Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.
— Richard Feynman
The same sort of public relations wizardry that once convinced a sizeable portion of Americans that cigarette smoking was harmless, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and had a hand in the 9/11 attacks, that Al Gore claimed to have invented the internet, and that John Kerry’s war record was fraudulent, is now convincing an increasing number of our citizens that global warming is at least of little consequence, or, at most, a massive hoax.
This trend is reported by the Pew Research Center which, in August, 2006, found that 77% of the public believed that there is solid evidence that the earth is warming. In October, 2009, that number had dropped to 57%. In the same period, the percentage of those who denied that there is such evidence increased from 17% to 33%. An early Pew poll found that “global warming ranked dead last among 40 concerns ranked by the 1503 respondents to the poll.”
Unfortunately, as John Adams observed, “facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Here are some of those stubborn facts:
- The decade of the 2000s was the warmest on record, containing eight of the ten warmest years.
- The summer Arctic ice cap is likely to disappear completely in 30 to 40 years. This alarming trend is reported by the National Center for Atmospheric Research and McGill University (Canada). Ice reflects 80% of solar radiation, while the open sea absorbs 80% of the radiation, which means that an open Arctic Ocean is certain to heat up the atmosphere.
- Carbon Dioxide is a greenhouse gas, which means that it “captures” incoming solar radiation. This is fortunate, for without atmospheric CO2, most of the earth would be too cold to support human life. These facts were discovered by John Tyndal in 1859 and confirmed by Svante Arrhenius in 1896. But with the advent of the industrial revolution and the massive consumption of fossil fuels, the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide has almost doubled to nearly 390 parts per million today.
- Methane is about 22 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and vast amounts of methane are being released in the warming arctic tundra and from the warming oceans (in the form of methane cathrate).
Climate change skeptics have succeeded in convincing much of the public that global warming is a live issue of contention among climate scientists. The facts tell us otherwise. For example, in December, 2004, Science magazine (AAAS) reported:
The American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the AAAS all have issued statements in recent years concluding that the evidence for human modification of climate is compelling.
… [While these reports] might downplay legitimate dissenting opinions, [that] hypothesis was tested by analyzing 928 abstracts, published in refereed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003, and listed in the ISI database with the keywords “climate change.”
… Of all the  papers, 75% .. either explicitly or implicitly accept[ed] the consensus view; 25% dealt with methods or paleoclimate, taking no position on current anthropogenic climate change. Remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position. (My emphasis)
Furthermore, according to a survey conducted by Peter Doran of the University of Chicago 97% of climatologists active in research concur that global warming is real and that human activity plays a role in it.
While I could go on with this recitation, it is not my task to offer yet another argument that global warming is a fact. Thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers support that conclusion. These papers are by qualified climate scientists, which I am not. No citation here of scientific data will persuade a single individual determined not to be persuaded. So instead, I pose a different question: how credible is the denialists’ rejection of this scientific consensus?
No skeptic has ever offered me a plausible explanation as to how thousands of climate specialists from around the world — the vast majority of such specialists — can all be so profoundly mistaken about conclusions from research, both independent and coordinated, conducted at the cost of billions of dollars. Not that there is a shortage of implausible explanations.
For example, William Bennett (the Secretary of Education in the Reagan Administration) recently told Sean Hannity on FOX that all those scientists were “driven by ideology,” though he never identified the ideology that united the scientists from dozens of different nations and cultures. He did, however, compare all those scientists to the Nazi doctors who performed experiments on concentration camp prisoners.
A more common explanation is that climate scientists pretend to believe in global warming in order to get research grants. But clearly, if that is the researchers’ motivation, there is much more cash to be found from the energy corporations and their foundations. Moreover, the “grant-search” explanation begs an even greater mystery: What could possibly motivate the funding agencies (primarily governments) into encouraging gullible scientists to conclude that the climate is warming due to human effects? Most governments, and especially the US government, have a stake in the status-quo and in placating international corporations and industries.
In a sense, however, William Bennett is correct: scientists the world over are united by an “ideology,” though “ideology” is hardly the correct word. That “ideology” is what Jacob Bronowski called “the habit of truth:”
By the worldly standards of public life, all scholars in their work are of course oddly virtuous. They do not make wild claims, they do not cheat, they do not try to persuade at any cost, they appeal neither to prejudice or to authority, they are often frank about their ignorance, their disputes are fairly decorous, they do not confuse what is being argued with race, politics, sex or age, they listen patiently to the young and to the old who both know everything. These are the general virtues of scholarship, and they are peculiarly the virtues of science. Individually, scientists no doubt have human weaknesses. . . But in a world in which state and dogma seem always either to threaten or to cajole, the body of scientists is trained to avoid and organized to resist every form of persuasion but the fact. A scientist who breaks this rule, as [Soviet agronomist, Trofim] Lysenko has done, is ignored. . .
The values of science derive neither from the virtues of its members, nor from the finger-wagging codes of conduct by which every profession reminds itself to be good. They have grown out of the practice of science, because they are the inescapable conditions for its practice.1
Science, albeit imperfect, is the human institution best organized and equipped to discover and validate truths about “the nature of nature” including, the nature of the global atmosphere and climate.
Is the scientific affirmation of anthropogenic global warming a “hoax,” as Sen. Inhofe would have us believe? Possibly. But to believe this one would also have to believe either that (a) hundreds of millions of dollars of funded and peer-reviewed research have systematically led to a false conclusion, or (b) that thousands of scientists from around the world are engaged in a giant conspiracy, or (c) that all these scientists are simply fools. Sorry, but that is much more than I can swallow.
