold the government's "feet to the fire" to make decisions based on "analysis and evidence".  The sentiment is good, but by embracing McKitrick's junk science as an example of the sort of evidence which governments ought to be using on which to base decisions, well, it really comes out as being incredibly bizarre.

The Northern Policy Institute was created by the government of Ontario out of a recommendation contained within the Growth Plan for Northern Ontario.  The Institute's mandate is to provide policy evidence and recommendations to help guide northern governments.  Clearly, any institution which embraces the counter-factual work of McKitrick - and which then holds it up as the sort of "evidence" which public institutions ought to be paying attention to, well, that's a grave disservice to the very people and public institutions that NPI should be helping.

The government of Ontario, through the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund, along with Northern Ontario's two universities are listed as partners on the Northern Policy Institute website.  Perhaps it's time for public sector organizations to disassociate themselves from a think tank which embraces junk science and tries to pass it off as "evidence".  Our taxpayer dollars shouldn't be supporting this kind of nonsense.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be considered consistent with the policies and/or positions of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

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