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Snow Doubt: What's Behind Climate Change Denials?

04/21/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last week's record snowfall unleashed a flurry of soundbites from climate change naysayers who cited the snowstorms as proof that the planet isn't really warming.

But "the weird and disruptive weather patterns around the world are pretty much exactly what you'd expect as the planet warms," as environmentalist Bill McKibben noted in an op ed in last Sunday's Washington Post, because "warmer air holds more water vapor than cold air does."

McKibben explains, "The increased evaporation from land and sea leads to more drought but also to more precipitation, since what goes up eventually comes down. "

So, unless you don't believe in gravity, it kinda makes sense.

Tom Friedman's column in the New York Times on Wednesday suggested that we ditch the term "global warming" altogether, and call it "global weirding" instead, because that's a more accurate way to describe all the extreme weather that we've been experiencing, from droughts to floods to hurricanes.

Whatever you want to call it, it's real, so the sooner we stop dithering and start taking meaningful steps to halt climate change, the better our chances of avoiding its most catastrophic consequences.

Even if you're not convinced that things are as bad as the experts say, we're facing a future in which the world's population is expected to grow from about 6 to 9 billion people between now and 2050. And as Friedman points out, more and more of those people will want to live the way that we do in the United States, which means that the demand for renewable energy and clean water is going to skyrocket.

That's why China is betting its future on things like clean tech and high speed rail, while we're still buying into a biofuel boondoggle like corn-based ethanol. We can barely muster the political will to upgrade the antiquated rail system that we have, much less imagine the kind of high speed rail that could take you from New York to Chicago in five hours.

Meanwhile, environmentalists who thought that President Obama shared their vision of an America powered by alternative energy have been bitterly disappointed to hear him touting nuclear power, offshore oil drilling and the oxymoronic, Orwellian "clean coal" as viable solutions to our energy needs.

And then there's the 16 lawsuits that have been filed by "industry groups, conservative think tanks, lawmakers and three states" to challenge to the EPA's finding that greenhouse gases pose a threat to our health.

The list of litigants reads like a veritable Who's Who of Prodigious Polluters, including the Ohio Coal Association, the Corn Refiners Association, the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, the Western States Petroleum Association, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Iron and Steel Institute, the National Mining Association and their carbon-loving colleagues at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among others.

Of course, the EPA's ruling is itself a threat to the fiscal health of these industries. A study due to be published this summer by the UN estimates that the world's 3,000 biggest companies caused $2.2 trillion dollars of environmental damage for the year 2008. The report concludes that if we were to hold these companies financially accountable for the "use, loss and damage of the environment," it "would wipe out more than one-third of their profits," according to the Guardian, which noted that:

The biggest single impact on the $2.2tn estimate, accounting for more than half of the total, was emissions of greenhouse gases blamed for climate change.

The notion that companies could be required to bear the true costs inflicted by their industries represents a radical departure. As Richard Mattison, the consultant who headed the report team, told the Guardian:

What we're talking about is a completely new paradigm. Externalities of this scale and nature pose a major risk to the global economy and markets are not fully aware of these risks, nor do they know how to deal with them.

Here at home, supporters of industrial agriculture are alarmed by the prospect of having to curb their carbon footprint. And commodity crop farmers are reportedly feeling betrayed by the USDA's new-found support for small-scale, sustainable agriculture.

The American Farm Bureau Federation issued a statement declaring that:

EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from farms and ranches through the Clean Air Act could lead to costly and burdensome mandates on America's food, fiber and renewable fuel producers.

And not regulating greenhouse gas emissions could lead to increasingly costly and burdensome climate change.

So, how can we convince these people that there's no time to waste debating whether global weirding is for real? Well, if you've got an iPhone, I've got an app for you, courtesy of Skeptical Science. The app lists all the climate deniers' pet claims and provides you with the solid science to refute them. Needless to say, the deniers are already up in arms, leaving scathing reviews on the iTunes app store and calling on their side to produce a rival app.

But you really don't need any high-tech help to set the skeptics straight. The next time someone holds up the snowstorms as evidence that man-made climate change is a myth, just ask them, "Do you believe in gravity?" and offer Bill McKibben's simple observation that what goes up, must come down. Sow enough seeds of doubt amongst the doubters, and we could gain a whole new crop of converts. We surely need 'em. As McKibben asks:

Can you sit in a snowstorm and imagine a warming world? If you're a senator, can you come back to work and pass a bill that blunts the pace of climate change? If the answer is no, then we're really in a world of trouble.

Originally published on The Green Fork