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How vested interests defeated climate science

A Dark Victory

A boat moored on Ballarat's Lake Wendouree in 2007. © Ian Kenins
A boat moored on Ballarat's Lake Wendouree in 2007. © Ian Kenins
August 2012August 2012Long read

Some 20 years ago, climate scientists arrived at the conclusion that the vast acceleration in the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases since the industrial revolution was causing the temperature of the Earth to rise. Almost all agreed that we were facing a genuine crisis. Some came to believe that we were facing a catastrophe deeper than any other in the history of the human species. James Hansen of NASA, perhaps the pre-eminent climate scientist in the world, argues in Storms of My Grandchildren that if over the coming decades and centuries we continue to exploit all the fossil fuels that have lain under the surface of the Earth for hundreds of millions of years – all the coal, oil, natural gas and tar sands that have been or are yet to be discovered – then inevitably all the polar ice on Earth will melt, raising the level of the oceans by 75 metres and turning the planet into an alien, barren and unrecognisable place. He contends we have already passed certain “tipping points”.

So far nations and the international ‘community’ have failed conspicuously to rise to the challenge posed by these dangers. Since the Rio Earth Conference of 1992, which initiated the search for an international agreement, carbon dioxide emissions have risen by 40% or more. At Kyoto in 1997, a first, modest agreement was reached. It did nothing to prevent the pace of emissions increasing. Since the failure of the Copenhagen conference in 2009 to find a replacement for Kyoto, there has been no prospect of any new international agreement. Nothing was expected from the conference held at Rio in June on the 20th anniversary of the initial international gathering. Nothing was achieved. Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker has captured perfectly the world’s response so far to the warning issued by climate scientists 20 years ago: “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.”

As greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise, as evidence of global warming has continued to grow, as the unwillingness of the world to act to curb emissions has become increasingly clear, a determination not to notice the looming catastrophe has taken hold of large parts of the population. At one level, this determination is psychological – the incapacity of a society of consumers to accept the need to sacrifice even a part of material prosperity to ensure the wellbeing of the Earth. At another level, the determination is political – the willingness of large numbers of people to listen to those who are telling them that the group of experts upon whom they customarily rely, the relevant cadre of trained and published scientists, have comprehensively got things wrong.

For reasonable citizens there ought to be no question easier to answer than whether or not human-caused global warming is real and is threatening the future of the Earth. Thousands of climate scientists in a variety of discrete disciplines have been exploring the issue for decades. They have reached a consensual conclusion whose existence is easily demonstrated. Every authoritative national scientific body in the world supports the idea of human-caused global warming. So does one of the most remarkable collaborative achievements in the history of science – the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in which the research findings of the world’s leading climate scientists, as outlined in leading peer-reviewed scientific journals, are periodically presented to and then accepted by the governments of the world.

If a citizen was not convinced by this alone, three studies have been conducted that reveal an overwhelming core consensus. In 2004, Naomi Oreskes published in Science the result of her examination of the abstracts of every article in the world’s leading scientific journals published between 1993 and 2003 that was concerned with global climate change. There were 928 articles. Not one challenged the core consensus. In 2009, two scientists from the University of Chicago published in Eos the result of a survey they conducted among a group they called “Earth scientists”. They discovered that among those who called themselves climate scientists and who had published recently in the field, 97.4% agreed with the proposition that “human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures”. And, in 2010, the eminent climate scientist Stephen Schneider revealed in an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that 195 (97.5%) of the 200 most published climate scientists were convinced by the evidence of anthropogenic climate change.

Consensus does not imply unanimity. Nor does it suggest that climate scientists are in agreement about the most difficult questions concerning either the past or the future – their calculations of temperature over the past centuries and millennia or their precise predictions about the pace and the nature of the changes that will be visited upon the Earth and its inhabitants as a consequence of the ever-accelerating injection of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It should go without saying that the existence of a consensus on the core issue of human-caused global warming does not provide any answers to the diabolically difficult public policy questions that arise for nations and the international community. What is clear, however, is that a rational citizen has little alternative but to accept the consensual core position of climate scientists. Discussion of this point should long ago have ended. That it has not is the most persuasive possible example of the feebleness of reason, the futility of argument and the failure of politics.

