As we wrestle with hard science and hard policy and the interaction between the two, the real problem we face are made much harder to solve because of the seemingly incessant drumbeat of science denialism.
Climate change is real and is mainly caused by humans, but climate change science denialism is an industry, a cottage industry, or a hobby for many. Big oil pays for the production of anti climate science rhetoric and activism. Anti climate science activists exhibit bizarre non-scientific behavior that goes beyond denying anthropogenic climate change. It may be hard to tell if the denialist activism in this important area of science and policy is something people are driven to do by vocation, or if they make a living at it.
Climate Change is Real and Caused by humans
The idea that greenhouse gasses determine the temperature of the atmosphere…or more accurately, the atmosphere’s heat-holding capacity…is old, as is the idea that burning fossil fuels can release additional gasses, augmenting what is already in the atmosphere, to cause further warming. Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist, suggested this in 1896. He measured the greenhouse effect of natural CO2 in the atmosphere, called it the “greenhouse effect” and with Thomas Chamberlin, attempted to estimate the amount of global warming that would occur with a doubling of CO2 from burning fossil fuel.
Numerous other scientists throughout the first two thirds of the 20th century verified and expanded on this knowledge. During the last third of the 20th century and through to the present, there have been significant improvements in the data required to measure Earth’s climatic changes and the relationship between greenhouse gases and global temperature. On one hand, more measuring stations and satellites intensified sampling for recent decades. On the other hand, the assembly of the older records from numerous weather stations around the world and the use of “proxyindicators” of ancient temperature were developed. It is now possible to reconstruct temperatures and precipitation patterns for many regions of the world, and globally, for hundreds of thousands of years of time with accuracy approaching that which would be achieved by sending hundreds of meteorologists equipped with instruments back in time, without the use of time machines. Which is good, because time machines have not yet been invented (nor, apparently, were they invented in the future!).
Serious scientists have not questioned the basic greenhouse model in decades, but rather, have worked to refine it, and to understand the relationship between natural effects, human effects, and the climate. A couple of decades ago, it was probably true that one could consider the possibility that some natural and human effects would increase warming while at the same time, others would decrease it. For instance, one might have thought that releasing CO2 from fossil sources into the atmosphere would increase plant growth. The increase in plant growth would, in turn, cause extra atmospheric CO2 to be captured by plant tissue, thus providing a negative feedback loop, bringing temperatures at least some measure back to normal. However, it turns out that there is a limit to how much this effect happens, and it is negligible.
At the same time, positive feedback loops have been considered. For example, if warming melts snow and ice, there may be less reflection of the sun’s energy back into space, causing a warmer atmosphere or ocean, enhancing warming and melting more snow and ice.
It turns out that the sum of negative feedbacks, reducing warming, and positive feedbacks, enhancing warming, do not balance out; positive feedbacks are numerous and often alarmingly potent while negative feedbacks are rare and weak. Burning a whole lot of fossil fuel makes the atmosphere and the seas warmer, and this, in turn, causes additional warming through numerous positive feedbacks. The only really strong factor causing cooling seems to be the occasional massive volcanic eruption which temporarily cools the atmosphere when upper level dust blocks sunlight or keeps some of the sun’s energy at high altitude where it returns more directly to space. The absolute amount of energy we get from the sun and its interaction with a dynamic atmosphere and magnetosphere also affects global temperature, but only a little.
In short, we’ve known about greenhouse effects, and the role of human activities that release additional greenhouse gas, for over 100 years, our understanding has become amazingly refined both in terms of data and modeling, and the greenhouse problem has typically been revealed to be worse, not better, than expected as the research progresses.
”Alarmists” should be more alarmed
Indeed, we may be seeing an important period of adjustment of climate models today. For various reasons, climate scientists have been conservative in their estimates of the severity of greenhouse warming. Many models of change provided multiple possible future trajectories and upper and lower likely limits. In reality, as models produced several years ago have been tested against measured reality, that reality has been at or above the predicted upper limits of change for many measures. We are experiencing warmer years than previously predicted. We are experiencing more severe weather events, including storms and drought, as well as flooding, heat waves, and cold snaps than predicted, the sea level has risen more than predicted, and ice trapped in mountain glaciers and the Greenland glacier have been melting at unbelievable, unpredicted, and alarming rates. The loss of Arctic ice, including the annual extent of new ice and, more alarmingly, the amount of “old ice” that forms the baseline for that system, has surprised the scientists who study that region.
Shockingly, there really has not been a significant moment in the last fifty years or so of climate measurement and modeling where climate scientists backed off on any major prediction of warming or its effects; rather, every year sees the opposite. The situation is found, again and again, to be worse than previously thought.
