Momentum Shifts to Skeptics on Global Warming Debate

This article was updated at 2:57 p.m. ET

Eroding confidence in climate science punctuated by a pair of blizzards has global warming skeptics across the United States calling for a sharp rollback to years of political and industrial efforts to curb greenhouse emissions thought to contribute to global warming.

Climate scientists are on the defensive, and they're not backing down.

Public views have shifted starkly over the past year on the long-running controversy over whether global warming is real, and whether human activity contributes to it.

In a survey released last month, the percentage of Americans who think global warming is happening declined 14 percentage points vs. the year prior, to 57 percent. The survey, from the Yale Project on Climate Change, found that only half of U.S. residents say they are "somewhat" or "very worried" about global warming, a 13-point decrease from 2008.

"There is no question that there has been a change in momentum on this subject," said Dana Fisher, a climate policy expert at Columbia University.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of climate scientists still agree the data on global warming is solid, despite the setback of "Climategate" — a set of highly controversial, private e-mails among climate researchers that were hacked from a university server that point to possible cases of misconduct and that climate skeptics have touted as the "smoking gun" against climate change, though no scientific fraud was revealed. The leading climate researchers also still agree that humans are contributing to climate change by the production of greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels.

"People who are opposed to solving the carbon-climate problem have lost the scientific debate," said Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution Department of Global Ecology. "Therefore, they have had to move from discussion of the facts to character assassination, innuendo, and the politics of the personal attack."

Caldeira told LiveScience today that he views the tactics as "disgusting." But he sees a silver lining in them: "These are the death throes of a wounded opposition," he said.

Blizzard of developments

Global warming skeptics wasted no time in recent days taking advantage of the recent blizzards – which climate scientists say are in fact part of what we can expect from climate change – to promote their point of view.

The family of climate skeptic Republican Senator for Oklahoma James M. Inhofe built an igloo on Capitol Hill, with a cardboard sign reading "Al Gore's New Home." The New York Times mentioned it on its front page today.

Conservative Fox TV show host Sean Hannity said last week's blizzard "would seem to contradict Al Gore’s hysterical global warming theories."

Policy changes also seem to be snowballing.

The Utah House of Representatives approved a resolution yesterday that questions global warming and calls on the federal government to not proceed with legislation regulating carbon dioxide emissions. Sponsor of the resolution Rep. Kerry Gibson (R-Ogden) said: "I believe in global warming," according to the local Deseret News. "I believe in global cooling, in (weather) cycles. We've had an ice age, extreme heat," but can humans, "in our everyday lives," change the environment around us?

Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer withdrew her state yesterday from the Western Climate Initiative, a group of seven states and four Canadian provinces that had agreed to implement a "cap and trade" system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Brewer said efforts to cut emissions are too expensive, according to today's Arizona Republic.

Climate science

Largely lost in the present debate, amid talk of blizzards and the chilly winter across much of the country, is this simple fact: The decade 2000 through 2009 was the warmest since the 1880s, when modern record keeping began.

A warming world does not mean the disappearance of winter altogether, climate experts say. Earth's seasons will continue even with global warming. And while climate change may mean that some regions see milder, warmer winters than in the past, other regions could see stormier winter months. Extremes will be magnified, computer models suggest.

"There's substantial year-to-year variability of global temperature caused by the tropical El Niño-La Niña cycle," explains James Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). "But when we average temperature over five or ten years to minimize that variability, we find that global warming is continuing unabated."

Throughout the last three decades, GISS records show Earth's surface temperature has trended upward by about 0.2 degrees Celsius (0.36 Fahrenheit) per decade. Last year tied with a cluster of other recent years — 1998, 2002, 2003, 2006 and 2007 1998 and 2007 — as the second warmest year since 1880.

"The science of climate change remains robust and is unchanged by any of the media hype of the last few months," said Melanie Fitzpatrick, a climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "The reality of global warming has been confirmed by 11 of the world's National Academies of Sciences, as well as 18 different scientific societies across the nation. At the same time, well-funded contrarian groups continue to manufacture doubt around climate science in an attempt to undermine public understanding.  We should be paying attention to what's happening in the atmosphere, not the blogosphere."

Behind the momentum shift

So why has the debate's momentum shifted so starkly?

In an e-mail to LiveScience, Columbia University's Fisher cited three things — in addition to the blizzards:

  • The success in climate skepticism (in terms of climate skeptics' ability to take advantage of Climategate and to raise questions about climate science).
  • The failure of the Copenhagen round of the climate negotiations (United Nations Climate Change Conference) held in December.
  • The slowing of progress toward the Obama Administration's agenda, which included climate change, combined with Republican backlash.

"Scientists should take this opportunity to ensure that there is more transparency in terms of how they come to their conclusions. Also, scientists should try to communicate their findings to lay people in more accessible ways," she said.

Caldeira agrees that "scientists need to be as open [and] as forthcoming as possible in their research." But like many researchers, he does not think the isolated instances where science has stumbled erase the overwhelming evidence that the planet is warming. "I also believe this openness has characterized nearly all of the research that has been conducted to date," he said.

Caldeira admits the tactics of global warming skeptics have been successful.

"Having lost the argument on the scientific facts, the opposition has had tremendous success in their new strategy of character assassination," he said. "This strategy has been aided and abetted by major media outlets like the New York Times."

The question is whether the momentum shift will reach a tipping point.

"I see the play given by the media to these new tactics as a passing fad," Caldeira said. "Eventually baseless attacks on the morality of climate scientists will cease to make news."

Fitzpatrick worries that the issue has become so politicized that Congress may be frozen into inaction.

"As a scientist who has worked at both poles studying the response of ice sheets and sea ice to a warming climate, I am deeply concerned that the public is being misled by those who oppose action to reduce emissions," she told LiveScience today. "We are running out of time to act. The science has been clear for two decades. We know humans are largely responsible for the global warming we've experienced in the last half century. Because we know the risks of severe climate impacts increase with unchecked emissions, inaction is now inexcusable."

Andrea Thompson contributed reporting for this article.