Ever since the dawn of the industrial age, the world’s consumption of fossil fuels has been on the rise. An ever-increasing population has exacerbated the demand for these fuels, which consist of the planet’s limited supply of resources in substances such as coal, petroleum and natural gas, following the increase in energy needs to sustain an ever-increasing population. For years, human energy-related activity went unquestioned, given a lack of understanding of its possible consequences were poorly understood.
For most of the twentieth century, the terms “greenhouse gases” and “global warming” were not nearly as popular and widely-used as they are today. However, in the last few decades, a pattern analogous to fossil fuel consumption emerged: it was observed that the earth’s average temperature was also on the rise. A cause/effect relationship slowly began to emerge. It became apparent to the scientific community that fossil fuels, when burned, release gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. These accumulate, trapping the rays of the sun. This mechanism, termed the “greenhouse effect,” is necessary for climate regulation in a certain measure, with a natural concentration in greenhouse gases. However, scientists only recently realized it was happening in excess.
The observations of rising global temperatures sparked a worldwide debate on how to prevent this pattern from progressing. In the scientific community, it is widely considered that even a slight change in the earth’s temperature, as ‘small’ as 1°C, would have a major impact on the planet’s ecosystem. Bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, formed in 1988) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, formed in 1994) have since been created, both by the UN, in order to analyze the scientific evidence relating climate change to human activity.
This also led to the Kyoto Protocol, created by the UNFCCC, which urged industrialized nations to decrease the amount of greenhouse gases they released into the atmosphere, and to the popularization of the work on renewable sources of energy, such as hydroelectric, wind, and nuclear power. New policies surrounding greenhouse gas emission in certain countries aim at preventing the global temperature from rising by more than 2°C with respect to what it was before industrialization, the current rise being at 0.8°C . There is now a wide scientific consensus that global warming and human activity are directly related. However, not everyone is ready to accept that conclusion.
“There are very few legitimate scientists who deny climate change.”
On September 27, the IPCC published a new report on the current scientific understanding in order to assess global warming. Its harsh conclusions targeted the role of human activity in climate change and deemed it “extremely likely” of being the its main cause of global warming, while releasing more troubling statistics about the current and previously predicted environmental impact of the perturbations. The overbearing evidence provided by the report generated a range of reactions.
For years, climate change denial been perpetuated by the fossil fuel industry. Common claims are that the IPCC tends to exaggerate, and that its reports become unrepresentative of reality. Bjørn Lomborg and Judith Curry are two notable examples of public figures who have attempted to minimize the significance of the last IPCC report.
Lomborg, author of the polarizing The Skeptical Environmentalist, although acknowledging that there is a certain climate change, has emphasized that he views global warming claims as alarmist. His book made headlines in 2001, as it was attacked by a large portion of the scientific community for a lack of scientific honesty.
As for Curry, a climatologist from the Georgia Institute of Technology, she views the field of research in climate change as an area of many blurred lines, and encourages discussions between skeptics and non-skeptics. Both have made comments following the publication of the report, suggesting that its findings fail to portray the bigger picture of climate change.
A similar attitude is also taken by several conservative American media outlets, such as Fox News, which have instead chosen to focus on non-peer-reviewed studies contradicting the IPCC’s conclusions. The prevalence of climate change denial is mostly found in the media, considering there is barely any disagreement within scientific rings.
As for Canada, the picture is different: the Canadian government dropped any link with the Protocol, with no direct measures taken towards reaching its goals.
Professor James Ford, leader of the Climate Change Adaptation Research Group at McGill, echoes this idea. “There are very few legitimate scientists who deny climate change,” he explains. “Richard Lindzen, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, comes to mind, but he was mainly vocal in the early 2000s, when there was more of a legitimate debate about the unknowns in the climate change picture. As points of contention were settled, there was no room left to deny, and the only real unknowns left now are the wide projections as to how fast the change will occur.”
Ford mentions that one long-standing point of contention over time has been the ‘Hockey Stick curve’, a graphical representation of how temperature has drastically increased from its once constant value since the 1800s. While some have claimed it to be a “statistical fallacy,” they have been repeatedly proven wrong.
The reaction of political figures also takes a considerable importance, given their influence over national global warming policies. The UNFCCC has, of course, no binding power to force countries to adopt policies, and it is therefore up to governments to take the measures necessary in order to meet its recommendations. Many countries, especially in Europe, not only ratified the Kyoto Protocol, but also took binding measures to reduce their emissions in line with the treaty’s goals.
The U.S. is only a signatory on the Kyoto Protocol, meaning that while they are interested in seeing its topics discussed, they do not actively pursue its objectives. As for Canada, the picture is different: the Canadian government dropped any link with the Protocol, with no direct measures taken towards reaching its goals. In that limelight, Canada’s environment minister, Leona Aglukkaq, is frequently questioned about her views on climate change. Her recent comments on the warming of the Arctic have notably attracted attention. Deeming this warming “debatable” in an interview on CTV’s Power Play, she mentioned the general cold summers in the North as an example of why it was ambiguous.
Ford emphasizes that the IPCC reports are very credible. “This is perhaps the most peer-reviewed document there is,” he told The Daily. “The version that most people read is a condensed summary of the actual document, which is very long. The IPCC doesn’t conduct its own research – it collects extensive studies into the document. Since it is a UN body, governments go over the summary word-by-word and spend days talking about how to frame certain key things, so the presentation of the findings can be quite conservative, but they can’t change the numbers. It is still a very rigorous thing that goes through a scientific process.”
While there is indeed a wide range of predictions when it comes to speculating about the rate of climate change, the scientific consensus about its existence and its main cause is nearly unanimous. The face of its contemporary denial is shaped by the way the information is reported, which opens up another debate: the facts against the wording.