The odd response to global warming warnings

The recent release of the latest IPCC report on global warming gives a comprehensive review of the current state of knowledge and represent an overwhelming scientific consensus on the nature of the problem confronting us.

The report’s conclusions paint a gloomy picture:

The report states in unequivocal terms that the climate is warming globally and that since the middle of the 20th century, human industrial activity – the burning of fossil fuels and, to a lesser extent, land-use changes – is warming’s main driver. Since the last report in 2001, confidence in that statement has risen from “likely” (greater than a 66 percent chance) to “very likely” (greater than 90 percent).

• Temperatures are “likely” to rise 2 degrees to 4.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, if CO2 concentrations reach twice their preindustrial level. Within that range, the most likely result is 3 degrees C (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit). That additional warmth will distribute itself unevenly, with the highest increases in the Arctic and progressively smaller increases farther south.

• Sea levels could rise by century’s end from 28 to 58 centimeters (11 to 23 inches) above 1999 levels globally. That’s a narrower range than the IPCC offered in 2001, when it projected a range of 9 to 88 centimeters. Even if CO2 concentrations could be stabilized at twice preindustrial levels by 2100, thermal expansion of the oceans alone could raise sea levels an additional 1 to 3 feet by 2300. But recent research also suggests that the Greenland ice sheet is losing mass faster than expected, leaving open the possibility that sea-level increases will be higher if the melting trend continues to accelerate. If Greenland’s ice cap continues to lose mass over the next 1,000 years, the entire ice cap would vanish, raising sea levels by some 23 feet.

What is interesting is the response of the global warming deniers. The Guardian newspaper reports that the so-called ‘think tank’ the American Enterprise Institute is actually trying to bribe scientists to dispute the report. Funded with $1.6 million from Exxon-Mobil, the AEI is offering scientists $10,000 each “for articles that emphasise the shortcomings of a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).” They are also willing to pay for travel and other perks. (Stephen Colbert comments on the bribes.)

Ben Stewart of Greenpeace is quoted as saying: “The AEI is more than just a thinktank, it functions as the Bush administration’s intellectual Cosa Nostra. They are White House surrogates in the last throes of their campaign of climate change denial. They lost on the science; they lost on the moral case for action. All they’ve got left is a suitcase full of cash.”

That sounds like an accurate description to me.

The Guardian report also says that an Exxon-funded organization in Canada will launch a review that will challenge the IPCC report. One of the people involved is Nigel Bellamy. Some of you may recall an earlier posting of mine that discussed how his sloppy work was exposed by George Monbiot.

There is one thing about the global warming debate that puzzled me and that is the vehemence of the opposition by some ordinary people to the idea. I can understand why the big emissions-producing industries and their allies in the Bush administration are fighting the idea that global warming is occurring. They do not want to take any action that might cut into their profits.

But why are some ordinary people so emphatically opposed to this finding of the scientific community? It is not like evolution or stem-cell research where science is treading on religious toes. As far as I can tell, there are no Biblical issues here, no eleventh commandment to the flock to, yeah verily, go out and emit CO2 in abundance until the glaciers melteth into the seas.

I am not talking about people who are simply skeptical about the scientific case being made that global warming is a real threat and that it is largely caused by human activity. That kind of skepticism is understandable but does not usually create the level of passion that is characteristic of the global warming deniers.

On global warming you find what seems to be ordinary people going out of their way to ridicule the emerging scientific consensus. This is surprising because most ordinary people do not go to great lengths to ridicule those areas in which there is scientific consensus. You do not find passionate opposition to, say, scientific community suggestions on reducing transfats or warning about the dangers of smoking.

It is almost as if the members of the public who are skeptics think that the scientific community is trying to pull a fast one on them. But why would they think this? There is no advantage to scientists in global warming. Scientists get no benefit from warning about the danger. At most they can be accused of being over-cautious.

So why this unusual level of hostility to the idea that global warming might be real? Is this coming from people who are angry with scientists about other things that do offend their religious sensibilities and are now out to attack anything that scientists say that might affect their lives? Or are these people part of an “astroturf” (i.e. fake grass roots) movement funded by the oil industry and polluting companies? Or are these people who, for ideological reasons, will side with Bush and big corporations come what may, whatever the issue? Or is there some other reason that I am missing?

These are not rhetorical questions. I am genuinely puzzled as to why this is so. Any suggestions?

POST SCRIPT: Talk by Israeli academic and peace activist

Jeff Halper, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Ben Gurion University and an Israeli peace activist, will be talking today at Case. The talk is free and open to the public.

When: 4:30pm, Monday, February 19, 2007
Where: Clark 309

I have written before about Professor Halper’s last visit to Case in May 2005 and how his talk was a revelation to me about what was happening in the occupied territories.

The flyer for his visit this time says:

Dr. Jeff Halper, the Coordinating Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions was a 2006 nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. He is an Israeli-American peace activist, professor of anthropology, distinguished author and internationally acclaimed speaker. The 3rd edition of his popular book, “Obstacles to Peace: A Reframing of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict” was released in 2005. Halper has forged a new mode of Israeli peace activity based on nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience to the Israeli Occupation. Through its resistance to the demolition of Palestinian homes and other manifestations of the Occupation, including the rebuilding of demolished homes as acts of political solidarity, ICAHD has developed a relationship of trust and close cooperation with Palestinian organizations. Believing that civil society and governmental forces must be mobilized if a just peace is to emerge in Israel/Palestine, Jeff also directs ICAHD’s extensive program of international advocacy. His popular book Obstacles to Peace is to be followed by a forthcoming work: An Israeli in Palestine: Reframing the Israel-Palestine Conflict (Pluto Press).


