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Climate Change Debate Continues for Scientists, Politicians, News Media

Cooling towers of a coal-fired power plant in Dadong, Shanxi province, China, 03 Dec 2009
Cooling towers of a coal-fired power plant in Dadong, Shanxi province, China, 03 Dec 2009

As representatives from around the world prepare to meet in Cancun, Mexico next week for the latest United Nations conference on climate change, the debate over the science continues. The vast majority of scientists agree on the main climate change issues, but the general public remains divided and confused.

The climate change topic has become polarized between those who believe in the general consensus that global warming is occurring and that it is largely caused by humans burning fossil fuels and those who either reject the whole notion or disagree with parts of the consensus. At times it has taken on religious tones, with those who are believers describing those who question as "deniers," the equivalent of heretics.

The U.S. news media have also been caught up in this debate with most mainstream news outlets concentrating on the threat of global warming, while conservative media focus on scientific and political skeptics. The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month that the American Geophysical Union was starting what it called "a campaign to push back against congressional conservatives…" But the nonpartisan organization objected to that characterization of their campaign to inform.

'Partisan strife'

In fact, one of the researchers leading the effort, John Abraham of St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minnesota, says he wants to get away from partisan strife.

"I want to restore civility to this discussion," he said. "If we launch into acrimonious attacks against our fellow colleagues or between scientists and the general public, we all lose."

John Abraham says what his group of scientists want to do is provide accurate information and perspective without attacking skeptics.

"All scientists are skeptics and if you are not skeptical then you are not doing good science. Now, are there scientists who have had ideas that have warranted exploration? Yes, there have been. Richard Lindzen out of MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] promoted this idea that climate has a bunch of what are called negative feedbacks. Now, his ideas have turned out not to be right, but in answering his concerns, the science has become better," he said.

'Misleading the public'

But Abraham says politicians and news commentators who deride climate change as a hoax are misleading the public. He says he and other scientists involved in the task force want to provide an accurate assessment of the threat.

"Ninety-seven percent of active climate scientists believe that humans are causing warming and that we have got a problem. If you go on the street and ask people, you find that it is split about 50-50, so there is a deep chasm between what scientists know and what is known in the general public and our effort is to close that chasm," said Abraham.

But public opinion is also influenced by the minority of climate scientists who question the notion that global warming will be a disaster. One such skeptic is John Christy of the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

"Science is not a popularity contest; science is about getting the right numbers and that is what we do here in creating data sets and testing models. We find that the models do not match reality and that reality is not ticking off in some kind of catastrophic direction," he said.

The models he refers to are computer models used by many climate scientists to show how carbon dioxide and other gases cause global warming. Christy says he thinks carbon dioxide emissions do affect climate, but not as much as others would have the public believe.

"It should have a warming effect, but I suspect, and from what our indications are from the real data, the observations that we build, is that we do not see this dramatic or catastrophic change in the climate," he said.

Unrealistic solutions

Christy is also among those who say the solutions being proposed to counter global warming are, for the most part, unrealistic. He says there are few effective alternatives to carbon-based fossil fuels now and that demand for energy is growing, especially in poor nations.

"Having lived in Africa and worked with people who are in extreme poverty there, I think you are going to see the world's appetite for energy just grow and grow and grow. Carbon-based energy is the most affordable and I think you will see more and more carbon go into the atmosphere no matter what meetings come to conclude in places like Cancun," said Christy.

Christy's view is also shared, to some extent, by critics within the climate change community like Denmark's Bjorn Lomberg, whose book and film Cool It, question the effectiveness of such green ideas as changing light bulbs and driving hybrid cars. Lomberg is among those who believe climate change is caused primarily by humans and that it is a problem, but that it is not the worst problem facing the world.

Such talk infuriates those who take the view that climate change will cause a drastic rise in sea levels, lead to mass extinctions and possibly destroy civilization. That is why the people meeting in Cancun next week are not likely to even mention the skeptics and critics. For them, the time to debate is past and now is the time to act.