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By Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

Climate skeptics found plenty of reasons to dig out their dreary critiques this week, between the continuing controversy over erroneous reports from the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) and the record-breaking snowfall on the East Coast. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) and his family built an igloo which Inhofe then dubbed "Al Gore’s house" in the streets of Washington, D.C. The Virginia GOP ran ads attacking the state’s Democratic representatives for their support of cap-and-trade and urged voters to "tell them how much global warming you get this weekend." And skeptics across the world claimed that the smaller mistakes in IPCC reports undermined the organization's broad conclusions on climate change science.

By Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

Climate skeptics found plenty of reasons to dig out their dreary critiques this week, between the continuing controversy over erroneous reports from the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) and the record-breaking snowfall on the East Coast. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) and his family built an igloo which Inhofe then dubbed "Al Gore’s house" in the streets of Washington, D.C. The Virginia GOP ran ads attacking the state’s Democratic representatives for their support of cap-and-trade and urged voters to "tell them how much global warming you get this weekend." And skeptics across the world claimed that the smaller mistakes in IPCC reports undermined the organization's broad conclusions on climate change science.

Let’s plow through this slushy thinking before it piles up too high.

Snow still happens in a warming world

In the winter, it snows, and one snowstorm does not overthrow all of climate science. "Perhaps it’s time for a refresher," wrote Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones. "'Weather' and 'climate' are not the same thing. Weather is what happened yesterday or may happen tomorrow; climate patterns occur over decades."

"We can absolutely expect climate change to bring blizzards in places that don’t normally see a lot of blizzards, like Washington, D.C.," chimes in Jonathan Hiskes at Grist. "Climatologists expect just this sort of 'global weirding': less predictable, more extreme, more damaging."

Cold temperatures, even record lows, do not contradict the extensive body of evidence that global temperatures are rising. As Hiskes points out, erratic weather patterns support climate change theories, and the coming seasons will feature more newsworthy weather events. Chalk up the snowfall that shut down the federal government for almost a week as a bad sign, akin to harsh storms like Hurricane Katrina.

Climate science stands despite IPCC errors...

The IPCC messed up. The international organization is meant to gather and review the body of climate change science and produce definitive reports on that field. But in past reports, the organization included a few facts unsupported by real scientific research. Mother Jones’ Sheppard runs down these mistakes: the IPCC cannot back up its claims about the rising sea-level in Holland, crop failure in Africa, and the melting of Himalayan glaciers.

The bottom line, though, is that these errors do not affect the reports’ main conclusions. As Sheppard explains, "The controversies over the IPCC's data haven't challenged the fundamental agreement among the vast majority of scientific bodies that climate change is happening and caused in large part by human activity."

...but that does not excuse the IPCC’s behavior

The IPCC cannot use that broad consensus as a defense, however. The organization needs to maintain both an impeccable reputation as a scientific body and its independence from political pressures. At The Nation, Maria Margaronis argues that in the climate arena, science and politics have been wedged too closely together.

"On a subject as politicized as this, it's not surprising that scientists have been found guilty of hoarding data, smoothing a graph or two, shutting each other's work out of peer-reviewed journals," she writes. "The same goes on in far less controversial fields, where what's at stake is only money and careers. ... Every research paper and data set produced by climate scientists or cited by the IPCC is now fair game for the fine-toothed comb, whether it's wielded honestly or with malicious intent. Nit-picking takes the place of conversation."

Margaronis suggests that scientists admit to uncertainties and open up their data, while the rest of us stop looking to them as unimpeachable oracles on climate change. But as long as skeptics jump on a researcher’s every doubt as a refutation of all climate science, that’s not likely to happen.

Brace for impact

Negative attitudes about the IPCC and the snow are not idle threats to climate reform. As Steve Benen writes at The Washington Monthly, "It seems mind-numbing, but Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) said snowfall in D.C. has had an effect on policymakers’ attitudes."

As cheap as they are, stunts like Inhofe’s seem to dampen lawmakers’ political will to pass real climate change legislation. Apparently, the Senate, already tip-toeing away from the cap-and-trade provisions passed in the House, can’t talk about global warming when there’s snow on the ground.

