The Religion of Climate Change Denial
Religion and Science
The recent article by professor Denis Rancourt, The Climate Religion, argues that belief in climate change is a religion. Although he is right that religion is a powerful belief system common to human societies, which leaders take advantage of to control people, he is dead wrong about acceptance of the science of anthropogenic global warming being a religion. This is a one-time rebuttal (no spitting match, thank you) of his contention.
Professor Rancourt is a climate change denier. Climate denial itself has become a religion, impervious to evidence. There have been many prominent climate deniers, such as the late Michael Crichton, whom Rancourt cites. Most of them, like Crichton, are not climate scientists. Of the few who are scientists, most have received funding directly or indirectly from the fossil fuel industry, which has spent millions on manufacturing uncertainty about climate science. For more on the climate denial industry, see Global Warming Skeptic Organizations.
Note that, contrary to the name of the article just referred to, there is a difference between global warming deniers and skeptics. Skeptics are willing to converse with scientists on the nature of the evidence and the conclusions, in a spirit of inquiry and cooperation, sometimes even contributing to the science. Like scientists they are prepared to alter their views on the basis of rational dialogue. Deniers do not dialogue, they attack, without peer review, accusing scientists of fraud or grave error, often indulging in conspiracy theories.
Science operates on informed consensus. If there is a consensus among qualified scientists that organisms evolved, we should accept that consensus – as a result, modern biology is irreversibly based on the century-and-a-half-old theory of evolution, and creationists’ “disproofs” and “alternatives” have been refuted. Albert Einstein founded both relativity and quantum mechanics, the source of many important scientific discoveries over the last century. Modern climatology, about half a century old, is very robust, with thousands of articles in top peer-reviewed scientific journals annually, by climatologists, chemists, physicists, geologists, anthropologists, archeologists, paleontologists, and even space scientists. Like creationists, climate change deniers’ arguments have all been refuted or proven irrelevant.
The scientific method differs greatly from religion, in one fundamental way: religions claim to be based on absolute, revealed truth, which cannot be questioned, whereas science is based on observation, hypothesis formulation, testing, and rejection. Religious adherents work hard to twist observed facts to fit their doctrines; scientists modify their theories on the basis of empirical evidence.
So what? Why is global warming important? Because our failure over the last three decades to take global warming seriously has led us to a present climate disruption which can lead either to a guaranteed hostile planet for humans, or a planet which is totally uninhabitable by any life, depending on our actions — now.
The scientific evidence
Here is the science, in outline form. The evidence is extensive, and it takes more explaining to rebut, than to make glib denials. Links are to scientific sites, or to lay articles with their own links to original scientific work. There’s a very brief conclusion at the end.
(1) Ocean, land and atmospheric warming is accelerating
(a) The Record
Climate Change 2001: Chapter 2, Observed Climate Variability and Change
(b) 5 Key Takeaways From Alarming New Climate Report
(c) Climate records are being broken regularly, and warming-induced changes are unprecedented in human history. Just a few examples:
1. Stuck on record warm: Earth has unprecedented 16-straight warmest months.
2. Kuwait, Iraq sizzle in 129-degree heat, setting all-time eastern hemisphere record.
3. Atlantic bathwater: Why the ocean is so warm right now and what it means.
4. The longest — and probably largest — proof of our current climate catastrophe ever caught on camera.
5. Greenland’s ice melting faster than we thought, study finds
6. The Alaskan village that needs to be relocated due to climate change.
7. Flooding of Coast, Caused by Global Warming, Has Already Begun.
8. Causes of Drought: What’s the Climate Connection?
9. Increased flood risk linked to global warming.
10. 375 top scientists warn of ‘real, serious, immediate‘ climate threat.