On a personal note, I am convinced that these scientists are neither knaves nor fools, for I know many of them and have worked with them. In 1991 I organized a scholarly conference on Environmental Ethics at Cal State Fullerton. Keynoting that event were Stephen Schneider (climate scientist, Stanford University) and John Holdren (now the President’s Science Advisor). Previously I worked for two years under a National Science Foundation grant at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) in Boulder, where I got to know several climate scientists, including Steve Schneider (then at the National Center for Atmospheric Research) and John Birks, a collaborator with Paul Crutzen, a Nobel Laureate. While my work was in applied seismology, not climate science, I was nonetheless able to gain a moral measure of these individuals. They were neither knaves nor fools. They were, each and every one of them, scrupulous scientists. Moreover, they had families and hoped for a prosperous future for their children and their posterity. Accordingly, they were and are appalled at what their research was and is disclosing about the future prospects of the earth and of humanity.
And so should we all be.
How then do we explain the persistence of global warming denial? Upton Sinclair’s observation is instructive: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Thus the behavior of tobacco industry executives when presented with laboratory and statistical evidence from cancer researchers, and the response of the chemical industry to the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the effect of CFCs on atmospheric ozone. Thus the proliferation of industry sponsored and scientifically trained “biostitutes” (to use Robert Kennedy Jr’s term) many of whom, I am confident, sincerely and firmly believe what they are paid to believe. This enlistment of scientific “experts” has been effective for, as Ross Gelbspan noted in 1995:
The people who run the world’s oil and coal companies know that the march of science, and of political action, may be slowed by disinformation. In the last year and a half, one of the leading oil industry public relations outlets, the Global Climate Coalition, has spent more than a million dollars to downplay the threat of climate change. It expects to spend another $850,000 on the issue next year. Similarly, the National Coal Association spent more than $700,000 on the global climate issue in 1992 and 1993. In 1993 alone, the American Petroleum Institute, just one of fifty-four industry members of the GCC, paid $1.8 million to the public relations firm of Burson-Marsteller partly in an effort to defeat a proposed tax on fossil fuels….
These 1994 figures grossly understate the current industry PR expenditures. Continuing:
For the most part the industry has relied on a small band of skeptics—Dr. Richard S. Lindzen, Dr. Pat Michaels, Dr. Robert Balling, Dr. Sherwood Idso, and Dr. S. Fred Singer, among others—who have proven extraordinarily adept at draining the issue of all sense of crisis. Through their frequent pronouncements in the press and on radio and television, they have helped to create the illusion that the question is hopelessly mired in unknowns.
And what if brute reality raises its ugly head? Just suppress it. As Andrew Revkin of the New York Times reports:
For more than a decade the Global Climate Coalition, a group representing industries with profits tied to fossil fuels, led an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign against the idea that emissions of heat-trapping gases could lead to global warming.
“The role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood,” the coalition said in a scientific “backgrounder” provided to lawmakers and journalists through the early 1990s, adding that “scientists differ” on the issue.
But a document filed in a federal lawsuit demonstrates that even as the coalition worked to sway opinion, its own scientific and technical experts were advising that the science backing the role of greenhouse gases in global warming could not be refuted.
“The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied,” the experts wrote in an internal report compiled for the coalition in 1995.
The “biostitution” of climate science should come as no surprise. We’ve seen it with the tobacco, chemical, atomic, advertising and financial services industries. Why should the coal and petroleum industries be any different?
Nonetheless, the “stubborn facts” of atmospheric chemistry and physics are what they are, totally indifferent to public relations campaigns and their effect upon public opinion. “In nature,” Robert Ingersoll observed, “there are neither rewards nor punishments. There are consequences.” The world governments and multi-national corporations may choose to ignore those consequences. Nature will not.
That being so, “climate skeptics” are doing a great disservice to humanity as they obstruct and forestall urgent action in the face of a planetary emergency. Skepticism in science is, in principle, commendable, as long as it is conducted responsibly according to rigors of scientific method — of Bronowski’s “habit of truth.” But I find little if any such “responsibility” among the climate skeptics. Not William Bennett, not Sean Hannity and his FOX colleagues, most assuredly not Senator Inhofe, and not at such regressive think-tanks as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Cato Institute.
If global warming is as real and as serious as the consensus of climate scientists say that it is, then unconstrained free market industrialization has much to answer for, and mitigation of the dire consequences thereof will require the kind of coordinated action at the national and international level that free-market absolutists deplore (as I argue in my essay, “Climate Reality Bites the Libertarians“). What is required is a world-wide economic and industrial mobilization on the scale of that which took place in the United States after the Pearl Harbor attack. Instead, what we are offered are pipsqueak palliatives, too little and too late.
Today, as the Copenhagen fiasco indicates, the deniers and their corporate sponsors appear to have the upper hand. Thus the public belief in and concern about global warming continue to erode. Quite frankly, I am very pessimistic.
And yet, the aforementioned history of corporate abuse offers some hope. The public eventually got the message: cigarettes kill, and today the per-capita consumption of cigarettes in the United States is about a third of what it was in 1965. Eventually, Rachel Carson was vindicated, as DDT was removed from the market. Likewise, CFCs were eventually phased out.
Trouble is, if the climate scientists are to be believed, an “eventual” solution to global warming is no solution at all.
We face the acute urgency of NOW. The lost Bush/Cheney decade has already condemned humanity to untold misery. But it is not too late to avoid still worse catastrophes. Meanwhile, the carbon continues to be pumped into the global atmosphere, the seas are becoming still more acidic, and “peak oil” is upon us. Time is common enemy of all mankind.
- Science and Human Values, Harper and Row, 1972, p. 59-60. [↩]