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Diary of a Tree Stump

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INSIDE THE MIND OF A CLIMATE CHANGE DENIER


Sunday February 21, 2010

-EUGENE LINDEN
 
 
THE SCENE: THE WASHINGTON MALL ON A SNOWY FEBRUARY DAY.
BOB AND JOE ARE STANDING IN FRONT OF AN IGLOO CONSTRUCTED BY THE GRANDCHILDREN OF SENATOR JIM INHOFE (R-OK).  IN FRONT OF THE IGLOO IS A SIGN THAT READS: “AL GORE’S NEW HOME.”
 
            Bob looks at the sign and laughs,  “Look at that Joe, guess we won’t be hearing any more about that global warming nonsense.”
            “I totally agree. Thank God my main man Inhofe had the guts to stand up to the girly-man liberals and expose global warming for the hoax that it is. [They exchange high fives and fist bumps]. If it weren’t for Inhofe, courageous selfless companies like Exxon, and the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page just imagine where we might be – ‘like your electric car, Bob?’ No thanks, I’ll stick with my good old American oil.”
            “Hmm, don’t we import most of our oil?”
            “Whatever. The main thing is: this country was built on oil and it will die on oil!”
            “ Word bro!” The two men start trudging through the snow.  Bob changes the subject. “So Joe, you watchin’ the downhill in the Olympics this weekend?”
            “Didn’t you hear? It’s been delayed. It’s warm up in Vancouver and they don’t have any snow.”
            “Jeesh, how stupid – you’d think they pick some place cold for the Winter Olympics – someplace like Canada.”
            “Uh Bob, Vancouver is in Canada.”
            Bob stops. “So it’s unusually warm up there?”
            “I dunno – something about El Nino.”
            “Don’t El Nino’s happen all the time?”
            “Yeah, why?”
            “Because why would they pick a place for the Winter Olympics if they know that every few years it’s going to get warm and they won’t have snow?”
            Joe is getting exasperated. “Maybe, Bob, because this year it’s warmer than it has been before.”
            “You don’t have to be sarcastic. That’s all I was asking.”
The two continue trudging down the mall.  Bob is still confused about the Canada information. “So Joe, if it’s warmer in Canada…”
“It’s not warmer in Canada!”
“But you just said…”
“What just because it’s warmer in Vancouver, you think it’s warmer in all of Canada?” Joe looks at Bob as though he’d never encountered anyone so dense.
“But didn’t I read something about sea ice melting, the Northwest Passage opening for the first time, permafrost melting…”
“Bob, haven’t you been listening to Rush and Glenn Beck? The scientists made up the data. Look around you [Joe points to the mountains of snow]! Like the Virginia GOP said, ’12 inches of global warming.”
“But you just said that warming in Vancouver doesn’t have anything to do with global warming.”
“Yes…”
“So ,why does snow in Washington have to do with global warming?
“Exactly!” says Joe triumphantly, “It refutes global warming! ”
“So the world’s not getting warmer?”
“Nobody’s proved anything -- the scientists made up the data.”
“That’s just awful – do we have proof.”
“Yup, those leaked emails from England, and then I read in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal that some of the claims about global warming in this big fancy IPCC report were based on non-peer reviewed articles.”
“What’s a peer reviewed article.”
“Supposedly it’s one where the scientists’ methods and data are reviewed by other scientists with the credentials to judge the paper.”
“I get it. So they used a non-peer reviewed article because the peer reviewed articles don’t support global warming, right?”
Joe again looks exasperated. “Well no, but that’s the problem. The scientists are all conspiring to suppress the truth that global warming is a hoax. So they get together to prevent the scientists who see the truth from getting published. That’s why these heroes have to get their money from the coal industry.”
“Wow! That’s a big conspiracy. But I suppose now that it’s all out in the open, these phonies will be discredited and the real scientists will get the word out that the world isn’t warming.”
Joe gives Bob a world weary look. “Don’t hold your breath, Bob,  they’re saying that nothing in the emails changes any meaningful thing in the global warming story. These scientists are ruthless…”
“I thought global warming supporters were girly men?”
“… ruthless girly men, Bob. Those emails have some really nasty accusations in them, ridiculing our scientists and accusing them of intellectual dishonesty. Why can’t they just argue the facts?”
“What was in it for those scientists, Joe?”
Joe again gives Bob a condescending look, “What else, money, power, fame, glamour ,girls , or, er, boys. ”
Bob again looks puzzled, “Even during the Bush administration?…Anyway, wanting money doesn’t explain the conspiracy part – you know suppressing the truth.”
Joe looks pleased. “So there is a brain in there [he knocks on Bob’s head]. You’re right. Think about it Bob. This supposed global warming would be happening all over the world, and if something’s a so-called threat to the world, then how do you fix it?”
“I’m guessing you’re going to tell me.”
“World government, my friend. Global warming is just a pretext so that liberals and George Soros can establish a world government. First they’ll take away our guns, then they’ll come back for everything else.”
Bob looks stunned as everything falls into place. “Thanks Joe – that’s one scary bunch of girly men. Well thank god they’ve been stopped! Come to think of it, we’re in a pretty good place. The conspiracy has been exposed, and we don’t have to worry about the world getting warmer.”
Joe gives Bob a sober look. “The conspiracy’s not dead Bob, we can’t let down our guard. Oh, and the world is getting warmer.”
Bob buries his face in his hands, “What do you mean, you just said the scientists made up the data!”
Joe reverts to condescension, “C’mon Bob, I said the data don’t prove anything. That’s different. Look around you spring comes earlier, lakes aren’t freezing, duck season is changing. It’s obvious the world is warming.”
“You mean the scientists are right?”
“Of course not. The warming is natural – probably because the sun is brighter.”
“Wouldn’t they think of that?”
“You’d think, wouldn’t you?
“So CO2 has nothing to do with it?”
“That’s right, CO2 doesn’t cause warming, it rises after warming. Anyway the warming’s all good.”
             “Why is that?”
            “Because it’s natural, dummy! Plants live off CO2, right? Remember the ad: ‘They call it pollution, we call it life!’ If I were a farmer I’d buy land right in the wind shadow of a coal-fired power plant.”
“Bob looks troubled, “But if it’s natural we can’t do anything about it. If we caused it, at least we would know why it was happening and how to stop it.”
Joe narrows his eyes and looks at Bob. “You going all liberal on me Bob?”
“Of course not! But how do you know it’s all good?”
“Trust me, Bob, and remember: Exxon’s got your back.”
 

