Climate Change Denial and the Inculcation of Ruthlessness

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) rolls out its fifth report, summarizing the “state of the science” on climate change after years of reviewing thousands of published papers, the push-back from climate-change deniers has arrived with the predictability of mosquitoes in Florida’s rainy season. One of the first salvos was fired by the Koch brothers’ most sycophantic propagandist, Cal Thomas, although we would expect both Deroy Murdock and Jay Ambrose to pollute the pages of the Leesburg Daily Commercial with similar corporate-approved messages in due course. Those who profit the most from the exploitation of non-renewable resources have a parallel interest in exploiting one of America’s most dependable renewable resources: impressionable minds. Blowing up the higher mental functions of altruism, compassion, and abstract reasoning with the same selfish disdain involved in removing mountaintops in West Virginia, the profit-takers seek to inculcate in the American mind a deadly combination of ignorance and ruthlessness. Yet in one of the most tragic ironies of our time, they fail to see that their own success dooms them to the same dystopian fate as the rest of us.

This is an interesting moment in the battle of ideas we should not still be fighting. The IPCC report has aroused controversy because of its handling of what appears to be a 15-year “pause” in the warming process. For the deniers, this pause is a heaven-sent opportunity to exploit the intellectual biases of demographic groups who see nothing oxymoronic about creation science and are more likely to believe in angels than in climate change. Thus, before we can discuss the actual state of the science, we need to come to terms with the state of the minds who claim to be qualified to judge it.

The New Greenhouse Effect: Thrown Stones Bounce Back

On September 20th, Cal Thomas began his service to the Koch brothers and their ilk by immediately making himself look ridiculous.

There is a tradition in politics that is similar to one in the legal profession: When evidence supports your position, make your argument based on the evidence, but when it argues against your position, ignore the evidence and appeal to emotion.

For readers familiar with the propaganda of Cal Thomas, the hypocrisy here is pretty spectacular. Before we even get started on our journey through the climate-change looking glass, we know that this is a man who routinely ignores the evidence, collected by numerous intelligence agencies, that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons in order to scare his readers into supporting Israel’s desired war against Iran. And this is a man who foments pure hatred against all Muslims by constantly demonizing them as deceptive evil-doers who plan to conquer America from within, appealing to the most base emotions of his readers in a hideous deception of his own. Thus, any thinking person knows that every word that follows his introduction will be pure, unmitigated dross. It is unfortunate that we have to read it at all, but when the Daily Commercial and other local newspapers across the country feed this to their readership, a response is required.

In a column dripping with contemptuous over-use of quotation marks to tell readers, as if they were trained seals, where to see a lack of credibility, Thomas disparages those who have been convinced by the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the notion of anthropogenic climate change as “true believers” and “cultists.” Here is just one example:

Former Vice President Al Gore has made a personal fortune promoting the cult of global warming, a cult being partially defined as a belief system that ignores proof contrary to its beliefs.

It is fascinating to observe a propagandist for America’s plutocrats – a man who has called for rich people to stage a tax revolt against the unfairness of their burden – suddenly become concerned with the manner in which a man makes a fortune. Isn’t wealth supposed to be the just reward for personal virtues such as industry, intelligence, and the fortitude to keep slashing one’s way through the jungle of unnecessary regulations placed in one’s path by big government? In the case of the Koch brothers, who inherited much of their wealth and have expanded it by polluting the planet, it certainly is.

Occidental Petroleum on U'wa Indian Site

Occidental Petroleum “developing” an ancestral Indian site. (Image links to University of Michigan case study.)

Yet in Al Gore’s case, wealth suddenly acquires a certain distastefulness, as if it had been acquired from illicit activities like the sale of marital aids or the provision of abortion services to minorities. And, funnily enough, one of the most inconvenient truths about Al Gore is that throughout his political career (and long after he had written the sophomoric book that announced him as a climate crusader) he, much like his father before him, was an agent for Occidental Petroleum. Much of Gore’s family wealth, ironically, stemmed from quietly advancing interests similar to those of the Koch brothers, even if it meant trampling on the sacred ground of Native Americans. Of course, Cal Thomas is not going to tell us that, because such character nuances would interfere with the simple plot of his fantasy. Nor is he going to denounce those who have made a fortune from the exploitation of bone fide cults – a subject with which Cal Thomas is singularly well-acquainted.

