April 2009 Archives

Google Timeline reveals triumph of denialism

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You can see it with your own eyes - a quick history of global warming news stories.

Google Search is a tremendously powerful tool for online research.   Google engineers devised a way to display search results in a timeline layout.  This is a great way of visualizing a search term across time.  You will see a list of news stories for the time section you choose.  Then you can see your report displayed over days, months or years.

An easy first search is to enter “Global Warming” or “Climate Change” over a year range and see just how far back the story of global warming goes.   I found global warming news stories in 1967, 1968 and 69 and beyond.   The timeline display shows a handful of news stories for each year.  Each with the top news headlines as a hotspot to click for further information.   It was startling to see global warming news stories published 30 and 40 years ago.  And alarming to see a 1988 news story with much the same phrasing as global warming news story today.

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This suggests that the news media - mostly newspapers, have been stuck in relative ignorance for decades, or it suggests that advertiser interests and paid professional PR challenges to science has been wildly successful.  It is as if we are stuck in the 1980’s.   Look back and see the same discussions; we have not moved beyond these basic issues.   In your Timeline search be sure to check the dates of these articles and photo images.   A cursory review of these news reports show decades of inaction.  To me this reads like a triumph of professional skeptics and denialism movements.  The manipulated delay has been diabolically successful.   Coal now provides fully half our electrical energy, carbon fuels are widely used, and even the simplest alternative transportation is crippled and marginalized - from trains to bicycles, to electric cars.  We are stuck in the 60’s

One article from 1977. Jul 25, Washington Post

Burning of coal could alter climate
by Margot Hornblower Washington Post
If industrial nations continue to burn oil and coal for energy, the world’s average temprerature could increase more than six degrees centigrat (11 degrees Fahrenheit) in the next 200 years, the National Academy of Sciences warns…

It is difficult to know whether this news flurry triggered a PR campaign by the coal industry consortium.

News story from 1979

21st century disasters predicted by scientist

NEW YORK (UPI) Dust bowls over large areas of North America, Asia and Africa and a rapid rise in th global sea level are possible early in 21st century, a scientist warned Monday

And from April 4 1980
Scientist warns of serious threat from carbon dioxide pollution

WASHINGTON, The concentration of polluting carbon dioxide the atmosphere “poses a serious threat to climatic, economic and political stability over the next 50 years” a scientinst told a congressional panel Thursday…

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Article from the Seattle Post Intelligencer:

WATCHING FOR A RISING TIDE GLOBAL WARMING IS CERTAIN TO CHANGE THE WAY SEATTLE LIVES
By Debera Carlton P-I Reporter
TUESDAY, October 28, 1986

In 50 years, Seattleites may not have to travel to Southern California for warm, sunny weather.

Scientists say the Puget Sound region could one day be as balmy as Baja because of the pollution-caused trend in global warming known as the greenhouse effect.

The trouble is, by the time we have year-round tanning weather there may not be any beaches, due to a predicted 5-foot rise in sea level.

“Short of nuclear war, the greenhouse effect is the largest global change people will experience in the next century - and there’s no going back,” said Richard Gammon, an oceanographer with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle.

“The 100-year forecast is for a warmer, wetter world,” said Gammon, echoing other scie quite possible that in 50 years Seattle will be more like Los Angeles.  However, there may not be many beaches because of a global sea- level rise.”

Scientists, even those who eschew a doomsday outlook on global warming, say that 100 or even 50 years from now there may be big changes worldwide in coastlines, fisheries, forests, rainfall patterns, agriculture and the oceans.   They just don’t know how big…

The Google Timeline display can really help one visualize data.  We can do a study of press coverage of skeptical, denial and the anti-science challenges.   I am guessing we would see a strong rise of news stories around the 1980s and 90’s.   What have we learned in four decades?   Does this portend how fast we will learn the next lesson?   Who is controlling information?

The Precautionary Principle

Global Warming denialists have lost the ethical battle.

It’s fascinating to see people newly awaken to the issue of global warming.  They often stand with wide open eyes, stammering about the enormity of the problem.  Each seems to harbor an unstated foundation: the Precautionary Principle - Every mother tells her young child  “If you are ever unsure about whether something might hurt you - then don’t do it.” 

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  This rule applies to gathering wild mushrooms, using chemical insecticides, and talking with strangers.  Now mother’s rule can also apply to global warming: when our activities threaten to harm human health or the environment, then precautionary measures should be taken.  Even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not scientifically fully established.

…The principle implies that there is a responsibility to intervene and protect the public from exposure to harm where scientific investigation discovers a plausible risk in the course of having screened for other suspected causes.  The protections that mitigate suspected risks can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that more robustly support an alternative explanation. In some legal systems, as in the law of the European Union, the precautionary principle is also a general and compulsory principle of law.   from Wikipedia


This strongly ethical statement elegantly applies to global warming as seen in the introductory video to the Manpollo project.  It asks   “Given the risks and uncertainties of global warming, what is the best action to take?” 

Concluding that since the stakes are so high, we need to act appropriately despite any uncertainty.  Why is there anything less than full agreement?

