Climate Change, drought
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Might be easier than you think.

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Whenever I write about climate change, I receive a flurry of messages from naysayers and gadflies who still believe that anthropogenic climate change is either not happening or is wildly exaggerated. While temperatures hit record highs month after month and the seas boil, many of these commenters believe the “liberal” or technocratic / World Economic Forum / Bilderberg elites are using a phony global warming hype as a plot to institute totalitarian controls on human freedom.

Almost inevitably, these readers refer to the work of a small number of scientists and academics who rail against the mainstream consensus. These critics either dispute the idea that industrial CO2 causes warming, or they argue that warming is not such a big problem. In any case, they believe it isn’t a critically important issue that needs to be tackled immediately, with tremendous force, at the expense of Capitalism and GDP growth.

I thought it might be helpful to put out a short guide to the most popular climate-change denying theories. When the subject comes up, we would have a single place to send the doubters, deniers, and anyone who is confused. Here is an initial draft — I would love your thoughts and comments.

As you probably know, the overwhelming consensus among climate scientists is that CO2 emissions from human activities are the primary driver of recent global warming. They believe we need urgent, universal action to avert — as much as we can — catastrophic consequences. This isn’t too hard to understand!

World, CO2, Cumulative Emissions

Photo credit: Our World in Data

We put more than 1 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every hour, over 36 billion tons per year. The troposphere — the lowest layer of the atmosphere — extends 6–12 miles above sea level. We can measure its concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses, and compare this with previous epochs via ice-core samples and the like.

We know that the last time atmospheric CO2 concentrations were as high as they are now was during the Pliocene Epoch, around 3–5 million years ago. During this period, CO2 levels were in the range of 400–450 ppm. We are now at 421 ppm. Estimates suggest that, back then, the Earth’s average temperature was about 2–4 degrees Celsius (3.6–7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than pre-industrial levels. Sea levels were much higher, estimated to be about 15–25 meters (50–82 feet) above what we have now. That is where we will end up eventually, unless we reduce CO2 levels rapidly — at the moment, we keep adding more fuel to the fire, as GHG levels keep rising.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), synthesizing extensive research from hundreds of scientists, expresses a high level of confidence that our industrial activities are the primary driver of accelerated global warming. While there is never perfect certainty, the correlations are very convincing:

Global Surface Temperature, Graph

Yearly surface temperature compared to the 20th-century average from 1880–2021. Blue bars indicate cooler-than-average years; red bars show warmer-than-average years. NOAA graph, based on data from the National Centers for Environmental Information. Photo credit:

The overwhelming preponderance of evidence suggests we need to take radical action now, as we already risk civilizational collapse or extinction.

Let’s review the most popular theories among prominent climate deniers and explore the refutations of their ideas.

1. CO2 is Good for You!

Patrick Moore, Greenpeace Canada, 2012

Patrick Moore past president of Greenpeace Canada, March 7, 2012. Photo credit: Friends of Europe / Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Once upon a time, Patrick Moore co-founded Greenpeace. Later, he became a controversial figure in the climate change debate. Moore led Greenpeace’s early campaigns against nuclear testing and whaling. However, by the mid-1980s, Moore’s views had changed, deviating from the Greenpeace party line. After he left the movement in 1986, he started criticizing the environmental movement for its radical views.

Moore’s conversion to skepticism centers on the role of CO2 in global warming. He argues that CO2 is not a pollutant but an essential component of life, crucial for plant growth — nobody disagrees that it is a necessity for life. He claims there is no definitive scientific proof linking CO2 to recent warming trends: “There is no definitive scientific proof, through real-world observations, that carbon dioxide is responsible for any of the slight warming of the global climate that has occurred during the past 300 years.” Ongoing climate changes are part of natural variability, he believes, rather than caused by human activities.

His views might be influenced by his ties to industry. Moore runs Greenspirit Strategies, a consultancy that works with the nuclear, logging, and biotechnology industries. His financial ties to these industries are problematic, as his skepticism may be financially motivated (we saw a similar tendency with Stuart Brand, who went from the Whole Earth Catalog to promoting mega-cities and biotech). The broader scientific community rejects Moore’s belief that CO2 is not a pollutant and that current climate changes are the result of natural variability.

