A Climate of Denial
Merchants of Doubt
Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway
Bloomsbury Press, $27
The Climate War
This summer, if all goes as planned, Congress will revive last year's effort to pass climate legislation. This has been a long time coming. Many lawmakers have been listening seriously since the 1980s to scientists' warnings that humans are altering the global atmosphere. In 1988 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) formed and started tracking the state-of-the-art consensus. After a drumbeat of news about record-breaking yearly temperatures took hold in the public mind, National Geographic declared 2004 the year that global warming "got respect." In 2007 the IPCC won the Nobel Peace Prize. In late 2009 the nations of the world prepared to gather in Copenhagen to "seal the deal," in the words of U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, to abate rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
Then governments hesitated. Copenhagen was declared dead before arrival. Additionally, during the run-up, hackers used e-mails stolen from top researchers in Britain and the United States to suggest that they had systematically exaggerated the threat. This January, it came to light that the IPCC had no peer-reviewed evidence to support its contention that Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035. Senator James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma (who calls the threat of catastrophic global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people"), began calling for criminal investigations of scientists. Bloggers and anonymous e-mailers flooded Web sites and scientists' in-boxes with hostile screeds and even death threats. James Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA and now perhaps the loudest voice among scientists calling for the world to do something about CO2, has on occasion been afforded police protection. A Gallup poll this March says that the proportion of Americans who think the seriousness of global warming is "generally exaggerated" has risen to 48 percent -- up from 35 percent in 2008 and 31 percent in 1997.
What the hell just happened? How could so-called climate deniers make such a comeback -- and why are they driven by the kind of fury once reserved for gun control or abortion? Is the science fraying, or have its opponents just gotten slicker about undercutting it? Is there a global conspiracy to perpetrate a hoax, and if so, which side is perpetrating it? Do most people even understand what science can and cannot do?
These are important questions, and two new books drill into them. Merchants of Doubt, by the science historian Naomi Oreskes and the writer Erik Conway, investigates a sort of reverse conspiracy theory: ecoterrorists and socialists are not the ones foisting dubious science upon us; rather it is deniers who are running their own well-funded and organized long-term hoax. Several previous works (notably, The Republican War on Science, by Chris Mooney) have ably illuminated similar themes, but this one hits bone. The Climate War, by former Time and Fortune political/business reporter and editor Eric Pooley, narrates the skirmishes and machinations leading up to last year's congressional debates about climate legislation and the Copenhagen summit. Taken together, the books provide both the historical perspective and the current political insights needed to get a grip on what is happening now.
First, a word about "theory," conspiracy or otherwise. Most people misunderstand the word; to them, a theory is merely a hunch, conjecture, or speculation. Actually, in science-speak, a theory is what scientists develop after examining substantial evidence. It represents their best current understanding of how something works. Hence, the theory that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa; the theory of biological evolution; the theory that germs cause disease; the theory of plate tectonics; and the theory of human-induced climate change. Obviously, some theories have been around longer than others, and more evidence for them has accreted. Global warming is a newer one. Its details in many areas are still fuzzy, but there is an overwhelming scientific consensus about its basic truth.
The fact is, science is not composed of eureka moments, when an apple bonks a genius on the head and suddenly everyone accepts what he has to say. It is a slow, repetitive process, frequently involving thousands of people accumulating evidence for decades and centuries. Even then, nature is so complicated that almost no phenomenon fits perfectly into any model. Basically, nothing can be "proved" with 100 percent certainty; science is the process of trying to reduce the amount of uncertainty. Furthermore, science and society are inseparable. The point at which something becomes a "fact" is subjective. If we are not ready to accept some piece of science because of religious, political, or economic factors, it won't be accepted. Some people will never believe certain theories, because they conflict with their worldview; witness the many devout American Christians who reject evolution. The last IPCC report, in 2007, says it is "very likely" that climate is warming abnormally and that we, not natural forces, are to blame. By "very likely" they mean 90 percent or greater certainty -- and the great majority of all earth scientists agree. As with evolution, you can choose to accept, or find reasons not to.
The stars of Merchants of Doubt have worked hard to persuade the public not to accept. Not only that: according to the authors, many of the same people, using the same strategies, backed by the same interests, have worked for decades to undercut scientific warnings about the dangers of smoking, acid rain, atmospheric ozone depletion, even nuclear proliferation.
