How We Know Global
Warming is Real
and Human Caused
BY DONALD R. PROTHERO
REALITY MUST TAKE PRECEDENCE OVER PUBLIC RELATIONS, FOR NATURE CANNOT BE FOOLED. â€”RICHARD FEYNMAN
On January 27, 2012, the Wall Street Journal ran an Opinion Editorial written by 16 people who challenge the evidence of
human-induced climate change. Most of the authors of the editorial were not climate scientists.’ Predictably, the Rupert Murdoch-owned Journal refused to run a statement by 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences, although a “Letter to
the Editor” by 38 of the world’s leading climate scientists’^ was published. This letter pointed out the numerous errors, mistakes, and fallacies in the editorial. It included a scathing rebuke by climate scientist Kevin Trenberth, whose remarks were
quoted out of context to make them seem the opposite of what he actually said. As the Trenberth et al. letter argued, the 16 authors of the editorial were so far out of their depth in discussing the topic that they were the “climate-science equivalent of
dentists practicing cardiology.” And as if to answer the op ed, the Earth sent a resounding message in reply. On Feb. 2, 2012,
news came of an 18-mile crack that appeared in Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica, a prelude to the calving off of an iceberg
350 square miles in area, one of the largest icebergs ever seen (See cover photo).^
Converging Lines of Evidence
How do we know that global warming is real and primarily human caused? There are numerous lines of evidence that converge
toward this conclusion.
1 . Carbon Dioxide Increase.
Carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has increased at an unprecedented rate in the past 200 years. Not one data set collected over a long enough span of time shows otherwise. Mann
et 3Ã. (1999) compiled the past 900 years’ worth of temperature
data from tree rings, ice cores, corals, and direct measurements
in the past few centuries, and the sudden increase of temperature of the past century stands out like a sore thumb. This famous graph is now known as the “hockey stick” because it is
long and straight through most of its length, then bends
sharply upward at the end like the blade of a hockey stick.
Other graphs show that climate was very stable within a narrow range of variation through the past 1000, 2000, or even
10,000 years since the end of the last Ice Age. There were
minor warming events during the Climatic Optimum about
7000 years ago, the Medieval Warm Period, and the slight cooling of the Little Ice Age in the 1700s and 1800s. But the magnitude and rapidity of the warming represented by the last 200
years is simply unmatched in all of human history. More revealing, the timing of this warming coincides with the Industrial Revolution, when humans first began massive deforestation and releEised carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning an unprecedented amount of coal, gas, and oil.
2. Melting Polar Ice Caps.
The polar icecaps are thinning Â£m.d breaking up at an alarming
rate. In 2000, my former graduate advisor Malcolm McKenna
was one of the first humans to fly over the North Pole in summer time and see no ice, just open water. The Arctic ice cap
has been frozen solid for at least the past 3 million years (and
maybe longer),” but now the entire ice sheet is breaking up so
fast that by 2030 (and possibly sooner) less them half of the
Arctic will be ice covered in the summer.^ As one can see firom
watching the news, this is an ecological disaster for everything
that lives up there, from the polar bears to the seals and walruses to the animals they feed upon, to the 4 million people
whose world is melting beneath their feet. The Antarctic is
thawing even faster. In February-March 2002, the Larsen B ice
shelfâ€”over 3000 square km (the size of Rhode Island) and
220 m (700 feet) thickâ€”broke up in just a few months, a story
14 SKEPTIC MAGAZINE volume 17 number 2 2012
typical of nearly all the ice shelves in Antarctica. The
Larsen B shelf had survived all the previous ice ages
and interglacial warming episodes over the past 3
million years, and even the warmest periods of the
last io,ooo yearsâ€”yet it and nearly all the other
thick ice sheets on the Arctic, Creenland, and
Antarctic are vEinishing at a rate never before seen
in geologic history.
3. Melting Glaciers.
Glaciers are all retreating at the highest rates ever
documented. Many of those glaciers, along with snow
melt, especially in the Himalayas, Andes, Alps, and
Sierras, provide most of the freshwater that the populations below the mountains depend uponâ€”yet this
fresh water supply is vanishing. Just think about the
percentage of world’s population in southern Asia (especially India) that depend on Himalayan snowmelt
for their fresh water. The implications are staggering.