There are three possible words to describe the political movement that has sought to convince citizens to reject the core conclusion of climate scientists: scepticism, contrarianism and denialism. ‘Scepticism’ suggests an open mind. The minds of those who dispute the consensual core of climate science are closed. ‘Contrarianism’ is a term commonly used, even by some of those who are best informed, like the climate scientist Michael Mann. ‘Contrarian’ might be the right term for the small minority among climate scientists who have not accepted the consensual conclusion of their fellow scientists. The contrarian is a loner, perhaps cranky, but also genuinely independent of mind. Most of those who dispute the consensual conclusions of the climate scientists are not mavericks or heretics but orthodox members of a tightly knit group whose natural disposition is not to think for themselves. To dispute the conclusion drawn by climate scientists involves for them neither the open mind of the sceptic nor the cranky independence of the contrarian but the determination – psychological or political or both – to deny what those who know what they are talking about have to say. They are denialists.

Political denialism is not a general political movement of the world or even of the West. Recently, in Poles Apart: The International Reporting of Climate Scepticism, James Painter outlined the results of a study of the profile of climate change denial in the press of six countries – the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Brazil, India and China – in two three-month blocks of time – early 2007, and late 2009 to early 2010. Painter selected a quality newspaper on the Left and on the Right in five of the six countries studied. (China, of course, has no right-wing press.) In the official Chinese press and in both the right-leaning and left-leaning quality press in France, Brazil and India there was almost no sign of climate change denial. It was, however, a major element in the climate change journalism in both the US and the UK. Significantly, the profile of climate change denial was much greater both in the US and the UK in the later period. In addition, although the coverage of climate change scepticism was reasonably evenly spread between the right- and left-wing papers, the kind of coverage was very different. In opinion pieces and editorials, overwhelmingly the voices of climate change denial were uncontested in the right-leaning press and contested or dismissed on the Left.

Painter’s survey and others like it show that, as a political phenomenon, climate change denialism has grown greatly over the past two or three years. It is predominantly a phenomenon of the Right. While climate change denial as a psychological phenomenon occurs across the West, as a high-profile political phenomenon it exists almost exclusively in the English-speaking democracies. And although it has spread to Canada, Australia and the UK, within the Anglosphere its place of origin and heartland is the US.

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The American climate change denialist movement was organised quite rapidly in the late 1980s in response to two main developments. One was James Hansen’s unambiguous and dramatic evidence of human-caused global warming and what this meant for the future of the Earth, as delivered to Congress in 1988. The second was the creation, in the same year and under United Nations auspices, of the IPCC at the initiative of Bert Bolin, the scientist who had been a prime mover in the identification and solution of the cross-border problem of acid rain.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt is the most important account of the movement’s political and intellectual origins. They show that by the time the problem of global warming moved from a concern of scientists to the centre stage of national and international politics, a small group of sometimes highly accomplished right-wing scientists existed inside a pro-Reagan scientific think tank, the George C Marshall Institute. The most important were Frederick Seitz, S Fred Singer, William Nierenberg and Robert Jastrow. By the late 1980s this group had already been involved in a series of set-piece battles with those they thought of as the anti-capitalist scientific Left – in particular, the Union of Concerned Scientists – over a series of health, strategic and environmental issues: tobacco; Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ missile defence program and the ‘nuclear winter’ controversy; acid rain and the thinning of the ozone layer. The Marshall Institute intellectuals were Hayekian neoliberals who regarded arguments about the need for government economic regulation to prevent harm to health and environment as socialism by stealth. They were ideologically predisposed to disregard any problem that mainstream scientists attributed to market failure. They were also Cold Warriors who had once supported the Vietnam War and the neoconservative hawkish policies of the early Reagan administration. As the Cold War drew to its end in the late 1980s, these intellectuals transferred their fears from Reds to Greens, that is to say from communism to environmentalism. Their mindset morphed easily from the Cold War to the culture war.

