AS THESE WORDS are written, Oregon and Washington State are burning, much of California and Texas are withering without water, Boulder, Colorado, was recently flooded (where I once lived was partly under water), and not long before that Manhattan and coastal New Jersey were inundated by the worst storm surges in their history. Can climate change be blamed for all of these disasters? No. Is climate change likely to have been an underlying cause of some of them? Almost certainly. The situation is filled with ironies. For example, if current changes in atmospheric circulation continue, future mid-latitude summers may become cooler while Arctic temperatures reach record-high levels. The one certainty is that the climate is changing and that much of that change is harmful to human activity.
The first question thoughtful people ask concerns the science of climate change: Do we know the science well enough to be confident that we've identified the major cause? We do. And so do most of the well-educated people in the world today, including an overwhelming majority of all scientists, with an almost universal consensus among the climate scientists who actually work on the problem (see the 2013 Science Basis Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC]). Global warming is the cause of contemporary climate change. We also know that anthropogenic greenhouse gases led by carbon dioxide are responsible for this warming. Thus it is human activity, not some natural process, that's causing these problems. If we can find a way to substantially reduce the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere due to our technological activities, we will have taken a major step toward mitigating the damaging effects and preparing a better future for those who live on after us.
Most readers know that we have yet to take these actions. It's natural to ask why, and, again, we know the answer. The simple version is that there are formidable, well-financed opponents of reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the United States today, who fear that the costs of modifying our current energy technologies will reduce profits. Their highly effective promotion of denial and their advocacy for delay have been investigated by many authors. In my opinion the best current summary is the one laid out by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway in their 2011 book, Merchants of Doubt. Their research reveals the methods used by prominent deniers of the best science to confuse scientifically challenged voters--essentially by claiming that there is a major scientific controversy over the causes of climate change, when in fact there is no significant scientific controversy whatsoever.
It is, in effect, a clever sham, first employed by the tobacco industry as the best way to confuse a vulnerable public into opposing any regulation of a major industrial product. The technique has since been used to delay various regulatory efforts, including the regulation of sulfate emissions that cause acid rain, several chemicals responsible for the...