Global-Warming Deniers: A Well-Funded Machine
Newsweek Magazine, Aug 13, 2007
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
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
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
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
It was 98 degrees in
The reaction from industries most responsible for greenhouse emissions was immediate. "As soon as the scientific community began to come together on the science of climate change, the pushback began," says historian Naomi Oreskes of the
Shaping public opinion was only one goal of the industry groups, for soon after Hansen's sweat-drenched testimony they faced a more tangible threat: international proposals to address global warming. The United Nations had scheduled an "Earth Summit" for 1992 in
In what would become a key tactic of the denial machinethink tanks linking up with like-minded, contrarian researchersthe report was endorsed in a letter to President George H.W. Bush by MIT meteorologist Richard Lindzen. Lindzen, whose parents had fled Hitler's
Bush was torn. The head of his Environmental Protection Agency, William Reilly, supported binding cuts in greenhouse emissions. Political advisers insisted on nothing more than voluntary cuts. Bush's chief of staff, John Sununu, had a Ph.D. in engineering from MIT and "knew computers," recalls Reilly. Sununu frequently logged on to a computer model of climate, Reilly says, and "vigorously critiqued" its assumptions and projections.
Sununu's side won. The
Groups that opposed greenhouse curbs ramped up. They "settled on the 'science isn't there' argument because they didn't believe they'd be able to convince the public to do nothing if climate change were real," says David Goldston, who served as Republican chief of staff for the House of Representatives science committee until 2006.
Industry found a friend in Patrick Michaels, a climatologist at the
The road from Rio led to an international meeting in
Faced with this emerging consensus, the denial machine hardly blinked. There is too much "scientific uncertainty" to justify curbs on greenhouse emissions, William O'Keefe, then a vice president of the American Petroleum Institute and leader of the Global Climate Coalition, suggested in 1996.
"There was an extraordinary campaign by the denial machine to find and hire scientists to sow dissent and make it appear that the research community was deeply divided," says Dan Becker of the Sierra Club. Those recruits blitzed the media. Driven by notions of fairness and objectivity, the press "qualified every mention of human influence on climate change with 'some scientists believe,' where the reality is that the vast preponderance of scientific opinion accepts that human-caused [greenhouse] emissions are contributing to warming," says Reilly, the former EPA chief. "The pursuit of balance has not done justice" to the science. Talk radio goes further, with Rush Limbaugh telling listeners this year that "more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is not likely to significantly contribute to the greenhouse effect. It's just all part of the hoax." In the new NEWSWEEK Poll, 42 percent said the press "exaggerates the threat of climate change."
Now naysayers tried a new tactic: lists and petitions meant to portray science as hopelessly divided. Just before
The GOP control of Congress for six of
The reason for the inaction was clear. "The questioning of the science made it to the Hill through senators who parroted reports funded by the American Petroleum Institute and other advocacy groups whose entire purpose was to confuse people on the science of global warming," says Sen. John Kerry. "There would be ads challenging the science right around the time we were trying to pass legislation. It was pure, raw pressure combined with false facts." Nor were states stepping where
But the science was shifting under the denial machine. In January 2000, the National Academy of Sciences skewered its strongest argument. Contrary to the claim that satellites finding no warming are right and ground stations showing warming are wrong, it turns out that the satellites are off. (Basically, engineers failed to properly correct for changes in their orbit.) The planet is indeed warming, and at a rate since 1980 much greater than in the past.
Just months after the Academy report, Singer told a Senate panel that "the Earth's atmosphere is not warming and fears about human-induced storms, sea-level rise and other disasters are misplaced." And as studies fingering humans as a cause of climate change piled up, he had a new argument: a cabal was silencing good scientists who disagreed with the "alarmist" reports. "Global warming has become an article of faith for many, with its own theology and orthodoxy," Singer wrote in The Washington Times. "Its believers are quite fearful of any scientific dissent."
With the Inauguration of George W. Bush in 2001, the denial machine expected to have friends in the White House. But despite Bush's oil-patch roots, naysayers weren't sure they could count on him: as a candidate, he had pledged to cap carbon dioxide emissions. Just weeks into his term, the Competitive Enterprise Institute heard rumors that the draft of a speech Bush was preparing included a passage reiterating that pledge. CEI's Myron Ebell called conservative pundit Robert Novak, who had booked Bush's EPA chief, Christie Todd Whitman, on CNN's "Crossfire." He asked her about the line, and within hours the possibility of a carbon cap was the talk of the Beltway. "We alerted anyone we thought could have influence and get the line, if it was in the speech, out," says CEI president Fred Smith, who counts this as another notch in CEI's belt. The White House declines to comment.
