Eventually, even the most committed ideologues are forced to face the facts.
By Adrian Duyzer
Published March 19, 2007
As support for action on climate change continues to grow, some influential people are carefully cultivating what they call "climate change skepticism" in order to make meaningful progress on the environment politically impossible.
These climate change "deniers", as an impatient public in the mood for change has started calling them, fall into three categories: those that maintain climate change is not happening, those that say it is not our fault, and those that say there's nothing we can do about it.
Actually, these are not really categories. They're more like stages that fit neatly into the "denial, anger, acceptance" model.
The National Post's Lorne Gunter was in the first stage a mere five years ago. In 2002 he wrote Five things every Canadian should know about Kyoto, starting with "The Earth isn't warming".
Then he hedged his bets by following up with number two ("If the Earth is warming, it is not necessarily a bad thing") and three ("Even if warming is real, there's a good chance humans are not the cause").
Mr. Gunter clearly knows his own mind, because his article of 2002 neatly predicted where he would stand now, in 2007: global warming is real. But it's not our fault.
Lorne Gunter's 'Bright sun, warm Earth. Coincidence?' article from March 12, published in the National Post, is a prime example of shoddily researched agenda-pushing in the guise of journalism.
He starts by saying that Mars, Jupiter, Neptune's moon Triton and Pluto are all warming, even though he hasn't left his "SUV idling on any of those planets or moons."
Is there something all these heavenly bodies have in common? Some one thing they all share that could be causing them to warm in unison?
Hmmm, is there some giant, self-luminous ball of burning gas with a mass more than 300,000 times that of Earth and a core temperature of more than 20-million degrees Celsius, that for the past century or more has been unusually active and powerful? Is there something like that around which they all revolve that could be causing this multi-globe warming? Naw!
In a shaky appeal to common sense - that part of the brain that says the earth is flat - Mr. Gunter asks a series of rhetorical questions about which times of day and months of the year are warmest.
The sunny ones, of course, and this is enough evidence for Mr. Gunter to decide that climate change is a fraud perpetrated by overheated climatologists and an even more overheated sun.
I could respond with another series of rhetorical questions involving, say, the temperatures inside and outside of greenhouses, or the amount one sweats when wearing jeans on the beach versus wearing a thong, but the atmosphere is not beach wear and you are not a moron. So let's quickly examine the facts instead.
It would take too long to examine all of the planetary bodies that Mr. Gunter refers to, so I'll pick two at random: one that you may know a fair bit about, Mars, and one which no one knows much about at all, Triton, the largest moon of Neptune.
His claim about Triton's warming seem to be based on a study published in Nature in 1998. The study found that Triton had warmed from around -236 degrees Celsius to a balmy -234 degrees Celsius in the nine years since the Voyager space probe had visited it in 1989.
Why? The likely explanation according to the report's lead researcher is because Triton "is approaching an extreme southern summer, a season that occurs every few hundred years."
If a summer that occurs every few hundred years seems remarkable, consider that Neptune takes 165 years to orbit the sun. Triton was discovered in 1846, which means we have not yet observed the behaviour of the moon over a full orbit of the planet it circles.
Is it wise to reject climate change on Earth because of the climactic variations of a mysterious moon of another planet? Is it ethical to tell the public that Triton has "heated up" without informing us of the likely reason for the warming according to a leading researcher on the subject?
Lawrence Solomon, who also writes for the National Post, agrees with Mr. Gunter that an increase in solar activity is to blame for global warming. "Global warming extends to Mars," he wrote in early February 2007, "where the polar ice cap is shrinking, where deep gullies in the landscape are now laid bare, and where the climate is the warmest it has been in decades or centuries."
The climate of Mars was first measured by the Viking space probes launched by NASA in 1975, which means that Mr. Solomon, like the rest of us, has no hard evidence as to what the Martian climate was like in past centuries.
He must instead rely on what current observations tell us about the Martian past, and what observed trends and well-understood mechanisms like planetary orbits tell us about the likely Martian future.
That is, he must rely on scientists. What do scientists say about melting Martian ice caps?