Coming from a man who made a career in the right-wing media by pandering to the irrationality of American religious fundamentalists, Thomas’s riff against “true believers” is utterly hilarious, and we do not even need to look at climate issues (though we will) to see why. Thomas’s base includes groups of evangelicals who believe that a widespread war in the Middle East will usher in the Second Coming of Christ and allow them to rule the Earth with Jesus for a thousand years. This is not just something they believe; it is something they earnestly want, no matter what it means in terms of collateral damage. Likewise, it is not necessary to explore the bizarre beliefs of the cult to which fellow-Republican Mitt Romney belongs (a cult which Thomas steadfastly eschewed criticizing in 2012 despite an obvious preference for Newt Gingrich) when Thomas’s persistence on the American scene is made possible by his deep roots in a craziness that has absolutely no basis in reality and can only exist in the presence of unquestioning faith. When a man with this kind of background presumes to lecture the country on the proper practice of the scientific method, we know we’re in for a treat.

Ever the professional, however, Thomas remains mindful of the needs of his clients and never misses an opportunity to lick two boots with one pass of his sticky tongue. Thus, Thomas combines a neat racist side-swipe on behalf of his Israeli masters with a bash at global warming on behalf of America’s extractive supermen:

Just how silly this is getting is an assertion by some activists that the current tensions in Syria might be linked to climate change. That’s not as harebrained as a newspaper report in January 1933, which said, “Yo-Yo Banned in Syria, Blamed for Drought by Moslems.” The Syrians of 1933 actually believed the up and down of a toy yo-yo affected the weather. If it went down and sprang right back up, rain. If it went down and didn’t spring up, drought. Police reportedly patrolled the streets, confiscating the toy. Ridiculous? Not as ridiculous as some of the junk science coming out of climate research circles today.

And certainly not as ridiculous as Cal Thomas himself, for what we have here is a truly pathetic straw man fallacy, as insulting to the intelligence of the Daily Commercial‘s readers as it is irrelevant to the issues at hand. But if we must continue to talk about irrational explanations for the weather, we should note that the Syrians of the 1930s were not the only people with a poor grasp of cause and effect. As it happens, Americans in the 21st Century – God’s chosen people in God’s (other) chosen land – have some trouble with this concept, too. Michele Bachmann Explains Hurricane IreneIn the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, a sitting member of Congress and candidate for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination opined that God was trying to get America’s attention via natural disasters. This same member of Congress claimed that God had personally called her to run for President. (Strangely, he also called at least two of her challengers.) Although the candidate attempted to backtrack by claiming that her remarks were made in jest, it is clear from the video that she was quite serious, and this is not surprising, since many of the Americans to whom she was speaking share her perception of reality. One in three evangelical Christians believed that Hurricane Katrina was a deliberate act of God.

But the biscuit is taken by the right-wing news website WND.com, formerly WorldNewsDaily, where Cal Thomas is positively lionized. (In 2004, WND ran an article entitled, Cal Thomas for President?) Their homepage currently offers for sale a dramatic video of the parting of the Red Sea, in which a submarine camera shows Egyptian chariots littering the sea floor. And in 2012,  as “Frankenstorm” Sandy was brewing, they ran a long article on the “journalist and White House correspondent” William Koenig. Koenig, author of a book entitled, Eye to Eye: Facing the Consequences of Dividing Israel, blamed Sandy and a host of other disasters on God’s displeasure with America’s policy toward Israel. Selected extracts from this priceless article follow:

“When we put pressure on Israel to divide their land, we have enormous, record-setting events, often within 24 hours,” Koenig told WND. “Hurricane Katrina, 9/11 – we have experienced over 90 record-setting, all-time events as we have acted against Israel. And the greater the pressure on Israel to ‘cooperate,’ the greater the catastrophe.”

Some of Koenig’s examples are startling.

“Hurricane Sandy is expected to come ashore in the Northeast on the 21st anniversary of the ‘Perfect Storm,’” Koenig related. “That record-setting storm devastated the New England coast as President George H.W. Bush co-sponsored the Madrid Conference from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1, 1991.”[…]

“The Perfect Storm sent 30-foot ocean waves into Bush’s Kennebunkport home as he was calling on Israel to give up the West Bank (Judea, Samaria and East Jerusalem),” Koenig told WND. “The Madrid ‘land for peace’ Conference began the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that Mitt Romney advocated in the debates, even as yet another ‘perfect storm’ is brewing offshore.”[…]

Similarly, Hurricane Katrina, the deadliest and costliest hurricane in U.S. history, hit Aug. 29, 2005; the storm began the day President George W. Bush congratulated Israel for evacuating Gaza and called on the Israelis and Palestinians to move onto his two-state plan.[…]

Koenig drew similar parallels with Hurricane Isaac and the 2012 Republican National Convention. The day Isaac formed as a tropical storm in August, the Republican platform committee voted to add a “two-state” position pertaining to Israel for formal convention approval.[…]

In fact, in his book… Koenig points out that nine of the 10 costliest insurance events in U.S. history followed dramatic calls by U.S. officials for Israel to make land concessions in bids for peace with its neighbors. He points out with startling detail how six of the seven costliest hurricanes in U.S. history followed such events. He points out how three of the four largest tornado outbreaks in U.S. history also followed such developments.

