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Remarkable Insight Into the Climate Denial Machine

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On Friday, May 7th, the journal Science published a strongly worded letter signed by 255 of the nation's leading scientists decrying recent political attacks on climate science and climate scientists. This letter drew substantial media attention from a wide range of outlets, including Time, The New York Times science blog, several major British, Australian, Portuguese, and Canadian papers, and much more. See my previous post on this.

In a remarkable bit of irony, the art chosen by editors (not by the authors of the letter) at Science to accompany the letter was a picture of a polar bear on an ice floe. To the embarrassment of the journal, this photo is "photoshopped" -- combining polar bear, ice floes, clouds, and other elements into a perfectly lovely, albeit made-up piece of art. Oops. The journal, of course, when they realized their mistake, agreed to swap out the photo and post a sheepish correction.

But this incident has also provided a fantastic peek into the way the climate denial "machine" works -- and I call it a machine, because it truly operates like one. The small but vocal part of the infosphere dominated by the climate deniers seized on this "fake" photo to try to paint the entire climate science community as fake.

Here is the logic of the climate deniers: the photo is manipulated, therefore we can claim the science of climate change to be manipulated and we won't have to challenge the actual content of the letter.

Nice try, but no. This focus on the art the editors chose to accompany the letter is an attempt by climate deniers to divert public attention once again from the facts of climate change. This is exactly what the scientists are talking about in the letter. Instead of challenging the science with better science, the vocal deniers are grasping at any straw to muddy the waters and confuse the public about the real climate threats we face. Mistakes found in the IPCC assessment of climate? Oh, then all climate science must be mistaken.

It doesn't, or shouldn't, work this way. Will the media be taken in, or the more informed part of the blogosphere? We'll see. As the Science letter says, there is still "compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend," and it highlights that there is nothing identified in recent events that has changed the fundamental conclusions about climate change. That remains true, even as Science magazine swaps out its polar bear picture.

Oh, by the way, there really are polar bears on ice floes. I'm sure the editors at Science can find a real photo that illustrates the same thing.

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