Snow in the South, ice gain in Antarctica and scientists seemingly fudging climate data: Is the global warming debate over? Definitely.
... But skeptics aren't on the winning side. Global warming nay-sayers have gleefully seized on recent scandals and misinterpreted data to bolster their collection of arguments, but there are these pesky things called facts that keep getting in the way of their agenda.
How do you respond to that impassioned neighbor, cranky uncle or annoying cocktail party guest who uses sunspots, Al Gore's supposed greed and a limited grasp of climate science to claim that global warming isn't really happening? Presenting the Top 10 global warming denier arguments, and the facts that thoroughly debunk them.
10. It's all a hoax perpetuated by money-hungry Al Gore
"You fools are being taken for a ride! Al Gore just made all this stuff up about global warming so he can roll in the Benjamins at his mansion."
Fact: Gore donates all of the proceeds from both the book and DVD of An Inconvenient Truth to environmental causes. He also donated 100 percent of his Nobel Peace Prize award as well as the salary from his venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, to the Alliance for Climate Protection.
Al Gore isn't the only target, though a few poorly worded statements and oversimplified points in the Inconvenient Truth documentary (not to mention his status as a wealthy former politician) make him an easy one.
Some claim that scientists "follow the money right onto the man-made global warming bandwagon." But most funding for global warming research comes from government grants, and the money is doled out before the results are determined.
Meanwhile, dirty energy companies and anti-climate-action groups shower scientists who are willing to argue against climate change with cash. ExxonMobil was one of the largest sources of funding for such scientists for over a decade, and purported to stop in 2008. Surprise! They lied. Records show that the oil giant paid out $125,000 that year to several climate action opposition groups.
9. But look at all the snow!
"It's going to keep snowing in DC until Al Gore cries 'uncle'," tweeted U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., on Feb. 9 as a fierce winter storm dropped foot after foot of snow on the nation's capital. "Record snowfall illustrates the obvious: The global warming fraud is without equal in modern science," trumpeted an editorial in the conservative Washington Times. And let's not even get started on The Donald.
Right — because winter is never cold, and all that snow can't possibly have anything to do with a near-record amount of moisture in the air. Meteorologist Jeff Masters explains that heavy precipitation events are increasing as the world warms, and guess what — at the freezing point and below, that means snow (and lots of it). Global warming doesn't mean winter is going to go away.
And guess what? The U.S. isn't the entire world — it's only 1.5 percent of the globe. The Earth's atmosphere is getting warmer, but different climates will be affected in different ways. Local weather is becoming more volatile across the board due both to warming and normal variability, but while that has translated to more frequent, more severe snow events in North America, Brazil has experienced a near-record heat wave at the same time.
8. Warming is a good thing
"Break out the grill, swimsuits and daiquiri mix — a huge chunk of the world is about to turn into tropical paradise!" OK, so not everyone using this argument paints such a laughably simplistic picture of supposed global warming benefits, but it's still bad: Many believe that global warming would be good for the Earth — and us.
Some cite fewer winter deaths, an ice-free Northwest Passage and increases in the number of certain species. Others argue that if the climate were to cool instead, even a little bit, a feedback effect would make things worse as growing Arctic snowfields caused more sunlight to reflect away from the ground. And another Ice Age wouldn't exactly be kind to humanity.
But while a few select regions could benefit from a warmer overall climate, most of the world would suffer on a nightmarish scale, and the feedback effect applies to warming as well.
Raging wildfires, extreme water scarcity, expanding deserts, changing ecosystems. Heat-wave deaths, the spread of deadly mosquito-borne diseases, growing dead zones in the oceans, death of healthy trees and other vegetation, coral extinction. War. Climate refugees. That's only a small fraction of the projected consequences — taken from material published by the National Academy of Sciences, the American Meteorological Society and Science, among other places — but it's surely more than enough.
7. Climate change is part of a natural cycle
"How can we, petty little humans that we are, possibly alter something as huge in scope as the planet's climate? After all, when you think about just how complex the Earth really is, we're just not that important. So why should we change our habits?"
That might have been true until about two centuries ago, when the Industrial Age came along and we first started burning massive quantities of filthy, CO2-producing coal. Since then, as technology has advanced and our population has multiplied to over 6 billion people, we've gotten a bit big for our britches, pushing the limits of just how much pollution we can pump into the air before seeing catastrophic global effects.
There's no doubt that historically, temperatures and greenhouse gas levels have fluctuated naturally, but those fluctuations are nothing compared to what we've seen in the past century (see "Reconstructed Temperature" chart).
6. Temperature data is unreliable
Skeptics like to claim that temperature records showing a warming trend are unreliable because weather stations are often located in areas that absorb and radiate heat, like rooftops and asphalt parking lots. But in reality, the Urban Heat Island Effect has had a very small influence on temperature readings and climate scientists adjust the data to account for it.
All major temperature reconstructions for the past 1,000 years published in peer-reviewed journals show some variability in surface temperatures over centuries, with a dip in the Little Ice Age — and a huge uptick during the past century. Even if those reconstructions are excluded and we only look at the last 150 years, there's a significant rise.
