Climate change

Manufactured doubt and denial are not science

Do you care about your children? Your children’s children? Of course you do. The well-being of all children transcends the present. And their future well-being depends like never before on what you do for them now.

Empathy for others is the moral basis of democracy. It summons individual and social responsibility to act on that empathy by engaging our future, starting with an enlightened understanding about what’s in store for our children. In the bigger context, that encompasses shifting educational opportunities and the economic conditions our descendants will face, do you know what kind of environment they will inherit? Ask yourself: What will I do now on their behalf to improve their prospects for a long and healthy life of happiness and stability?

“Storms. That is the one word that will best characterize 21st-century climate. ... Our grandchildren are in for a rough ride,” writes James Hansen, our county’s pre-eminent climate scientist in his 2009 book Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity.

Pressing the urgency of Hansen’s cogent empirical analysis of climate factors and anthropogenic greenhouse gases, Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, in his 2010 book Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet provides an array of empirical evidence demonstrating the climate-instability consequences we are already experiencing from global warming.

It means higher and more frequent extreme values with wider temporal and spatial variation in measured weather phenomena and their effects on civilization. This is not some forecast for the future. It is already happening as the inertia of major climate change is kicking in.

“The stability that produced civilization over the past 10,000 years, has vanished.” McKibben says, “Epic changes have already begun.”

The physical reality of our planet is already overshadowing the cacophony of climate denialists – illustrated locally by former Exxon executive Roger Cohen (Herald, Dec. 26, 2010). Their strident efforts on behalf of special interests sustain the ignorance and fear that besets much of our populace and politics about climate. Legitimate skepticism is valuable for science, but what denialists and their financial backers try to sell is not scientifically legitimate skepticism. It is pure right-wing corporatist propaganda that has been resoundingly exposed and debunked by the legitimate and highly respected scientific community.

The central tactic of deniers is the same one employed by the tobacco industry, which acknowledged: “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public.” (See Censoring Science by Mark Bowen.)

Such tactics may still foster occasional media exposure in local newspapers. (Cohen publishes nothing about climate in referred journals.) But science is not about a pseudo-balance of opinions or manufactured controversy. That only offers a distorted perspective on where scientific consensus is.

One of the most scientifically renowned ‘skeptics’ routinely trotted out by denialists is former Bush administration adviser Richard Lindzen of MIT, whose organization, the Marshall Institute, has been backed with ExxonMobil funds. Bowen recounts an interviewer describing him as “one of the most ideologically extreme individuals” the author had ever interviewed. In fact, Bowen says, supported by the fossil fuel industry, his organization “orchestrated probably the single most effective disinformation campaign that has been aimed at global warming.” His convoluted “water in all its phases” theory for countering the effects of manmade greenhouse gases been thoroughly debunked. (Bowen again: “Having no data to back it up, he spoke of his belief in quasi-religious terms; of a benign, even divine, principle of balance with water as nature’s thermostat.”)

Lindzen also denies the link between smoking and lung cancer. And he has compared the environmental movement to the rise of the Nazi party.

What about uncertainty and risk, the linchpin of denialists’ arguments? Wrong focus! What about the hazards at risk and our exposure to them if they’re wrong – permanent collapse of life-sustaining systems we all depend on? We’re not dealing simply with losses or gains in the stock market.

Hansen and McKibben lucidly demonstrate with real science that the Earth’s physical and chemical processes are not something we can negotiate with. Geophysical processes will simply trump political pragmatism and inaction. And if the morally and socially irresponsible denialists hold any political sway on climate and energy policy decisions, they will one day become central culprits in a poignant future freak-show reflecting the outcome of policies from a past idiocracy – one in which everyone will suffer.

Our grandchildren won’t just be responding to a “freak catastrophic event” such as Hurricane Katrina. They will be taxing all of their human ingenuity and dwindling resources as they simply struggle to deal with a “climate process” that will dominate human activity by delivering an ever-increasing stream of devastating events all over the globe. To see a moving portrayal of this reality, rent the movie “Trouble the Water.”

What can you do now for your family’s generations? First, become enlightened about scientific truths and their implications. Understand the folly in relinquishing energy-climate policy to special interests and market fundamentalist responses driven by short-term financial signals that don’t reflect true costs or true risks. We are in a global system driven by a physical reality market forces cannot reflect. We are steeping in a brew of massively complex and interacting forces with decades-long time lags now coming to the fore and amplifying feedbacks and nonlinear responses as irreversible climate tipping points are crossed, like the disintegration of ice sheets.

We must get aggressive in our participation with public policy and demand effective responses. Global warming is the most salient intergenerational moral issue ever. It is global in scope and urgent. Only with intense pressure from people of all walks of life is there any hope our government leaders will adopt and sustain a new mindset and policies. Hopeful prospects for the future require a paradigm that causes as much fossil fuel as possible to be left permanently in the ground, and adjusts our economy and lifestyles to that – as opposed to our current paradigm of squeezing the last drop out of the Earth while carrying on with our current lifestyles as long as we can.

We could sit back and bask in a “don’t worry, be happy” state of denial. But if one is paying attention, it really is a sobering fork in our path to the future and a ripe time to wake up to reality.

Root Routledge is president of Alpine Analytics, a Durango environmental statistics consulting firm. He holds a doctorate in industrial engineering and a master’s degree in statistics. Reach him at 382-0711 or Root@AlpineAnalytics.com.