"Deniers" versus "Warmists"
"Skeptics" versus "Alarmists"
They are mirror images of each other in many ways.
Both have close communication among an "in-group" of similarly minded individuals with denigration of the character and intelligence of the "other side." Each has its heroes and incarnations of evil among its opponents. Both see themselves as guarding the sanctity of science and protecting the interests of mankind. In a bizarre sort of way, they need each other.
The climate "debate" is about a technical subject-- whether mankind's addition of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere is causing and will cause global warming-- and it has become a tribal conflict; a development that one can argue is not helpful for either the science or mankind's efforts to deal with a potential threat.
The battle among these groups is particularly intense in the blogosphere:
Watts Up With That, Climate Audit, Climate Science, Climate Depot, Roy Spencer's Blog, among others, on the "skeptic" side.
Real Climate, Climate Central, Climate Progress, and SkepticalScence represent only a few of the "warmist" blogs/webpages.
The media, crippled by a reduction in science reporters and unwilling or unable to carefully analyze a technical subject, headlines the most ominous warnings and predictions, which are often based on press releases or material lacking proper peer review.
And perhaps most of disturbing of all, this scientific issue has become a political football, with Republicans and Democrats increasingly divided on this and other environmental issues. Recently I went to a talk by Harvard Professor Theda Skopol in which she showed a figure on the environmental voting records of the two parties (see below) and it was stunning. Before roughly 1992, both parties had a middle of the road stance, with Democrats being modestly more likely to support environmental spending. But during the last few years, the differences have become profound (roughly 90% for Democrats, 10% Republicans). Talk about polarization.
Many believe that global warming is going to be very real and a threat to mankind (and about that they are certainly correct). The evidence of human-induced global warming is subtle right now because natural variability is large and obfuscates the relatively weak global warming signal AT THIS TIME. However, actions must be taken now to stop large warming later in the century. The problem is that few folks are willing to make substantial sacrifices NOW to use radically less fossil fuels (including climate scientists, by the way, who probably fly more than anyone else).
So what do some "alarmist" folks do? In the hope of getting society to do the right thins, they hype current big storms, droughts, and other weather events, claiming that such events are either signs of or "consistent with" human-caused global warming. The media, always hungry for apocalyptic headlines and unwilling to fact check the claims, highlights these scary, but generally unfounded, claims.
Now these unsupported claims (e.g., Hurricane Sandy is a sign of global warming) are fairly easy to disprove and the skeptic sites (e.g., Climate Audit, Watts Up) have a field day tearing them apart. Surely, if the alarmist claims of warming-induced extremes are obviously false, the whole global warming business is unfounded!
On the other hand, the "skeptic" side is fixated on the lack of warming during the past decade, wrongly believing that the warming due to greenhouse gases must be linear and continuous. The "pro" global warming side can easily show that natural variability will inevitably produce such plateaus in temperature, particularly today when the global warming signal is relatively weak, and use this obvious fact to criticize the skeptics.
The "pro" side accuses skeptics of being on the payroll of oil and coal companies. The skeptics suggest that global warming researchers are swayed by the allure of big research grants for "right-thinking" studies.
The blogs of each side are followed and commented upon by similar thinking communities, folks that feel camaraderie with each other and enjoy making fun of their confused opponents. God help you if you express a dissenting opinion. I tried that on skepticalscience.com and it was suggested that I was either a liar or ignorant. Name calling has become a frequent characteristic of some of these sites. To some degree, having thoughtful folks on both sides of an argument can be good thing, and I do think that blogs such as Climate Audit, Real Climate, and Watts Up often make valuable contributions to the discussion. But the debate too often gets ad hominem and extreme, even on these sites.
The transition of an essentially scientific and technical issue to one being divided on political/social lines surely reflects the increasing polarization of our society, as reflected in our hapless Congress. One could argue that with the climate issue, no one has contributed to this division more than Al Gore. The 2000 election divided the nation in many ways, and when a Democrat partisan took up the issue (along with his movie), politicization was perhaps inevitable.
I believe that one of the most problematic effects of this tribalism has been its influence on the scientific community. Nearly all members of the atmospheric science community recognize the potential for substantial warming of the globe due to anthropogenic (human-caused) emissions of greenhouse gases (and other impacts such as deforestation). But it is more than that..there is an orthodoxy and accepted view. Talk about serious impacts, one gets knowing nods. But dare to say that some claims are overblown, and a cool wind blows.
I learned this first-hand about ten years ago when some local scientists and politicians were making claims of huge reductions in NW snowpack due to mankind's emissions, and the deputy WA state climatologist was fired for bringing the claims into question. I supported him and was pulled aside by some other UW faculty, who warned me that I was providing aid to the "deniers." A bunch of us wrote a paper on the subject and sent it to Journal of Climate. I have never had such a difficult and poorly handled review process--the sub-editor was obviously trying to kill it. Finally, after a huge effort and the intercession of the editor (who was local) it was published.
Climategate emails show the unfortunate result.
The politicization of climate change also has had a major impact on government resource allocation, with bountiful funding going into climate change research, while other areas, such as weather prediction are poor cousins. How else can one explain that climate research gets more than one hundred times the computer resources provided to weather prediction, with the latter having huge benefits for people TODAY? NOAA administrators have continuously pushed the climate agenda, while downplaying weather prediction. This needs to change.
How we get out of this polarized situation? I am not sure. But it sure is a problem.