The Attack On Climate-Change Science
By Bill McKibben
25 February, 2010
Twenty-one years ago, in 1989, I wrote what many have called the first book for a general audience on global warming. One of the more interesting reviews came from the Wall Street Journal. It was a mixed and judicious appraisal. “The subject,” the reviewer said, “is important, the notion is arresting, and Mr. McKibben argues convincingly.” And that was not an outlier: around the same time, the first president Bush announced that he planned to “fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect.”
I doubt that’s what the Journal will say about my next book when it comes out in a few weeks, and I know that no GOP presidential contender would now dream of acknowledging that human beings are warming the planet. Sarah Palin is currently calling climate science “snake oil” and last week, the Utah legislature, in a move straight out of the King Canute playbook, passed a resolution condemning "a well organized and ongoing effort to manipulate global temperature data in order to produce a global warming outcome" on a nearly party-line vote.
And here’s what’s odd. In 1989, I could fit just about every scientific study on climate change on top of my desk. The science was still thin. If my reporting made me think it was nonetheless convincing, many scientists were not yet prepared to agree.
Now, you could fill the Superdome with climate-change research data. (You might not want to, though, since Hurricane Katrina demonstrated just how easy it was to rip holes in its roof.) Every major scientific body in the world has produced reports confirming the peril. All 15 of the warmest years on record have come in the two decades that have passed since 1989. In the meantime, the Earth’s major natural systems have all shown undeniable signs of rapid flux: melting Arctic and glacial ice, rapidly acidifying seawater, and so on.
Somehow, though, the onslaught against the science of climate change has never been stronger, and its effects, at least in the U.S., never more obvious: fewer Americans believe humans are warming the planet. At least partly as a result, Congress feels little need to consider global-warming legislation, no less pass it; and as a result of that failure, progress towards any kind of international agreement on climate change has essentially ground to a halt.
Climate-Change Denial as an O.J. Moment
The campaign against climate science has been enormously clever, and enormously effective. It’s worth trying to understand how they’ve done it. The best analogy, I think, is to the O.J. Simpson trial, an event that’s begun to recede into our collective memory. For those who were conscious in 1995, however, I imagine that just a few names will make it come back to life. Kato Kaelin, anyone? Lance Ito?
The Dream Team of lawyers assembled for Simpson’s defense had a problem: it was pretty clear their guy was guilty. Nicole Brown’s blood was all over his socks, and that was just the beginning. So Johnnie Cochran, Robert Shapiro, Alan Dershowitz, F. Lee Bailey, Robert Kardashian et al. decided to attack the process, arguing that it put Simpson’s guilt in doubt, and doubt, of course, was all they needed. Hence, those days of cross-examination about exactly how Dennis Fung had transported blood samples, or the fact that Los Angeles detective Mark Fuhrman had used racial slurs when talking to a screenwriter in 1986.
If anything, they were actually helped by the mountain of evidence. If a haystack gets big enough, the odds only increase that there will be a few needles hidden inside. Whatever they managed to find, they made the most of: in closing arguments, for instance, Cochran compared Fuhrman to Adolf Hitler and called him “a genocidal racist, a perjurer, America’s worst nightmare, and the personification of evil.” His only real audience was the jury, many of whom had good reason to dislike the Los Angeles Police Department, but the team managed to instill considerable doubt in lots of Americans tuning in on TV as well. That’s what happens when you spend week after week dwelling on the cracks in a case, no matter how small they may be.
Similarly, the immense pile of evidence now proving the science of global warming beyond any reasonable doubt is in some ways a great boon for those who would like, for a variety of reasons, to deny that the biggest problem we’ve ever faced is actually a problem at all. If you have a three-page report, it won’t be overwhelming and it’s unlikely to have many mistakes. Three thousand pages (the length of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)? That pretty much guarantees you’ll get something wrong.
Indeed, the IPCC managed to include, among other glitches, a spurious date for the day when Himalayan glaciers would disappear. It won’t happen by 2035, as the report indicated -- a fact that has now been spread so widely across the Internet that it’s more or less obliterated another, undeniable piece of evidence: virtually every glacier on the planet is, in fact, busily melting.
Similarly, if you managed to hack 3,000 emails from some scientist’s account, you might well find a few that showed them behaving badly, or at least talking about doing so. This is the so-called “Climate-gate” scandal from an English research center last fall. The English scientist Phil Jones has been placed on leave while his university decides if he should be punished for, among other things, not complying with Freedom of Information Act requests.
Call him the Mark Fuhrman of climate science; attack him often enough and maybe people will ignore the inconvenient mountain of evidence about climate change that the world’s scientific researchers have, in fact, compiled. Indeed, you can make almost exactly the same kind of fuss Johnnie Cochran made -- that’s what Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) did, insisting the emails proved “scientific fascism,” and the climate skeptic Christopher Monckton called his opponents “Hitler youth.” Such language filters down. I’m now used to a daily diet of angry email, often with subject lines like the one that arrived yesterday: “Nazi Moron Scumbag.”