The permafrost that once remained solidly frozen
even in the summer has now thawed, damaging the
Inuit villages on the Arctic coast and threatening all
our pipelines to the North Slope of Alaska. This is catastrophic not only for life on the permafrost, but as it
thaws, the permafrost releases huge amounts of
greenhouse gases which are one of the major contributors to global warming. Not only is the ice vanishing,
but we have seen record heat waves over and over
again, killing thousands of people, as each year joins
the list of the hottest years on record. (2010 just
topped that list as the hottest year, surpassing the previous record in 2009, and we shall know about 2011
soon enough). Natural animal and plant populations
are being devastated all over the globe as their environments change.^ Many animals respond by moving
their ranges to formerly cold climates, so now places
that once did not have to worry about disease-bearing
mosquitoes are infested as the climate warms and
allows them to breed further north.
4. Sea Levei Rise.
All that melted ice eventually ends up in the ocean,
causing sea levels to rise, as it has many times in the
geologic past. At present, the sea level is rising about
3-4 mm per year, more than ten times the rate of 0.1-
0.2 mm/year that has occurred over the past 3000
years. Geological data show that the sea level was virtually unchanged over the past 10,000 years since the
present interglacial began. A few mm here or there
doesn’t impress people, until you consider that the
rate is accelerating and that most scientists predict
sea levels will rise 80-130 cm in just the next century.
A sea level rise of 1.3 m (almost 4 feet) would drown
Northern Hemisphere Temperatures (5-year averages)
– Moberg et al. 2005 Reconstruction
â€¢ Instrumental Temperatures
0 100 200 300 400 500 600 700 800 900 1000 1100 1200 1300 1400 1500 1600 1700 1800 1900 2000
Figure 1. The Moberg et al. (2005) plot (updated from the Mann et al.,
, plot) of the last 2000 years of earth’s average surface temperature, which shows over 800 years of relative stability followed by the
rapid warming of the past two centuries, giving it the shape of a “hockey
stick.” The slight warming trend of the Medieval Warm Period can also
be seen (data from 900-1200 C.E.) but does not approach the magnitude of the warming in the past century.
many of the world’s low-elevation cities, such as
Venice and New Orleans, and low-lying countries
such as the Netherlands or Bangladesh. A ntimber of
tiny island nations such as Vanuatu and the Maldives,
which barely poke out above the ocean now, are already vanishing beneath the waves. Eventually their
entire population will have to move someplace else.’
Even a small sea level rise might not drown all these
areas, but they are much more vulnerable to the large
waves of a storm surge (as happened with Hurricane
Katrina), which could do much more damage than
sea level rise alone. If sea level rose by 6 m (20 feet),
most of the world’s coastal plains and low-lying areas
(such as the Louisiana bayous, Elorida, and most of
the world’s river deltas) would be drowned.
Most of the world’s population lives in lowelevation coastal cities such as New York, Boston,
Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Miami,
and Shanghai. All of those cities wotild be partially or
completely under water v^dth such a sea level rise. If
all the glacial ice caps melted completely (as they
have several times before during past greenhouse
episodes in the geologic past), sea level would rise by
65 m (215 feet)! The entire Mississippi Valley would
flood, so you could dock an ocean liner in Cairo, Illinois. Such a sea level rise would drovwi nearly every
coastal region under hundreds of feet of water, and
inundate New York City, London and Paris. All that
would remain would be the tall landmarks such as
the Empire State Building, Big Ben, and the Eiffel
Tower. You could tie your boats to these pinnacles,
but the rest of these drowned cities would lie deep
volume 17 number 2 2012 WWW.SKEPTIC.COM 15
Climate Change Critic’s Arguments and Scientists’ Rebuttais
Despite the overwhelming evidence there are many people who remain skeptical. One reason is that they
have been fed distortions and misstatements by the global warming denialists who cloud or confuse the
issue. Let’s examine some of these claims in detail:
â€¢ “it’s just natural ciimatic variabiiity.”
No, it is not. As I detailed in my 2009 book. Greenhouse of the Dinosaurs, geologists and paleoclimatologists know a lot about past greenhouse worlds,
and the icehouse planet that has existed for the
past 33 million years. We have a good understanding of how and why the Antarctic ice sheet first appeared at that time, and how the Arctic froze over
about 3.5 million years ago, beginning the 24 glacial
cind interglacial episodes of the “Ice Ages” that have
occurred since then. We know how variations in
the earth’s orbit (the Milankovitch cycles) controls
the amount of solar radiation the earth receives,
triggering the shiffs between glacial and interglacicd periods. Our current warm interglacial has
already lasted 10,000 years, the duration of most
previous interglacials, so if it were not for global
warming, we would be headed into the next glacial
in the next 1000 years or so. Instead, our pumping
greenhouse gases into our atmosphere after they
were long trapped in the earth’s crust has pushed
the planet into a “super-interglacial,” already
warmer than any previous warming period. We can
see the “big picture” of climate variability most
clearly in ice cores from the EPICA (European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica), which show the
details of the last 650,000 years of glacial-inters
The climate record from the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPiCA)
For 600,000 years, atmospheric CO2 has never heen above this ii
400.000 350.000 300.000 250.000 200.000 150.000 100.000 50.000
Years before the present (0=1950)
Figure 2. The ciimate record from the European Project for Ice Coring in
Antarctica (EPICA) shows the normal range of climate variability over the
past 650,000 years (450,000 years shown here) and the last 6 glacialihterglacial cycles. At no point in any previous interglacial was the carbon
dioxide level higher than 300 ppm (or the temperatures so high), yet we
are almost to 400 ppm today. This is clear evidence that our present
episode of warming is not “normal fluctuations.”
