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’Tis the Season of Climate Idiocy

The Winter of Some Malcontents

tree in fours seasons with asterisk next to winter and text: global warming over SOURCE: iStockphoto, SP Global warming deniers believe selective anecdotes about anomalous local weather refute the fact there is a globally averaged warming trend.

It’s winter. So global warming must be false!

It’s depressing to note that we’re still debating the issue at this level, yet such is the reality. Consider a recent column by Hoover Institution fellow and Scripps Howard contributor Deroy Murdock entitled “Even left is now laughing at global warming,” containing evidence like the following:

Science, Cultured

Contributing editor Chris Mooney

Science Progress contributing editor Chris Mooney surveys the interactions between science, politics, and culture. He is the author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.” (Photo:

• Nearly four inches of snow blanketed the United Arab Emirates’ Jebel Jais region for just the second time in recorded history on Jan. 24. Citizens were speechless. The local dialect has no word for snowfall.

• Dutchmen on ice skates sped past windmills as canals in Holland froze in mid-January for the first time since 1997. Defense Minister Eimert van Middelkoop, who inhabits a renovated 17th Century windmill, stumbled on the ice and fractured his wrist.

• January saw northern Minnesota’s temperatures plunge to 38 below zero, forcing ski-resort closures. A Frazee, Minnesota dog-sled race was cancelled, due to excessive snow. Snow whitened Surf City, North Carolina’s beaches. Days ago, ice glazed Florida’s citrus groves.

Surely Deroy Murdock doesn’t think such anecdotes seriously refute the idea that there is a globally averaged warming trend—or does he?

I sometimes indulge the conspiracy theory that such drivel is intelligently designed to enrage and preoccupy those of us who honor the elementary distinction between climate and weather (the former being, of course, the statistical average over time of the latter). But then I consult the evidence about what people in this country think and know about climate change, and I realize that Deroy Murdock’s column probably speaks to many of us and even to many of our elites—people like CNN’s Lou Dobbs, for instance, who has also recently used the vicissitudes of winter weather to cast doubt on human caused climate change. (This is an example of why you need trained science journalists in the media.)

In fact, polling data suggests that Deroy Murdock’s column probably resonates with roughly half of the country—the conservative half. Whenever you break down acceptance of climate science along partisan lines, your quickly see that a vast political divide exists over the nature of reality itself. Last month, for instance, Rassmussen Reports released this finding (hat tip to Joe Romm): “Fifty-nine percent (59%) of Democrats blame global warming on human activity, compared to 21% percent of Republicans. Two-thirds of GOP voters (67%) see long-term planetary trends as the cause versus 23% of Democrats.” The Pew organization has shed still more light on this huge partisan gap by including information about education levels in its surveys. The results are staggering: The higher a Republican’s level of education, the more likely he or she is to reject mainstream climate science.

My sense of how this alienation arises (and here I’m significantly influenced by people like Matthew Nisbet) goes something like this. The climate issue is already highly politicized, so people start out with partisan inclinations. Then, the more highly educated conservatives—people like Deroy Murdock—proceed in a typically “intellectual” fashion to find information about the climate issue that confirms what they already think. For this they go to partisan and like-minded sources, such as Fox News or any number of rightwing anti-science websites. One top stop is the high-traffic “Watts Up With That,” a climate skeptic outlet that was, very alarmingly, voted the “Best Science Blog” of 2008, and right at this very moment features several entries that stoke confusion about the distinction between climate and weather, such as “Mature Arctic Ivory Gull Seen in Massachusetts—first time in over a century.”

And so it is that each winter, we get another recycling of the idea that record low temperatures in individual locales somehow refute the idea that the globe is warming. Thus does an error of statistical reasoning become a political doctrine. And it is virtually futile to refute, because it’s highly likely you’ll be doing so for an audience that doesn’t need the lesson, and ignored or dismissed by the audience that does.

In this context, perhaps one has to look as high as President Barack Obama for salvation. Possibly, just possibly, the White House could launch a sustained public communication and education campaign on global warming, designed to shore up support for pending climate legislation, in such a way that it might actually make a difference. It would be especially helpful if we could get some prominent conservative thinkers to flip, join the show, and speak to the Deroy Murdocks of the world in a way that might inspire them to listen.

Even then, though, it’s best to wait until the ice thaws to start that campaign; as Shakespeare might have put it, “a skeptic’s tale’s best for winter.” After all, it took a record hot summer in 1988 for the climate issue to rise to serious public attention for the first time. Right now, the environmental community is heavily debating whether President Obama and the Democratic Congress will pass a climate bill in 2009 or 2010; perhaps they should really be debating which August.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has chosen December of this year to hold the summit designed to forge the successor to the Kyoto Protocol. The location? Copenhagen, Denmark.

Chris Mooney is contributing editor to Science Progress and author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”

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