Denialism: What’s it for?
So, why, then, are there climate science denialists who insist that global warming is not real, or is not caused by the release of fossil fuels? And make no mistake that such denialism is anything but real and vigorous. You will see, amid a sea of straight forward denial of climate change’s reality, statements like “We’re not saying theres’s no warming, just that humans don’t cause much of it” or, when that is challenged with facts, “We’re not saying that there isn’t warming and that humans cause it, just that there is nothing we can do about it” or, when that is challenged with facts, “We’re not saying that there’s nothing we can do about it, just that it would be too expensive and damaging to the economy” or, when that is challenged with facts, “We’re not saying that extreme measures won’t help, just that coastal cities are obsolete and need to be moved inland anyway” or, when that is challenged with facts, “We’re not saying that climate change is not real, human caused and horrific, just that … it is too late to do anything.”
Perhaps there will be a time when it is too late, but if that happens, surely a good part of the blame could then be put on these climate science denialists. It would be too late because their denialist activities have been so effective at stopping effective action.
Climate Science Denialism is an Industry...
… even if only a cottage industry to some.
Why do people deny that climate is changing, or in some cases, deny some specific aspect of the whole climate change story? Some people probably think this way because they have been told to. Republicans are famous for receiving their marching orders from a limited number of spokespeople. Republicans in Congress presumably get their marching orders from their leadership. Regular citizens who happen to be Republicans seem to get their marching orders from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. Every now and then we see that the Congressional Leaders get their marching orders from Rush Limbaugh with Fox News doing cheerleading routines in the background. Something like this, but a bit less lock step, probably happens with Democrats as well. Many Democrats are pro environment and thus accept global warming and climate change as real largely for that reason and not because they know the science well. Recently we learned that Independents get their opinion from the thermometer. If it’s been hot lately, they “believe in” global warming, if not, they are suspicious of the idea. (See “Belief” in Climate Change, The Weather, and Political Party.)
But aside from regular people who have only a passing interest in these issues, there seems to be a cottage industry of global warming denialists. In fact, I’m not sure there is an equivalent cottage industry of pro-climate science activists, or at least not in the same way. There is a handful of climate science denial web sites, and when the authors of those sites tell their readers a certain thing, those readers act. I’ve been at the butt end of this a number of times myself. If I criticize, for instance, Anthony Watts at Watts Up with That Blog, even for something that has nothing to do with global warming, he sends his readers to my blog where they leave dozens and dozens of obnoxious, sometimes threatening, often only barely literate comments (most of which get deleted because my site isn’t that kind of place). I hang out with a lot of pro science people (scientists, science communicators, etc) and I can tell you that we do not have an army of commenters we can send somewhere. Watts, other semi-professional or professional denialists have followers who appear to have this as a hobby. And, in fact, there seems to be some evidence that in at least some cases, these hobbyists could pick up a little cash throwing themselves into the fray.
The few times I’ve personally gone up against the professional deniers, they’ve more or less automatically threatened law suits. (For example, this.) Recently, Anthony Watts told his readers that he had spent the entire previous day conferring with lawyers. Assuming “lawyers” (plural) means 2, and a day means, conservatively, 6 hours, that means that Watts had the cash on hand to cover 12 billable hours (or more) with a law firm. Or maybe he’s lying. But if he is not, it would seem that he dropped a few thousand bucks considering something that was essentially impossible. (Had it been a mere “consult” we might assume a half hour conversation which a lawyer will sometimes provide for free but he was very clear that this is not what happened.) Last year, another blogger threatened to sue me and his lawyer went so far as to send me the documentation of how much he was charging (so I could cover the fee!). I don’t recall the figure, but it was in the thousands. Unless that lawyer and that blogger were making stuff up, quite a bit of money was being thrown around.
Where did they get the money?
Well, maybe from the Koch brothers. As I wrote recently elsewhere,
This is a general pattern among Big Oil, but the Koch Brothers seem to have been competing with the more traditional players for the role of Big Daddy to the climate science deniers. During the period from 2005 to 2008, inclusively, ExonMObil supplied the science denying community wit just under 9 million dollars, while the Koch Brothers kicked in something closer to 25 million dollars to the effort to discredit climate science and climate scientist. One of these well funded efforts is known to most people as “Climate Gate,” a bought and paid for attempt to defame Professor Michael Mann of Pennsylvania University, and climate science in general, by Watergating a large number of emails and cherry picking them to make it appear, falsely, that climate scientist were up to no good.
