The Heat Is Online

Cadre of Skeptics Has Theory of Its Own

By Meredith Goad, Staff Writer

The Maine Telegram July 25 1999

At a meeting of global warming skeptics this spring, speakers played to the worst fears of their audience:

Global warming is just a smoke screen that hides a larger political agenda, according to Michael Coffman, a forester and environmental policy consultant. It's not about the environment, he charged, his voice rising like a preacher's -- "it's really about the redistribution of the world's wealth." "I know that sounds like some sort of conspiracy theory or something," he said.

Bonner Cohen, editor of a newsletter called EPA Watch, said folks who are concerned about global warming are "not like ordinary people." "These people are power hungry, elitist; they went to the country's best schools," he said with thinly veiled disgust.

Patrick Michaels, an outspoken skeptic who has drawn criticism for the financial support he receives from industry groups, also played to the demographics of the crowd, a group of 25 people made up of mostly middle-aged and older men. He told them he knows what it's like to get into a debate about global warming with "some kid in a Phish T-shirt and an earring."

Environmentalists, he said, are "just looking for an excuse to take the money that you earned and give it to somebody who didn't."

Over and over, the speakers warned that scientists who talk of global warming are just trying to scare people. Then the speakers did the same thing, scaring the listeners with frightening statistics that came straight from the oil industry.

Skeptics claim that addressing the problem of global warming would cost Maine 7,000 jobs, including 2,000 manufacturing jobs. Unemployment would rise to 6.4 percent. Environmentalists counter that the study used to arrive at those figures was not peer-reviewed and was funded by the American Petroleum Institute. It does not take into account advances in technology, the development of emissions trading programs, or the economic damage that would be caused by global warming.

Between speakers at the conference, there were Al Gore jokes aplenty. A table groaned with literature to be browsed, including books with titles like "Global Bondage: The UN Plan to Rule the World" and "Global Taxes for World Government."

According to skeptics' newsletters and brochures, "the more hydrocarbons we burn, the more our natural environment will prosper." DDT is harmless. Wetlands are "the greatest source of pollution there is." The creation of carbon dioxide, one of the major greenhouse gases, is "a wonderful and unexpected environmental gift from the human Industrial Revolution."

"They are really the modern version of those who continued to believe in a flat Earth long after Columbus and Magellan had proven otherwise," said George L. Jacobson Jr., director of the Quaternary Institute at the University of Maine.

Science is a process that often doesn't immediately give black-and-white answers to complicated questions. This is particularly true with global warming, as researchers continually try to improve and fine-tune the computer models they work with and strive to better understand the way the Earth's climate works.

Until a scientific consensus is reached, each incremental discovery may make it seem like the science is, as Cohen put it at the skeptics conference, "rapidly approaching the level of witchcraft."

Skeptics criticized global warming science and the very idea of scientific consensus at their conference. Yet they also distributed copies of a study that had been printed with the look of a peer-reviewed scientific journal -- though it actually had never been published anywhere. No one picking up the paper seemed to realize they'd been hoodwinked.

Indeed, no one asked a single critical question during the whole conference, even when the speakers clearly were not telling the whole story.

Although skeptics will have a lot to contribute to the global warming debate, especially as public policy options are debated, their cause isn't likely to be helped much by "X-Files"-style conspiracy theories and by holding onto the belief that everything industry says is the truth while everything mainstream scientists say is suspect.

In the end, the conference had the desired effect: The following week, at a global warming conference in Lewiston, a handful of people who had attended the skeptics’ conference showed up to protest. Their industry-backed teachers were nowhere in sight.

Copyright © 1999 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.