Global Warming Denialism 'Just Foolishness,' Scientist Peter Raven Says

(Panoramic Images/Getty Images)

U.S. prestige falling as world has 'pretty well given up' on any American leadership facing climate change.


Nature's Edge Notebook #23

Observation, Analysis, Reflection, New Questions

One of the world's most widely known and respected senior scientists tells ABC News that current denial about the basic daunting realities of manmade global warming is "just foolishness."

He also reports that the rest of the world has now "pretty well given up" on its hope for U.S. leadership in dealing with global climate change.

His assessment reinforces our findings at the recent global climate summit in Durban, South Africa, that the vigorous anti-climate science movement in the United States has significantly damaged American prestige among European leaders who are struggling to deal with the daunting impacts of global warming.

Peter Raven, co-inventor in 1964, along with biologist Paul R. Ehrlich, of the bedrock concept of co-evolution (see footnote below), has long been a trusted adviser of American presidents, many other heads of state and government, religious leaders including popes, and countless congressional, academic and scientific leaders in the United States and around the world.

A frequent world traveler for his work, Raven reconfirmed in an email from the international Planet Under Pressure conference in London what he first told Natures' Edge in 2010 in St. Louis.

When we asked, in the course of an interview on the occasion of his retirement after four decades as head of the Missouri Botanical Gardens, what he thought about the increasing claims of some parties in the United States that the science and alarm about manmade global warming was "a hoax" or greatly overblown, he responded patiently, "Oh, it's just foolishness."

"It's not a matter of conjecture anymore," he said. "Climate change is the most serious challenge probably that the human race has ever confronted."

Raven quickly summarized the virtually unanimous understanding of the world's climate scientists and other responsible experts about the great upheavals manmade global warming is now producing.

He talked to us outdoors, in the now world-famous, immense and exquisite gardens that, as the brief introduction to this video excerpt of his remarks shows, he had turned into an expansive vision of what a peaceful and balanced world could look like - a sort of international botanical metaphor.

His remarks on the gravity and certainty of manmade global warming begin at 2:47 of this clip:

"There is virtually unanimous consensus among the world's scientists who work in the area that human beings are the major reason that this is so (the world's average temperature rising)," writes Raven from London. "Because, just as first noted by the Swedish chemist Arrhenius in 1895, when you add more carbon dioxide or other co-called greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, you make it warmer."

Academic and scientific surveys have repeatedly confirmed this view among the world's climate scientists.

One detailed study, "Expert Credibility in Climate Change," published in PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, July 6, 2010, focused on "an extensive dataset of 1,372 climate researchers."

It found that "97-98 percent of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field … supported the basic tenets of ACC (manmade global warming) established by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change."

It also determined that the minute number of detractors had significantly less standing in the field of climate science among their scientist peers.

It reported that "the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of (those tenets of climate change) are substantially below that of the convinced researchers."

America's Prestige Damaged by Its Climate Denialism; World Has 'Given Up' on Hoped-for U.S. Leadership

"Two years ago," Raven added in his email, "the world was hoping for U.S. leadership on this question, global climate change, and now it has pretty well given up, with us as the only hold-out nation on the science."

An extensive "disinformation campaign" in the United States about the scientific solidity and gravity of manmade global warming has been described in detail by a number of academic analyses and extensive professional journalistic enquiry.

For example, "Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming," by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, details how ideological, political and fossil fuel industry interests have been able to confuse and intimidate many leaders in legislature and media.

Author and journalist Ross Gelbspan, who directed a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation at the Boston Globe, was one of the first professional journalists to describe fossil fuel industry efforts to delay government regulation on greenhouse gas emissions as long as possible.

"They don't expect or need to win any debate," he says, "they just want to keep the appearance of a debate going."

(This reporter has observed, in the years since first focusing on the story of global warming in 2004, that the tiny handful of so called "skeptic" scientists with any pretense to credibility on the subject has not increased in number.)

What Gelbspan and others describe as a massively funded and cynical PR campaign to confuse and intimidate appears to have greatly increased in the years since Gelbspan described it in his books "The Heat Is On" (1997) and "Boiling Point" (2005.)

(Gelbspan still maintains an extensive website is at )

Intimidation of media leaders, notably those professing to provide professional journalism, is described by Gelbspan and other analysts as proceeding from a "false politicization" of the issue - notably in the adoption by one of America's two major political parties, the Republicans - of an anti-climate science agenda.

This, they suggest, may have meant that some editors and news executives feared that if they covered manmade global warming with the scale and focus the science would seem to require, that it would, at least to some American audiences and readers, have appeared necessarily partisan.

Whatever the cause, America's vigorous anti-climate science campaigns, amplified by political rhetoric and, so far, defeating federal legislative efforts, has dismayed European and other leaders grappling with the highly destructive impacts of rapidly advancing climate change.

U.S. Now Geopolitically Isolated on Climate; Many Display Frustration and Anger at American Stance; Europe, the Moral Leader Now Looks East for Solutions

This reporter has been surprised over the past year at the degree to which European leaders have been willing to go on the record excoriating the failure of American leadership in the face of the enormous global climate crisis.

At the recent annual global climate summit, held in Durban, Alden Meyer of America's Union of Concerned Scientists, told ABC News that he now sees among negotiators from Europe and many other countries "not just tremendous frustration, but anger" at the American stance on climate.

"The U.S. is geopolitically isolated now on climate," Meyer said. "The E.U. is still the moral leader in this, and has been at least since the (1992) Rio Summit on environment."

Achim Steiner, the head of UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) told ABC News that, in the absence of American leadership on this global crisis, Europe is now "looking east" - particularly toward China - to try to figure out what a solution might look like.

Also dovetailing with this and Peter Raven's assessment that "the world has pretty much given up" on American leadership in climate, Christiana Figueres, the head of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) used even stronger language, speaking of the "tragedy" of the U.S. position:

"The tragedy of the position that the U.S. is taking is that not only does it act here in a way that is not particularly ambitious, but the more tragic part about it is the U.S. is cutting off its possibilities to be a leader in this field, to be a leader in green technology (and thus) to create jobs," Figueres said. "The U.S. is losing leadership to China."

You may read our full story from Durban here:

---- FOOTNOTE: The term coevolution was invented by Paul Ehrlich and Peter Raven in their 1964 article: "Butterflies and plants: a study in coevolution."  Its basic definition is roughly as "evolution in two or more evolutionary entities brought about by reciprocal selective effects between the entities."  - Say, when certain nectar-laden plants evolve deeper flowers allowing only certain birds with longer beaks to pollinate them… and the birds, in turn, evolve even longer beaks to do so more efficiently.

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