Green with Skepticism: Climate Change Denial
Climate change is a really serious problem – unfortunately there are a lot of people looking to deny climate change.
Climate change is one of the defining problems faced by humanity in recent history. For decades, the scientific community has largely agreed that humans are greatly contributing to the problem, and this consensus has strengthened greatly since the new millennium. Yet many ordinary people are still unsure of the extent or even the existence of the phenomenon. The reason behind this is probably very complicated, but one of the major contributing factors is definitely the well-organized, persistent movement of active denial perpetrated by a dedicated group of ideologues. The historians Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway recently wrote a very good book, The Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, detailing a history of denial, and is a must-read for anyone interested in the issue.
Even though more and more governments, citizens and even corporations are opening acknowledging the reality and severity of climate change, the climate change denial movement is still going strong. Just a couple of weeks ago, an opinion piece named “No Need to Panic About Global Warming” was published in the Wall Street Journal, denying any reality of climate change. Most of the 16 scientists that signed onto this letter have no relevant expertise in the field of climate science (one of them is an astronaut…so he definitely knows about spacy-things…right?), and some of them hold some pretty fringe beliefs (one of them denies that AIDS is caused by the HIV virus). The problem with crap like this being published in popular media like the WSJ is that it really confuses people. Science has great prestige in society, and when 16 big-shot scientists start saying that climate change is just a hoax by the government to extort more taxes and regulate more businesses, some people will be convinced, and others will be confused. These people might not see the other side (for example, 255 scientists from the National Academy of Sciences wrote an opposite letter to the WSJ that was not published), and therefore not be motivated to do anything about it. Climate change is already an enormously difficult problem – arguably the biggest problem ever faced by humanity – that any amount of hindrance to real action may translate to great harm in the future.
The most infuriating thing about climate change denial is, like all forms of denial, the deniers are not interested in dialogues that lead to facts and truth. They always trot out the same arguments that have been refuted years ago, sometimes repackaged to look edgier or newer. The WSJ op-ed, for example, dared to claim that global temperature has been declining in the past 10 years – a completely disingenuous, bald-faced lie that is based on a dishonest interpretation of weather data (For complete take-downs of this article, see this, this and this).
It is this same kind of dishonest denial that deniers are trying to introduce into the public classroom. Just like trying to inject intelligent design and creationism, lobbies are trying to get equal hearing on climate change, urging teachers to present both sides of the argument as if they are equal. Eugenie Scott at the National Centre for Science Education is doing very good work to fight this new push, and everyone who value scientific integrity in the public classroom should support her here.
Climate change deniers have a seemingly endless number of cherry-picked pieces of data to support their arguments. However your run of the mill denier will probably trot out a few common ones. Being able to explain why they are wrong would be helpful for anyone interested in pushing back denial and misinformation. Here are the top five (from Skeptical Science, you can find many more over there):
Climate has changed before through natural processes, therefore humans can’t be affecting it now
Of course the climate has changed before, but that doesn’t mean natural processes are the only ways of altering the climate. The climate changes due to chemical and energy imbalances in the atmosphere, which humans are actively contributing to. While human-made effects are one of many effects that influence the climate, the fact that we are expelling greenhouse gases at a faster and faster rate is causing the unnatural change.
The sun is what is causing the climate change, not us
Over the last 30 years, the sun has actually been cooling, even though climate has been warming over the same period. Anyone who argues that the sun is causing the warming is cherry-picking past data and ignoring the most recent period.
Warming is good for humans because of increases in agriculture
A little warming might be better for some countries, but this much warming, this fast, will definitely have huge negative impacts. Ecologists around the world have been observing very harmful trends to many ecosystems due to global warming. Sea level rises due to melting polar ice caps will mean more floods to low-lying settlements and destroying fresh water sources. Melting glaciers are causing more floods, and eventually one-sixth of the world’s population will have a serious water shortage because of this. Most of the negative impacts of climate change will also impact poor nations the most, leading to untold amounts of humanitarian problems and regional instability.
There is no scientific consensus
There is. Over 97% of climate experts agree about anthropogenic global warming. Deniers frequently like to point to seemingly large lists of “scientists” who doubt climate change (one of them has 31,000 signers), but most of them are not climate scientists, or have not published anything about climate change. Would you trust an engineer to tell you how to cure yourself of medical illnesses? No – you see a doctor. Similarly, you ask climate scientists to tell you about climate change.
It’s cooling, not warming
This is another instance of blatant cherry-picking of data. The past decade has been the warmest decade on record, and the only way of saying it is cooling is by completely ignoring the climate trend of the past 200 years. If you only look at a small piece of data, it’s easy to show whatever you want to show.
Unfortunately there is a lot of political interest in continuing to deny climate change – the Guardian did a really good article on this recently. Also recently, internal documents of heartland institute (a libertarian conservative think tank that has been very active in denying science for corporate interests) shows a new initiative to introduce climate change denial to classrooms. Moreover, it has been revealed that funding for the institute came from corporations, including microsoft.
Thank you to my wonderful partner, John Xu, for helping me out with this post… he actually wrote the majority of it. He is currently doing his masters work on climate change education and denialism, so he’s pretty much pro. Thanks babe!
Image Cred: CO2 Hog