Climate change deniers risk being relegated to the ash heap of history5 July 30, 2014 at 9:56 am by Glenn McGillivray
The scientific evidence is overwhelming that humans are changing the climate due to their unbridled use of fossil fuels.
Yet despite the scientific consensus (and, yes, there is consensus), there are those that insist on denying that anthropogenic (i.e. human caused) climate change is real and has arrived.
But not all deniers are created equal. In my mind, there are two types of denier.
First is what I call the ‘strategic’ denier – the individual or entity who personally and/or institutionally benefits from the socioeconomic status quo. The second is your regular, common, garden variety denier – the person who has made up his or her mind based on a few newspaper articles. These are deniers who either read a contrarian piece and say to themselves “Hmmm, that makes sense”, or who make up their mind first, then seek evidence to back up their opinion (which is very easy to do and contrary to how science works).
You will seldom change the mind of the strategic denier, as that person is in it for something other than scientific truth. I contend that they know exactly what the truth is and exactly what they are doing, but they have a specific end-game in mind (see ‘Memo exposes Bush’s new green strategy’).
You will likely not change the mind of the garden variety denier, either, but ultimately their opinion doesn’t matter – save for the fact that they vote (opinion doesn’t matter in science, anyway. As the celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “The good thing about science is that its true whether or not your believe in it.”)
Though the two types of denier are patently different, I wish to speak here about climate change denial in general.
First of all, and most simply, the vast majority of people who comment on climate change have absolutely no business doing so. Few work in the area of science or public policy and most have not taken a science class in some years. Fewer still have done any extensive reading of the peer-reviewed scientific literature. To think that they can make educated and informed comments about something as complex as the climate (particularly based on the reading of a handful of newspaper opinion pieces) is absurd. Comedian George Burns once said “Too bad that all the people who know how to run the country are busy driving taxicabs and cutting hair.” The same, unfortunately, can be said about many of those who comment on climate science.
The study of the climate is made up of complex analysis of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere. I wager that most deniers wouldn’t know this, or be able to rattle off the five components of the climate system let alone define each and explain the role each plays in our cillmate. To make matters even more complicated, groups such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) look at no fewer than 50 ‘Essential Climate Variables’ (ECVs) to support their climate analysis work. Along with the 50, these groups also look at additional variables.
The complexity of this work is mind boggling (consider the title of this journal article: ‘Entropic Balance Theory and Variational Field Lagrangian Formalism: Tornadogenesis’), yet there is no shortage of individuals who feel they can comment on the validity of climate science. These same individuals – save for the most headstrong – would never dream of commenting on a complex disease or medical procedure or on quantum physics, string theory or Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, because they know they aren’t qualified and may end up looking foolish. But somehow they feel they can comment on climate science, probably because they read a dramatically oversimplified opinion piece in a newspaper denying that climate change is real and found that the article ‘made sense’ to them.
So how and why do average people feel they can comment on climate change science? Because the strategic deniers, some media outlets and others have made them believe they can. If doubt can be cast, an illusion can be created that the science isn’t certain, and if the science isn’t certain, corporations can continue to pull fossil fuels out of the ground unabated and people can continue to burn them with no end in sight.
But how do climate change deniers sow doubt, what are some of their favourite tactics?
Generally speaking, they essentially let on that there is a valid and legitimate body of science which concludes that climate change isn’t real or that it is a natural phenomenon well within accepted levels of variance . They work to imply that there is no scientific consensus, maintain that research done on ‘both’ sides of the issue carries the same weight, and that any dissent between the two ‘sides’ is miniscule.
Deniers do things like purposely confuse weather (i.e short-term conditions) with climate (i.e. long-term patterns of variation in temperature, precipitation, wind, atmospheric pressure, humidity etc).
They mindlessly repeat red herrings like “The climate is always changing, it will always continue to change” without offering anything to attempt to backup the statement.
They argue that warming measured since the start of the Industrial Revolution is from sunspots, the effect of clouds, volcanoes, a cycle with the earth’s orbit, or from some other natural source.
They maintain that climate models are flawed or outright wrong, again, without offering anything to attempt to backup the statement.
