The Year of Thinking Dangerously About Climate Change
Whatever else happened politically in 2009--and a lot obviously happened--one development that couldn't quite have been anticipated was the erosion of public confidence in the case for doing something about global climate change.
Yes, recessions always diminish interest in environmental action, on the theory that it's something we can only "afford" in prosperous times. But that's not the half of it, as Chris Mooney explains at Science Progress:
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?
The "story" on this subject changed, says Mooney, thanks to two separate lines of argument from conservatives that exploited public doubts on climate science. The first was the hammer-headed approach of pointing to cold temperatures here or there as "proof" there was no global warming:
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 second prong of the backlash against a climate change consensus among Americans was all about the incident that delighted conservatives call "ClimateGate." If you've somehow missed it, emails hacked and linked from the bowels of a British climate change institute allegedly show coverups of inconvenient data and other unkosher practices. It's not clear why this is supposed to make us all assume that climate science is a vast cesspool of conspiracy, but that's how it has been used by climate change deniers, notes Mooney:
“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.
The timing of the ClimateGate furor, on the eve of international discussions on global climate change, isn't coincidental, and has obviously been as destructive as it was intended to be.
It may well be that increasing public doubts about climate change in this country are just rationalizations for the normal fear that saving the planet is in conflict with saving jobs, and is thus a challenge best consigned to manana.
But the aggressive campaign of denialists and skeptics, skillfully exploiting every bit of evidence and pseudo-evidence that the consensus on climate change is unravelling, is a factor too large to ignore.