When it comes down to it, surface temperature records are far from the only evidence of global warming. Grist notes that borehole analysis, weather balloon temperature data, satellite measurements, glacial melt observations, sea level rise and other indicators can be used completely independently of surface temps.
5. Antarctica is actually gaining ice, not losing it
Melting at the Earth's poles has long been considered a major warning sign of global warming, so when two recent studies indicated a slowing of overall surface warming across Antarctica — and even some ice gain — skeptics took it as solid proof of their point. The problem is, NASA satellite data shows that Antarctica has been losing more than 24 cubic miles of ice each year since 2002.
The "discrepancy" boils down to two things: First, there's a big difference between land ice and sea ice. Sea ice is increasing, but it's not because Antarctica is cooling — in fact, the Southern Ocean is warming faster than any other ocean on earth. It's due to a series of events including the hole in the ozone layer and wind currents pushing sea ice around.
Second, scientists suspect that Antarctic ice shelves are being eroded from underneath by warming seas, and satellites can't measure under the ice. While there's not much happening in East Antarctica, which is a high, dry desert making up two-thirds of the continent, West Antarctica — a series of ice-covered islands that rest on the ocean floor — is retreating at a dramatic pace, especially along the southern portion of the Antarctic Peninsula.
The Peninsula is the farthest point from the South Pole, so its deterioration could be a sign of what's to come for the rest of the continent.
4. 'Climategate' proves it's all an elaborate scam
When hackers stole e-mails written by England climate scientists at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in November 2009, skeptics hailed it as "the final nail in the coffin for global warming." To much of the public, the content of some of the e-mails seemed damning: The scientists, including Phil Jones, joked about physically harming opponents and referred to their work in terms that seemed to boast of intentionally manipulating data.
But the quotes were clearly taken out of context. Few people took the time to read the e-mails in full before deciding that their contents proved global warming a scam.
While Jones himself admits that the personal attacks in some of the e-mails were "awful," an extensive independent examination of all 1,073 e-mails by the Associated Press and a panel of moderate climate scientists found no evidence whatsoever that the science of global warming was faked.
A British panel in July rebuked the scientists for their behavior, but found the same thing. In fact, a New York Times story that came out after the British panel issued its decision noted that after a handful of separate investigations, "All five investigations have come down largely on the side of the climate researchers, rejecting a number of criticisms raised by global-warming skeptics."
When "Climategate" fizzled, skeptics homed in on a new target: a few minor errors in a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). That's an entire article in itself; to get the facts — including at least one high-profile retraction of a story by London's Sunday Times — see realclimate.org.
3. There's no consensus among scientists
The 31,000-strong "Petition Project" is proof that there's no scientific consensus on climate change! Except that it's not a legitimate petition. An investigation by the Seattle Times into the "scientists" who signed the petition found that dozens of names were made up including "Perry S. Mason," "Michael J. Fox," "John C. Grisham" and Spice Girl "Dr. Geri Halliwell."
Only 0.1 percent of the Petition Project signers have a background in climatology. An unrelated survey found that 97.4 percent of actual climatologists who actively publish research on climate change believe that human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures.
Twenty-four scientific organizations and the Academy of Sciences from more than a dozen different countries all support the consensus, and a survey of all peer-reviewed abstracts on the subject of global climate change published between 1993 and 2003 found that not a single paper rejected the consensus position.
2. It hasn't warmed for over a decade
This wholly inaccurate argument is a favorite of Glenn Beck and his ilk.
Here are the facts: 1998 was a record-breaking, blazing hot year. Since average global temperatures haven't quite reached those levels since, some critics have claimed that the Earth hasn't continued to warm over the past decade — or even that the Earth is in a cooling period.
That's just wrong. Though there were several years in the past decade of relatively cooler global temperature averages, that has to do with normal short-term climate variability caused by climate events like El Niño and La Niña. The combination of global warming and El Niño produced the dramatic spike in 1998, while La Niña has contributed to slight cooling in years like 2008 — which was still the 10th warmest year on record. In fact, NASA research has found that the past decade was the warmest on record and 2010 temperatures are on track to reach near-record levels. Or, put in simple terms: A year of record-breaking heat (1998), followed by a decade more of still-record breaking heat, isn't cooling. It's record-breaking heat (see "Global Temperatures" chart).
Moreover, surface temperatures aren't everything. The entire planet, including the oceans, is accumulating heat. Skeptical Science puts the data in terms that are easier for the layperson to understand: The amount of heat that the oceans have accumulated since 1970 is roughly the equivalent of "190,000 nuclear power plants pouring their energy output directly into our oceans."
1. It's all the sun's fault
In 2004, a group of researchers announced that the sun is increasingly active, and that a rise in the number of sunspots corresponds to the rise in temperatures over the past century. Of course, global warming skeptics jumped on this as an easy explanation for warming.
But the fact is, the sun has shown a slight cooling trend — in direct opposition to the warming trend on Earth. Naturally, the sun does have a lot of influence on the climate, and during the 1,150 years for which scientists have records, temperatures on this planet closely correlated with solar activity.
It was right around 1960 that the Earth's temperatures began to break away. Numerous peer-reviewed studies have concluded that the sun's role in warming trends is, in fact, negligible.