Just Say No: Climate Skeptics and Deniers

by Richard T. Stuebi

The community against taking action on climate change — skeptics who honestly or otherwise question the science, and deniers who have already concluded it’s all a bunch of bunk — seems particularly strident these days. For instance, check out the harsh comments underneath this blog post reviewing the recent release of a report from the U.S. Global Climate Change Research Program detailing the climatic changes that are already in evidence.

I’m somewhat knowledgeable about technologies to address climate change, but I’m less knowledgeable about climate science per se, and therefore less able to separate the wheat from the chaff in the climate debates. So, I was very pleased to when the Cleveland office of URS Corporation (NYSE: URS) and Ideastream recently hosted a presentation by someone who understands the issues very well: Peter Adams, Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

Prof. Adams offered a very cogent and non-hyperbolic synopsis of what is known and what is unknown about climate science. In his view, it can be stated with confidence that climate change is happening, and is being at least somewhat driven by human activities, though the degree/pace of future changes are highly uncertain.

I particularly appreciated the way he carefully and non-disparagingly handled the issue of climate skeptics and deniers. Prof. Adams noted that some of the skeptics have seemingly impressive credentials, but illustrated how nefarious their tactics can be by using a powerful analogy involving the statue of Venus de Milo:

“The scientist would say that the Venus de Milo is a statue of a woman, whereas the skeptic would say ‘A woman has arms, and this statue has no arms; therefore, it’s not certain that this is a statue of a woman, and it can’t be proven as such until the arms are found.'”

In other words, skeptics are having some successes undermining the consensus on climate science and reinforcing the vigor of the denier blogosphere by weaving intricate arguments in which each of their statements is factually or technically correct but completely lacking in context. Unfortunately, because much of the public is so poorly-informed on energy and environmental issues, and on technical matters generally, many of our masses are unable to see how the “true” statements made by credentialed skeptics lead to a “false” (or at best, highly misleading) conclusion.

One such misled soul was in the audience for Prof. Adams’ talk: a member of the public who was apparently quite certain that climate change wasn’t happening, based presumably on readings of skeptic publications and web-sites. In the post-presentation Q&A session, our in-audience denier was sufficiently bold to offer a sequence of rebuttals to Prof. Adams’ talk, disguised in the form of awkwardly-phrased questions to Prof. Adams. It was actually a bit humorous to watch Prof. Adams cordially but definitively dissect the denier’s parries — kinda like the scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” in which the Black Knight stubbornly fights King Arthur and is sequentially severed of all his limbs, until as a bloody stump he cheerfully announces from the ground “OK, we’ll call it a draw.”

If I were a denier such as our misguided fellow audience member, I wouldn’t have been so stupid to take on Prof. Adams — an obviously intelligent researcher who studies this stuff every day for hours, and who is clearly not an extremist prone to overstatement. Actually, because he seemed to be such a thoughtful observer of the skeptic/denier universe, I asked Prof. Adams two questions related to climate skepticism that were puzzling me of late. While he responded verbally at the presentation, he did some follow-up research and subsequently emailed me more detailed commentary, which I’ve included below (with his permission):

1. Given that climate science and meterology are related in some important ways, why do some meterologists (such as ours here in Cleveland) have the opinion that climate change is NOT happening?

Adams’ response:

“[Reporters] interviewed the head of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) and asked him why so many meteorologists do publicly disagree with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) consensus. His comments are insightful, and he even admits to being a former skeptic. He personally accepts the IPCC position now as does the AMS as an institution. Basically, he points to some cultural factors in [the meteorologist] community: they have an inherent distrust of models, natural variability is their major focus, and long-term drivers of climate such as CO2 levels are not part of their world view (they are completely irrelevant to tomorrow’s forecast)….The danger is that [meteorologists] are not really climate experts although the average person perceives them to be. They are Bachelor’s level scientists, not researchers. Most probably have not read much of the climate change literature and, as even the AMS head points out, weather forecasting is different than climate science in significant ways.”

2. What has changed since the 1970’s, when many scientists were concerned about “global cooling”, not global warming?

Adams’ response:

“[It appears that] the discussion of ‘global cooling’ was exaggerated in the popular press [in the 1970s] compared to scientific circles and the scientists were much more tentative about it than they are today about global warming. Moreover, the ‘global cooling’ vs. ‘global warming’ apparent contradiction really is not a contradiction at all. Global cooling scientists were mostly concerned about the cooling effects of atmospheric haze particles, but there were already concerns about global warming from CO2. Of course, today, climate scientists still recognize the important cooling effects of haze particles that have partly offset global warming (the ‘air pollution that has saved us from global warming’ that I mentioned [in my talk]). So, the major change between now and then is not a different physical understanding per se but rather a reappraisal of the relative importance of these two factors. Moreover, there are very good reasons why this shift/reappraisal has taken place. First, with the advent of the Clean Air Act [of 1970], our greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase at the same time that we have reduced haze significantly. It is probably not a coincidence that the post-WWII cooling ended in the 70s (circa Clean Air Act). In fact, climate models that include greenhouse gases and haze particles tend to predict the observed flat temperatures or cooling from 1945 to the 70s and then accelerated warming thereafter. Second, science tells us that greenhouse gases will always tend to win in the end. This is because haze particles are short-lived (atmospheric lifetime is about one week) whereas CO2 is long-lived (about 100 years). So, even if your mix of CO2 and haze emissions cancel each other out in the short term, the haze goes away and the greenhouse gases continue to build up. We would eventually have flipped from cooling to warming even without the Clean Air Act.”

