How the Mountain of Climate Change Evidence Is Being Used to Undermine the Cause
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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.”
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 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 U.S., 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, 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.
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 into 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.