(a) The greenhouse effect: About 31 % of the incoming radiation from the sun is reflected directly back to space by the earth’s atmosphere and surface, and another 20% is absorbed by the atmosphere. The rest is absorbed by oceans and land, and converted into heat. Certain gases in the atmosphere act like the glass of a greenhouse, preventing the heat from escaping. These greenhouse gases absorb heat and radiate some of it back to the earth’s surface, causing surface temperatures to be higher than they would otherwise be. The most important naturally occurring greenhouse gas is water vapor, the largest contributor to the natural greenhouse effect. Other gases, in much smaller quantities, play a substantial and growing role in the greenhouse effect. These include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Without this natural greenhouse effect, the earth would be much colder than it is now.
(b) The main cause of global warming is the human-enhanced greenhouse effect.
Proof that greenhouse gases, especially CO2, are warming the Earth:
(i) Using satellites to compare how much energy is arriving from the sun, and how much is leaving the Earth, scientists have seen a gradual decrease in the amount of energy being re-radiated back into space. The amount of energy arriving from the sun has not changed very much at all. This is the first piece of evidence: more energy is remaining in the atmosphere.
(ii) What can keep the energy in the atmosphere? The primary greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), water vapor, nitrous oxide and ozone. This is the second part of the proof: a testable mechanism by which energy can be trapped in the atmosphere.
(iii) CO2 has increased by nearly 43% in the last 150 years, in parallel with temperature increase – consistent with the hypothesis.
(iv) The final piece of evidence is ‘the smoking gun’, the proof that CO2 is causing the increases in temperature. CO2 traps energy at specific wavelengths, and other greenhouse gases trap different wavelengths.
The graph shows different wavelengths of energy, measured at the Earth’s surface. Among the spikes you can see energy being radiated back to Earth by ozone (O3), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N20). But the spike for CO2 on the left dwarfs all the other greenhouse gases, and tells that most of the energy being trapped in the atmosphere corresponds exactly to the wavelength of energy captured by CO2.
Where are the greenhouse gases coming from?
The recent rise in CO2 levels in the atmosphere is known to be mainly due to human activity. Researchers know this both from various national statistics, and by examining the ratio of various carbon isotopes in the atmosphere. Observed isotopic ratios correspond to an origin millions of years old, which can only come from fossil fuels.
Human sources of greenhouse gases
(a) The most emitted greenhouse gas is CO2.
Other anthropogenic causes of global warming
Forests decrease global warming in many ways:
- Evapotranspiration has a cooling effect, puts more water in the atmosphere that can return as rain.
- Forests slow, halt or reverse desertification.
- Sequestration of CO2 by trees is an important factor in keeping atmospheric CO2 levels down.
- Forest soils sequester CO2 more long-term.
- Deforestation has destroyed societies as far back as Biblical times: the fertile triangle was converted to desert by deforestation (Perlin, John, A Forest Journey. The Role of Wood in the Development of Civilisation (Cambridge, MA; London, 1989). It is still destroying civilizations.
- Deforestation is proceeding at a very rapid rate today.
(i) Clearing land
— For agriculture
— Mineral and fossil fuel extraction
(ii) Global warming
— Bark beetles are thriving at warmer temperatures, killing boreal forests.
— More frequent forest fires are destroying forests.
(iii) Population growth
— There are no problems – climate change, mass extinction, depletion of resources, killer pollution – that would not be eased by slowing, ending, or best of all, reversing population growth.
— Effects on climate:
(a) Robert I. McDonald and colleagues concluded that by 2050 population growth in cities in the developing world will multiply the number of people perennially short of water seven-fold, from 150 million to 1 billion. Projected climate change, they found, will add 100 million people to this number – no trivial growth increment, but still a much smaller one.
(b) More fossil fuel use
(c) More farming
So there are the facts of climate change, in a large nutshell. As you can see, there is a lot to it. We not only know that global warming and therefore climate change are happening now, and accelerating, and that they are caused by human activities, primarily the burning of carbon. We know how these changes affect heat waves, droughts, floods, ice melting, and sea level rise. What can be documented on another occasion are the consequences for the ecosystem, of which we are part, and the fact that amplifying feedbacks are now causing global warming to accelerate on its own, and might lead to runaway warming even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases. Also, the greenhouse gases we have already emitted will remain in the atmosphere for centuries, continuing to heat the planet. That is why our inaction has made the problem especially urgent.