The book's main protagonists are Frederick Seitz and S. Fred Singer -- prominent, extremely hawkish cold war physicists who, respectively, helped build the atomic bomb and develop space satellites. These were not fringe figures or guns for hire; Seitz was once science adviser to NATO and president of the National Academy of Sciences. Other interconnected characters include PR man Steven Milloy, an old-time defender of tobacco who is now behind the anti-climate-change Web site junkscience.com; William Nierenberg, science adviser to a series of presidents into the 1990s; and the Heartland Institute, which in 2008 brought us a convention in New York declaring modern climate science a fraud. All of these people took or distributed money from corporations with vested interests, but Oreskes and Conway suggest that this was not their core motivation. Instead, they view many of their characters as outmoded cold warriors who misguidedly sought out, and tried to save the world from, new perceived threats after the death of Russian Communism.
Starting in the 1970s, various of these figures began churning out propaganda -- at first funded by tens of millions of dollars in tobacco money -- suggesting that the link between cancer and smoking was unproven. Later, funded by a shifting web of big corporations and conservative think tanks, they claimed acid rain and the ozone hole were caused by volcanoes, not pollution; promoted Ronald Reagan's Star Wars fantasy; and fought restrictions on secondhand tobacco smoke. On every issue they opposed a strong scientific consensus from the start. How? By sowing doubt: all these things were just "theories."
Any study that did not "prove" something 100 percent was declared invalid; any study that introduced even 1 percent of doubt was touted as gospel. "This was the tobacco industry's key insight," say Oreskes and Conway, "that you could use normal scientific uncertainty to undermine the status of actual scientific knowledge." People like Seitz and Singer did it well and got away with it because they were scientists. Finally, they entered the currently most pressing debate: climate change.
The book dates the campaign against climate science from 1989, right after lawmakers started listening to people like Hansen and the IPCC. By cherry-picking data, Nierenberg, Seitz, and Singer first suggested that the world was not warming; it was cooling. This was a quarter-truth at best: the world cooled from 1940 to 1975, but the long-term temperature trend was, and is, undeniably upward. Several cool years in the 1990s and early 2000s have since been used to perpetuate the lie, but the 1990s were the warmest decade on record, and the years from 2000 to 2009 were warmer yet.
When pressed, Singer, Seitz et al. have said, okay, maybe things are warming -- but not that much and not in direct proportion to the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere. In any case, they argue, if the planet is warming it's being caused 100 percent by natural cyclic variations in, say, solar radiation. Never mind that the warming is substantial; that the overwhelming majority of scientists say solar and other natural variations come nowhere close to accounting for it; that few scientists expect CO2 and temperature to increase in lockstep; and that the idea of greenhouse warming rests on the most basic, long-tested premises of physics.
There are always dissenters from scientific consensus, and sometimes those dissenters do turn out to be right. But dissenting claims on climate frequently go beyond normal scientific debate and accuse climate scientists of outright fraud. In one early episode, Singer and Seitz cast a series of last-minute changes in the IPCC's 1996 report, its second, as some sort of conspiracy to manufacture "a catastrophe -- the greatest global challenge facing mankind" (Singer's words, not those of the IPCC). That attack eerily presaged the attacks of recent months.
One of the fruits of this effort can be seen on Senator Inhofe's minority page of the Web site of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. It contains a phony list of 650-some scientists, co-curated by Singer, who "dissent over man-made global warming claims." Just 52 people wrote the 2007 IPCC report, the page claims. Never mind that the 52 were merely coauthors of summaries to which thousands of named scientists contributed. Or that the 650 are largely scientists who disagree over specifics, not fundamentals. In the logic of the list, unless everyone agrees on every number, everyone must be wrong; and if natural effects exist, man-made ones cannot. This is the Tobacco Strategy. (Full disclosure: the institution I work for includes about two dozen scientists on the list, many of whom have angrily -- and unsuccessfully -- demanded to be removed.)
Do these folks really believe what they are saying? Or maybe the bigger question is: why do so many people listen to them? The answer may lie in the fact that the causes against which Singer and others have taken up arms are not just about science; they invite government regulation and limits on free enterprise -- violations of conservative American ideals. Many conservatives may oppose environmental causes, but it is not that they hate the planet; they hate the political solutions that liberals propose for protecting it. This April, a USA Today reporter asked a newspaper editor in Muleshoe, Texas, if the locals were worried about global warming. The editor replied: "Let's put it this way: Rush Limbaugh has a lot more fans around here than Hillary Clinton."
