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Cancún, climate change and willful ignorance

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) activists demonstrate on the sidelines of the UN Climate Change Conference COP16 in Cancun.
REUTERS/Jorge Silva
World Wildlife Fund (WWF) activists demonstrate on the sidelines of the UN Climate Change Conference in Cancún.

This week scientists at my workplace, an independent international research institute in Vienna, Austria, gathered their papers and headed to the climate-change meeting in Cancún, Mexico.

The scientists are wrestling with complex, interrelated issues. They are focused on energy and how its use drives global warming, but they are also worried about the billions of people who don't have access to modern energy and who, as a result, live in poverty.

So they confront a contradiction — how to provide new, clean energy to an additional 3 billion people while at the same time cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050.

But as the scientists are seeking complicated scientific solutions to complex scientific and social problems, the public debate around climate change is still being conducted on a stunningly simplistic level.

Focusing less on mitigating and more on adapting
Due in part to the willful ignorance of too many Americans and the framing of climate change as a political issue rather than scientific reality, an increasing number of climate scientists consider it too late to prevent many of the disastrous effects of global warming. Consequently, researchers currently gathered in Cancún are focusing less on mitigating climate change and more on adapting to it.

Recently, the Star Tribune published an article about John Abraham, a University of St. Thomas associate professor of thermal engineering who developed a point-by-point rebuttal to Christopher Monckton, a non-scientist who is one of the more flamboyant global-warming deniers. Abraham's rebuttal was scientific and on point. Monckton's response was to call him, according to the Strib piece, "a wretched little man."

MinnPost chronicled the Abraham-Monckton confrontation in July [here and here], noting that the university stood up to Monckton's call for an investigation of Abraham. That Monckton responded with name-calling and personal attacks that had nothing to do with science is not surprising.

As a former science writer at the Star Tribune who chronicled the growing concern over climate change, I experienced firsthand the attacks from "experts" who, it turned out, were scientists paid — sometimes openly — by the energy industry.

My interest in climate change began in earnest in 1987, while I was on a yearlong science journalism fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I took a course on atmospheric chemistry, and it scared me.

Chemistry and physics, not politics
In that class I first saw a remarkably simple diagram from decades of data gathered at the top of Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano. The hockey stick diagram, as it has since become known, showed the rapid and relentless rise in carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere from the 1950s forward.

I also learned a basic truth about CO₂ — it works like a one-way mirror, allowing the sun's heat in, but preventing it from leaving. If you increase the amount of CO₂ in the atmosphere, you increase the amount of heat trapped by the CO₂.

I realized that the underlying driver of climate change is that basic. Add more carbon dioxide, trap more heat. It is chemistry and physics, not politics.

In 1988, after I'd returned to the newspaper, I read about the congressional testimony of NASA atmospheric scientist James Hansen. He testified, according to his recent recounting of the event, that "the Earth had entered a long-term warming trend and that human-made greenhouse gases almost surely were responsible." Global warming, he said, "enhanced both extremes of the water cycle, meaning stronger droughts and forest fires, on the one hand, but also heavier rains and floods."

Skepticism, concern and anger
Hansen was met with skepticism from the politicians, concern from scientists who thought he was ahead of the curve on the data, and anger from energy-industry types who understood the long-term economic implications of what he was saying. I wrote about Hansen's testimony, and the story reflected the simple underlying truth about the atmosphere — add more CO₂, trap more heat.

I received a hostile phone call within a day or two after the story appeared from a scientist on the payroll of a national coal association challenging my knowledge of climate-change science and threatening to call my editor.

Over the next several years I wrote at least one major climate-change story each year, and inevitably I got a call from one of the handful of energy-industry scientists who were attacking journalists who brought the science of climate change to the public. I imagine they were quite effective in intimidating journalists with no science background.

As the science of climate change and global warming became even clearer during the 1990s, the opposition to it became proportionately louder. There was an "I don't want it to be true, so it isn't" attitude among opponents that was — and is — inexplicable.

For seven years after I left the newspaper I worked for Physics Today magazine in Washington, D.C., covering federal science policy. The science continued to build, and the climate continued to match Jim Hansen's predictions. But those who didn't want it to be true yelled even louder.

