Debunking the Republican Denials of Global Climate Change
One of the most dismaying aspects of the new power of Republican cultural fundamentalism is the impact on science. On every front, the Republican Party seems intent on undermining the healthy role that science has played in American culture. Under the authority of the Bush Administration, scientific reports have been suppressed, edited, and downright censored in order to fit with the industrial, cultural, and political agenda of the extreme right wing.
Nowhere is the deformation of proper science by Republican pressure groups more devastating than with the issue of global climate change. As long as there has been research into global climate change, there have been Republican attempts to squelch and distort its findings. That effort has reached its zenith with the Bush Administration, which seems intent upon pushing a tradition fossil fuels economy for America no matter what facts get in the way.
We at Irregular Times have encountered plenty of Republican efforts at distortion ourselves. Among our readers are Republican partisans who seem to get extremely nervous about the mounting evidence of the negative impact of global climate change that is already taking place. Unfortunately, their nervousness is not about the impact of climate change itself, but rather a fear that the facts about climate change could make the Republican Party look bad.
As a result of this political fear, we have had many Republicans come to Irregular Times and attempt to overwhelm the information we provide about global climate change with inaccurate propaganda. This article is being written in order to set the record straight, and provide mainstream readers who are not mentally imprisoned within the politically correct talking points of the Republican Party with reliable information about global climate change.
It is by no means our intent to squelch honest, rational discussion about global climate change. There is a great deal to talk about. However, we do believe that such a discussion ought to take place within the parameters of reliable information and resources. For this reason, it is necessary to debunk the Republican leadership's propaganda about the issue.
First, it is important to define what it is that we're talking about when we say "global climate change". Republican distortions are often based upon mistaken ideas about what is really being discussed.
To start out with, as the phrase implies, what we're talking about is a global phenomenon. That means that we're talking about the Earth as a whole, and not just about particular entertaining anecdotes. Particular anecdotes of climate change illustrate the effects of global climate change, but they do not, on their own, prove that it is happening. In a parallel way, anecdotes of lack of change in climate do not disprove that global climate change is taking place. A combination of worldwide data and localized confirmations is what makes for the most substantial case.
Secondly, the climate change that has been observed is not always manifested by localized warming. On a global level, the temperature is rising, but there are times when particular places are actually experiencing some decrease in temperature. As global warming continues, some of these localized coolings may actually become more pronounced. Europe, for example, may well cool down if alterations in winds and ocean currents that occur as a result of global warming shut down the warm water current known as the Gulf Stream.
Third, the argument between totally natural and completely human-caused climate change is absurd. Of course there is a great deal of natural fluctuation in climate. What we are discussing when we talk about global climate change is what is currently occurring: The element of global climate change related to human activity that is taking place in addition to ordinary fluctuations. As we'll show, many initial skeptics of human impact on global climate change are now convinced that it is ridiculous to claim that all of the current climate change is due to merely the natural rhythms of the Earth.
An Overwhelming Consensus
The most important fact to note when discussing the issue of global climate change is that, for the professional scientific community, the debates about whether global climate change exists and whether human activity is contributing to that change are over. The scientific consensus is now so overwhelming that the only reasonable course of action is to treat human-created global climate change as a fact, and move the debate to what to do about it.
Of course there is still a very small group of scientists who remain skeptical about whether climate change exists and whether humans have caused it, but their number and the strength of their arguments are so insignificant that they should not be interpreted as representing the forefront of their field. The plain fact is that there always is, and always ought to be, scientific dissent about every theory that has been devised. That's how science works - through open questioning and testing of hypotheses.
We don't want to censor the tiny number of dissenting scientists, but we do think that it's very important to place their ideas in context. The immense majority of scientific experts have concluded that the claims of these skeptics are just plain incorrect, not fitting with the huge amount of data on global climate change that has been collected.
Scientific consensus is never a final determination of truth, and we must retain the freedom for scientists to disagree with the current consensus. However, when it comes to global climate change, the issue is what public policy-makers ought to do on a practical level. On a practical level, it's insane to wait for absolutely universal consensus before taking action. We need to work with the best information we've got, and the best information overwhelmingly points to serious, human-induced global climate change.
As much as science works through dissent, it also works through peer review. That means that when one scientist comes up with certain findings, they need to be replicated by other scientists. The process of peer review is what enabled the scientific community to quickly debunk the popular craze about cold fusion energy technology, and it's what prevents scientists in general from simply making outlandish statements about what they believe to be true. Consistent evidence that fits with a hypothesis is necessary before that hypothesis is treated as true.
