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Breaking: Global warming not actually a hoax


Am I the only one who felt just a little underwhelmed by Newsweek’s big cover story on the global warming denial industry?

(Update: maybe I am.)

Not that the article was poorly done. On the contrary, Newsweek is an influential magazine aimed at a broad public, and their willingness to forcefully and unambiguously point out the methods and motives of the global warming denialists could have a real impact on the terms of the debate.

And surely my perspective is highly skewed by my professional background. The article, after all, isn’t so much an exposé as it is a synthesis of a lot of stuff that’s been known for a long time by people who were paying attention. If it didn’t offer a ton of surprises, that’s probably because I’m not easily surprised.

The problem, I think, is that this is really a book-length topic. I felt myself wanting the story to go both deeper and broader, devoting more time to some anecdotes (and less to others) while also drawing out the bigger themes with more care.

For example, the article twice mentions that a conservative think tank offered $10,000 to academics conducting research that would undercut the IPCC report on climate change. This isn’t a great anecdote on which to hang an argument about the perfidy of the denialism industry, because it turned out at the time to be a somewhat overblown controversy. It’s also a quintessential dog-bites-man story. You say a sleazy lobbying firm tried to spread some money around? Quelle surprise!

On the other hand, I could have used quite a bit more of this tidbit from the Bush I presidency:

Bush was torn. The head of his Environmental Protection Agency, William Reilly, supported binding cuts in greenhouse emissions. Political advisers insisted on nothing more than voluntary cuts. Bush’s chief of staff, John Sununu, had a Ph.D. in engineering from MIT and “knew computers,” recalls Reilly. Sununu frequently logged on to a computer model of climate, Reilly says, and “vigorously critiqued” its assumptions and projections.

Sununu’s side won.

Now, that’s interesting. The White House chief of staff used to personally monkey around with climate models in order to discredit them? And you say this guy had a degree in mechanical engineering, not climate science, but he “knew computers?” And then he went on to host CNN’s Crossfire for six years? Sununu seems to have been a one-man perfect storm of high-level policy access, arrogant subjugation of science to ideology, and vapid TV punditry. If you want to spin a morality tale about global warming denialism, there’s a guy worth following around.

Another thing I’d like to hear more about is the deeply reactionary strain in American politics that has turned climate change into an offshoot of the culture war. Oil companies have often been compared to tobacco companies, exaggerating scientific uncertainty to achieve certain favorable policy ends. But at least their motives are clear. What motivates the virulent response to this issue among so many average citizens? In an interesting Q&A with the article’s author, Sharon Begley, someone asks if the motives underlying denialism are purely economic. Begley responds:

A huge fount of opposition to the emerging science seems driven by ideology as much as, or more than, money…After the US won the cold war, environmentalism became the new communism. It would take a better psychologist, or sociologist, than I to explain why.

Begley’s a good reporter, and I’m sure she’s up to the task. It’s a story I’d like to read.

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