The Truth About Global Warming Denial

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Aug. 13, 2007 issue – Sen. Barbara Boxer had been chair of the Senate’s Environment Committee for less than a month when the verdict landed last February. “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” concluded a report by 600 scientists from governments, academia, green groups and businesses in 40 countries. Worse, there was now at least a 90 percent likelihood that the release of greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels is causing longer droughts, more flood-causing downpours and worse heat waves, way up from earlier studies. Those who doubt the reality of human-caused climate change have spent decades disputing that. But Boxer figured that with “the overwhelming science out there, the deniers’ days were numbered.” As she left a meeting with the head of the international climate panel, however, a staffer had some news for her. A conservative think tank long funded by ExxonMobil, she told Boxer, had offered scientists $10,000 to write articles undercutting the new report and the computer-based climate models it is based on. “I realized,” says Boxer, “there was a movement behind this that just wasn’t giving up.”

 

If you think those who have long challenged the mainstream scientific findings about global warming recognize that the game is over, think again. Yes, 19 million people watched the “Live Earth” concerts last month, titans of corporate America are calling for laws mandating greenhouse cuts, “green” magazines fill newsstands, and the film based on Al Gore’s best-selling book, “An Inconvenient Truth,” won an Oscar. But outside Hollywood, Manhattan and other habitats of the chattering classes, the denial machine is running at full throttle—and continuing to shape both government policy and public opinion.

Since the late 1980s, this well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks and industry has created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change. Through advertisements, op-eds, lobbying and media attention, greenhouse doubters (they hate being called deniers) argued first that the world is not warming; measurements indicating otherwise are flawed, they said. Then they claimed that any warming is natural, not caused by human activities. Now they contend that the looming warming will be minuscule and harmless. “They patterned what they did after the tobacco industry,” says former senator Tim Wirth, who spearheaded environmental issues as an under secretary of State in the Clinton administration. “Both figured, sow enough doubt, call the science uncertain and in dispute. That’s had a huge impact on both the public and Congress.”

Just last year, polls found that 64 percent of Americans thought there was “a lot” of scientific disagreement on climate change; only one third thought planetary warming was “mainly caused by things people do.” In contrast, majorities in Europe and Japan recognize a broad consensus among climate experts that greenhouse gases—mostly from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas to power the world’s economies—are altering climate. A new NEWSWEEK Poll finds that the influence of the denial machine remains strong. Although the figure is less than in earlier polls, 39 percent of those asked say there is “a lot of disagreement among climate scientists” on the basic question of whether the planet is warming; 42 percent say there is a lot of disagreement that human activities are a major cause of global warming. Only 46 percent say the greenhouse effect is being felt today.

As a result of the undermining of the science, all the recent talk about addressing climate change has produced little in the way of actual action. Yes, last September Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a landmark law committing California to reduce statewide emissions of carbon dioxide to 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent more by 2050. And this year both Minnesota and New Jersey passed laws requiring their states to reduce greenhouse emissions 80 percent below recent levels by 2050. In January, nine leading corporations—including Alcoa, Caterpillar, Duke Energy, Du Pont and General Electric—called on Congress to “enact strong national legislation” to reduce greenhouse gases. But although at least eight bills to require reductions in greenhouse gases have been introduced in Congress, their fate is decidedly murky. The Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives decided last week not even to bring to a vote a requirement that automakers improve vehicle mileage, an obvious step toward reducing greenhouse emissions. Nor has there been much public pressure to do so. Instead, every time the scientific case got stronger, “the American public yawned and bought bigger cars,” Rep. Rush Holt, a New Jersey congressman and physicist, recently wrote in the journal Science; politicians “shrugged, said there is too much doubt among scientists, and did nothing.”

It was 98 degrees in Washington on Thursday, June 23, 1988, and climate change was bursting into public consciousness. The Amazon was burning, wildfires raged in the United States, crops in the Midwest were scorched and it was shaping up to be the hottest year on record worldwide. A Senate committee, including Gore, had invited NASA climatologist James Hansen to testify about the greenhouse effect, and the members were not above a little stagecraft. The night before, staffers had opened windows in the hearing room. When Hansen began his testimony, the air conditioning was struggling, and sweat dotted his brow. It was the perfect image for the revelation to come. He was 99 percent sure, Hansen told the panel, that “the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”

 

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