For this reason, it is inappropriate to claim that one dissenting voice is capable of destroying a theory that has gained widespread acceptance in the scientific community. There are still people who claim that the Earth is really flat, but they can't back up their claims in a peer-reviewed process, and that's why they're not taken seriously. Creation "scientists" too, make plenty of claims, but those claims are not capable of withstanding review by other scientists, and so they are dismissed. When it comes to global climate change, there are dissenters, but they have not been able to come up with significant information that meets the standards of their peers. So, as earnest as these individuals are, we do not have any reason to trust that their ideas are reliable.
The Case of John Christy
A good example of the problem with an unwarranted focus on scientific dissenters is provided by the Republican adulation for John Christy, a professor of Atmospheric Science and Director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. Christy became a favorite of conservatives because he questioned whether global climate change is being caused by human activity. He made speechmaking tours around the country promoting his skepticism, received warmly at centers of elite conservative power such as the Cato Institute.
Conservatives who are reluctant to engage in the hard task of cleaning up the technology of energy production are fond of citing Christy's work, and do so as if his work alone disproves the huge mass of scientific research that supports the idea that global climate change is a result of human activity. When one conservative, for example, leaves a comment on Irregular Times about Christy's skepticism writes "Christy shows that there is dissent on global warming".
The truth is that no one ever claimed that there is no dissent on the issue of the human causes of global climate change. What is claimed by the vast majority of the scientific community is that the dissent that exists is not substantial or significant. Look long enough, and you'll find a scientist who will dissent from almost any major theory. That doesn't mean that the dissent is meaningful.
The mere existence of scientific dissent neither proves nor disproves nothing. It is the quality of dissent, and its ability to persuade the community of scientific peers, that matters. The clear fact is that John Christy's work has not been of the quality or the persuasiveness to make any significant impact on the scientific consensus that global climate change is happening, and that it is the result of human activity.
The truth is that even John Christy no longer believes the claims that he once made, and that desperate Republicans still bring out of the closet to defend their energy policies. As more evidence has accumulated, Christy has conceded that global climate change is happening. Christy has also conceded that global climate change is at least to some degree due to human activity, saying, "It is scientifically inconceivable that after changing forests into cities, turning millions of acres into farmland, putting massive quantities of soot and dust into the atmosphere and sending quantities of greenhouse gases into the air, that the natural course of climate change hasn't been increased in the past century."
In 2003, the American Geophysical Union released a statement representing its agreement that industrial emissions have caused carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere to rise at a sharper rate than any other time in the history of the Earth. The statement included the following sentence: "Scientific evidence strongly indicates that natural influences cannot explain the rapid increase in global near-surface temperatures observed in the second half of the 20th century." John Christy signed the statement.
John Christy's position has evolved as the scientific community has gathered more evidence. First, he denied that global climate change is really taking place. Then, he had to admit that global climate change exists, and so denied that the observed global climate change was the result of human activity. Now, it seems, he has abandoned that position too. At present, Christy's position is merely that global climate change will not be catastrophic.
Of course, no one can be completely certain in predicting the future. However, to cite Christy's early ideas as justification for a rosy scenario in which the global climate is not at all impacted, no matter how much we pollute the atmosphere, is not just inaccurate. It's dishonest.
The Importance of Time
The current reliance of Republicans upon Christy's early claims is part of a more general lag in Republican political rhetoric. The Republicans who stonewall against policies designed to mitigate global climate change consistently use outdated information to justify their insistence upon inaction.
Back in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan argued against doing anything about global climate change by saying that not enough research had been done. Then in the early 1990s, George H. W. Bush said the same thing, that enough research had still not been done. Now, in 2005, with signs of serious harm by global climate change all around us, George W. Bush is still saying the same thing. He calls for a decade or more of additional research before the government even considers doing anything about the problem. In the meantime, increasing numbers of people are impoverished, injured, and even killed as a result of global climate change every year.
The scientific community has picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Republican politicians. A great deal of research into global climate change has been done, and continues to be done. So much research is taking place that information in the field quickly becomes outdated. Speculation quickly is replaced by observation, and uncertainty is consistently giving way to certainty.
So, when a Republican visitor to Irregular Times left a comment last week, citing a three year-old article in National Geographic, he was using information that was not at all up to date. The old article described some degree of disagreement in the scientific community about certain details of global climate change (although the Republican commenter inaccurately depicted this small amount of dissent as proof against global climate change). The article was accurate for 2002, but is not at all accurate for 2005.
Better to look at a more recent article from the same magazine, National Geographic, from September 2004 - just four months ago. This article begins with the statement, "There's no question that the Earth is getting hotter - and fast. The real questions are: How much of the warming is our fault, and are we willing to slow the meltdown by curbing our insatiable appetite for fossil fuels?"
The important lesson is that in scientific research, a little bit of time can make a lot of difference. You won't find scientists arguing about whether there once was a great amount of surface water on Mars, but a year ago, such arguments were quite legitimate. The same is true for research into global climate change, and for that reason we ought to be very skeptical of Republicans who consistently rely on outdated information.