William Happer Teaneck, NJ, 2018

William Happer speaking at the 2018 Young Americans for Liberty New York City Spring Summit at the Teaneck Marriott at Glenpointe in Teaneck, NJ, February 17, 2018. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

A similar view on CO2 is held by William Happer, an emeritus professor of physics at Princeton University and a former director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. Harper argues that the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming is overstated. He proposes that climate sensitivity to CO2 is much lower than what mainstream science suggests; increased levels of CO2 actually benefit plant growth and agriculture.

Happer contends that the current focus on reducing CO2 emissions is misplaced, as historical data, in his view, do not show a strong correlation between CO2 levels and global temperatures: “The role of CO2 in climate change is greatly exaggerated. The climate system is much less sensitive to CO2 than climate models predict.”

Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes is one critic of Happer’s creative interpretations of the climate data: “Happer’s claims are misleading. While CO2 is essential for plant life, the rapid increase in atmospheric CO2 due to human activities is causing significant and harmful changes to our climate. The benefits he cites are outweighed by the negative impacts on ecosystems and human societies.” We’re already seeing many countries forecast significantly reduced harvests due to the impacts of climate change.

James Hansen, formerly of NASA and a leading voice in climate science, also refutes Happer’s arguments: “Happer’s assertions ignore the overwhelming data showing that rising CO2 levels are driving significant and dangerous changes in our climate.”

According to NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt: “Happer’s focus on historical CO2 and temperature data ignores the well-documented lag between CO2 increases and temperature rises. Current rapid increases in CO2 are leading to unprecedented changes in our climate, which are not explained by natural variability alone.”

Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, challenges Happer’s perspective on the economic impacts of climate policies: “Happer’s arguments against reducing CO2 emissions fail to consider the long-term economic costs of inaction. The damage caused by unchecked climate change, including more severe storms, droughts, and impacts on agriculture, will be far more costly than investing in mitigation and adaptation now.”

2. Blame the Sun

Willie Soon, an astrophysicist formerly associated with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, argues that solar activity, rather than human-induced CO2 emissions, is the main driver of recent climate changes. He posits that variations in solar irradiance and cosmic rays have a more significant impact on Earth’s climate than concentrations of greenhouse gasses.

Soon’s work is often cited by climate change skeptics who argue against the urgency of reducing CO2 emissions. He has stated, “Solar radiation is the main driver of climate change. Historical climate changes align more closely with solar activity than with CO2 levels.” Soon’s hypothesis suggests that the sun’s natural variability is responsible for the observed warming trends, thereby downplaying the role of anthropogenic factors.

Soon’s theories have faced massive criticism from the scientific community. Schmidt refutes Soon’s claims by emphasizing that while solar activity has influenced climate in the past, it cannot account for the rapid warming of recent decades: “The correlation between solar activity and climate changes was significant in the past, but the recent warming trend cannot be explained by solar activity. The sun’s output has been relatively stable over the past several decades, while global temperatures have continued to rise.”

Climate scientist Michael E. Mann also counters Soon’s arguments, pointing out that satellite measurements confirm that solar radiation has not intensified while global temperatures have shot up. “The evidence clearly shows that solar activity has not increased over the past few decades. The rise in global temperatures during this period is predominantly due to the increase in greenhouse gasses, especially CO2,” Mann asserts.

Soon’s credibility is questionable due to his financial ties to the fossil fuel industry. Soon receives funding from energy companies including ExxonMobil and Southern Company. John Cook, founder of Skeptical Science, writes: “Soon’s work has been repeatedly debunked by the scientific community. His claims about solar activity and climate sensitivity have not stood up to rigorous scrutiny, and his position is not supported by the broader scientific community.”

3. Okay, Warming Is Happening – But Don’t Worry About It

Steven F. Hayward, Berkley Law

Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, and a fellow of the Law and Policy Program at Berkeley Law. Photo credit: Berkley Law

Steven Hayward, a conservative author and scholar, is a prominent dissenter in the debates on climate change. He critiques the urgent policy changes advocated by mainstream environmental science. Affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute and the Pacific Research Institute, Hayward focuses on the uncertainties in climate science while questioning the economic rationale behind aggressive climate policies.

