On Sunday, NBC’s Meet the Press hosted a climate change “debate” between Bill Nye “The Science Guy” and Republican Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. Given that the television world hardly ever tackles the topic of climate change (the Sunday shows devoted a paltry 27 minutes of coverage to climate change in 2013), it was a step in the right direction to see climate change being addressed. But the entire exercise was a joke.
The existence of climate change is not an issue up for discussion: according to one survey, 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is real. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of peer-reviewed papers taking a position on climate change say humans are causing climate change. For example, the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated with 95 percent confidence that humans are the main cause of the current global warming.
Expert consensus is itself not scientific evidence for human-caused climate change. That’s absolutely true. However, the expert consensus is based on the scientific evidence. And the strength of the evidence is why IPCC is capable of saying with 95 percent confidence that humans are the main cause of the current global warming.
To illustrate the existence of climate change and the problem posed by it, here are a few charts. Below, data from the NOAA and NASA clearly show that global temperatures have been higher than average for the past 37 consecutive years:
This one, courtesy of SkepticalScience, shows the number of record high temperatures (red dots) and record low temperatures (blue dots). If temperatures weren’t warming, the number of record highs and lows should be roughly equal. Instead, the highs and lows diverge over time with gradually more record highs than lows. The black line represents the theoretical values assuming no global warming or cooling.
Despite the extreme weather events in the U.S. recently, earlier and more extensive melting in the spring and summer has led to less overall snow. SkepticalScience has a nice breakdown of seasonal and annual snowfall in the Northern Hemisphere. The total decline in snow extent between 1972 and 2010 was a full 1.3 million square kilometers.
In fact, climate change is probably contributing to current extreme weather events (though its impossible to say exactly how much). As a result of climate change, heavy precipitation is becoming more common, as this map from the Global Change Research Program demonstrates:
Its time to face reality end earnestly tackle our problems. The only debate left is what to do about climate change, not whether it exists.
But on Sunday’s Meet the Press, Americans were treated to the same tired conflict. In the “debate,” Nye and Blackburn sparred over the scientific consensus regarding climate change.
Nye told Blackburn to stop questioning the facts behind climate change. “There is no debate in the scientific community. And I encourage the congresswoman to look at the facts,” Nye Said on Sunday. “We need you change things, not to deny what’s happening.”
In response, Blackburn maintained that there was no consensus in the scientific community about global warming, and argued that the “engineer and actor” didn’t know enough about climate science to claim authority. “Neither [Bill Nye] nor I are a climate scientist. He is an engineer and actor. I am a member of Congress. And what we have to do is look at the information that we get from climate scientists,” said Blackburn. “There is not agreement around the fact of exactly what is causing this.”
The episode revealed an inherent weakness in television news, which is built on a model of glorifying political conflicts and controversy.
When that model meets climate science, complications arise. The science of climate change is settled, but television news has trouble putting that fact into context. In moderating a “debate” over climate science, Meet the Press treated science as a political debate where both sides were given a platform to air their positions. The overwhelming consensus of the scientific community was thus treated as a partisan argument. That isn’t a debate, it’s a joke.
Climate change deniers like Marsha Blackburn are intellectually disreputable. On the question of climate change, they are wrong, and wrong in a way that could lead to worldwide disaster in a few generations. They shouldn’t be taken seriously because their position is the official policy position of one of America’s two dominant political parties.
On Meet the Press, Bill Nye said the U.S. could stand to gain economically by investing in new technology, and warned against the cost of denial.
“For me, as a guy who grew up in the U.S., I want the U.S. to lead the world in this,” Nye said in the “debate.” “These are huge opportunities, and the more we mess around with this denial, the less we’re going to get done.”
The longest journey starts with just a single step.
Featured Image Credit: NASA