Global warming, fact or fiction?

Patrick Owen Rice

Fact. It would be hard to say otherwise given the vast amount of evidence that has without doubt shown that the global temperature of the planet has been increasing over the last 100 years. [1] Yet having said this it still proves to be a controversial topic in the scientific, political and public spheres. The debate from the scientific side mainly falls into the category of how much of a factor is human involvement to global warming. A very small minority of the scientific community are sceptical and suggest that the change could just be part of the earth’s natural cycle [2]. The political side of the controversy is largely motivated by economics and profit, particularly in countries such as America where companies can lobby against those policies aimed at reducing pollution. The majority of the general public do tend agree with the scientific consensus that the planet is actually warming and this can be evidenced by a recent poll showing that 70% of Americans now accept this [3]. Whilst this is a big percentage it still means that there are 96 million people in America who are and continue to be sceptics.

Global warming is a natural phenomenon that is being studied and recorded all over the planet. A huge number of scientists have devoted their lives to studying the earth’s climate. Logic would suggest that these would be the people to listen to when they give warnings such as increased mortality rates and increasingly severe and unpredictable weather if the earth’s temperature continues to rise [4]. The fact that 98% of these experts all agree that global warming has been contributed to by human activities would suggest that there isn’t much evidence to go against this [5]. So why is global warming still a controversial issue? It could be down to a growing mistrust in experts. British MP Michael Gove has made his view clear when he said that he believes people have ‘had enough’ of experts [6]. This comment was in connection to the recent UK referendum to leave the European Union which itself went against the view of the majority of expert opinion which believed we would be better off remaining. Although this is different in its context, it shows that despite informed, or ‘expert opinion’, this in itself is not sufficient to change people’s minds on a subject of complexity where a populist view can be more easily understood.

The growth of the internet may be a partial cause in this growth of mistrust in experts. The internet allows for communities to build up around shared interests and ideas which normally would come under the scrutiny of people who disagreed with such ideas, the so called ‘echo chamber effect’. Studies have shown that people who discus a shared opinion tend to have their attitudes reinforced and then consider opposing opinions to be more extreme [6]. This could be one reason why global warming experts were met with such scepticism and opposition when the evidence first came to light. This goes hand in hand with the statistic that 50% of Americans get their news from the internet and social media alongside other forms [7].

For any of these communities to grow there must be a reason to oppose the idea of global warming in the first place. Although this could be just as simple as people not understanding what global warming means. It turns out that a large number of people base their opinions on things that directly affect them [8]. This means that if certain people experience a particularly cold winter then it can confirm their opinion that the planet is not warming.

The echo-chambers of the internet can’t be the sole reason for scepticism of global warming. Arguably the media itself has played a part it confusing the matter of climate change which could have added to mistrust and general misinformation. Media outlets make their money from the number of people that read or watch the content they produce. This means that if a story can be slightly distorted to produce a bigger reaction and more views then that particular outlet can make more money through ‘click bait’ advertising. The more a story is controversial the more interesting it becomes, so in the case of global warming, reporting a total scientific consensus wouldn’t be an interesting read [9]. ‘Man bites dog’ will always sell. This reasoning gives rise to an unbalanced reporting of scientific issues. Even with a total scientific consensus a sceptic will be given as much news time so that there is a forced controversy [10].

Sensationalism is another tactic used by media organisations. In most cases this can be just leaving out or accentuating facts to make a story more interesting. In 2009 the email accounts of scientists from the University of East Anglia were hacked into and certain emails were posted online [11]. The conversations were picked up by the media worldwide and many quotes were taken out of context to fabricate a story to support a climate change conspiracy. Even though the scientists were ultimately cleared, the story and doubt can still linger in the public’s perception of the issue and scientists as a whole.

When it comes to putting a stop to, or reducing, greenhouse gases and emissions and trying to combat global warming, the power lies with governments. Politicians are the people who can produce and implement policies aimed at reducing the amount of pollution their country produces. Usually such politicians seek advice from experts on the subjects that they don’t necessarily have the knowledge of, in order to formulate policy and make their own decisions. In a situation such as global warming where there is an overwhelming consensus from the experts on the causes and dangers, you would be sensible to think that fast action was taking place worldwide. Unfortunately this is not always the case. This has a very live and current example when the President-Elect of the USA, Donald Trump, is able to tweet that ‘global warming was created by the Chinese to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.’ [12]

There appears to be a disconnect between science and politics on certain issues and global warming is one of these issues. The stand out difference between something like global warming and any other science based issue is the amount of money at stake and could potentially be made by certain parties if no changes are made to current policy. One of the biggest industries on the planet which has all to lose if the planet goes to greener energy is oil. A massive 375 million dollars is made daily by the five biggest oil companies. The result of this is that there is plenty of money to be spent to ensure the status quo and make sure those numbers do not drop. This results in $70 million being spent on lobbying in America against policies that would reduce their profits. It doesn’t stop there either, as the industry donated $30.5 million to various political campaigns. It’s not a big leap to assume that campaigns that get a big chunk of their funding from oil companies would be hesitant to vote for environmental policies. Evidence of this can be seen when it’s shown that the current American government have had the ‘most anti-environment Congress in history’ with oil and gas benefiting the most [13].

