Dissecting the sceptics (1)

As global warming science has strengthened, so too has the powerful – and often vicious – lobby of deniers. Bill McKibben analyses the phenomenon.

Twenty-one years ago, in 1989, I wrote what many have called the first book for a general audience on global warming. One of the more interesting reviews came from the Wall Street Journal. It was a mixed and judicious appraisal. “The subject is important, the notion is arresting, and Mr McKibben argues convincingly,” the reviewer said. Around the same time, the first president George Bush announced that he planned to “fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect”.

I doubt that’s what the Wall Street Journal will say about my next book when it comes out in a few weeks and I know that no US Republican party presidential contender would now dream of acknowledging that human beings are warming the planet. Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska who is expected by many to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, is currently calling climate science “snake oil”.

And here’s what’s odd. In 1989, I could fit just about every scientific study on climate change on top of my desk. The science was still thin. If my reporting made me think it was nonetheless convincing, many scientists were not yet prepared to agree.

Now, you could fill the New Orleans Superdome with climate-change research data. (You might not want to, though, since Hurricane Katrina demonstrated just how easy it was to rip holes in its roof.) Every major scientific body in the world has produced reports confirming the peril. All 15 of the warmest years on record have come in the two decades that have passed since 1989. In the meantime, the earth’s major natural systems have all shown undeniable signs of rapid flux: melting Arctic and glacial ice, rapidly acidifying seawater and so on.

Somehow, though, the onslaught against the science of climate change has never been stronger and its effects, at least in the United States, never more obvious: fewer Americans believe humans are warming the planet. At least partly as a result, the US Congress feels little need to consider global-warming legislation, no less pass it; and as a result of that failure, progress towards any kind of international agreement on climate change has essentially ground to a halt.

The campaign against climate science has been enormously clever and enormously effective. It’s worth trying to understand how they’ve done it. The best analogy, I think, is the trial of OJ Simpson, the American football player acquitted in 1995 of the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, in one of the most highly publicised criminal trials in US history.

The “dream team” of lawyers assembled for Simpson’s defence had a problem: it was pretty clear their guy was guilty. Nicole Brown’s blood was all over his socks, and that was just the beginning. So they decided to attack the police process, arguing that it put Simpson’s guilt in doubt. And doubt, of course, was all they needed. This resulted in days of cross-examination about exactly how police criminologist Dennis Fung had transported blood samples from the crime scene or the fact that Los Angeles detective Mark Fuhrman had used racial slurs in a conversation in 1986.

If anything, they were actually helped by the mountain of evidence. If a haystack gets big enough, the odds only increase that there will be a few needles hidden inside. Whatever they managed to find, they made the most of: in closing arguments, one of Simpson’s lawyers, Johnnie Cochran, compared Fuhrman to Adolf Hitler and called him “a genocidal racist, a perjurer, America’s worst nightmare, and the personification of evil.” The team managed to instil considerable doubt not only in the jury but in lots of Americans tuning in on the television as well. That’s what happens when you spend week after week dwelling on the cracks in a case, no matter how small they may be.

Similarly, the immense pile of evidence now proving the science of global warming beyond any reasonable doubt is in some ways a great boon for those who would like, for a variety of reasons, to deny that the biggest problem we’ve ever faced is actually a problem at all. If you have a three-page report, it won’t be overwhelming and it’s unlikely to have many mistakes. But if you have 3,000 pages – the length of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – it pretty much guarantees you’ll get something wrong.

Indeed, the IPCC managed to include, among other glitches, a spurious date for the day when Himalayan glaciers would disappear. It won’t happen by 2035, as the report indicated – a fact that has now been spread so widely across the internet that it has more or less obliterated another, undeniable piece of evidence: virtually every glacier on the planet is, in fact, busily melting

Similarly, if you managed to hack 3,000 emails from some scientist’s account, you might well find a few that showed him behaving badly, or at least talking about doing so. This is the so-called “Climategate” scandal from an English research centre last autumn. The English scientist in question, Phil Jones, has been placed on leave while his university decides if he should be punished. Call him the Mark Fuhrman of climate science; attack him often enough and maybe people will ignore the inconvenient mountain of evidence about climate change that the world’s scientific researchers have, in fact, compiled.

If you’re smart, you can also take advantage of lucky breaks that cross your path – a record set of snowstorms hitting Washington DC, say. It won’t even matter that such a record is just the kind of thing scientists have been predicting, given the extra water vapour global warming is adding to the atmosphere. It’s enough that it’s super-snowy in what everyone swore was a warming world. 

For a gifted political operative like, say, Marc Morano, who runs the Climate Depot website, the massive snowfalls this winter became the grist for a hundred posts poking fun at the very idea that anyone could still possibly believe in, you know, physics. Morano, posted a link to a live webcam so readers could watch snow coming down. These are the things that stick in people’s heads. If the winter glove won’t fit, you must acquit.

Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, including the forthcoming Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. He is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont. 

An earlier version of this article was published by It is used here with permission

NEXT: Understanding denial 

Homepage image by auburnxc