Superstorm Sandy

Climate Change—Will Superstorm Sandy Be the Tipping Point?

By George B. Kauffman

Superstorm Sandy

The scientific debate is over! Of 13,950 peer-reviewed climate change articles, only 24 deny it’s happening. That’s 0.17% for those of you keeping score. Check out “The Most Devastatingly Convincing Pie Chart You’ve Ever Seen” (www.upworthy.com/the-most-devastatingly-convincing-pie-chart-youve-ever-seen). This eye-popping chart is based on a guest post of Nov. 15 by James Lawrence Powell, “Why Climate Deniers Have No Scientific Credibility—In One Pie Chart” (www.desmogblog.com/2012/11/15/why-climate-deniers-have-no-credibility-science-one-pie-chart”).

According to Powell, author of The Inquisition of Climate Science, “Modern science is under the greatest and most successful attack in recent history. An industry of denial, abetted by news media and ‘info-tainment’ broadcasters more interested in selling controversy than presenting facts, has duped half the American public into rejecting the facts of climate science—an overwhelming body of rigorously vetted scientific evidence showing that human-caused, carbon-based emissions are linked to warming the Earth. The industry of climate science denial is succeeding: public acceptance has declined even as the scientific evidence for global warming has increased. It is vital that the public understand how anti-science ideologues, pseudo-scientists, and non-scientists have bamboozled them. We cannot afford to get global warming wrong—yet we are, thanks to deniers and their methods.”

Powell searched the Web for peer-reviewed scientific articles published between Jan. 1, 1991, and Nov. 9, 2012, with the keyword phrases “global warming” or “global climate change.” To be classified as rejecting, the 13,950 articles examined had to clearly and explicitly state that the theory of global warming is false or that some other process better explains the observed warming. The 24 articles (0.17%) considered as “rejecting” received an average of five citations each compared to an average of 19 citations for positive articles. If any of the rejecting articles presented the magic bullet that falsifies human-caused global warming, that article would be seized upon by the sensation-seeking media and be destined to become one of the most cited in the history of science!

Aerial view showing damage from Hurricane Sandy to the New Jersey coast (Oct. 30, 2012).

Powell’s study is not the first to survey the scientific literature on climate change. Naomi Oreskes of the University of California, San Diego, coauthor with Erik M. Conway of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco to Global Warming, analyzed 928 abstracts, published in refereed scientific journals from 1993 to 2003 and listed in the International Statistical Institute (ISI) database with the keywords “climate change” (“The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” Science, Dec. 3, 2004; www.sciencemag.org/content/306/5702/1686.full). She found that without substantial disagreement, scientists find human activities are heating the Earth’s surface. Nevertheless, self-serving politicians, fossil fuel industry spokespersons, policy-makers and the media, especially in the United States, frequently assert that climate science is highly uncertain and use this as an argument against adopting strong measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Balanced coverage” has become the norm in the dissemination of scientific information by the media, and this “fair and balanced” treatment, in which the viewer or reader is allowed to decide, is unfortunately not confined to Fox News. Competing “experts” are now common on almost all American radio and TV programs, the Internet is awash with adversarial exchanges among those claiming to know, and newspapers “sell” science by framing it as a “sport” with the audience free to decide on winners and losers. Even the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have nourished the public’s belief that anthropogenic climate change is a matter of dispute and have sometimes censored attempts of serious climate scientists to set the record straight.

Is the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy related to global warming?

In The Lomborg Deception, Howard Friel carefully analyzed the ways in which the so-called skeptical environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg selectively used and distorted the available evidence. In the words of Nobel Physiology or Medicine laureate Sir Paul Nurse, “Policy debate these days involves trying to rubbish the science, and that is dangerous. Global warming denialists, those who oppose genetically modified crops and vaccinations, or the teaching of evolution: their trick is [to] treat scientific argument as if it’s a political argument, and cherry-pick data” (New York Times, Sept. 4, p. D4).

The scientific consensus was clearly expressed in reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): “Human activities…are modifying the concentration of atmospheric constituents…that absorb or scatter radiant energy. [M]ost of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations” (J. J. McCarthy et al., eds., Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability).

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences concurred, “Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise” (Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some ‘Key Questions, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 2001, p. 1).

A multitude of other scientific organizations agreed: The American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Union of Concerned Scientists and a host of others. The American Chemical Society recently launched a Climate Science Toolkit, which provides a package of “Climate Science Narratives” and PowerPoint slides for students, school teachers, college and university faculty, industrial scientists, business leaders, civic and religious groups, professional science and educational organizations, and elected public officials at all levels and in all branches of government (www.acs.org/climate science).

According to a shocking study sponsored by 20 nations and conducted by the humanitarian and development research organization DARA, the estimated worldwide cost of climate change is $1.2 trillion, about 1.6% of global GDP: “If the danger of climate change continues to be ignored by the world’s governments, the encroaching disaster could claim the lives of 100 million people in the next two decades and lost economic prosperity to world economies would be measured in the trillions of dollars” (“100 Million Dead, Trillion of Dollars Lost from Climate Change by 2030, Estimates Study,” Nov. 26, www.commondreams.org/headline/2012/09/26-1).