Deniers will pick at details or claim that climate change is impossible, or it’s caused by other factors, but remember this: 1) All their objections have failed to disprove the main tenets of anthropogenic climate change and its effects; and 2) All of their proposed alternative explanations for climate change have been refuted. This article, already too long for many, can’t go into those refutations, although some links have been provided to them.
It is therefore no surprise that deniers have not come up with a robust theoretical framework that can be built upon scientifically, unlike the current theory of anthropogenic climate change.
Climate’s changed before
Climate is always changing. We have had ice ages and warmer periods when alligators were found in Spitzbergen. Ice ages have occurred in a hundred thousand year cycle for the last 700 thousand years, and there have been previous periods that appear to have been warmer than the present despite CO2 levels being lower than they are now. More recently, we have had the medieval warm period and the little ice age. (Richard Lindzen)
Science has a good understanding of past climate changes and their causes, and that evidence makes the human cause of modern climate change all the more clear. Greenhouse gasses – mainly CO2, but also methane – have been implicated in most of the climate changes in Earth’s past. When they were reduced, the global climate became colder. When they were increased, the global climate became warmer. When changes were big and rapid (as they are today), the consequences for life on Earth were often dire – in some cases causing mass extinctions.
So why is the myth wrong?
The myth is wrong for two reasons:
- First, to infer that humans can’t be behind today’s climate change because climate changed before humans is bad reasoning (a non-sequitur). Humans are changing the climate today mainly via greenhouse gas emissions, the same mechanism that caused climate change before humans.
- Second, to imply we have nothing to fear from today’s climate change is not borne out by the lessons from rapidclimate changes in Earth’s past.
Third rock from the Sun – why we’re not deep frozen.
A rocky planet this far from the sun should be frozen solid and lifeless at an average temperature of -18°C (0°F). The fact that it isn’t is due to greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, mainly CO2. These atmospheric gasses have been in a delicate balance with the Earth’s oceans, the biosphere, and even the geosphere (all the rocks and sediments). Whether it was frigid ice ages or the steamy climates of the Eocene and the age of the dinosaurs, every change in the Earth (like a decrease in the rate of tectonic plate subduction or an increase in the rate of mountain building) caused a proportional change in CO2 in the atmosphere and in the oceans, and every change in atmospheric CO2 caused a proportional reaction in global temperatures, climate and ocean chemistry.
Scientists have shown that CO2 and climate moved in lock-step throughout the Pleistocene ice ages. The ice ages were actually many pulses of cold glacial phases interspersed with warmer interglacials. These pulses had a distinct regularity caused by wobbles in Earth’s orbit around the Sun (Milankovitch cycles). When Earth’s orbit reduced the intensity of sunlight in the northern hemisphere, the Earth went into a glacial phase. When the orbital cycle brought increased the intensity of insolation in the northern hemisphere, ice sheets melted and we went into a warm interglacial. Because warmer oceans can dissolve less CO2, the CO2 levels see-sawed extremely closely with Earth’s temperature. It was a slow pace of change, taking tens to hundreds of thousands of years, and yes as the myth states, in the last million years the biggest orbit-induced cycles were every 100,000 years.
But we know these orbital changes are not behind today’s global warming. In fact our orbit dictates we should be cooling now, not warming.
The Earth was indeed cooling over the last 6,000 years due to Earth’s orbit, heading into the next glacial phase scheduled for about the year 3500 AD. But all that changed when we got to the industrial era. Global temperatures departed from that cooling trend, and instead rose parallel with our greenhouse gas emissions.
Greenhouse gasses and Temperature moved in lock-step through the Pleistocene Ice Ages, controlled by Earth’s orbit around the Sun (Centre for Ice and Climate, University of Copenhagen). Arrows show where levels were a few years ago, on the same scale.
