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The Attack on Climate-Change Science | The Nation

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The Attack on Climate-Change Science

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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."

About the Author

Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, most recently The Bill McKibben Reader, an essay collection. A scholar in...

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At the People’s Climate March in New York City on September 21, there’s a world to march for.

The dream of an environmental president seems to be fading away.

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 fifteen 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 United States, 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, much 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 in 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 e-mails 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 Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin did, insisting the e-mails 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 e-mail, 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, DC. 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, Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, 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.

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