The burden of believing in global weirding

Richard Handler
CBC
March 9, 2010

We are all — yes, I think I can generalize here — desperate for some good news when it comes to global warming.

Many scientists don’t even like the term. They prefer the more benign “climate change,” which is duller but more accurate.

Thomas Friedman, the influential New York Times columnist prefers the term “global weirding” to describe the situation where Washington and Baltimore received four times the snow dump that we did in Toronto.

Even this erratic snow season can be blamed directly on global warming, his argument goes: Warmer air temperatures, produced by increased greenhouse gasses, create more evaporation, which leads to more precipitation in the form of more rain and snowfall.

The result is weird weather, which is only going to get weirder — wilder storms, more droughts, torrential rains in strange places — say many scientists.

Our weather, always unpredictable, now seems like some ancient god awakening, smitten with his Herculean power and making things rough on us wee humans.

The joy of denial

That’s why I think “climategate” was such a happy event for the global warming deniers.

The term for the hacked emails from some of the world’s top climate change scientists, it supposedly showed that these UN researchers were politically driven, worried about how their research would play out on the public stage. They were not dispassionate scientists, their critics said. They were simply advocates.

Public opinion has embraced the scandal, especially in the U.S, which for some time now has been a home of climate change denial.

In one American poll I heard on U.S. National Public Radio, the number of people who say they believed in global warming has declined from 71 per cent to 57 per cent over the past few years.

Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising. As the Columbia Journalism Review reported, many U.S. weather broadcasters don’t believe in long-range global warming either. Of course, they have enough trouble trying to predict what the weather will be in three days from now.

Bad-news consumer

Alas, for my part, I have been for some time now a global warming, bad-news consumer, as well as a radio producer.

Ideas, the CBC radio program I work for, presented a series by Gwynne Dyer called Climate Wars, which dealt with the looming, catastrophic geopolitical effects of severe climate change.

With his sombre baritone voice explaining the views of military strategists, Gwynne could scare anybody listening.

He scared me. And I’ve produced my share of scary climate stories.

So, this summer, when I heard my colleague David Cayley’s interview with Lawrence Solomon, a big part of me was filled with joy.

Solomon, the founder of the environmental group Energy Probe is also the author of The Deniers, a book with a heck of a subtitle: The World Renowned Scientists Who Stood Up Against Global Warming Hysteria, Political Persecution and Fraud. And those who are too fearful to do so.

Like other columnists at the National Post, where he plies his trade, Solomon believes Al Gore and his ilk are alarmist.

In his Ideas interview, Solomon took Cayley through some of what he considers the flawed research around climate change, including the scary “hockey stick” graph that is supposed to show a sharp increase in global temperatures this century.

Solomon also disputed the idea that the gigantic Antarctic icecap was melting. Instead, he said, the ice was freezing.

As well, he said climate models are notoriously off kilter. He would make a great, doubting TV weatherman.

Phew

While listening to Solomon, I had two reactions. First, I was greatly encouraged. I latched onto the good news.

“My God, I said to myself. That’s one thing less I have to worry about!”

There is a cheery side to global warming afterall, I thought. No tipping point. No climate wars. Just a bunch of scientists who turn out to be liberally minded hysterics like me.

That was one reaction. The other of course was skepticism.

You don’t have to be a working journalist to say to yourself, “wait a minute, there must be another side to this other side.”

So I contacted a science journalist colleague of mine and he took me through a meticulous series of counter-arguments.

These arguments revolved around this point: Solomon’s counter-science is a blip in the huge mound of evidence that has been accumulating for decades.

This is research that shows the huge human impact that is damaging the atmosphere and the planet.

According to my journalistic colleague, the Antarctic ice may indeed be freezing in some places but not in others. That’s because of changing ocean patterns and other global warming effects.

As far as the hockey graph, my colleague said, you can throw it away and still be left with an arena full of global warming data.

It also turns out that several of Solomon’s scientists, the people he cites as authorities, are angered about being lassoed into the camp of “the deniers.”

Scientists are often cautious, subtle types and don’t like being dragged into somebody else’s argument.

Too bad my attempt to reap good news from global warming was so short-lived. How nice it would be to think that global warming, hockey stick and all, was an overblown problem.

Al understands

It turns out that Al Gore, the former vice-president and America’s most famous global warming advocate (ours is David Suzuki) understands the attractions of wishful thinking.

In a New York Times article on Feb. 28, entitled “You Can’t Wish Away Climate Change,” Gore tells us, “It would be an enormous relief if the recent attacks on the science of global warming actually indicates that we do not have an unimaginable calamity.

“What a burden would be lifted,” he says.

Yesss! Al Gore understands me! He knows people ache not to believe in disaster scenarios. He is filled with careful empathy for the global warming deniers.

Then, of course, he spent the rest of the article going through the evidence that we are on the brink of a catastrophe and that the world needs to take action.

Alas, except for that brief moment last summer when I heard Lawrence Solomon, I cannot wave away the sullen news and replace it with wishful thinking. But I promise to keep an open mind — along with the winter tires on my car and a snow shovel close at hand.

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