Monday, Sept. 18, 2006 | Scientists admit they’ve been frustrated.
They’ve known about global warming since the late 1980s. They’ve written hundreds of papers about its causes. Humankind is burning fossil fuels, producing greenhouse gases that trap more of the sun’s energy. And they’ve detailed its effects and implications: Warmer oceans. Higher sea levels. Stronger hurricanes. Skinnier polar bears. More common heat waves.
The rest of us haven’t quite gotten it. A powerful minority of scientists – some with financial backing from the fossil fuel industry – have characterized the earth’s increasing temperature as part of a natural cycle of warm temperatures.
Within the last year, public perception of the debate has been changing. Some scientists and environmentalists say historians will reflect on 2006 as the seminal year in the debate. The year the Republican governor of California agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The year that millions saw Al Gore’s definitive global warming movie. The year that a heat wave killed 140 across the state.
Two-thousand-and-six. The moment the tide turned on global warming. The moment we realized: Climate change is real.
Momentum has been building since last summer, said Tim Barnett, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography marine physicist and climate specialist. In July, science advisors from the Group of 8 governments – the world’s richest countries – agreed that climate change was a serious problem. A month later, Hurricane Katrina flattened the Gulf Coast. Even if no definitive link exists between Katrina and global warming, scientists say a warmer planet means more severe storms. The year finished as the warmest on record.
“There’s a whole series of just stand-up-and-slap-you-in-the-face events,” Barnett said.
Events like them may ultimately be responsible for the public’s acceptance that climate change is a serious problem. That acceptance starts by learning that scientists agree on the subject, said Richard Somerville, a professor of meteorology in the Climate Research Division at Scripps.
“A lot of people just aren’t up to date with how firm and strong and united the science is,” Somerville said. “There is a genuine scientific consensus. Yes, there are a few outliers, a few denialists. But that’s true with any area of active science. “
With the choice of a word – denialists, not skeptics – Somerville summed up the change the public is increasingly accepting. Those who question global warming aren’t skeptical of a theory. They’re denying a fact.
His message has been spreading through the country this year like lightning across a dark summer sky. Now that the one-time debate over global warming has ended, journalists are increasingly writing about its local impacts. The public is growing more aware and more concerned, polls show. And politicians are beginning to act. San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre released a report on global warming’s local implications in late August. The City Council’s natural resources and culture committee advanced its Climate Protection Action Plan last week.
‘It’s About Time’
Warnings about the earth’s climate have come from all directions this year.
Time magazine’s April cover story, featuring a polar bear precariously floating on thin ice, warned: Be worried. Be very worried. Global warming, it said, isn’t just some vague future problem.
Two months later came Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth.” And then the worst wildfire season since 1960. And news that this summer was the hottest in 70 years.
By the time the record-setting July heat wave killed 140 throughout the state, newspaper and television reporters throughout California were asking: Is this global warming?
Questions that once were asked only by veteran environmental journalists were now being posed by a wider media audience. Newspapers from California to Utah to Vermont have been localizing climate change’s implications: How an expected 1-degree Celcius temperature increase by 2050 will affect our water supply, our agriculture, our health.
“My feeling is that it’s about time,” said Naomi Oreskes, a University of California, San Diego history professor. “Scientists have not been arguing about this for several years.”
Oreskes authored a 2004 study published in Science that confirmed the scientific consensus on global warming. Spurred by what she perceived as a gap between what scientists were reporting and what journalists and policymakers were saying, she surveyed nearly 1,000 academic papers on climate change.
They agreed on one important point. The world is getting warmer, and humans are responsible.
Since the late 1980s, scientists have concurred that the world is warming and that humans are responsible. But a few scientists and lobbyists from fossil-fuel industries, who questioned whether the current warming trend is cyclical, profoundly affected this nation’s public policy debate. While European countries began cutting emissions and producing more fuel-efficient vehicles, American journalists were criticized for stifling policy change by overemphasizing a small band of climate-change deniers.
Max Boykoff, a research fellow at Oxford University who has studied media bias and its effects on climate change policy, said anecdotal evidence points to a recent increase both in coverage and quality.
“My hunch (and hope) is that things are indeed improving,” Boykoff wrote in an e-mail. “I feel though that this improvement has come primarily through print journalism. … Local television attention to it can also be seen as progress. There is a certain danger here, though, in that newscasters can mistakenly ascribe a heat wave to global warming, when actually the science cannot explain things that simply.”
Scientists and researchers in San Diego have been at the forefront of refocusing media and public opinion on consensus. Oreskes has published her findings in The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times. Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD has seen a “tremendous increase” in media inquiries, said Cindy Clark, Scripps’ director of communication.
Local scientists’ efforts have sometimes been proactive. After Somerville met with the editorial board of the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union earlier this month, its editor published a note to readers.
“Just as we can find people who say AIDS isn’t a disease and woman wasn’t created until the sixth day of the world’s existence,” Editor Rex Smith wrote, “it’s not hard to get comments from people with graduate degrees who dispute the whole notion of climate change. But there’s a point where such purported balance contributes to a willful ignorance of what’s true.”
