In addition to calling myself an anarcho-communist, I’ve also come to think of myself lately as a “recovering conservative.” My relationship with anthropogenic climate change is a big reason why. My family accepted the narrative that recent warming trends resulted from humanity’s use of fossil fuels pretty easily. But then around November 2009, the email server at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit was hacked, leaking several emails that seemed to incriminate the scientists involved as deliberately fudging data to making the warming trend seem worse than it actually was. I’m not sure whether my Dad had had doubts before this story leaked or whether it was the story that planted the seeds in the first place. Either way, my family, my dad and grandfather, in particular, became strident climate change deniers.
I followed suit for several years afterward. But toward the second half of my college tenure, I began to see that I had been grossly misled. I learned that the so-called “Climategate” emails had been totally taken out of context, that the Medieval Warm Period wasn’t really that warm at all, and that the real reason I didn’t believe in global warming was because the Koch Brothers didn’t want me to believe.
So allow me to present some of the most popular claims conservatives make to “debunk” anthropogenic climate change and show you how the science proves them wrong in ten easy points. Perhaps the best place to start would be the one that put me on this journey in the first place…
1. Climategate proved that the scientists were frauds.
As stated above, the scandal occurred in November of 2009 when the servers of the C.R.U. at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England were hacked. The result was over 1,000 emails and 2,000 scientific documents being released to the public. The denial crowd took certain quotes out of context to implicate leading climate scientists, including Dr. Michael E. Mann…
…of deliberately suppressing data that conflicted with the scientific consensus. One particular favorite of the denial crowd was this quote from an email by fellow scientist Phil Jones:
I’ve just completed Mike’s nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series from the last 20 years [1981 onward] and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.”Phil Jones, C.R.U. Director
What the deniers failed to realize, however, was that Jones was not referring to a decline in temperature, but what is known to science as the “divergence problem.” This refers to the fact that temperature estimations gathered from tree rings are reliable until around 1960 when they diverge wildly. Some deniers have latched onto this to discredit the so-called “hockey stick” graphs that show unprecedented warming in the 20th century. However, actual scientists widely agree that the divergence problem is also anthropogenic in nature since it is a phenomenon unique to the last few decades.
Another quote widely cited by deniers is this one from Kevin Trenberth:
The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment, and it is a travesty we can’t.Kevin Trenberth
Trenberth isn’t admitting that the warming trend has stopped. He is lamenting how the climate observation systems cannot comprehensively track all energy flowing through the climate system, leading to cases where surface temperatures sometimes show short cooling trends.
Of course, despite the deniers ranting and raving about how these scientists should be sacked for their lies and duplicity, eight separate committees investigating the case could find absolutely no evidence of fraud or misconduct. Still, like many other deniers, my family didn’t realize the truth that science is fucking complicated, and the damage was done.
2. Scientists were worried about global cooling in the 70’s.
That’s certainly what the newspapers at the time say they did, but I’m sure we’re all aware of the news media’s penchant for sensationalism.
The global cooling scare largely came from many temperature readings from the three decades before the 1970s that suggested a cooling trend. Some scientists ended up jumping the gun and started warning that our planet’s 10,000 year-long inter-glacial period might be ending, and thus we were in for a new ice age.
By around 1980, however, reexaminations of the data showed that the cooling trend was only true in parts of the Northern Hemisphere and that global temperature trends had actually held steady throughout that period. Of course, if one looks at all the scientific studies on climate done when the cooling scare was at its height, we see that there were still far more scientists worried about warming.
But sadly, the news media couldn’t help themselves, and they blew the “global cooling” story out of proportion. Thus, when the global warming phenomenon became more mainstream in the late 80s, it’s not hard to see why so many people saw the scientists contradicting themselves and decided they didn’t know what they were talking about. Couple that with oil companies like Exxon and Koch Industries leading denial campaigns, and we have the endlessly frustrating situation we find ourselves embroiled in today.
3. CO2 lags behind temperature.
I think I’ll let Republican Representative Joe Barton explain the denier narrative here:
An article in Science magazine illustrated that a rise in carbon did not precede a rise in temperatures but actually lagged behind temperature rises by 200 to 1000 years. A rise in carbon dioxide levels could not have caused a rise in temperature if it followed the temperature.Joe Barton (R-Texas (1985-2019)
Scientists do concede the ‘lagging’ point. However, they are also quick to point out that people like Barton are not telling the whole story. The warming trends back then were initiated by slight changes in the way the Earth orbits around the Sun. With more sunlight hitting Earth, the planet starts to warm up. As it warms, more CO2 is released into the atmosphere. And of course, more CO2 means higher rises in temperature. This is an important and perfectly natural state of affairs since it is necessary for the planet to transition out of glacial periods and into interglacial periods.