glacial cycles (Fig. 2). At no time during any previous
interglacial did the carbon dioxide levels exceed 300
ppm, even at their very warmest. Our atmospheric
carbon dioxide levels are already close to 400 ppm
today. The atmosphere is headed to 600 ppm
within a few decades, even if we stopped releasing
greenhouse gases immediately. This is decidedly
not within the normal range of “climatic variability,” but clearly unprecedented in human history.
Anyone who says this is “normal variability” has
never seen the huge amount of paleoclimatic data
that show otherwise.
â€¢ “it’s just another warming episode,
like the Medieval Warm Period, or the
Hoiocene Ciimatic Optimum or the end
of the Little ice Age.”
Untrue. There were numerous small fluctuations of
warming and cooling over the last 10,000 years of
the Hoiocene. But in the case of the Medieval
Warm Period (about 950-1250 A.D.), the temperatures increased only iÂ°C, much less than we have
seen in the current episode of global warming (Fig. 1).
This episode was also only a local warming in the
North Atlcintic and northern Europe. Global temperatures over this interval did not warm at all, and
actually cooled by more than iÂ°C. Likewise, the
warmest period of the last 10,000 years was the
Hoiocene Climatic Optimum (5,000-9,000 B.C.E.)
when warmer and wetter conditions in Eurasia
contributed to the rise of the first great civilizations
in Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and
China. This was largely a Northern HemisphereEurasian phenomenon, with 2-3Â°C warming in the
Arctic and northern Europe. But there was almost
no warming in the tropics, and cooling or no
change in the Southern Hemisphere.* From a Eurocentric viewpoint, these warming events seemed
important, but on a global scale the effect was negligible. In addition, neither of these warming
episodes is related to increasing greenhouse gases.
The Hoiocene Climatic Optimum, in fact, is predicted by the Milankovitch cycles, since at that
time the axial tilt of the earth was 24Â°, its steepest
value, meaning the Northern Hemisphere got more
solar radiation than normalâ€”but the Southern
16 SKEPTIC MAGAZINE volume 17 number 2 2012
Hemisphere less, so the two balanced. By contrast,
not only is the warming observed in the last 200
years much greater than during these previous
episodes, but it is also global and bipolar, so it is not
a purely local effect. The warming that ended the
Little Ice Age (from the mid-i70os to the late 1800s)
was due to increased solar radiation prior to 1940.
Since 1940, however, the Ã©miount of solar radiation
has been dropping, so the only candidate remaining
for the post-1940 warming is carbon dioxide.’
“it’s just tiie sun, or cosmic rays,
or voicanic activity or metiiane.”
Nope, sorry. The eunount of heat that the sun provides has been decreasing since 1940,’Â° just the opposite of the critics’ claims (Fig. 3). There is no
evidence of an increase in cosmic ray particles during the past century.” Nor is there any clear evidence that large-scale volcanic events (such as the
1815 eruption of Tambora in Indonesia, which
changed global climate for about a year) have any
long-term effects that would explain 200 years of
warming and carbon dioxide increase. Volcanoes
erupt only 0.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each
year, but humans emit over 29 billion tonnes a
year,^^ roughly 100 times as much. Clearly, we have
a bigger effect. Methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas, but there is 200 times more carbon dioxide than methane, so carbon dioxide is still the
most important agent.” Every other alternative has
been looked at and can be ruled out. The only clearcut relationship is between humem-caused carbon
dioxide increase and global warming.
â€¢ “Tiie ciimate records
since 1995 (or 1998) show cooiing.”
