Plowing through the political morass to understand global warming

Disinformation has become a hallmark of companies and religious sects interested in undermining science.  Please note that I have used disinformation instead of misinformation because these organizations have purposefully spread wrong or bad information to mislead the public and cloud issues discovered by science.  The most famous example comes from the tobacco industry.  Richard Kluger’s book Ashes to Ashes1 won the Pulitzer prize and helped expose the ruse that nicotine is not harmful or addictive.   The tobacco industry funded hundreds of scientific research projects in an attempt to muddy the waters concerning the health risks of smoking.  Who will ever forget the seven CEOs of America’s largest tobacco companies swearing in front of Congress in 1994 that nicotine is not addictive (still on Youtube if you care to reminisce).   One of the leading examples of the travesty was the funding of the Harvard Center for Tobacco Research.  Big Tobacco, through its Council for Tobacco Research, gave millions of dollars to the Center and Dr. Gary Huber2

In a more recent exposé, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru showed in their book League of Denial how the National Football League actively downplayed the seriousness of trauma to the head3.  For example, to offset concern over head injuries, the NFL and commissioner Paul Tagliabue set up the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee (MTBI) in 1994.  The committee was notorious for denying that concussions did not lead to serious effects.  In 2003, the committee began publishing what would amount to 16 research papers in the coopted science journal Neurosurgery, supporting their contention that the concussion problem was minor.  It certainly helped that the Neurosurgery editor, Michael L. J. Apuzzo, was a major NFL fan4.  The MTBI fuzzy logic included statements such as: “A total of 92% of concussed players returned to practice in less than seven days … More than one-half of the players returned to play within one day, and symptoms resolved in a short time in the vast majority of cases.”   During the same period independent research was discovering chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of deceased football players that had suffered numerous concussions throughout their careers.

Then there is the whole creationist movement which has attempted to undermine science through such organizations as the Institute for Creation Research.  There is neither space nor time to delve into the movement’s attempts to promote creationism and more recently intelligent design.   If you want to read a riveting account of one of the recent battle fronts pick up a copy of Monkey Girl by Edward Humes5.  It documents the attempt by the Dover School Board to demand the teaching of intelligent design in science classes which resulted in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District legal brouhaha.

Does this sound familiar?  Exxon (now ExxonMobile) formed the Global Climate Coalition in the 1980s to lobby congress and actively dispute the claim that global warming was not caused by anthropic greenhouse gases6.  The organization shut down in 2001 under pressure from numerous groups, but by then, the term global warming had morphed into a political issue entrenched in right-wing politics.    But the time may be coming for ExxonMobile to pay up for its disinformation campaign.  More than a dozen state attorney generals are investigating ExxonMobile for attempting to obfuscate the facts about global warming.  The New York Times reported in March that new documents published by the activist group Center for International Environmental Law shows that  Exxon knew about the dangers of global warming from carbon dioxide through its own research as far back as 1957 and established a campaign that doggedly fought air pollution control.

Admittedly, politics always baffles me.  The science of global warming via anthropic greenhouse gases seems so obvious that I have trouble seeing how the issue could become such a heated-cantankerous argument.  Let me briefly outline the science and you decide.  I have no ax to grind in the debate.  I tend to favor middle of the road solutions.  What I am more interested in is how the issue could ever become hijacked by politics.  If you are the kind of person whose eyes glaze over when you see graphs, hang in there because it is all pretty straight forward.  Before we dig in, let me remind you of a phrase Thomas Henry Huxley, known as Darwin’s bulldog, said: “My business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonize with my aspirations… Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.”

Wavelength is plotted below on the x-axis (which is broken down into UV, visible, and infrared radiation) and the spectral intensity is plotted on the y-axis.  The red curve (top panel) represents the span of wavelengths transmitted by the sun and received at the top of the earth’s atmosphere.  Scientists refer to the electromagnetic radiation that comes from the sun as Planck black body radiation because they can reproduce it by heating an opaque non-reflective body (a black body) to a temperature of 5,525 degrees Kelvin.  The red region represents the extent of radiation that is received at the earth’s surface (i.e., not absorbed).  Note that most of the UV radiation is absorbed by the atmosphere (mostly due to the ozone layer fortunately) and most of the visible spectrum gets through.  Animals have evolved to “see” in the visible spectrum almost certainly because light comes to us in this range of the spectrum.