So yes, CO2 was not the cause of those particular warming spells. No, that does not mean that CO2 is not the cause of this particular warming trend. And no, that does not mean the sun is causing us to warm up now.
Speaking of the sun causing global warming…
4. It’s the sunspots, stupid.
This is my dad’s current go-to explanation for what is causing the warming trend. The last time I challenged him on this, he showed me this graph:
He made sure to highlight the Dalton Minimum as well, noting how temperatures were at lower than average levels during that period.
However, you may notice that the graph ends in the year 2000. What went on with the sunspots after that point? SkepticalScience.com has the answer:
Seem pretty self-explanatory to me. Over the last 35 years, the Earth’s temperature and solar activity have actually diverged. If the sun was indeed the main cause of Earth’s temperature, we should have seen a cooling trend between 2000 and 2008. But we didn’t. Sorry, deniers, but you’re gonna have to do better than that.
Also, the coldest part of the Dalton Minimum, the Year Without a Summer, was directly connected with the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815, but that’s neither here nor there.
5. It’s the Urban Heat Island effect, stupid.
The Urban Heat Island effect, or U.H.I., is a phenomenon where areas with a more highly concentrated human population are slightly warmer than rural areas. This is mainly caused by the fact that buildings significantly modify the original land surface, as well as waste heat from things like internal combustion engines and air conditioners.
Given the rapid growth of urban environments after the Industrial Revolution, it’s not hard to see why some may conclude that it is the extra heat produced by these cities that may contribute to warming trends. However, scientists have been careful to include data from stations located far away from human activity. Take this graph gathered from stations in China, for instance:
As you can see, both urban and rural observation stations have recorded almost identical rises in temperature over the last three decades. This is very significant, as China has probably had the most rapid urban growth over the last few decades. If that doesn’t convince you, take a look at this graph, courtesy of NASA:
As you can see, the highest rises in temperature have mainly occurred in the Arctic regions and Siberia, which isn’t where most urbanization is occurring nowadays. So yeah, not really convinced by this one either.
6. Polar ice caps/glaciers are recovering.
Okay, there’s a lot to unpack with this one, so I’ll split it into three sections, dealing with Antarctica, the Arctic, and glaciers, respectively.
Deniers have seized on certain scientific articles suggesting that Antarctica is gaining ice to discredit the warming narrative. What these deniers don’t realize, however, is that these articles are referring to sea ice, not land ice.
This is significant because sea ice has a very negligible effect on rising sea levels, whereas land ice has a very significant effect. Scientists believe that rising sea ice levels are due to a combination of the hole in the ozone layer closing and an increasing rate of meltwater from land ice causing the Southern Ocean to cool.
Yes, you heard, right. More sea ice around Antarctica means less land ice on the continent. Less land ice means less Florida to go around. Got it? Good, moving on.
- The Arctic
Meanwhile, Greenland is not gaining ice, as some anecdotal evidence claims, but is, in fact, losing it at seven times the rate it was thirty years ago. True, the melting is mostly limited to coastal regions around the southern part of the island (for now at least), but there is no evidence that the melting will stop as the ice sheet shrinks inland.
As for Arctic sea ice, we also have two different ways of talking about it: first, how far it spreads (aka extent), and second, how thick it is (aka volume). One also has to consider multi-year ice, which has accumulated over time and is thus much thicker than first-year ice. No matter which way you look at it, though, it is clear that sea ice in the Arctic is vanishing, and very rapidly at that.
- The Glaciers
Finally, let’s discuss the myth that glaciers have gained ice for the first time in 250 years, according to some deniers. While it certainly is true that some glaciers have gained ice in recent years (as in southwestern Norway in the 90s), these are only because of local weather conditions, like increased snowfall. This in no way disproves the overall trend of glaciers melting all over the world.
If you would like a less abstract representation of the shrinking glaciers, take a gander at these photos of glaciers in my home country’s Glacier National Park:
More like Glacier-less National Park, am I right?
7. 500/31,000 scientists have refuted the consensus.
Now and again, certain conservative news sites will break stories claiming to have found enough peer-reviewed scientific papers to help shatter the so-called consensus on climate change. For example, the now-defunct American Conservative Daily website claimed in 2007 that it had more than 500 scientific papers that refuted anthropogenic climate change. Of course, close scrutiny revealed that of the ones that actually did do such a thing (which were few and far between), all of them simply repeated myths that had long since been debunked, like the aformentioned sunspot connection.
