Greetings From the New Flat Earth

All right, look: the Earth is not warming, OK? It's actually cooling. There are studies that prove it! And even if it was warming, that would be a good thing for humans, and we'll easily adapt. Anyway, aren't all those environmentalists the real problem, what with their "actions" and protests and hysteria? I wouldn't be surprised if they're buying enormous drilling machines on the black market to cause earthquakes and tsunamis and raise heaps of cash for their shady nonprofit organizations!

Surprisingly, these are not the rantings of a lone, wild-eyed wingnut, but actual assertions from an assortment of global warming deniers who use their diverse pulpits to belittle the idea that global warming is a reality.

The disproportional credence given to these arguments are what prompted the creation of the Flat Earth Award, announced last week in Vermont. The awards were created by three students at Vermont's Middlebury College in association with Green House Network, a Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit. The students hope to use the awards to publicize the widespread disinformation about global warming and build momentum for action on the issue.

The nominees for this dubious honor are mega-popular author Michael Crichton, mega-loud radio personality Rush Limbaugh, and mega-persistent scientist Dr. S. Fred Singer. Crichton's new novel, State of Fear, poses the idea that global warming is not as dangerous as the media makes it out to be, and goes so far as to blame environmental activists for whipping up a "state of fear"; Rush Limbaugh has long espoused his belief that global warming is a left-wing hoax; and atmospheric physicist Fred Singer has been trying to debunk warnings about global warming almost since they began in the late 1970s.

(As an aside, this author favors use of the term "global warming" to identify the increase in greenhouse gases in the last half-century and the effect it has on the Earth's climate, over the term "climate change," with its more neutral, accepting tone. While the White House seems to hope that "climate variations" will become the lingua franca of the topic, we are pushing for something equally and oppositely dramatic like "climate destruction" or perhaps, "the heat death of humanity.")

Middlebury College senior John Hanley, one of three students who worked on the project, said reaction to the award has been positive. "People think it's a good idea," he said. "They like the idea that we're going on the offensive instead of sitting back on the defensive against these people."

Eben Goodstein, executive director of Green House Network, said the movement needs to drown out the right-wing noise machine and its endless trumpeting of Flat Earth theories and cries of "junk science" toward all evidence proving global warming.

"In the last 20 years, there's been a massive, international scientific undertaking about global warming," Goodstein said. This research "has developed an impressive understanding of the problem, and it's ruled out all the other things that might be causing global warming, leaving human activity as the primary cause."

The Flat Earthers are up against a heaping mound of evidence. There are far-too-regular images of shrinking glaciers and shattered ice shelves, and reports of massive devastation, like the 4 million acres of Alaskan spruce trees killed by beetles now able to survive the winter cold.

Even the global warming deniers' oft-trotted out argument that there is considerable scientific disagreement on the issue has recently come under fire. Last December, Naomi Oreskes, a professor at UC San Diego, published an article in the journal Science examining 10 years of peer-reviewed studies containing "climate change" as keywords. Oreskes found that exactly zero of the 928 articles published between 1993 and 2003 disagreed either explicitly or implicitly with the consensus position, as stated by the UN's panel on climate change, that the observed global warming over the past 50 years has been caused by human activity.

Fueling the Fires

Given all the evidence (and yes, consensus) about the reality of global warming, how do Flat Earthers like Crichton continue to feed the fire of this faux-debate? Simply put, there is tremendous interest from the petroleum industry and its many dependents to ensure the status quo remains the same. The global economy is built on the foundation of cheap oil for everything from shipping and heating to travel, plastics and personal lubricants. Any proposed change in how the world runs necessarily provokes substantial fear in those who are doing just fine in the short term.

Between industry-funded groups like the Greening Earth Society and the Science and Environmental Policy Project, and conservative mouthpieces like Limbaugh, there is no shortage of press releases and sound bites decrying each new observance of global warming's effects. And the emphasis on balance in the mainstream media requires that all stories must have two sides, even if one side is made of 928 peer-reviewed science articles and the other is made up of a few industry front groups. Combine that with support from the Bush administration and it's easy to see how we've gotten where we are today, with cries for "more research" and "wait ten more years!" overwhelming the quiet extinction of countless species and the destruction of ecosystems.

The Flat Earth Award will be announced on Earth Day, April 22. The unlucky winner receives a copy of physicist Spencer Weart's book, The Discovery of Global Warming. John Hanley is rooting for Limbaugh, if only to hear his response, but as of today Crichton's eking out a narrow lead. So go cast your vote, and then visit Green House Network's events page to get involved in building the movement.

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