Global warming on Mars?, an article by Steinn Sigurosson of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Pennsylvania State University, explains the Martian "'great' summers and winters" which occur "on time scales of tens of thousands of years" as a result of Mars' eccentric orbit. (The following is slightly edited to remove hyperlinks):
Recently, there have been some suggestions that "global warming" has been observed on Mars. These are based on observations of regional change around the South Polar Cap, but seem to have been extended into a "global" change, and used by some to infer an external common mechanism for global warming on Earth and Mars. But this is incorrect reasoning and based on faulty understanding of the data.
There is a slight irony in people rushing to claim that the glacier changes on Mars are a sure sign of global warming, while not being swayed by the much more persuasive analogous phenomena here on Earth.
Mr. Gunter then turns to a favourite card in the climate change denier hand, the argument from authority:
Habibullah Abdussamatov of the Pulkovo Astronomical Observatory in St. Petersburg, Sami Solanki of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany, Sallie Baliunas and Willie Soon of the Solar and Stellar Physics Division of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and a host of the rest of the world's leading solar scientists are all convinced that the warming of recent years is not unusual and that nearly all the warming in the past 150 years can be attributed to the sun.
The inclusion of Pulkovo Observatory's Abdussamatov, who plays a central role in Mr. Solomon's article (climate change deniers with credentials are a rare breed) seems honest enough, but the use of Sami Khan Solanki is particularly instructive when it comes to the tactics of climate change denial.
Dr. Solanki is probably in Mr. Gunter's article for saying in 2004 that "the impact of more intense sunshine on the ozone layer and on cloud cover could be affecting the climate more than the sunlight itself."
How Strongly Does the Sun Influence the Global Climate?, a report released by the Max Planck Society and which is based in part on Dr. Solanki's work, also says, "Since the middle of the last century, the Sun is in a phase of unusually high activity, as indicated by frequent occurrences of sunspots, gas eruptions, and radiation storms."
This sounds a lot like Mr. Gunter. But the report's conclusion features a quote from a prominent scientist: "according to our latest knowledge on the variations of the solar magnetic field, the significant increase in the Earth's temperature since 1980 is indeed to be ascribed to the greenhouse effect caused by carbon dioxide."
The prominent scientist quoted is Dr. Solanki.
As if misrepresenting Dr. Solanki weren't enough, Mr. Gunter then resorts to weasel words by saying that in addition to the scientists he says share his views, "a host of the rest of the world's leading solar scientists" say that "nearly all the warming in the past 150 years can be attributed to the sun."
A host is defined as "a multitude or great number", "an army". Sounds like plenty. But on Wikipedia's list of scientists opposing the mainstream scientific assessment of global warming that have "a record of scholarship in the broad area of natural sciences," only sixteen scientists are listed that blame natural causes more than human activity for rising temperatures. Many of these sixteen blame volcanoes, water vapour, and ocean currents instead of or in addition to solar activity for the temperature increase.
So what about the basic claim of Mr. Gunter's article and the others like it, which is that a brighter sun is responsible for a warmer Earth?
It's true that the sun is in a period of increased activity. Some researchers believe the level is the highest it's been in 8000 years, but others have demonstrated (PDF) that "the radiocarbon record reveals several periods during past centuries in which the strength of the magnetic field in the solar wind was similar to, or even higher than, that of today."
Regardless, this increased activity is responsible for a portion of global warming. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report accounts for this portion, calculating that human activity is a warming force of about 1.6 watts per square meter, while increased solar activity is responsible for a warming force of about 0.12 watts per square meter.
In non-technical terms, this means that human activity has more than ten times the impact on Earth's climate than the increased activity of the sun.
But these are facts - cold, hard, unreassuring facts that sink to the bottom of the National Post under the weight of advertiser pressure and ideological certainty, finally dropping off the margins altogether.
Eventually, though, even the most committed ideologues are forced to face the facts. That's when the third stage of climate change denial commences, the part where it is too late to do anything about it so we might as well stop trying.
Let's not let things get that far.
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