If you think those who have long challenged the mainstream scientific findings about global warming recognize that the game is over, think again. Since the late 1980s, this well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks and industry has created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change, writes Sharon Begley in her cover on the global warming "deniers." Through advertisements, op-eds, lobbying and media attention, greenhouse doubters argued first that the world is not warming; measurements indicating otherwise are flawed, they said. Then they claimed that any warming is natural, not caused by human activities. Now they contend that the looming warming will be minuscule and harmless. "They patterned what they did after the tobacco industry," says former senator Tim Wirth, who spearheaded environmental issues as an under secretary of State in the Clinton administration. "Both figured, sow enough doubt, call the science uncertain and in dispute. That's had a huge impact on both the public and Congress."
Indeed it has. Just last year, polls found that 64 percent of Americans thought there was "a lot" of scientific disagreement on climate change; only one third thought planetary warming was "mainly caused by things people do." Join Begley for an hour-long Live Talk on Wednesday, August 8, at noon, ET, to discuss the strength of the denial machine, the impact of the campaign by contrarian scientists and what you feel should be done about addressing climate change. Submit questions now.
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Sharon Begley: Hi everyone. This is Sharon Begley; I wrote this week's cover story on the campaign to cast doubt on the science of climate change. This story described the 20-year history of that campaign rather than delving into the empirical research on global warming, something I have written about too many times to count both here and during my five years at The Wall Street Journal (starting with Newsweek's first cover story on the greenhouse effect, in 1988). But I am happy to take questions on either the science or the PR.
Amsterdam, Holland: Is it fair to blame the "deniers" of today? The first time I read about global warming was in the 1980s. We collectively ignored the problem for two decades.
Sharon Begley: The late 1980s is indeed when the issue reached the public consciousness, and also when one prominent climatologist was willing to go public and say that climate was showing the consequences of greenhouse warming even then. That's why I started the story in 1988; the campaign to undermine the science has been going on from the beginning. Today's deniers--I'll even call them by their preferred "skeptics"--are arguably more pernicious, however, because as the scientific case has become stronger they have gotten only shriller, more desperate and more illogical. If "we" ignored the problem for 20 years, it was largely because the public was fooled.
Alexandria, VA: Why didn't the real climate scientists defend their work more publicly when the deniers attacked it through the years?
Sharon Begley: Excellent question. Scientists--those who do actual bench research rather than sit at their word processors and critique the actual research--simply stink at this. They defend their work in scientific forums, but in public they turn wishy-washy. For instance, no decent scientist will ever say a case is closed (even the law of gravity is only as sound as the next experiment), but that's what they're called on to do when scientific issues become political ones. I agree with your implication: the naysayers are just a lot better at PR.
Scottsdale, Arizona: Is there a realistic possibility of states and even foreign governments suing the deniers and delayers because mitigation, damage and adaptation costs will be exponentially greater as a direct result of their obstruction?
Sharon Begley: Interesting question. I wouldn't bet on it, but maybe there's a creative lawyer out there who thinks someone should be held accountable when coastal communities vanish, droughts turn agricultural areas into deserts and intense storms cause billions in damage. On the other hand, the ultimate source of greenhouse emisisons is you and me. It's more likely, it seems to me, that our kids and grandkids are going to be really, really annoyed at the world we handed them.
White Stone, Va.: How can the responsible media best meet their "fairness/accuracy/'balance'" responsibilities in dealing with climate change deniers?
Sharon Begley: We haven't figured that out, have we? In my case, whether it's climate change or the latest fossil find, I believe that only those who do research in the given field are qualified to comment. Further, I don't think science is like political or social issues, where all views are of equal weight. To the contrary: in science, there really is a 'right' answer, tho it may take time to emerge, and journalists have a duty to tell readers what that answer is likely to be. Me, I don't do he said/she said, but delve into the arguments and see which has empirical merit. It's not that hard.