Foot-dragging like this costs the United States money and credibility. Administration officials are already downplaying expectations for the next international conference on climate change, to be held next winter in Mexico. And if the Senate gives up on a comprehensive climate bill and passes a weaker provision, the country will ultimately pay the price in higher deficits.

At Grist, David Roberts declares, "Good climate policy is responsible fiscal policy." His evidence? Reports from the Congressional Budget Office. The Senate’s comprehensive climate legislation (known as the Kerry-Boxer bill) knocks $21 billion a year off the deficit, according to the CBO. The watered-down alternative increases the deficit by $13 billion a year.

Encounters with the arch-skeptic

Citing snowfall as an argument against global warming—and against passing climate change legislation!—is not the only half-baked idea climate skeptics throw around. As Joshua Frank notes for AlterNet, "There are usually a range of issues these skeptics raise in an attempt to cast doubt on climate change evidence." Frank offers a primer of responses to common complaints—i.e. humans don't contribute to global warming, that carbon emissions aren't to blame, either, that climate science cannot accurately measure global warming.

Keep this resources handy. It only takes one event, like this week’s snow storm, for those misguided arguments to surface.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, andThe Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Originally posted to The Media Consortium on Fri Feb 12, 2010 at 08:28 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Colbert: "It's dark outside, the sun must have (6+ / 0-)

    been destroyed".

    Thanks, a refresher is always welcome.

    Place pithy, poignant, wise or snarky comment here.

    by the fan man on Fri Feb 12, 2010 at 08:34:01 AM PST

  •  "Jesus will hit the reset button! Ya'll see." n/t (0+ / 0-)

    The United States Senate has lost its political legitmacy and should be abolished.

    by TKLTKL94 on Fri Feb 12, 2010 at 08:35:29 AM PST

  •  And Yet - (0+ / 0-)

    When it's the other way around -
    There's no shortage of jeremiads.

    For example - Australian bushfires last year
    http://www.dailykos.com/...

    Even though Australia has had two centuries of recorded bushfires - and recent exurban residential development out into the bush by people with little or no rural experience placed more at risk.

    That's only one example - there are hundreds of diaries showing every heat wave, hurricane, and drought as proof of global warming.

    This summer is quite cool in Australia - with rain even in the south.
    In fact, the Murray Basin has seen prodigious rainfall.

    (BTW - semiarid climates are characterized by highly irregular rainfall patterns - your classic feast or famine.)

    And temperatures were quite mild - even cool - for the Australian Open this year. Where were all the diaries?

    So - what gives?

    Why is is O.K. to use weather events as ironclad proof of global warming/climate change when they tend in one's favor, but to dismiss them altogether when they do not?

    Just saying' - ya know.

    •  BTW - (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      EthrDemon

      I consider myself a left skeptic of AGW.

      The trajectory from data to models to policy is not absolute.

      The overemphasis on a single issue, CO2, does real harm to other environmental issues which, in many peoples' opinions, present a far more immediate threat - such as overpopulation and habitat loss.

      As a principle focus of left politics - it is a loser.

      •  Uh - population is immediate? (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        RunawayRose

        Johnny - how in *&$#@$ do you propose to solve population in a fashion more immediate than we can solve the CO2 problem? That's definitely a new one on me!!!

        •  Reducing the Birthrate - (0+ / 0-)

          From 5 to 3 in some profoundly underdeveloped nations would have a huge impact on stressed ecosystems in places like Madagascar and Haiti - - within a generation.

          Reducing world population also produces a parallel reduction in CO2.

          •  You're talking tiny percentages over decades (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            RunawayRose

            That's WAAAAY to slow to tackle CO2. Sorry.

            •  You Don't Understand Demographics - (0+ / 0-)

              A reduction of a few tenths in the fertility rate - especially in societies where women begin having children at age 15 has a dramatic effect - far more quickly than any Copenhagen Conference.

              Cheaper, too.

              •  Umm, sorry, YOU don't understand (0+ / 0-)

                Reducing the birth rate does not reduce population until people start to die. For nations with large birth rates, the population is predominantly youthful - they won't die until near the end of this century. But all those young people will have children. Whether they have 3 or 5 makes little difference to total world population in the next few decades.

