Hotter than the Dust Bowl, but not hot enough for denialists

By Pete Dolack

There is delusion, and then there is willful fantasy. At what point does the first pass into the second?

Wherever on the anti-science continuum lies the point we might wish to pinpoint, surely global-warming denialists have slid past, riding a toboggan down a slope so steep it threatens to become a cliff. And with the snow rapidly melting, there are many exposed rocks that could bring the ride to a sharp halt.

Unless you live in Seattle, Dublin or Edinburgh, this Northern Hemisphere summer has been difficult to ignore. The United States last month experienced its hottest month in recorded history, breaking the record set in July 1936 at the peak of the Dust Bowl, when farming became nearly impossible in the Great Plains because of heat and drought. As the Dust Bowl years of the mid-1930s still weigh heavily in the U.S. psyche, that is a particularly dramatic record.

A small sampling of trends creates a cumulative picture. Here are four:

  • The 20 hottest years on a global basis have all occurred since 1987.
  • Nine of the ten hottest years have occurred since 2001.
  • June marked the 328th consecutive month that the global temperatures exceeded the 20th century average.
  • For 2010 and 2011 combined, 27 countries recorded an all-time national high temperature while one recorded a national low.

Global warming increases the likelihood of unusually severe heat waves and makes them more intense. No single hot day or event can necessarily be attributed definitively to global warming; at least that has been conventional thinking. But recently the climatologist James Hansen, who has been sounding the klaxon for years, was the lead author of a research paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that has found, through statistical analysis, a tighter link.

There has been considerable push-back on this paper, but as Hansen has consistently been ahead of the curve on global warming, it is difficult to dismiss the research. The U.S. space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said in its announcement of the paper:

“A new statistical analysis by NASA scientists has found that Earth’s land areas have become much more likely to experience an extreme summer heat wave than they were in the middle of the 20th century. … The statistics show that the recent bouts of extremely warm summers, including the intense heat wave afflicting the U.S. Midwest this year, very likely are the consequence of global warming. …

“Hansen and colleagues analyzed mean summer temperatures since 1951 and showed that the odds have increased in recent decades for what they define as ‘hot,’ ‘very hot’ and ‘extremely hot’ summers. … The researchers detailed how ‘extremely hot’ summers are becoming far more routine. ‘Extremely hot’ is defined as a mean summer temperature experienced by less than one percent of Earth’s land area between 1951 and 1980, the base period for this study. But since 2006, about 10 percent of land area across the Northern Hemisphere has experienced these temperatures each summer.”

Other studies have shown a correlation between increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and rising temperatures (methane is also a contributor); carbon dioxide and other pollutants are a direct result of industrial activity and correlate with the increase in it.

At times, one or another denialist will acknowledge rising temperatures but attempts to blame the Sun, either claiming that the Sun is becoming brighter (completely untrue) or connecting it to the sunspot cycle (there is no basis for this, either). Those who attempt to advocate the sunspot cycle rely on a period known as the “maunder minimum,” a Medieval period when the Sun stopped producing sunspots for several decades that coincides with a period of unusually cold weather in Europe.

But it is not known if that extraordinary cold period in Europe was replicated elsewhere. There seem to be no conclusive evidence of similar cold spells elsewhere; at most, a somewhat colder than normal series of winters in North America but not on the scale of what Europe experienced.

The next logical step is to compare the sunspot cycle (which has been reliably observed for centuries) with global temperatures. And we find no correlation whatsoever. During a normal 11-year cycle, sunspots dwindle to almost zero at the bottom of the cycle before rising to an active peak, but there is no matching temperature pattern. In fact, we just experienced an unusually lengthy period of solar inactivity, with the minimum period lasting about three years instead of the usual much briefer period.

Sunspot activity has remained well below normal since 2008. That has not seemed to have cooled the weather.

So what could have caused that long spell of cold winters in Europe? An analysis on Discover Magazine’s marvelous “Bad Astronomy” web pages concludes that during the depth of the cold spell, in the 1690s, there was an unusually intense period of volcanism (based on natural records of atmospheric sulfur) and a persistent dip in the jet stream that allowed Arctic air to pour into Europe. The jet stream’s behavior was due to its being weaker than normal, which the “Bad Astronomy” analysis said was due to a reduction in ozone that in turn resulted from weaker magnetic activity on the Sun.

