Think Climate: a campus dialogue on global warming

Op-Ed by Alex Ahn and Hayden Dahmm

In 1824, a lengthy article titled “General remarks on the temperature of the Earth and Planetary Spaces” appeared, buried deep in the back pages of the French scientific journal Annales de Chimie et de Physique. Its author, Joseph Fourier, was a mathematician and physicist who was investigating possible sources of the additional heat that appeared to keep the Earth significantly warmer than it should be, given its incredible distance from the sun. One of the ideas he postulated in the publication — that the atmosphere might function as an insulator for the planet — grew in the next two centuries into what is perhaps the most complex and controversial subject of scientific and public discourse: global warming. But why should it be so controversial?

If there ever was one, global warming is the greatest threat to civilization in the foreseeable future. Rising temperatures and consequential climatic shifts threaten to throw the Earth’s energy balance into irretrievable positive feedback loops, increase the likelihood of extreme weather disasters that previously were extremely rare, damage countless ecosystems and impair crop yields in critical production regions around the world.

So who’s talking about it? Not many. There is a dearth of its coverage in the mainstream media, and even when it is covered, standard practices of journalism demand that skeptics of questionable credentials and ulterior motives be placed on equal footing with climate scientists who conduct scholarly research. However, because legitimate climatologists who disagree with the scientific consensus are so rare, reporters are forced to cite a small number of skeptics who are typically unqualified.

Myron Ebell, Director of Energy and Global Warming and International Environmental Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), is one such example. Despite his impressive title, he has no academic background in climatology or any natural sciences. That has not stopped him, however, from writing numerous op-ed articles on the exaggeration of the dangers of global warming or convincing the Bush administration not to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. Christopher Horner, another high-ranking expert at CEI, has written three books on global warming but has never in any way been involved with climate research. He has a law degree, but no scientific qualifications.

Coupled with a sophisticated campaign financed by the fossil fuel industry to malign scientists and to spread disinformation about global warming, the failure of mainstream media and environmental messaging has resulted in the solidification of a large sub-population of this country who are tragically misled on the status quo of climate science. According to a Yale study conducted last year, 40 percent of Americans believe that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists as to whether global warming is happening, which is utterly false. It is important to note that before a campaign was mounted by the coal and oil lobby to manipulate public opinion, the scientific consensus was known about by average Americans. Case in point: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), now often denounced on Fox News as a political scheme to push left-wing agendas, had the full support of then-presidential candidate George H.W. Bush in 1988 when it was formed to advise policymakers on the world’s climate. In fact, he was even quoted thus on the campaign trail: “those who think we are powerless to do anything about the ‘greenhouse effect’ forget about the ‘White House effect’; as president, I intend to do something about it.” Bush promised, that as president, he would take dramatic measures to curb the rate at which we were changing the global environment: “we will talk about global warming and we will act.”

The IPCC published its First Assessment Report in 1990, revealing the imperative for countries around the world to tackle global warming (i.e. reduce carbon dioxide emissions). Immediately, the fossil fuel lobby — to be more specific, the Edison Electric Institute, Western Fuels Association, and the National Coal Association — launched a coordinated attack against the public understanding of science, according to a leaked memo published in The New York Times, to “reposition global warming as theory, not fact.” It was called the Information Council on the Environment, and counted numerous discredited experts on their scientific advisory panel. Unfortunately, the ICE has been followed by numerous other projects from the fossil fuel lobby that have been much more successful.

The history of this disinformation campaign is surprisingly well documented, though little noticed. The impact it has had on the public sphere, however, cannot go unnoticed. A Gallup poll in 2011 revealed that 43% of Americans believe that global warming is caused by natural changes in the environment, and that the same percentage believe it is generally exaggerated in the news.

Although this is a status quo no other developed nation suffers, America’s position as a global superpower has allowed such domestic propaganda to set the agenda for the entire world. As the Earth’s atmosphere continues to warm dangerously and creep ever near the tipping point of runaway positive feedback loops, we find ourselves in critical need of clear messaging on the climate front unadulterated by the political or financial interests of those who are responsible for this environmental and human crisis.

This dire necessity is precipitated in the formation of “Think Climate” — a new student organization on the Swarthmore campus poised to join the struggle for clear, honest reporting on climate and renewable energy, as well as critiquing the mainstream media on their climate coverage. This initiative has manifested itself as a weekly radio program on WSRN 91.5 FM, also under the name “Think Climate.” We hope to branch out into the community and to spark a lively discussion on campus centered around climate change, emphasizing the necessity of immediate action. Through this op-ed column, we hope to lay the seeds of this important discourse. Please write to us if you have any questions about global warming.

The first official meeting of Think Climate will be held on Friday, Februrary 10, in Kohlberg 114, beginning at 4:30 p.m. All students, including skeptics, are welcome to attend.

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