That’s simply untrue. The only way to support this
argument is to cherry-pick the data.” Over the short
term, there was a slight cooling trend from 1998-
2000, but only because 1998 was a record-breaking
El NiÃ±o year, so the next few years look cooler by
comparison (Fig. 4). But since 2002, the overall
long-term trend of warming is unequivocal. All of
the 16 hottest years ever recorded on a global scale
have occurred in the last 20 years. They are (in
order of hottest first): 2010, 2009,1998, 2005,
2003, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2001,1997, 2008,
1995,1999,1990, and 2000.’^ In other words, every
year since 2000 has been on the Top Ten hottest
years list. The rest of the top 16 include 1995,1997,
1998,1999, and 2000. Only 1996 failed to make the
list (because of the short-term cooling mentioned
â€¢ “We iiad record snows in tiie winter of
2009-2010, and aiso in 2010-2011.”
So what.? This is nothing more than the difference
between weather (short-term seasonal changes) and
climate (the long-term average of weather over
decades and centuries and longer). Our local
weather tells us nothing about another continent,
or the global average; it is only a local effect, determined by short-term atmospheric and ocÃ©anographie conditions.’* In fact, warmer global
temperatures mean more moisture in the atmosphere, which increases the intensity of normal winter snowstorms. In this particular case, the climate
change critics forget that the early winter of November-December 2009 was actually very mild and
warm, and then only later in January and February
did it get cold and snow heavily. That warm spell in
early winter helped bring more moisture into the
system, so that when cold weather occurred, the
snows were worse. In addition, the snows were unusually heavy only in North America; the rest of the
world had different weather, and the global climate
was warmer than average. Also, the summer of
2010 was the hottest on record, breaking the previous record set in 2009.
â€¢ “Carbon dioxide is good
for piants, so tiie worid wiii be better off.”
Who do they think they’re kidding? The Competitive
Enterprise Institute (funded by oil and coal companies
and conservative foundations”’) has run a series of
shockingly stupid ads concluding v*dth the tag line
“Carbon dioxide: they call it pollution, we call it life.”
Temperature v. Solar activity
â€¢ Solar activity (11 year average)
– Temperature (11 year average)
Figure 3. Plot of solar energy input to the earth versus temperature of
the last century. The two tend to track each other until the last 30
years, at which time the Earth warmed dramatically even as solar input
volume 17 number 2 2012 WWW.SKEPTIC.COiVI 17
Five year average
1880 1900 1920 1940 1980 2000
Global mean temperaturesâ€”1992-2010
92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 00 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10
Figure 4a. The plot of global mean temperature over the past century,
showing the yearly data (thin black line) and the smoothed curve using
a 5-year rolling average (wide grey line). Clearly, the trend has been
dramatically increasing, and individual data points from one year do
not tell the whole story. The anomalous El NiÃ±o warm year of 1998 is
one of those outliers.
Figure 4b. A detailed plot of the past 20 years of global mean temperatures, showing how anomalous 1998 was. If you cherry-pick 1998 and
the two years that followed it, it appears that climate is cooling. However, if you pick any two points other than 1998-2000, or any rolling
average, it is clear that climate is warming. Indeed, most of the years
from 2002 and on are as warm or warmer than 1998, so any claim
that “it has been cooling since 1998” is a lie. The short-term cooling
of the 2008 La NiÃ±a year can also be seen.
Anyone who knows the basic science of earth’s atmosphere can spot the gross inaccuracies in this ad.’^
True, plants take in carbon dioxide that animals exhale, as they have for millions of years. But the whole
point of the global warming evidence (as shown from
ice cores) is that the delicate natural balance of carbon dioxide has been thrown off balance by our production of too much of it, way in excess of what
plants or the oceans can handle. As a consequence,
the oceans are warming’^’^Â° and absorbing excess
carbon dioxide making them more acidic. Already
we are seeing a shocking decline in coral reefs
(“bleaching”) and extinctions in many marine
ecosystems that can’t handle too much of a good
thing. Meanwhile, humans are busy cutting down
huge areas of temperate and tropical forests, which
not only means there are fewer plants to absorb the
gas, but the slash and burn practices are releasing
more carbon dioxide than plants can keep up with.
There is much debate as to whether increased carbon dioxide might help agriculture in some parts of
the world, but that has to be measured against the
fact that other traditional “breadbasket” regions
(such as the Americcin Great Plains) are expected to
get too hot to be as productive as they are today. The
latest research^^ actually shows that increased carbon
dioxide inhibits the absorption of nitrogen into
plants, so plants (at least those that we depend upon
today) are not going to flourish in a greenhouse
world. It is difflcult to know if those who tell the
public otherwise are ignorant of basic atmospheric
science and global geochemistry, or if they are being
â€¢ “I agree that climate is changing, but I’m
skeptical that humans are the main cause,
so we shouldn’t do anything.”