As is now well understood, the key insight of climate change denial was the political potency of a technique pioneered in the struggle over tobacco in which both Seitz and Singer had been deeply involved – the manufacture of doubt. The principle was outlined in a now famous memo by a public relations adviser to the tobacco industry in 1969: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.” The logic here was simple. To inhibit government regulation of tobacco or chlorofluorocarbons or fossil fuels, the commercial interests involved did not need to demonstrate that their product was safe. All they needed to do was to create confusion and uncertainty in the public mind. George Monbiot, the Guardian journalist, discovered documents of a phoney grassroots movement, the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, created in 1993 by the tobacco company Philip Morris. They showed that the ASSC intended to counter claims about the dangers of passive smoking by linking its propaganda with other instances of “junk science”, like global warming. A decade later, in preparation for the 2002 Congressional elections, the tobacco strategy of manufacturing doubt was explicitly linked to global warming in an infamous piece of political advice offered to the Bush Republican Party by the spinmaster Frank Luntz: “The scientific debate is closing but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science … You need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.” The tobacco strategy was likely to be particularly effective when applied to global warming because the scope of the proposed actions was so vast and the potential interference in the lifestyle of the general public so real.

In all contemporary societies the authority and prestige of science stands high. Of necessity, the struggle over global warming had primarily to be fought on the battlefield of science. As virtually all those with true expertise in the field of climate science were convinced that human-caused global warming was happening and that its potential for catastrophe was real, the climate change denialists had to construct an alternative scientific community, or what Oreskes and Conway call a “scientific Potemkin village”.

One method of building this village was to locate and then to heavily promote an alternative cadre of scientific experts who could be mobilised to create the necessary confusion and uncertainty. In the early days of the denialist campaign, the fossil fuel industry worked closely with a handful of climate change scientific mavericks – Richard Lindzen, Robert Balling, Patrick Michaels, Sallie Baliunas and Willie Soon. One or two were genuinely distinguished climate scientists, like the fanatically anticommunist Lindzen, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Others were second-raters in the field of climate science. As journalist Ross Gelbspan revealed in his pioneering 1997 study of climate change denial, The Heat Is On, Michaels and Balling received hundreds of thousands of dollars from coal and oil corporations. Greenpeace USA conducted detailed research into the funding that Soon, of the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, had received since 2001 from fossil fuel corporations and conservative think tanks or foundations for his denialist-friendly publications on solar influence on climate change or on the resilience of the polar bear. The total came to over $1 million. The high profile of this handful of scientists over two decades has been critical to the success of the denialist movement. As careful research has shown, they have testified to Congress as frequently as the mainstream scientists. They have conjured the illusion of a hotly contested and evenly divided scientific debate, or what one scholar has called the “duelling scientists” false narrative.

This is not the only way the denialist Potemkin village has been built. James Hoggan in Climate Cover-up shows just how industrious the denialists have been in creating and promoting phoney scientist public statements. In 1999, the Global Warming Petition Project, known as the ‘Oregon Petition’, was organised by an obscure chemist and fundamentalist Christian, Arthur Robinson, and launched by Frederick Seitz. Eventually it was signed by 30,000 “scientists”, the overwhelming majority with an undergraduate degree unconnected to climate science. In 1995, the Leipzig Declaration was launched, promoted by S Fred Singer. Many of the supposed signatories had never heard of it. Many others had no climate science expertise. In 2007, the Heartland Institute, a right-wing think tank, published a list of ‘500 Scientists Whose Research Contradicts Man-Made Global Warming Scares’. Many scientists named on the list were furious, even “horrified”. Sometimes the efforts to mislead were astonishingly crude. One article, co-written by Robinson’s son, Noah, and Willie Soon, was printed in the exact layout of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. In answer to the IPCC, the denialists created their own ersatz alternative, the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change.

