Chris Williams, a contributor to the International Socialist Review on environmental issues, looks at the campaign to drown out science on the question of global warming.
February 18, 2010
AS A result of some bizarre political time warp, just when it seemed like the battle over climate-change-as-reality was over, we appear to have regressed back to the George W. Bush medieval era of non-science passing for science.
A few months ago, it seemed like the remaining few–though loud and remarkably well-funded–voices denying that man-made climate change was happening were increasingly marginalized. Science was back in the saddle in the White House, and the Obama administration was going to ride to the rescue in Copenhagen at the UN climate summit in December.
However, hard on the heels of the fiasco at the climate conference, a series of high-profile disclosures by and about climate scientists has fueled a rebirth of climate change denial arguments.
While none of the disclosures in any way discredit the central thesis that a broad group of climate scientists and scientific organizations agree on–that climate change is real, man-made and already being felt, with potentially catastrophic longer-term consequences–the climate change-denial industry and the media have ratcheted up the amplitude against all of the supporting evidence gathered over decades by the world’s leading climate scientists.
Their sources may be murky, their claims dubious and their arguments decidedly potty, but that hasn’t stopped them from drowning out the science. Due to skillful media manipulation, distortions of a few hacked e-mails of climate scientists, and a mistake in the predicted rate of the decrease of glaciers in the Himalayas in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, the climate deniers–courtesy of an ever-obliging press–have been having a field day.
In a 2002 memo, Frank Luntz, political consultant to the Republican Party, laid out the required strategy. In a section titled “Winning the Global Warming Debate,” Luntz argued:
The Scientific Debate Remains Open. Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate, and defer to scientists and other experts in the field.
Despite corporations throwing open the coffers, it’s been hard to find reputable scientists to go for this. There hasn’t been a peer-reviewed article denying the reality of climate change and its human origins in any scientific journal for 15 years.
That hasn’t stopped corporations and individuals with vested interests from putting forth arguments that are equivalent to disputing the theory of evolution or questioning gravity. Unlike scientists, they don’t need to prove anything. Using conjecture, high theater and rhetoric, all they need to do is cast doubt in the minds of the public so as to avoid them coming to unpalatable conclusions.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
THE DRAMATICS were on display in Washington, D.C. after the recent heavy snowstorms. Unbelievably, this was taken as proof positive that global warming isn’t happening.
Republican Sen. James Inhofe–who famously called global warming the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”–had an igloo built in front of Congress, which he invited Al Gore to live in to demonstrate the validity of his arguments. That well-known climate scientist Sarah Palin similarly called climate change a “hoax” and wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post in December calling for Obama to boycott Copenhagen.
Lord Monkton is a leading climate change denier in Britain. He has no scientific credentials, but nevertheless gets a broad hearing. This is despite making several deranged statements, such as comparing the Copenhagen conference to the Nuremburg Trials–complete with Nazi Youth demonstrating outside.
In a letter to John McCain during the 2008 presidential campaign, Monkton said he believed that Greenpeace has been taken over by communists, and Barack Obama would soon impose his autocratic vision on an unsuspecting American public:
So you see, Obama is in on it; after all, his Democratic Party believes in the tyrannical, anti-democratic system of command economy administration that we in Europe would call Communism, or Fascism, or International Socialism.
These ravings by non-scientists should be given the derision they deserve as examples of the Homer J. Simpson school of philosophy: “The problem with facts is that they can be used to prove anything.”
Yet instead of recognizing the cartoonish and unsubstantiated nature of climate change-denial arguments, the media report them in lurid detail in order to show “balance.” This is despite not feeling the need to provide “balance” when it comes to other areas where the public is divided–such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
THE MEDIA spotlight and the lack of attempt at explaining the science has sowed the seeds of doubt in the public mind, and created a situation where it is harder to win people to action over climate change.
The concerted attack has had the desired affect: Polls in the U.S. and UK show declining belief in the reality of climate change.
According to a recent poll by the Yale Project on Climate Change and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, less than 50 percent of adults in the U.S. found global warming “worrying” or “somewhat worrying,” a 13 percent decline from an October 2008 poll. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they believed global warming was happening, a decrease from 71 percent in 2008. Those who believed global warming was caused by human activity dropped from 57 percent to 47 percent.
In Britain, a November poll by the London Times found that only 41 percent of Britons believed climate change was an established fact. This forced climate scientist and author Fred Pearce and environmental campaigner George Monbiot, among others, to fight a prolonged rear-guard action, confronting the obfuscations and outright lies of a reinvigorated climate-change denial camp.
In other countries less subject to well-funded conservative political assaults, an opposite trend has emerged. A much larger global poll by the BBC released in December said concern about climate change has risen sharply across the world. Nearly two-thirds of the 24,071 people polled in 23 countries said climate change was a “very serious” problem–up from 44 percent in a GlobeScan poll in 1998. In Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica and the Philippines, more than 80 percent agreed global warming was “very serious.”
But in the U.S., with the lack of leadership from a White House that was elected in part on promises to focus on the issue of the environment, things are moving backwards.