On Nov. 29 at the Doha Climate talks in Qatar, scientists at the Climate Action Tracker (CAT), a joint project of Climate Analytics, Ecofys and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, reported that if robust political will can be mustered by world governments and corresponding action, not rhetoric, implemented to reduce greenhouse gases by 15% worldwide by 2020, there’s still hope to stave off the worst impacts of global warming and climate change. Limiting a global temperature increase this century to below 2º C or a more ambitious goal of 1.5º C is still technically and economically feasible but only with political ambition backed by rapid action starting now (www.commondreams.org/headline/2012/11/30-3).

Superstorm Sandy (Nov. 1) has focused much needed attention on the reality of climate change and the urgency required to take action to mitigate it. In an entry posted on his Web site, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg stated, “Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that might be—given this week’s devastation—should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo agreed, “Part of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is a reality. Extreme weather is a reality. It is a reality that we are vulnerable.”

On Dec. 6, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D–Calif.), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, addressed the UN Climate Change Conference in Doha, Qatar: “Because climate change is real, human activities are the primary cause, and the warming planet poses a significant risk to the health and safety of all people in all our nations….I believe that Superstorm Sandy will mark a turning point in our approach to climate change. Some people may choose to close their eyes, but anyone with a heartbeat and a pulse can see that things are changing for the worse, and we simply cannot afford to ignore these warnings….I am an optimistic person, and I believe we can rise to this challenge.”

However, the deniers are still persisting in their objections. For example, on Nov. 29 the Financial Post published an “Open letter to UN Secretary-General: Current scientific knowledge does not substantiate Ban Ki-Moon assertions on weather and climate, say 125-plus scientists” (opinion.financialpost.com/2012/11/29/open-climate-letter-to-un-secretary-general-current-scientific-knowledge-does-not-substantiate-ban-ki-moon-assertions-on-weather-and-climate-say-125-scientists). None of the authors is known as a climate scientist, and the argument is primarily emotional rather than scientific. The accompanying 724 comments come mostly from the usual anti-government, anti-UN and conspiracy nuts.

While writing this piece, another apparently unrelated tragedy occurred— the shooting at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14. It raises not only the urgent need for gun control but also a number of other issues of extraordinary concern to Community Alliance readers. As such, Lucinda Marshall’s agonized cry on the following day, “A Culture That Condones the Killing of Children and Teaches Children to Kill” (www.informationclearinghouse.info/article33328.htm), merits repetition here:

The Sandy Hook massacre isn’t just about the need for gun control laws, it is about a culture that condones the killing of children and teaches children that killing is okay. It is about a country addicted to violence on television and movie screens. It is about cuts in education spending. It is about giving the military free access to our schools where they regale our children with romanticized delusions of military righteousness. It is about environmental and health policies that expose our children to all manner of toxins in the air, land and water. It is about thinking we have the right to kill children with drones or by dropping toxic munitions on their countries that cause birth defects and miscarriages. It is about saddling our children with crippling education debt and no prospect for jobs. It is about telling boys (and men) they have to be tough and to fight and kill for what they want or think is right. It is about a national policy that denies children basic rights and systemically teaches them that violence is okay. And it is about a media so insensitive that it thinks it is okay to shove a microphone in the face of young victims in the name of sensationalized 24/7 cable “news” while under-reporting the root causes of this tragedy. Sandy Hook did not happen because of a lone, disturbed young man and it is not an isolated incident. It is an epidemic and we are all to blame. And today (and tomorrow and every day after that) is the time to confront this self-inflicted tragedy.

Will the two Sandys—Superstorm Sandy and the Sandy Hook slaughter of children and teachers—finally galvanize us into action? I wish that I could be optimistic, but I fear that within a few days the public’s short attention spans, aided and abetted by a sensation- and celebrity-addicted media will revert to Kim Kardashian’s or Lindsay Lohan’s latest idiotic antics or the most recent phony reality show garbage. With all the injustices crying for action and reform, my requests to colleagues and family to sign petitions that would require only a computer click or two have been completely ignored, and their Facebook pages are filled with the usual quotidian drivel as if nothing were amiss.

What’s needed is not compassion or prayers but action. If not us, who? If not now, when?

So as not to conclude on a completely pessimistic note, I must admit that before the last election I similarly assumed that the youngsters would find it too much trouble to get off their asses and vote. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was completely wrong. Let’s hope that I’m wrong again!

*****

George B. Kauffman, Ph.D., chemistry professor emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and Guggenheim Fellow, is a recipient of the American Chemical Society’s George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, the Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach and the Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution, as well as numerous domestic and international honors. In 2002 and 2011, he was appointed a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the American Chemical Society, respectively.

 

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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