Yet there have been more serious attempts to sow confusion. One of the most powerful arguments of mainstream scientists is the near-total absence of peer-reviewed denialist publications. An obvious denier response was to characterise the peer-review process as corrupt and dominated by cronyism. Another was to create friendly peer-reviewed journals, like Energy and Environment. Yet another was to infiltrate first-rank journals. A New Zealander, Chris de Freitas, was appointed as an editor of the prestigious journal, Climate Research. Odd articles began appearing. Eventually one by Baliunas and Soon was published in 2003. It attempted to reinstate one of the by now standard myths of the denialist movement, namely that temperatures were higher during the “Medieval Warm Period” than in the past 20 years. The science was shoddy. Four reviewers had independently argued against its publication. The newly appointed editor-in-chief, Hans von Storch, was denied the right by the German publisher to print an editorial repudiating the article and resigned. Nonetheless the publication had done its work. It entered denialist cyberspace. Philip Cooney, a White House employee and former fossil fuel industry lobbyist, even recommended it to Vice President Dick Cheney as the knockdown refutation of the paper of which Mann was lead author, which was illustrated with the famous ‘hockey stick’ graph that calculated the world’s temperatures over the past thousand years.

As important as the building of the scientific Potemkin village has been the effort to undermine the credibility of leading mainstream climate scientists through protracted campaigns of character assassination, which Mann has called the ‘Serengeti strategy’ – hunting down supposedly vulnerable targets one by one. An early and infamous instance was the campaign launched in 1995 by the Marshall Institute Cold Warriors, Singer and Seitz, against Ben Santer, a distinguished young climate scientist from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Santer was a lead author for one of the chapters of the IPCC’s second assessment report in 1995. Essentially, because he had summarised studies that had been completed but not yet published and had edited his chapter under instruction to align it with the style of the others – he was asked to remove a concluding summary because in other chapters summaries were found only in the introductions – he was accused by Singer in the pages of Science and by Seitz in the Wall Street Journal of removing material and of scientific fraud. Seitz wrote that in “more than 60 years as a member of the American scientific community … I have never witnessed a more disturbing corruption of the peer-review process”. Singer and Seitz were supported by the most important denialist lobby of the 1990s, the Global Climate Coalition, which published a report accusing Santer of “institutionalized scientific cleansing”. Seitz and Singer had brought to climate science the unmistakable mental and rhetorical habits of the Cold War, where opponents were enemies and differences were deliberate deceptions. Santer never really recovered from their attacks.

This was merely a beginning. As he explains in his poised and well-tempered Science as a Contact Sport, Stephen Schneider was a target throughout his career. In 1971, he had speculated about the possibility of global cooling. Forty years later, the know-nothing denialist and conservative columnist George Will, dismissed him as the “environmentalist for all temperatures”. More damaging was the persistence in cyberspace of a calumny based on the distortion of a comment Schneider had made in 1989 in an interview for the magazine Discover. He had spoken about the tension between his obligation as a scientist towards nuanced truthfulness and his responsibility as a human being to fight for the future wellbeing of the Earth. One passage of the interview read: “Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.” A journalist published the first sentence and omitted the second. For 20 years, on this basis, Schneider was defamed on denialist websites as a self-confessed liar.

He got off lightly. The attacks on Hansen have been remorseless and ruthless, especially once he became politically active. Michael Mann chronicles the process in fine detail in The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. After his ‘hockey stick’ graph morphed from an illustration in a scientific paper to an icon of the climate change campaign, Mann became the sworn enemy of the denialists, the subject of a politically inspired Congressional investigation, never-ending vicious lampooning, public heckling, constant email abuse and a plausible death threat. What was interesting in all this was the steady rise in the degree of the verbal violence. Santer was merely accused of deception and fraud. After the ‘Climategate’ scandal broke in November 2009 – the leaking of over a thousand emails between climate change scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit – Marc Morano, the denialist operative and the political friend of our own former Senator Nick Minchin, argued that the climate scientists “deserve to be publicly flogged”. Even he was outdone by an ultra-right wing blogger, the late Andrew Breitbart, who called for “capital punishment for Dr James Hansen. Climategate is high treason.”

