The Dark Humor of Climate Denial: Behind the Absurdity, a Serious Crisis

03/18/2015 10:39 am ET | Updated May 18, 2015

Worried about climate change and the effects of extreme weather? Concerned about what the future holds for our nation's people, wildlife and infrastructure? Do you live in a place like Miami, where you no longer even need rain to get a flood? Fear not. Florida Gov. Rick Scott has a simple way to solve your problems: just abolish the term "climate change."

You've probably heard by now that upon taking office in 2011, the Scott administration instituted an "unwritten policy" that forbade the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) from using the terms "climate change" or "global warming" in its official communications, this despite the fact that Florida is one of the states most threatened by climate change, and despite the fact that the DEP is on the front lines of studying and dealing with its effects. And employees of other state agencies responsible for preparing for the impacts of a warming climate on transportation, public health and water management have also reported being pressured to avoid using the term "climate change."

This "unofficial rule" even extended to interference with academic publishing. A University of Florida Ph.D. student was asked by the Health Department to expunge the term "climate change" from her research paper. The absurdity of this situation is highlighted by the title of the Washington Post article that broke the story: "Fla. scientist told to remove words 'climate change' from study on climate change." The headline reads like satire and might be hilarious if not for the fact that the Scott administration's preposterous policy of ignoring reality has real and deadly consequences.

This ludicrous refusal to accept climate change as a reality reached another new low when U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Oklohoma) brought a snowball to the Senate floor, chucked it on the ground and declared it proof that climate change is a hoax. It was a sadly comical example of the inability to tell the difference between weather and climate, and of the failure to grasp the meaning of the word "global." In fact, this winter has been warmer than average across most of the planet. Had the senator been standing almost anywhere other than the northeastern U.S. -- like, say, at the start of Alaska's annual Iditarod dog sled race, where they had no snow to race on -- he would have had a much harder time forming a natural snowball.

In the wake of Sen. Inhofe's little stunt, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) took to the Senate floor and gave what was, under the circumstances, a pretty measured response: "You can believe every major scientific society, or you can believe the senator with the snowball."

It's no accident that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that the climate is warming and that this is "very likely due to human activities." Scientists gather data about the world around us, analyze it and reach reasoned conclusions based on the evidence. And the evidence that our activities are changing the Earth's climate is overwhelming. It may also be no accident that a very small percentage of scientists continue to disagree: Defending the fossil fuel industry against modern science can be a lucrative business. In fact, one prominent scientist in the "denier" camp was recently revealed to have accepted $1.2 million from coal and oil interests and failed to disclose these ties when publishing his results. And the book (and now movie) Merchants of Doubt lays out in excruciating detail how the web of professional denialism dates back to, and even includes many of same characters as, past campaigns to discredit critics of pesticides and smoking.

You can't help but get the feeling that at some level, Gov. Scott and Sen. Inhofe know how absurd their position is. You can almost hear it in the latest mantra of the reality-denying politician: "I'm not a scientist." Most of us aren't doctors or scientists either, but we trust their expertise and their advice. And we trust scientists to help with federal legislation and policy decisions ranging from food safety and disease control to automobile safety and energy regulation. The idea that one has to be a climate scientist to accept climate science would be hilarious if it weren't so dangerously misguided.

While elected officials ban scientific phrases from reports and news stations interview industry-funded deniers in a misplaced search for "balance," the consequences of climate change are already upon us. Gigantic storms, catastrophic wildfires and brutal drought have already cost the United States billions and taken hundreds of lives. Fish and wildlife from polar bears to salmon and sea lions are suffering from the impacts of climate change at this very moment. Endangered species will face ever more severe challenges brought on by their changing habitat. And even if we were able to magically end all carbon emissions today, we'd still be experiencing the effects of climate change that we have already caused hundreds of years from now.

Enough is enough. The debate and scientific uncertainty is over. The time for willful ignorance is past. Climate change is real, and it's happening now. And you can't keep climate change at bay by simply refusing to speak its name. Refusing to acknowledge that our planet is heating up and pretending not to understand the science doesn't stop it from happening. Every day our lawmakers waste by censoring climate change and throwing snowballs in the Senate will have consequences for our children and future generations to come. It's time to face the facts.