Climate Confusion in the Age of "Alternative Facts"

Earth as seen from a NOAA weather satellite. Photo: NASA

A very familiar type of ad recently appeared in the New York Times. It was the sort of fact-free manifesto normally found only on the fringes of the Internet, until someone with enough money decides to buy a full page in a newspaper.

These kinds of public declarations can be about anything from ancient nationalist grudges to fad nutritional theories. This one, by an obscure South Korean firm called Samsung Chemical Coating Company (no apparent relation to the electronics company), declared that carbon dioxide pollution isn’t causing climate change and that global warming will end in 2060 and be replaced by a destructive ice age, among other similarly oddball assertions.

Usually this kind of claim is barely worth refuting, as it is flatly contradicted by the consensus of the international scientific community. But one important detail made this ad different, and more dangerous.

First, let’s be clear about the substance of the ad and the real scientific facts.

There is absolutely no scientific basis or merit to the claims being made in the ad. No actual climate scientist takes seriously catastrophes in movies like The Day After Tomorrow becoming reality, or strange theories like the idea that creatures mutated from sunlight at the end of an ice age. No information about their “study” is available on the Internet, nor in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. There is no explanation about how they arrived at their conclusions, or any discussion of the information or data that served as the basis for their claims. And if you try Googling information about the authors, you’ll come up empty.

Even the more nuanced statements in the ad about the relationships between Earth’s precession, glacial cycles, and sea level rise are unsubstantiated. The authors use these unsupported claims as “proof” that carbon dioxide emissions do not cause global warming — an argument that should not be taken seriously given the lack of any supporting data. Their claims also demonstrate a profound ignorance of established physics. And the direct “certainty” throughout the ads about specific events – such as the disappearance of Earth’s magnetic field – adds to the characteristically unscientific approach.

All of these are hallmarks of the Crazy Full Page Ad.

Here is the truth:

  • The fact that carbon dioxide and other pollutants are changing our climate in dangerous ways has been established by decades of scientific research and mountains of data – from ice core samples, satellites, and other monitoring and analysis.
  • It is a conclusion strongly endorsed by the National Academies of Science, the scientists at NASA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), and all major American scientific organizations.
  • These climate pollutants, which have the known physical property of trapping heat, have been building up in our atmosphere since the world started burning lots of coal for the Industrial Revolution, and global average temperatures have risen right along with that accumulation.

So if all of this is nonsense, why protest so much?

Because at this moment in history, we have – amazingly, shockingly, dangerously – an Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who makes similarly outlandish claims. In an appearance on CNBC last week, Scott Pruitt said:

I would not agree that [carbon dioxide] is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.

In essence, he said he doesn’t know if the greatest environmental challenge of our time, his biggest responsibility, is real. It’s like having a surgeon general who doubts the connection between smoking and lung cancer. Or an attorney general who doesn’t consider the drug cartels to be dangerous organizations.

The result of Pruitt’s statements was a flood of outrage, reportedly locking up EPA’s switchboards like never before. (The agency had to set up an impromptu call center, according to leaks from employees.) Commentators on the left and right were stunned, even in an era when it’s a challenge to say something crazy enough to make the front page.

So what could normally be dismissed as a fringe ad cannot be ignored. We must, unfortunately, remind Americans who instinctively assume an EPA administration would know basic environmental science of the real facts. We must stand up and calmly explain what is at stake for our children and grandchildren. At EDF, we will continue to do that.

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