The Heat Is Online

CEI Does A U-Turn On Climate Science

Sceptics forced to contain hot air on gases

Mounting evidence of global warming is leaving climate-change deniers in the cold



The New Republic, Bradford Plumer, April 5, 2007


Fred Smith isn't exactly known for his timidity on the subject of climate change.

The president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank based in Washington, has derided concern over global warming and has gone on television to rail against Al Gore's "evil consumptive ways".

But in February, when Smith was called to testify before the Senate Committee on environment and public works, he sounded like a cornered man.

"I am aware," he began somewhat cautiously, "that CEI is regarded as a contrarian voice on the science of climate change."

Senate Republicans had invited him to comment on an emissions-reduction plan put forward by a group of green-minded companies, including General Electric and Duke Energy. But with the balance of power having shifted from the climate naysayers, Smith couldn't just launch into his usual tirade against global warming.

Like a boy forced to apologise for pulling his sister's hair, he ceded grudgingly: "I am happy, for the purposes of this discussion, to accept all the scientific arguments behind their proposals."

Hence, he sniffed, "attempts to allege climate denialism in response to my points are ad hominem attacks not worthy of consideration". It's getting hard out there for a global-warming sceptic.

Former US vice-president Al Gore has an Oscar. The latest assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has declared with 90 per cent certainty that greenhouse gases are largely responsible for heating the planet, a conclusion even the White House now accepts.

Capitol Hill -- where groups like CEI could once count on a friendly hearing from congressional Republicans, 84 per cent ofwhom are still unconvinced climate change is caused by humans -- is now controlled by the Democrats.

And ExxonMobil, which has donated more than $2million to CEI since 1998, recently announced it would no longer fund the organisation.

Mocked by enemies, abandoned by erstwhile friends, what's a global-warming sceptic to do?

It wasn't long ago that CEI was revelling in its role as the country's most notorious sceptic group.

In 1997, it helped to form the Cooler Heads Coalition to "dispel the myths of global warming" by, among other things, sending pseudo-experts to testify before the Congress and appear on TV.

The group's energy and global warming policy director, Myron Ebell, played a key role in convincing President George W.Bush to reverse his campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from the utilities industry. The Clean Air Trust named Ebell its "clean air villain of the month" in March 2001 for his lobbying.

In a bid to pre-empt the release of Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth, CEI aired two schmaltzy 60-second spots in 14 cities last year, singing the praises of carbon dioxide. Both ended with the tagline: "They call it pollution ... we call it life."

That sort of misinformation has long been the group's metier. CEI was following a strategy such as the one outlined in a memo from the American Petroleum Institute, which The New York Times obtained in 1998: "Victory will be achieved when ... recognition of uncertainty becomes part of the conventional wisdom."

So long as people were forced to spend their waking hours debating whether climate change was really happening, they wouldn't have time to discuss what to do about it.

Unfortunately for CEI, that debate is over. Now it finds itself beleaguered in Washington, not to mention vilified in the media.

Ellen Goodman of The Boston Globe wrote recently that climate-change doubters are "on a par with Holocaust deniers". At the end of an interview, CEI's in-house lawyer, Chris Horner, told me with a sigh: "Look, don't write the standard story here, making us out to be the bad guys."

So with their careers in peril, the CEI types are adapting. There are still plenty of global-warming deniers out there, but many sceptics now coalesce around a more moderate-sounding approach.

Ebell insists that neither he nor his colleagues dispute the fact of global warming as they once did.

"We try to react to the scientific research that comes out -- and we've adjusted our political rhetoric as well," he says.

The new line goes something like this: sure, we'll accept that global warming is occurring and humans bear some responsibility, but it's hard to predict exactly how bad a warmer world will be.

And the proposals for reducing emissions in the US are all costly and rife with problems. And even if they could work, we can't stop climate change because it's impossible to convince India and China to curb their rapidly growing emissions. And so on.

One tactic that lately seems to give deniers special pleasure is mounting their case against the global-warming consensus from the Left. So you get the odd spectacle of Smith going before the Senate to denounce cap-and-trade -- the widely endorsed idea that the Government should set a national ceiling on carbon emissions and then allow companies to buy and sell pollution credits -- on populist grounds.

"The corporations we see baying for a cap-and-trade program are out to enrich themselves without thought for the poor," he told Congress. He even pointed out that -- horror -- Enron had once supported the idea.

Or Paul Driessen, the author of Eco-Imperialism: Green Power, Black Death, saying things like: "It's incredibly patronising and colonialistic to tell Africa that you can't develop because we're concerned about global warming" -- while arguing that funding the fight against global warming "takes money away from spending on malaria".

However, even as they claim to be on board with the latest science, some deniers have continued peddling half-truths. This became clear during my conversation with Ebell.

"We've had a flat global mean temperature since 1998," he notes. "So what are we worried about?" Ebell is cherry-picking here -- 1998 was an exceptionally hot year, thanks to El Nino, but global average temperatures have risen steadily since 1900.

Meanwhile, many global-warming sceptics are suffering the indignity of having to deny they were ever deniers in the first place. Take Kenneth Green of the American Enterprise Institute.

In 2004, Green wrote a paper with notorious climate-change denier Timothy Ball arguing that the scientific models used to predict global warming were "of dubious merit".

Now he insists he accepts the IPCC's baseline conclusions and says of his relationship with Ball: "The fact we haven't worked together since then suggests we don't agree." Sounds like the heat is getting to him.

Bradford Plumer is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic