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Posted at 10:45 AM ET, 09/13/2010

Midterm candidates embrace climate denialism

* Sweet September week: Full Forecast *

Despite overwhelming scientific evidence that human activities are warming Earth's climate and causing a range of harmful effects, climate science denialism is enjoying a dramatic resurgence in American political life. More candidates who simply do not believe Earth's climate is warming, or who hold the view that humans are not the primary cause of recent warming, may be elected this year than in any other election in recent memory.

The large number of viable candidates in the upcoming midterm elections who disagree with the conclusions of the vast majority of climate scientists deserves some discussion here, since denying the reality of manmade climate change is also a scientific issue, not just a political matter. The bottom line is that denying that manmade climate change is taking place won't make the problem go away. In all likelihood it will only make it worse, as greenhouse gas concentrations increase even further, locking in additional warming for decades to come.

From a political standpoint, portraying yourself as an ardent skeptic of the scientific establishment may be a wise move in a year in which voters seem to have a deep distrust of elites in general. But a comparison of some of the candidates' statements with the scientific literature demonstrates that there is virtually no scientific support to back up many of their claims.

Take for example Wisconsin Republican Senate nominee Ron Johnson. He is running even in polls against Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold, and has blamed climate change on sunspots, despite studies that have refuted such claims.

"I absolutely do not believe in the science of man-caused climate change," Johnson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in August. "It's not proven by any stretch of the imagination."

He also described those who think climate change is mostly caused by human activities, such as burning fossil fuels for energy, as "crazy." "It's far more likely that it's just sunspot activity or just something in the geologic eons of time," he said. Climate scientists, of course, have proven otherwise. Studies show that it is extremely unlikely that known natural factors can account for warming observed since the latter half of the 20th century. Instead, such trends are best explained by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, which trap outgoing infrared radiation and warm the climate.

Johnson's views put him at odds with the National Academy of Sciences - the nation's premier scientific research and advisory body - which released a series of climate science reports this summer that concluded in part:

"Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for - and in many cases is already affecting - a broad range of human and natural systems."

This was essentially a re-affirmation of the core conclusion of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose 2007 report found that there is a greater than 90 percent likelihood that human activities are the main cause of recent global warming.

Climate scientists have concluded again and again that solar "forcing" of the climate system is most likely not responsible for the warming climate, despite the tempting logic of that hypothesis. One study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society in 2007 found that "over the past 20 years, all the trends in the Sun that could have had an influence on the Earth's climate have been in the opposite direction to that required to explain the observed rise in global mean temperatures."

Another failure of the solar-forcing theory is the fact that the stratosphere - the layer of air above the troposphere where most weather takes place - has been cooling since about 1950. This is a predicted result of increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases along with declines in the amount of ozone in the stratosphere (remember the ozone layer problem?). If increases in solar luminosity were the main cause of the warming climate, then the troposphere and stratosphere should warm together.

Blatant contradiction of scientific evidence is not just a problem for Mr. Johnson. Writing in the environmental publication Grist, RL Miller found numerous other candidates around the country who are running in part on a platform of flouting the scientific establishment on climate change and other issues. The liberal blog Thinkprogress noted that all four Republican candidates for the Senate seat being vacated by Judd Gregg in New Hampshire do not believe human activities are the main cause of climate change.

Nor am I alone to express alarm at the virulent strain of climate science skepticism that is helping to fuel some campaigns.

On Sept. 3, the Economist discussed this issue in reference to the heated Senate race in California between Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and Republican Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard. "It is troubling that the contemporary state of American political discourse obliges people who know better to stifle themselves on this issue," the Economist stated, noting that prior to this campaign, Fiorina had supported domestic policies that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but now questions them and attacked Boxer for her work on the issue, most famously in a TV ad.

Even scientific journals have stepped up to express concern about many candidates' skepticism toward climate science and other scientific disciplines. The highly respected British journal Nature, in an unusual editorial last week, criticized the "anti-science strain pervading the right wing in the United States."

"Denialism over global warming has become a scientific cause célèbre within the [Tea Party] movement," the editorial stated. "As educators, scientists should redouble their efforts to promote rationalism, scholarship and critical thought among the young, and engage with both the media and politicians to help illuminate the pressing science-based issues of our time."

Assuming that many of these candidates are successful on election day, climate scientists will have their work cut out for them when they try to communicate their scientific findings to the next Congress. After all, it's rather difficult to explain how serious a problem is when the person you are speaking to does not believe the problem exists in the first place.

The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.

By  |  10:45 AM ET, 09/13/2010

Categories:  Climate Change, Climate Change

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