A few degrees matter a lot

The OBSERVER recently published two columns charging those who believe that human activity is changing the earth’s climate to be “global warming cultists” who have fallen prey to “charlatans, hustlers, and quacks” (Walter Williams, “Some Educational Successes” June 30 and Cal Thomas, “Cold Shoulder to Global Warming July 2).

Williams says the reason so many Americans believe our actions contribute to global warning is that our educational system has succeeded “in dumbing down the nation.” “Only idiocy,” he opines, “would conclude that mankind’s capacity to change the climate is more powerful than the forces of nature.”

Last I checked, climate scientists weren’t claiming that humans’ influence on climate was more powerful than that of nature. After all, absent the warming we enjoy from being blanketed in an atmosphere rich in heat trapping gases and water vapor, our planet would hover at temperatures a couple of hundred degrees colder than Dunkirk on a good day. The scientists Williams calls quacks are simply reporting the disappointingly abundant evidence that our impact is starting to swing things by a handful of degrees, with that signal starting to be visible within the noise of natural climate variability. Turns out a few degrees matter a lot.

But then Williams reveals the true core of his thesis: “Only a deranged environmental wacko and duped people could believe that a non-god can change ocean depths.” Ah, I see. He’s not arguing the science; he’s saying that only God can alter earth’s conditions. I wish he were right. And this is a guy bemoaning the failure of our educational system to foster critical thought? Lest you think that global warming deniers are the only ones close to God, check out the good work of the Evangelical Environmental Network at

Then there’s Thomas’s column trotting out the tired but utterly misleading view that there is still much debate within the scientific community about climate change. “The global warmers are the ones refusing to discuss, debate, or even mention the growing body of science questioning and in increasing instances disproving their theories,” he claims.

Science of course must always questions its orthodoxies, and change theories as new evidence warrants. What Mr. Thomas fails to point out, however, is that the contrarians he champions represent a tiny fraction of one percent of all the qualified scientists studying this issue. For all of our sakes, I hope this tiny minority is right. But I wouldn’t buy ocean front property on the basis of their work.

Suppose 99 doctors claim you have a dangerous condition and need to eat better, exercise, and stop smoking or you’ll get really sick. One doctor says you’re fine and can keep on just as you are. Any prudent person will want to believe the one who says all is fine, but should act on the basis of the overwhelming majority. That’s where we are with climate science today.

As Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway document in their book “Merchants of Doubt,” there are many parallels between the supposed “controversies” in climate science today and past debates over the health effects of tobacco. Then as now, a handful of contrarians, some backed by industries with vested interest in preserving the status quo, were able to sow enough doubt to delay policy reform long after the true scientific debates had been laid to rest. In fact, some of the same naysaying “experts” have been actors in both dramas. The next time you hear someone ranting about global warning being a conspiracy cooked up by the liberal media and its lackeys in academia, ask yourself who has a vested interest in denying climate change – the coal and oil companies or some nerdy professors and underpaid reporters?

In the end, it doesn’t matter who is right on the science. That’s because the steps we need to take to minimize our impact on the climate are worth taking for many other reasons. I’m talking about measures like more efficient use of energy and a steady transition to cleaner energy sources. These steps reduce our need to burn fossil fuels, which release more than 80 percent of all human generated greenhouse gas emissions.

Today’s refrigerators use one-quarter the energy of those manufactured a generation ago and they keep the beer just as cold. U.S. cars and trucks will double their fuel efficiency within a decade, and those who want to will still be able to drive a muscle car or a monster truck. The U.S. will add more solar electric power generation capacity in the next three years than any other kind of power plant.

In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, these steps and others like them save us money, clean our air and water, reduce respiratory illness, and create more jobs than conventional energy sources. They also bolster national security and make it less likely that we’ll spill our children’s blood in wars over access to oil from countries that don’t like us very much.

This nation went to the moon in a single decade. Surely we can clean up our energy system so we continue to enjoy the incredible bounty we’ve been granted while minimizing our impact on the climate of the only home we have. It’s only common sense.

Michael Shepard is a Fredonia resident.