Real Talk: What Does Being a Climate Change "Skeptic" Really Mean?

Real Talk: What Does Being a Climate Change "Skeptic" Really Mean?
Jeremiah Teutsch

This week’s cover story is on U.S. Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), who represents a slice of Northwest San Antonio in Congress and chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. As chair, Smith has focused on subpoenaing hundreds of scientists, politicians and legal experts to find some kind of evidence that their data is flawed, created only to serve as a political tool.

Smith’s focus stems from his disbelief in hundreds of peer-reviewed studies showing that human activity has contributed to global warming. Smith has called this finding, now supported by 99.99 percent of the world’s scientists, “science fiction.”

After publishing our piece online Tuesday morning, we received a response from Smith’s office. This came as a surprise, as we’d been trying to get a hold of Smith — or at least, get a statement from his staffers — for more than a month. Email requests had gone unanswered. Only after the story went live did Smith’s communications director, Kristina Baum, write back.

In her email, Baum clarified that her boss was not a climate change “denier,” but rather a “skeptic,” and that he shares President-elect Donald Trump’s alleged “openness” to accepting climate change as fact.

To be clear, Smith was never called a climate change denier in the article. (I did, however, give him that label in a tweet I sent out the morning the story ran – from my personal account, not the Current’s). Regardless, maybe it's necessary to clarify what it really means to be a climate change “skeptic” in a modern world, where human-made global warming is a near certainty – if you believe scientists, that is. 

For Smith, being “skeptical” of climate change appears to mean he can denounce hundreds of studies by the world’s top climate scientists. Smith, without any real studies or science to bolster this skepticism, has just decided modern climate science shouldn’t be trusted.

This is the logic he’s used to spend thousands of taxpayer dollars investigating these “suspicious” scientific organizations (from a 2012 statement):

“I believe climate change is due to a combination of factors, including natural cycles, sun spots and human activity. But scientists still don't know for certain how much each of these factors contributes to the overall climate change that the Earth is experiencing."

But only 1 in 9,136 climate scientists “don’t know for certain” if humans have contributed to climate change.

Baum also pointed out the similarities between Smith and Trump’s skepticism of global warming. In her email, she linked to an article on Smith that cited Trump’s recent New York Times interview, during which he said he had an “open mind” when it comes to climate change. Not long after Baum's email to us, a Trump spokesman announced that the president-elect will likely pull funding from all climate change research because what exists is not “good science.” Like Smith, this sweeping skepticism is unfounded — and it certainly doesn't seem "open minded." 

If we’re using Smith and Trump as examples, it appears that being a climate change “skeptic” means you’re in “denial” of research accepted by nearly every expert in the field of climate science. And if baseless “skepticism” gives a politician a free pass to vilify thousands of environmental advocates, scientists and politicians —  well, then this is clearly about much more than simple word choice.

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