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# The Flipping Point

How the evidence for anthropogenic global warming has converged to cause this environmental skeptic to make a cognitive flip

In 2001 Cambridge University Press published Bj¿rn Lomborg's book The Skeptical Environmentalist, which I thought was a perfect debate topic for the Skeptics Society public lecture series at the California Institute of Technology. The problem was that all the top environmental organizations refused to participate. "There is no debate," one spokesperson told me. "We don't want to dignify that book," another said. One leading environmentalist warned me that my reputation would be irreparably harmed if I went through with it. So of course I did.

My experience is symptomatic of deep problems that have long plagued the environmental movement. Activists who vandalize Hummer dealerships and destroy logging equipment are criminal ecoterrorists. Environmental groups who cry doom and gloom to keep donations flowing only hurt their credibility. As an undergraduate in the 1970s, I learned (and believed) that by the 1990s overpopulation would lead to worldwide starvation and the exhaustion of key minerals, metals and oil, predictions that failed utterly. Politics polluted the science and made me an environmental skeptic.

Nevertheless, data trump politics, and a convergence of evidence from numerous sources has led me to make a cognitive switch on the subject of anthropogenic global warming. My attention was piqued on February 8 when 86 leading evangelical Christians--the last cohort I expected to get on the environmental bandwagon--issued the Evangelical Climate Initiative calling for "national legislation requiring sufficient economy-wide reductions" in carbon emissions.

Then I attended the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in Monterey, Calif., where former vice president Al Gore delivered the single finest summation of the evidence for global warming I have ever heard, based on the recent documentary film about his work in this area, An Inconvenient Truth. The striking before-and-after photographs showing the disappearance of glaciers around the world shocked me out of my doubting stance.

Reducing our CO2 emissions by 70 percent by 2050 will not be enough.

Four books eventually brought me to the flipping point. Archaeologist Brian Fagan's The Long Summer (Basic, 2004) explicates how civilization is the gift of a temporary period of mild climate. Geographer Jared Diamond's Collapse (Penguin Group, 2005) demonstrates how natural and human-caused environmental catastrophes led to the collapse of civilizations. Journalist Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes from a Catastrophe (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006) is a page-turning account of her journeys around the world with environmental scientists who are documenting species extinction and climate change unmistakably linked to human action. And biologist Tim Flannery's The Weather Makers (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006) reveals how he went from being a skeptical environmentalist to a believing activist as incontrovertible data linking the increase of carbon dioxide to global warming accumulated in the past decade.

It is a matter of the Goldilocks phenomenon. In the last ice age, CO2 levels were 180 parts per million (ppm)--too cold. Between the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution, levels rose to 280 ppm--just right. Today levels are at 380 ppm and are projected to reach 450 to 550 by the end of the century--too warm. Like a kettle of water that transforms from liquid to steam when it changes from 99 to 100 degrees Celsius, the environment itself is about to make a CO2-driven flip.

According to Flannery, even if we reduce our carbon dioxide emissions by 70 percent by 2050, average global temperatures will increase between two and nine degrees by 2100. This rise could lead to the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, which the March 24 issue of Science reports is already shrinking at a rate of 224 ¿41 cubic kilometers a year, double the rate measured in 1996 (Los Angeles uses one cubic kilometer of water a year). If it and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet melt, sea levels will rise five to 10 meters, displacing half a billion inhabitants.

Because of the complexity of the problem, environmental skepticism was once tenable. No longer. It is time to flip from skepticism to activism.

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Michael Shermer is hosting an international conference on the science and politics of the environment at Caltech June 2 to 4, 2006 (www.environmentalwars.org).

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1. 1. Objectivist 01:24 PM 11/18/07

I appreciate your attempt to document the issue from a standpoint of objectivity. But, unfortunately, you have flipped from "healthy sketicism" to "decisions without facts."

FACT: Parts of the world are having their coldest weather on record.

FACT: The artic ice sheet is growing.

FACT: Scientists can DEMONSTRATE that the climate has been far warmer than it is today for a sustained period of time. A period of time in which civilization flourished.

THEORY: Reducing CO2 emissions by 2050 will not be enough.

THEORY: CO2 levels ... are projected to reach 450 to 550 ppm by the end of the century - too warm.