  Intentional commercial pressures stifle unified action on global warming and feed the ideological resistance.  It is easy to blame the persistent but effective PR campaign pushing global warming denial , producing bad science and promoting the false notion that the problem is not really serious and humans cannot do anything about it.  Such blather - funded and promoted by the carbon fuel industry - is readily accepted by the carbon devoted public.  But cheerleading for carbon loyalty is so far outside of ethical principles that it amounts to encouraging species suicide.  Professional denialism is a short term business tactic.   By contrast, the insurance industry deeply understands global warming and expects to profit from it.  They follow the science closely in order to stay in business.  Carbon fuel companies feel compelled to do the opposite.

This is why professional global warming deniers are beginning to be so reviled, because beyond denial, they reject the precautionary principle - hence losing the ethical battle and reveal their ideological and corporate colors.  This was expressed recently by Patrick Michaels of the CATO institute who has been promoting the business-as-usual line “Nothing to worry about here, move along”.  The CATO institute is a paid messenger of the Coal Industry.


One prefers to see the well-behaved skeptic/denier retain some human ethics while expressing doubts about global warming.  It seems wise to add a phrase like “since the stakes are so high, we better proceed with caution and act prudently no matter what the science says”.   When the CATO institute treats us to the blatant advocacy of carbon capitalism then it touches the twin evils of scientific duplicity and amoral actions.   

The newest denialist tactic is to demand a change in terminology. Some global warming treaties have had to abandon the term: ‘precautionary principle’ changing instead to the ‘precautionary approach’.   Possibly because a principle can be a legal foundation for law, whereas approach is diffuse and carries no commitment.  My mother would never have allowed her edict to be called an approach, and I hope all mothers will stick with principle.


Up until now our civilization has thrived on high risk innovation that ignores principles of precaution.  Risk has been the essence of Western capitalist growth.  And it is no longer working, either in matters of finance or atmosphere.  Risk should be managed, controlled or insured.  We have either ignored or strategically ignored the fundamental axiom of respect for the future of human life.

Today, all the basic questions about global warming science are sufficiently settled to make public policy.  This is not rocket science. So much has been written by universities and science foundations that any reasonably dedicated person can come to understand the basic science.   Today, no sane and sober scientist will deny global warming

or that it is is caused by greenhouse gasses.  However public opinion remains vulnerable to mass media marketing schemes, and humans maybe hardwired to ignore the threat. And very big and serious lobbyists have redoubled their efforts.   But now we enter an era where the real impacts of global warming will directly touch all populations and denialist challenges will mean little before real heat, real melting, real privation and sea level rise.

The Precautionary Principle continues to guide us as we grow to understand that the cost of mitigating climate change is far less than the cost of adapting to change .  Denial, or to refuse to act on either is a short-sighted, immoral choice.

Dangerous minimization of climate news events

We depend on news media to pass along important information about global warming.  Like the real news event of a breach in the huge wall of ice in the Wilkins Ice Shelf in Antarctica.

It is not very often that we see a discrete event that’s clearly due to global warming.  Melting ice is usually slow and uninteresting.  But these days we have glaciers moving at many feet per day - where my childhood lessons said they moved at inches per year.

It was disappointing to see the MSNBC reporter mess up a simple news story of an ice event with comments from a notorious political ideologue funded by the coal industry.

It could have been a traffic accident, a fire, an earthquake or even a tsunami.  Just give us the important news please:   In Antarctica a giant wall of ice broke and released vast areas of the Wilkins ice shelf to further destruction.

But why would NBC reporter Tracy Potts decide to bring in the most contentious climate denial spokesperson Patrick Michaels to comment on this event?  See the story for yourself

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Reporter Potts labeled him a climatologist and researcher - but he works as a spokesperson for the Libertarian CATO Institute.  Columnist George Monbiot numbered him as 8th in the ten worst climate warming deniers.

I know reporters are over-worked and pressured by assignment editors, but work like this should not be allowed to stand.   MSNBC editors are at fault here.

The stakes are too much, too serious to even consider comments from such a science shill as Patrick Michaels who is heavily funded by the coal industry.  For her complicity, reporter Tracy Potts risks being labeled a PR tool; if she is unaware, then she risks being called inept.   Perhaps this will be an education.

Journalists have some terrific resources available.  When an expert comment is required, they can first check the excellent List of Global Warming and Climate Change Experts for Media.

Before interviewing that expert, the professional journalist can find some background briefings on the subject from their own professional organization: The Society of Environmental Journalists.   They offer introductory essays, science briefings, as well as overviews of government, agency and organizations.  Most interesting is they also discuss skeptics and contrarians - including Patrick Michaels with a description saying how he has changed from “denying human-induced greenhouse warming to downplaying its importance.”   Gosh, when we next do a story asking whether global warming is important, we shall be sure to call on Michaels for a comment.   But we should pass on asking him about science.

MSNBC and all (remaining) news organizations would do well to keep their reporters briefed and well connected to worthwhile sources.  I hope that Tracy Potts is a member of a professional organization.  My local NBC affiliate KING-TV chose to air that story unedited - and so local news editors could do better handling these stories too

Meanwhile, individuals will continue to watch big news media with a critical eye, continuing to search for better sources for news.