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A Tale of Two Climate Change Stories

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Message Bryan Farrell
When NASA scientist James Hansen talks about global warming, people listen. His 30-plus years of climate research seems to scare just about everyone, from Al Gore and those who believe we are on a fast track towards irreversible climate change to industry-funded "skeptics" like Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, who last month called Hansen an "alarmist."

This insult came during a speech before the Senate titled, "Hot And Cold Media Spin," in which Inhofe presented "a challenge to journalists who cover global warming." One of Inhofe's main assertions was that the media overlooked a $250,000 grant Hansen received from the Heinz Foundation in 2001. He then accused the media of making "a distinction between oil money and ketchup money."

Aside from the apples and oranges absurdity of this statement, one which requires the audience to assume that ketchup has something to gain from climate research, Inhofe failed to mention the $588,000 he pulled in from the fossil-fuel industry between 1999 and 2004. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Inhofe appears to be the good friend in a high place.

Meanwhile, just days before Inhofe's speech, the National Academy of Sciences published a report, co-authored by Hansen, saying the earth is about to reach the warmest temperatures in 12,000 years. Some skeptics are pointing to this time frame as merely a drop in the bucket, but that is precisely what makes it so damning. Humans have ruled the earth for roughly the same amount of time and it would be inconceivable for such a temperature shift, mostly within the last century, to be a natural occurrence.

Simon Tett, one of the top climatologists in the UK, described this finding as "proof that James Hansen's predictions of the late '80s are consistent with what has happened." Unfortunately, despite Inhofe's condemnation, the media has actually been more than fair to the so-called climate "skeptics," creating what longtime environmental journalist Eugene Linden calls "two distinct storylines on climate change."

The most familiar is the one being told by the mainstream media. Over the last two decades, it has allowed industry-financed groups like the Global Climate Coalition and Western Fuels Association, with their cabinets full of "skeptical" scientists, pundits, and politicians, to dispute the notion of impending climate change. The oil industry has even taken to handing out journalism awards to science fiction writers like Michael Crichton, who also became a source of expert opinion for Senator Inhofe during global warming hearings in 2005.

These so-called "skeptics" are really what Hansen has come to call "contrarians." Just like lawyers, they defend their client, often at the peril of truth. And all they need to do is convince the jury that the causes of global warming are beyond our control.

Real skeptics, as Hansen recently said, "are essential for scientific success." But you'd be hard pressed to find any on this issue. In 2004, Science magazine conducted a study of peer-reviewed journals, known to be the gold standard of scientific discourse. After analyzing 928 papers between 1993 and 2003, it found an undisputed consensus that the earth is warming due to human activity.

This consensus is the second storyline and the only one worth being told. When combined with the near 20 years of physical evidence, from the longest hurricane season in recorded history to the 20 percent reduction of the Artic ice cap, there is no doubt Hansen should be taken at his word.

His most recent prediction, announced only a few weeks ago, is that the world has just 10 years to take decisive action on global warming, before reaching a point of no return. If we continue hearing this debate that's already been won, it will be on a different Earth than the one we know today.
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Bryan Farrell is a freelance journalist in New York, writing pieces on the environment, politics, and music. His work has been published in The Nation, Z Magazine, CommonDreams, Gotham Gazette, and City Limits.
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