Woodbridge, Virginia: Why are you trying to muddle the distinction between "global warming" and "man-made global warming"? Most scientists believe global warming is occurring but they diverge on what is causing it - naturally occuring solar activity or man? Ten thousand years ago there were glaciers in the Mississippi Valley, what caused them to disappear?
Sharon Begley: Absolutely; that distinction is critical. But there are ways to tell. Anthropogenic climate change leaves distinct fingerprints in the atmosphere and on the ground, different from what, say, a hotter sun would do. The 2007 IPCC report (http://www.ipcc.ch/) went into this at great length, and concluded in its 'fingerprints' chapter than there is a 90+% certainty that human activities are changing the climate. Of course there are also natural forces that alter climate, as you imply: ice ages come and go based on earth's orbital changes, for instance. But does the existence of natural 'forcings,' as they're called, mean we can ignore the human input? I've never understood that logic.
West Chester, PA: Will the most recent computer models that the IPCC scientists use for climate modeling be released to the general public so they can be independently verified?
Sharon Begley: The IPCC does not develop its own models, or even do its own empirical research. Instead, it scrutinizes all the published literature in the field. That of course includes model runs, such as those at the UK's Hadley Center, and those in the US at NOAA---a dozen or so in all. It's not like it's some big dark secret you need a password to get into. It's all in the published literature; get the IPCC's latest report on the physical science basis for climate change (http://ipcc-wg1.ucar.edu/wg1/wg1-report.html) and see for yourself.
Milwaukee, WI: Who are the scientists that make up the so called "broad consensus" you mentioned in your lead in article? How many of them are true climatologists?
Sharon Begley: It always surprises me that, with all the coverage of this issue, this remains misunderstood. When people refer to a consensus they usually mean the IPCC (see previous answer for link). The IPCC brings together thousands of scientists from governments, business, enviro groups and academia, and yes, they are real researchers, not armchair critics. Every word of every sentence has to pass rigorous scrutiny, including by scientists who carp about the consensus.
San Diego, CA: My question is: If scientists are labeled "skeptics" because part of their funding comes from the oil industry, does this make their scientific argument or observation irrelevant?
I have read "A skeptics Guide to AN Inconvenient Truth" by Marlo Lewis and feel that he raises numerous questions concerning consensus on global warming and of the science referred to in Al Gore's book and movie. I believe these questions need to be addressed from scientists before they are presented to policy makers.
During the build up to the current Iraq war, skeptics were dismissed as deniers, kooks, and of being misinformed. After 4 years of war the skeptics view now seems to have been right given the real information we have learned during this time. If a vote for war was to be taken today I am certain there would be a different choice taken.
The question of human contribution to Global Warming seems to be taking the same path. We are told that the debate is over. All scientists have agreed except for the deniers, kooks and the misinformed. This all sounds familiar except that now the very premise of science and the scientific method is being ignored. The job of a scientist is to always question and attempt to prove something to be false.
Sharon Begley: 'Skeptic' is a compliment, as far as I'm concerned. Scientists should be, and are, skeptical, for the reasons you note. Notice I never said in this story or any other that 'the debate is over;' in science, it never is. The quesiton is whether the science is sound, whether it has been converging on a single conclusion, and finally whether the preponderance of evidence is sufficient to justify policy steps. When those steps bring other benefits---less dependence on Saudi and Venezeulan oil, anyone?---the scales tip even further. Also, it is wrong to think that the 'skeptics'' arguments have gone unanswered. One group of climate researchers does this very well, at http://www.realclimate.org/.
Orlando, Florida: Are the motives surrounding climate change denial purely economic?
Sharon Begley: Not if I can believe my email. A huge fount of opposition to the emerging science seems driven by ideology as much as, or more than, money. Did you know, for instance, that what I wrote is 'nice propoganda there by your Liberal superiors (that control what line reporters like ur self type,' that this is a plot to bring about 'worldwide redistribution of wealth,' that 'i'll believe in global warming when rich hollywood types step out of their suvs,' etc. After the US won the cold war, environmentalism became the new communism. It would take a better psychologist, or sociologist, than I to explain why.
