For over a decade I’ve readily accepted the science behind climate change, because it is good science. Global warming deniers such as Charles Krauthammer would have you believe that climate change science is far from ‘settled.’ As if the consensus of ninety-nine percent of climate scientists that the climate is warming, and that is anthropogenic means nothing. A similar consensus exists among physicists regarding gravity. Deniers like Krauthammer are not only wrong, they are dangerous. They are dangerous because they are spreading misinformation and a bastardized notion of science that confuses the general public, which in turn leads to our leaders making poor and destructive policy decisions based on their constituents’ confusion and ignorance. Even if the science wasn’t ‘settled,’ as Krauthammer would have you believe, considering the general direction in which all of the research is pointing, we should be extremely worried. Let’s take into consideration two stories that broke this week: a story from the Sydney Morning Herald regarding the toll that climate change will take on Australia’s ecosystems and economies, and an article published in Nature Climate Change which suggests that the Greenland ice sheet may melt much sooner than originally expected.
A story published this week in the Sydney Morning Herald reports that the forthcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) revised Fifth Assessment Report on climate change outlines a series of great threats that Australia will have to face in the coming decades. Some of the pending threats include decreased crop yields, further decay of the Great Barrier Reef, the potential displacement of millions of people as they flee the ever warming interior of the continent, greater risks of flooding (which will threaten Australia’s mining industry), and increased risks of destructive wildfires.
Also this week the journal Nature Climate Change published a report entitled “Sustained mass loss of northeast Greenland ice sheet triggered by regional warming,” in which the authors show that “that the northeast Greenland ice stream, which extends more than 600 km into the interior of the ice sheet, is now undergoing sustained dynamic thinning, linked to regional warming, after more than a quarter of a century of stability.” This is incredibly important, and scary, because as noted in an article published by the Weather Channel, “The stability of the region is particularly important because it has much deeper ties to the interior ice sheet than other glaciers on the island. If the entire ice sheet were to melt — which would take thousands of years in most climate change scenarios — sea levels would rise up to 23 feet, catastrophically altering coastlines around the world.” In other words, the northeastern section of the Greenland ice sheet acts as kind of a thumbtack holding the rest of Greenland’s ice sheet back from slipping into the ocean and melting. Rather than seeing a three foot sea level rise over the next century, as has been predicted by many climate models, we could see a twenty three foot rise in sea levels by the end of the century if the whole of the Greenland ice sheet were to melt. A three foot rise in sea level will be disastrous for coastal cities around the world. A twenty three foot rise would be catastrophic.
What these two stories have in common is that both show that previous models regarding climate change have been wrong, and not in the direction in which we would prefer. Rather than finding out that things will not be as bad as we thought we are consistently finding that things will be, and in some cases are, worse than what was initially predicted. Of course this is how science works. Scientific knowledge is in a constant state of flux. As we gather more data and develop more sophisticated instruments, techniques, and models we refine and clarify our understanding of the natural world. Unfortunately, as we refine climate science we are continually finding that it is worse than we thought.
What is important to note here is that the IPCC and the journal Nature Climate Change are not Greenpeace or the Sierra Club. Greenpeace and the Sierra Club are political environmental organizations that focus on policy and have a specific political agenda (which, in the interest of full disclosure, I happen to support). While their policy recommendations are informed by science they are primarily political organizations. The IPCC, on the other hand, is a non-partisan global scientific organization which operates under the auspices of the United Nations. It is composed of the best climate scientists from across the globe who come together every five years to draft a report that summarizes the global scientific consensus on climate change. At this point, that consensus is pretty damn consistent and solid.
The journal Nature Climate Change is a well established, independent, peer reviewed scientific journal which sets rigorous standards for publication. Krauthammer and fellow deniers want you to believe that the IPCC and Greenpeace are one and the same. This is dangerous, because this is how the public comes to be so confused.
One can disagree with Greenpeace on political grounds and still be in the right. Not so regarding the IPCC, because the IPCC is not a political organization. Politics are democratic, but science is not. When a majority of scientists come to the same conclusion, it must be accepted. There is no “other side” to be heard in most scientific issues. This is why most biologists refuse to debate creationists, because there is nothing to debate. Similarly, this is why pundits such as Krauthammer need to stop pretending that organizations like the IPCC and journals like Nature are akin to political organizations such as Greenpeace or the Sierra Club. People get the impression that the work that comes out of those august scientific organizations are just political opinions, not scientific fact.
Climate change deniers need us to believe that politics and science are the same thing. Herein lies the danger. They are not the same thing. These deniers let their politics inform their interpretation of science, and the public in turn does the same. What we need to be doing as citizens, and what our leaders need to be doing, is letting science inform our politics.
To do the former is to do a great disservice to the public, and to damage the scientific enterprise as a whole. This complete upending of science to support political ideologies endangers us all. This is what allows people like Charles Krauthammer to misinform and confuse the public about the real world, which leads to poor and disastrous policy decisions on the part of our leaders. In order to save our planet and our civilization we must learn to separate politics and science. We can do this by ignoring, and even ridiculing, those that deny science.
By Brian Lehrer