Climate change denialists will likely get their way

We’re probably doomed, thanks to conspiracy theories and pseudoscience

After this column went to print, the Times issued a correction indicating that the report “had in fact been publicly available on government websites for several months. The contents of the report, however, were as originally reported by the Times.”

More bad news for the planet as a U.S. government report, leaked to the New York Times, indicates that climate change is already well underway with substantial warming having occurred since 1980. The effects, so says the report, are already being felt.

At the risk of sounding defeatist, I don’t hold out a lot of hope that humanity will take the necessary steps to stem the tide of climate change.

Perhaps that is just because I am a cynic by nature — particularly when it comes to doubting our capacity for collective human action. Perhaps it is because there is some evidence for the idea that the time for action has come and gone. It is arguable at least that we’ve inexorably set ourselves on a path in that direction by triggering a series of feedback loops.

But most likely it is because of the intensity of the pushback against taking action. And I’m not just talking about the “no price is low enough” crowd — so prominent in Canada’s small c conservative moment — which is gravely concerned that an extra dime on a litre of gas is going to sink the economy.

I’m referring specifically to that substantial portion of society that is resistant to the idea that human activity is even the culprit to begin with — the so-called climate change denialists.

I fear that even after coastal areas have been evacuated because of rising sea levels — whenever that might be — the denialists will still be pointing to volcanoes and natural cyclical changes as more likely causes than burning fossil fuels. They will still be distracting attention by talking about the hypocrisy of climate change activists such as Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio as if the personal habits of celebrities are an excuse for inaction. If you are reading this article online you may be able to scroll to the comments below and see their handiwork.

I hope I am wrong and the overwhelming strength of the scientific case of human driven climate prevails. But at the moment at least, the body of memes that has popped up (I don’t think they qualify as “arguments”) to cast doubt and support inaction doesn’t inspire much confidence.

Some of these talking points are more easily refuted.

“Volcanoes contribute more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than humans.” Not true. According to Scientific American, drawing from research by the United States Geological Survey, humans are responsible for about 100 times the emissions that volcanoes are.

And that in itself should be concerning because more active periods of volcanic activity have altered the climate in the past. That should put to lie the notion that we mere humans are incapable of influencing something as large as planetary climate.

“A few decades ago everyone was talking about global cooling.” No, “everyone” wasn’t. Global cooling was a comparably minor theory that gained a certain amount of attention in the media during the 1970s but fizzled relatively quickly. It never acquired anything approaching the consensus that exists today supporting the notion that the climate is warming.

Some of the denialist throwaways are a little more complex:

“[Climate change is] a natural phenomenon that has been happening since the earth was created.”

The existence of natural cyclical patterns is a favourite fallback for those who might be willing to concede some change in the Earth’s climate but want to reject human responsibility. But packed inside this dismissive half-truth is much cause for concern.

It is those historical fluctuations that offer such compelling evidence of the role that carbon dioxide played in causing those changes in climate. It follows from this research that we ought to be somewhat concerned about evidence showing that those concentrations are on the rise.

So if anything, “climate change is a natural phenomenon that has been happening since the Earth was created” is a good lead into why we should be concerned that it is happening now. Because we know the havoc that these natural fluctuations have wrought in the past. Numerous mass extinctions that have occurred in the past have corresponded with rapid climate shifts.

Reinforcing climate change denialism are the grandiose conspiracy theories that have emerged to offer up some explanation for why the whole thing is such a hoax: Scientists, the theory goes, are colluding with one another in this elaborate hoax to extract more government grant money. Politicians seize upon it in the pursuit of a world government.

The reality that it is often more economically efficient to reduce or slow the growth of emissions by helping developing countries develop in a less carbon intensive manner than it is to reduce those emissions here has led to claims that the “climate hoax” is a scheme to funnel money from wealthy western countries to less developed ones. Green energy producers are grifters out to sell their overpriced snake oil to pliant governments.

Dealing with the serious challenges of climate change would be hard enough if we only had to contend with justifiable fears that a move away from fossil fuels will hurt the economy. But the existence of a movement impervious, even hostile, to basic facts makes it damn near impossible.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.