Portland, OR: Do you think we can turn this around (global warming) given that the U.S. is a 'me first' vs. a 'we first' society; and that China and India want to be like us?
Sharon Begley: China just surpassed the US in carbon emissions, so we're in trouble. No, the US cannot go it alone, but as long as we remain outside the process to which Europe, Japan, Russia and 100+ other nations have signed on to, little will happen. If you look at the numbers, in fact, it's hard to see how we can reduce carbon emissions enough, fast enough, to stave off significant climate change. That's why I've written several times about the need to develop carbon sequestration--ways to suck the stuff out of the air so that if the climate system starts tipping into a catastrophic state, we have an out.
Catonsville, Marland: The majority of global warming deniers appear to intertwine their political beliefs into their opinions. How can we remove politics from science, in which there truly is no dispute over global warming?
Sharon Begley: People much smarter than I are trying to figure this out. People of faith are becoming active on this issue, arguing that it is incumbent on man to preserve the world God gave us, and that we have a moral obligation not to mess things up too badly for future generations. But as you say, this is all highly, highly political (see some of the blogosphere traffic on my story to get an idea of the invective) and it will be a challenge to find common ground. Maybe Exxon's statement that 'we are not a denier' and that climate change poses a real and serious threat is a step toward that.
Tacoma Washington: Why are some people changing the wording from "global warming" to "climate change"? It feels deceptive or manipulative.
Sharon Begley: It was a political calculation, the idea being that g.w sounds threatening and c.c. sounds natural. But truth be told, the greenhouse effect will do more than raise median global temps. It is also altering patterns of rainfall and shifting atmospheric circulation, so that's why I use 'climate change'---it's more general and better covers what's in store.
Stockton, CA: Some global warming deniers talk about the role of sunspots (ostensibly an 11-year cycle) causing more havoc with storms and weather changes than global warming. Has any research been done on this?
Sharon Begley: Yes, and the solar cycle has been found to cause some climate change on earth, but not enough to account for recent observations. Go to www.realclimate.org and search on 'sunspots' for a good explanation.
Bonita Springs Florida: If we reduce emissons of greenhouse gases now, will it be in time to make the changes we need to slow or stop warming?
Sharon Begley: It will be tough. But since CO2 has an atmospheric lifetime of at least 100 years, every molecule we put up today is there for a long, long time. Atmospheric CO2 is on track to reach 2 times its pre-industrial levels in a few decades; the question is whether we can keep is from rising further, and for that emissions cuts are necessary but perhaps not sufficient (see answer on carbon sequestration above).
St Louis, MO: There are always hot and cold cycles, like when the Ice Age came. Isn't a big part of global warming from normal temperature cycles?
Sharon Begley: There is definitely natural variation. But that leaves a fingerprint different from what we are seeing; also, in a natural cycle of warming either you need an outside source of heat (more solar energy reaching us) or warmer regions of earth must be balanced by colder regions, or else you violate the laws of thermodynamics. The current warming, changes in atmospheric circulation etc. cannot be explained by natural variation. See chapter 9 of the 2007 IPCC report, http://www.ipcc.ch/, from 'working group one.'
Winona Lake, Indiana: Why would I place any confidence in the government to fix global warming when it fails to fix problems at every turn?
Sharon Begley: Who says it has to be all government? Corporations and individuals are taking steps to curb their carbon emissions. On the other hand, government is us; as long as the public doesn't really care or believe that human activities are altering the climate, why should our elected reps do anything?
Kendall Park, NJ: How can you definitively state that global warming is occuring when temperatures have only been recorded on a consistent basis for less than 200 years?
Sharon Begley: There are lots of so-called proxy data, from tree rings, ice cores, carbon isotope ratios and other sources that tell what global temps have been like going back thousands of years. This 'paleo' record is getting more and more robust; see chapter 6 of the 2007 IPCC report, http://www.ipcc.ch/.