Yo-yos indeed. Cal Thomas knows who these people are, and he knows exactly what and how they think. Although we can not expect him to ridicule these people as “true believers” or “cultists,” for that would obviously be self-destructive, he actually does something far worse: he exploits their ignorance and leads them down the road to hell that is paved with corporate gold.

Junk Science or Junk Journalism?

When Thomas briefly turns his energies away from his exploration of the frontiers of hypocrisy and attempts to address the science – presumably in an attempt to suck in those Americans whose orbits place them dangerously close to the  black hole of abject ignorance – he reveals himself once again to be every bit as deceptive as the demonized Muslims he wants us all to hate. Unfortunately, most of his readers are probably not going to catch him in the act – a sad state of affairs upon which ideological predators like Thomas depend.

The evidence is piling up that “climate change,” formerly known as “global warming,” is losing evidentiary support…. Both sides seem to agree that CO2 levels are elevated, but they don’t agree on whether that will cause dangerous climate change, including rising temperatures and turbulent weather. The Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) argues, “The human effect is likely to be small relative to natural variability, and whatever small warming is likely to occur will produce benefits as well as costs.”

The equivalence that Thomas seeks to establish between “two sides” is completely false and illegitimate. As MediaMatters.org explained in an analysis of an identical ploy by Fox News, for which Cal Thomas frequently contributes, the NIPCC is in no way, shape, or form comparable to the IPCC – no matter how much Rupert Murdoch’s propagandists want us to believe it is:

The NIPCC report… was compiled by paid contributors and did not go through rigorous peer review. Furthermore, the body that published it is a joint project of three fossil-fuel-backed groups, including the Heartland Institute, which earned its bona fides as “the world’s most prominent think tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change” through stunts like associating “belief” in the issue with the Unabomber. Previous editions of the NIPCC report have been called “dishonest” and “not a credible scientific undertaking.” Fox News mentioned none of this.

[Image added below]

Heartland Institute Unabomber Billboard

Although Heartland pulled the billboards down, their actions should leave no room for doubt about the credibility and character of the organization. Media Matters continues:

In emails to Media Matters, major climate scientists criticized the network for citing the NIPCC in the same breath as the IPCC.

Kevin Trenberth, National Center for Atmospheric Research:

The NIPCC has no standing whatsoever. It is not a reviewed document, it is not open for review at any point and it contains demonstrable garbage and falsehoods. In contrast the IPCC process is rigorous, open and there are 2 major reviews.  This is irresponsible journalism.

Michael Oppenheimer, Princeton University:

The NIPCC statement run by Fox is flat out wrong.  Media who cite both IPCC and NIPCC in the same breath (or in close proximity) are clearly either uninformed or attempting to confuse the public, unless of course, they are attempting to clear up any confusion about the two organizations by making clear that NIPCC does not represent the expert consensus on climate change. If NIPCC is ever cited, it should be within the latter context.

Of course, in Cal Thomas’s narrative, such prominent scientists as Trenberth and Oppenheimer are mere “cultists” engaged in a “Chicken Little attempt to stop the sky from falling” and have “government ‘fix’ the problem.”1 Clearly, the only people we should believe are the paid hacks who tell us that it’s safe to pollute again (and it always was). Peer review is for socialists, not scientists.

Picking Frozen Cherries

Thomas’s next deception, courtesy of a right-wing British newspaper (which has long since lost its own battle against falling into the gutter) and an American denier’s blog, seeks to draw entirely the wrong conclusions from the extent of Arctic sea ice being observed this summer.

Now comes a report in the U.K. Daily Mail [sic.] that “eminent scientists” have observed a record return of the Arctic ice cap as it grows by 60 percent in a year, covering with ice almost 1 million more square miles of ocean than in 2012.

In 2007, the BBC reported that by 2013, global warming would leave the Arctic “ice free.” Oops!