The Reality of Human-Caused Global Climate ChangeThere is an overwhelming consensus in the scientific community on the following points:
Measuring global warming is simple matter of looking at thermometers and noting the change over time. Republican cynics like to dismiss the fact of rising global average temperatures by claiming that the increase in thermometer readings is just the result of something called the Urban Heat Island Effect - the increase in local temperatures that is the result of concentrated human activity. If the Republicans would stop to think, they'd realize that this argument does not help their case. In any case, recent scientific analyses have taken any possible influence from the Urban Heat Island Effect into account, and the measurements of global warming still stand.
A database of published scientific articles is kept by the The Institute for Scientific Information. Naomi Oreskes led a research team in reading through the abstracts of the 928 articles published in peer-reviewed scientific journals between the years of 1998 and 2003 that included the keywords "global climate change". Of these articles, 75% accepted the consensus view that global warming is occurring and is due to human activity. The other 25% did not reject the consensus. Rather, these 25% simply did not mention the question at all. Absolutely none of the peer-reviewed articles rejected the consensus that global warming is real and has been caused by humans.
Every major American scientific organization that is related to issues of climate has issued an official statement concurring that global climate change is real, and is in large part the result of human activity. The National Academy of Sciences writes, "Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise." The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, organized by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environmental Program, states, "Natural forcing alone is unlikely to explain the recent observed global warming or the observed changes in vertical temperatures structure of the atmosphere," and that "The present carbon dioxide concentration has not been exceeded during the past 420,000 years and likely not during the past 20 million years. . . . In light of new evidence . . . most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations."
Climatologist Lonnie Thompson explains, "Global warming is not as controversial as some people would like you to think. The people who actually study global warming agree that the climate is changing, partially due to human activity on the planet. When you consider the evidence, global warming is not something you necessarily have to go out and try to sell, even to critics. What we do as scientists is look at what is and what has been. If you get the science right, the system plays out, and it's just a matter of time before everyone will realize that we do have to do something about this if we want to maintain the type of civilization we live in."
The United States military has ordered its own review of current research and concluded that "there is substantial evidence to indicate that significant global warming will occur during the 21st century." A Pentagon report states that the consequences of this likely global climate change constitute a serious "U.S. national security concern".
Even the Bush Administration has been forced by the huge accumulation of scientific evidence to admit that global climate change is real and that much of it, if not all of it, is caused by human activity. Bush Administration officials try to talk about global climate change as little as possible, and when they are forced into a corner, they merely state that nothing more than additional research should be done.
The continuing resistance of the Republican Party to the idea of global climate change, in spite of the accumulation of the very kind of evidence they once claimed would change their minds, suggests that Republican resistance is motivated by ideology, and not true scientific skepticism. The current Republican orthodoxy rejects out of hand any claim that there are any problems with the environment. Under this strange orthodoxy, Republicans are expected to believe that there is no such thing as global climate change, arsenic and human sewage in drinking water is not a problem, mercury emissions are no big deal, coal is a clean-burning fuel, and it is necessary to cut forests down in order to keep them in their natural state.
The ideological resistance of the Republican Party to accepting the realities of global climate change are understandable when one looks at the financial constituencies that the Republicans serve. Large corporations, and especially old energy companies from the industrial age, donate money to Republican causes in huge amounts, and expect their particular interests to be served. The perpetuation of a petroleum-based economy is prime among these corporate interests, and so it is only natural that the elite Republican leadership is in a defensive holding pattern, trying to delay policies that deal with the dangers of global climate change for as long as possible.
The truth is that for the American public at large, the costs of inaction are much greater than the costs of acting to prevent greater global climate change than has already occurred. A cost analysis of the Climate Stewardship Act that was recently rejected by Republicans in Congress indicates that the reductions in greenhouse emissions the Act called for would have cost the average American household only five and a half cents per day. Another recent study shows that a clean energy policy would create 1.4 million new American jobs while saving consumers an annual average of $1,275 on their energy bills by 2025.
Common Myths Related To Global Climate Change
The ideological opposition of Republican elites has led to the development of a series of myths about global climate change. These myths, perpetuated by Republican think tanks and pundits, are not well-founded in truth, but serve the purpose of creating the appearance of uncertainty in the minds of the voting public.
Myth 1: Global climate change models predict warming at the poles, but this isn't taking place.
Observable effects of global climate change are taking place all over the globe, but are especially strong at the poles and at high altitudes. "Things that normally happen in geologic time are happening during the span of a human lifetime," says Daniel Fagre, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey Global Change Research Program. "It's like watching the Statue of Liberty melt."