Until 2012, Antarctic ice core data suggested CO2 may have lagged behind the warming trend by hundreds of years. This was used by skeptics to question the link between CO2 and climate. More recent studies, with much more precise correlation between ice cores and global temperature records, have shown that temperature and CO2 changed synchronously in Antarctica during the end of the last ice age, and globally CO2 rose slightly before global temperatures.
Palm-fringed Arctic and balmy dinosaurs
It’s true that at times in Earth’s past the climate has been as warm or even warmer than temperatures projected for the end of this century and beyond. Aside from some warm interglacials, the average climate was last as warm as we expect in 2100 during the Pliocene epoch – before the emergence of the genus Homo which includes you and me. In that time, summer Arctic temperatures were 3°C (5°F) warmer than today, with CO2 levels similar to today’s and sea levels were 15-25m (50-82ft) higher than today. Rain-drenched forests fringed the Arctic Ocean at the time.
Going further back to the Eocene, the world then was very warm and humid – on average 10°C (18°F) warmer than today. Lush swamp forests fringed the Arctic, inhabited by turtles, alligators, primates, tapirs, and the hippo-like Coryphodon (just as the myth claims). Lowland Antarctica was warm and covered in near-tropical vegetation, and London was a mangrove swamp as rainforests spread across much of the planet. Going back even further to the age of the dinosaurs, life flourished in a time of high CO2 and generally warm average temperatures with high sea levels. Even Antarctica was forested and supported a healthy population of dinosaurs.
CO2 and Climate Changes in the last 400+ million years (note all human existence fits under the right-hand vertical axis line). CO2 proxy data from Dan Breeker, U.Texas, originally published here. Greenhouse events in part from Kravchinsky 2012.
Sudden vs slow change
Life flourished in the Eocene, the Cretaceous and other times of high CO2 in the atmosphere because the greenhouse gasses were in balance with the carbon in the oceans and the weathering of rocks. Life, ocean chemistry, and atmospheric gasses had millions of years to adjust to those levels.
But there have been several times in Earth’s past when Earth’s temperature jumped rapidly, in much the same way as they are doing today. Those times were caused by large and rapid greenhouse gas emissions, just like humans are causing today. In Earth’s past the trigger for these greenhouse gas emissions was often unusually massive volcanic eruptions known as “Large Igneous Provinces,” with knock-on effects that included huge releases of CO2 and methane from organic-rich sediments. But there is no Large Igneous Province operating today, or anytime in the last 16 million years. Today’s volcanoes, in comparison, don’t even come close to emitting the levels of greenhouse gasses that humans do.
Those rapid global warming events were almost always highly destructive for life, causing mass extinctions such as at the end of the Permian, Triassic, or even mid-Cambrian periods. The symptoms from those events (huge and rapid carbon emissions, a big rapid jump in global temperatures, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, widespread oxygen-starved zones in the oceans) are all happening today with human-caused climate change. The outcomes for life on Earth were often dire. The end Permian extinction saw around 90% of species go extinct, and it left tropical regions on the planet lethally hot, too hot for complex life to survive. The Triassic extinction was another, one of the 5 biggest mass extinctions in the geological record. Even in the end Cretaceous extinction, in which dinosaurs were finally wiped out by an asteroid impact, a major global-warming extinction event was already underway causing a major extinction within 150,000 years of the impact. That global warming 66 million years ago was due to catastrophic eruptions in India, which emitted a pulse of CO2 that sent global temperatures soaring by 7°C (13°F).
So yes, the climate has changed before, and in most cases scientists know why. In all cases we see the same association between CO2 levels and global temperatures. And past examples of rapid carbon emissions offer no comfort at all for the likely outcome from today’s climate change.
Extract from “The Madhouse Effect – How Climate Change Denial is Threatening our Planet, Destroying our Politics, and Driving us Crazy” by Michael Mann and Tom Toles.