This is just fence sitting. A lot of reasonable skeptics
deplore the right wing’s rejection of the reality of
climate change, but still want to be skeptical about
the cause. If they want proof, they can examine the
huge array of data that points directly to human
caused global warming.^^ We can directly measure
the amount of carbon dioxide humans are producing, and it tracks exactly with the amount of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Through
carbon isotope analysis, we can show that this carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is coming directly
from our burning of fossil fuels, not from natural
sources. We can also measure the drop in oxygen as
it combines with the increased carbon levels to produce carbon dioxide. We have satellites in space
that are measuring the heat released from the
planet and can actually see the atmosphere getting
warmer. The most crucial evidence emerged only
within the past few years: climate models of the
greenhouse effect predict that there should be
18 SKEPTIC MAGAZINE volume 17 number 2 2012
cooling in the stratosphere (the upper layer of the
atmosphere above lo km or 6 miles in elevation),
but warming in the troposphere (the bottom layer
below 10 km or 6 miles), and that’s exactly what
our space probes have measured. Finally, we can
rule out any other suspects (see above): solar heat is
decreasing since 1940, not increasing, and there are
no measurable increases in cosmic rays, methane,
volcanic gases, or any other potential cause. Face
itâ€”it’s our problem.
Why Do People Continue to Question the Reality of Climate Change?
Thanks to all the noise and confusion over climate
change, the general public has only a vague idea of
what the debate is really about, and only about half
of Americans think global warming is real or that we
are to blame.^^ As in the evolution/creationism debate, the scientific community is virtually unanimous on what the data demonstrate about
anthropogenic global warming. This has been true
for over a decade. When science historian Naomi
Oreskes^ surveyed all peer-reviewed papers on climate change published between 1993 and 2003 in
the world’s leading scientific journal. Science, she
found that there were 980 supporting the idea of
human-induced global warming and none opposing
it. In 2009, Doran and Kendall Zimmerman^^ surveyed all the climate scientists who were familiar
with the data. They found that 95-99% agreed that
global warming is real and human caused. In 2010,
the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences published a study that showed that 98% of
the scientists who actually do research in climate
change are in agreement over anthropogenic global
warming.^^ Every major scientific orgsmization in the
world has endorsed the conclusion of anthropogenic
climate change as well. This is a rare degree of agreement within such an independent and cantankerous
group as the world’s top scientists. This is the same
degree of scientific consensus that scientists have
achieved over most major ideas, including gravity,
evolution, and relativity. These and only a few other
topics in science can claim this degree of agreement
among nearly all the world’s leading scientists, especially among everyone who is close to the scientific
data and knows the problem intimately. If it were not
such a controversial topic politically, there would be
almost no interest in debating it since the evidence is
If the climate science community speaks with
one voice (as in the 2007IPCC report, and every report since then), why is there still any debate at all?
The answer has been revealed by a number of investigations by diligent reporters who got past the PR
machinery denying global warming, and uncovered
the money trail. Originally, there were no real “dissenters” to the idea of global warming by scientists
who are actually involved with climate research. Instead, the forces with vested interests in denying
global climate change (the energy companies, and
the “free-market” advocates) followed the strategy of
tobacco companies: create a smokescreen of confusion amd prevent the American public from recognizing scientific consensus. As the famous memo^^ from
the tobacco lobbyists said “Doubt is our product.”
The denialists generated an anti-science movement
entirely out of thin air and PR. The evidence for this
PR conspiracy has been well documented in numerous sources. For example, Oreskes and Conway revealed from memos leaked to the press that in April
1998 the right-wing Marshall Institute, SEPP (Fred
Seitz’s lobby that aids tobacco companies Eind polluters), and ExxonMobil, met in secret at the American Petroleum Institute’s headquarters in
Washington, D.C. There they planned a $20 million
campaign to get “respected scientists” to cast doubt
on climate change, get major PR efforts going, and
lobby Congress that global warming isn’t real and is
not a threat.