Of course, 500 is nothing compared to the thirty-one thousand who signed the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine (O.I.S.M.) Petition compiled by Oregon State Representative Art Robinson in opposition to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The petition stated in part that “there is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere.”
And sure, 31,000 sounds like a lot, but there are several issues with the petition:
- The petition had a very lax verification process, allowing pranksters to add Star Wars characters, a member of the Spice Girls, and even Charles Darwin to the list.
- Petition cards were only sent to U.S. citizens, and 31,000 equates to only around 0.3 percent of all science graduates in the entire U.S.
- The organizers never revealed how many people they canvassed, thus making the response rate impossible to determine.
- They also never revealed their sampling methodology, a glaring omission since scientists tend to be sticklers about being transparent in gathering data (and rightly so).
- O.I.S.M. is not a real scientific institute; Robinson founded it as a 501 (c)(3) non-profit in 1980.
8. The Medieval Warm Period was warmer.
This argument is one that my grandfather in particular is very fond of. Any time the subject of climate change or global warming pops up, you can almost always expect some variation of the following to come out of his mouth:
What really gets me is that the world was warmer than this during the Middle Ages, and the world didn’t go to hell then.Grandpa D
For those who aren’t aware, the Medieval Warm Period was a period of time in Europe that lasted from 800-1400 CE, where temperatures were warmer than today. This allowed the colonization of Greenland and North America by the Vikings and increased agricultural production in Northern Europe.
However, this was not the case in all parts of the world during that period. While some other areas of the world also showed higher temperatures during that period (China and parts of North America, for instance), other areas, particularly the tropical Pacific, showed cooler temperatures. If one was to even out all the temperature readings across the globe during that period, we get an average temperature roughly equivalent to what it was in the 1950s.
So, yeah. That one’s off the table.
9. Nature produces more CO2 than man.
The oceans contain 37,400 billion tons (GT) of suspended carbon; land biomass has 2000-3000 GT. The atpmosphere [sic] contains 720 billion tons of CO2 and humans contribute only 6 GT additional load to this balance. The oceans, land, and atpmosphere [again, sic] exchange CO2 continuously so the additional load by humans is incredibly small. A small shift in the balance between oceans and air would cause a CO2 much more severe rise than anything we could produce.Jeff Id on noconsensus.wordpress.com
If one was to get past the rather poor grammar on Jeff’s comments here, you might get the feeling that he may have a point here. After all, six additional gigatons of CO2 isn’t so bad, right? Right?
But here’s a better question: Where does all that extra CO2 go when it gets in the atmosphere? The I.P.C.C. estimates that about 40% gets absorbed into the ocean and plant life, but the rest just hangs around in the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect. Sure, 6 additional GT’s of CO2 might not seem like much, but if Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life has taught us anything, sometimes it only takes a wafer-thin mint for the whole system to go code Chernobyl.
10. Baby, it’s cold outside.
Okay, now this argument is really fucking stupid. What the hell does one cold day in the Adirondacks region of New York have to do with climate change? It’s local weather patterns versus global climate patterns! One snowy day in New York or Australia or Washington D.C. or wherever the fuck else does not disprove the global warming trend that’s been going on for over half a fucking century now!
Sorry, I got a little tense there for a second. Let me end this with a meme to lighten the mood.
In the end, though, I think the biggest reason why I don’t buy into climate change denialism is simply because of Occam’s razor. Maybe it’s just because I have a really optimistic view of human nature, but I fail to see why scientists would raise such a big stink about anthropogenic climate change unless the data shows that it’s actually happening. Think about it: if all the CO2 we pumped in the air really did not affect temperature, then no one would care about what they were pumping into the atmosphere in the first place. We probably wouldn’t have even heard of renewable energy if that was the case.
Not only that, but the Pope, the leaders of Fortune 500 companies, every other government in the developed world, and even the goddamned U.S. military seems to agree with them. I think the only way you could dismiss those kinds of voices is if you believe that our society is becoming something like Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. Fortunately, I don’t.
The facts are in. The only provable hypothesis to the question of “What would happen if we pumped a whole bunch of extra CO2 into the atmosphere?” is anthropogenic climate change. We need to act on this information now before it’s too late.
Much love and appreciation to the hardworking folks over at SkepticalScience.com for supplying all of the scientific data for this article. Remember, SkepticalScience.com, for all your denialism debunking needs.