Point of View

The skeptics are all wet

August 3, 2009 

— Writers such as columnist George Will would like to credit the state of climate science and the ineptitude of the current administration in Washington for India and China's reluctance to commit to significant carbon emissions reductions. To the contrary, Will and others deserve some credit for the behavior of the world's two population superpowers.

The global warming skepticism of Will and other climate critics has helped keep the United States on the sidelines for the past decade. The U.S. and other wealthy nations must lead before the poorer nations of the world will follow, and leadership does not happen overnight with one election.

One recent Friday evening in a local pizzeria, a friend told me that either climate science is still quite unsettled about the existence and causes of global warming, or that climate scientists are not doing a good job communicating what they knew.

But again, the climate critics should take the credit. It is easy to make the case that a complex problem such as climate change is still an unsolved, controversial issue worthy of continued public debate. Just look at what some of South Africa's leaders did to the spread of HIV-AIDS when they gave support to mavericks who were skeptical that the HIV virus causes AIDS.

There is no scientific doubt that the HIV virus causes AIDS. However, a few scientists initially doubted that a single virus could cause the array of symptoms and diseases attributed to AIDS. Leaders such as South Africa's Thabo Mbeki took these AIDS denialists seriously, and with government support their irresponsible skepticism led to widespread avoidance of effective drug treatments and safe sex practices. Thousands lost their lives -- years after the scientific community had demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the HIV virus causes AIDS.

In a democratic society with a free press, scientific findings with political and public policy consequences depend upon the good judgment of citizens for resolution. If advocates choose to misrepresent scientific uncertainties -- and there are always uncertainties in any science -- then they will likely succeed at confusing citizens. For a public with neither the time nor the expertise to do the in-depth research, media reports of any debate or controversy are simply accepted as evidence that the science is indeed unsettled and not yet ready to inform significant action.

So George Will and other climate skeptics continue to spin the evidence irresponsibly and convince themselves and the public that we need more definitive research before taking action on global warming. They may well continue to succeed, but they will still be wrong.

Climate researchers (please see dels.nas.edu/climatechange/ and www.realclimate.org) have many questions and continue to explore for urgently needed answers. But they no longer question the dominant role that human-generated carbon dioxide plays in global warming. The evidence, like that for HIV and AIDS, is overwhelming and clear. They no longer doubt the catastrophic effects unchecked climate change will wreak on the planet, because they can already detect the earliest signals of those effects.

Everyone -- scientist and nonscientist, environmentalist and skeptic -- needs to help answer a basic climate change question: What do we plan to do about it? We must quit questioning the scientific facts and start talking about what we will do about them.

Are we willing to let the poorest peoples of the world take the major hits from climate change without any help from us? Are we willing to allow climate change to alter our coastlines, our weather patterns and biological communities in ways we cannot easily predict and at speeds that will likely overwhelm everyone's capacity to adapt?

Energy legislation recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives is a weak attempt to begin to answer these legitimate policy questions. We can hope that the Senate will not only view the House bill as a start in the right direction but will strengthen that first step with a bill more worthy of a compassionate and capable nation. We can help make our future, and the future for our children, safer, more secure and richer in many ways by embracing sources of energy that do not release carbon dioxide and other air pollutants, and by conserving our use of energy in every way imaginable.

Denis DuBay, Ph.D., conducted research on the effects of air pollution on plants at N.C. State University and teaches earth and environmental science in the Wake County Public School System.

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