The right-wing institutes and the energy lobby
beat the bushes to find scientistsâ€”any scientistsâ€”
who might disagree with the scientific consensus. As
investigative journalists and scientists have documented over and over again,^^ the denialist conspiracy essentidly paid for the testimony of anyone who
could be useful to them. The day that the 2007 IPCC
report was released (Feb. 2, 2007), the British newspaper The Guardian reported that the conservative
American Enterprise Institute (funded largely by oil
companies and conservative think tanks) had offered
$10,000 plus travel expenses to scientists who would
write negatively about the IPCC report.^’
In February 2012, leaks of documents from the
denialist Heartland Institute revealed that they
were trying to influence science education, suppress
the work of scientists, and had paid off many prominent climate deniers, such as Anthony Watts, all in
an effort to circumvent the scientific consensus by
volume 17 number 2 2012 WWW.SKEPTIC.COM 19
doing an “end run” of PR and political pressure.
Other leaks have shown 9 out of 10 major climate
deniers are paid by ExxonMobil.'”
We are accustomed to hired-gun “experts” paid
by lawyers to muddy up the evidence in the case they
are fighting, but this is extraordinaryâ€”buying scientists outright to act as shills for organizations trying
to deny scientific reality. With this kind of money,
however, you can always find a fringe scientist or
crank or someone with no relevamt credentials who
will do what they’re paid to do.
Fishing around to find anyone with some science backgroimd who will agree with you and dispute a scientific consensus is a tactic employed by
the creationists to sound “scientific”. The NCSE created a satirical “Project Steve,”” which demonstrated
that there were more scientists who accept evolution
named “Steve” than the total number of “scientists
who dispute evolution”. It may generate lots of PR
and a smokescreen to confuse the public, but it doesn’t change the fact that scienrists who actually do research in climate change are unanimous in their
insistence that anthropogenic global warming is a real
threat. Most scientists I know and respect work very
hard for little pay, yet they still cannot be paid to endorse some scientific idea they know to be false.
The climate deniers have a lot of other things in
common with creationists and other anti-science
movements. They too like to quote someone out of
context (“quote mining”), finding a short phrase in
the work of legitimate scientists that seems to support their position. But when you read the full quote
in context, it is obvious that they have used the quote
inappropriately. The original author meant something that does not support their goals. The “Climategate scandal” is a classic case of this. It started
with a few stolen emails from the Climate Research
Unit of the University of East Anglia. If you read the
complete text of the actual emails’^ and comprehend
the scientific shorthand of climate scientists who are
talking casually to each other, it is clear that there
was no great “conspiracy” or that they were faking
data. All six subsequent investigations have cleared
Philip Jones and the other scientists of the University
of East Anglia of any wrongdoing or conspiracy.”
Even Â¡/there had been some conspiracy on the
part of these few scientists, there is no reason to believe that the entire climate science community is secretly working together to generate false information
and mislead the public. If there’s one thing that is
clear about science, it’s about competition and criticism, not conspiracy and collusion. Most labs are
competing with each other, not conspiring together.
If one lab publishes a result that is not clearly defensible, other labs will quickly correct it. As James
Lawrence Powell wrote:
Scientists… .show no evidence of being more interested in politics or ideology than the average American. Does it make sense to believe that tens of
thousands of scientists would be so deeply and secretly committed to bringing down capitalism and
the American way of life that they would spend years
beyond their undergraduate degrees working to receive master’s and Ph.D. degrees, then go to work in a
government laboratory or university, plying the deep
oceans, forbidding deserts, icy poles, and torrid jungles, all for far less money than they could have made
in industry, all the while biding their time like a Russian sleeper agent in an old spy novel? Scientists tend
to be independent and resist authority. That is why
you are apt to find them in the laboratory or in the
field, as far as possible from the prying eyes of a supervisor. Anyone who beheves he could organize
thousands of scientists into a conspiracy has never attended a single faculty meeting.’^
There are many more traits that the chmate deniers share with the creationists and Holocaust deniers and others who distort the truth. They pick on
small disagreements between different labs as if scientists can’t get their story straight, when in reality
there is always a fair amount of give and take between competing labs as they try to get the answer
right before the other lab cÂ£m do so. The key point
here is that when all these competing labs around
the world have reached a consensus and get the same
answer, there is no longer any reason to doubt their
common conclusion. The anti-scientists of climate
denialism will also point to small errors by individuals in an effort to argue that the entire enterprise
cannot be trusted. It is true that scientists are
human, and do make mistakes, but the great power
of the scientific method is that peer review weeds
these out, so that when scientists speak with consensus, there is no doubt that their data are checked
Finally, a powerful line of evidence that this is a
purely political controversy, rather than a scientific
debate, is that the membership lists of the creationists and the climate deniers are highly overlapping.
Both anti-scientific dogmas are fed to their overlapping audiences through right-wing media such
as Fox News, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh.
Just take a look at the “intelligent-design” creationism website for the Discovery Institute.
