Smoke and Mirrors in the Climate Debate

PHOTO: A solar flare erupts off the sun, in tihs June 7, 2011 file photo.

A new book by an executive at a major German power ultility claims we aren't facing a climate catastrophe and rejects current mainstream ideas on global warming. Both climate change skeptics and those who warn of global warming profit from such controversies -- so who should we believe?

Science can be so easy -- at least when it is stripped of its nuances. Fritz Vahrenholt and his colleague, geologist Sebastian Lüning, say the world isn't facing a climate catastrophe. The two are peddling precisely the kind of theory that generates publicity and allows both sides of the debate to profit. But it also leaves people wondering who they should believe.

The authors both work for German electric utility company RWE, where Vahrenholt is an executive. In their book "Die Kalte Sonne" ("The Cold Sun"), they claim that important research about climate change has been kept under wraps and that cries of an impending climate catastrophe are misleading. Their book arrived in book stores in Germany last week, with considerable media attention.

Following their statements, newspapers like the conservative tabloid Bild are dismissing what they call the "CO2 lie." This camp says it's not greenhouse gases that are behind the problem. It's the sun that determines climate change, they argue.

The book is the latest salvo in the ongoing debate over global climate change. It's a perpetual conflict that leaves people asking questions like: What's really going on with the climate? What kind of picture can you draw from current research? The most reliable source on the topic is the climate report produced by the United Nations. The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) puts together a report every few years about the state of knowledge in the field. The report documents in detail where researchers are unsure or just don't know. Contrary to what many IPCC critics say, however, the report reads like a book filled with doubts. But there's also a "summary for political decision makers" section, which is put together by civil servants rather than researchers, and which can appear to be biased in places.

Feeding the Conspiracy Theorists The ideas espoused in Vahrenholt and Lüning's book can also be found in the UN climate report. Yet the two still accuse the IPCC of concealing the true facts. By spreading that claim, they are further fueling conspiracy theorists.

The fact that the IPCC has come to different conclusions than the two authors is simply because its report contains not only the theory being promoted by Vahrenholt-Lüning, but also myriad others. Indeed, judgments about climate change cannot be reached as easily as the two RWE authors would have one think. In an attempt to justify himself, Varenholt told SPIEGEL in an interview he wanted to "revitalize the deadlocked debate."

Vahrenholt and his allies have jumped headfirst into an emotionally charged debate between those who warn of climate change and those who are skeptical of it. The problem is that both sides profit from the conflict -- at the expense of the general public and scientific credibility. On the one side are the scientists, lobby groups and commentators who are constantly talking about a "consensus" among climate researchers. But for many important questions, this supposed consensus never even existed. On the other side are critics like Vahrenholt and Lüning, with their extreme theories. An Old Theory with Little Evidence

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