Marion, Ohio: I understand that the global temperatures from the 1940s to the 1970s decreased. In the 1970s, Newsweek warned of global cooling at that time. This also was a period of increasing CO2 emissions. Why did the temperature decrease when there was an increase in CO2? Was this not because of CO2 gases?
Sharon Begley: The temperature decrease then was caused by soaring atmospheric concentrations of sulfate aerosols, which cool the climate and were sufficient to counter the rising CO2. Also, there is a lag between CO2 emissions and climate change. Now that sulfates are under control (these air pollutants also cause acid rain and other nasty things), the full force of CO2 is being felt.
New Orleans, LA: How does purchasing carbon offsets lower the ambient temperature of the earth? Who gets the money from carbon trading? How is it spent?
Sharon Begley: Carbon offsets are meant to balance out the CO2 you emit when you, say, fly coast to coast. Middlemen use the money to plant trees and take other steps to zero-out that CO2. It's kind of like a medieval indulgence for your sins. Will it do much good? Hard to say.
Houston, Texas: I'm hearing a lot about alternative energy sources like, wind energy farms, to help meet the world's demand for energy in a "green" way. What impact will these alternative energy sources will have on global warming?
Sharon Begley: If we can light our homes, run factories and power cars/planes without emitting CO2, then those emissions will be less than they would be otherwise. Renewables now make up only 6% of US energy sources, so we have a ways to go. The easiest way to cut CO2 from our use of energy is through energy efficiency---use less to get the same things done, ie without freezing in the dark or drinking warm beer. Physicists say there are easy ways to improve efficiency 70%, and compact fluorescent lightbulbs are only the tip of the iceberg.
Atlanta, GA: You mention who is funding the "global warming deniers", but just who is financing the "global warming advocates"? Obviously, all the scientists being named in these reports are not doing this for free. I'd like to know where their funding is coming from - what are their political leanings?
Sharon Begley: I hear this argument so often, but it never ceases to puzzle me. There is a difference between the $$ going for ads, PR etc and the $$ going to do research in Greenland and Antarctica, to take ice cores, to make atmospheric measurements needed improve climate models, to study the physics of clouds . . . Scientists don't care which way the answer comes out. They guy who disproved global warming would win the jackpot in terms of prestige and reputation. Of course scientists who do climatology are paid, just as cancer researchers and plasma physicists and every other kind of scientist is paid to expand the sum total of human knowledge (and produce cool spinoffs like the internet, lasers, MRIs, CT scans, cell phones . . .) But to equate that with paid propaganda seems ludicrous.
Tampa, FL: What is the most common greenhouse gas in the atmosphere? And, what percentage of our atmosphere does CO2 constitute?
Sharon Begley: Water vapor is the msot common and most potent GHG. But that's not changing. CO2 is now about 380 parts per million in the atmosphere. Amazing how a little bit can have such profound effects.
Alamo, CA: It's outrageous that the so-called "scientific consensus" is given any respect. Wasn't it this same "scientific" community that just 15 years ago were telling us that the next Ice Age was coming? It was as over hyped then as alleged "man made" global warming is now.
Sharon Begley: No, sorry, there was nothing approaching a consensus on an impending ice age. There was nothing like the 17 years of IPCC reports from thousands of scientists, as we have with global warming. It was a hypothesis only, and one that was quickly knocked down. But it makes a good story . . or should I say, myth.
Atlanta, Georgia: Climatology is a very young science, relatively. We don't understand all the forces which control weather or climate. Even modelers admit their work is imperfect at best.Why should we structure the world's economies according to warnings from a young and imperfect science?
Sharon Begley: Your question is how to act in the face of imcomplete knowledge. Do you buy insurance for your home? Wear seat belts? Sometimes one takes precautions---especially those that cost little and/or bring other benefits (see previous answer re breaking our dependence on dodgy sources of oil).
Sharon Begley: Well, clearly I have to learn to type faster. Thank you for your questions, and apologies that I did not get to more of them.