Thomas’s over-use of air quotes elsewhere in his article gets him into trouble here, much like the dim-witted but lovable Joey in one episode of Friends. The author of the Daily Mail article uses “eminent scientists” sincerely, in order to lend credence to his skepticism, proceeding to quote the scientists he regards as eminences. But Cal Thomas’s readers don’t know that scientists are only eminent when their science says the right thing; indeed, after seeing climate scientists repeatedly smeared as “cultists,” they can be forgiven for assuming that Thomas is taking yet another swipe at the people his fundamentalist base loves to hate. Just as Thomas’s recent skepticism toward the intelligence on Iraqi WMDs inadvertently undermines his case for war against Iran, his disdain for scientists weakens any attempt to marshal scientific evidence to his cause, even when he genuinely needs it.

That said, the evidence, once liberated from the spin of propagandists, is never going to support his cause. Climate scientist Dana Nuccitelli, writing in The Guardian explains that the greater extent of Arctic sea ice in 2013 was expected by the vast majority of climate scientists, largely because 2012 was a year of record-shattering ice loss:

As University of Reading climate scientist Ed Hawkins noted last year,

“Around 80% of the ~100 scientists at the Bjerknes [Arctic climate science] conference thought that there would be MORE Arctic sea-ice in 2013, compared to 2012.”

The reason so many climate scientists predicted more ice this year than last is quite simple. There’s a principle in statistics known as “regression toward the mean,” which is the phenomenon that if an extreme value of a variable is observed, the next measurement will generally be less extreme. In other words, we should not often expect to observe records in consecutive years. 2012 shattered the previous record low sea ice extent; hence ‘regression towards the mean’ told us that 2013 would likely have a higher minimum extent.

As for the BBC report from 2007, which Thomas seems to regard as his coup de grace, it might be worth noting that the BBC was quoting only one scientist, who stated in 2011 that he expected an ice-free Arctic by 2016, plus or minus three years. Others not mentioned by Thomas believed that this was too pessimistic and saw 2040 as more realistic. Whatever date we choose, the direction in which we are heading is clear, as Alex Knapp, the science writer for Forbes spells out:

First, in 2012, Arctic sea ice reached an extreme record low – so any extent that wasn’t a record-breaker could be spun as an “increase.” Second, when you’re looking at long term trends in climate, you have to look at just that – the trends. Not the year to year noise. So what happens if we look at the long term trend in Arctic sea ice? We find that 2013 is well below the average Arctic ice coverage for the years between 1981 and 2010….

In a NASA blog post last month about Arctic sea ice measurements, NASA scientist Walt Meier had this to say about the current extent of sea ice: “Even if this year ends up being the sixth- or seventh-lowest extent, what matters is that the 10 lowest extents recorded have happened during the last 10 years. The long-term trend is strongly downward.”

Furthermore, it’s not enough just to look at the surface area of Arctic sea ice. As Phil Plait noted in Slate back in May, it’s equally important to look at sea ice volume. And when we look at volume, we see that the sea ice in the Arctic is a lot thinner than it used to be.

One might quibble with Meier’s suggestion that ten years constitute a sufficient period to qualify as long-term, but Knapp supports his points with two charts using thirty-year timelines to show clear downward trends in both the surface area and volume of Arctic ice. And this distinction between what we see at the surface and what is happening beneath the surface turns out to be critical in other areas as well.

The Pause that Refreshes

As we noted at the outset, the climate-change deniers are all hot and bothered by the appearance of an apparent slowing down in the rate of global warming. Much fuss has been made about the IPCC’s internal debate about how best to explain the trend evinced by the data. For Cal Thomas’s blogger friend, Marc Morano, victory is at hand:

Global temperatures have failed to rise for 15 plus years…. 2013 may be the year in which man-made global warming fears enter the dustbin of history.

Or it may just be the year in which climate-change deniers make themselves look as ridiculous as flat-earthers. For discussion of this alleged cooling displays the same kind of cherry-picking displayed in the claimed recovery of polar ice: the numbers tell different stories depending on when we start counting. As The Economist notes, 1998 – the year being used as the starting point of the magical 15-year gap – was an unusually warm year because of El Nino activity. Dan Lashof of the Natural Resources Defence Council adds that the warming seen in the 1998-2012 period was within the statistical uncertainty bounds of the long-run trend since 1950. According to Lashof, if we look at a 15-year period starting in 1995 instead of 1998, we see warming that is faster than this long-run trend. His ultimate point, emphasizing one of the conclusions of the IPCC report itself, is that there is plenty of room for natural variability – due to such factors as El Nino, volcanic activity, and solar cycles – within a secular warming caused by human activity.

