Global Skepticism and Global Change


Northwest Passage, Mary Edna Fraser. The fabled Northwest Passage may soon connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean melts.

by Keith C. Pilkey and Orrin H. Pilkey

For the first time in history, much of the world’s scientific community has banded together to warn society of an impending environmental disaster in the form of global climate change. The evidence clearly points to carbon dioxide emissions from human activities as the major cause of such change. The consequences include sea level rise, acidification of ocean waters, atmospheric and oceanic warming, melting of glaciers and ice sheets, and displacement of plants and animals.

This good intentioned attempt to warn society has led to an unanticipated hailstorm of criticism and a loss of credibility across a broad spectrum of science. In Virginia, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli launched a civil investigation into renowned climate scientist Michael Mann. In Texas, environmental officials appointed by Republican presidential candidate Governor Rick Perry deleted references to climate change, sea level rise and wetlands destruction from a major environmental report. US Senator James Inhofe infamously called climate change a hoax, while others claim that scientists supporting global change are doing so to maintain their funding. Christopher Monkcton, a Thatcher adviser, called climate change believers, “bed wetting, moaning, minnies,” Of the Republican candidates for the US presidency, just one, John Huntsman, fully accepts the human connection. Leading candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich both reversed their positions on man-made change from acceptance to a stand that the evidence isn’t there yet. The whole controversy has helped to create an atmosphere of anti-intellectualism that permeates our society today.

Discovered in 1824 by French physicist Joseph Fourier, the scientific principles of the greenhouse effect are widely accepted. In a nutshell, thermal radiation is absorbed by greenhouse gases and re-radiated back towards the surface of the Earth resulting in increased temperatures.  Climate is subject to other natural effects, especially variations in the amount of solar radiation striking the earth’s surface. However, scientific consensus holds that human activities have greatly intensified the natural greenhouse effect over the last 100 years or so, resulting in anthropogenic global climate change. If the vast majority of scientists believe that humans are directly contributing to climate change, then why do polls show that fewer Americans today see global warming as a serious threat than they did two years ago? This public opinion phenomenon is directly attributable to groups motivated to misinform the public. These groups are commonly funded by the Fossil Fuels industry and they are increasingly becoming worldwide in scope.

Scientists aren’t exactly the most skilled group to respond to such a vast public outcry of denial of their work. As a group, they are not particularly vocal in societal debates. Most are traditionally content to stick to their labs and research vessels hoping to publish their results in peer-reviewed journals read by relatively few. The onslaught of global climate change and its human connections have changed all that. The characterization of global change scientists as “a caste of spectacularly unattractive people pretending to an obscure form of knowledge” by a Wall Street Journal editorial is a manifestation of the problem of scientists no longer being good old boys.

Glacial Canyon, Alaska, Mary Edna Fraser. This glaciated valley has a U- shaped cross section in contrast to valleys formed by rivers which have V- shapes. If all mountain glaciers melted the level of the sea would rise between 1 and 2 feet.

The very nature of good science works against the credibility of science, at least from the standpoint of the deniers. There are a number of uncertainties in the science of global warming. Recognizing uncertainties is a hallmark of good science, but admitting their existence is considered a fatal flaw by deniers: a clear indication that scientists don’t know what they are doing. Advances in the science, disagreements among scientists and occasional inevitable errors are all viewed as further evidence of the incompetence or malfeasance of the scientific community.

Often the criticisms are harsh. We received hundreds of negative responses to an Op-Ed in USA Today that argued the earth is warming but did not mention the human connection. One response went like this: “We all know it’s a huge scam worth billions of dollars, and that you are lying and concealing data, conspiring to shut out anyone who doesn’t conform to your communist and one world government rule and wealth redistribution policies.”

A November 29, 2011 Op-Ed piece in the Wall Street Journal by Bret Stephens is in tune with the paper’s long time policy of strong denial of global climate change. This “red meat” piece argues that global warming is “another system of doom-saying prophecy and faith in things unseen” and continues making many of the major points of the deniers. Ironically, he compares the scientific consensus on climate change to religion: “with global warming we have a religion whose leaders are prone to spasms of anger and whose followers are beginning to twitch with boredom.” Stephens rolls on, denying the obvious abundance of extreme weather events in recent years, not recognizing the IPCC predicted rapid (30 year) melting of Himalaya glaciers as a simple clerical mistake and implying that the Climategate emails represent an attempt by climate scientists to hide the truth.

Unlike religion, which operates on faith, science is based upon hypotheses and the peer reviewed results. Further, we are now moving beyond predictive events to observable events as global climate change accelerates; the Greenland Ice Sheet melting is clearly accelerating and  we humans produced the largest amount of CO2 ever in 2010.

Probably the first truly global climate change catastrophe will be the sea level rise. There is a consensus that by the year 2100, the sea level may rise by 3 feet. Currently the sea level rise rate is a bit over 1 foot per century as measured both by satellites and tide gauges.

It is difficult to fathom how a 150-year record of tide gauges and 20 years of satellite measurements of sea level change can reasonably be refuted, yet in the December 27, 2010 issue of Forbes magazine an article argues sea level is not rising. Swedish geologist Nils Axel Morner has written a pamphlet entitled Sea Level Rise is the Greatest Lie Ever Told. In it, Morner argues that ocean currents pushing water masses up against the continents are causing sea levels to rise. Another geologist H. Leighton Steward’s tactic is to falsely assert that a certain claim is commonly made by global change scientists and then refute it. Glacier calving around the world is proof of global warming is one such statement. But scientists never make that claim. Glaciers have been calving for billions of years whether there is cooling or warming.      

Pteropod, Mary Edna Fraser. Pteropods are tiny snails from the open ocean that are the critical base of the food chain for whales, cod and salmon. Their shells are particularly thin and susceptible to being dissolved in increasingly acidic ocean water. Acidification occurs as carbon dioxide in sea water forms carbonic acid.

But the most effective and broadly permeating system of denials does not have its base in rogue scientists. Instead it has tobacco roots. The tobacco lobby created the approach used by fossil fuel giants to create doubts about scientific consensus. The same tactics used to deny harmful effects of secondhand smoke are now used to foster doubt in the minds of the public in order to delay. Like Big Tobacco before them, the fossil fuel industries aggressively seek to counter climate change science by using front organizations, typically think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation or the Heartland Institute to make their case and confuse the public. These groups employ scientific spokespeople and invest in research to lend an air of legitimacy to their efforts.  They seek to recast research results supportive of climate change as junk science and use their unparalleled wealth to influence government officials. Industry giants like Exxon-Mobil and the Koch Foundation increasingly channel funds outside of the United States in an effort to export American style climate change denial. Reporter Josh Harkinson recently found that the US based Atlas Economic Research Foundation, a group funded by ExxonMobil and the Koch Foundation, has supported more than thirty foreign think tanks that espouse skepticism of climate change science.

We fear that it will take a truly global catastrophe, most likely a sea level rise, to truly motivate global efforts to respond to a warming earth.

About the Authors:

Orrin Pilkey, Professor Emeritus of Earth Sciences at Duke University and Keith Pilkey (attorney) are co-authors of Global Climate Change: A Primer.

About the Artist:

Mary Edna Fraser is a batik artist from Charleston, South Carolina.