Atmospheric_TransmissionGlobal Warming Art, Wikipedia

The average Planck black body radiation of the earth is represented by the blue curve (255 degrees Kelvin)7   The blue area filled in under the blue curve is the amount of radiation from the earth that escapes into space (emitted by the top of the atmosphere) which is equal to about 15 to 30% transmission.  Virtually all of the near to far infrared is absorbed by greenhouse gasses shown in the panels in the above diagram for each of the gases.  Water plays the biggest role but carbon dioxide has an impact on the far infrared.  You can see this better in the diagram below.


Relatively small increases in carbon dioxide have a profound affect on the absorption of radiation (energy).  In fact, it is so sensitive that carbon dioxide closely follows the temperature changes during the past glacial cycles — the last 420,000 years are shown below.  As you can see, we are in an interglacial warming period and, under normal nonanthropic conditions would expect to enter another ice age in about 10,000 years8.  I should mention that carbon dioxide concentrations were measured from Vostock ice cores taken from Antarctica (the ice traps air bubbles locking in atmospheric concentrations).  Temperatures in the same cores were determined from hydrogen and oxygen isotopes9 10.


Now here is one of the most astounding graphs in environmental science – carbon dioxide and temperature over about the last 20,000 years11.   It shows global temperature in the blue curve relative to the Holocene mean between 6.5 and 11.5 thousand years ago (LGM is the last glacial maximum).  The red curve is an Antarctic composite core temperature profile.  Carbon dioxide concentrations (yellow dots) start to rise as we come out of the last glacial cycle along with temperature about 18,000 years ago and continue to rise until about 8,000 years ago when they become stable (temperature – red curve – and carbon dioxide in the cores lag a bit behind global temperature – blue curve).  Note that carbon dioxide concentrations have stabilized at about 260 ppm (parts per million) over the last 8,000 years or more (the current carbon dioxide changes are too new to be picked up in the cores).

natureShakun et al., 2012

Compare the graphs above to the carbon dioxide data measured directly from Hawaii since 1957 below.  The concentrations went above 400 ppm in 2015 (the annual variations are due to higher output in carbon dioxide by vegetation during the summer in the northern hemisphere – more land in the north), 140 ppm over the average of the last 8,000 years shown in the above diagram.  It is important to point out that carbon dioxide concentrations have not reached this level in more than 3 million years12!


And here is why scientists think that humans are responsible for most of the carbon dioxide increase.  The graph is of temperature from 1880 (annual mean compared to the average between 1951 to 1980).  The red line is a five-year running average.  Temperature begins to increase significantly when carbon dioxide concentrations reach about 340 ppm in the mid 1970s.   The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 and consists of thousands of the world’s finest scientific minds contributing to their reports.  The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report which was completed in 2014, stated: “It is extremely likely [90 to 100% probability in their words] that human influence has been the dominant cause of observed warming since 1950, with the level of confidence having increased since the fourth report”.


So why all the fuss?  Even if we admit that carbon dioxide and global temperatures are rising (and they are also rising in the ocean because carbon dioxide and heat are absorbed from the atmosphere), is this devastating for the future of the world?  To be honest, no one knows for sure.  I could list a plethora of examples of the impact from these changes – sea level rise, species habitats being pushed toward higher latitudes or higher elevations worldwide, ocean acidity, continued melting of the world’s glaciers, etc.   But the data that keeps me up at night (being overly dramatic here) is the tipping point.  Climate models show global temperatures rising between 1 to 2.5 degrees centigrade (1.8 to 4.5 degrees F) between 2050 and 2100.  We don’t know what might throw us into a tipping point – what Wagner and Weitzman call “tail effects” or “black swans” to designate statically low probability extreme events13.  They are referred to as tail events because they occur on the ends of a bell distribution curve (less than 2.1% in the figure below – greater than 2 standard deviations).  These events will be so potentially horrendous that we may not know how to combat them.

Wagner and Weitzman claim that tail events are “profound earth-as-we-know-it-altering changes”.  For example, they may lead to as much as a 30 percent decline in global economic output.  No one knows.  The only thing that is certain is that if we continue to ignore global warming and its effects, we are taking huge potential risks.


