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Climate denialism has burnt to a crisp

The old debate about the existence of climate change is dead, immolated in 110-degree heat or asphyxiated on wildfire smoke or drowned in a flash flood. The idea that the world was getting warmer, the butt of both sincere and opportunistic mockery a decade ago, is harder to deny in this warmer world.

It is not the case that everyone has accepted the reality of the warming climate, which we’ll get to in a second. But it is the case that the arguments once lazily thrown out to deny that it was occurring have mostly vanished.

You have probably seen several headlines this week about new global temperature records being set, a confluence of three factors: that it is July, that there is an El Niño in effect and that temperatures have risen dramatically in recent years, setting a new baseline for our expectations.

Even given those factors, recent weeks — and 2023 in general — have been exceptional. You’ve probably seen some version of this chart this week, using data from Climate Reanalyzer, run by the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine.

That spiking red line is us, now. But notice the lighter red lines, the ones that show the daily temperature for each of the preceding 10 years. Notice that they are almost all above the black line, the one that shows each day’s average temperature in the two decades at the end of the 20th century.

If we compare them directly, the effect is obvious: Just about every day over the 10 years before 2023 was warmer than the average temperature on that same day over the two decades from 1979 to 2000.

In fact, since the beginning of 2015, there have been precisely two days — two — on which the global temperature was below that day’s average temperature from that two-decade period.

Back in 2012, though, skepticism was still pervasive. Anyone writing about the warming trend measured by scientists became familiar with a cacophony of rejoinders: It’s the urban heat-island effect or scientists once predicted global cooling or there was a “pause” in warming that flummoxed observers or there wasn’t actually agreement in the scientific community about what was going on.

These excuses were mostly just quietly dropped. Not entirely; you still get former president Donald Trump — whose opposition to wind farms is, predictably, actually about a golf course — making comments about “global cooling” or whatever. Generally, however, the undeniable immediacy of climate change has made such objections ridiculous.

Of course, they were not always sincere. The emergence of former vice president Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” brought awareness of the issue to mainstream attention and inspired a surge of concern about addressing the problem. Politicians slowly swung into action. By 2008, Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi were joining forces to call for legislative solutions.

This was not ideal for the companies selling the gasoline and burning the coal that were contributing to the warming. So there was a backlash, one that overlapped with the backlash against President Barack Obama, intermingling with partisan politics. You can see in the chart below (taken from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication) how acceptance of climate change sank from nearly three-quarters in 2008 to a bit over half in early-2010.

This was the era in which so many claims about the projected effects of climate change emerged. Like the one about how scientists weren’t universally convinced that it was occurring. In 2010 and 2011, a plurality of Americans accepted this idea that maybe belief in climate change was a fringe position or, at least, hotly contested. Over time, in part thanks to deliberate outreach from the scientific community, Americans began to understand that this was not actually the case.

The Yale research also finds that Americans are more likely to say that they have personally experienced climate change — as the percentage of Americans saying they are worried about climate change has similarly climbed.

One of the ways in which climate denialism was fostered a bit over a decade ago was with the release of emails stolen from climate researchers in Britain. This was dubbed “Climategate,” with messages cherry-picked and misrepresented to suggest that their research and public presentations were cynical and self-serving.

You don’t hear about that anymore, in large part because there’s no point. The global temperature records that appear to have been set this week are not a function of scheming British researchers. This argument evaporated.

And then it condensed and rained down elsewhere. Climate denialism established a pattern of rebutting reality with confusion and leveraging hostility to the elites and academia for political and economic purposes. The idea that outside observers could look at a heavy snowfall in February and scoff at the idea that the world was warming trickled out into other things, such as the idea that a vaccine was a useful protection against coronavirus-triggered illness.

The debate over climate change is over. The debate over science, though, has only recently begun.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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