Climate confusion is back, and it's dangerous

Undeniable climate change facts
Undeniable climate change facts

    JUST WATCHED

    Undeniable climate change facts

MUST WATCH

Undeniable climate change facts 02:24

John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook or subscribe to his email newsletter.

(CNN)Until Friday night, the eve of the People's Climate March on Washington, the US government website EPA.gov/climatechange explained how humans are warming the planet by burning fossil fuels and why that is a huge deal for us and for future generations.

Now the page carries an Orwellian message: "This page is being updated."
"Thank you for your interest in this topic," the message continues. "We are currently updating our website to reflect EPA's priorities under the leadership of President [Donald] Trump and [US Environmental Protection Agency] Administrator [Scott] Pruitt."
It's been clear for months, if not years, what Donald Trump and his appointees think of climate change. At worst, they call it a hoax. At best, they say it's overblown -- no big deal. We need more science, they claim, while also moving to strip government science agencies of funding. They want us to keep debating the climate crisis while they make it worse.
That is troubling, not only because Trump's retrograde fossil-fuel policies are likely to contribute to all the bad things that come along with human-induced global warming, from worsening droughts to faster-rising seas and mass extinction. It is troubling because Trump and his administration are "gaslighting" the American public on the science of climate change.
Following a playbook that seems to be written by the tobacco industry, the Trump administration and other prominent skeptics inject uncertainty and confusion into climate policy where it doesn't belong.
And the strategy appears to be working. Climate confusion is back into the American zeitgeist.
In addition to the website changes, which the administration has acknowledged and will be fully apparent only after the EPA posts replacements for the former climate change websites, a US House committee held a March 29 hearing giving voice to climate skeptics who say it's unclear to what degree humans are causing global warming. While it is true that no science is absolutely certain (it's science, so it's always asking new questions of itself and evolving), the overwhelming majority of climate scientists -- at least 97%, according to peer-reviewed studies -- say humans are causing warming by polluting the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases, primarily by burning fuels like coal, oil and natural gas.
What EPA climate websites used to look like

Some EPA climate-change websites have been taken down for revision by the Trump administration. The Internet Archive preserves previous versions of these pages.

EPA.gov/climatechange

EPA.gov/cleanpowerplan

EPA.gov/climate-change-science

EPA.gov/climate-impacts

Burning those fuels releases carbon dioxide and other gases. Their heat-trapping properties have been understood since the 1800s. Former NASA scientist James Hansen testified to Congress about the perils of "the global warming" in 1988, nearly 30 years ago. And the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared in 2014, after extensive review of the best science, that the buildup of these gases in the atmosphere, caused by humans, is "extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century."
In other words: Nearly certain. Worth betting on. "Extremely likely."
Yet, Trump and others who hold the megaphone these days fixate on the thinnest slivers of doubt.
On Friday, the same day as the EPA website changes (which also included the removal of some other climate change-related websites for revision, including one on the Clean Power Plan), The New York Times ran a debut op-ed by columnist Bret Stephens. In the piece, Stephens seemed to rationalize skepticism about climate change and its potentially dire outcomes. "Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong ... None of this is to deny climate change or the possible severity of its consequences," Stephens wrote. "But ordinary citizens also have a right to be skeptical of an overweening scientism." The implication seems to be: Take climate change with a grain of salt; assume it's real but ... maybe not? Or maybe its consequences are overblown.
It's reasonable to acknowledge there are probabilities and uncertainties inherent in scientific predictions. It's dangerous, however, to overstate uncertainty and use it to justify inaction. All the best science tells us that more greenhouse gases are dangerous for the planet, posing an expensive and potentially existential threat to life as we know it.
"The Times has denounced the critics of its decision [to hire Stephens] as 'left-leaning,'" Stefan Rahmstorf, a professor of physics of the oceans at Germany's Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, wrote in a letter to The Times. "This is an insult to me and was the final straw to cancel my subscription. There is no left-leaning or right-leaning climate science, just as there is no Republican or Democrat theory of gravity. I have several good climate scientist friends who have been lifelong Republicans. Their understanding of climate change does not differ from mine, because it is informed by the evidence."
"CO2 traps heat -- more CO2 means a warmer climate," he continued. "That is basic physics, borne out by the history of climate. Denying these well-established facts is about as smart as claiming the Earth is flat, and best left to cranks, ideologues and fossil fuel lobbyists."
Dana Nuccitelli, an environmental scientist, wrote in The Guardian that people should think about these probabilities like they think about smoking. "Each time we smoke," Nuccitelli wrote, "we increase the odds of developing cancer a little bit more. The future outcome is uncertain -- we don't know exactly if or when the disaster of cancer will hit -- but we know we're making it more likely every time we smoke, and the smart move is to mitigate that risk by cutting down on the cigarettes as quickly as possible.
"With climate change, each time we add more carbon pollution to the atmosphere, we increase the odds of a climate catastrophe a little bit more. The smart move is to mitigate that risk by cutting down on our burning of fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Stephens' piece is akin to criticizing doctors and anti-smoking groups for being too mean to the tobacco industry, and for not focusing on the uncertainty about exactly when the chain-smoking patient will develop cancer."
Trump and the rest seem to want us to keep smoking the planet -- despite well-proven risks.
Yet, government spin doesn't change reality.
It doesn't have to change our perception of it, either.