These are the same kind of theories that said overpopulation would lead to starvation and lack of resources as you pointed out earlier. Had we taken drastic action at that point - how would the world look now? You're proposing the same kind of action.

Panic creates power. A few organizations will benefit greatly from environmental panic. Let's not play their game

2. 2. Objectivist 01:35 PM 11/18/07

Infollow-up to my earlier post...

Let's all agree on the fundamentals here:
* Pollution = not good
* Financial ruin = not good
* Panic = not good
* Dependance corrupt governments for the energy supply = not good

So, how do we address the THEORY that man-made pollution MIGHT be a CONTRIBUTING FACTOR without creating a global economic catastrophe?

How do we propose REAL solutions that might be accepted globally?

First the stark fact: no industrial country is going to cut carbon emissions by 70% + in the next 40 years. If that will be required to avoid calamity then we're done - end of story.

But we can start to address ALL of the above items in a MEASURED way.
* GRADUALLY make it MORE EXPENSIVE to use carbon-based energy (i.e. a steadily rising tax)
* Incentivize the discovery and use of new fuels
* Incentivize space exploration - a good potential source for fuels, and the "next country" we'll need when a comet hits and/or Al Gore is elected

3. 3. Objectivist 01:44 PM 11/18/07

...as a final aside...part of our plan should include some motivation for population control. We may not have hit the "tipping point" with world population yet ... but that day will come.

* Tax incentives for fewer children
* Tax incentives to religious leaders who agree to have a "revelation" that having more children is NOT a blessing (for those religions that endorse large families), and for those who endorse birth control (not abortion - too hot of an issue - just normal birth control)

In other words, those countries that are contributing to the greatest population growth, are going to need to receive significant motiviation to slow down. Just like those countries that are producing the greatest amount of pollution are going to need to be strongly incentivized to slow down.

4. 4. Objectivist 07:47 PM 11/18/07

As evidence of previous "global warming" - to temperatures that exceed today's temperatures - please see your own article "Noah's Ark flood spurred European farming."

http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=noahs-ark-flood-spurred-e

How can we say "skepticism is no longer tenable" (paraphrased from the last sentence of your article) in the face of this evidence?

From what I can tell, there is MORE evidence that global warming is caused LESS by mankind and MORE by factors beyond our control than the inverse.

5. 5. mike.x 01:26 PM 11/19/07

Interesting reply from Objectivist. I cannot claim to be a climate scientist in any sense of the word, but I am curious as to where you got your facts from.

Particlularly about the Arctic ice sheet. It is my understanding that the volume of ice in the Arctic ice sheet has reduced by a very considerable amount, therefore I am more that a little skeptical about your arguments.

As for some areas receiving abnormally cold temperatures. I don't believe you'd find that would be inconsistent with human influenced glabal warming in the slightest. In fact I would expect that in some places. In fact, in the future, in all likelihood, if Greenland does melt sufficiently to stop the ocean conveyor, then Europe is going to get very cold indeed.

Also you present no facts beyond these to support your alleged skepticism of the arguments in the original article. I do agree that it would be a good idea to try to get world population under control but that is just simple logic.

6. 6. Scooter 93 11:04 PM 11/19/07

Point 1

I did a little arithmetic a few months ago on that 224 cu. Km of ice melting from Greenland and I calculate that will raise the sea level by .016 in per year. Also the 36 cu. mile that are melting from antarctic will raise sea level by .024 in, for a total of .04 in per year.

Point 2.

An article on Heartland.org's web site by J. David Archibald claimed the relationship between GW and CO2 is "strongly logarithmic". He claims the first 20 ppm of CO2 gives us about half the GW temperature rise and the remaining 360 ppm gives us the rest. By his formula we can put a lot of CO2 in the air with very little effect.

I would really like to know if this is fact or fiction?

Scooter 93

7. 7. pixelsmart 10:58 PM 12/22/07

I just flipped too. I am now a skeptic. It took a scientist father in law and some reading to realize the majority is likely reaching unsupportable conclusions and just plain misreading much of the science.

Dial up a skeptic or two and talk.

Dan.