Bush not only disavowed his campaign pledge. In March, he withdrew from the
Bush's reversal came just weeks after the IPCC released its third assessment of the burgeoning studies of climate change. Its conclusion: the 1990s were very likely the warmest decade on record, and recent climate change is partly "attributable to human activities." The weather itself seemed to be conspiring against the skeptics. The early years of the new millennium were setting heat records. The summer of 2003 was especially brutal, with a heat wave in
Challenging the science wasn't a hard sell on Capitol Hill. "In the House, the leadership generally viewed it as impermissible to go along with anything that would even imply that climate change was genuine," says Goldston, the former Republican staffer. "There was a belief on the part of many members that the science was fraudulent, even a Democratic fantasy. A lot of the information they got was from conservative think tanks and industry." When in 2003 the Senate called for a national strategy to cut greenhouse gases, for instance, climate naysayers were "giving briefings and talking to staff," says Goldston. "There was a constant flow of informationlargely misinformation." Since the House version of that bill included no climate provisions, the two had to be reconciled. "The House leadership staff basically said, 'You know we're not going to accept this,' and [Senate staffers] said, 'Yeah, we know,' and the whole thing disappeared relatively jovially without much notice," says Goldston. "It was such a foregone conclusion."
Especially when the denial machine had a new friend in a powerful place. In 2003 James Inhofe of
Every effort to pass climate legislation during the George W. Bush years was stopped in its tracks. When Senators McCain and Joe Lieberman were fishing for votes for their bipartisan effort in 2003, a staff member for Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska explained to her counterpart in Lieberman's office that Stevens "is aware there is warming in Alaska, but he's not sure how much it's caused by human activity or natural cycles," recalls Tim Profeta, now director of an environmental-policy institute at Duke University. "I was hearing the basic argument of the skepticsa brilliant strategy to go after the science. And it was working." Stevens voted against the bill, which failed 43-55. When the bill came up again the next year, "we were contacted by a lot of lobbyists from API and Exxon-Mobil," says Mark Helmke, the climate aide to GOP Sen. Richard Lugar. "They'd bring up how the science wasn't certain, how there were a lot of skeptics out there." It went down to defeat again.
Killing bills in Congress was only one prong of the denial machine's campaign. It also had to keep public opinion from demanding action on greenhouse emissions, and that meant careful management of what federal scientists and officials wrote and said. "If they presented the science honestly, it would have brought public pressure for action," says Rick Piltz, who joined the federal Climate Science Program in 1995. By appointing former coal and oil lobbyists to key jobs overseeing climate policy, he found, the administration made sure that didn't happen. Following the playbook laid out at the 1998 meeting at the American Petroleum Institute, officials made sure that every report and speech cast climate science as dodgy, uncertain, controversialand therefore no basis for making policy. Ex-oil lobbyist Philip Cooney, working for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, edited a 2002 report on climate science by sprinkling it with phrases such as "lack of understanding" and "considerable uncertainty." A short section on climate in another report was cut entirely. The White House "directed us to remove all mentions of it," says Piltz, who resigned in protest. An oil lobbyist faxed Cooney, "You are doing a great job."
The response to the international climate panel's latest report, in February, showed that greenhouse doubters have a lot of fight left in them. In addition to offering $10,000 to scientists willing to attack the report, which so angered Boxer, they are emphasizing a new theme. Even if the world is warming now, and even if that warming is due in part to the greenhouse gases emitted by burning fossil fuels, there's nothing to worry about. As Lindzen wrote in a guest editorial in NEWSWEEK International in April, "There is no compelling evidence that the warming trend we've seen will amount to anything close to catastrophe."
To some extent, greenhouse denial is now running on automatic pilot. "Some members of Congress have completely internalized this," says Pew's
Still, like a great beast that has been wounded, the denial machine is not what it once was. In the NEWSWEEK Poll, 38 percent of those surveyed identified climate change as the nation's gravest environmental threat, three times the number in 2000. After ExxonMobil was chastised by senators for giving $19 million over the years to the Competitive Enterprise Institute and others who are "producing very questionable data" on climate change, as Sen. Jay Rockefeller said, the company has cut back its support for such groups. In June, a spokesman said ExxonMobil did not doubt the risks posed by climate change, telling reporters, "We're very much not a denier." In yet another shock, Bush announced at the weekend that he would convene a global-warming summit next month, with a 2008 goal of cutting greenhouse emissions. That astonished the remaining naysayers. "I just can't imagine the administration would look to mandatory [emissions caps] after what we had with
With its change of heart, ExxonMobil is more likely to win a place at the negotiating table as Congress debates climate legislation. That will be crucially important to industry especially in 2009, when naysayers may no longer be able to count on a friend in the White House nixing man-datory greenhouse curbs. All the Democratic presidential contenders have called global warming a real threat, and promise to push for cuts similar to those being passed by
Look for the next round of debate to center on what Americans are willing to pay and do to stave off the worst of global warming. So far the answer seems to be, not much. The NEWSWEEK Poll finds less than half in favor of requiring high-mileage cars or energy-efficient appliances and buildings. No amount of white papers, reports and studies is likely to change that. If anything can, it will be the climate itself. This summer,
With Eve Conant, Sam Stein and Eleanor Clift in
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