  1. Kluger, R. (1996) Ashes to Ashes: America’s Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris: Vintage
  2. McGarity, T. O. and Wagner, W. E. (2012) Bending Science: How Special Interests Corrupt Public Health Research: Harvard University Press
  3. Fainaru-Wada, M. and Fainaru, S. (2013) League of Denial: Three Rivers Press
  4. Fainaru-Wada and Fainaru suggest that Apuzzo was drawn to the limelight of the NFL as the major reason for allowing dubious papers to be published by the MTBI
  5. Humes, E. (2007) Monkey Girl: HarperCollins Publishers
  6. The CCC was a major opponent to the Kyoto Protocol and was instrumental in persuading the US not to sign it
  7. The black curve is the upper atmosphere at 210 degrees Kelvin and the purple curve is the lower atmosphere near the earth’s surface at 310 degrees Kelvin.
  8. Novacek, M. (2007) Terra: Our 100-Million-Year-Old Ecosystem — and the Threats That Now Put It at Risk: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  9. The ratio of hydrogen isotopes has a linear relationship with temperature.  The hydrogen isotope (hydrogen has one electron and deuterium has 2 electrons) is lighter than deuterium and preferentially evaporates relative to deuterium from seawater (it takes less energy to evaporate a water molecule with hydrogen than a molecule with deuterium).  In periods of high temperature, more water evaporates concentrating deuterium in seawater relative to the atmosphere.  The relationship between hydrogen and deuterium in the atmosphere is recorded in snow as it falls and becomes part of the glacier sampled.  Temperatures are extrapolated from the ratio of the isotopes of hydrogen.  Oxygen isotopes are used in a similar way to augment the hydrogen isotopes.
  10. Petit, J. R., et al. (1999) Climate and atmospheric history of the past 420,000 years from the Vostok ice core Antarctica: Nature, 399, 429-436
  11. Shakun, J. D., et al. (2012) Global warming preceded by increasing carbon dioxide concentrations during the last glaciation: Nature, 484, 49-54
  12. Nordhaus, W. D. (2015) A new solution: the climate club: New York Review of Books, June 4
  13. Wagner, G. and Weitzman, M. L. (2015) Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet: Princeton University Press
12 replies
  1. Connor Boyd
    Connor Boyd says:

    For many years, there have been efforts by corporations and religious groups to distort the findings of scientists that threaten their profits or undermine their beliefs. In modern times, we see this with the attempt to muddy the waters around climate science, which holds the position that the climate change is anthropogenic, or caused by humans. Carbon dioxide (CO2), created in excess by many human activities, has a strong correlation to global temperatures because of its impact on the absorption of radiation. CO2 stabilized at roughly 260 parts per million over the last 8,000 years and was recently recorded at over 400 ppm, well above the average the planet has retained for millennia. Perhaps the most considerable consequence of climate change is the concept of the tipping point, which could be caused by continuation of increasing temperatures and wreak devastation on the planet.

  2. Bmohammed
    Bmohammed says:

    I am commenting on the post, “Plowing through the political morass to understand global warming” found in the “Environment Category”.

    Summarizing the first paragraph starting with “Disinformation has become” and ending with “Big Tobacco, through its council”. This paragraph is specifically introducing the topic and touch on the points pertaining to companies/ corporations who are undermining science because their industry is profiting from ignorance of the negative effects of their operations. It was mentioned that, CEO’s of America’s largest tobacco companies swearing in congress in 1994 that nicotine is not addictive.

    Summarizing the second paragraph starting with “League actively” and ending with “During the same period independent”. This paragraph speaks of the book League of Denial and how the players suffering with serious head injury or trauma to the head has been downplayed in the sporting world. It is shown that in the NFL they even set up and industry to basically deny concussions leading to more adverse effects on the players’ mental health and well-being, the committee was (MTBI). The claims they made were not even scientific in nature and very vague statistics including “More than one half of the players returned to play within one day, and symptoms resolved in a short time in the vast majority of cases”, this is not in any way a scientific response since from a medical perspective every individual is different and injuries always have both short term and long term effect on the body.

