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Climate Change Is a Scientific Reality, Not a Political Debate

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Climate denials have reached a fever pitch in the past few weeks. Anti-science screeds have littered the pages of the major newspapers and dominated talk radio.

From a New York Post editorial called "The EPA's Climate Con" to a Rush Limbaugh show in which he says "Al Gore...ought to be subject to being sued" because global warming is a "hoax," commentators have been trashing documented scientific evidence.

What I found most alarming about this trend is the fact that the media coverage and political debate so often take these rants at face value.

The scientific consensus confirms the dangers of climate change. Yet rarely are climate deniers called on to cite fact-based, peer-reviewed evidence for their rebuttals.

Instead, they spout unsubstantiated claims that fly in the face of climate data compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Academy of Sciences, the Pentagon, the National Intelligence Council, and the CIA.

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu characterized this trend in a recent interview: "If you look at the climate skeptics, I would have to say honestly, what standard are they being held to? It's very asymmetric. They get to say anything they want." (See multiple examples at MediaMattwers.)

Inadvertently, Marc Morano, one of the driving forces behind denier website Climate Depot, identified the right's key strategy. At the Accuracy in Media Awards at the 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference, Morano said climate change is "a political movement. It is not a scientific movement."

But Morano and his cronies don't get to classify what constitutes scientific fact according to their likes and dislikes. I am happy to engage in a political debate about which policies will most effectively solve global warming. But there is no debate about the fact that a third of the Arctic's perennial ice has vanished in just 30 years or that the past decade was the hottest on record.

As the esteemed Dr. George Woodwell, the founder of the Woods Hole Research Center, and long-time NRDC trustee wrote to Joe Romm, "The climatic disruption is not a theory open to a belief system any more than the solar system is a theory, or gravity, or the oceanic tides, or evolution." Woodwell has been studying climate change for more than 30 years and started testifying about it before Congress back in 1988.

Even if deniers feel entitled to disregard the IPCC's entire 2,800 pages of documentation because of two errors and a few botched citations, they still must contend with voluminous evidence compiled by America's leading research institutions.

Back in 1989, then-President George H. W. Bush decided to get to the bottom of the climate change debate. He initiated the U.S. Global Change Research Program -- one of the most exhaustive undertakings in the annals of scientific inquiry. It was a 20-year study commissioned by Congress and conducted over the course four administrations -- two of them Republican and two Democratic.

The agencies included NOAA, NASA, the Pentagon, the National Science Foundation, the Department of State and eight others. Their findings were released last June and here is how the report begins:

"Observations show that the warming of the climate is unequivocal."

That's right. The report is based on observation, not on conjecture, political views, or ideology. The report goes on to say, "The global warming over the past 50 years is due primarily to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases."

These are definitive conclusions from the best research agencies in the world. They reflect scientific truths, not political interest groups.

Saying the Earth is flat doesn't make it so. Nor does ignoring climate change make it go away. Still, we haven't heard the last of the deniers. Now that clean energy and climate legislation is moving through the Senate and has the backing of the White House, we will likely hear more talk of "hoaxes" and "cons." The fossil fuel industry, which has the most to gain by delaying climate action, is eager to amplify these false claims.

But next time you hear them, email, call, or write to the journalist or politician and demand to know where they get their facts from. If their standards are higher than the IPCC's then they should be happy to share their evidence.

And when you want to get the truth behind the counterfeit theories, visit this great Union of Concerned Scientists' Fact Checker site, where real climate scientists assess questions through the lens of science not politics.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog, where over 100 staff members blog about their work protecting the environment.

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