Introduction to Global Warming
Global warming is a complicated issue. It’s easy to get confused by all the scientific arguments and conflicting claims. We created ClimateWiki to help everyone from high school students to scientists working in the field to quickly find the latest and most reliable information on this important topic.
This introductory essay tracks the organization of the Wiki – all the pages on the site are sorted into eight categories which correspond to the headlines in the essay below. This text also appears at the beginning of each category, to help frame the discussion.
Climate change can best be understood as an ongoing discussion or debate occurring in three different fields or arenas. Those arenas are Science, Economics, and Politics.
Scientists disagree on the causes and consequences of climate change for a number of reasons. First, climatology is still a very new discipline, so there is still more that is unknown than known. New discoveries are being reported in the peer-reviewed literature every day that change our understanding of how the climate works and man’s role in influencing climate.
The science of climate is also enormously complex, borrowing from a wide range of disciplines including astronomy, biology, chemistry, forecasting, geology, oceanography, and physics. Very few people are experts in more than one of these fields, so even scientists have to simply trust or believe what others say is the “consensus” of belief in this field. Disagreements arise when scientists choose to believe in different sources they think are authoritative.
Another reason scientists disagree about climate change is because the leading institutions that claim to speak with authority on the topic have been compromised by conflicts of interest, ideology, and politics. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, is the most frequently cited authority in the climate debate, yet it is a political organization, not a scientific body, and its conflicts of interest and violation of the scientific process have been widely reported. It is simply not a reliable guide to the science of climate change.
Climate change is an economic issue because changing climate affects human health and prosperity both positively and negatively, and because efforts to influence the climate by reducing greenhouse gas emissions – the gases such as carbon dioxide that are thought to contribute to “global warming” – and other public policies also can affect human health and prosperity.
There is ample evidence that a warmer world is also a safer and healthier world, yet this fact is seldom mentioned in the debate over climate change. Economists can measure the impact of climate change on various measures of economic well being and calculate, for example, the effect of warmer temperatures per-capita income, the price of food and other essentials, and even on life expectancy. They can also measure the loss of income and jobs that result from restricting access to inexpensive fossil fuels.
Economists can determine what types of regulation are likely to be most efficient, and whether the unintended consequences of regulations threaten to outweigh the intended benefits. Economists have studied various proposals for “cap and trade” and energy taxes and determined whether or not they would accomplish the objectives of their advocates, and at what cost to consumers.
Climate change became a political issue when groups on the left saw in the issue the potential to accomplish many of their political objectives such as redistributing income, slowing population growth, and protecting wildlife and wilderness. Climate change was “the mother of all environmental scares.” It quickly became a partisan issue, with Democrats lining up in favor of taking immediate action, and Republicans lining up (a little later and not quite as uniformly) to question the need for such action.
Al Gore, a former U.S. Senator and Vice President, is one of the biggest advocates of global warming alarmism. He has counterparts in many other parts of the world. The United Nations was quickly brought into the debate and became a major funder and supporter of global warming alarmism when it became apparent that most of its members would benefit from income redistribution advocated in the name of “climate restitution.”
The political debate encompasses international treaties, the positions taken by recent Presidents, efforts by Congress to influence EPA, and state initiatives.
Why the Media Get it Wrong
Most of us learn about climate change by reading about it in newspapers and magazines or seeing it on television. But most media coverage of this issue is biased in an alarmist direction. Little wonder, then, that so many people are confused and misinformed.
Surveys of editors and journalists invariably show that very few have backgrounds in science or economics that would enable them to cover the climate change debate accurately. Upwards of 80 percent self-identify as liberal or Democrats, and since climate warming is a political cause promoted almost exclusively by Democrats, most newspaper articles simply repeat that political party’s talking points on the issue.
Media bias extends beyond newspapers and television to some scientific journals, such as Scientific American, New Scientist, and even respected journals such as Nature and Science. It also appears in online outlets such as Wikipedia and of course left-wing blogs such as The Huffington Post. Thankfully, there is a growing number of Web sites devoted to global warming realism that attempt to set the record straight.
Scares and Hoaxes
Global warming is not the first case of a widespread fear based on incomplete knowledge turned out to be false or at least greatly exaggerated. Global warming has many of the characteristics of a popular delusion, an irrational fear or cause that is embraced by millions of people because, well, it is believed by millions of people! Charles Mackay described dozens of similar scares and hoaxes in 1841 in a still-influential book titled Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.
Other popular delusions that resemble the global warming delusion include astrology, eugenics, and witchcraft. Recent scares concerning the environment that turned out to be exaggerated or at least questionable include asbestos, dioxin, lead, mercury, pesticides, PCBs, chlorine, and endocrine disrupters. Recalling these past scares and hoaxes helps to put the fear of global warming in perspective.
Journalists are taught to “follow the money” to find the true culprits or driving forces behind a newsworthy event. In the climate change debate, those driving forces are relatively easy to identify: liberal foundations such as the MacArthur Foundation, Tides Foundation, and Rockefeller Foundation have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the effort. So too have radical environmental groups that have little or no scientific expertise.
Funding becomes especially controversial when governments spend billions of dollars on “research” that sometimes amounts to little more than overt advocacy and propaganda. Global warming research has become a multi-billion dollar industry that has a clear interest in sustaining the climate of fear and false certainty about the causes and consequences of climate change.
Climate alarmists attempt to deflect attention to their own financial conflicts of interest by claiming that “skeptics” are funded by the fossil fuel industry and related interests. While that industry does provide modest support to a few groups, any honest assessment quickly finds that such support does not explain why so many scientists dissent from the so-called “consensus” in favor of alarmism. It is a small percentage of the conflict-laden dollars flowing to alarmist groups.
One way to penetrate the fog of charges and counter-charges in the climate change debate is to single out individuals who are prominent in the debate and better understand their qualifications, past positions, and possible conflicts of interest. Some people, such as former Vice President Al Gore, are well known and prominent in the debate. Others are less known but very important, and knowing their backgrounds (good or bad) sheds some useful light on the debate.
Thousands of books have been written about climate change, some aimed at children, others for working scientists, and still others for the general public. These books vary greatly in tone and accuracy. It is easy to be influenced by books that rely on fear and appeals to authority rather than books that explain the actual science and economics of climate change.
Jay Lehr, science director of The Heartland Institute, has reviewed scores of books on climate change for Environment & Climate News. Those reviews appear in the Wiki, along with other reviews and sometimes links to books that are available for free online.