DENVER // With parts of the United States still digging out from one of the worst winters in recent memory, an increasing number of Americans are questioning the science behind global warming. This growing doubt, scientists and climate activists admit, is posing a serious challenge to hopes of reducing carbon emissions.
Cities up and down the Eastern Seaboard have seen some of the highest levels of snowfall on record amid a string of storms that paralysed public transport, caused thousands of car accidents, and cost billions of dollars in damage and lost productivity. Even the president, Barack Obama - who has called for the United States to take the lead on fighting climate change - dubbed a blizzard that hit Washington "snowmaggedon".
Freakish cold also swept across Florida, causing damage to the Sunshine State's citrus crop, which supplies 40 per cent of the world's orange juice. Meanwhile, a record 20 centimetres of snow dumped on Texas in February, as an Arctic storm snarled air traffic across the south and plunged temperatures well below freezing. It was not just the United States feeling the chill. Beijing and Seoul dug out from the biggest snowfalls in decades. The UK and Europe suffered a colder than usual winter, with the first snowstorm to hit Copenhagen in 14 years coming the same day as world leaders gathered in the Danish capital to mull a solution to global warming.
"It was like a sign from God saying: 'Climate change? You've got to be kidding'," said Mike Brodeur, an internet marketing specialist in Denver who thinks the data that climatologists have presented is overly hyped at best, and possibly just plain wrong. Mr Brodeur is not alone in his doubts. A national telephone survey in February by Ramussen Reports found that just 35 per cent of Americans over 18 now believe global warming is caused primarily by human activity, down from about half in 2008. And a 2009 Gallup Poll found that a record 41 per cent of Americans have come to think scientists and the media exaggerated the urgency of the problem.
It is not just the snowy winter causing this change in public opinion. Sceptics of climate change argue that the Earth goes through normal warming and cooling phases, largely because of fluctuations in the level of energy coming from the Sun. Their arguments have gained traction - and spread widely - on the internet. "I think universal forces have more to do with our climate than anything we can do," said Andrew Clark, a Florida resident, "The Earth has gone through periods of great warmth and cold over the millennia."
The science behind global warming has taken a beating in recent months, forcing climatologists to admit there has been a major breach of faith in their research. First there was "climategate", the November 2009 unauthorised release of e-mail correspondence between British climatologists in which they appeared to conspire to cover up data that contradicted global warming. In addition, a major United Nations report on climate change was found to contain data errors. Even Al Gore, the Nobel Prize laureate for his work regarding climate change, has come under fire after it emerged he had invested heavily in green technology, and stood to gain financially as the US shifted more heavily into renewable energy.
More generally, sceptics question the scare tactics climatologists have used, pointing out that other supposed crises such as Y2K and swine flu turned out to be much ado about very little. "I think the real issue is that whenever we go through one of these scares, it turns out almost everybody involved has an axe to grind," said Mr Brodeur. "We as citizens have to look between the lines." Scientists who study the climate insist the problem is very real - and still looming large - but admit that more must be done to explain the issue in plain language if the United States is going to enact legislation to reduce carbon emissions that scientists have linked to warming temperatures. A June 2009 report, put together by 13 agencies of the US government, was one of a recent host of efforts to make studies on global warming - and its impact - more transparent and understandable.
"Even in a warmer world, there will still be cold spells," said Susan Hassol, the director of Climate Communication, a Colorado-based organisation that seeks to translate science into English, as she puts it. "But what we know is that we are now having twice as many record highs as record lows." Recent heavy snowfalls - and the increase in flash flooding - is actually a sign that climate change is happening, said Ms Hassol, since a warmer atmosphere will retain more moisture - and then dump it out whenever a storm comes through.
"When it's cold, that means it is going to snow - a lot," she said, adding that the north-eastern United States has seen a 67 per cent increase in extreme precipitation in the last 50 years. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org