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Dissecting the sceptics (1)

As global warming science has strengthened, so too has the powerful – and often vicious – lobby of deniers. Bill McKibben analyses the phenomenon.

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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 is important, the notion is arresting, and Mr McKibben argues convincingly,” the reviewer said. Around the same time, the first president George Bush announced that he planned to “fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect”.

I doubt that’s what the Wall Street Journal will say about my next book when it comes out in a few weeks and I know that no US Republican party presidential contender would now dream of acknowledging that human beings are warming the planet. Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska who is expected by many to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, is currently calling climate science “snake oil”.

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 New Orleans 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 United States, never more obvious: fewer Americans believe humans are warming the planet. At least partly as a result, the US 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.

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 the trial of OJ Simpson, the American football player acquitted in 1995 of the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, in one of the most highly publicised criminal trials in US history.

The “dream team” of lawyers assembled for Simpson’s defence 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 they decided to attack the police process, arguing that it put Simpson’s guilt in doubt. And doubt, of course, was all they needed. This resulted in days of cross-examination about exactly how police criminologist Dennis Fung had transported blood samples from the crime scene or the fact that Los Angeles detective Mark Fuhrman had used racial slurs in a conversation 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, one of Simpson’s lawyers, Johnnie Cochran, compared Fuhrman to Adolf Hitler and called him “a genocidal racist, a perjurer, America’s worst nightmare, and the personification of evil.” The team managed to instil considerable doubt not only in the jury but in lots of Americans tuning in on the television 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. But if you have 3,000 pages – the length of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – it 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 has 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 him behaving badly, or at least talking about doing so. This is the so-called “Climategate” scandal from an English research centre last autumn. The English scientist in question, Phil Jones, has been placed on leave while his university decides if he should be punished. 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.

If you’re smart, you can also take advantage of lucky breaks that cross your path – a record set of snowstorms hitting Washington DC, say. It won’t even matter that such a record is just the kind of thing scientists have been predicting, given the extra water vapour 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, posted a link to a live webcam so readers could watch snow coming down. These are the things that stick in people’s heads. If the winter glove won’t fit, you must acquit.

Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, including the forthcoming Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. He is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont. 

An earlier version of this article was published by TomDispatch.com. It is used here with permission

NEXT: Understanding denial 

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Where is this mountain of evidence of AGW? Yes, there is a mountain of evidence of GW, but that "fingerprint of man" seems elusive. Yes, there's plenty of claims of the "fingerprint", but then they just pile on more evidence of GW, not AGW, as if proof of a warming world is proof that it's caused by human activity. That's like saying proof that Nicole was murdered proves that OJ did it. BTW: OJ was convicted for wrongful death in a civil court where the burden of proof is lower, because there is less at stake. There's is a lot at stake with AGW mitigation, so the burden of proof is very high and rightfully so. The only surviving (and just barely) evidence of GW being human activity induced is the computer models that for some reason access to their data and programs are being withheld. What do you think a jury would do if the prosecution refused to supply DNA results in a case but just said "trust us" it's conclusive? The same thing I think when I'm refused access to the evidence that supposedly convicts human activity for Global Warming: NOT GUILTY.

John W.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

Dennis Alessi

有一点你可能忽略了。来自UEA的Phil Jones已经表明在过去的15年中还没有统计学意义上的显著变暖。那么又从何而来过去20年中最暖的15年呢?逻辑上讲,这是不可能的。很抱歉,让你的泡沫破灭了。

Dennis Alessi

One small point that you may have overlooked is the fact that Phil Jones of UEA has stated that there has been no statistically significant warming in the past 15 years! so how can the hottest 15 years have been in the last two decades? Logically this would be impossible. Sorry to burst your bubble.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Who should I believe?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



lobby of deniers.

If to insist the proper standards of science are maintained (like admitting it is currently cooling and that these climate forecasters have completely failed to forecast the climate) means you are labelled a denier, then yes I'm a denier, because I deny the use of bogus science to lend scientific credibiity to pseudo religion.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



The mistake needs explanation still

The public deserves a convincing explanation from the scandals of 'Climategate' and 'Glaciergate', rather than being told to 'please understand the trivial errors that are difficult to avoid', and diverting their attention by showing more examples that cause global warming, in order to diminish these misgivings. It is inevitable that the public credibility will go down, if these questions remain unanswered.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


如果你真的对气候科学有疑问,那么我希望您不要一叶障目或是漠然视之,您可以访问“怀疑科学(skeptical science)"这个网站,来寻找答案。如果你为某些尖刻的话语,或是某些品行可疑的环境NGO感到困惑的话,请您务必浏览一下“一种错误的环保概念(The Wrong Kind of Green)”、“埃克森美孚公司仍在赞助气候怀疑论团队的记录展示(ExxonMobil continuing to fund climate sceptic groups, records show)”这两篇文章。如果你仍然不相信,那您不妨问一问来自云南、新疆、兰州的人们对事情的看法。

about climate skepticism

if you really have questions for climate science, rather than intentionally turning a blind eye on it, please visit the website of "skeptical science" for answer. If you are confused by the barking beast and some dubious environmental NGO, please refer to the two articles "the wrong kind of Green" and "ExxonMobil continuing to fund climate sceptic groups, records show". If you still do not believe in it, ask people from Yunnan, Xinjiang, and Lanzhou for their opinions.