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Alternative Views on Climate Change

Author: Toni Johnson
Updated: February 23, 2010

Introduction

Many lawmakers, policymakers, and heads of major corporations worldwide have expressed a willingness to address climate change. They believe the scientific evidence is clear enough to warrant action. But some scientists, economists, industry groups, and policy experts continue to insist there is no need for policy changes. Others, conceding the trend, insist the entire problem has been blown out of proportion. The debate is at times acrimonious, with its seemingly endless series of claims and counterclaims on both the science and proposed policy solutions. They point to the uncertainty of climate models and predictions.

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Much of the debate with skeptics subsided as policymakers began working on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, beginning with the UN Bali conference in late 2007. But it resurfaced in 2009 with the "Climate-gate" controversy (WashPost) and gained steam in 2010 when doubts were raised about some findings of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Although alternative views of climate change often have been labeled denial--a few researchers say the world is cooling--most climate-change skeptics do concede the planet is warming. Instead, they debate the cause, its potential impact, and whether human intervention can affect it.

Mainstream View Versus Skeptics

Some environmental advocates and journalists accuse the most vocal climate skeptics of being "in the pocket" of the fossil-fuel industry (Guardian), the business sector most responsible for greenhouse-gas emissions. They portray the industry's counterarguments as a deliberate plot to obscure the truth. "Since the late 1980s, this well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks, and industry has created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change," writes Sharon Begley in a controversial Newsweek article, noting that industry's line of reasoning has shifted over the years from, "It's not happening," to, "Nothing can be done about it."

Crisis Guide: Climate ChangeEnvironmental advocates argue that this shift in rhetoric from industry advocates illustrates the disingenuousness of skeptics' motives for attempting to debunk climate change. Some compare this "disinformation campaign" to efforts by the tobacco industry to deny the harmfulness of smoking. Skeptics counter that some climate researchers receive funding from environmental interest groups and may be more partisan (FT) than they present themselves. "Skeptics don't doubt science--they doubt unscientific claims cloaked in the authority of science," L. Gordon Crovitz in the Wall Street Journal in February 2010.

The rhetoric from climate-change skeptics can be just as fiery as that of the environmental advocates. According to some skeptics, those who blame the warming of the planet on human activity are fear-mongering alarmists (Human Events). They believe environmentalists use the specter of catastrophic climate change to pursue an agenda of their own, one that places nature over the needs of people, forces the switch from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources, and tends toward "big-government intervention." They argue that science does not show conclusively that climate change warrants the policies being currently pursued. They also accuse the media of a lack of objectivity that inhibits free speech on the issue.

Some skeptics hold more nuanced positions. Myron Ebell, director of energy and global-warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, says "skeptics or anti-alarmists" are not a unified group. "Their opinions, arguments, and conclusions cover a wide range," Ebell says. "There isn't one 'skeptical position' that can always be referred to. The media should take their views seriously because they are made at considerable cost and risk."

Main Points of Disagreement

Confrontational rhetoric aside, most skeptics agree there has been a warming trend and that people have put more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Most of the debate on the issue can be broken into three questions:

  • Are people responsible for the warming trend?
  • What impact will more warming will have on the planet?
  • Can anything be done about it?

Beneath the debate on these issues are lingering questions about how much of the science has been resolved. Andrew Revkin, who has spent decades covering the environment for the New York Times, said in a 2007 interview with CFR.org that reporting on climate change seems to assert "that every aspect of it has no debate," but he notes "that is simply not the case." He believes there should be a differentiation in how to cover skeptics, depending on whether a story focuses on the policy aspects of climate change or the science. Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a U.S. environmental advocacy group, says skeptics are exploiting the uncertainty in science. "Scientists are exceedingly honest about what they don't know," Ekwurzel contends, noting that cherry-picking flaws with each research study or report makes it hard for the public to understand the bigger climate picture.

There isn't one "skeptical position" that can always be referred to. The media should take their views seriously because they are made at considerable cost and risk. -- Myron Ebell, director of energy and global-warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute

Flaws in the science came to the forefront in early 2010, with a series of disclosures that some findings by the IPCC may have included errors, such as projecting Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035. This controversy came on the heels of the 2009 "Climate-gate" story in which thousands of emails and documents from well-known climate researchers were hacked and posted online, and in some cases seemed to indicate efforts by a few scientists to withhold data sought for review. Both instances have provided new ammunition for skeptics. "At a minimum, the emails should give the public pause about blindly trusting the scientific community (PDF) to provide objective interpretations of facts and evidence on major public policy issues when the stakes are so large," Jeff Keuter, president of the George C. Marshall Institute, a Washington-based policy group aimed at debunking certain types of the scientific claims.

But climate scientists argue that despite these incidents, the science is basically sound. "Overall then, the IPCC assessment reports reflect the state of scientific knowledge very well," says RealClimate, a blog with contributing climate scientists, including Michael Mann, a researcher involved in the email controversy. "There have been a few isolated errors, and these have been acknowledged and corrected. What is seriously amiss is something else: The public perception of the IPCC, and of climate science in general, has been massively distorted by the recent media storm."