Denial is reaching new levels in Washington
And now, as the first decade of the 21st century comes to a close, the denial of the reality of what is happening is reaching new levels in Washington. Retired Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, long the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Science, recently wrote a piece in the Washington Post appealing to GOP lawmakers to rethink "what has largely become our party's line: denying that climate change and global warming are occurring and that they are largely due to human activities."

He noted that many of the newly elected Republican House members believe the science of climate change is either inconclusive or flat-out wrong. "It is a stance," Boehlert wrote, "that defies the findings of our country's National Academy of Sciences, national scientific academies from around the world and 97 percent of the world's climate scientists."

While the science of climate change progresses and continues to confirm the early warnings from Hansen, the public debate has regressed. Perhaps it is reflective of our country's low ranking in science education, or the decline of good science reporting in our media. Regardless of the cause, it is a phenomenon that is dangerous and puts our way of life on this planet at risk.

Here are a few realities, not political, not debatable.

  • The monitoring station on Mauna Loa, month by month, measures higher and higher levels of CO₂ being pumped into the atmosphere by our burning of fossil fuels.
  • The more CO₂ that's added to the atmosphere, the more heat that's trapped.
  • The World Meteorological Organization recently reported that 2010 already ranks as one of the three hottest years on record. That record dates back to 1850. When the final tally is done at year's end, it likely will be the hottest.
  • The increase in climate extremes that Hansen predicted more than 20 years ago — more severe droughts, bigger forest fires, heavier rains and more flooding — are occurring across the globe.

The implications of climate change are no longer distant, and they are much scarier than they were even back in that classroom in 1987. The Earth's atmosphere doesn't care if your politics align with Rep. Michele Bachmann or Sen. Al Franken. More CO₂ is going into the atmosphere, and more CO₂ means more trapped heat. That's science, not politics.

Jim Dawson is a science writer based in Vienna, Austria.

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Comments (15)

Thank you, Mr. Dawson, for a clear and readily-accessible explanation of the underlying science of global, human-made, climate change.

At 56 years of age, I will probably live long enough to see its realities become so undeniable as to render those who refuse to acknowledge it (many of whom will cling to their "faith" despite all evidence to the contrary), clearly identifiable as the charlatans, crackpots, and paid propagandists they are.

Sadly, I fear the changes that are coming to our global climate are not going to arrive as slowly and gradually as they have over these past few decades. Rather, according to chaos theory,

nothing much will happen,...

nothing much will happen,...

nothing much will happen,...

(at least nothing which massively impacts the average person) until we reach a tipping point, at which time a great deal will happen across the globe, all within the space of a weeks or months.

This will not be exactly the "Day After Tomorrow" ice age scenario (although this could happen), but it's likely to be as massive and as devastating, worldwide - sufficient to force large populations to move to more hospitable places or perish and likely to shift the areas where the natural environment supports crop farming from where they now exist to other locales, and, of course, flooded islands and coasts.

Massive upheaval of populations and governments are very likely.

Indeed, I strongly suspect that, if we could see what's coming, we would be taking massive action, now, to try to prevent it.

But alas! Those addicted to the wealth they're all-too-easily accumulating as part of our current climate-change-causing energy supply systems will be damned if they're going to give up that easy money to save our planet, our fellow humans, and themselves from future destruction and despair, which they will not believe is coming until they are killed by it.

Why should we save our planet when there's so much money to be made in allowing it (and many of us) to perish?!

The history of science is a litany of deniers and nay-sayers. So it is with today's climate change deniers. I can think of no more apt expression than these folks are the epitome of having "their heads in the sand".

Was that possibly the same James Hansen who forecast 20 yrs ago that Manhattan would be under water by now?

As a scientist, surely you know that the CO2 greenhouse effect is logarithmic. In other words any temperature increase caused would quickly flatten out, not keep on going up in line with CO2.

Surely you also know global temps have not gone up for 15 years.

Well, you've managed to oversimplify and set back climate research about a couple of decades. Since you mentioned physics and chemistry, we'll start there. No, CO2 doesn't act as a "one-way" mirror. Yes, it gathers heat radiated from the earth. But when it releases heat, it is in a multi-directional manner. In other words, as much goes up as it goes down, also, horizontally. So given that, it only "reflects" about 1/3 of its energy back towards the earth. Staying with chemistry, I see that you skipped the lesson where other molecules already in place in our atmosphere has virtually the same IR absorption frequencies that is much more prevalent in our atmosphere. Given the redundancy of absorption and the multi-directional release, I find it implausible that CO2 could cause any heating at all. But, that's chemistry and physics, not politics. Please note, I didn't address many other issues such as evaporation causing clouds which increases albedo and apolitical stuff like that.

