Climate Denial 101

A User’s Guide to the arguments of global warming skeptics

No reasonable doubt remains that human activities, particularly greenhouse gas emissions, have significantly altered global climate. Over the last two centuries global land, sea, and atmospheric temperatures have increased to a degree that cannot be accounted for by historical natural variability alone, and the world’s climate scientists are in general agreement that this warming may already have passed a point of no return. At a bare minimum, there is at least another century of warming “in the pipe” so to speak, even if we implement draconian mitigation measures today. But of course, this has done little to dampen climate change skepticism among anti-environmental special interests and the lawmakers beholden to them. Since the early 90’s the fossil fuel, coal-fired power, and automobile industries, and various Far-Right foundations have sunk millions into front organizations advertised to the public as “think tanks” or “research” institutions, but whose express behind-the-scene purpose is to lobby against climate change mitigation efforts on behalf of their benefactors. Originally these groups focused on denying the reality of global warming, but in recent years that approach has all but become a lost cause, so the emphasis has been shifting toward denying that we have anything to do with it.

It must be remembered that these organizations aren’t merely lobbyists, they’re fronts that employ some of the best public relations people in the game. No matter how unreasonable their claims may seem to many, they know how to sell themselves to lawmakers and the public as “science-based,” and they’re anything but stupid. Anti-environmental special interests funnel millions to these folks because they’re the undisputed masters of spin, and with the evidence for human-cause global warming mounting daily, the need for spin has become increasingly central to their activities.

Now, every masterful spin job has at two key components;

  1. A compelling, and slickly presented straw man.
  2. An emotionally charged scapegoat to pin it on that can be used to push the target audience's buttons.

The latter is easy enough. As the 2016 presidential campaign demonstrated all too well, if people are angry enough you can all but throw an election with made-up fake news stories, tweets, and other red meat. The real art of spin lies in crafting a good straw man, which in turn achieves two primary goals of its own;

  1. An argument that's as impressive and compelling as possible, without reveal the underlying errors and omissions.
  2. A conclusion that tars and feathers the intended scapegoat with maximal apparent idiocy.

If the apparent idiocy fruit is low-hanging and juicy enough one can go straight to d). Case in point, religious extremists, who routinely provide anti-religion secularists with so much dry tinder that a thimble’s worth of dog-whistle revisionist history is usually enough to ignite a continent-wide prairie fire. For global warming skeptics however, the task is not so easy. Respected climate scientists are far worthier opponents than Pat Robertson or ISIS, so the emphasis must be on c). In this they are favored by the fact that climate science is complex, and more than subtle enough to give them plenty of grist for the mill. But even so, there are recurring conceptual errors that underlie all their arguments, and once these are revealed the entire climate denial platform collapses.

Before jumping into these errors, let’s start with a few climate science fundamentals that will give us the bricks and mortar we’ll need to evaluate them.

1)   Climate is not the same thing as weather

Weather (or meteorology) deals with short-term local atmospheric conditions—what’s happening now in the county where you live, and what the evening forecast says you can expect when planning your weekend getaways. Climate on the other hand, is the sum of all long-term patterns and trends exhibited by weather on a regional or global basis, where by regional we mean continental or subcontinental (e.g. West Coast, Midwest, etc.), and by long-term we mean at least 30 years, and more commonly, centuries. The factors which drive the latter have little to do with the former.

Think of taking a canoe down a river. Many factors will impact whether the river will rise or drop during your trip, and how the canoe maneuvers and responds to obstacles while travelling downstream. But these are very different from the ones that shape the watershed’s long-term environmental and hydrological formation. The subtleties of your listless drift through a long pool and the way you’re carried through the riffle at its tailout have little to do with the environmental factors that shaped both, and the river’s journey from mountaintop glaciers to the ocean surf throughout history. Media commentators and activists on both sides of the issue are fond of relating extreme weather events to global warming. But as understandable as these reactions may be in the moment, such comparisons are like trying to answer questions about the river’s evolution from the way your canoe maneuvers in a riffle. The latter have certainly been influenced by the former, but comparing the two is category error.

2)   The earth’s climate is a system.

Most people think of climate change as a warming of the atmosphere. This is not surprising given that it’s the most visible symptom of it, and greenhouse gas emissions are the most commonly publicized culprit. But in fact, there are five main components to the earth’s global climate. In addition to the atmosphere, climate is also driven by the world's oceans (the hydrosphere), continental land masses (the lithosphere), global ice coverage in glaciers and polar ice caps (the cryosphere), and the biological ecosystems that interact with, and depend on them (the biosphere). These are all interconnected, and together they comprise what we call a second-order system—which is just a fancy way of saying shock absorber.

There are many kinds of shock absorbers, but all are a combination of three generalized components: A “weight,” a “spring,” and a “damper,” and the overall response of the system to some “force” is determined by all three. The clearest example is the mechanical one (like the shock absorbers on your car) in which the combination of a weight and spring (in the usual sense of those terms) with a friction damper (or dashpot) is subjected to a mechanical force (like a bumpy road). Figure 1 shows a schematic of this.

Second-order system

Figure 1 – An idealized shock absorber

One of the more interesting things about systems like these is that there's a time delay (or phase lag) between when they're kicked and when/how they react. The larger the ratio of their weight to the stiffness of the spring, the longer that delay is, and the smaller the response will be over any shorter timeframe. This is how your car’s shock absorbers keep you from feeling all those quick, hard bumps in the road. They respond to the ongoing weight of the vehicle by holding it up off the road. But the bumps you hit while driving load them over a much shorter timespan than they can respond to, so they absorb them by deflecting rather than transmitting them to the vehicle (you may have noticed that driving very slowly over speed bumps is often more jarring than hitting them at a few miles per hour).

Though far more complicated, global climate is essentially a thermal equivalent of this. In the climate system, the “weight” is the heat absorption capacity of the world’s lakes, rivers, and oceans (their capacity to store latent heat). Chemical and thermal properties of the atmosphere, land surface, and global ice cover function as the “spring” and “damper,” and the “force” delivered to all this comes from incoming solar radiation, and various natural and anthropogenic inputs that change the system’s ability to retain it. The figure below shows how all of this works together (Stocker, 2014).

The Global Climate System (Stocker, 2014)

Figure 2 – The Global Climate System

3)   Changes in climate depend on how it is forced.

Climate change is a system response to various inputs. Any input that alters one or more climate trends is referred to as a forcing. As already noted, the clearest example is variation in the amount of solar radiation the earth receives. But not all the energy the sun sends our way ends up here, or stays around for any length of time if it does. Some is reflected by clouds and/or surface ice before it can be absorbed. Some is absorbed, but re-radiated back to space (by warm ground on cloudless nights for instance) before it can affect much. Any input to the climate system that impacts how efficiently it retains the solar energy it receives will have the same impact as changes in direct solar energy input, and are considered forcings as well. Anthropogenic (man-made) greenhouse gas emissions are one case in point.

4)   There are many kinds of forcings and climate responds differently to each.


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