Naturally in a matter where so much was at stake for the fossil fuel industry, if doubt was to be manufactured and inaction engineered, serious money would be needed. The money was found both directly through fossil fuel interests and indirectly through wealthy conservative foundations whose involvement was as much a matter of libertarian anti-regulatory ideology as it was of commercial considerations. During the 1990s, probably the most important sources of denialist funds were American coal and electricity corporations like the Western Fuels Association, the Intermountain Rural Electric Association or the Global Climate Coalition, an alliance of 50 or so corporations and trade associations. In the late 1990s, this alliance fell apart, beginning with the defection of BP. The largest source of funds for the denial campaign was now probably ExxonMobil. By 2006, its support for climate change denial had become so notorious that it was chastised in a letter from the head of Great Britain’s Royal Society, which was leaked to the press. Although in 2008 ExxonMobil announced that its funding of denial had ended, evidence soon emerged that this was not entirely true. Nonetheless, in recent years the most important sources of funds for climate change denial have most likely not been fossil fuel corporations but vastly wealthy and profoundly conservative foundations like Scaife and John M Olin.

The earliest study of climate change denial – Gelbspan’s The Heat Is On – offers a fairly simple and rather characteristic materialist explanation of the funding: “A major battle is underway: In order to survive economically, the biggest enterprise in human history – the worldwide oil and coal industry – is at war with the ability of the planet to sustain civilization.” Such an interpretation probably underestimates the importance of ideology – the anti-regulatory, anti-state market fundamentalism that shapes the funding agendas of the conservative foundations.

In recent years, massive financial contributions to climate change denialism and many other conservative causes have been made by the three foundations managed by Charles and David Koch. In the case of the Kochs, there is no need to choose between the material and ideological explanations of the millions they have injected into the cause of climate change denial. On the one hand, their vast fortune comes originally and still predominantly from oil and gas. On the other, as the sons of a right-wing oil man who did business in the Soviet Union, whose anticommunism was grounded in his firsthand observation of the terror under Stalin, and who became, following his return to the US, a founding member of the John Birch Society, they have remained faithful to their father’s heritage: deeply ideological anti-socialist, anti-regulation, anti-statist, low-tax libertarians.

The corporations and the conservative foundations sought to conceal their direct involvement by funding anti–global warming organisations, such as the dozens of market fundamentalist think tanks that became a vital dimension of the American political landscape during the Reagan era and beyond, and are at the centre of the climate change denial campaign. A study called ‘Defeating Kyoto’, by Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap, showed that in the build-up to the 1997 Kyoto conference, these think tanks – Heritage, the American Enterprise Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Heartland Institute and, of course, the Marshall Institute – produced a large amount of denialist material on their websites, described with unusual wit as “consciousness lowering activity” and “the social construction of non-problematicity”. Another study, ‘The Organization of Denial’, whose lead author was Peter Jacques, looked at all the anti-environmental books published in the US between 1972 and 2005. Of the 141 such books, 132 were connected to one of the right-wing think tanks. These books were published at an ever-accelerating pace – six in the 1970s, 14 in the 1980s, 72 in the 1990s, and 49 between 2000 and 2005. The conservative think tanks also provided fellowships for many denialist scientists and helped arrange their access to the media.

Even more powerful than the right-wing think tanks were critically placed members of Congress who could assist in the prosecution of the anti–global warming struggle. Three names stand out: Dana Rohrabacher and Joe Barton, both members of the House of Representatives, and Senator James Inhofe. Inhofe’s greatest claim to fame is his description of climate change science as possibly the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people. After Climategate broke, in imitation of an earlier senator, Joe McCarthy, Inhofe called for the criminal prosecution of 17 climate scientists. Rohrabacher was chairman of the committee on Energy and Environment following the resurgence of the Republican Party in the 1994 Congressional elections. As George E Brown, the ranking minority member of the committee, demonstrated in a prophetic article, ‘Environmental Science Under Siege’, at the 1995 hearings of this committee it was Rohrabacher who was primarily responsible for the partisan politicisation of climate science and for the injection of the voices of denialist scientists into the centre of American national debate.

