Climate skeptics still not worried

We asked climate skeptics for their opinions on recent extreme weather events. You can probably guess their answers

Topics: Environment,

Climate skeptics still not worriedA firefighter works a burnout operation on the north flank of the Fontenelle Fire outside Big Piney, Wyoming, July 4, 2012. (Credit: Reuters/Jim Urquhart)

With huge swaths of the mountain West in flames, chunks of the eastern seaboard suffering power outages after a massive storm, and nearly three-quarters of the lower 48 experiencing dry or drought conditions, extreme weather has been on everyone’s mind — with climate change not far behind.

Concerned scientists certainly saw an opportunity to get a message across: In a telephone briefing last week, Princeton geosciences professor Michael Oppenheimer said, “What we’re seeing is a window into what global warming really looks like. It looks like heat, it looks like fires, it looks like this kind of environmental disaster … This provides vivid images of what we can expect to see more of in the future.”

Maybe this would be the moment that the visceral reality of disaster broke through the political fog. League of Conservation Voters president Gene Karpinski thought it might, saying he hoped that “record-breaking temperatures, intense droughts and wildfires and other climate-related disasters” would act as “a wakeup call” for the dangers posed by climate change.

So I called a couple of well-known climate “skeptics” to see what they had to say about the crazy weather. Sure, one fire or storm, however bad, is hardly conclusive evidence, but might the visions of a hellish future prompt a sense of urgency strong enough to jar even the slightest change of heart? You can probably already guess the answer.

When I chatted with William O’Keefe, formerly the COO of the American Petroleum Institute and current fellow at the George C. Marshall Institute, a Koch-funded conservative think tank, he was exceedingly polite as he dismissed climate scientists’ warnings, saying, “The advocates for catastrophic human-induced climate change will use any event to advance their proposition.” He explained, “I am troubled by people who latch onto any event to say this proves or disproves climate change … the climate system is incredibly complex and it may take decades for us to understand it enough to create a model that allows us to understand what will happen in the future.”

He’s right that we shouldn’t attribute any one event to climate change, and that there’s a lot we still don’t know about climate systems; few scientists would argue otherwise. But there’s a whole lot we do know, and waiting decades until we do anything at all is the kind of logic only a former Exxon lobbyist could come up with. The thing is, there aren’t many people these days who deny that climate change is happening at all; even among Republicans, a plurality of voters believe climate change is occurring. Instead, self-styled “skeptics” offer a patchwork of arguments designed to obfuscate the issue, cautioning that we don’t really understand what’s going on, that we don’t know how much humans are really contributing, that scientists are just out for grant money, and besides, won’t somebody please think of the poor? They seek out the fringe scientists who support their opinions, and use scientific-sounding arguments to counter the scientific consensus; they’re just reasonable enough to sound legitimate to anyone who’s not well acquainted with the evidence.

So even the notoriously crackpot Heartland Institute, which recently equated global warming activists to the Unabomber, uses scientific language in support of its totally insane ideas. James Taylor, Heartland’s senior fellow for environmental policy, told me, “It’s important to keep in mind the factual data in addition to what’s in the media, because they have an interest in selling newspapers and getting viewers, and even scientists have an interest in getting grants to keep this supposed global warming crisis going.” Said Taylor, “This is what happens with the global warming issue, because there’s always someplace in the world where there’s high temperatures, where there’s drought, where there’s a storm. They’ll take these anomalous issues and use them to spread the myth that global warming is involved.”

When people like Taylor depict those who are concerned about climate change as “alarmists” and doomsayers, those who object to doing anything set themselves up to play the part of the “reasonable middle”: They can acknowledge that something funny is going on while insisting that we don’t know enough to do anything about it. And so denial becomes less a battle over facts than a waiting game, with appeals to scientific knowledge used as a delay tactic rather than a wakeup call; it’s concern trolling, climate-style. All those invested in the status quo need to do is create enough uncertainty to delay action indefinitely.

Public officials have picked up on the tactics of professional deniers. Cory Gardner, a Republican representative from Colorado, co-sponsored a bill last year that would have revoked the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act, and has said that “I think the climate is changing, but I don’t believe humans are causing that change to the extent that’s been in the news.” After the High Park Fire torched 87,000 acres and 257 homes in his district, he didn’t pull the Mother Nature card in claiming that human action played no role whatsoever in the fire — rather, he pointed to a federal roadless area policy as a culprit in the pine beetle infestation that left thousands of dead trees standing like kindling, with nary a mention of the fact that the warm winter allowed the pests to survive. While neither he nor Colorado Springs Rep. Doug Lamborn responded to requests for comment, they didn’t have to — they’re winning by default.

What should be clear by now is that there’s not going to be one event that we can unequivocally attribute to climate change; the factors involved in weather and disaster events are too complex, and there will always be someone explaining — not entirely incorrectly — that something other than climate is the real culprit, or that freak events happen naturally. That certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about climate change as a factor in extreme weather far more than we do now: A paltry 3 percent of mainstream news organizations even mentioned it during coverage of the wildfires. But it does means that there isn’t going to be one moment of truth when everyone realizes that climate change is in fact taking place, let alone a moment when climate deniers suddenly see the light and change their tune.

More generally, it’s foolish to expect disasters to bring about the changes we want to see. The catastrophic BP oil spill, for example, didn’t do much to change Louisiana’s relationship to the oil industry — in fact, the state’s senators were among the loudest voices for reopening the coast to drilling as soon as possible, with hardly even a nod to enhanced safety measures. Relatively limited technical changes are far more likely to come out of disaster events than deeper structural ones, and officials are motivated to reestablish “normality” as soon as possible. When it comes to climate change, though, going back to normal means continuing with business-as-usual, which means catastrophic effects are almost guaranteed down the road. And while extreme weather events and disasters have the potential to serve as focusing events or “teachable moments,” they also put a strain on already-tight local, state and federal budgets, diminishing our ability to actually invest in mitigation and preparation, let alone deal with other problems.

So, will climate disasters be our wakeup call? Maybe eventually, but I wouldn’t count on it. Expecting any one event — or even several events — to suddenly change the politics of climate change so that we’re all on the same page is not a strategy for success. And hoping that climate deniers who are deeply invested in their positions will be shocked into changing them isn’t a very good bet. We can’t wait for a disaster to save us; we’re going to have to do the work ourselves. So the next time someone says the U.S. will do something about climate change when things get bad enough, or that people will wake up to climate change when a disaster strikes, or that we’ll believe in climate change when we see it, remind them it’s already here.

Alyssa Battistoni writes about the environment and politics from Seattle.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>