Prof. Adams closed his email to me with the final thought about climate skepticism/denial among the public:

“As long as enough of the public is predisposed towards believing in climate change, trusts the IPCC and/or simply acquiesces when CO2 caps come along, we can solve the problem. Witness how many areas of public policy there are (e.g., some subsidy) where the majority of people think it’s a bad idea but don’t care enough to override the efforts of a determined special interest group. Climate change policy may end up being like that, except in this case, [the special interest] helps to save the world. The idealist in me would prefer for everyone to buy into the science and the need for CO2 regulation. But acquiescence might be the ‘least bad’ of the possible solutions.”

I’d accept acquiescence too — if we could even achieve that. But it’s hard to make progress on responsible climate legislation when the deniers are shouting so loudly, absolutely unwilling to entertain any views other than what they positively know to be the case, and drowning out discussion on the items where reasonable people can disagree reasonably.

I see this as a highly unfortunate development: climate science has become a “hot button” moral issue, akin to abortion, wherein parties hold non-negotiable positions based on fundamental beliefs rather than any set of facts.

At least a little bit of the blame for this must accrue to Al Gore and others of his ilk who make claims that are likely to be overly dramatic, from a lecturing and too-certain stance, that the planet is heading to certain/imminent climate disaster.

But the problem is more fundamental across our society. As long as we live in a point/counterpoint world of people convinced of their rectitude and shouting past each other in insulting fashion — “Jane, you ignorant slut” — constructive dialogue will be near-impossible, and progress (much less resolution) on any important and complex social problem like the climate issue seems beyond grasp.

Richard T. Stuebi is the Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc. Later in 2009, he will also become Managing Director of Early Stage Partners.

11 replies
  1. Bruce Hall
    Bruce Hall says:

    Looks as if you may have a vested interest in the political science view of climate.I suggest you read from the weblog of Dr. Roger Pielke, Sr. at :http://climatesci.org/He takes a pretty balance view of climate change:1. it is happening2. human activity is, indeed, partially responsible, but not necessarily in the way that the IPCC has proffered3. there are some interesting alternatives to reduce human impact on climate, but the present politically-driven approach may be counter-productive

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    So why, in these models, is the sun always an assumed constant? I thought the sun and water vapor were the major factors. I'm no expert, but then again, I believe many of our "experts" are selling out, and they're slanting their findings to whatever would support them earning more money. I can't say as I blame them, but it's just a damn shame things are working that way. Just ask yourself who's more likely to get published more and make more money – a scientist who's findings are in line with global warming or one who's findings aren't in line with it.

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous: I would say a scientist who has findings against global warming would be most likely to get a lot of attention. A few skeptics are making a fortune on lectures, books, movies…. just going along with the flow isn't a certain way to get published. You're clearly unfamiliar with academic publishing.

  4. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I love how the one thing you guys can never, ever admit, is that someone actually disagrees with you. Its as if if an educated person honestly disagreed with global warming the universe would implode.

  5. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    You are right, anonymous! Obama and his accomplices are using the mainstream media and all the means at their disposal to increase their wealth and power at our expense by forcing us to swallow the global warming/cap and trade scam. No patriotic and informed American can support the ACES Act (global warming/cap and trade scam), a huge Ponzy scheme that will kill the U.S. economy.Cap and Trade “would be the equivalent of an atomic bomb directed at the U.S. economy—all without any scientific justification,” says famed climatologist Dr. S. Fred Singer. It would significantly increase taxes and the cost of energy, forcing many companies to close, thus increasing unemployment, poverty and dependence.Cap and trade represents huge taxes and cost increases, which will hurt mostly the poor and the middle class. Cap and trade will give dictatorial powers to Obama and will further enrich his billionaire friends (Gore, Soros, Goldman Sachs, Obama’s Chicago Climate Exchange friends, GE, the United Nations, etc.) — all at our expense and at the expense of our children and grandchildren.