A decade later the situation had further deteriorated. At a time when Republican environmentalists were fast becoming a ‘vanishing tribe’, the chair of the House Energy and Commerce committee, Joe Barton, summoned Michael Mann to appear before Congress in 2006 and then acted as if he had summoned not a climate scientist but a criminal conspirator. Barton demanded detailed records covering every aspect of Mann’s scientific career – financial support, data archives, computer codes, evidence of his attempts to replicate research. He then commissioned an inquiry into Mann’s science by a politically friendly statistician, Edward Wegman. 

Climate science was by now one of the most fiercely contested fronts in the increasingly bitter American culture wars. As in all such battles, the role of the media would prove critical. In ‘Balance as Bias’, a 2004 study that became famous because of its appearance in Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, Maxwell and Jules Boykoff showed that by adhering to the journalistic convention of balance, between 1988 and 2002 the American prestige press had unintentionally aided the denialist cause. They had provided their readers with a misleading impression of a more or less equal divide between the overwhelming majority of climate scientists who were convinced that human-caused climate change was occurring and the handful of mavericks who were not. Maxwell Boykoff replicated the study later in the decade. He found that by 2005 and 2006, the prestige press, as opposed to the tabloid press, had replaced its earlier “balanced” coverage with accurate reports of the state of the science (though he had missed the drift towards denialism of the Wall Street Journal via its opinion pieces and editorials). However, when he surveyed American television, he found that denialist voices were common. With the ever-expanding influence of the Rupert Murdoch–Roger Ailes innovation, the 24/7 conservative populist propaganda cable channel, Fox News, they would become increasingly so.

More importantly, it was becoming clear that the most effective denialist media weapon was not the newspapers or television but the internet. A number of influential websites, like Watts Up With That?, Climate Skeptic and Climate Depot, were established. One of this online network’s early victims was Michael Mann. For this reason, he developed an excellent understanding of how the denialist disinformation distribution system operated. In The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars he analyses in some detail the attempted debunking of the paleoscientist Keith Briffa’s Yamal tree-ring analysis by one of the most remorseless denialists, the retired Canadian mining executive Stephen McIntyre:

 

First, bloggers manufacture unfounded criticisms and accusations. Then their close allies help spread them … Ross McKitrick writes an op-ed piece in the right-wing National Post more or less accusing Briffa of fraud … Individuals such as Marc Morano, Anthony Watts … UK Telegraph blogger James Delingpole … spread the allegations through the Internet echo chamber. That is all the justification that apparently is needed for commentators such as Andrew Bolt of Australia’s Herald Sun to eventually propel the unfounded accusations onto the pages of widely read newspapers.

 

By the process Mann describes, a confected controversy of utter obscurity about ancient tree rings was presented within hours in living rooms on the other side of the world as knockdown proof that all of climate change science was a fraud.

Through the denialist websites a simple, endlessly repeated standard narrative had by now taken shape. Climate scientists, who were called “warmists”, were involved in a sinister conspiracy. They were deliberately conjuring an environmental panic that they knew was mendacious, and were lining their pockets with research grants at taxpayers’ expense. In addition, on the more extreme edges of the denialist movement, people like Marc Morano and Lord Monckton argued that climate scientists were engaged in an international conspiracy to destroy capitalism and to impose socialism and world government upon the unsuspecting masses. On some websites the Jewish ethnicity of some climate scientists was duly noted.

By now an ugly and altogether unrestrained language appeared on websites and in comments responding to articles that criticised denialists or merely accepted the conclusions of the climate scientists. This verbal violence is to the personal computer what road rage is to the motor car. No one knows how much is spontaneous and how much is somehow organised.