                •  Hewwo? (0+ / 0-)

                  There are two major components of demographic growth -
                  Births and deaths.
                  In case you hadn't noticed.

                  •  Sure it reduces the growth *rate* (0+ / 0-)

                    if you reduce birth rates, but the population still keeps growing for decades either way.

                    Say you have a nation of 10 million people (like Haiti).

                    Birth rate close to 3% per person per year.

                    If you are able to reduce the children per woman from 5 to 3, you reduce the birth rate from 3% to about 2% per person per year (younger cohorts are larger, and have had fewer children so far, so it's not quite the full 3/5 change).

                    But the death rate in the country right now is less than 1% per person per year (about 0.85% in Haiti), because the older cohorts are a much smaller fraction than the younger ones, due to previous decades of population growth. So population is still growing.

                    So instead of 215,000 additional people every year in this nation, you have 115,00 people per year. After 20 years we're talking about the difference between roughly 25% and 50% total population growth.

                    I.e. it's still growing, but numbers are 20% or so reduced from what they would have been over that period. If that represented the whole world, the percentage improvement would be on the scale we need to tackle global warming.

                    But in reality, the number of nations with fertility over 5 is down to just 27 now:
                    http://en.wikipedia.org/...

                    the largest of which is Nigeria. Total population of these nations is no more than about 300 million people, or about 5% of the total world population.

                    So tackling population as you suggest, means we reduce the growth rate of 5% of the world's population so that we have about 20% fewer of these people in 20 years. I.e. it's roughly a 1% effect over 20 years.

                    I'm sorry, but we need 20% global effects over 20 years, 50% to 80% over 50 years. Population just doesn't cut it.

    •  extremes matter (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RunawayRose

      A single weather event is of course not proof of anything. However, unprecedented extremes are definitely a sign that climate has changed, because climate is a statistical description of the weather. Unprecedented extremes (1000-year floods or droughts, etc.) are very strong indicators that the statistics are changing.

      New records happen all the time, both low and high-end. But the statistics show that the records are much more weighted to warm, than cold, now:

      http://climateprogress.org/...

  •  The Senate would have blocked (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RunawayRose

    action on effective climate change legislation anyway, but I am sure they do welcome any lame excuse they can find. Enough of them are owned outright by any powerful interest with lots of money. Whether or not some half-measure, with lots of gravy for the undeserving, can sneak through remains to be seen.

    We have only just begun and none too soon.

    by global citizen on Fri Feb 12, 2010 at 09:13:21 AM PST

  •  We kind of dug our own grave on (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RunawayRose

    the climate does not equal weather front though, because I don't remember very many of us making those arguments got counter those who were attributing the horrific hurricanes and heat waves of the 2005-6 period to global warming . . .

    •  I've said it before.... (0+ / 0-)

      Using hurricanes as both evidence for climate change and a reason to care about it was a misguided tactic all along.

      There is no goal in the "War on Drugs" that couldn't be more effectively met by legalization & regulation.

      by EthrDemon on Fri Feb 12, 2010 at 10:58:05 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  More frequent, stronger storms (0+ / 0-)

        Are consistent with the changing climate caused by CO2 and other greehouse gasses. The massive snows recently and the huge hurricanes of 2005 are consistent with this - not caused by it.

        350.org! The climate can't wait.

        by B Amer on Fri Feb 12, 2010 at 12:48:08 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Sure, ok (0+ / 0-)

          But tying the two together in the mind of the public means that they equate not hearing about hurricanes with global warming being a hoax, or at least over-hyped.  Since most people won't even hear about storms that don't make landfall (or even about ones that make landfall away from the U.S.) I think that linking the two to convince people of the problem is counterproductive.

          There is no goal in the "War on Drugs" that couldn't be more effectively met by legalization & regulation.

          by EthrDemon on Fri Feb 12, 2010 at 01:04:26 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  There's an app for that! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RunawayRose, RLMiller

    Skeptical Science is a great website for debunking the standard climate "skeptic" talking points:

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/

    Plus - now they have a free iPhone app so you can have those arguments at your fingertips 24x7 (link on the main page).

    That website is run as a completely volunteer effort by Australian John Cook - leave a comment there if you appreciate what he's doing.

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