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Who doubts global warming?

How much worse will it have to get before climate change doubters yield to reason?

This week, Israel faces a geshempocalypse, as comedian Benji Lovitt has called it. The storm is causing hundreds of millions of shekels in damage across the country. Meanwhile, in the United States, the National Climatic Data Center just announced that 2012 was the hottest year in US history, beating the previous record in 1998 by a full degree Fahrenheit, an unheard-of margin.

The climates of Israel and the US represent just 0.005 and 2 percent of the globe. But this seems like as good a time as ever to reflect on the reality of man-made global warming.

For most scientists, the evidence is overwhelming. They see it in the data, the models, and the massive climate shifts happening before our eyes. Every authority on climate, including NASA, NOAA, AMS, NAS, AGU, ACS, and APS, warns unequivocally of a grave threat to our welfare.

Global annual average temperature over both land and oceans. Red bars indicate temperatures above, and blue bars below, the average temperature for the period 1901–2000. The black line shows atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration in parts per million. (Credit: public domain, USGCRP / NOAA)

Most Americans understand this reality. A recent AP-GfK poll found that 80 percent of Americans agree that global warming “will be a serious problem” if nothing is done about it.

But right now, America’s political system would indeed have nothing done about it.

The Republican Party has entrenched itself in dismissal of global warming. In its most recent presidential primary, nearly all candidates either called the science a lie (Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum) or backtracked from their past recognition of the science (Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney). In the Senate, the top Republican for the last ten years on the Committee on Environment and Public Works, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, has long called global warming “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” including in the title of his 2012 book. In the House, current Speaker John Boehner has called the science “comical.” At the state level, climate science is unmentionable in Virginia, censored in Texas, and outlawed (outlawed!) in North Carolina.

If so many Americans understand that global warming is serious, why does one of our two major political parties so thoroughly dismiss it?

Here are three possible causes I’ve found for this tragedy.

Well-organized opposition

Follow the money, as they say, and the money promoting doubt in climate science often traces back to the fossil fuel industry.

The world’s top oil companies, led by ExxonMobil, are the most profitable enterprises in history. They don’t exactly like seeing their product get demonized. So over the decades they’ve funneled millions upon millions of dollars into libertarian think tanks and advocacy groups that attack climate science. The success of these groups was featured last October by Frontline in the documentary Climate of Doubt.

Meanwhile, ExxonMobil has also invested billions of dollars in plans for drilling in newly opened Arctic seas, thanks to global warming that’s melted the ice.

Polarized politics

Over the last few decades, the Republican Party has shifted far to the right. DW-NOMINATE scores show that the 112th Congress was the most polarized “since the end of Reconstruction.” Cartoonist Randall Munroe has a great illustration of the data.

This polarization has pressured Republicans to reject climate science. If you accept the science, well, you must be either a pinhead or a RINO.

A case in point is Representative Bob Inglis of South Carolina. The six-term incumbent lost his 2010 primary by 42 points, mainly because he said that something should be done about global warming. I wish him luck with his new organization, the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, which seeks conservative answers to climate change.

Media coverage

The US media are biased toward balance. When one side of a controversy is much more justified than the other, this bias can lead to false equivalence.

Supporters of Israel are too familiar with false equivalence. When Hamas intentionally targets civilians, and then the IDF carefully targets terrorists, the US media don’t want to appear biased toward one side. So they blame both sides equally for escalating the violence.

A 2004 study by political scientists Maxwell and Jules Boykoff found such a false equivalence in US news coverage of global warming. Half of major newspaper stories between 1988 and 2002, including from such liberal outlets as The New York Times and The Washington Post, gave equal standing to climate science and its doubters.

In the conservative news media, there isn’t even equivalence. A 2012 analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists claimed that 93 percent of climate science representations on Fox News Channel and 81 percent in The Wall Street Journal’s opinion section were “misleading.” Both outlets also “framed acceptance of climate science in ideological rather than fact-based terms.”

How much longer?

The good news, if we can call it that, is that the alternate reality of the doubters will only become harder to sustain.

NASA has measured the Earth’s energy imbalance at about +0.6 W/m² during 2005–2010, meaning that each year our climate is gaining roughly 10²² joules of energy, or something like 150 million Hiroshima bomb blasts. Unprecedented droughts, heat waves, wildfires, and floods are already hitting us hard.

Science is giving us a chance to mitigate the cause and prepare for further impacts.

The question is how much worse it will get before the doubt finally gives way to action.

Update, January 12 — I am honored that a number of people commented here to express their doubts about climate science. I am happy to address these doubts. If you have any questions yourself, I encourage you to ask them below or email me at rafi.miller@mail.yu.edu.

But I must be emphatically clear that the reality of man-made global warming is not debatable. If the media presents “two sides,” this is because the reality has unequivocal science supporting it and a corrupt mix of ideology and corporate interests opposing it.

If that sounds silly to you, please let me know—but I hope, considering our “planetary emergency,” that you give the science its fair hearing sooner rather than later.

Update, January 13 — Thanks for all the productive comments discussing the incontrovertibility of global warming. The comments that are less productive have earned a new blog post in reply.

Update, January 15 —The most common question I’ve been getting, whether from people who accept the science or from those who suspect a political agenda, is “Nu, so what do we do about it?” Well, thanks for inspiring my next post, “What to do about global warming?

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