  1. says

    Yes, I saw that and was amazed. I know that most people do not get the distinction between weather and climate but I would have thought that the weather people would have known the difference.

  2. Dean says

    I wonder about these Cleveland ‘weather wizards’ credentials though. As far as I can tell, these are all ‘on air meterologists’, many of whom (if not most) actually have little qualification in weather forecasting, let alone climate science.

  3. says

    I couldn’t agree with you more about the puzzling nature of ordinary folks being so anti-global warming. Here is my perspective since my father is a “non-believer”, they are afraid of one of two things or both: they don’t want to accept that the public might have to change their consumer nazi ways and go “granola”, or/and they fear that EVENTUALLY the government will use global warming as an exuse to control people in ever increasing ways such as restricting travel. Just my take on it.

  4. Erin says

    I think the passion of people’s denial comes down to cognitive dissonance. People don’t like it when their beliefs contradict each other; they also don’t like changing their minds; so some of those who sided with the anti-warming folk back when there was less of a consensus will be resistant to information that forces them to reconsider.

    I don’t know what you mean about nobody passionately opposing the messages about the dangers of smoking — I had thought I’d seen some of this myself, though I can’t cite particular examples. There’s an even clearer case of cognitive dissonance, because those with an addiction have something to lose emotionally beyond pride if the experts turn out to be right. So it would be really surprising if nobody ever got their panties in a bunch about it. On the other hand, the link’s been known for most of my lifetime, so the population of people who could still be clinging to what was earlier a more rational belief is dying off.

  5. Shruti says

    It may have something to do with who people choose to believe… some of them probably find the FUD-spreading people more trustworthy than the Godless scientists.

  6. Ed Nuhfer says

    As a geoscientist who has been involved in some apleoclimate research, I believe two things are at work in causing denial. One is surely fear. There is no doubt that this will affect our children; it is already affecting us. We don’t like bad news of global proportions, so denial with a bit of vacuous humor is just a defense.

    The second is the duplicity of both our major political parties who address global warming in a way that indicates either that (a) there is no problem (“conservatives”) or (b) government can prevent global climate change through legislation (“liberals”). Both deny that major Earth changes occur naturally and quickly--they deny that we live on a changing planet, not a static one in which things can be expected to remain in their familiar state. They offer the myth that changes will not occur if only we would ban SUVs and drive electric bicycles.

    Just 4000 years ago, Minnesota was dry prairie. The climate turned into forest abruptly over a few decades. No Hummers were involved. Suppose such change occurred today. What would consequences be for a world population that depends on the agricultural produce from the Midwest that goes back into dry prairie and sagebrush?

    Both political parties want exponential growth of population (immigration control? Wink wink!). Retirements, social security, savings acounts, ridiculous government spending, moguls’ stock market investments, and those of “liberals,” (including yours truly, who own TIAA-CREF) expect exponential growth to fuel investments and spending just as do the moguls.

    Take expontential growth to the carrying capacity of the planet, and you have billions of people in a world of hurt when a climate change that we CANNOT prevent occurs. Global warming is just a small part of the larger problem of sustaining a civilization on a planet whose natural state is rapid climatic change. Denial of the larger problem is not just an attribute of conservative think tanks. My puzzlement is “Why are so many who are fixated on global warming in denial that there even IS a larger problem?

  7. Wanderer says

    There is one thing about the [prayer in the schools] debate that puzzled me and that is the vehemence of the opposition by some ordinary people to the idea. I can understand why the [atheists] and their allies [on the left]are fighting the idea that [good] is occurring. They do not want to take any action that might [attack their firmly held beliefs.]

    But why are some ordinary people so emphatically opposed to this [belief by the God fearing community?]It is not like [intelligent design] where [religion]is treading on [scientific] toes. As far as I can tell, there are no [scientific method]issues here, no [principle] to the flock to, yeah verily, go out and [stop those praying in the classroom and hand out free condoms to the newly awakened minds.]

  8. says


    Your counter-example makes my point. People do get vehement about principles.

    When it comes to prayer in schools, this involves the principle, based on the constitution, that the state be neutral in matters of religion.

    But what principle is involved in global warming?

  9. says

    I think Wanderer is falling for the all-too-common fallacy that science and atheism are themselves religions, so any parallel drawn between them and a religious issue is automatically valid.

  10. says

    Why do “ordinary people” oppose global warming findings? Good question. But let’s put that in perspective first. In the last twelve months global warming has become a major issue that is reported daily, in its various forms. Internet searches on global warming have exploded on this topic in this time. Clearly there is a large groundswell of concern and many want to do something about this issue. These people search for products and services that will assist OR throw up their hands at an issue they see is out of their control and just overwhelming. That last group will include those that rail at the science, wanting this whole thing not to be true. This attitude may be related to the Kubler-Ross anger and denial stages in dying people. After all, the global warming effects are potentially pretty serious for (to our human) life on Spaceship Earth. Not that we should accept all of the evidence for global warming all of the time in all aspects -- there are no doubt multiple factors at play, and science is about disproving the last theory. On the whole the picture is clear: human behaviour is a major culprit, and we’d better get our act together to live as interdependent people, rather than independent individuals consuming to our credit card’s content. This brings us to the first group: those who want to consume their way out of climate change. Same old behaviour that got us here in the first place. It has a role but not without a change of thinking about human interrelationship and our relationship to the world that sustains us. Unfortunately it is also human behaviour to change only when we’re with our backs against the wall. It that now?

  11. says

    “So why this unusual level of hostility to the idea that global warming might be real?”
    People like to deny all catastrophic events that may affect them and their children regardless how inevitable they be. Much like their own mortality.

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