Science – How it Works
Science, Everybody says they are for it. So why the fire-storm of argument about the science of climate change? It’s an interesting question. With a disturbing answer. For all the complexity of detail in science, the process is actually fairly straightforward.
Science is unique among human endeavours in the “self-correcting” machinery (to quote the famous Carl Sagan) by which it is governed. That machinery ensures that science continues on a path toward an increasingly better understanding of the natural world despite the occasional wrong turns, dead ends, and missteps. The machinery consists of the critical checks that exist in the form of peer review and professional challenges, with the overriding maxim – again attributed to Sagan – that extraordinary claims especially require extraordinary evidence. Good-faith scepticism – that is, scepticism that attempts to hold science to the highest possible standard through independent scrutiny and questioning of every minute detail – is not only a good thing in science but, in fact, essential. It is the lubricant that ensures that the self-correcting machinery continues to function.
Unfortunately, the term sceptic has been hijacked, especially in the climate change debate, to mean something entirely different. It is used as a way to dodge evidence that one simply doesn’t like. That, however, is not scepticism but rather contrarianism or denialism, the wholesale rejection of validated, widely accepted scientific principles on the basis of opinion, ideology, financial interest, or all these things together.
We must distinguish true scepticism – a noble attribute found in all good science and all good scientists – from the pseudo-scepticism practised by armchair critics who misguidedly fancy themselves modern-day Galileos. As Carl Sagan also once said, “The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown”. For every Galileo, there are many thousands of Bozo the Clowns. When it comes to the fractious debate over policy relevant areas of science, the Bozos are too often the ones with the megaphones.
True scientific scepticism takes many forms. Scepticism takes place in the give-and-take at scientific meetings, where scientists present their findings and then address questions, criticisms, and challenges from their colleagues in the audience. It takes place in the form of peer review: Scientists write up their findings and submit them to journals. The journals select several other scientists with expertise in the field to critically evaluate the submission. If they find flaws in the data, the underlying assumptions, the experimental design, or the logic, the authors must revise and resubmit. This process might be repeated a number of times for a single article. In the end, the article is published if and only if the editor determines that the authors have satisfactorily addressed any concerns or critiques raised during the review process and that the manuscript represents a positive contribution to the existing scientific literature.
The quality-control process of peer review isn’t perfect, of course, and flawed work inevitably does get published. Certainly, no single scientific article ever defines the collective body of knowledge. And so there is even peer review in the form of multi-authored scientific assessments, like those by the National Academy of Sciences, that evaluate the collective evidence in the peer-reviewed literature on a particular topic and summarise the state of knowledge on the topic. These assessments, too, are peer reviewed for accuracy, objectivity and thoroughness.
The fact of the matter, however, is that there is a weakness in the scientific system that can be exploited. The weakness is in the public understanding of science, which turns out to be crucial for translating science into public policy. Deliberate confusion can be sown under a false pretext of “scepticism”. And the scientific process is continually under assault by bad-faith doubt mongers.
There is, for example, the whole duplicitous game of assigning motives. Critics sometimes seek to cast suspicion on the scientific enterprise by suggesting that it is compromised by a conspiracy of ulterior-motive-driven individuals. “The scientists are in it for the money,” they say, seeking to “get rich off of government grant money.” Ironically, there is no small amount of projection here. These accusations, after all, are typically made by talking heads who get paid hefty sums by industry front groups to peddle disinformation to the public and to attack the scientists. But what about the substance of the accusation? Do climate scientists, for example, seek to reinforce the dominant narrative that climate change is real and caused by humans to generate concern from the public and policy makers just so they can guarantee the ongoing availability of government grant support for their work?
To understand just how absurd that premise is, we have to understand something about how science really works. In science, you don’t make a name for yourself by simply reinforcing the dominant narrative. You don’t get articles published in the premier journals “Nature” and “Science” by simply showing that others were right. The way you establish a name for yourself in the world of science is by demonstrating something new or surprising, by contradicting conventional wisdom. A record of novel, ground-breaking work is what gets you tenure, what helps bring in research grants, what leads to salary increases from your institution.