8. 8. DavidONE 03:08 PM 5/5/08

Joining the debate late:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_opinion_on_climate_change
http://royalsociety.org/page.asp?id=6229
http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/syr/ar4_syr_spm.pdf

There seems to be as much real 'controversy' over anthropogenic climate change as there is over evolution, both emanating mainly from a USA-centric, right wing, politico-religious movement.

9. 9. EricBB 08:36 PM 5/9/09

This was published in SCIENTIFIC American?

"Red Hot Lies" by Christopher Horner will flip you back to skeptic again.

10. 10. Michael22 07:36 AM 12/15/09

Birthers, denialists, smoking advocates, they are all the puppet army of big business.

Read Doubt is their product by David Michaels,
http://www.amazon.com/Doubt-Their-Product-Industrys-Threatens/dp/019530067X

Any action to reduce CO2 hits on the profits of the fossil fuel industry, and the big oil companies fund think tanks such as the Heartland Institute, the Cato Institute and others to organise a campaign of doubt so that no measures is taken.

The tobacco industry did exactly this; although there was evidence since the 1950s on smoking causing lung cancer, the tobacco industry funded PR companies so that they create doubt on the scientific evidence and delay action.

If you are a denialist, think: are you being taken advantage by the PR machinery of the big oil industry?

Watch http://greenfyre.wordpress.com/denier-vs-skeptic/denier-myths-debunked/climate-denial-crock-of-the-week/

11. 11. undrgrndgirl 05:43 PM 12/16/09

omg...this article solidifies my belief that michale shermer is in fact an idiot.

12. 12. SmallGovernment 10:23 PM 3/7/10

"The striking before-and-after photographs showing the disappearance of glaciers around the world shocked me out of my doubting stance."

WOW, Shermer!!! THAT was what changed your presupposition?

This is a really fishy comment from a scientist. Notice how someone like Creighton never used imagery, just a bunch of boring stats and graphs (not exactly the best "movie" material), then again, he was not a propogandist politician, just a scientist.

As an artist, I am trained to use visual tricks to make people's emotions gain sovereignty over their intellect...throw in some music, and you can convince folks of just about anything. This is how politicians win these days, this is the sphere in which men like Gore opperate, and this is how agendas get pushed.

13. 13. Stoaty 07:45 PM 3/12/10

I see a lot of evidence for the Dunning-Kruger effect in these comments:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect

Hint: the scientists are the ones that are highly competent.

14. 14. John Gladwin 07:53 PM 4/30/10

Michael Shermer's editorial in the 04/30/10 LA Times is awful. To read it one would believe the human species is, at best, confronting a difficult future. At worst we will be fighting for our lives; the Rwanda genocide will be repeated the world over as we fight over ever dwindling resources.

15. 15. whitewithfright in reply to Michael22 05:40 PM 7/8/10

Actually, smoking advocates and climate change alarmists fall into the same group.

A group of companies that includes Monsanto, Iogen, Dupont, Archer Daniels Midland, Ford Motors, Western Petroleum and plenty more, have gotten together and formed a front group, the Alliance for Abundant Food and Energy which is a lobby group that uses environmental issues to pressure the government.

This "Alliance" has hired PR firm, Burson Marsteller, which waged a war against health advocates in defense of the tobacco industry. BM formed a front group called the National Smoker's Alliance in order to give the tobacco lobby the appearance of a grass-roots movement.

This is just an example, but an appropriate one given that it is literally the same PR firm involved in both tobacco and climate misinformation, in both cases in the guise of a grass roots movement.

Coincidentally - Al Gore is connected to both tobacco and climate panic.

16. 16. TaterGumfries 12:55 PM 8/15/10

When you see this construction

FACT: \begin{assertion} Assertion \end{assertion}

what you got is usually just an assertion.

17. 17. EvelynR 06:55 PM 10/16/10

Really. Looks like Hal Lewis, a real physicist, doesn't agree with Gore (politician) or Shermer (psychologist). Maybe it's time for the experts (not politicians or psychologists) to examine the issues and data. Then have a rigorous debate without the "help" from people who just want to shut down the conversation and declare financial victory for their institutions. You know, the kind of thing that scientists do for a living.

http://thegwpf.org/ipcc-news/1670-hal-lewis-my-resignation-from-the-american-physical-society.html

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