Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Inside the Alleged Global Warming Denial Machine

I have a problem with this week's cover story over at Newsweek. The piece is an expose of a purported "global warming denial machine," which refers to a hypothesized high-powered and well-financed "doubters' campaign" to paint climate change environmentalism as a hoax. Here's a key section from the article:

If you think those who have long challenged the mainstream scientific findings about global warming recognize that the game is over, think again. Yes, 19 million people watched the "Live Earth" concerts last month, titans of corporate America are calling for laws mandating greenhouse cuts, "green" magazines fill newsstands, and the film based on Al Gore's best-selling book, "An Inconvenient Truth," won an Oscar. But outside Hollywood, Manhattan and other habitats of the chattering classes, the denial machine is running at full throttle—and continuing to shape both government policy and public opinion.

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. Through advertisements, op-eds, lobbying and media attention, greenhouse doubters (they hate being called deniers) 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."

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." In contrast, majorities in Europe and Japan recognize a broad consensus among climate experts that greenhouse gases—mostly from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas to power the world's economies—are altering climate. A new NEWSWEEK Poll finds that the influence of the denial machine remains strong. Although the figure is less than in earlier polls, 39 percent of those asked say there is "a lot of disagreement among climate scientists" on the basic question of whether the planet is warming; 42 percent say there is a lot of disagreement that human activities are a major cause of global warming. Only 46 percent say the greenhouse effect is being felt today.
I'm no expert on global warming. But one of my main conclusions on this article is that if Newsweek's going to publish a one-sided propaganda piece denouncing "global warming deniers" who have created a "paralyzing fog of doubt," then the pro-Kyoto advocates on the environmental left must be getting desperate.

I'm skeptical, in any case, of all the sky-is-falling extremism over global warming - although I've never thought of myself as a "denier of climate change." There are real issues of immense importance at debate. Yet, my own background in international relations suggests that the consensus on global warming is not as strong as environmental activists claim.

In my world politics class, I assign James Lee Ray and Juliet Kaarbo's Global Politics, one of the more rigorously researched textbooks on international relations. Here's an interesting quote, from page 422 of the text, that puts the debate on climate change in perspective:

Let us examine...a couple of reasons that the issue [of global warming] is so difficult to resolve. First, global climate processes are so complex and affected by so many countervailing factors that making predictions about their future course is risky. Tropical deforestation, for example, continues at an alarming rate and may make an important contribution to global warming. Less noted is the fact that in North America and Eurasia, forests are growing larger. "The expanding boreal forests...are much larger than the rainforests of the tropics...growing trees absorb substantial amounts of carbon dioxide."

Then, too, human activities and impacts on global climate change may be dwarfed or minimized by natural processes. About 200 billion tons of carbon are emitted into the atmosphere by natural processes like volcanic eruptions, plant decay, and forest fires. Almost exactly that same amount is removed from the atmosphere each year, also by natural processes "breathed in" by trees or taken from the air by ocean plankton, for example. Human activities contribute about 7 billion tons of carbon annually. That is only about 3.3 percent of the amount produced by natural processes. Can such a relatively insignificant amount have the substantial impact on climate that global warming theorists suggest? Skeptics wonder and also question the predictions that global warming will result in the dire consequences of decreased agricultural production, global sea level rise and flooding, extreme weather, and increased tropical diseases.
Ray and Kaarbo analyze both sides of the issue, and provide copious footnotes to the relevant literature. We can't say the same for Newsweek's cover story. The piece denounces the petroleum lobby for sponsoring research efforts skeptical of global warming theory, but at the same time praises the "Live Aid" concerts, the "corporate titans" backing the environmental party line, and Al Gore's inconvenient truth crusade as the "mainstream" forces in the debate.

The Newsweek article concludes by pointing out that big players in the denial campaign - like ExxonMobil - are "warming" to the "mainstream" consensus, then continues:

Look for the next round of debate to center on what Americans are willing to pay and do to stave off the worst of global warming.
I think Newsweek's getting ahead of itself. Yet, if the mainstream consensus proves correct - and Americans themselves are coming around to the dominant climate change position - then we need to advance
policies on environmental regulation that will not damage economic growth in the U.S. and global economies.

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