On a deeper level, there is the somewhat less partisan belief that man will always advance with the help of technology. The idea that we could be messing up nature on a grand scale by making "progress" is heresy to many. The Climate War quotes Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who says that the entire environmental movement "is based on a bias against human power over nature. What gives us power over nature? Energy."
The fact remains that support for climate science has waned across the board. In 2006 more than 90 percent of Democrats -- not the current 75 percent -- saw solid evidence for global warming, along with a healthy 60 percent of Republicans (compared with 35 percent today). So we are back to the question: what happened? Pooley's book, which tracks the constant strategizing and horse trading over climate policy among a small, influential cast of politicians, business leaders, environmentalists, and lobbyists, may help explain. In the background, the world economy is crashing, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are looking equally endless. People can worry about only so much bad news at one time. Sociologists call it the "finite pool of worry." After a while, you have to tune something out.
The "true believers" in Pooley's book, like Al Gore, may be partly to blame for that, framing climate change mainly as a horrible danger, not as a challenge to develop a more sustainable path for humanity. Pooley quotes a 2004 essay, "The Death of Environmentalism," by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus: "Imagine how history would have turned out had [Martin Luther] King given an 'I have a nightmare' speech instead," they say. They have a point.
Also, during times of great change -- the Obama presidency may yet prove to be one -- all kinds of issues that make people mad get conflated. This spring, while Wisconsin considered a rather modest bill to cut carbon emissions, a reader wrote the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "[T]he liberals will shove this nonsense down our throats like they did with the health care debacle. They are stealing our liberty with lie after lie." And the most unpredictable voices enter the arena. In January, Osama bin Laden issued an audiotape dedicated to climate change, describing it as "not an ideological luxury, but a reality" and calling on the industrialized nations to do something about it.
The news media certainly bear blame for doing a lousy job of putting things in context. For years, whenever a climate scientist was quoted, editors insisted on a side-by-side quote from someone attacking him, creating the false impression of a "debate" -- the kind of conflict that journalists are sometimes too prone to thrive on. When the scientific consensus became too crushing, covering climate change became boring. Then, with the buried treasure of the hacked e-mails, things suddenly became interesting again, and newspapers endlessly reported the innuendos of deniers. When the smoke cleared, it was apparent that scientists had needlessly withheld data and said mean things about one another and their detractors -- but had done nothing at all that changed the scientific picture. That was not splashed on page one, though.
In January, when the story about the Himalayan glacier snafu broke, conservative pundits gleefully declared that the IPCC's house of cards had collapsed; glaciers weren't melting and climate change was a fraud. The New York Times and many others dutifully picked up the story, but failed to mention prominently, if at all, that there is no house of cards. Glaciers around the world are melting rapidly. They may not all be completely gone by 2035 -- but so what?
Scientists understand that there is uncertainty; projections of sea level rise for the year 2100, for example, range from less than an inch to as much as six feet. But average readers feel jerked around; they just want to hear the answer. The papers need to explain: scientists know the seas are rising; they don't know exactly how much; one study is only one study, and there will be many more to come before we arrive at a reliable number.
A recent issue of the Economist outlines other uncertainties. For instance, we don't know to what degree trees and plants might grow better in the presence of more CO2 and thus dampen warming. No one has really sorted out how natural clouds and man-made pollution might also confound the effects of CO2. We don't know if there is a "tipping point" of temperature beyond which polar ice sheets might disintegrate, rather than melt steadily, as they are now. And we do not know to what extent, if any, specific droughts, floods, snowstorms, and hurricanes are products of a changing climate rather than random events. There is room for real debate, and skepticism, on many questions. Too often, skeptics get a bad name and are confused with actual deniers. Skeptics are the ones who remind us that we may know something, but we don't know everything.
Many scientists compare planetary climate with a giant oil tanker, and the same may be said of public opinion. When some factor, natural or man-made, is applied to change its course, it takes a long time for it to slow down, start turning, and then gather steam on a new heading. This is the most powerful argument for doing something about climate before we reach the illusory mark of 100 percent scientific certainty -- and the most frustrating thing about living in the real world.