Climate change denial: Is it time to call it quits?

Frozen waterfalls in Ohio this month. Source: Sharon (via Flickr)

By George Blake

Last week temperatures in Midwest USA plummeted. Across the Midwest 30 record daily lows were broken and four locations tied or set all-time record lows, many areas colder than Antarctica. Such low temperatures provided a perfect opportunity for climate change deniers to once again cast doubt on whether climate change is truly occurring. Donald Trump, a pillar of climate change denial, tweeted “windchill temperatures are reaching minus 60 degrees [Fahrenheit], the coldest ever recorded” adding “What the hell is going on with Global Warming? Please come back fast, we need you!”.

Firstly, windchill temperatures did not reach record lows. The record low recorded in the Midwest is -70F. However, ignoring this, there is no question the Midwest was very (very) cold. So, does Trump have a point? Do these extreme conditions provide evidence that global warming is floundering?

It is important to distinguish between global warming and climate change. Global warming refers to the long-term increasing trend in mean global temperature since 1880. Climate change refers to changes in global climate associated with increasing global temperatures. The impact of climate change is not solely higher temperatures.

The brutal cold snap that impacted the Midwest relates to a breakdown in the polar vortex. The polar vortex is a huge gyre of air that forms and circulates over the Arctic each winter (high in the stratosphere); it is this gyre of air that keeps cold polar air over the Arctic. Occasionally this vortex breaks down allowing icy polar air to spread beyond the polar regions (thought to have occurred on the 3rd January). This cold air can then distort the jet stream- another major air current, although much lower in the atmosphere meaning it can impact weather conditions seen at the surface, causing it bulge further southwards. It is this distortion that ultimately allowed cold air to reach the Midwest.

It is thought that the frequency of such events will increase with global warming. This is due to Arctic temperatures rising faster than the global average, meaning the temperature gradient between the poles and equator will decrease. This reduction slows the flow of the jet stream allowing cold polar air to penetrate beyond polar regions with greater ease.

Cold winter periods provide no scientific basis that global warming is not happening, a fact backed by one of Trump’s own agencies (NOAA). While global warming is universally accepted as genuine within the scientific community, certain media outlets still (especially in the USA) provide a platform for climate deniers under the premise of impartiality. In 2011, the BBC Trust (then the corporation’s regulator), deemed that the weight of evidence supporting global warming no longer justifies equal spacing being given to the opponents of the debate. Yet somehow, they conclude these sceptics should still be heard, a rather contradictory position.

Climate deniers argue that under the basis of free speech they must be heard. British philosopher and political economist Stuart Mill’s justification of free speech recognises that even untrue opinions are valuable in society’s pursuit of more truth. Deniers of climate change are not striving for truth, they are aiming to produce doubt. The implications of climate change will primarily harm future generations and those in developing countries. Hence, in terms of global justice, is it acceptable for these views to still be widely discussed.

Returning to Donald Trump, he is only able to dismiss the findings of the global scientific community and remain a respected figure so long as (arguably somewhat limited) public support allows it. There is a problem if members of the US electorate are being misinformed on the climate change debate due to news impartiality. Trump is not an idiot, he knows climate change is real, he is in fact clever enough to be effectively exploiting the ignorance of his electorate in order to push his own agenda. If scientific fact is not communicated efficiently and climate change deniers are continued to be given a platform, it may be this ignorance that will ultimately limit the progress we can make regarding climate change.