  6. Paul O Callaghan
    Paul O Callaghan says:

    This is like the Lilliputians arguing about which way to eat a boiled egg. Eveyone is saying the climate is changing. I think that point is agreed. Everyone, is saying that human activity is likely to be a factor involved in causing this climate change. No one is saying that they fully understand it. Everyone agrees overall this is not a good thing for the human species.So where to you go from there?The best analogy I have heard for this, and I think it was Thomas L. Friedman I heard using it, is that we are driving along in a fog, with no headlights, and there is a cliff somewhere up ahead. So we can either keep our foot on the gas, or ease off and put on the brakes. There is such a thing as the precautionary principle. Smoking may only increase my chances of getting lung cancer, nothing defintive, just an increased probability. But you weigh it up and you take your chances or decide its not worth the risk. The worst outcome of reducing GHG's is that we accelerate a move towards renewable energy which may put a burden on the economy.

  7. Peter Adams
    Peter Adams says:

    Regarding the previous commenters assertion that climate models assume that the sun is constant, this is an all-too-common misconception.It is widely accepted that the sun has increased in intensity over the 20th century. The majority of scientists that attribute global warming principally to greenhouse gases also accept this fact and include it in their models. The key figure to see would be the "radiative forcing" summary of the IPCC AR4 report :http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/ar4-wg1.htm(It is Figure TS.5 of the Technical Summary document).The key thing to note in this figure is that we can compare the greenhouse effect to a stronger sun in terms of their heat input to the climate system. The greenhouse effect is about 30 times stronger than the change in the sun's intensity. The typical climate scientist would say that they have a hard time seeing how the greenhouse effect could be negligible while the solar change is dominant.

  8. Peter Adams
    Peter Adams says:

    A previous commenter mentioned the importance of water vapor as a greenhouse gas. This is a classic example of a factual statement twisted into an illogical conclusion by climate skeptics. These are exactly the sorts of "arguments" that they put forward that sound persuasive, especially to lay people, but do not hold water (no pun intended).It is a fact that water vapor is a naturally occurring greenhouse gas. It is incredibly important in the natural scheme of things in maintaining the "normal" temperature of the Earth. Without it, we would be very cold indeed. If we calculate how much heat gets returned to Earth by the various greenhouse gases, water vapor wins by a fairly comfortable margin.What I said in the previous paragraph is accepted by the majority of climate scientists that also believe that CO2 is the major cause of 20th century warming. It is included in models and in no way undermines the (very strong) argument that greenhouse gases are causing climate change.How can this be?First, natural greenhouse gases (the natural levels of water vapor, CO2, methane, etc) are very strong. Without them, the Earth would be about 60 degrees colder (Fahrenheit). Even though water is the largest, the others (CO2 and methane) still account for an important fraction of the total 60 degrees. I'm on vacation and don't have the exact numbers with me, so please forgive this lack of detail. For the sake of argument, let's say that they are 10 degrees out of the total 60. This can help you see how even small changes in their concentrations can lead to the observed climate change of about 1 degree Fahrenheit. We have to always keep in mind that the naturally occurring greenhouse effect is very strong (60 degrees) so even small changes in some gases have a noticeable effect.The second important fact to keep in mind are the atmospheric lifetimes of the different greenhouse gases. When it evaporates, a water molecule doesn't spend very long in the atmosphere, probably only a week or two on average. In contrast, the other greenhouse gases are long-lived (about 10 years for methane and about 100 years for CO2). Also, the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere depends on a bunch of factors, but atmospheric temperature is one of the most important. Everything we know about atmospheric science tells us that the amount of water vapor will increase (and is increasing) as the Earth gets warmer and that it adjusts quickly (a week or two). The conclusion to all this is that, even though water vapor is a very important greenhouse gas, it is more of a responder than a driver in the overall system (it is part of a feedback cycle). A somewhat poor analogy would be water vapor as the all powerful but unthinking king whereas CO2 is the advisor whispering in his ear. Everybody thinks the king holds the power, but he's just a puppet controlled by someone else behind the scenes.Rough numbers that most scientists would agree with is that, if we doubled CO2 concentrations from their preindustrial values, the Earth would eventually become about 3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer … if CO2 were the only greenhouse gas. However, the warmer Earth increases the amount of water vapor, amplifying the initial warming. The enhanced water vapor gives another 3 degrees of warming leading to a total climate response of about 6 degrees Fahrenheit. Note that CO2 is the ultimate cause of the entire 6 degrees but the immediate cause of only half of that.

  9. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Meteorologists have good reason to be skeptical of computer models, as is anyone else who works with computer simulations or has looked at the many parts of climate science which are unknown. Computers can't simulate what is not understood.Have you looked at what has been happening to temperatures for the last ten years? Carbon dioxide levels have continued to go up, but not the temperatures. Have you seen that being reported and examined?

  10. J Larsen
    J Larsen says:

    Two degrees or 6 degrees doesn't really matter to me. Even if it were no degrees, why wouldn't we want to look at alternatives to smoke filled air and toxic water? The economic burden? Again spend dollars on poluting resource extraction, mountain top removal, etc. or spend same or similar dollars on something else.

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