In their efforts to capture the public's attention, then, have climate scientists oversold global warming? It's probably not a majority view, but a few climate scientists are beginning to question whether some dire predictions push the science too far.
"Some of us are wondering if we have created a monster," says Kevin Vranes, a climate scientist at the University of Colorado.
Vranes, who is not considered a global warming skeptic by his peers, came to this conclusion after attending an American Geophysical Union meeting last month. Vranes says he detected "tension" among scientists, notably because projections of the future climate carry uncertainties — a point that hasn't been fully communicated to the public.
The science of climate change often is expressed publicly in unambiguous terms.
For example, last summer, Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences, told the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce: "I think we understand the mechanisms of CO2 and climate better than we do of what causes lung cancer. ... In fact, it is fair to say that global warming may be the most carefully and fully studied scientific topic in human history."
Vranes says, "When I hear things like that, I go crazy."
Remember "Reefer Madness," the anti-marijuana screed that so exaggerated the dangers of pot that it became celebrated for its awfulness? Such exaggerations had the unintended side effect of making drug experimenters distrust all drug warnings, to their detriment. Global-warming preachers, by exaggerating the certainties of climate science, are becoming like that. So are the anti-smoking crusaders with their wildly exaggerated claims about the dangers of secondhand smoke that are absurd on their face. (One whiff, and you're going to die!) Those who misuse science to push the public in the direction of a perceived good might regret it if the result is a mistrust of all science.