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When Climate Change Denial Refutes Itself

The world is warming—and record-cold winters are just another symptom.
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(Photo: Anton_Ivanov/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Anton_Ivanov/Shutterstock)

On its face, climate change is a simple thing: The world is getting warmer. And if you want to take that one tiny step toward complexity: The world is getting warmer, and it’s getting warmer because of us. It’s an easy enough concept to understand, but because of that it’s also an easy enough concept to refute: If the world’s getting warmer, then tell me, why is it so cold?

In short: There’s a difference between weather and climate. But the long answer is a more complex one. The Earth is a big place with a sensitive atmosphere—depleted ozone levels warm oceans that affect wind patterns that create extreme winters thousands of miles away—and though the globe continues to warm, the closer you zoom in, the more complicated things begin to look. So, keeping that in mind, here are three refutations of climate change that are really just symptoms of the warming planet.

1. We’re Having Historically Cold Winters, Which Show That Climate Change or Global Warming Isn't Happening

What’s actually happening: Arctic winds are being pulled in different directions by the jet stream—because of climate change.

Between December 2013 and March 2014 Chicago had its coldest winter on record. According to a 2012 joint-study from Georgia Tech, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Columbia University, the lack of ice in the Arctic from depleted ozone and greenhouse gases leads to warmer ocean waters, which then affect the temperatures at all layers of the atmosphere. The subsequently altered atmosphere causes a shift in the jet stream that pulls cold Arctic air to us and creates your cold winters.

And while this jet-stream effect cooled Chicago, its effects look very different in California, where 2013 was the driest recorded year in state history and the winter was the warmest on record. The same shift in the atmosphere pulls precipitation away and affects the large state’s heat distribution.

As Mark Serreze, the director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, told me:

The Arctic region is warming up at an outsized rate compared to other regions of the planet.... The argument is that when you warm up the Arctic, more than elsewhere, that changes the nature of how the atmosphere transports heat. The manifestation of that is in this jet stream.... You would see it in the stronger "waviness" of the jet stream, where you have these big dips of really cold air moving south, like this winter in Chicago, but elsewhere where you have these big ridges of warm air invading higher altitudes than normal.

While Chicago was freezing, Serreze says, Alaska had become “absurdly warm” this past winter. In short: Extreme heat and extreme cold is being transported around the world. And as the National Climate Assessment the White House released earlier this year, along with countless other studies, shows: Humans caused the unusual warming and cooling.

2. Plants Survive Off of Carbon Dioxide, So More CO2 Should Be Good for the Environment

What’s actually happening: The rate at which CO2 is rising is too rapid for the plants to absorb, so it’s spewing into the atmosphere.

As climatologist Dr. Michael Mann explained to Slate last year:

100 million years ago during the Early Cretaceous period, CO2 concentrations were higher than today, and the Earth was warmer than today. Nature buried all of that carbon over a timeframe of 100,000 years. What we are doing is unburying it. But not over 100 million years. We're unburying it and burning it over a timescale of 100 years, a million times faster. There is no precedent in Earth history for such an abrupt increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.

On top of that, a 2012 Stanford study shows that such a rapid escalation slows plant growth overall, and the warming and “increased nitrogen deposits” from climate change kill more plant life.

3. The World Is Warming—and It’s Because of the Sun

What’s actually happening: Studies show that the rise in heating cannot be attributed to the sun alone.

One study found that the sun contributed to less than half of the temperature change over the past 150 years. The rest must have been caused by humans.

SOME, IF NOT ALL, of these examples may seem frivolous and obvious, but the misplaced certainty behind climate change denials is something scientists actually worry about. Martin Beniston of the Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of Geneva made it clear to me that he was no climate change denier.

Beniston is among the vast majority of climate scientists who have found that climate change is real and man-made. The problem with getting people to accept these claims is that scientists like Beniston will almost never claim something is 100-percent certain—because they know there are always factors in science they might not be aware of.

“Unlike conscientious scientists, where we can express doubts and the limits to our understanding, methodologies, and models, ” Benniston says in an email, “climate deniers claim that their arguments are 100% robust and certain, such that no dialog is possible.”

There will always be two sides of every subject, but when 97 percent of scientists agree that climate change is real and man-made, it’s hard to keep any kind of realistic debate going. As John Oliver pointed out on Last Week Tonight, maybe this isn’t a debate where we should give equal representation to both sides.