It may seem backward, but Durango resident Richard Grossman actually wanted to lose a $5,000 bet with former Exxon Mobile executive Roger Cohen, who denied climate change is a major problem, on whether the average global temperature on Earth would rise or fall over a decade.
Though the wager was set to end in 2017, Cohen, taking the stance the planet’s temperature would not show patterns of heating, said on Thursday that certain stipulations of the two men’s agreement have caused his counterpart to win prematurely.
Grossman, learning of the news, was not the least bit pleased or boastful.
“I don’t think I’ve won,” he said. “I think I lost. I think we’ve all lost.”
In 2008, fed up with doomsday predictions about global warming, Cohen threw down the gauntlet on a $5,000 bet that the Earth’s overall temperature would be colder in 2017 than in 2007. The wager was inspired by Wharton School of Business professor Scott Armstrong’s similar $10,000 challenge to Al Gore over climate change, which the former vice president declined.
Cohen served for years as an Exxon Mobil executive under the official title: manager, strategic planning & programs. He was involved in climate change research for nearly 30 years, just as the oil and gas company started to respond to allegations its operations were contributing to negative environmental impacts.
Grossman, a retired gynecologist and obstetrician in Durango, met the challenge.
Because Grossman’s religion prohibits gambling, each agreed to deposit $5,000 in a trust account, the lump sum of which will benefit Durango Nature Studies, regardless of who wins. Though neither man is fixed to financially gain from the wager, Cohen has long maintained it’s about “bragging rights.”
Last week, however, Cohen admitted his defeat, albeit through claims of a technicality.
The two adversaries had agreed to use temperature findings based on HadCRUT3 (Hadley Centre and University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit), a surface-monitoring database in England. That service went out of business in 2013, and its successor, HadCRUT4, shows warming since 2007 with projections Cohen said make it impossible for him to win.
But even data provided by the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration show an increase of global temperatures: 58.19 F in 2005 and 58.35 F in 2014.
“Regardless of what’s happening to the temperature, the fact that there’s more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has provided a major increase in plant life on the surface of the planet,” Cohen said. “Which benefits us all.”
A small problem
These days, Cohen readily admits human activity is contributing to the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but in his estimation, that footprint is very small, and nothing to worry about.
“We all learned in school CO2 is the raw material for plant life,” he said. “So everything you have heard about the increase of deserts, all that is wrong. In fact, deserts are shrinking because of increased plant life.”
In the early 1980s, Cohen was part of a team of Exxon Mobile scientists that studied the risk fossil fuel emissions could pose to the environment, some of whom are now under scrutiny for deceiving the American public to protect its profits.
According to memos obtained by The Durango Herald, Cohen, now an unabashed global warming denier, showed a bit more caution concerning his company’s operations at that time.
“It is distinctly possible that the (research scenario) will later produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic – at least for a substantial fraction of the earth’s population,” he wrote in a 1981 memo.
Cohen said he doesn’t remember writing the memo, but that in the days before he became more familiar with the science, it’s possible he was influenced by the “drum beat” telling everyone to be afraid of a new threat from something called “global warming.”
Cohen, who splits his time between his Durango and California homes, has grandchildren and he said he fears for their future, but not because of warming temperatures, rising sea levels or mass extinction.
“I see the biggest obstacles as political corruption, the spread of clamped-down diversity of opinion, and the use of science to aid a political agenda,” he said. “I’m far more concerned about that than carbon dioxide.”
Scientific wagers have become increasingly common, mostly among people skeptical of the dangers posed by climate change and who take issue with the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which suggested human activity would drive up global temperatures by the end of the century.
But with a recent study that found 97 percent of the scientists agree increased fossil fuel emissions are causing the planet to warm, environmental advocates believe bets such as the one Cohen and Grossman had distract the conversation.
“It seems like a waste of time and energy,” said Amy Concillio, a visiting environmental studies professor at Fort Lewis College. “At this point, in the scientific community, there’s a very wide consensus. It’s not like people are publishing articles about how climate change might not be real.”
Andrew Gulliford, a professor of history and environmental studies at the college, said he is disturbed by the large number of people who deny science unless it relates to an issue they believe in and support.
“What we have is a society that questions scientific data, and so climate change is part of a larger issue in which Americans ignore facts that don’t fit their outlooks,” Gulliford said. “Now we question science in a way our grandparents never would have.”
Grossman, for his part, said there’s not much gained from the wager aside from the fact Durango Nature Studies will receive $10,000 to go toward scientific education and research. He said he’s friendly with Cohen, but ultimately, he regards those who deny climate change as selfish, refusing to acknowledge anything that could interfere with their livelihood or belief system.
“This is a morbid thought, but I’m 72, and I’m glad I’m old enough to not see the full consequences of climate change,” Grossman said. “But I am concerned about my three granddaughters and the generations that come after us. They’re going to know a world very different than the one we have known and selfishly enjoyed.”