"Reality must take precedence over public
relations, for nature cannot be fooled."
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:
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
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, EP)
Furthermore, according to a survey
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
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
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
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
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. (Science and Human Values, Harper and
Row, 1972, pp. 59-60).
Science, albeit imperfect, is the
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
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.
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
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 ,
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
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.
is common enemy of all mankind.
Copyright 2009, by Ernest Partridge