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How the Global Warming Story Changed—Disastrously

global_temperature_anomalyBy Chris Mooney

Back in 2006, the year of the release of An Inconvenient Truth, it felt as though serious and irreversible progress had finally been made on the climate issue. The feeling continued in 2007, when Al Gore won the Nobel and the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced that global warming was “unequivocal” and “very likely” human caused. Mega-companies like General Electric were burnishing new green identities, and the Prius was an icon. The Bush administration was widely suspected of having deceived the public about the urgency of the climate issue, and journalists were backing away from their previous penchant for writing “on the one hand, on the other hand” stories about the increasingly indisputable science.

Then came the election of Barack Obama, boasting a forward-looking policy agenda to address global warming and a stellar team of scientists and environmentalists in his cabinet and circle of advisers, including climate and energy expert John Holdren and Nobel Laureate Steven Chu. The United States, it seemed, would finally deal with global warming—and just in the nick of time.

Who could have known, at the time, that the climate deniers and contrarians had not yet launched their greatest and most devastating attack? Certainly, it was hard to imagine how they might pull off such a strike: They had virtually nothing going for them, no raw scientific materials to work with. All the science pointed to a greater-than-ever urgency of addressing the climate issue and a quickly closing window of opportunity for action. Within scientific circles, it was even becoming commonplace to discuss planetary modification, or geoengineering, as an alternative last ditch solution if we couldn’t stop runaway greenhouse warming in time.

But the skeptics were lying in wait. They didn’t need good science to make another sally: Their strength has always been in communication tactics anyway, and not scientific exactitude or rigor. And the U.S. public, never overwhelmingly sure about climate change, has long been susceptible to their smokescreens and misinformation campaigns.

The new skeptic strategy began with a ploy that initially seemed so foolish, so petty, that it was unworthy of dignifying with a response. The contrarians seized upon the hottest year in some temperature records, 1998—which happens to have been an El Nino year, hence its striking warmth—and began to hammer the message that there had been “no warming in a decade” since then.

It was, in truth, little more than a damn lie with statistics. Those in the science community eventually pointed out that global warming doesn’t mean every successive year will be hotter than the last one—global temperatures be on the rise without a new record being set every year. All climate theory predicts is that we will see a warming trend, and we certainly have. Or as the U.S. EPA recently put it, “Eight of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001.” But none of them beat 1998; and so the statistical liars, like George Will of the Washington Post, continued their charade.

The public was quite vulnerable to such messages: Americans don’t know climate science very well, and the notion that temperatures aren’t actually “rising” after all must have spurred many doubts. Indeed, I suspect the “no warming since 1998” line of attack helped contribute to an alarming finding released in October by the Pew Research Center: the proportion of Americans agreeing there is “solid evidence the earth is warming” had declined to 57 percent, from 71 percent a year and a half earlier. And those attributing warming to human activities—the robust scientific consensus view—had dwindled from 47 percent to 36 percent over the same time period.

This blow, however, was nothing compared to the “ClimateGate” saga of November, in which a bevy of emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom were illegally obtained and exposed, thus generating a dramatic scandal over the climate scientists’ alleged attempts to silence skeptics and thwart freedom of information requests. The truth is that, analyzed in their proper context, there isn’t very much that’s damning about the emails (though some of the scientists may have some things to answer for). But even taken at their worst, the emails do not change one whit the urgency of addressing global warming.

Scientists have pointed this out repeatedly, but to no avail: “ClimateGate” generated a massive wave of media attention, blending together the skeptics’ longstanding focus on undercutting climate science with a new overwhelming message of scandal and wrongdoing on the part of the climate research establishment. This story was not going to go away, and even as scientists put out statements (most of them several days late) explaining that the science of climate remains unchanged and unaffected by whatever went on at East Anglia, the case for human-caused global warming was dealt a blow the likes of which we have perhaps never before seen.

Whether we will recover some necessary momentum in Copenhagen—a formal United Nations venue for deliberation where scientific expertise is respected, and where misinformation will likely have less power—is up in the air. Nevertheless, there’s an important lesson here, for the climate issue and beyond.

In our mass media age, on any politicized scientific topic, there is no reason to assume a correlation between increasing scientific certainty about a problem and increasing public awareness, acceptance, or willingness to take action to address that problem. If anything, the two might well become anti-correlated, as in the global warming case. And that is because—to speak in a language that scientists will certainly understand all too well—the state of the science is only one variable affecting public opinion. And in the global warming debate, there has been an utter failure to control for any of the others.

If scientists, their allies, and their supporters want to better ensure the translation of scientific knowledge into action than we’ve seen in the global warming case, there is simply no choice but to work much, much harder to influence public opinion, and anticipate and thwart the skeptics before they can bring about another “ClimateGate.”

[Clarification: This post originally indicated that climate contrarians seized upon 1998 as the "hottest year in the global temperature record"; it has been changed to indicate that this is the hottest year in some temperature records.]

Chris Mooney is the author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”


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