What is known is the demographic profile of the main contributors. A fascinating academic study of the American Gallup poll over ten years called ‘Cool Dudes’, once more by McCright and Dunlap, showed that ageing conservative white males are many times more likely than any other segment of the population to be denialists. The denialism has nothing to do with lack of education or ignorance. The more such people think they know about climate change the more convinced they are that the orthodox science is a fraud. To judge by the flood of vitriol that inevitably follows any online defence of climate science or criticism of the denialists, a goodly part of this group is very angry indeed. They seem to dislike being told that industrial capitalism is threatening the wellbeing of the planet and – to choose my words deliberately – that man’s ambition to achieve mastery over the Earth has spiralled out of control.

The aim of the verbal violence is clearly intimidatory. Morano – the inspirer of the ‘swift boat’ advertisements that converted presidential candidate John Kerry from Vietnam hero to coward – by now routinely published the email addresses of climate scientists on his website, Climate Depot. By the time of Climategate, most had become accustomed to frequent deranged abuse and occasional death threats.

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As late as 2009, most writers on the politics of climate change were convinced that the denialist movement would fail. In 2005, Ross Gelbspan told James Hoggan “the denial campaign was kaput”. In 2006, George Monbiot wrote in Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning: “After years of obfuscation, denial and lies about climate change, all but the most hardened recidivists in the US government are re-branding themselves as friends of the earth.” In 2008, Gwynne Dyer argued in Climate Wars “the denial industry is in full retreat”. Shortly after, in Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes and Conway concluded: “Until recently the mass media presented global warming as a raging debate … Maybe now the tide is turning.” Mann tells us that by 2009, even among the climate scientists, a “troubling complacency” could be observed; many believed that “the climate wars had been won”.

This turned out to be a mistake. Towards the end of 2009, two principal events occurred. The first had nothing to do with the denialists – the abject failure of the Copenhagen conference, where rational hope that the Kyoto Treaty would be replaced by some more effective international agreement died. The second was all their work. By that time, a new breed of denialists, most importantly Stephen McIntyre, had been pursuing several leading climate scientists remorselessly, searching for methodological or empirical mistakes in their work and demanding from them, frequently with a blizzard of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, the raw data from which their conclusions had been drawn and even the computer codes they had devised. As a result, a small number of minor errors were unearthed – in Michael Mann’s statistical work, for example, or in the Chinese weather station data that had been used in a seminal study of the urban heat island effect. As soon as a real or supposed error was discovered, an article was published in a journal as prestigious as could be found. And as soon as it was published, the error’s existence became known to the world through the denialist echo chamber. The political logic was captured perfectly by Johann Hari in the The Nation: “The climate scientists have to be right 100% of the time, or their 0.01% error [is used to show] they are frauds. By contrast, the deniers only have to be right 0.01% of the time for their narrative … to be reinforced by the media.”

This strategy was highly effective. For the climate scientists, pursuit by McIntyre was probably a greater source of frustration and anxiety than Morano’s vile abuse or even Joe Barton’s attempted Congressional inquisitions. One of those pursued by McIntyre was Phil Jones, the director of the Climatic Research Unit. On the eve of the Copenhagen conference more than a thousand private emails to and from climate science colleagues were somehow acquired and published on denialist websites. This coup immediately made its way to the front pages of the newspapers and the television news in countries where the long denialist campaign had already raised questions in the public mind about the reliability of climate science. The actions of the denialists had been very carefully planned. They had already found damaging sentences in the emails – like the one concerning the need to “hide the decline” in temperature, or the one which said, “The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t” – whose meaning could be twisted to suggest the fraudulence of climate science. Some of the emails revealed the intense frustration of the scientists. One email suggested that if peer-reviewed journals published denialists, the status of those journals should be reconsidered. In another, anxiety about McIntyre-style FOI harassment led to Phil Jones’s foolish suggestion that certain emails might need to be deleted.

