Like most journalists I know, I’ve long thought of myself as a skeptic. We’re supposed to be questioners, after all – even doubters. Since the days of the ancient Greeks, skepticism has been an honorable, useful attitude.
However, our nation’s current crop of global warming “skeptics” is giving the word itself a bad name. You’ll notice the quotation marks around “skeptics.” I use them to indicate that I don’t think most of the self-identified doubters of climate change are really skeptical at all. They’re deniers, not questioners. Some of them, I’ve come to believe, are cynically dishonest in their public posturing. Some are willfully ignorant of the near-consensus among scientists.
Sure, there are a few scientist outliers who look at the same data as their colleagues and interpret it differently from the other 99 percent. And some of my fellow nonscientists, such as the retired Marine whose work graces this page weekly and the retired banker who opines in the Columbia Daily Tribune, choose to focus on the short-term costs of amelioration rather than the long-term costs of inaction.
But the most prominent “skeptics,” including the likes of Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, political celebrity Sarah Palin and the legion of bloviators on Fox News, have closed their eyes and their minds. They’re supported by the most self-interested and deep-pocketed of the “skeptics,” the coal and oil industries.
Just consider the evidence that’s before the hundreds of scientists and policymakers gathered in Copenhagen in hopes of saving us from ourselves.
The polar icecaps are melting at unprecedented rates. So are the glaciers in the Andes, the Rockies and the Himalayas. The oceans are getting warmer and more acidic. The decade just ending is the warmest on record, continuing a trend. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than it has been for 650,000 years, and it’s rising along with the temperature.
The increase in carbon dioxide, which climate scientists understand to be the biggest, though not the only, contributor to global warming, is “derived mostly from the human activities of fossil-fuel burning and deforestation.” Those words come from an essay published last week in the Washington Post by Alan Leshner, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Mr. Leshner also notes that the Stern Commission, headed by a former chief economist of the World Bank, estimates that a continued failure to counteract global warming could wind up costing “the equivalent of between 5 and 20 percent of global gross domestic product per year.” The cost of action is estimated to be about 1 percent of global GDP.
The AAAS is just one of the scientific organizations that accepts the overwhelming evidence. The others include our National Academy of Sciences, the federal agencies NASA and NOAA, the World Meteorological Organization and the worldwide Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has concluded that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” The U.S. military has identified climate change as a threat to our national security and has begun to plan accordingly.
And what about “Climategate,” you ask? I refer you to FactCheck.org, which reviewed the issue exhaustively and reported a week ago that the contents of those pilfered e-mails don’t change the facts or affect the conclusions of all those researchers.
I don’t see much room for honest skepticism about the science.
What’s left, unfortunately, is plenty of room for honest doubt about whether either our own Congress or the governments of the world will be able or willing to take the necessary actions in the necessary time.
Conflicts between rich and poor, North and South, East and West have so far prevented effective agreements internationally. Domestically, the power of the deniers is amplified by the system of legalized bribery that finances our politics.
The “skeptics,” of course, will think that’s fine. The rest of us can only hope that, for once, science prevails.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.