Oh, my, doesn't it embarrass you one little bit to confuse the infamous Hockey Stick chart -- a graph of mixed temperature proxies and actual readings, where Michael Mann deliberately terminated one declining proxy line as it passed under another line, in order to "hide the decline" -- with the long-standing historical chart of atmospheric CO2 produced by the monitoring station on the windward side -- not the top -- of Mauna Loa?

The former is a created mix of many sources -- most interpretive -- chosen to present a desired image, while the latter is a simple graph of a single element of the atmosphere.

If you can't get that simple bit of interpretation vs observation correct, what's the point of further discussion?

It is interesting to see that the 2 comments so far from global warming believers are of the fairly simplistic " Chicken Little" style, whereas the 3 critical comments are factually based ( whether right or wrong).

I have noticed this is often the case in these sort of debates and I believe this is indicative of the "science is settled" mantra of scientists and politicians who simply refuse to discuss the science.

Of course climate change is far more complex. But the comments raising that complexity as an argument against what we're doing to the climate is to take the role of a "concern troll."

Gee... you may be right, but we JUST CAN'T TELL FOR SURE.

Most of us rely on actual experts to interpret the data for us, in the same way we rely on doctors to diagnose our ailments and accountants to keep our books.

But, considering that I have never seen the names of the three "let's not worry our pretty little heads about climate change" in any other MinnPost comment sections I'm left to conclude that they are trolls either defending their own denial or being paid to post denial-supporting comments when alerted to any web site that has an article up in support of the scientific consensus regarding climate change - that it is real and that it will create massive problems - using pseudo statistics cooked up for them by those who are gaining the most from the fossil fuel-based energy status quo.

The above "fact based" commenters seem to differentiate themselves from the usual deniers in that they deny that there even is "global warming" or "climate change." Many deniers accept the facts that climate change is real and happening but challenge that its cause is human activities. Perhaps these commenters would care to explain the rapid melting of the Greenland glaciers and other glaciers around the world:

or the prediction that the Arctic Sea will be ice free in about 10-30 years:

or the release of massive quantities of methane from the Siberian therma frost:

Just to name a few examples. I too question the motives and real agendas of concern trolls who posture on some knowledge of science but ignore that the science of climate change is dealing with undisputed phenomenon. Or perhaps they think the media is making this stuff up?

Excellent article. Thanks for fighting the good fight.

One specific observation regarding this statement: There was an "I don't want it to be true, so it isn't" attitude among opponents that was — and is — inexplicable.

I don't think it's inexplicable at all. On the one hand, the money side of things, you have the fossil fuels and related industries who will do anything to protect their profits. Their motives and tactics are exactly the same as the tobacco industry employed while fighting the science concerning the tobacco/cancer link. I have, at various times, googled guests on talk radio shows who were billed as "experts" on climate science and who delivered the standard Denialist message. In most cases, it took about 2 minutes of googling to uncover links to, including being on the payroll of, oil companies or Republican organizations which in turn have links to the oil industry. It's usually ridiculously easy to uncover their financial or political motivations.

There are also the conservative foot soldiers, Limbaugh's dittoheads and the like, who will parrot whatever Rush or Hannity or Beck say, ad nauseum, on every comments page or letters to the editor section they can find. They are not concerned with scientific fact, they see it as their duty to advance the agenda of the Right by any means, and are happy to repeat untruths (without knowing or caring whether it is an untruth) to that end.

Finally, there are those who see any attempt to reduce carbon emissions as a direct attack on their lifestyle. Call them the "spoiled affluent" (affluent in this case being relative to third world standards of living). They don't want to think that they are responsible for any damage to the world that sustains them simply by their lifestyle, and above all they do not want to compromise their lifestyle in any way, consequences be damned. They have their house, their two or three cars, their various motorized toys, their electronics and what have you, and no one is going to tell them they need to use less energy. This is infantile, but understandable as a very common human reaction. Especially among Americans, who just don't like being told what to do.

There's your explication: profit, politics, and selfishness.