Bill McKibben, an author and scholar in residence at Vermont’s Middlebury College, wrote in National Geographic in June that historians will look back on 2006 as the moment when our denial crumbled about global warming.
“With each passing warm year, and each new issue of Science and Nature, anyone who follows this understands that there’s no longer an open scientific question,” McKibben wrote in an e-mail. “Or if there is, the question is: Is this going to be a lot worse than we thought?”
Climate change science is becoming profoundly local, McKibben said. The effects are becoming noticeable regionally – changes in the maple season in Vermont, shifts in wildfire frequency and severity in the West. And scientists are more willing to undertake fine-grained analyses about particular locales, McKibben said.
“Five years ago, this was still guesswork, but much less so with each passing year,” he said. “And so it’s a natural feature for any editor to order up now.”
But just because consensus has grown doesn’t mean the handful of scientists who question global warming’s severity have disappeared. Patrick Michaels, a University of Virginia professor, said journalists are still calling him. He still frequently publishes a column in the conservative Washington Times.
“If anything,” he wrote in an e-mail, “I am busier than ever!”
While that may be true, the tenor of the coverage Michaels gets has changed drastically as reporters and the public have become more aware of climate change.
A 2004 New York Times story said this: “Dr. Patrick J. Michaels, a senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute, the libertarian research group based in Washington that is skeptical that global warming will cause serious environmental harm, points out that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere had been higher for 90 million of the last 100 million years.”
A 2006 AP story references him this way: “Pat Michaels – Virginia’s state climatologist, a University of Virginia professor and senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute – told Western business leaders last year that he was running out of money for his analyses of other scientists’ global warming research.
“So last week, a Colorado utility organized a collection campaign to help him out, raising at least $150,000 in donations and pledges.”
Many now dismiss Michaels and others as energy industry lobbyists, not scientists. Not doing so earlier was a mistake, Scripps’ Tim Barnett said.
Barnett said scientists knew Michaels and others “were full of crap.”
“But we tended to dismiss them and didn’t understand the weight they’d been carrying. It was a real eye-opener for me,” he said. “I think those guys’ days are numbered. They’ve had their 15 minutes.”
One Storm’s Effects
Journalists aren’t alone in their growing understanding of climate science. A July poll from the Public Policy Institute of California showed California residents growing increasingly concerned about global warming; 63 percent of those surveyed believe its effects are already being felt. Seventy-nine percent of residents surveyed said it is necessary to take immediate action to counter global warming.
Many say the public is more aware because of extreme real-life events. Hurricanes and heat waves. And they’re occurring as the public is beginning to understand the overwhelming body of science that supports climate change.
Many point to Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of the Gulf Coast and New Orleans – even if no definitive link exists between specific hurricanes and global warming. (While some researchers say warming boosted Katrina’s strength, others question the link. But in a warmer world, research says hurricanes will be fueled by warmer tropical waters and become more powerful.)
“It wasn’t so much during the hurricane that it dawned on people,” says Rick Van Schoik, a professor of environmental security at San Diego State University. “But over the last year … people are starting to realize their own culpability in the equation.”
UCSD’s Oreskes said the hurricane clearly played a role in shaping public opinion about climate change.
“It’s something tangible that impacts peoples’ lives,” she said. “Katrina woke people up that this is not just going to be a problem that affects our children and grandchildren.”
Others attribute the rising public concern to the growing body of science – particularly Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Mike Dettinger, a research hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey and Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said he was amazed while watching the film at the emotional audience reaction as slide after slide passed. Dettinger heard people groan. Light bulbs were clicking on.
“A guy like me goes to ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and I see a lot of slides I see at every meeting I go to,” Dettinger said. “What ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ did was to actually get people to sit for two hours and look at a slideshow that you can see at any number of scientific meetings.”
Last year’s hurricane season, which had the Atlantic churning out named storms through Christmas, helps the public understand warming’s potential impacts, Dettinger said. The catch, he said, is that this storm season so far has been unremarkable. Though El Niño may be responsible for the break this year, scientists recently reported that future storm seasons may be more severe. Warmer oceans will fuel stronger storms.
“Was last year global warming?” Dettinger asked. “I don’t know. It’s what we would anticipate global warming looking like. For it to come now is pretty suspicious, but in no way conclusive. It was a hell of an analog for it. And it may have even been a symptom of it.”
Political awareness of climate change is also growing statewide. California, which pioneered anti-acid-rain initiatives that eventually were adopted nationwide as the Clean Air Act, has again taken some of the first legislative steps to address global warming.
While state legislators recently adopted Assembly Bill 32, legislation that aims to cut the state’s carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent, the federal government and the Bush Administration have had little to say about global warming.
But McKibben said the legislation has clear implications for global warming policy across the country.
“Once someone’s in the water,” he said, “it’s psychologically that much easier for others to start jumping in too.”