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Jake Whitney

Jake Whitney

Posted: April 23, 2010 11:11 AM

Climate change 'skeptics' have been singing a victory song in recent months. Emboldened by this winter's record snow, errors in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 report, and the phony scandal they dubbed 'ClimateGate,' their growing clamor has taken a toll on public acceptance. According to a Gallup poll released last month, Americans are now about evenly split on whether the threat of global warming is exaggerated and whether scientists agree on its causes and dangers. This in the face of clear scientific consensus.

Ninety seven percent of climatologists agreed that climate change is real and largely man-made in a poll released last year. At least 60 major scientific organizations across the globe also concur, while not one of any repute holds an opposing opinion. (A few have not yet committed.) As to the list of 700 dissenting scientists that Senator Inhofe and other skeptics frequently cite, an analysis by the Center for Inquiry found that less than 10 percent of them were climate scientists, and only about 15 percent had ever been published in peer-reviewed climate science literature. Moreover, another four percent seemed to agree with the scientific consensus and so were, presumably, mistakenly included. One of the "scientists" turned out to be a Kentucky weatherman without a college degree.

So that list of 700 actually amounts to less than 70 legitimate climate scientists, which, when measured against the approximately 19,000 that compose consensus, doesn't exactly equal an even debate. But didn't 'ClimateGate' prove scientists were fudging the numbers? No.

'ClimateGate' refers to the illegal hacking of more than a thousand emails from England's Climatic Research Unit, at the University of East Anglia. Initial news reports described the emails as discussions between prominent climatologists of how to suppress data from critics. Admittedly, several of the emails sounded sketchy, like the one that said: "I've just completed Mike's Nature trick...and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline." Thorough analyses of the messages, however -- particularly from the Associated Press and a British Parliamentary committee -- found no effort to suppress data. So the "scandal" turned out to be a misinterpretation of a few words in a few stolen emails. But that hasn't stopped skeptics from declaring ClimateGate to be the smoking gun they'd expected all along.

So let's talk about motive. This, outside of the science itself, is the crux of the "debate." If you believe man-made global warming is a farce, you must believe one of two things: that thousands of climate experts across the globe have made one gigantic mistake, or they are part of a conspiracy. Based on the vitriolic missives posted by skeptics across the blogosphere, an astounding number believes in conspiracy. So what is the motive of the conspirators? Money, skeptics say: if you're a scientist who "advocates" global warming, you'll get rewarded with research money.

This is ridiculous. It is certainly true that money can lead to scientific bias (just look at pharmaceutical research), but as a motive for conspiracy here it's laughable. The climate change consensus comprises thousands of scientists from at least 130 countries. While some American climatologists who believe in man-made global warming have seen increased funding -- as they should -- we don't know if climatologists in all the other countries have seen the same. In any case it's not clear that increased government funding here in America has led to an outbreak of millionaire climatologists.

So is it more likely that thousands of loosely affiliated climate scientists from 130 countries are involved in one giant scam for no discernable reason or...that multi-billion dollar fossil-fuel interests and other polluting corporations are manufacturing doubt and spreading disinformation because they don't want to change their ways? I'd wager on the latter -- not least of all because it's happened before: Big Tobacco funded phony research for years in order to claim that "the science wasn't settled" on the link between tobacco use and cancer. Sound familiar? Not to mention that ExxonMobil has admitted to funding doubt about climate change.

But it's not just corporations that don't want to change their ways, it's us too. On a personal level, it's easier to believe man-made global warming is a fraud because then we won't have to assume responsibility for our own carbon footprint, which could mean making inconvenient lifestyle changes: trading in that luxurious gas-guzzler for something more fuel-efficient, or cutting back on consumption in general. These are sacrifices some people don't want to make.

If there is a speck of validity in questioning the reality of man-made climate change, it is because scientists are not infallible, and it is possible that climatologists are missing something here. But you can't acknowledge that without also acknowledging the time-tested rigor of modern science and all that it has accomplished -- and that it is far more likely that science is right here. So many things about America that Republicans, the political party of the skeptics, boast so loudly about -- our military might, our technological innovation, our advanced medicine -- were made possible by modern science. And yet with climate science they have the hubris to presume to know more than the scientists; to assert that a few weeks of snow unravels a theory based upon mountains of data collected over decades.

Science is rarely about certainties. More often it's about examining the best evidence and making educated observations and smart decisions based upon it. In the case of climate science, the best evidence, as voiced by the most scientists, says that global warming is real, humans are fueling it, and it is dangerous. To do nothing -- especially when the solutions will only benefit us in the long run by increasing our energy independence -- is not only stupid but irresponsible. And, as Joseph Romm, who runs the Web site climateprogress.org, told me in an interview for Guernica Magazine: "Future generations won't understand it. They won't understand how people could be actively shouting 'No Fire' in a burning building and attacking the credibility of the fire department."