    Summarizing the paragraphs beginning with “Then there is the whole creationist movement” and ending with “Animals have evolved to “see” in the visible spectrum”. These paragraphs are speaking of how big corporations for example “ExxonMobile” can create influence in the political atmosphere to create situations more favorable to their organization by undermining scientific research. They created the Global Climate Coalition to lobby congress and actively dispute that global warming was not caused by anthropic greenhouse gases. This is clearly a disservice the not only the scientific but also to the global population since no policies would have been put in place to curb the issue of global warming in the timely matter that it should be dealt with.

    Summarizing the Graphical representation of Atmospheric, Temperature and Radiation data as follows. We can see that Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been increasing and has a profound effect on radiation absorption. This rise in Carbon dioxide concentrations represented by yellow dots on one graph is increasing hand in hand with Proxy global temperature. These are astounding metrics that surpass the last 3 million years of Earth’s atmospheric state. Based on the IPCC fifth Assessment Report of 2014 it stated that it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of observed warming since 1950. The most important topic that is being discussed coming to the close of the graphical analysis would be the “Tipping Point” Wagner and Weitzman call this “tail effects” or “black swans” but they are low in probability but high in disastrous effects on the earth. The article comes to a close by reiterating that it is certain that if we do not take the issue more seriously and start implementing policies and procedures to curb the issue we are taking huge potential risks.

  3. Nissly
    Nissly says:

    I enjoyed reading this post. I was shocked to learn that asbestos is still present in buildings. The causes to those responders who came to help with the clean-up on Septemeber 11th have been seen these many years later. One of those things that these brave men and women were breathing in were asbestos that had been placed in some floors of the towers for fire proofing. We have all been led to believe through marketing and campaigns designed to mold the truth that asbestos is only dangerous after long exposure and that it was only certain types of asbestos that causes health issues. These companies also went and smeared the name of Dr. Irving Selikoff and others speaking out against asbestos and their goal of informing the public of the true dangers. It blows my mind that even today asbestos still is used in the United States. We know that research has consistently shown the risks associated with asbestos, yet it is still used even though there are many alternatives. In addition to the many hazards their products have caused, those large asbestos companies were even eventually able to get out of any liability and out of paying for the damages that their products caused by claiming bankruptcy.
    I agree with your thoughts on what can be done from this point. There are many safe and affordable alternatives that can be used, as you shared. I also think that keeping production here in the United States is not only much better for our economy but it also allows for more oversight and regulation. By doing this it takes out those countries that use questionable materials such as asbestos and many others.
    Thank you for sharing all this vital information exposing the truth about asbestos and the lies we’ve all been left to believe.

  4. paulponterio
    paulponterio says:

    There is always disinformation when it comes to major corporations protecting themselves. When companies like Exxon denied that global warming was impacted by anthropic greenhouse gases it is clear that they have their own personal interests in mind. The evidence you have provided is clear that anthropic greenhouse gasses are causing global warming. The carbon dioxide levels have been consitantly increasing since the 1960s as well as global temperature. You are right when you mention the most scary part about global warming is that there is a tipping point. Eventually if global warming isn’t haulted, the effects could be devistating. It is hard to predict what will happen and it is something that can’t be ignored. Global warming should not be a political issue, it should be a worldwide concern that should be prioritized especially over personal interests and money.

  5. paulponterio
    paulponterio says:

    This is an interesting article. I remember first hearing about global warming as a kid. My initial reaction was why isn’t global warming the entire world’s number one priority? Global warming shouldn’t be a political issue or a economic issue that needs to be covered up by huge coporations trying to protect their profitability. Just like with the NFL concussion cover up, their was clear evidence of global warming but it was swept under a rug to keep large corporations filling their pockets at the expense of the health of someone. The effects of global warming are very scary to think about if we do not try to take serious global wide action to correct or prevent further damage from happening. When their is clear evidence that global warming is happening it should have made the whole world focus on a solution. I’m a finance major and I understand the logistics as far as business goes. Why would a large corporation intentionally put itself out of business? They are willing to pay to keep things quiet without thinking about the consequences. Honestly, it’s hard to blame some of the people that may have done so. They would be willingly be taking food out of their family’s mouth by potentially losing their jobs. With all that being said, if we do not start protecting the earth there will be not much of an earth for further generations.