If you’re smart, you can also take advantage of lucky breaks that cross your path. Say a record set of snowstorms hit Washington D.C. It won’t even matter that such a record is just the kind of thing scientists have been predicting, given the extra water vapor global warming is adding to the atmosphere. It’s enough that it’s super-snowy in what everyone swore was a warming world.
For a gifted political operative like, say, Marc Morano, who runs the Climate Depot website, the massive snowfalls this winter became the grist for a hundred posts poking fun at the very idea that anyone could still possibly believe in, you know, physics. Morano, who really is good, posted a link to a live webcam so readers could watch snow coming down; his former boss, Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.), had his grandchildren build an igloo on the Capitol grounds, with a sign that read: "Al Gore’s New Home." These are the things that stick in people’s heads. If the winter glove won’t fit, you must acquit.
Why We Don’t Want to Believe in Climate Change
The climate deniers come with a few built-in advantages. Thanks to Exxon Mobil and others with a vested interest in debunking climate-change research, their “think tanks” have plenty of money, none of which gets wasted doing actual research to disprove climate change. It’s also useful for a movement to have its own TV network, Fox, though even more crucial to the denial movement are a few rightwing British tabloids which validate each new “scandal” and put it into media play.
That these guys are geniuses at working the media was proved this February when even the New York Times ran a front page story, “Skeptics Find Fault With U.N. Climate Panel,” which recycled most of the accusations of the past few months. What made it such a glorious testament to their success was the chief source cited by the Times: one Christopher Monckton, or Lord Monckton as he prefers to be called since he is some kind of British viscount. He is also identified as a “former advisor to Margaret Thatcher,” and he did write a piece for the American Spectator during her term as prime minister offering his prescriptions for “the only way to stop AIDS”:
"...screen the entire population regularly and… quarantine all carriers of the disease for life. Every member of the population should be blood-tested every month... all those found to be infected with the virus, even if only as carriers, should be isolated compulsorily, immediately, and permanently.”
He speaks with equal gusto and good sense on matters climatic -- and now from above the fold in the paper of record.
Access to money and the media is not the only, or even the main reason, for the success of the climate deniers, though. They’re not actually spending all that much cash and they’ve got legions of eager volunteers doing much of the internet lobbying entirely for free. Their success can be credited significantly to the way they tap into the main currents of our politics of the moment with far more savvy and power than most environmentalists can muster. They’ve understood the popular rage at elites. They’ve grasped the widespread feelings of powerlessness in the U.S., and the widespread suspicion that we’re being ripped off by mysterious forces beyond our control.
Some of that is, of course, purely partisan. The columnist David Brooks, for instance, recently said: “On the one hand, I totally accept the scientific authorities who say that global warming is real and it is manmade. On the other hand, I feel a frisson of pleasure when I come across evidence that contradicts the models… [in part] because I relish any fact that might make Al Gore look silly.” But the passion with which people attack Gore more often seems focused on the charge that he’s making large sums of money from green investments, and that the whole idea is little more than a scam designed to enrich everyone involved. This may be wrong -- Gore has testified under oath that he donates his green profits to the cause -- and scientists are not getting rich researching climate change (constant blog comments to the contrary), but it resonates with lots of people. I get many emails a day on the same theme: “The game is up. We’re on to you.”
When I say it resonates with lots of people, I mean lots of people. O.J.’s lawyers had to convince a jury made up mostly of black women from central city L.A., five of whom reported that they or their families had had “negative experiences” with the police. For them, it was a reasonably easy sell. When it comes to global warming, we’re pretty much all easy sells because we live the life that produces the carbon dioxide that’s at the heart of the crisis, and because we like that life.
Very few people really want to change in any meaningful way, and given half a chance to think they don’t need to, they’ll take it. Especially when it sounds expensive, and especially when the economy stinks. Here’s David Harsanyi, a columnist for the Denver Post: “If they’re going to ask a nation -- a world -- to fundamentally alter its economy and ask citizens to alter their lifestyles, the believers’ credibility and evidence had better be unassailable.”
“Unassailable” sets the bar impossibly high when there is a dedicated corps of assailants out there hard at work. It is true that those of us who want to see some national and international effort to fight global warming need to keep making the case that the science is strong. That’s starting to happen. There are new websites and iPhone apps to provide clear and powerful answers to the skeptic trash-talking, and strangely enough, the denier effort may, in some ways, be making the case itself: if you go over the multi-volume IPCC report with a fine tooth comb and come up with three or four lousy citations, that’s pretty strong testimony to its essential accuracy.
Clearly, however, the antiseptic attempt to hide behind the magisterium of Science in an effort to avoid the rough-and-tumble of Politics is a mistake. It’s a mistake because science can be -- and, in fact, should be -- infinitely argued about. Science is, in fact, nothing but an ongoing argument, which is one reason why it sounds so disingenuous to most people when someone insists that the science is “settled.” That’s especially true of people who have been told at various times in their lives that some food is good for you, only to be told later that it might increase your likelihood of dying.
