COLUMN: Global warming skeptics aren't really skeptic - they're deniers

Thursday, December 17, 2009 | 12:15 p.m. CST; updated 8:41 a.m. CST, Friday, December 18, 2009

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, 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.

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Dean Burgher December 17, 2009 | 12:28 p.m.

I am soooo tired of people like you sounding so silly....

look, you have to learn to think for yourself sometime......

(Report Comment)
Louis Sheffield December 17, 2009 | 12:53 p.m.

George -

An overwhelming number of researchers have so few data at their disposal that any consensus is already inflated. I would favor the funding of a complete cross-discipline data review.

Also - water vapor is a far more effective GHG than CO2.

And very little is known about the effects of aerosols, clouds, solar activity, and feedback mechanisms which counter the effect of GHGs.

(don't quit your day-job)

(Report Comment)
Matt Wilkinson December 17, 2009 | 5:47 p.m.

Well stated George.

Louis, actually quite a lot is known about aerols, clouds and solar activity. If you want to talk about feedback mecahnisms you'd better take a look at the albedo of the arctic ocean once it becomes ice free.

Look, whoever turns out to be right are you seriously willing to risk doing nothing. Surely you must understand that getting off fossil fuels and moving to a sustainable energy landscape is better for everyone?

(Report Comment)
Dean Burgher December 17, 2009 | 8:06 p.m.

okay win...

(Report Comment)
Terra Firma December 17, 2009 | 8:32 p.m.

It must be nice to be a journalist--Read press release, regurgitate, rinse, repeat.

The CO2 levels are a symptom, not the problem.
SO2 is your enemy, and the levels have been in a decline since regulations in the early/mid 90's.

Much like the CO2 levels, the temperatures will follow the same downward curve as the SO2 levels--lagging 10 to 15 years.

To end, a personal pet-peev of mine: "99 percent"? Really???
Was there a poll? Perhaps you could cite where that number came from.

"This just in, 99 percent of a hand-picked consortium of scientists agree: pigs can fly, and the moon is made of cheese. Most sceptics disagree."

(Report Comment)
Al Franken December 17, 2009 | 10:28 p.m.

I'm glad to see small-minded thinkers like George "I majored in journalism" Kennedy stand up and talk down to scientist. It makes my job so much easier. It is clear that most Global Warming Conspiracy Theorist - such as George - lack the scientific understanding to explain just what global warming is and what is causing it. Most debaters, like George Kennedy, rely on raw emotion and gut feelings and have a low capacity for ration and reason. That is why a topic like this should never be mentioned in an editorial portion of a newspaper. Let's leave this scholarly topic to the intellectuals of science. Meanwhile, George Kennedy can round up some colllege kids and expound on the significance of Facebook as a social medium. Tag me George!

(Report Comment)
Louis Sheffield December 17, 2009 | 11:38 p.m.

Matt - I absolutely DO want the world to collectively do something. I just want it to be the correct something.

Take, for example, the ban on CFCs - that was after it was demonstrated that each molocule of CFC (freon, etc) was able to convert thousands of O3 molecules into O2 - a chemical catalyst, and its reduction was certainly warranted. That being said, depleted ozone has reduced possible effects of GHGs in Antarctica (another feedback mechanism seems to have recently been observed).

And this month (I have searched, but not yet found the journal paper (pdf) that I read - but I will continue to look), the melting of ice in antarctica has given rise to a huge population of phytoplankton - not enough to offset man's "contribution", but plausibly enough to offset its reduced albedo.

As for solar variability, when scientists rebut with "the presence of sunspots reduces solar emissions by only by a tiny fraction of what would explain ...", I dismiss them (ummm - no kidding?) as being a bit too far out of their field.

And then there's the concept of positive-feedback gain whereby CO2 (it can't do more than a few tenths C by itself)
causes atmospheric water vapor to increase and amplify its effect and cause a runaway temperature increase. That science I cannot see as being quite solid.

There is still much being learned, and I cannot condone real science being sidestepped without an operative plan-B (for BAIL).

I enjoy that physicists (I'm biased) are starting to experiment in these arenas, and I welcome what they learn.

(Report Comment)
Al Franken December 18, 2009 | 9:22 a.m.

The Washington Posy confirms my posting above. Most people view global warming alarmist like George Kennedy in a negative way. They also associate Obama with this junk science:

(Report Comment)
hank ottinger December 18, 2009 | 9:44 a.m.

Well said, George and Matt.

Admittedly, there are serious, yet-to-be-fully explained variables regarding climate change. That it is changing at an unprecedented rate and recency (yes, yes, I know we can go back, presumably with some degree of accuracy) to earlier geological epochs) cannot be denied.

Do all of the cynics out there assume that there is this vast conspiracy between the climate-change hoaxters, "skeptics," bloviators,, and the Department of Defense, the vast majority of climatologists, metereologists, etc.??

And how do you respond, ethically, to the predicted plight of tens of millions of your fellow humans who reside in deltas (Bangladesh) and low-lying islands (Maldives, among many others) or whose livelihoods are threatened by aridity (parts of the Himalaya)? Are they just expected to pull themselves up by their bootstraps (or sandals) and muddle through?

(Report Comment)
Tim Dance December 18, 2009 | 11:58 a.m.

Yes George, we are tired getting our news from journalists. Glen Beck and Sean Hannity are my new source of news. I like radio carnival barkers over journalists any day.

(Report Comment)
hank ottinger December 18, 2009 | 5:45 p.m.

Al Franken: Amazing how you can synthesize the Post article and come away with the conclusions you do. As I read it, two-thirds of the citizenry support US caps on GHG emissions. Obama, as well as scientists have taken a hit in the polls, largely due to the media's disproportionate reporting the so-called "ClimateGate" fiasco, in my opinion Sad state of affairs.

Aside from that, I find the sentence, "four in 10 Americans now saying that they place little or no trust in what scientists have to say about the environment" grievously disturbing, and to my mind a reflection of the creeping anti-intellectualism in the country, fueled by the Palins, Becks, and others who have little use for reflective, insightful, informed thought.

(Report Comment)
Barbara Hoppe December 19, 2009 | 8:44 a.m.

Thanks for making the important distinction between skeptics and deniers, who are ostriches with their head in the sand, hoping to change reality. The evidence is so overwhelming and the consequences so dire.

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley December 19, 2009 | 3:24 p.m.

Ya know, I think this debate is kind of philosophical too...

You see, what is it Barbara that you think we can do to stop what is happening? And why do you believe that we want to stop it?

Let me explain those questions. We have already become so dependant on things that are harmful to our environment, that I don't think we are ever going to be able to "turn back the clock" on these things. The most we can hope for, is to slow what is happening to our planet due to global warming. And what is happening is happening so slow that it will probably not have an effect on us. So, the reason we are wanting to "save the planet" is for the "people of tomorrow", which would be our children. But, in the grand scheme of things, I believe that cause to be futile. There are already so many other things happening that is putting our future in danger, I am not sure that this one cause is going to make any difference at all. And the bottom lne is, we are trying to save a future that isn't even promised to us to begin with.


Speak Your Mind FREELY:

(Report Comment)
hank ottinger December 20, 2009 | 9:35 p.m.

RG: Philosophically then, RG, it's all about solipsism.

I also take issue with your notion that "what is happening is happening so slow that it will probably not have an effect on us." I think the rate of change is unprecedented, but if you're in your 60s, as I am, you're right, the changes will probably not affect us -- but I believe that other people on this blue ball will be affected, and I further believe that we have a moral responsibility to do whatever we can to address their plight.

(Report Comment)

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