In just the last 30 years, arctic sea ice has thinned by 10 percent. Greenland's ice sheet is rapidly shrinking. Freshwater ice breakup in the Northern Hemisphere occurs nine days earlier now than it did 150 years ago. In parts of Alaska, the thawing of what was once known as "permafrost" has caused the ground to subside more than 15 feet. Robert Pinkel a member of the Arctic Council's research team, states, "What's happening in the Arctic isn't subtle. It's happening very fast, and... it's fairly convincing that on the scale of our lifetimes very dramatic things will be happening."
In the Antarctic, there is less data than in the Arctic. This is for the simple reason that there are fewer researchers able to gain access to the environment there. However, the data that exists suggests serious climate change is striking Antarctica. The interior of the continent has remained cool, but the continental edges have warmed dramatically, causing major ice sheets to collapse and break away from the Antarctic land mass. Additionally, the ocean around Antarctica has been strongly affected. For example, as the result of a rise in the temperature of Antarctic waters, krill populations have dropped by 80 percent over the last 25 years.
Myth 2: Sea levels can't possibly be caused by Antarctic ice shelves breaking away, because the ice shelves are already floating.
This preposterous idea has gained a great deal of attention in Republican circles, where political operatives are eager to grab onto any possible means through which to minimize the threat of global climate change. The idea that Republicans promote is that ice shelves float around on the water whether they are attached to a land mass or not, so it doesn't matter that huge portions of the Antarctic ice shelves are breaking away.
Actually, recent research has shown that coastal ice shelves do impact sea level significantly. When the ice shelves remain intact and attached to a land mass, they inhibit the flow of continental glaciers into the ocean. When the ice shelves break off, the rate of glacial flow into the sea speeds up dramatically. Additionally, when ice shelves free themselves from attachment to land, they become more vulnerable to further breakup, so that the total mass, with an increased surface area, melts more quickly into the ocean. Also, free ice shelves are able to move into warmer waters, another factor that accelerates their disintegration, contributing to rising sea levels.
Whatever Republicans like to argue about ice shelves and sea levels, the fact is that rising sea levels are an objectively observed reality. Scientists have noted an increase in sea levels for years - a fact that is related to an increase of Arctic and Antarctic melt and an increase in water temperatures.
Myth 3: The current global warming trends are nothing more than natural repetitions of warming seen during medieval times.
Republicans are eager to cite what they call the "Medieval Warm Period" as proof that global climate change is a purely natural event, a nothing to worry about. They claim that global temperatures in medieval times exceeded the global temperatures of today, and were the result of purely natural causes. However, the scientific review of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has strongly rejected the validity of this claim, and found that warming trends today are more dramatic than at any time in the last thousand years.
This myth is based on a number of false premises. First of all, the increase in global temperatures during the "Medieval Warm Period" has been found in a number of peer-reviewed scientific studies to be greatly less than the warming that is taking place today. Second, this myth is based only on European weather trends in medieval times, when what really matters is global climate trends. Third, the Republicans who make claims about a "Medieval Warm Period" that supposedly dwarfs the current warming trend base their claims upon a comparison of temperatures in medieval times to temperatures during the entire 20th Century. The problem with doing so is that the comparison clumps all of the 20th Century together as if it is one moment in time with one temperature, thus treating the dramatic increase in global temperature from the beginning of the 20th Century to the end of the 20th Century as if it does not exist. Furthermore, the evidence for significant warming in Europe in medieval times is not completely clear. Republican analysts frequently confuse evidence of drought with evidence for temperature increase, and so make a leap of faith when they make their claims of a "Medieval Warm Period". The temperatures we record today are reliable figures collected directly without the need for such stretched supposition.
Later is Too Late
Regarded as a whole, the Republican position on global climate change seems like nothing more than a retreat into a pre-scientific mode of intolerant persecution of ideas that dare to stray from the orthodoxy of the system in power. The arguments used to deny global climate change are embarrassingly similar to the arguments used to deny biological evolution or to insist that the Earth really is flat.
In the face of scientific data, Republican anti-scientific propaganda falls apart. Global climate change is happening, and it is adversely affecting human lives now. Economies are already suffering. Food supplies are in jeopardy. Animal and plant populations are shifting, and with them, diseases are being introduced into new areas of human habitation. Deadly and expensive extreme weather events are on the increase.
What scientists predicted 20 years ago is beginning to happen now. Research must continue, and dissent should persist as well, to ensure that the research that is conducted is competently done. However, the time when inaction could be excused by the need for more research is over.
The threat is clear and present. Purposeful disinformation campaigns by Republicans are endangering human lives. Those who choose to do nothing about global climate change are risking the stability of civilization itself for the sake of their personal luxury.
Our generation is being called upon to act with responsibility. We will be judged harshly by future generations if we fail to address global climate change, the greatest challenge of our time.
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