I find it to be interesting, in a depressing sort of way, that those who like to harp on "family values" are quite often the same ones who don't give a damn what kind of world they pass on to their children and future generations. They think it terribly important to have children - as many as they like, thank you - yet are willing to condemn them to live in a degraded environment that is terribly impoverished in terms of the life that it supports (after all, who needs tigers, or wolves, or whales, or any of the magnificent creatures that millions of years of evolution have wrought - it's our planet, damnit, and if we choose to wipe them all out in a matter of a few decades, that's our right!) so long as they can unrestrainedly consume the world's finite resources so as to live a lifestyle unprecedented in human history.

Better to burn out than to fade away, eh?

Greg is right that the paleo-record shows clearly that climate change tends to occur abruptly, upon the crossing of tipping points. Thus we play with fire, figuratively and literally.

The prospect of geoengineering is a frightening one, and certainly to be treated as last resort only, but it seems clear that it is to be our only hope of mitigating the damage. We have dawdled too long, and no amount of emissions reduction will suffice now - if we were to even engage in any, which we are not. If we are to avoid the worst case scenario, we must look to solutions such as technologies to directly remove CO2 from the atmosphere and sequester it, chemically or underground, or, failing that, extreme solutions such as sun-shading the Earth. That will cost a lot more than reducing our energy consumption would, but lacking the political will for the latter, the former will be forced upon us.

I am glad that, being on the high side of 50, I won't be around to witness the worst of what is to come. Your children and grandchildren will be though, Denialists.

BTW, the other reason I believe that we will be forced to try dangerous geoengineering solutions, besides lack of political will, and the reason I mentioned having too many children, is that the root cause of nearly all of our major problems, including anthropogenic global warming, is overpopulation, plain and simple.

So far we have made no serious effort to reduce emissions, and with a world population of 7 billion and climbing, it is probably futile anyway. Just take a look at the development taking place in China and southeast Asia - they're not going to stop, and continued development (powered mostly by coal) will simply overwhelm mitigation efforts.

Like the bacteria in the petri dish in a high school science experiment, we are overrunning the finite resources of our environment, and the consequences will be just as tragic for us as it was for those bacteria.

Talk about ignoring facts. Give up on pushing YOUR agenda.

My interest in "climate Change" happened in the 1970s after reading articles in good, liberal publications such as Newsweek and Time quoting dedicated scientists regarding the coming Ice Age.

In the 1960s, I can also recall that one very high profile scientist was telling us the world would be out of food by the end of the century because of over population.

Jim, I hate to say this but scientists can get it wrong — just like old newspaper reporters.

>>>>I also learned a basic truth about CO₂ — it works like a one-way mirror, allowing the sun's heat in, but preventing it from leaving. If you increase the amount of CO₂ in the atmosphere, you increase the amount of heat trapped by the CO₂. <<<<<

As Jim Suyts points out , Mr Dawson's explanation is not technically correct. The CO@ molecules on absorbing IR bounce around in various directions before leaving and taking their motion(heat) up, sideways, and down. Science writers are often among those lacking science knowledge.

>>>>>>More CO₂ is going into the atmosphere, and more CO₂ means more trapped heat. That's science, not politics. <<<<<

Not really. If you want to be scientific you will discover there is the logarithmic issue that Mr. Homewood raises. The cause is something called band saturation. There is so much CO2 in the atmosphere, that the 15 micron area of the IR band, where CO2 absorption peaks, is saturated, and there isn't a lot more IR for CO2 to absorb. That's one reason new CH4 and N2O molecules are so much more potent than CO2.
Now that's science.

Mother Nature's sarcasm continues. Really, you couldn't script this stuff any better.

The UN Climate Change Conference in Cancun started on the third day of record low temperatures. The previous low, set in 2000, of 57 was bested by a 53 degree reading. Last December, Copenhagen hosted this enormous carbon footprint event in the midst of snow and record low temperatures. While back home, the eastern US suffered from record lows and two feet of snow in many areas.

Look out the window to see the backdrop for this discussion. Once or twice a decade, subzero air spills into the upper midwest in December. It is happening right now.

What's the next venue for the UN Climate Conference, Antarctica? They tried warmer than Copenhagen, and that didn't work. Although, it did not snow in Cancun. I think colder would be best, possibly Minsk or Minneapolis.