Most of the daily news items lately have nothing
to do with creationism at all, but are focused
20 SKEPTIC MAGAZINE volume 17 number 2 2012
on climate denial and other right-wing causes.^’
If the data about global climate chainge are indeed valid and robust, any qualified scientist should
be able to look at them and see if the prevailing scientific interpretation holds up. Indeed, such a test
took place. Starting in 2010, a group led by U.C.
Berkeley physicist Richard MÃ¼ller re-examined all
the temperature data from the NOAA, East Anglia
Hadley Climate Research Unit, and the Goddard Institute of Space Science sources. Even though MuUer
started out as a skeptic of the temperature data, and
was funded by the Koch brothers and other oil company sources, he carefully checked and re-checked
the research himself. When the GOP leaders called
him to testify before the House Science and Technology Committee in spring 2011, they were expecting
him to discredit the temperature data. Instead,
MuUer shocked his GOP sponsors by demonstrating
his scientific integrity and telling the truth: the temperature increase is real, and the scientists who have
demonstrated that the climate is changing are right
(Fig. 5). In the fall of 2011, his study was published,
and the conclusions were cleai: global warming is
real, even to a right-wing skeptical scientist. Unlike
the hired-gun scientists who play political games,
MÃ¼ller did what a true scientist should do: if the data
go against your biases and preconceptions, then do
the right thing and admit itâ€”even if you’ve been
paid by sponsors who Wcmt to discredit global warming. MuUer is a shining example of a scientist whose
integrity and honesty came first, and did not sell out
to the highest bidder.^”
â€¢ Science and Anti-Science
The conclusion is clear: there’s science, and then
there’s the anti-science of global warming denial. As
we have seen, there is a nearly unanimous consensus
among climate scientists that anthropogenic global
warming is real and that we must do something
about it. Yet the smokescreen, bluster and hes of the
deniers has created enough doubt so that only half of
the American public is convinced the problem requires action. Ironically, the U.S. is almost alone in
questioning its scientific reality. International polls
taken of 33,000 people in 33 nations in 2006 and
2007 show that 90% of their citizens regard chmate
change as a serious problem^’ and 80% realize that
humans are the cause of it.’^ Just as in the case of
creationism, the U.S. is out of step with much of the
rest of the world in accepting scientific reality.
It is not just the liberals and environmenteJists
who are taking climate change seriously. Historically
conservative institutions (big corporations such as
General Electric and many others such as insurance
companies and the military) are already planning on
how to deal with global warming. Many of my friends
high in the oil companies tell me of the efforts by
those companies to get into other forms of energy,
because they know that cheap oil will be running out
soon and that the effects of burning oil will make
their business less popular. BP officially stands for
“British Petroleum,” but in one of their ad campaigns
about 5 years ago, it stood for “Beyond Petroleum.”^’
Although they still spend relatively little of their total
budgets on alternative forms of energy, the oil companies still see the handwriting on the wall about the
eventucd exhaustion of oilâ€”and they are acting like
any company that wants to survive by getting into a
new business when the old one is dying.
The Pentagon (normally not a left-wing institution) is also making contingency plans for how to
fight wars in an era of global climate change, and analyzing what kinds of strategic threats might occur
when climate change alters the kinds of enemies we
might be fighting, and water becomes a scarce commodity. The New York Times reported’*” that in December 2008, the National Defense University
outlined plans for military strategy in a greenhouse
world. To the Pentagon, the big issue is global chaos
and the potential of even nuclear conflict. The world
Temperature data obtained by three original sources contrasted
with the data obtained by Richard iVIuiier’s Berkeley group
Goddard Institute of Space Sciences
The Hadley Climate Research Unit
Richard Muller’s Berkeley group
Figure 5. Plot contrasting the temperature data obtained by three
original sources (NOAA, Goddard Institute of Space Sciences, and
The Hadley Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia)
with the data obtained by Richard Muller’s Berkeley group, which
was originally attempting to deny the evidence of global warming,
but found that in fact the original data were correct and the planet
is getting warmer.
volume 17 number 2 2012 WWW.SKEPTIC.COM 2 1
must “prepare for the inevitable effects of abrupt climate
changeâ€”which will likely come [the only question is when]
regardless of human activity.”
Insurance companies have no political axe to grind. If
anything, they tend to be on the conservative side. They are
simply in the business of assessing risk in a realistic fashion so
they can accurately gauge their future insurance policies and
what to charge for them. Yet they are all investing heavily in
research on the disasters and risks posed by climatic change.
