A Parable of Global Warming in the 21st Century

You go to the doctor with a persistent cough and tell the physician, “I’ve had bad coughs since I was a kid, and it’s always been bronchitis. So skip the tests, just treat me for bronchitis.”

The doctor says, “No, a persistent cough can happen for lots of different reasons. Let’s run some tests.”

You reluctantly agree, while complaining that all this testing is just to make lab scientists rich.

You go back to the doctor, still coughing and still convinced that it’s bronchitis and expecting the same treatment as before.

But the doc says, “I’m sorry to inform you of this, but the tests we’ve run indicate that it’s not bronchitis this time. You have lung cancer.”

And you fire back,

“You’re a brainwashed pseudointellectual greedhead idiot, doc. This is a hoax. Shut up and give me the bronchitis drugs. My cough is always caused by bronchitis, and with drugs it always gets better and always lasts just a few days.”

The doc pulls up your chart and explains, “Here’s the evidence. There’s more going on with you than just the cough. The evidence plus the medical research indicates lung cancer. See the X-rays here? That’s why you’re coughing; it’s not bronchitis this time. The cough isn’t going to get better in a few days, even if we did treat you for bronchitis. Instead, it’s going to get worse and worse, for weeks and months. You need treatment for lung cancer, and now.”

You get in the doc’s face and yell,

“Screw you, doc, you’re an arrogant asshole who thinks he knows so much because he went to med school. Here’s a blog post from a reputable scientist at R.J. Reynolds that proves I’m right and you’re wrong. I win, you lose. Go to hell.”

You shove the chart back in the doctor’s chest, tear up the doc’s prescriptions and drive home. But not before buying a pack of the dirtiest cigarettes you can find and lighting up in front of strangers and blowing smoke in their faces, just to prove to the world that it’s bronchitis and not lung cancer.

You go home late that night, but you can’t sleep because your cough’s worse.

. . .

This is where we stand in the U.S. with global warming in 2017. According to an October 2016 Pew Research Center poll (http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/10/04/public-views-on-climate-change-and-climate-scientists/), only 48% of U.S. adults believe that Earth is warming mostly due to human activity, i.e. the burning of fossil fuels and the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Among conservative Republicans only 15% believe in primarily-human-caused global warming, and among moderate/liberal Republicans only 34%. Speaking of 34%, that’s the minority of all U.S. adults who believe that climate scientists understand very well whether or not climate change is occurring; only 28% believe that climate scientists understand very well the causes of climate change. A plurality (36%) think that climate scientists’ research findings are influenced by their desire to advance their careers, compared to the best available evidence or concern for the public interest.

In short, in 2017 America still does not believe in global warming, just as a previous generation of Americans, and even many doctors and some highly educated scientists, did not believe that smoking caused cancer (http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/21/2/87.full). American adults don’t even believe that the climate scientists who have devoted their careers to this subject know what they’re talking about; they’re just in it for the money, the public thinks. That’s news to my climate-scientist wife, whose external funding just ran out because of the intense competition for grants. The boldfaced quotes above are characteristic of the abuse my colleagues in climate science are subjected to on social media on a regular basis.

The irony is that this parable linking tobacco interests and fossil-fuel interests isn’t just literary license. The same PR game plan used to confuse Americans about smoking and cancer was used — by some of the same people— to cause all the needless confusion over global warming (http://www.merchantsofdoubt.org/).

As the tobacco industry said, and as the fossil-fuel industry has been happy to second with regard to our tailpipes and our tall stacks,

“Thank you for smoking.”

Postscript: I have a Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences and teach and do research on weather and climate at the University of Georgia; and my mom died from COPD six years ago after being addicted to cigarettes for 66 years.

A geography professor and meteorologist at UGA in Athens, GA. I write about news, sports, weather, climate, education, journalism, religion, poetry, the South.

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