The dearth of sunspot activity was arguably a contributing factor toward cold European winters, but “Bad Astronomy” cautions against making too much of the connection:

“Mind you — and this is fairly important — there’s evidence that the Little Ice Age began long before the Maunder Minimum. It may have actually been more like series of cold pulses that started centuries earlier. So any connection between the solar cycle and ice ages is pretty weak.”

A similar jet stream pattern caused unusually snowy winters in eastern North America during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 winters, but, perversely, that was due to global warming. As explained in a series of articles on the Weather Underground web site, dramatically warmer weather in the Arctic caused a decline in the difference of strength between the semi-permanent Icelandic low and Azores high, weakening the jet stream; a weakened jet stream becomes more variable and when it dips to the south persistently, cold air pours in as was the case during those snowy eastern North American winters.

We’re left with the only plausible explanation for global warming: human activity. So we should ask the obvious question: Who profits from the activity that causes global warming (i.e., pumps carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere) and who funds the anti-science global-warming denialist groups?

Surprise, surprise: They are the very same organizations, principally oil and gas companies.

Exxon Mobil, the largest oil company in the world (which recorded the largest yearly profit of any corporation in history in 2008 at US$41 billion) is well established as the largest paymaster. Exxon Mobil is reported to have spent $16 million funding various denialist groups just from 1998 to 2005, according to a May 2012 article in the Monthly Review (and that is a small fraction of what it spends on lobbyists). Exxon, however, is far from unique — all major petroleum companies (including Koch Industries), all three U.S. automobile manufacturers and the infamous U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a relentless and powerful pressure group that regularly flexes its ample muscle, all contribute. At least two of their denialist “think tanks” started life as shills for the tobacco industry, pumping out reports denying links between smoking and health problems.

A favorite tactic is to claim, falsely, that global warming is a matter of controversy. It is not. Climatologists are virtually unanimous that global warming is real and caused by human activity (in contrast to a split among television weather reporters, who are not so trained). The only real controversy is how fast temperatures will rise during this century and what level of carbon dioxide concentration will trigger feedback loops that will cause more dramatic changes.

Groups that are paid propagandists for oil and gas companies and other industries concerned with short-term profits rather than long-term good flood the corporate mass media with misinformation, which is given equal time in yet another misguided application of the news media’s concept of “neutrality.” Nor does the news media distinguish between what is true, what is genuinely controversial and what is false, instead using the cover of “neutrality” to simply quote the various sides and allow readers, listeners and viewers to sort it out themselves. But we aren’t all experts in science.

There is no grand conspiracy at work here, nor any need for one. Although some obviously biased Right-wing news outlets consciously slant in favor of their corporate benefactors, more often there is nothing at work here other than an unthinking application of the concept of “neutrality,” a cherished ideal in the mass media of the U.S. and many other countries. The concept of media “neutrality” is easily exploited by denialist “think tanks” (and other lavishly funded corporate fronts) that pump out reports and provide spokespeople.

A lack of scientific knowledge among the general public plays into these hands as well. All these groups need do — as leaked documents from a couple of them confirm — is to sew doubt among the public. The acquiescence of their representatives in the legislatures is all else that is needed. Keep those profits coming!

Ultimately, even energy-company executives won’t be able to avoid the effects of global warming. Blithe soundbites that crops will be grown further North ignore that whatever small benefit there may be from longer growing seasons in high latitudes in North America, for instance, will be more than countered by the Great Plains turning into a desert and the Midwest becoming more susceptible to drought and debilitating hot weather (as it has during the summer of 2012).

There are some wealthy executives who seem to believe they can build a high enough wall or a deep enough moat to keep the world’s troubles away from them, or who simply believe the misinformation pumped out by their paid propagandists. People who spend their lives frantically scrambling for ever bigger piles of money tend to possess very narrow personalities; many are ignorant of the world outside their business interests. (Which is why the concept of businessperson as natural political leader is nonsense.) Wrapped in a mantle of nationalism and riddled with fear-mongering, their propaganda appeals to those who refuse to believe anything that might contradict their own narrow worldview.

The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. Ignorance, however, is self-fulfilling — if you think you know everything, there is no need to learn anything. The global-warming denialists are following the playbook of religious fundamentalists who deny the reality of evolution by falsely claiming that a “controversy” exists in the face of scientific evidence overwhelmingly backing it.

As the saying goes, when there is no more clear air, water and food, you’ll find out you can’t eat money.

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