Many people with a serious illness have trouble accepting it; they'll deny it and ignore it for as long as possible. Global warming produces a somewhat similar reaction in some people. This continued doubt has a parallel in the 1964 Surgeon General study that established the link between smoking and cancer.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report last week is unequivocal in its warning about the impact of rising global temperatures. It is as certain about the human cause of global warming as the Surgeon General's report was about the connection between lung cancer and smoking. And, as with the Surgeon General's report, there will be numerous efforts to counter and confuse the IPCC's findings.
Following release of Surgeon General's report, its critics - mostly the tobacco companies – sought to challenge its underlying science with their own industry-backed research. There was a public relations effort as well to muddy the issue with claims that, for instance, stopping smoking increases weight and creates another health risk, heart problems. Pick the lesser of two evils.
Newspapers, especially during the 1970s, would often get quotes from the Tobacco Institute to “balance” a story about smoking, even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. The Tobacco Institute today exists as a court-ordered document site.
Doubt-casting reports about the hazards of smoking were life rafts for people who didn't want to come to terms with the habit. It provided cover for people who refused to act responsibly. And for those who argue that smoking is somehow a “right” – an argument still championed by tobacco companies – I would say that the only reason children take up smoking is because adults continue to influence their behavior. That alone should provide strong moral reason to give up smoking.
This denial of science will be true for global warming as well. Industry-backed groups will do all they can to provide cover to lawmakers and others to do less than what is needed and buy time and profit for special interests.
Acceptance of the science of global warming and its conclusion that human activity is responsible for it is necessary for real action. Otherwise, the response may be little more than a series of false half-steps similar to those taken by so many smokers who couldn't or didn't want to give up their habit.