Looking at the soon to be President Donald Trump and his cabinet we can see the effect of the fossil fuel industry and the power it has. The newly appointed head of the environmental protection agency, Scott Pruitt, has initiated lawsuits against clean power initiatives in 28 states and claimed that his reason for doing so is that scientists disagree on the extent of mankind’s contribution to global warming. He further claims that the debate it is ‘far from settled’ [14]. A large number of people in America and the rest of the world will listen to this kind of statement and assume that it must be true when coming from the head of the environmental agency of the world’s leading scientific nation. The next big climate change sceptic in the upcoming Trump administration is Ryan Zinke who will be, post confirmation hearings, head of the Department of the Interior. This job oversees all of the land and resources in the county and therefore he could be a great ally to any company wanting to drill, mine or pipe anything. Zinke has been quoted as saying that global warming ‘is not proven’ and has opposed regulation to fracking in the US. The list goes on with the majority of the cabinet being in some way or other sceptical to a human contribution to global warming.

The US is not the only country at fault for ignoring or neglecting the scientific consensus. Recently, Theresa May has come under questioning for trying to bribe communities to accept nearby fracking. Households near these sites could get up to £20,000 each in recompense [15]. An attitude like this towards fracking is concerning, not only because of the fossil fuels being extracted but due to fact that these sites can cause methane leaks, a gas which has 21 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide in the environment [16]. The practice of fracking has been banned altogether in Germany, France and even Scotland. Alongside this May shut down the department of climate change which has caused a large controversy in this country. This kind of decision shows that the short-term view of politics in the UK could be very dangerous to the wellbeing of the next generation. The government will be very aware of the scientific opinion and warnings and it illustrates that they are willing to ignore the evidence for the short term sake of the economy [17]. On the flip side the UK has been reducing its emissions year by year with a gradual change to renewable energy. To meet the current target of 80% less emissions by 2050 the UK needs to reduce at a rate of 3% per year [18]. Although the UK is still behind countries such as Germany which have taken global warming extremely seriously and have become world leaders in renewable energy [19]. In April 2014 Germany had a world record high of 74% of its power from solar and wind [20].

Politicians are not the only ones who are happy to ignore evidence for personal gain. There are a number of scientists who also go against the consensus and try to downplay the danger of global warming. In a lot of cases they are linked to ‘fossil fuel funded think tanks’ which is a clear conflict of interests [21]. One example is Malaysian Physicist Willie Soon who worked at the Harvard-Smithsonian for Astrophysics. Soon was a big ‘man made’ global warming sceptic and claimed that the sun was the main cause for the rising temperature. Sceptics might point out that this outlook obviously had nothing to do with the $1.2 million in funding he received from the energy industry [22].

Although a lot of the blame can be rightly laid at the door of dishonest politicians who are voting against any change and the scientists who are trying to breed doubt about the threat of global warming, the majority of the blame should lie with the companies funding it all. These companies spend huge amounts of money all over the world in an effort to stop their industry becoming obsolete. It’s not just funding either, Exxon has recently been discovered to have known about climate change since 1981. The company employs a large amount of scientists and they became aware of the connection between greenhouse gases and the rise in global temperatures years before it became a public issue [23]. This has been compared to the tobacco companies hiding data of the link between their product and cancer. Although the consequences to the wider world in this case could be much more severe.

The greenhouse effect that global warming stems from has been known about in the scientific world since Joseph Fourier described this natural phenomenon in 1824. Even as early as 1896 a Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius gave warmings of an increased greenhouse effect coming from the amount of coal being burnt from an industrialising world. Although he did think it would be a good thing for the planet to rise a few degrees [24]. This means that it took over a century for it to become a real public issue and this has only really happened as a result of noticeable differences to people’s lives such as increased incidents of extreme weather affecting people through flooding, drought etc. The whole subject provides a very worrying glimpse into how the world can treat science when it’s not just something to read about or doesn’t suit a particular agenda. When an actual change needs to be made, the wilful disregard of evidence and ‘experts’ through short term financial and political self-interest can and will have potentially devastatingly serious future consequences.



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Global warming, fact or fiction?

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