Why Data Isn’t Enough
I work at Middlebury College, a topflight liberal arts school, so I’m surrounded by people who argue constantly. It’s fun. One of the better skeptical takes on global warming that I know about is a weekly radio broadcast on our campus radio station run by a pair of undergraduates. They’re skeptics, but not cynics. Anyone who works seriously on the science soon realizes that we know more than enough to start taking action, but less than we someday will. There will always be controversy over exactly what we can now say with any certainty. That’s life on the cutting edge. I certainly don’t turn my back on the research—we’ve spent the last two years at 350.org building what Foreign Policy called “the largest ever coordinated global rally” around a previously obscure data point, the amount of atmospheric carbon that scientists say is safe, measured in parts per million.
But it’s a mistake to concentrate solely on the science for another reason. Science may be what we know about the world, but politics is how we feel about the world. And feelings count at least as much as knowledge. Especially when those feelings are valid. People are getting ripped off. They are powerless against large forces that are, at the moment, beyond their control. Anger is justified.
So let’s figure out how to talk about it. Let’s look at Exxon Mobil, which each of the last three years has made more money than any company in the history of money. Its business model involves using the atmosphere as an open sewer for the carbon dioxide that is the inevitable byproduct of the fossil fuel it sells. And yet we let it do this for free. It doesn't pay a red cent for potentially wrecking our world.
Right now, there’s a bill in the Congress -- cap-and-dividend, it’s called -- that would charge Exxon for that right, and send a check to everyone in the country every month. Yes, the company would pass on the charge at the pump, but 80% of Americans (all except the top-income energy hogs) would still make money off the deal. That represents good science, because it starts to send a signal that we should park that SUV, but it’s also good politics.
By the way, if you think there’s a scam underway, you’re right -- and to figure it out just track the money going in campaign contributions to the politicians doing the bidding of the energy companies. Inhofe, the igloo guy? Over a million dollars from energy and utility companies and executives in the last two election cycles. You think Al Gore is going to make money from green energy? Check out what you get for running an oil company.
Worried that someone is going to wreck your future? You’re right about that, too. Right now, China is gearing up to dominate the green energy market. They’re making the investments that mean future windmills and solar panels, even ones installed in this country, will be likely to arrive from factories in Chenzhou, not Chicago.
Coal companies have already eliminated most good mining jobs, simply by automating them in the search for ever higher profits. Now, they’re using their political power to make sure that miner’s kids won’t get to build wind turbines instead. Everyone should be mighty pissed -- just not at climate-change scientists.
But keep in mind as well that fear and rage aren’t the only feelings around. They’re powerful feelings, to be sure, but they’re not all we feel. And they are not us at our best.
There’s also love, a force that has often helped motivate large-scale change, and one that cynics in particular have little power to rouse. Love for poor people around the world, for instance. If you think it’s not real, you haven’t been to church recently, especially evangelical churches across the country. People who take the Gospel seriously also take seriously indeed the injunction to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless.
It’s becoming patently obvious that nothing challenges that goal quite like the rising seas and spreading deserts of climate change. That’s why religious environmentalism is one of the most effective emerging parts of the global warming movement; that’s why we were able to get thousands of churches ringing their bells 350 times last October to signify what scientists say is the safe level of CO2 in the atmosphere; that’s why Bartholomew, patriarch of the Orthodox church and leader of 400 million eastern Christians, said, “Global warming is a sin and 350 is an act of redemption.”
There’s also the deep love for creation, for the natural world. We were born to be in contact with the world around us and, though much of modernity is designed to insulate us from nature, it doesn’t really work. Any time the natural world breaks through -- a sunset, an hour in the garden -- we’re suddenly vulnerable to the realization that we care about things beyond ourselves. That’s why, for instance, the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts are so important: get someone out in the woods at an impressionable age and you’ve accomplished something powerful. That’s why art and music need to be part of the story, right alongside bar graphs and pie charts. When we campaign about climate change at 350.org, we make sure to do it in the most beautiful places we know, the iconic spots that conjure up people’s connection to their history, their identity, their hope.
The great irony is that the climate skeptics have prospered by insisting that their opponents are radicals. In fact, those who work to prevent global warming are deeply conservative, insistent that we should leave the world in something like the shape we found it. We want our kids to know the world we knew. Here’s the definition of radical: doubling the carbon content of the atmosphere because you’re not completely convinced it will be a disaster. We want to remove every possible doubt before we convict in the courtroom, because an innocent man in a jail cell is a scandal, but outside of it we should act more conservatively.
In the long run, the climate deniers will lose; they’ll be a footnote to history. (Hey, even O.J. is finally in jail.) But they’ll lose because we’ll all lose, because by delaying action, they will have helped prevent us from taking the steps we need to take while there’s still time. If we’re going to make real change while it matters, it’s important to remember that their skepticism isn’t the root of the problem. It simply plays on our deep-seated resistance to change. That’s what gives the climate cynics ground to operate. That’s what we need to overcome, and at bottom that’s a battle as much about courage and hope as about data.
Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, including the forthcoming Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (Times Books, April 2010). He’s a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont. Catch the latest TomCast, TomDispatch.com’s audio interview with Bill McKibben on what to make of the climate-science scandals.
Copyright 2010 Bill McKibben