Many journalists accepted the language that denialists had used as their frame – Climategate, the “smoking gun”, the “final nail in the coffin”. Even the best informed climate change journalists – like Andrew Revkin of the New York Times and Fred Pearce of the Guardian – treated the accusations of the Climategate conspirators with a far greater seriousness than they deserved. George Monbiot even called for Phil Jones’s resignation. Months later, when the political damage was already done, Jones was exonerated by three separate enquiries (Monbiot duly published a retraction: “It was unfair to call for his resignation”). In a culture war of this kind, where the enemy is so ruthless and the stakes are so high, ill-judged overscrupulousness by decent people anxious to appear fair can do real harm.

By now the denialists were on a roll. A serious error was discovered in the most recent IPCC assessment – a claim that the Himalayan glaciers might melt by 2035. A few essentially trivial ones followed. ‘Glaciergate’ was born. Just as a few email comments had been used to discredit all climate scientists in Climategate, so was one foolish error used to discredit the entire work of the IPCC in Glaciergate.

It was obvious that climate change denialism had influenced Americans more than elsewhere. Yet it was only after the combination of Copenhagen and Climategate that the denialists’ political victory in the US became clear. According to Gallup’s annual opinion polls on global warming, in 2008, 35% of Americans thought the media was exaggerating the threat from global warming. By 2010, the number had risen to 48%. In 2008, 58% believed that global warming was caused by human beings while 38% attributed it to nature. By 2010, 50% blamed human activity and 46% blamed nature. A 20-point difference had been reduced to four. It had taken 20 years of work, but the triumph of doubt over reason had been secured.

Global warming had never been a major political priority of the American people but the issue now seemed to drop off the map. In the year to 2010, according to one survey, climate change coverage on the networks’ Sunday shows fell by 70%. An even more remarkable achievement of the denialist campaign was transformation of climate change in the American public mind from a question of science to one of ideology. In the 1990s, climate change disagreements between Democrats and Republicans were modest. By 2010, there was a 30–40% gap between Democrats and Republicans and between self-identified liberals and conservatives on all the fundamental global-warming questions. Most extreme were Tea Party supporters: half say that global warming is naturally caused, and one fifth that it is not happening at all.

Yet there is more to this question than the movement of public opinion. Following the 2010 Congressional election it became clear that the Republicans had become the first major political party in the Western world to be wholly captured by climate change denialism. In April 2011, a bill was introduced into the House of Representatives to overturn the findings of the Environmental Protection Authority about the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions. It received unanimous Republican support. A Democrat amendment supporting the science received just one vote from a Republican. In 2008, the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, had been almost as fervent about the danger of climate change as Barack Obama. In the 2012 contest for the Republican candidacy, every contender was and indeed had to be a climate change denier. A once nearly bipartisan issue had by now been transformed into contested territory in the increasingly bitter American culture war being fought between the political parties.

This destroyed all possibility of American participation in the international struggle against global warming. In 2008, Obama pledged that he would lead the world struggle to combat climate change. The words ‘climate change’ now rarely pass his lips. As Michael Mann points out, in 2000 Bill Clinton based his State of the Union on the solidity of the consensual core of climate science; in his 2010 State of the Union, Obama argued: “I know that there are those who disagree … But even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future.” A once idealistic President had been neutralised by the bloody-minded ideological intransigence of the Republican Party and the denialism and indifference pervading the political culture. If Obama had honoured his promise to lead the world in the struggle against global warming the chance of serious progress would still have been minimal, but with America’s withdrawal it is certain in the near term at least that nothing serious can be achieved.

In June 2011, a reporter from the New York Times attended the annual conference in Washington at what was then the most important denialist organisation in the United States, the Heartland Institute. It had about it, she said, “the air of a victory lap”. The jubilation was warranted. The long war the denialist movement had fought against science and against reason, in the US and throughout the English-speaking world, had indeed achieved a famous victory. This is a victory that subsequent generations cursing ours may look upon as perhaps the darkest in the history of humankind.

About the author Robert Manne

Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University and has twice been voted Australia’s leading public intellectual. He is the author of Left, Right, Left: Political Essays, 1977–2005 and Making Trouble

 
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