How to discuss climate change with your conservative relatives

I am returning to the U.S. today for a week, so it seems timely to say something about climate change denial.

While climate change denial is often associated with anti-science right wing rhetoric in the U.S., it’s deeply rooted in Canada as well. Just this week, Canadian scientists slammed Harper for his cuts to environment research and oversight.

In fact, Harper seems to be even more successful than his American counterparts in slashing environmental programs, a fact that should alarm most Canadians given the country’s lingering self-image as a semi-Nordic Trudeau land.

Understanding the arguments behind climate change is important because there’s lots of misinformation out there, thanks to some very powerful interest groups. It’s also handy to have the facts down should you find yourself at a family reunion with politically divergent relatives, or if you’re trying to get someone to leave you alone at a bar.

One of the major arguments associated with climate change is what has caused the most recent wave of global temperature spikes. For the past 650,000 years, the earth has gone through a series of heatings and coolings, responsible for massive human migration and other major historical events.

 Since the 1970’s, the earth’s temperature has increased 0.4C, and this is where the debate comes in. Opponents of climate change say this is just another natural trend in the earth’s fluctuation. There was even a Little Ice Age during the 13th-19th centuries.

Actually, NASA (those people who sent humans into space, etc.) says the rate of heating is far greater than it has been in the past, suggesting something’s up.

NASA states that:

“Most of these climate changes are attributed to very small variations in Earth’s orbit that change the amount of solar energy our planet receives. The current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is very likely human-induced and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented in the past 1,300 years.”

Thanks to their satellites and other technology, their excellent climate change website has a variety of indicators and evidence that would lend credence to this: from warmer oceans, to melting ice caps, to extreme weather events. Or the fact that the cities like Chicago are now planting only Southern-variety trees to withstand rising temperatures over the next century.

 Or there are reports of the expected real estate boom in Siberia in the coming decades.

 You’d be surprised though, how few people believe this. For one thing, it’s kind of scary, and it’s a powerful argument that we need to change our life styles – something a lot of people don’t want to do.

Another reason is that every so often there’s media hoopla that certain study X or Y says that climate change isn’t happening, some scientist at some university has found definitive evidence that it’s not true. News outlets, particularly cable news, love these stories because they get people charged up. “Ah hah! Science was wrong!”

The most famous incident of this was “Climategate” in 2006 when the University of East Anglia’s computers were hacked, and some emails and documents allegedly pointed to doubts or skepticism about climate change – though this was later debunked.

However, most of these studies become less credible if you read the fine print. Whenever a study comes out, look into whether or not it was peer reviewed, the gold standard for research publication. Peer-reviewed means other experts in the field look at a study before it is published and evaluate if it seems credible or not. Then there’s the question of if data can be reproduced.

You might also want to check the fine print for who’s funding the study.  Oftentimes, cross checking many of the funding grants and donations for anti-climate change research in the U.S. and Canada leads to a relatively small interest groups – most famously the Koch Brothers profiled in Mother Jones:

“Indeed, the brothers have spent $31.3 million since 2005 on organizations that deny or downplay climate change, according to a forthcoming report from Greenpeace that updates its report on Koch’s climate denial work released last year. But it’s the web of media influence the Kochs have created that perhaps accounts best for their power—particularly when it comes to sowing doubt about climate change.”

By contrast, something like 98% of the scientific community endorses climate change, though this number is under some scrutiny now.

The main reason many of these groups fund anti-climate change projects, besides a possible skepticism, is the attributed cause of climate change: carbon emissions, or that shit that comes out when you burn fossil fuels. And the conglomerated fossil fuel industries are some of the most powerful lobby groups in North America.

Well it’s true that a certain amount of carbon in the atmosphere is natural, but thanks to jumbo jets, cars, technology, and the North American lifestyle, humans have put unprecedented amounts of carbon into the atmosphere in the past 30 years.

Photo courtesy the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr

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