In 2005, a study commissioned by the re-insurer Swdss Re
said, “Climate change will significantly affect the health of humans and ecosystems and these impacts will have economic
Some people may still try to deny scientific reality, but big
businesses like oil and insurance and conservative institutions
like the military cannot afford to be blinded or deluded by ideology. They must plan for the real world that we will be seeing
in the next few decades. They do not want to be caught unprepared and harmed by global climatic change when it threatens
their survival. Neither can we as a society. B
1. One of two actual climate scientists of
the group, Richard Lindzen, is a notorious global warming denier who also
denies that smoking causes cancer.
5. “Arctic summers ice-free ‘by 2013′”.
6. Barnosky, A.D. 2009. Heatstroke:
Nature in an Age of Global Warming.
Island Press, Washington, DC.
8. Masson, V., Vimeux, F., Jouzel, J., Morgan, V., Delmotte, M., Ciais, P., Hammer,
C, Johnsen, S., Lipenkov, V.Y., Mosley^
Thompson, E., Petit, J.-R., Steig, E.J., Stievenard,M.,Vaikmae, R. (2000). “Holocene
Climate Variability in Antarctica Based on
11 Ice-core Isotopic Records”. Quaternary Research 54: 348-358. D.S. Kaufman, T.A. Ager, N.J. Anderson, P.M.
Anderson, J.T. Andrews, P.J. Bartlein,
L.B. Brubaker, L.L. Coats, L.C. Cwynar,
M.L. Duvall, A.S. Dyke, M.E. Edwards,
W.R. Eisner, K. Gajewski, A. Geirsdottir,
F.S. Hu, A.E. Jennings, M.R. Kaplan,
M.W. Kerwin, A.V. Lozhkin, G.M. MacDonald, G.H. Miller, C.J. Mock, W.W. Oswald, B.L. Otto-Bliesner, D.F. Porinchu, K.
Ruhland, J.P. Smol, E.J. Steig, B.B. Wolfe
(2004). “Holocene Thermal Maximum in
the Western Arctic (0-180 W)”. Quaternary Science Reviews 23: 529-560.
cooling-oceans.htm; Lyman, J.M.,
Good, S.A., Gouretski, V.V., Ishii, M.,
Johnson, G.C., Palmer, M.D., Smith,
D.M., and Willis, J.K. 2010. Robust
Warming of the Global Upper Ocean.
Nature 465: 334-337.
21. Bloom, A.J., Burger, M., Asensio,
J.S.R., and Cousins, A.B. 2010. Carbon Dioxide Enrichment Inhibits Nitrate Assimilation in Wheat and
Arabidopsis. Science 328: 899-903.
24. Oreskes, N. 2004. Beyond the Ivory
Tower: The scientific Consensus on
Climatic Change. Science 306: 1686.
25. Doran, P., and M. Kendall Zimmerman.
2009. Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climatic Change. EOS 90 (3): 22.
26. Anderegg, W.R.L., Prall, J.W., Harold,
J., and Schneider, S.H. 2010. Expert
Credibility on Climate Change. Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences (USA) 107:12107-12109.
28. McCright A. M., Dunlap, R. E. 2003. Defeating Kyoto: The Conservative Movement’s Impact on U.S. Climate Change
Policy. Social Problems 50 (3): 348-
373; Curry, J.A., Webster, P.J., and Holland, G.J. 2006. Mixing Politics and
Science in Testing the Hypothesis That
Greenhouse Warming Is Causing a
Global Increase in Hurricane Intensity.
Bulletin of the American Meteorological
Society 81 (8): 1025-1037; Williams,
N. 2005. Heavyweight attack on Climate
-change Denial, Current Biology 15 (4):
R109-R110; Mooney, C. 2006. The Republican War on Science. Basic Books,
New York; Mooney, C. 2007. Storm
World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle over Global Warming. Harcourt, New
York. Hoggan, J. 2009. Climate CoverUp: the Crusade to Deny Global Warming. Greystone, Vancouver, B.C.;
Oreskes, N., and Conway, E. M. 2010.
Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of
Scientists Obscured the Truth on the Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global
warming. Bloomsbury Press, New York.
29. Ian Sample, “Scientists Offered Cash
to Dispute Climate Study,” The
Guardian, 2 Feb. 2007.
34. Powell, J.L. 2011. The Inquisition of
Climate Science, p. 187
41. Epstein, P.R., Mills, E. (Eds.) 2005. Climate Change Futures: Health, Ecological and Economic Dimensions, Center
for Health and the Global Environment,
Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA.
22 SKEPTIC MAGAZINE volume 17 number 2 2012
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