Alex Knapp of Forbes forcefully rejects the whole idea of a slowdown in warming:

In his article on climate change, Mr. Rose [the author of the Daily Mail piece] makes the repeated claim that the warming trend of Earth’s average global temperature “paused” in 1997. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “All of the top ten warmest years in the record have occurred since the last major El Niño event, in 1998.” What’s more, according to NOAA, “Since 1976, every year including 2012 has had an annual temperature above the long-term average.” In fact the two warmest years on record are 2005 and 2010, and the years between 2000 and 2010 had higher average temperatures than the years between 1990 and 1999.

But even for those who acknowledge a slowdown in the apparent rate of change in global average temperatures, including the ever-conservative authors of the IPCC report, it turns out that there is something else going on that the deniers choose to elide. While surface air temperatures have not risen quite as much as some expected over the past 15 years – though they have risen – the oceans are definitely getting warmer. As The Economist observed, we should not be surprised by this, since the oceans cover two-thirds of the Earth and have a much greater capacity to absorb heat. Dana Nuccitelli elaborates:

There are periods when the ocean heats up more quickly than the surface, and other periods when the surface heats up more quickly than the oceans. Right now we’re in a period of fast ocean warming and overall, global warming is continuing at a very fast pace.

The confusion on this subject lies in the fact that only about 2 percent of global warming is used in heating air, whereas about 90 percent of global warming goes into heating the oceans (the rest heats ice and land masses). But humans live at the Earth’s surface, and thus we tend to focus on surface temperatures. Over the past 10–15 years, Earth’s surface temperature has continued to rise, but slowly. At the same time, the warming of the oceans – and the warming of the Earth as a whole – has accelerated.

This was the conclusion of a scientific paper I co-authored last year, in which our team found more overall global warming (of the oceans, air, land, and ice combined) over the past 15 years than during the prior 15 years.

The main determinant of whether a particular period will witness mostly air warming or mostly ocean warming seems to be the cycles of El Nino (which made 1998 warm at the surface) and La Nina (which cools the air but drives heat into the ocean). “Since 2000,” Nuccitelli reports, “there has been a preponderance of La Niña events, which has acted to temporarily bury more global warming in the oceans.” The following graph clearly shows us where all the heat is going.

Global Heat Accumulation Data

Global heat accumulation data (ocean heating in blue; land, atmosphere, and ice heating in red) from Nuccitelli et al. (2012). (Credit: The Guardian)

Since water expands when warmer, Cal Thomas’s Jewish friends in West Palm Beach might want to invest in some real estate somewhat further inland. Their heirs will be needing it.

The Only Good Polar Bear Is A Dead Polar Bear

Since the evidence on climate change is overwhelmingly hostile to Cal Thomas’s position, it would appear that his only hope of garnering support is through an appeal to emotion. When Thomas seeks to sell war in the Middle East, he has no trouble invoking fear and loathing of distant others no matter how strongly the facts militate against his case. But in this particular battle, Thomas appears to be asking us to hate Mother Nature herself.

[T]he climate change cultists continue to focus on melting polar ice caps and “displaced” polar bears as part of their emotional appeal for government to “fix” the problem.

Polar Bear Trapped on Fragmented Sea IceBeyond all the hypocrisy, all the deception, all the lies, and all the epithets, this short passage exposes the dark soul of Cal Thomas and the men whose interests he elevates above all others. And beyond all the predictable consequences of climate change – sea level rise, extreme weather events, floods, droughts, failed harvests, dried-up water sources, and the geopolitical tensions these stresses will produce (yes, including the precious Middle East) – the ultimate question here is whether mankind as a species is capable of recognizing the special duty of care with which he has been entrusted.

For a Christian, that question should be an easy one to answer. Yet those who present themselves to the public as Christian leaders, and profess to value the sanctity of life, only value life to the extent that it will contribute to the wealth of the most powerful corporations and their owners. All other forms of life that do not appear to have any possible economic application are disposable.

American capitalism, as currently practiced, is on a collision course with ecological disaster. As a system of resource exploitation, it has entered a terminal phase and therefore presents us with a choice: do we care about profits, or do we care about life? America’s fundamentalist religions are allowing their weight to come down on the wrong side. If they really want to sit by the side of their Lord, they must see the error of their ways.

Cal Thomas is a false prophet. He is leading his flock down an evil path. And that evil must be confronted.

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  1. Thomas presumably would not appreciate the fact that this characterization perfectly describes his own attempt to have the government fix Israel’s hysteria about a second Holocaust.

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