Climate Change: Moving Beyond the Smoke Screen

GB Profile pictureIn this guest post, Geoffrey Buckley, Professor of Geography and Undergraduate Chair at Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, reports on a recent departmental seminar on climate change, and the important issues that it raised for research and policy-making.

Dr. Judith Curry, professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, visited Ohio University in Athens, Ohio recently to discuss, in her words, the “state of the climate debate.” She was a guest of the George Washington Forum, a group that, according to its website, endeavours to bring “civic education and intellectual diversity” to campus. Curry, an outspoken critic of the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), confirmed her reputation as a “climate heretic” early on in her presentation, stating: “It’s a name I’m proud to bear. I’m not telling anybody what to do; it’s the honest broker role.” Unfortunately, it’s a role that does not suit her.

Professor Curry prefaced her speech by mentioning how the issue of climate change has become politicised. She said her colleagues in the international science community have vilified her for trying to “broaden” the discussion. However, it quickly became clear she has a narrow view of what broadening the discussion really means. She began by critiquing policy statements made by actors on the political left – Barack Obama, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton – arguing that our understanding of climate science does not justify their collective call to action. Ironically, she failed to mention that there is very little room, if any, for open and honest discussion about mitigating the effects of climate change – much less debating the science behind global warming – on the political right in America. If she had truly wanted to broaden the “debate” about science and policy, she missed a golden opportunity.

Curry spent the balance of her remaining time emphasising what we don’t know about climate science. Of course, getting a handle on what we do not know is a critical – and responsible – first step when it comes to practicing sound science, or any intellectual endeavor for that matter. And there is much about climate change that remains for science to investigate and better understand. However, by concentrating exclusively on what we don’t know, she glossed over and obscured the many things we do know. And there is much we do know about how earth’s climate is changing and the role that humans play in driving those changes.

Baltimore Harbour

One particular concern of Dr. Curry’s is climate models. While these models are not perfect, they still have much to teach us. For example, they remind us that the widespread warming that occurred between 1951 and 2010 cannot be explained without taking anthropogenic greenhouse gas increases into account. Not only do the models produce an accurate representation of the warming during this time period, they produce a more persistent warming, one which aligns with the physical mechanisms driving it. When an audience member asked about the degree to which greenhouse gas increases contribute to warming, Dr. Curry simply stated that they have likely played a role, but we are uncertain to what extent—a viewpoint that simultaneously grants a fundamental point yet obscures the high confidence assessments of the IPCC and many other climate scientists. According to the IPCC’s Synthesis Report: Approved Summary for Policymakers, released 1 November 2014: “Anthropogenic greenhouse gases have increased since the pre-industrial era…and are extremely likely [>95% chance] to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

What else do we know? With 44 percent of the world’s population living within 150 kilometers of a coastline – and thus vulnerable in many different ways to sea-level rise, storm surges, and extreme events – we know there will be “winners” and “losers” when it comes to paying the price of climate change. We also know that the world’s wealthier countries are in a better position to withstand the presses and pulses associated with climatic disruptions than the world’s poorer countries (although the brittle and extensive infrastructure of wealthy countries poses its own significant but different vulnerabilities). Finally, we know that it is the world’s industrialised and rapidly-industrialising countries that, by virtue of their historical and current fossil fuel consumption, are contributing most to the changes we are observing. As Piers J. Sellers, acting director of earth science at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, points out in a recent New York Times editorial (12 November 2014), “The earth has warmed nearly 0.8 degrees Celsius over the last century and we are confident that the biggest factor in this increase is the release of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning.” He adds, “The longer we put off corrective action, the more disruptive the outcome is likely to be.” The social and environmental justice implications should be clear enough.


It appears that the prospects for reducing our dependence on fossil fuels – let alone addressing the effects of climate change – are remote. Indeed, a Republican majority in both houses of congress starting in January make it unlikely that such issues will receive the attention they deserve. One has only to peruse the list of campaign contributions to key lawmakers this past election cycle – especially Republicans – to appreciate the power and influence of the coal, oil, and gas industries. Even Professor Curry’s visit to Athens has ties to energy interests, albeit indirect ones. According to, the Jack Miller Center, which generously supports the speaker series of the George Washington Forum, received almost one million dollars from the Charles G. Koch Foundation between 2008 and 2012, the most recent period for which data are available. Of course, the stakes are high for the planet as well. As Thomas Princen, who teaches in the School of Natural Resources & Environment at the University of Michigan, notes, “If what we have burned so far is enough to disrupt the climate, it strains credulity to believe the planet can still be habitable after burning that amount again, and again and again.” Such is the state of the climate “debate” in the U.S.

Rather than allowing what we do not know to delay our response to climate change, we should be guided by what we do know and take action while opportunities to do so are still available. In the U.S., a good place to start would be to open the door to science-based decision-making. We would also be wise to cast light on the close relationship that has developed between energy industry lobbyists and federal lawmakers. Truth be told, we should be disturbed by the power and influence of big corporations, and their ability to dilute democratic processes and steer environmental policy. Unfortunately, Professor Curry’s talk served only as a smoke screen, distracting us from the very real problems that confront us and, whether intended or not, adding fuel to the political fire.

                                                  Geoff Buckley, Department of Geography, Ohio University

I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Ryan Fogt, Department of Geography, and Geoff Dabelko, Environmental Studies Program, Ohio University.