Attention climate deniers: This scientist will give you $10,000 for actual proof that global warming is a hoax

Physicist Christopher Keating tells Salon about his plan to get climate deniers to "put up or shut up"

Published June 25, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh                     (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/AP/J. Scott Applewhite/<a href=''>Tomas Rebro</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Tomas Rebro via Shutterstock/Salon)

Physicist Christopher Keating wants you to convince him that 97 percent of scientists are wrong, and that man-made climate change isn't happening after all. Do so successfully -- using the scientific method to provide an indisputable argument (or, if you're not a scientist, by just copying and pasting someone else's indisputable argument) -- and you'll get the pleasure of proving a climate scientist wrong. Plus $10,000 of his money, just to sweeten the pot.

The challenge is tantalizingly simple, so much so that any denier should be able to do it -- provided they're as clever as they think. Keating, for one, is betting against them. It's time, he told Salon, for deniers to "put up or shut up."

The scientist, coincidentally enough, recently published a book on this very topic. "Undeniable: Dialogues on Global Warming" is another attempt to show how rejecting the overwhelming science of climate change is to reject science and logic along with it. The $10,000 Challenge, announced via his blog, aims to drive that point home by picking apart deniers' arguments for the world to see. (In a separate contest, he says he'll award $1,000 to anyone who can provide scientifically valid evidence refuting the theory of man-made climate change.)

Engaging with deniers isn't easy, and if the increasingly confrontational tone of Keating's blog posts is any indication, he's beginning to feel the strain. But when Salon called him up to discuss the challenge, he didn't sound nervous about losing. Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, is below.

I was wondering if first you could tell me a little more about your background as it pertains to climate science.

I first got involved with climate science as a student way back in the '80s. And I remember seeing some science articles, particularly from NASA scientists James Hansen, talking about man-made climate change. And truthfully, I was very skeptical at first. I didn’t believe it. It just seemed to me an incredible statement to go and say we could actually change the climate of the planet. So as I went through my education, I read more and more about it and became more and more involved with it. And as I saw more science, I realized it was in fact absolutely true. It left no doubt at all in my mind. And then I went into graduate school, and I worked with geophysics, space science and Earth-sun connection, things like that. So I saw more and more of this and so I started becoming more involved with it and I have read and studied on it and now I’m doing some research on some particular aspects. I’ve done some papers involved with climate change in the past and now I’m doing some research that is very much directed at the effects of climate change on what’s going on with the climate.

So you would say that you’ve seen for yourself proof that climate change is happening?

Oh, absolutely. I will state -- and I have stated, unequivocally -- that the amount of science is so overwhelming that anyone can prove that climate change is real, man-made climate change is real. You don’t even have to be a scientist anymore. There is so much data, so much evidence out there. Now, in the age of the Internet, the information age, all of the stuff is so readily available to anyone who would like to do the homework.

The very first comment you got in response to the challenge pointed out that you’re asking people to prove a negative. I was wondering what for you would constitute proof that climate change isn’t happening? How does your conception of proof differ from what deniers usually say?

This goes directly to the comments of deniers. Really what I’m doing is I’m telling deniers to put up or shut up. I’ve been involved in these debates and arguments and I’ve gotten to the point where I just don’t want ... People are free to believe in what they want. And I am not on a crusade to go and try and change everyone’s mind. But I believe everyone should have the ability to make a decision in an informed environment. Deniers -- not only are they denying climate change, they are denying people this opportunity to go and make that kind of decision. Because what they’re doing is putting out false information, deceptive information, even lies. Just outright lies. One of the things they keep saying is that there is no such thing as man-made climate change. And they keep saying that the science is overwhelming. And so, I said, “Fine. That’s what you say. Prove it.” You’ve made the claim, back it up.

A lot of the arguments I’ll see aren’t so much about whether or not climate change is happening but about whether it will be an unequivocal bad thing. People will say, sure, there might be some changes but that won’t necessarily be a disaster. They call people who make dire warnings about climate change "alarmists." Are you paying attention to that distinction at all?

Absolutely. And that’s another facet of this whole debate system that’s going on. And I’ve actually even thought about having another challenge, to go in and address that particular issue.

Climate change deniers aren’t all zebras. They come in a whole variety. Believe it or not, there are those who still believe that the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is not increasing. That’s really extreme. Then there are the ones that say there is no global warming, and actually there’s a whole lot of people who say that. Then there are the ones that say yes, we’re contributing, but we’re only a minor part. And so you see how this is: There’s a gradation, a variety of deniers. And there are the ones who say yes, there is climate change and yes, we are responsible, but it’s actually a good thing for us. And so this is a very bad thing as well, because if you’re going out here and telling people, “Hey, this is a good thing happening to us, we shouldn’t do anything about it,” then people are going to say we shouldn’t do anything about it when we really should be doing something about it.

All of this really boils down to that one issue: We need to go and start addressing this problem. And if the deniers are interfering or delaying dealing with the problem, then this is going to hurt people. In fact, the cost today is enormous. There is a study done by an independent group in Europe that said that the current cost today is over $1 trillion a year to the world economy, and that it’s killing up to 400,000 people every year. This isn’t something in the future -- this is what’s going on right now.

