Monday :: Aug 13, 2007

Global Warming Naysayers


by Mary

Newsweek had a significant story about the Global Warming Deniers where they lay out the history of those who have actively tried to keep Americans confused about global warming and prevented any national action that might have addressed the problem. Starting before 1990, the naysayers backed by ExxonMobil and a number of other corporate interests have been sowing doubt on the science of global warming. They've had a huge influence on the American public's understanding of the issue and have put up barriers to every proposal that could have cut back our greenhouse gas emissions.

"As soon as the scientific community began to come together on the science of climate change, the pushback began," says historian Naomi Oreskes of the University of California, San Diego. Individual companies and industry associations—representing petroleum, steel, autos and utilities, for instance—formed lobbying groups with names like the Global Climate Coalition and the Information Council on the Environment. ICE's game plan called for enlisting greenhouse doubters to "reposition global warming as theory rather than fact," and to sow doubt about climate research just as cigarette makers had about smoking research. ICE ads asked, "If the earth is getting warmer, why is Minneapolis [or Kentucky, or some other site] getting colder?" This sounded what would become a recurring theme for naysayers: that global temperature data are flat-out wrong. For one thing, they argued, the data reflect urbanization (many temperature stations are in or near cities), not true global warming.

Throughout the 1990s and most of this decade, the result has been little to no action as the denial machine used their paid-for scientists and such experts as Rush Limbaugh, James Inhofe, and Frank Luntz to set the arguments. And all the while the situation has gotten worse: more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and in our oceans, more extreme weather throughout the world, and significant melting of the Arctic and Greenland icecaps and glaciers on all continents. Despite all the evidence, the naysayers continue to throw sand in the eyes of Americans and resist any actions that would affect their profits.

Still a growing number of Americans are beginning to wake to the problem and now 38% say that it is the most important environmental issue in the world. (Some of us believe it is the existential problem for human beings, and so outranks even those scary terrorists.) And now even Frank Luntz is convinced global warming is real.

So why aren't more people doing anything to pressure the Congress to do something? Well, leave it up to Newsweek's own dismal columnist, Robert Samuelson, to express today's conventional wisdom. First of all, he accuses the reporters of the denier story of misleading the public about the problem.

If you missed NEWSWEEK's story, here's the gist. A "well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks and industry has created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change." This "denial machine" has obstructed action against global warming and is still "running at full throttle." The story's thrust: discredit the "denial machine," and the country can start the serious business of fighting global warming. The story was a wonderful read, marred only by its being fundamentally misleading.

The global-warming debate's great un-mentionable is this: we lack the technology to get from here to there. Just because Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to cut emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 doesn't mean it can happen. At best, we might curb emissions growth.

Of course, he's wrong about this fact. We do have the technology, just not the political will cut emissions.

Then he says that Americans just don't have what it takes to sacrifice when warned about future problems.

In the United States, it would take massive regulations, higher energy taxes or both. Democracies don't easily adopt painful measures in the present to avert possible future problems. Examples abound. Since the 1973 Arab oil embargo, we've been on notice to limit dependence on insecure foreign oil. We've done little. In 1973, imports were 35 percent of U.S. oil use; in 2006, they were 60 percent. For decades we've known of the huge retirement costs of baby boomers. Little has been done.

And of course, even if we Americans did sacrifice, the situation is hopeless because the developing world will swamp all of our savings.

One way or another, our assaults against global warming are likely to be symbolic, ineffective or both. But if we succeed in cutting emissions substantially, savings would probably be offset by gains in China and elsewhere. The McKinsey Global Institute projects that from 2003 to 2020, the number of China's vehicles will rise from 26 million to 120 million, average residential floor space will increase 50 percent and energy demand will grow 4.4 percent annually. Even with "best practices" energy efficiency, demand would still grow 2.8 percent a year, McKinsey estimates.

And besides, he notes, the article was mean to ExxonMobil.

Against these real-world pressures, NEWSWEEK's "denial machine" is a peripheral and highly contrived story. NEWSWEEK implied, for example, that ExxonMobil used a think tank to pay academics to criticize global-warming science. Actually, this accusation was long ago discredited, and NEWSWEEK shouldn't have lent it respectability. (The company says it knew nothing of the global-warming grant, which involved issues of climate modeling. And its 2006 contribution to the think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, was small: $240,000 out of a $28 million budget.)

So who discredited the accusation? He doesn't say. Nevertheless, the Union of Concerned Scientists have documented proof that ExxonMobile gave more than $16 million between 1998 and 2005 to a number of different organizations backing global warming skeptics. Mr. Samuelson is being just a bit disingenuous himself referring to the grant to AEI.

Mr. Samuelson proposes a tax on gasoline to cut imported oil -- perhaps indicating that he too thinks there might be a problem? -- but then claims it is more important that this subject is not discussed as a "morality tale" and to protect the right of the global skeptics to express dissent. After all, if we just fret and complain that there aren't any solutions, then no one has to do anything because its just too hard of a problem to solve. I'm sure his children and grandchildren will respect his priorities.

Meanwhile, don't let his pessimism affect your demanding that our politicians take action now, because it really is our world that is at stake. How does one live with oneself if you don't at least try?

Track the arguments in this interactive timeline.

Mary :: 5:00 AM :: Comments (19) :: Digg It!