Confronting the Climate Cranks | The Nation


Confronting the Climate Cranks

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Precisely how much blame the carbon lobby and climate cranks deserve for the fate of Generation Hot cannot yet be scientifically determined. In theory, it's possible that global warming would have prematurely given rise to outright climate change even if the United States and other countries had scaled back their emissions beginning in the late 1980s. After all, it is the historic accumulation of greenhouse gases, not the annual emissions, that drives global warming. Scientists are still debating exactly when global warming sparked climate change, as well as the related question of how much responsibility global warming bears for any particular climate impact. (In their Nature study of the 2003 heat wave, for example, the three British scientists estimated that global warming was responsible for about 75 percent of the excessive heat Europe experienced that summer.)

About the Author

Mark Hertsgaard
Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation’s environment correspondent, is an independent journalist and the author of six books...

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But these are scientific nuances. As a practical matter, there is no denying that the large amount of greenhouse gases emitted since June 23, 1988—about 40 percent of humanity's total emissions since the Industrial Revolution—made global warming worse. That, in turn, increased the likelihood of unleashing climate change. Viewed in this context, the obstructionism of the carbon lobby and climate cranks played a decisive role.

Throughout the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century, the climate cranks blocked our government from taking serious action against emissions. By doing so, they also stalled international action (since other countries were understandably reluctant to reduce their emissions when the world's biggest polluter was unwilling to do so). Thus limits on global warming were avoided at the very time they would have mattered most. "Had some individual countries, especially the US, begun to act in the early to mid-1990s, we might have [avoided dangerous climate change]," Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences at Princeton who ranks among the world's most eminent climate scientists, told me. "But we didn't, and now the impacts are here."

"This was a crime," Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Germany's former chief government adviser on climate told me. But the wrong people are being punished. My daughter and the rest of Generation Hot have been given a life sentence for a crime they didn't commit. Meanwhile, the perpetrators are reaping record profits, enjoying prominent media coverage (and not only on Fox) and even gaining control of the House of Representatives, where they plan to launch an inquisition against climate scientists who don't share their loony ideas.

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It is outrageous that these climate cranks have the upper hand in Washington. The plain truth is that they have no more scientific credibility than the Flat Earth Society, and that should discredit them from exercising any influence over our climate policy, much less holding it hostage to their ideological and economic agendas. But someone has to stand up and point out that the emperor has no clothes.

Don't rely on our media to rise to the occasion. The protocol of mainstream news coverage leads Washington journalists to refer to these people as climate skeptics. They're not skeptics. They're cranks. True skepticism is invaluable to the scientific method, but an honest skeptic can be persuaded by facts, if they are sound. The cranks are impervious to facts, at least facts that contradict their wacky worldview. When virtually every national science academy in the developed world, including our own, and every major scientific organization (e.g., the American Geophysical Union, the American Physics Society) has affirmed that climate change is real and extremely dangerous, only a crank continues to insist that it's all a left-wing plot.

One crank recently took me to task for supposedly having no respect for science. In my reply, I assured him I respected science as much as anyone who lives in the modern world, where we take for granted air travel, Wi-Fi Internet, modern medicine and a host of other blessings. Then I asked, "If you respect science so much, how do you explain the fact that virtually every major scientific body on earth disagrees with you about climate science? Are they all in on the conspiracy?" He never replied, but of course that is the logical implication of his camp's insistence that they do too have science on their side. The scientists who say otherwise are all part of a conspiracy to—well, take your pick: to keep the research dollars flowing, to expand government control of the economy, to dismantle modern society and return us to hunter-gatherer primitivism. As I said, these are the ravings of cranks.

You can hear much the same from Congressional Republicans, starting with Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the vice chair of the House Science Committee, who will be leading the charge to debunk mainstream climate science. "I personally believe that the solar flares are more responsible for climatic cycles than anything human beings do," Sensenbrenner has opined, repeating a talking point favored by many climate cranks but definitively refuted by many peer-reviewed scientific studies. For his part, the new Speaker of the House, John Boehner, is so scientifically illiterate that he apparently thinks the environmental complaint about carbon dioxide is that it's a carcinogen. Uh, no, Mr. Speaker, that's actually the rap against those cigarettes you like smoking (and whose manufacturers you've defended all these years).

Newly emboldened by the midterm elections, the Republicans are gearing up to put environmentalists and climate scientists on the defensive and block progress against global warming for the rest of Obama's presidency. It's time to turn the tables on them. The first step is to connect the cranks to the terrible consequences they have set in motion, and thereby discredit them from further influence over the nation's climate policies.

How? Our initiative, Confront the Climate Cranks, will do just that: confront the cranks on camera and accompanied by some of the children they have put in danger. We will video all of our confrontations and then quickly make them available to the public—by posting them on YouTube and sharing them with mainstream and alternative media and the social networks of our partner organizations. (In the run-up to these confrontations, we will invite the participation of the members or readers of The Nation, Grist, Kids vs Global Warming and the other partnering organizations, polling them on which cranks to target, what questions to ask and so on. Thus we hope to build momentum before arriving in Washington, as well as generate continuing attention and activism after the confrontations.)

By no means is our initiative alone sufficient to turn the tide in the climate fight, but we believe it can make a valuable contribution, especially if others lend a hand. By naming and shaming the climate cranks, we hope to shift the political terrain of the climate fight. By highlighting the specific climate impacts that have already begun and will intensify in the coming years, we aim to shift the debate away from abstract ideology toward the actual consequences the cranks have wrought for Generation Hot. And by conveying our message through children and parents, we can reach the ordinary Americans whose support is essential to overcoming the power of money and insider status in Washington. We hope you'll join us.

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