Blaming Human Activity

Numerous studies indicate that increasing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases generated by people since the beginning of the Industrial Age have accelerated global warming. Notable scientific organizations like the American Geophysical Union, an international scientific membership organization that reviews many scientific research papers, and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences concluded several years ago that the earth's temperatures are likely rising due to human activity, even accounting for the climate's natural variability. Members of the IPCC upgraded their 2001 conclusion in 2007 on human activity's impact on global warming from "likely" to "very likely."

In addressing arguments on the uncertainty of scientific findings, advocates of action on climate change point to scientific consensus on the issue. Naomi Oreskes, a science historian at the University of California and author of Merchants of Doubt, contends that more than 75 percent of the research papers between 1993 and 2003 explicitly or implicitly accepted the "consensus view" on climate change. "To be sure, a handful of scientists have raised questions about the details of climate models, about the accuracy of methods for evaluating past global temperatures and about the wisdom of even attempting to predict the future," she wrote in the Washington Post in 2007. "But this is quibbling about the details."

However, some skeptics have questioned (PDF) the accuracy of those findings. Skeptics say consensus on climate science is not as firm as environmentalists and the media portray it. They offer a number of possible reasons for warming trends in place of greenhouse gases, including natural variability (Daily Mail), an increased period of solar activity, the end of a "Little Ice Age," or possibly some yet-to-be-identified reason. They argue there is not enough evidence (PDF) to conclude that human-generated concentrations of carbon dioxide are responsible for current and projected climate conditions.

"No computer can accurately represent such a gigantic system as the Earth with all its unknown processes," writes Syun-Ichi Akasofu, former director of the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska, in a Wall Street Journal 2007 op-ed. "Therefore, no supercomputer, no matter how powerful, is able to prove definitively a simplistic hypothesis that says the greenhouse effect is responsible for warming." Other studies dispute both the Little Ice Age and solar activity claims.

Defining Harm

Researchers point to current events--such as rapidly melting polar ice caps and glaciers, declining mountain snow cover, reduced freshwater levels, an upswing in extreme weather events, and rising sea temperatures--as just some of what to expect from the consequences of climate change (PDF). Some experts also believe that global warming could result in struggles over natural resources and lead to massive migration, especially in the developing world.

However, skeptics like Danish environmental economist Bjorn Lomborg believe the catastrophic consequences of a warmer planet have been overemphasized. In Lomborg's book, Cool it: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming, he argues, "climate change is not an imminent planetary threat (NewsHour) that will bring down civilization," but instead one of many problems that will need to be dealt with this century and beyond. But environmentalist Bill McKibben, writing in the New York Review of Books, calls Lomborg's analysis "weak, a farrago of straw men and carefully selected, shopworn data that holds up poorly in light of the most recent research, both scientific and economic."

Scientists are exceedingly honest about what they don't know. -- Brenda Ekwurzel, climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists

Some skeptics also disagree that warming will lead to more deaths and water scarcity, and instead argue that warming will improve mortality rates because of less cold weather and higher agricultural yields. But the 2007 IPCC report contends that negative health effects from climate change will greatly outweigh these benefits.

Halting Climate Change

International efforts on climate change have focused on the mitigation of greenhouse-gas emissions and the use of carbon sinks to help remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Many climate advocates say there is a certain amount of damage that has been done that will result in inevitable climatic consequences. However, they argue efforts to reduce emissions could make the difference between manageable problems and catastrophe. "Because we waited so long to act, we will have to find ways to help vulnerable communities and countries adapt to the impacts of climates that are already here and the more that will come before we are able to stabilize emissions," notes Angela Ledford Anderson, former vice president of the climate program for the National Environmental Trust.

Some skeptics assert that changing the environment back is not economically feasible. "Natural climate change is a hazard that--like other similar natural hazards--should be dealt with by adaptation," Robert M. Carter, a climate researcher at James Cook University, Townsville, Australia, told a U.S. Senate panel in early 2007. "Attempting to mitigate human-caused climate change is an expensive exercise in futility" (PDF). Skeptics assert that attempts to address climate change, such as caps on greenhouse-gas emissions, could cause more economic harm than their environmental good.

IPCC climate models suggest that in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change, greenhouse-gas emissions need to be held in check to prevent more than a two-degree Celsius increase in global temperatures over this century. But skeptics say there is great uncertainty on the issue of how much greenhouse gases play in climate change, calling into question the need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions at all.

Policymaking and Uncertainty

Policymakers and business leaders are moving ahead on addressing global warming despite skeptics' cautionary warnings. Even with agreement on the need to move forward, there are still numerous areas of disagreement on how to approach climate change. Such questions include how best to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, voluntary versus mandatory emissions controls, and whether developing nations have the same responsibilities for addressing emissions as developed nations.

Still, the new doubts raised about the trustworthiness of climate scientists have emboldened policymakers who are opposed (WashPost) to international and domestic climate change policy.

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