Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Beginning of the End for Climate Denial

Climate denial is dead. Okay, that may be somewhat wishful thinking, but it's clear that the organized denial of climate science has peaked and will continue to fall away. Historians at some point in the future looking to identify when this threshold for change was reached might very well point to this past week.

The Science

To begin with, the science of climate is unequivocal. That means, undeniable. For more than 100 years scientists from all over the world and from every type of scientific organization imaginable, and working in countries with every type of government and economic structure extant, have produced more than 100,000 peer-reviewed scientific research papers published in journals. To this add in dozens, and even hundreds, of review reports that summarize the state-of-the-science. All of these empirical data and studies point unequivocally, undeniably, clearly to the conclusion that human activity is warming the climate system. And that warming has significant consequences to human health, economics, and national security, in addition to the obvious problems of changing climate, sea level rise, and human migration.


Which gets us to one of the many reasons why climate denial is dead. Even the fossil fuel companies admit that fossil fuel combustion is causing the climate to warm. A report was released this past week documenting through internal Exxon records that Exxon, the biggest and mightiest of the fossil fuel companies, knew their operations were causing the climate to warm, and they knew this as far back as the 1970s. Exxon's own scientists, working on projects started by Exxon itself, were able to determine that fossil fuel burning was causing man-made climate change. Exxon management then ignored their own scientists' warnings, shut down the research project, and instead directed millions of dollars over the next several decades to denying their own scientists' research.

I'll have more on that later, but obviously this impacts the credibility of fossil fuel funded denial of the science. Everyone already knew that Exxon was deceiving the public, of course, but this report documents how Exxon's own records show how they did it (see "tobacco lobbyists deny smoking causes cancer technique").

World Leaders Move Forward

This week also brought a huge public outpouring of political support for action to address man-made climate change. President Obama has for some time now been making executive decisions to reduce carbon emissions, largely because Republicans in Congress have refused to even acknowledge the science. Pope Francis, religious leader for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, was also in Washington, D.C., where he gave speeches at the White House and to a joint session of Congress in which he espoused a moral obligation to deal with climate change. Other world religious leaders (Judaism, Islam, and others) have also issued statements supporting the moral obligation to deal with the impacts of climate change.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is also coming to D.C.; Xi has been openly working with Obama on preparations for the upcoming international climate talks in Paris in which most of the world's nations are expected to agree on significant carbon reduction actions. Even Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of State and current Democratic candidate for president, said she is against the Keystone XL pipeline, a major potential source of carbon emissions. The other major Democratic candidate for president, Bernie Sanders, also noted he is in agreement with the Pope's (and Presidents Obama's and Xi's) climate message.

Meanwhile, Republican reaction has been to attack the Pope and tell foreign governments they don't support action. (See, "fossil fuel campaign contributions to members of Congress")

But even here there is some movement. In the recent debate there was one question (yes, only one) about climate change, and only three candidates answered it. While they still didn't openly acknowledge the science, their denial employed a subtly different tactic - they claimed that the U.S. working alone won't have much effect. It's still denial but it's a shift that allows them to rationalize action when they find their denial is no longer credible. Which, of course, was a long time ago. To this we can add a rare proactive move by a small group of Republicans who are either 1) not running for reelection, or 2) are in moderate districts where being honest won't automatically get them thrown out of Congress by Republican voters. It's a small effort that won't go anywhere, but again it provides a mechanism by which Republicans can rationalize their eventual shift in strategy.

On to Paris

All of this bodes well for the upcoming climate talks in Paris. World leaders, including Obama and Xi, have been working for several years toward a meaningful agreement that will result in carbon reduction plans worldwide. This is a difficult issue. The U.S. and Europe have historically contributed the greatest to the climate change problem, while China's rapid growth in recent decades has resulted in it passing the U.S. as the worst emitter annually. At the same time there is a need for less developed countries to manage their future growth such that they don't simply repeat the mistakes we made, while acknowledging that they shouldn't have to pay for how we messed up the world. To this we can add in regional differences in impact and capacity. Complex diplomatic negotiations were, and continue to be, necessary to ensure as equitable a path forward for all nations as is possible.

Enter the Zombies

All of these factors, and many more, signal the death of climate denial. But being dead doesn't mean denial will go away complete. When it looked like public sentiment was leading to the abolition of slavery, slaveholders fought to expand slavery, thus starting the Civil War. When President Obama's election threatened the established white supremacy notion of many Americans, it led to a resurgence of racial hatred. So too with climate denial. As we move toward the inevitable action to deal with man-made climate change, denial lobbyists and their ideological followers will once again rise up like zombies to attack climate scientists who document the science and world leaders who try to act on that scientific knowledge.

The year 2014 was the hottest year in the instrumental record. The current decade is hotter than the previous, which was hotter than the previous, which in turn was hotter than the decade before that. 2015 is already well on its way to smashing the hottest year record set just last year, and with a strong El Nino possibly hanging around into next year, 2016 could surpass 2015 to set a third record year in a row. As climate change becomes more obvious to the general public, as the deceit of climate deniers becomes even more clear and more buffoonishly dishonest, and as responsible world leaders continue to move toward actions that will reduce carbon emissions while improving economic growth and national security, the death of climate denial is inevitable.

So watch out for climate denial zombies, but know that the rest of us are moving forward and taking responsibility for our children's and grandchildren's futures.