It turns out that even grassroots science denialism is a business venture, of sorts. A recetnly released study published in a peer-reviewed journal indicates that the anti-science Tea Party was created as a project by the tobacco and oil industries:
Far from a genuine grassroots uprising, this astroturf effort was curated by wealthy industrialists years in advance. Many of the anti-science operatives who defended cigarettes are currently deploying their tobacco-inspired playbook internationally to evade accountability for the fossil fuel industry’s role in driving climate disruption.
The study, funded by the National Cancer Institute of the National Institute of Health, traces the roots of the Tea Party’s anti-tax movement back to the early 1980s when tobacco companies began to invest in third party groups to fight excise taxes on cigarettes, as well as health studies finding a link between cancer and secondhand cigarette smoke.
The two main organizations identified in the UCSF Quarterback study are Americans for Prosperity and Freedomworks. … Freedomworks and Americans for Prosperity were once a single organization called Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE). CSE was founded in 1984 by the infamous Koch Brothers, David and Charles Koch, and received over $5.3 million from tobacco companies, mainly Philip Morris, between 1991 and 2004.
But wouldn’t real critical thinkers eventually side with the science?
Aside from being somewhat organized to swarm other blogs, and their litigious tendencies, and possibly funded by Bit Oil, the climate science denialists have shown an inability to do science, think critically, or even, really, read. The most recent instance as of this writing of which I’m aware is minor but instructive. The BBC recently produced, with David Attenborough, a major documentary on Africa, and as part of this, said “Africa’s climate is certainly changing. Some parts of the continent have become 3.5C hotter in the past 20 years.” Leo Hickman of the Guardian thought this was a bit off, so he investigated and found out that that specific fact was in error. Sure, Africa has been affected by climate change, but that sentence was wrong. He figured out the error, informed the BBC, and they’ve removed it from the program. This demonstrates that those interested in the climate science are interested in correcting errors.
But a climate denialist leaning writer at The Telegraph couldn’t get it right. The headline was “No, David Attenborough: Africa hasn’t warmed by 2.5 degrees in two decades.”
Yes, the BBC got it wrong, but they didn’t say what James Delingpole’s headline said they said. It wasn’t hard to get that right, but it was gotten wrong. A comment about a careful correction was turned into an ort of denialist rhetoric.
The thing that Anthony Watts threatened to sue me over, and for which he sent his winged monkeys to throw poop all over my blog, was a science thing demonstrative of a lack of understanding science. You see, there is a disreputable journal in which a disreputable scientist published an unlikely claim chock full of clues that it was wrong. This is roughly equivalent to that time when those guys in Georgia claimed to have found a dead Bigfoot and put him in a Freezer. But, Anthony put up a blog post in which he said, though we must be cautious, this was a possibility. I pointed out that no, it was not a possibility. His response to the critique was to threaten a law suit. So, an inability to spot a totally bogus science story was followed up by an obnoxious and absurd response which was probably not entirely honest in its execution (see above) or, which required the expenditure of cash acquired from … somewhere. Or both.
Reference to a bizarre “science” story as though it was real seems to be the thing to do among the denialists. Climate Denialist Tallbloke is pushing pseudoscience that would overthrow Einstein if it wasn’t for the fact that, well, it is about a theory discredited decades ago and that you would have to be pretty ignorant of the science to believe these days. But Tallbloke is sticking with his story; Einstein and All Living Physicists are wrong. Maybe. But I think not.
Dear Major Media Outlets: Please try to keep up!
My point in mentioning these instances of apparent total misunderstanding of science by climate science denialists is, clearly, to demonstrate that these guys are not scientists. They are something else. But the denialism of science isn’t restricted just to those who seem to get up in the morning thinking what sort of wrench they can throw into the process. Mainstream media also participates, by holding on to old concepts like “you can never attribute a particular weather event to global warming” … something many reporters and TV meteorologists were told to say a while back but that was never really true, and now needs to be replaced with a different way of linking climate change to weather events (see this regarding Sandy and this regarding Nemo for examples).
Climate scientists need to keep doing the research and presenting the facts. Policy makers need to incorporate this information fairly and honestly despite the possible conflict climate-friendly policies may have with some of their wealthier constituents. Regular citizens need to pay attention to the fact that there is a denialist industry that wishes to pull the wool over their eyes. And media has to acknowledge that as well, and start addressing the important issues at hand rather than repeating discredited objections to good science.
"Forward On Climate" Rally - February 17, 2013, 12:00 pm, Washington, DC
Link - feel free to post on your Facebook pages.
There are Kossack Meet-ups Coinciding with Forward on Climate Rally. Send eeff a kosmail if you're interested in connecting the night before or the night of the event. Check New Day diaries for the latest updates and RSVPs.
Also, if you’re trying to hitch a ride to Washington D.C. from other places around the country, check the Sierra Club’s excellent bus list.