  6. ashlika
    ashlika says:

    Hello Dr. Defant,

    Corporate America has once again delved into a situation where fraudulent behavior is being conducted. This is outrageous as major companies are spreading bad information to mislead people into believing fraudulent scientific information. The corruption of the major tobacco industries is appalling as nicotine addiction is very much a real problem. To try to persuade people otherwise is absolutely selfish. It is also alarming that the National football league would attempt to cover up and downplay the severity of concussions incurred by their players. They used a similar tactic as the major tobacco companies and funded scientific projects as well, even publishing 16 research papers in the magazine “Neurology”. The highlight on Exxon Mobile hits the nail on the head though and this is where we really see the degree to which corporate companies are able to abscond from responsibility. Exxon Mobile founded the Global Climate Commission in the 80’s to try and convince congress that global climate change was not caused by anthropic greenhouse gases although they knew through their own research that carbon monoxide was a significant contributing factor to global warming. In the end the article is important to make readers aware of such acts that corporate industries should be held accountable for.

  7. courtney piccirilo
    courtney piccirilo says:

    i enjoyed reading this article and as well truly believe that humans do make a huge impact with everything that is damaging Earth. some ways we damage is by building on lands we are not suppose to, letting chemicals from warehouses or factories just go wherever they so, and i believe in some ways with technology everywhere somehow has some effects. this article was very clear on showing just how rapid time is changing as well as global warming and society should be more aware of this and not just throw the blind eye as if it is not important. Some of the reason i feel is because the government tries to cover all the evidence from the public just like the article of the asbestos.

  8. Jordan
    Jordan says:

    This article overall was very interesting. The beginning part of the article showed a good argument for why global warming had been ignored by politics. If the public cannot decide whether or not it believes in global warning because of the disinformation then the policy makers have no reason to act. Even though there has been so much evidence gathered to prove global warming, the small amount of incorrect data disproving global warming puts a seed of doubt in the public’s mind.

    The second part of this article gives six different cases of evidence showing that global warming is real. The most convincing evidence was that of how the carbon dioxide parts per million had remained constant for eight thousand years, but since the population boom in the 1950’s the carbon dioxide parts per million had increased by 70 in 60 years. This clearly shows that humans, and their consumption, have caused a massive increase in the rate of global warming.

    The final part of this article discusses why global warming should be a priority. There is no doubt that global warming will cause a change in how we live our lives, but there is also a 2.1% chance that life all around the world would be changed in way to which we cannot imagine. Even this 2.1% chance is too high of a chance to risk our global population so global warming should be of the most importance in politics.

  9. cjcurran297
    cjcurran297 says:

    To start off, I really enjoyed that you started the article with a few relevant examples of disinformation. The idea that people would mislead other Americans about the effects of nicotine addiction or the severity of concussions in contact sports such as football baffles me. The denial of global warming by right wing politicians genuinely confuses me because the evidence is as clear as day. Sea levels are rising. Glaciers are melting. And temperatures are going higher and higher.

    In this current presidential race, the disinformation on global warming has morphed from cooked-up research studies to erroneous claims. Donald Trump, the republican nominee, has stated that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive” (@realDonaldTrump on Twitter) This charge totally neglects the facts that global warming is bigger than the US or China. The changes caused by global warming affect the air, the water, and the food that is produced for every person that lives on the GLOBE!

    Carly Curran (ESC2000.797F16)

  10. aferencz03
    aferencz03 says:

    Honestly, the only part about your article that I did not admire was the Wikipedia graph picture. That website just leaves a bad taste in my mouth since any one can post on there, so you never know what is actually truth.

    I truly enjoyed the introduction to your article in referencing concussions as this is a huge peeve of mine. I cannot believe that people still, to this day, believe that concussions while playing football (or any time for that matter) do not have long term effects on the brain. COME ON people! Learn to use your common sense and listen to scientific facts!

    I agree that human influence has been a major factor for that last hundred years or so, as we have destroyed most of nature by building on the soil. All of the fumes are not good for the environment, let alone burying our trash or throwing it in the ocean. If everyone cared more about the environment and sustaining our world that they do about social media “likes,” our world would not be in such danger of future problems. One day I truly believe that Florida will be underwater.

    Annemarie Ferencz – ESC2000.797F16

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  2. […] spent a bit of time in my last essay on global warming bemoaning how the subject has become a political hot potato because of disinformation by Exxon […]

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