contact Eugene Linden

Short Take

THOUGHTS ON WHY THE EARLY IPCC ASSESSMENTS UNDERSTATED THE CLIMATE THREAT

 

An oped involves extreme compression, and so I thought I’d expand on why I think the initial IPCC reports so underestimated the threat. Make no mistake, the consensus in the summaries for policy makers in the first two assessments did underestimate the threat. The consensus was that permafrost would be stable for the next 100 years and also that the ice sheets would remain stable (there was even a strong sentiment at that time that the East Antarctic sheet would gain mass). Moreover, in 1990, the concept of rapid climate change was at the periphery of mainstream scientific opinion. All these things turned out to be wrong

Of course, there were scientists at that time who raised alarms about the possibility of rapid climate change, collapse of the ice sheets, and nightmare scenarios of melting permafrost, but, fairly or not, the IPCC summary for policy makers was and is taken to represent the consensus of scientific thinking.

In my opinion such documents will always take a more conservative (less dramatic) position than what scientists feel is justified. For one thing the IPCC included policy makers, most of whom were more incentivized to downplay the threats. For another, many of the national governments that were the customers for these assessments barely tolerated the exercise and gave strong signals that they didn’t want to see anything that called for dramatic action, and this being the UN, there was a strong push to present a document that as many governments as possible would accept.

And then there is the nature of science and the state of climate science at that point. There is an inherent structural lag built in to the nature of science. For instance, the 1980’s were marked by the rapid development of proxies to see past climate changes with ever more precision. By the mid-late 80’s the proxies and siting had been refined sufficiently that the GISP and GRIP projects could confidently get ice cores from Greenland that they felt represented a true climate record and by then they also had the proxies with the resolution to see the rapid changes that had taken place in the past. Given the nature of data collection, interpretation, peer-review and publishing, it wasn’t until 1993 that these results were published.

It took nearly another decade for this new, alarming, paradigm about how rapidly global climate can change to percolate through the scientific community, and, even today, much of the public is unaware that climate can change on a dime.

As for the ice sheets, when I was on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in 1996, there was talk about the acceleratio of  ice streams feeding the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers, but the notion that there might be a significant increase in runoff from the ice sheet over the next hundred years was still very much a fringe idea.

With permafrost, the problem was a sparsity of data in the 80s and early 90s and it is understandable that scientists didn’t want to venture beyond the data.

The problem for society as a whole was that the muted consensus on the scale of the threat diminished any sense of urgency about dealing with the problem. Perhaps the best example of this was the early work of William Nordhaus. Working from the IPCC best estimates in the early 1990s Nordhaus published one paper in which he predicted the hit to the US GDP from climate change in 2100 would be about ½ of 1%. Nobody is going to jump out of their chair and demand action if the hit to the economy was going to be 0.5% of GPD a hundred years laterLibertarians such as William Niskanen seized on this and testified before Congress that there was plenty of time to deal with global warming if it was a threat at all.  

And then there was the disinformation campaign of industry, particularly fossil fuel lobbyists, as well as pressure from unions (the UAW in particular) and the financial community. These highly motivated, deep-pocketed interests seized on scientific caution to suggest deep divisions among scientists and that the threat was overplayed. Little wonder then that the public failed to appreciate that this was a looming crisis that demanded immediate, concerted action.

 



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