Any scientist who could soundly demonstrate that Earth is not warming would become an instant science celebrity. A scientist who could definitively explain the warming of Earth by natural rather than human causes would have prominent articles published in “Nature” and “Science”. He or she would appear on the network news and make the cover of “Scientific American”. Such an individual would be tenured, promoted, likely elected to the National Academy of Sciences. The scientist would go down in history as one of the great paradigm breakers of all time, part of the exclusive club that includes Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein and Wegener (of plate tectonics fame). Such a scientist would, in short, achieve both fame and fortune.
So the incentives for a scientist would appear to be rather the opposite of what the critics claim. But let us not forget that in science the more extraordinary the claim. The more extraordinary the evidence must be…….
More from the third chapter – The Bizarro World.
If you are a climate change denier, there is a good chance that you (1) aren’t reading this book anyway, (2) don’t read Tom’s editorial cartoons in the Washington Post or Mike’s commentaries and interviews, and (3) get your information about climate change from conservative media outlets committed to perpetuating the notion that climate change is a myth, a vast conspiracy by thousands of scientists around the world perpetuating a massive hoax to create a new socialist world order.
If that is your viewpoint, it probably doesn’t matter to you that the world’s leading scientists have reached an overwhelming consensus that climate change is (1) real, (2) caused by us, (3) already a problem. It probably doesn’t matter that the National Academy of Sciences, founded by President Abraham Lincoln, has stated this to be the case, as have the scientific academies of all the major industrial nations. It probably doesn’t matter that every scientific society in the United States to weigh in on the matter has done so as well. From your perspective, that’s all just evidence that the scientific community conspiracy must run even wider and and deeper. It is this sort of epistemic closure that makes it increasingly difficult to reach hardened climate change deniers.
Science is litigated through the formulation and testing of hypotheses, the analysis of hard data, and an examination of the facts, not by television debates between talking heads with opposing viewpoints. Yet our mass media too often frame climate change precisely that way. Who do you imagine benefits from that framing?
Doubt is their Product.
When it comes to the public battle over policy-relevant science, special interests have long recognised that they enjoy the advantage of the prosecution in the court of public opinion. Their internal research, focus groups, and polling have revealed that they need generate only sufficient uncertainty about the scientific evidence in the public mind-set to ensure an agenda of inaction. “Doubt is our product” read one internal tobacco industry memo.
It is unsurprising that right wing media outlets serve as mouthpieces for this agenda. But what is more troubling is that the mainstream media have often played the role of unwitting accomplices. By perpetuating the notion that there are two equal “sides” when it comes to objective matters of fact such as evolution and climate change, mainstream media outlets have reinforced the perception that there is legitimate doubt about these matters. Comedian John Oliver had it precisely right when he brought ninety seven scientists out onto the studio floor to debate three climate change deniers. The split is ninety seven – three, not fifty-fifty, when it comes to support among actual publishing scientists for the scientific consensus on human caused climate change.
As we shall see, the success of the industry funded climate change denial machine derives in part from media outlets’ willingness to emphasise conflict over consensus, controversy over comprehension. Add a bit of Journalism 101 false “balance”, and you have a perfect recipe for industry front groups and their hired guns to bake up mass confusion and to do what they do best – obfuscate and obscure the facts and delay action.
The increasingly popular refrain among politicians, “I am not a scientist,” is just another formulation used to avoid an intelligent discussion of climate. It is not in any way a coherent response because logically the follow-up would be “so I will defer to the consensus of people who are scientists.” But the politicians never seem to get to that part.
They instead act as though unless there is 100% unanimity among scientists, nothing can be known. But they are also contradictorily fully willing to assent to a tiny minority of scientists who happen to be saying what they want to hear. As often as not, the scientists in question are not even climate scientists, but who cares?