The Attack on Climate-Change Science: Why It’s the O.J. Moment of the Twenty-First Century

The Nation logo Bill McKibben, 350.org, compares the carbon lobby's years long effort to discredit an increasingly large mountain of climate science to OJ Simpon's legal defense. He emphasizes that the great quantity of evidence and data supporting climate change provides a larger target for the deniers to attack. On top of this offensive advantage, deniers have more money and a better sense of how to motivate people in today's political environment.

Posted Feb. 25, 2010
By Bill McKibben, The Nation

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 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.

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 right-wing British tabloids that 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
United States, 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 e-mails 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 LA, 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 top-flight 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 acheck
to everyone in the country every month. Yes, the company would pass on
the charge at the pump, but 80 percent 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 miners' 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.

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