Hayward’s central thesis is that while climate change is occurring, the scientific consensus overstates its severity and urgency. He argues that the economic costs of policies aimed at drastically reducing CO2 emissions are too high and not justified by the benefits. “The uncertainties in climate science are significant enough to warrant a more measured approach to policy. The drastic measures proposed by some environmentalists could harm economic growth and development without delivering commensurate benefits.” He apparently thinks the economic downsides of climate action outweigh the projected impacts of climate change itself.

Most climate scientists find the evidence for anthropogenic climate change both clear and compelling — in fact, we can see and feel those effects all around us. But the dissenters often argue that the costs of inaction far exceed those of proactive measures.

Mann says: “While uncertainties exist in any scientific field, the basic principles of climate change are well-understood and supported by a vast body of evidence. The real uncertainty is not whether climate change is happening, but how severe its impacts will be and how quickly they will occur.” Schmidt also disagrees that uncertainty justifies inaction: “Ignoring the risks associated with high-impact scenarios due to uncertainty is scientifically irresponsible.”

The economic arguments against climate action are countered by highlighting the long-term benefits of mitigation. Investments in green technology and infrastructure stimulate the economy, create jobs, and lead to long-term benefits.  Nicholas Stern, chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, notes: “The costs of inaction on climate change far outweigh the costs of taking action. Mitigating climate change through technological advancements and policy measures can lead to significant economic benefits and prevent severe economic damages.”

Bjørn Lomborg is a Danish political scientist, economist, and author known for his controversial views on climate change and environmental policy, with views similar to Hayward’s. He gained prominence with his book The Skeptical Environmentalist, where he argued that many environmental concerns, including climate change, are overstated. Lomborg argues that focusing on immediate and drastic reductions in CO2 emissions is economically inefficient.

He prioritizes adaptation, technological innovation, and targeted interventions: “We need to move away from panic-driven responses and focus on smart, cost-effective solutions that address climate change without sacrificing economic growth and development.”

Oreskes challenges Lomborg’s economic assessments. She points out that Lomborg’s cost-benefit analyses often rely on assumptions that downplay the potential for catastrophic climate impacts while ignoring the moral and ethical dimensions of climate change. “Lomborg’s analyses are fundamentally flawed because they fail to account for the non-linear and potentially irreversible impacts of climate change. By focusing narrowly on economic metrics, he overlooks the broader social and environmental costs,” Oreskes explains.

James Hansen, former NASA scientist and a leading climate researcher who has been arrested at protests, believes gradual and minimal interventions are inadequate: “The window for effective action to mitigate climate change is rapidly closing. Lomborg’s incremental approach is insufficient to address the scale of the crisis. We need transformative policies that significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions now.”

4. The Tech Bros Got This One!

Michael Shellenberger, ARC Forum, 2023

Michael Shellenberger speaking at Alliance for Responsible Citizenship (ARC) Forum, October 30, 2023. Photo credit: ARC Forum / Wikimedia (CC0 1.0 DEED)

Michael Shellenberger is an environmental policy writer and the founder of Environmental Progress, an organization that advocates for nuclear energy and pragmatic environmental solutions. A friend of Peter Thiel, Shellenberger doesn’t deny the existence of anthropogenic climate change, but he argues that the environmental movement exaggerates the urgency and severity of the climate crisis.

Shellenberger thinks advancements in technology, particularly nuclear energy, can effectively address climate issues without necessitating drastic societal changes: “We are not in a climate apocalypse. Human ingenuity and technological progress are sufficient to manage the impacts of climate change and continue improving human well-being.” He proposes we focus on adaptation and economic growth as more practical and beneficial than aggressive mitigation.

Most climate scientists disagree, maintaining we need urgent, immediate action to reduce the potential for severe and irreversible harm. According to Mann: “Shellenberger’s arguments downplay the severity of climate impacts and misrepresent the scientific consensus. His stance promotes complacency at a time when urgent action is needed to avoid the most severe consequences of climate change.”

The economic arguments posed by Shellenberger are countered by numerous studies highlighting the benefits of climate action, which will both clean up the environment and create millions of jobs. Most scientists and economists agree we need immediate, intensive action to mitigate the impacts of climate change. They emphasize that the long-term benefits of such actions justify their costs.

A version of this piece was originally published in Daniel Pinchbeck’s Newsletter. 


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