Last week, the state legislature in Utah, by a vote of 56-17, passed a bill condemning “climate alarmists” that questions all of the climate science and calls carbon dioxide in the atmosphere “essentially harmless.” The law urges the EPA to order an immediate halt to its plans to regulate greenhouse gas emissions “until a full and independent investigation of climate data and global warming science can be substantiated.”
According to a report in the Salt Lake Tribune, during the bill’s hearings, the seemingly unhinged Republican state Rep. Mike Noel read from a book that described population-control measures such as abortion and forced sterilization and said the comparisons to global warming are clear. “Now, if you can’t see a connection to that, you’re absolutely blind to what is going on,” Noel said. “This is absolutely–in my mind, this is in fact a conspiracy to limit population, not only in this country but across the globe.”
Astoundingly, Republicans such as Noel are some of the people that Obama has vowed to “meet halfway” on energy policy. But we’ve seen what “meet halfway” actually translates to. In his State of the Union speech Obama, commenting on energy policy, said:
That means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development. It means continued investment in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies.
This statement represents complete capitulation to the corporations and anti-science, and is a devastating disappointment to all those who voted for Obama based on his presumed scientific sanity on environmental questions.
The words “safe,” “clean” and “nuclear” have no business being used next to each other in the same sentence. The same can be said for “clean coal,” which is a nonsensical phrase of Newspeak that George Orwell would have been proud to invent. Meanwhile, offshore oil and gas drilling was something Obama had previously campaigned against, and biofuels, however “advanced,” have been shown to have contributed significantly and directly to the food crisis of 2008, and ongoing deforestation and soil degradation.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
IT’S CLEAR that climate change-denialists are using the leaked e-mails and some scientific disputes on the details of the rate of climate change as an opportunity to trumpet the demise of climate change in its entirety. The fact that this flies in the face of the conclusions of the U.S. Academy of Sciences and every other reputable scientific organization around the world isn’t relevant because it’s part of a political project.
The real reason why these silly claims receive so much attention has nothing to do with the science, and hasn’t for some time. Rather, it’s because capitalism is going through an ideological crisis. That’s why trying to combat the arguments solely with science, as scientists are wont to do, will never silence the contrarians.
The global economic crisis cracked open the ruling consensus on neoliberalism’s supposed triumphs. Similarly, it opened up a space in millions of people’s minds to the idea that perhaps there was an alternative to unleashing free-market madness. This idea is being welded to an even more dangerous and subversive one–that there is a close connection between the ongoing economic crisis and the escalating climatic, environmental and food crises.
Many millions around the world, particularly in the Global South, but also students and workers in the developed world, are growing to hate the bankers for ripping us off, and the politicians for standing by while the corporations set fire to the planet. It is a short leap from there to begin to see the need to change the system itself–something that was beautifully expressed on banners at the Copenhagen summit: “System Change not Climate Change.”
This is a slogan for our era. It reveals, despite recent setbacks, the growing radicalization of the climate change movement, which is slowly changing its focus to class-based arguments for socio-ecological “climate justice,” under the impact of world events and the non-events of international climate conferences.
This political shift, rather than changes in science, explains the new spotlight on climate change denial. To actually address climate change goes to the heart of capitalism. While denialist arguments are having a short-term negative effect, there are longer-term changes going on in people’s consciousness as they reach radical anti-capitalist conclusions with regard to the environmental crisis.
The only way to effectively combat the lies is with a political offensive of our own, because climate denial is only one part of the attempt to retain the systemic status quo. Another is promotion of techno-fixes such as carbon capture and sequestration–or the Strangelovian and demented idea of seeding the oceans with iron filings to promote algal blooms to absorb excess CO2, not to mention the market wizardry in the form of cap-and-trade schemes.
This underscores the need to take independent, militant, grassroots action to build organizations against the policies of the Obama administration and the corporations that sponsor it.
The uneven but noticeable switch to more class-based demands based on solidarity and resistance to the system represents a huge step forward for an environmental movement that has for far too long been dominated by individualistic arguments around sacrifice, personal over-consumption and over-population.
Johann Hari, a columnist for the Independent and self-professed reformist, pointed out the way forward in an angry column after the debacle at Copenhagen:
At least we know now: scientific evidence and rationality are not going to be enough to persuade our leaders…Nobody is going to sort this out–unless we, the populations of the warming-gas countries, make them. Politicians respond to the pressure put on them, and every single politician at Copenhagen knew they would get more flak at home–from their corporate paymasters and their petrol-hungry populations–for signing a deal than for walking away.
There is only one way to change that dynamic: a mass movement of ordinary democratic citizens. They have made the impossible happen before. Our economies used to be built on slave labor, just as surely as they are built on fossil fuels today. It seemed permanent and unchangeable, and its critics were regarded as deranged–until ordinary citizens [and, crucially, the slaves themselves–CW] refused to tolerate it any more, and they organized to demand its abolition.
The time for changing your light bulbs and hoping for the best is over. It is time to take collective action…The cost of trashing the climate needs to be raised.
We should heed this call to action and set to work organizing a defense of the earth and its people–who, in contrast to the small minority at the top and their climate-change-denial attack-dogs, have everything to gain from overthrowing the system and nothing to lose. After all, slavery in the United States was only abolished through a revolution.