Don’t let politicians wield the weapon of doubt against climate change

When President Barack Obama visited drought-stricken California a few weeks ago, he suggested, “A changing climate means that weather-related disasters like droughts, wildfires, storms, floods are potentially going to be costlier and they’re going to be harsher.”

Obama’s California visit provoked furious criticism from his political opponents like Republican U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes of Fresno who said, “Global warming is nonsense,” and attributed the drought to water diversions to protect salmon spawning and “stupid little fish,” apparently in reference to the delta smelt, an endangered species, which has received an allotment of water to protect them.

The following weekend, Meet the Press devoted a 13-minute segment on its Sunday talk show to a debate between Bill Nye, the “Science Guy,” and U.S. Rep Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., on the politics of climate change.

Blackburn said there is no consensus on climate change because it rests on “unproven” science. Blackburn singled out the views of the most noted climate change skeptic, Richard Lindzen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who contributed to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report published last fall.

However, the IPCC report, which is based on the carefully vetted, peer-reviewed input of approximately 2,000 of the world’s leading scientists, one of whom is Dr. Lindzen, concluded that global warming is an incontrovertible fact. Full stop.

And then the IPCC went on to say with 95 percent confidence that global warming has been caused by human activity. Of course, as long as there is at least a single skeptic you can say the scientific community lacks unanimity, but you cannot say it lacks consensus on the link between climate change and human activity.

Research on climate change and its link to greenhouse gasses has been underway in this country now for well over half a century.

In 1975, almost 40 years ago, Wallace Broecker, perhaps the most well-respected geoscientist in America, published a seminal paper in Science titled, “Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?” thereby coining the term that has been with us ever since.

Broecker wrote: “A strong case can be made that the present cooling trend will, within a decade or so, give way to a pronounced warming induced by carbon dioxide. … Once this happens, the exponential rise in the atmospheric carbon dioxide content will tend to become a significant factor and by early in the next century will have driven the mean planetary temperature beyond the limits experienced during the last 1000 years.”

To say that Broecker was prescient is a serious understatement. A few years later in 1991 Broecker warned that “the climate system is an angry beast and we are poking at it with sticks.” And yet today, fewer Americans believe climate change is occurring than they did 10 to 15 years ago.

Why? Because those who have an economic interest in producing fossil fuels have recognized that they do not need to “disprove” climate change. Simply by introducing an element of doubt into the political debate causes discussions of solutions to shudder to a halt.

This is a page straight from the playbook of the American tobacco and cigarette industry. Introducing doubt into the debate that cigarettes smoke causes cancer led to a half century of inaction to discourage cigarette smoking. And the media reinforces the illusion of doubt by presenting two sides of a factual scientific debate as if they were equally valid.

As Bill Nye said to Blackburn on Meet the Press, “You are a leader. We need you to change things, not deny what is happening. The reality is something is happening (and) … you don’t need a PhD in climate science to understand what’s going on.”

According to data released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and reported in The New York Times, “For the earth as a whole, this past January was the fourth-warmest on record and the 347th consecutive month with temperatures above the 20th-century average.”

Changing our light bulbs will not save us; electing leaders who are willing to tell their constituents what is really going on is the only thing that can save us from ourselves.

Philip Conkling

About Philip Conkling

For the past 30 years, Philip Conkling served as the founding publisher and senior editor of Island Journal and The Working Waterfront at the Island Institute in Rockland.