So far, from the two submissions that you’ve put up, you’ve been getting arguments that are very easy to shoot down: It's people who are cherry-picking the data and don’t seem very familiar with the science. Have you seen anything that is providing a bigger challenge, or do you anticipate anybody submitting something that might give you pause or that will take time to rebut?

No, not really. Like I said, I’ve been involved with this for a long time, and I have not seen a new argument in many, many years. So I’m very familiar with all the standard arguments. And they’re all as easy to shoot down as the ones you’ve already seen. And that’s the point I’m making: This is really easy. Anyone could do this, if you just do your homework.

Just to play the devil’s advocate, there was the Global Warming Challenge, run by climate denier Steve Milloy, that did this same sort of thing back in 2007, except he was challenging people to prove that climate change was happening. You said on your blog that you entered and didn’t win. How would you argue that your contest is different? And do you think that it will be able to change anyone’s minds?

I don’t really think it’s going change anyone’s mind, and in fact, my challenge is a direct result of that Steve Milloy JunkScience challenge. When I entered that challenge, I never, for even a moment, thought that he would pay up $500,000. The reason I entered it was so that he could not come back and say, "No one entered. No one provided any proof. See? Climate change is a fake. If it was real, someone could have said something." And so I said something. And the proof that I submitted was actually the basis for my book.

There are a number of differences between my challenge and his. The first one is he had an entry fee; I think it was $15 or something. I have no entry fee. Anyone can enter as long as they’re over 18, and they can enter as many times as they want. They can enter over and over and over, and there won’t be any charge. The other difference is, he came back and just said, "No one won." He never said why he turned them down. Everyone that submits anything in my challenge, I will not only put their full challenge up for everyone to see, but I will put up my line of reasoning of why it doesn’t succeed  -- or why it does succeed, if someone provides a successful proof.

You said you’re staying open-minded about that.

You know what? I would love if someone would prove that climate change is not real. I would love it. When I was a kid, the climate here in Texas was much more pleasant than it is now. We used to play outside all day in the summertime. Now it gets over 100 degrees very routinely. So, I would love it if I could think that we’re going to go back to that kind of climate.  I think that’s true of most climate scientists. Most climate scientists would love to find out that climate change is not real.

I agree that it would be a great thing for the world. But it would mean disproving a lot of hard work.

But, see, that’s the thing. Climate scientists are not in the business of proving man-made climate change. Climate scientists are in the business of learning about the climate. And we’re going to have climate whether there’s man-made climate change or not. And so the more we learn about it, the better we are. And that’s what climate scientists are doing. In fact, if you go and check on a lot of these climate scientists, they did not start out in the business of man-made climate change. They were working on something else, and it led into this. So, that’s one of the false arguments deniers make. Climate scientists are going to have a job whether there is man-made climate change or not, because there’s going to be climate, and that’s what they study.

So this is something I’ve wondered a lot: As has been made clear, the fossil fuel industry has a huge financial interest in spreading misinformation and confusion about climate change. And it seems like the people vying for your $10,000 probably aren’t those people with the really huge multimillion- or billion-dollar stakes in the debate. Do you think that the people responding to your challenge just want it not to be true? Do you think they have some kind of financial interest? Or do you think that they’re just victims of that misinformation? What do you think is driving that denial?

That’s a good question, and I actually talked to a lot of people about this. Why do people deny it so … enthusiastically, is really the right word. They’re just very enthusiastic about denying it. Some of it is definitely due to the political polarization that we have right now going on in the country. Barack Obama and Al Gore come out in favor of man-made climate change. And so people who absolutely hate Barack Obama and Al Gore are just going to hate climate change, because they are just not going to be seen agreeing with those two men on anything. So, there’s some of that. But some of it, I don’t understand. It goes back to the same business with the tobacco industry. I remember talking to people about the connection between smoking and lung disease, and there were people who would get so angry about it that they would almost get violent, insisting that there was no connection. And some of these people weren’t even smokers. And, you say, "Why are you so upset about this? We’re just talking about a current issue." And they would get red in the face. Whatever it was, they really bought into this, and they really, they owned that idea. And that’s what we see again. It’s the same thing going on again. Some of these people have bought into this denial of global warming, man-made global warming, and it has just become part of their persona. There’s absolutely nothing you can ever do or say to change their mind.

It must take a lot of patience to respond to them anyway.

I’m hoping what it will do is help some of these people who haven’t made up their minds. There’s a lot of people out there who don’t know which way to go, and they are open-minded. And if they want to decide that climate change is not real, that’s fine. As long as they go and look at the facts and they have an opportunity to do it in an informed manner. And this is part of what I’m trying to do is present the opportunity for them to make an informed manner. I do believe a majority of people who do that will decide that man-made global warming is a real thing and is a problem.

By Lindsay Abrams

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Climate Change Denialism Climate Science Climate Skeptics Global Warming