In recent hearings on the Keystone Pipeline, Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) invoked nearly all the climate change denial talking points in his exchange with climatologist James Hansen, director of the Program on Climate Science. Below is one of the more pivotal moments in the senate hearing:
Johnson: "I live in Wisconsin. There were 200-foot-thick glaciers in Wisconsin. How do you explain change before man ever had a carbon footprint?"
Hansen: "The statement that you just made is blatantly false—"
Johnson: "How do you explain—"
Hansen: "We do know."
Johnson: "How do you explain climate change that occurred 10,000 years ago before man had a carbon print?"
Hansen: "There are variations in the earth’s orbital elements. The eccentricity of the earth’s orbit, the time in the season in which it’s closest to the sun."
Johnson: "Those variations just end right now, so now it’s all man-made?"
Hansen: "No one has said it is all man-made. However, the man-made effect is now dominant, And we can measure that, because we can measure the energy balance of the planet, and we can see that there’s more energy coming in than there is going out. So therefore, the planet is going to continue to get warmer. It doesn't mean each year is going to get warmer, because there are natural fluctuations. But this decade is going to be warmer than the last one, and the following one will be still warmer."
Johnson: "I agree with Ms. Harbert, I think the science is far from settled."
What can we make of this all too predictable encounter between climate scientists and the increasingly assertive deniers?
First, as we all know, Johnson is a Koch brothers shill and, in keeping with his standard MO, espouses the unadulterated idiocy of "for profit" climate change denial. Climate scientists have well-supported explanations of the factors that led to the end of the last ice age and can enumerate the specific forces that contributed to these changes, as exemplified here -- Fact sheet excerpt from Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/....
Also, Ron Johnson, like his Koch-funded cronies, is committing the standard logical fallacy that anchors climate change denial arguments. As noted in the report cited above:
These examples illustrate that different climate changes in the past had different causes. The fact that natural factors caused climate changes in the past does not mean that the current climate change is natural. By analogy, the fact that forest fires have long been caused naturally by lightning strikes does not mean that fires cannot also be caused by a careless camper. FAQ 2.1 addresses the question of how human influences compare with natural ones in their contributions to recent climate change.
But, here is the problem with these recurrent and oh so very frustrating exchanges. Anyone who knows diddly squat about climate change readily admits that it involves a complex set of interrelations among multiple factors and that it generates equally complicated and counter intuitive outcomes (e.g., a polar vortex which creates unusually cold conditions in certain parts of the globe).
That inherent multifactored complexity unfortunately plays into the hands of climate change deniers. Most people are not scientists or even have an appreciation of how science and scientific explanations (which are always contingent on the best available evidence) work. It is easy to exploit that ignorance in relation to an abstract and hard to conceptualize event like climate change.
That is why I continue to believe that warnings about climate change are not the right messaging strategy for the environmental movement. Imagine if the Johnson and Hansen exchange had gone something like this instead:
Senator, your arguments are not supported by climate science but for the moment, let's not worry about the carbon emissions-climate change link. Let's talk instead about ocean acidification - do you understand the causes and ramifications of that? (Extrapolation on that issue). And the problems of rising carbon emissions do not stop with the devastation of our oceans. Do you understand that carbon emissions lower air quality which directly translates into higher rates of asthma, emphysema, cancer? Can we please talk about the costs to health care system and Americans' quality of life that comes from that undeniable consequence? And can I remind you that these pandemic health problems did not exist when glaciers covered your fine state of Wisconsin. Can we factor in these costs when debating the Keystone pipeline? How many children are you willing to have suffer or die from asthma so that large energy companies can continue to exploit the dirtiest source of energy on the planet?
Climate change remains an abstract concept that one a day-to-day basis has a less noticeable impact on peoples' lives than more immediate meteorological events. However, the effects and consequences of rampant carbon emissions also have tangible ecological and health consequences that are far more difficult for climate change deniers to evade.
The full session of the Senate hearing can be seen here
Senate hearing on Keystone XL http://www.foreign.senate.gov/...