Thursday, July 13, 2017

Thank You for Smoking, 2017

If you haven't seen Thank You for Smoking, watch it some day as it is a great satirical comedy.  The main character, Nick Naylor, is a lobbyist for Big Tobacco who does a hell of a job spreading disinformation about the linkages between smoking and lung cancer.  The sad thing of course is that this really did happen, delaying improvements in public and individual health for Americans.

Fast forward to 2017.  Nick Naylor is now Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.  Pruitt wants scientists to debate climate on TV, and "red team, blue team" exercises to evaluate climate science.

These proposed debates and exercises have nothing to do with science.  They have one objective, and that is to create doubt in the minds of Americans about the quality of climate science and the threat posed by global warming.  Doubt is his product, just as doubt was the product for the cigarette industry.

I have been around long enough to remember when there was legitimate, spirited scientific debate about the rate and causes of global warming.  As changes in temperature, sea level, snow, and ice became clear and evident over the past few decades, I've also seen all sorts of "alternative hypotheses" developed to explain global warming, from cosmic rays to solar changes.  None of these alternatives has ever survived rigorous testing.  Not only do they fail to explain the unusual intensity of recent warming, but they are also unable to explain patterns of warming, both geographically and from the lower troposphere to the stratosphere.  A preponderance of evidence from thousands of scientific publications supports the view that recent global warming is happening, that the rate of warming is unusual, and that it is caused by human activities, especially the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from fossil fuel combustion and deforestation.

There are of course important uncertainties about the rate of warming, the rate and magnitude of sea level rise, changes to runoff and water resources, and regional climate change.  These are issues being explored by scientists from many fields.  There are also misleading news articles and political framing of climate science from both the right and left extremes.  Finally, spirited discussion and debate about the actions that we might take for climate mitigation and adaptation is quite justifiable. However, every major scientific organization, including the National Academy of Sciences, American Meteorological Society, American Physical Society, and American Chemical Society accepts that the Earth's climate is changing and that this warming is caused largely by human activity. As stated by the American Geophysical Union, "the Earth's climate is...changing at rates and in patterns that are not natural and are best explained by...human activity."

Nothing Nick Naylor says is going to change that.


  1. Nice piece Jim. Well stated, and well balanced.

  2. I would like to add an informative NY Times Opinion piece from today on Antarctica:

  3. Most articles on climate changes in relation to human activity seem to always have a concrete answer (humans = the problem) for the rise in temperature with their temperature graphs starting around 1800s. However I have yet to find solid research in pre-industrial age global temperature changes (PETM for example). Most theories seem to end with a "...but this is widely disputed" which is understandable when trying to account for massive temperature changes with little to no human activity present. I would be interested to hear your thoughts; might be worthy of a blog post!

    1. It's not really my area, but my understanding of the PETM (Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum) is that it was likely caused by natural greenhouse gas emissions during the final breakup of the Pangea supercontinent, with feedbacks further amplifying the warming. Studying a climate event from 50 million years ago requires remarkable sleuthing and thus there's going to be quite a bit of uncertainty concerning the gory details.

      Weather Underground has a writeup at