They label the work of tens of thousands of scientists practicing in scores of disciplines, scattered over thousands of institutions – both public and private – as ‘junk’, call climate change a ‘movement’, and even go as far as to label it all a conspiracy. Yet there isn’t a single national science foundation in any country anywhere in the world that rejects the science of anthropogenic climate change; tens of thousands of organizations, governments, corporations and institutions (including the Pentagon and CIA) voice their recognition that anthropogenic climate change is real; and 97 to 98 percent of scientists in many disciplines working on climate change (and not just climatologists but also theoretical physicists, atmospheric physicists, oceanographers, chemists, atmospheric chemists, geologists, hydrologists, marine biologists, biologists and a range of social scientists among many others) state that anthropogenic climate change is real and is happening now.
Deniers often cite the IPCC as though it is the only climate change science voice in town, possibly trying to infer that, being UN affiliated, the IPCC is a political and not a scientific body. Yet the thousands of groups that recognize the main scientific tenets of anthropogenic climate change go well beyond just the IPCC. Consider the work of Dr. James L. Powell, who analyzed 25,182 peer reviewed scientific articles on climate change published between 1991 and 2013. Powell found that all but 26 – about 1 in 1,000 – reinforced the findings of anthropogenic climate change.
Yet deniers argue that there is no scientific consensus. I ask you, if your child had a serious heart condition and 25,156 of the best heart doctors in the world said ‘This is what you child has, this is how it was caused, and this is what you need to do to save your child’ and 26 doctors said ‘It’s nothing, go home and don’t worry about it’ who would you believe? What would you do? Would you not call the 25,156 a consensus because 26 deny the problem?
If current affairs shows stopped the common practice of pitting one or two climate change scientists against one or two deniers in televised debates and, instead, set up the panels according to the true ratio of climate change scientists to deniers, the talk show would have 48 or 49 climate scientists debating against one or two deniers. Yet, the media insists on giving deniers equal time with mainstream scientists, probably in the name of ‘ratings’ and ‘good television’.
Another tact by the denial lobby is to argue that carbon dioxide is necessary for life, using a kind of ‘the more carbon the merrier’ argument. While there is no doubt that carbon dioxide is necessary to sustain life on earth, you can have too much – just as there can be too much water. It’s another red herring.
There are many other tools in the climate change denier’s toolbox, all used with the intent of obfuscating the truth and delaying needed reform, just as was done by the pro-tobacco lobby some decades ago. In my view, the strategic deniers know the jig will be up at some point but, as with tobacco, the longer they can delay the better for them and the special interest they represent.
The science of climate change is essentially settled. Does this mean we know everything we need to know about climate science? Of course not. Does this mean we should put action on the backburner until “We have all the facts in hand.”? Of course not, and to argue this – as many deniers do – is absurd. Do we have all the facts in hand about the brain? Cancer? Tornadoes? Earthquakes? The origin of the universe?
We know that humans are changing a climate that has been stable for about 10,000 years, and that they are doing this through the unbridled use of fossil fuels (indeed half of all fossil fuels consumed since the start of the Industrial Revolution have been used in the last 30 years).
We are long past the point where we need to direct our time and resources at arguing with deniers. We must now move rapidly toward strategies to mitigate greenhouse gases (which does not fall within the scope of ICLR’s work) and toward strategies for adaptation (or building resilience against extreme weather that is worsening due to climate change, something that is well within our strategic purview).
To say that the scientific evidence confirming the existence of anthropogenic climate change is overwhelming is an understatement to say the least.
Climate change deniers, at least the strategic deniers, are playing a dangerous game, just as those who denied the link between smoking and cancer played a dangerous game some years ago.
Denying anthropogenic climate change is akin to denying that smoking and illness is linked, and we no longer give a soapbox to the pro-tobacco lobby. In a few short years, climate change deniers will be viewed in a similar vein as tobacco deniers.
As with tobacco, the climate change ship has sailed and those that continue to deny run the risk of being cast aside as backward and irrelevant.
Climate change deniers, often compared to members of the Flat Earth Society, deny climate change at their own peril.
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