Breaking: Global warming not actually a hoax

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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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  1. Patrick - August 15, 2007

    Although the Newsweek article rehashes old topics for some of us, it was definitely a success in terms of media exposure. I have not read a single mainstream article (read: not from environmental groups) that directly addressed the denial machine itself and unequivocally stated that global warming is no longer subject to debate. The response from the denial machine itself serves as a good indicator of how threatening the article was to them. Two days after the article first appeared online, I tried to Google “Newsweek global warming” and could not find the article in the first five pages of results because of the coordinated, cross-linked response from naysayers. It was eerie to see how quickly they had jumped on it, and it seemed to be a very deliberate attempt to bury the article in disinformation (most blogs would link to the original article, but not a single one of theirs did.) A search on sourcewatch.org revealed almost every author to be affiliated either wi!
    th global warming denial organizations (like CEI) or the senators that supported them.

    It’s important that an article like this finally reached the mainstream press, because it lends credibility to what environmentalists have said for a very long time. By having an impartial third-party news source validate our stance, opponents can no longer claim that it’s purely our bias talking. We can only hope that folks out there read this and began to start questioning the sources and sponsors of all the disinformation.

  2. Adam Stein - August 15, 2007

    Patrick — I agree with everything you’re saying. I am definitely not the target market for articles like this one, and it’s good the message is finally getting out. Would still like to read a piece on the culture war issue, though.

  3. Patrick - August 15, 2007

    Unfortunately, I think the “ideological” conflict with global warming may be more of a symptom of human nature than anything else. We as a species tend to resist change because the upheaval and uncertainty gives us no guarantees that our skills and abilities will serve us as well in our new environment. This makes change especially threatening to those who have been very successful in their current environment. People may interpret and express the personal threat of global warming in different ways (interfering with the economy, pushing socialism, government control, etc.), but I think it still is a justification not to change. I’m not sure that it’s an all-out “culture war”, except in the sense that environmental responsibility doesn’t click with the wasteful and self-centered lifestyles and inefficient national infrastructure that we have gotten used to.

  4. Adam Stein - August 15, 2007

    But you haven’t seen some of the nasty mail we get :)
    There’s definitely something deeper going on than just a fear of change, and it seems to be a peculiarly American phenomenon. There are some strange threads running through it, including a mistrust/hatred of expertise (particularly scientific expertise) and an extreme politicization of seemingly empirical questions. The obvious parallel would be to the evolution “debate” in the U.S.

  5. Jan - August 15, 2007

    I agree that the Newsweek article serves a useful mainstream purpose and was glad to see it. My problem has been how to respond when someone says something like (as someone did recently), “As soon as you can explain the ice age I’ll believe in global warming”. Explain the ice age??? Yikes, that’s a task! Although the reality of global warming is very obvious to me, I find it difficult to respond persuasively and succinctly to someone who is remarkably and perhaps willfully ignorant. Perhaps this article will help with these types of situations.

  6. Anonymous - August 15, 2007

    Nice segway into a possible cause of denial…religion. The theologic U.S. politicians can write off environmental concerns because lo & behold *we will all be saved!* on judgement day. Why worry?

  7. Ed Mangold - August 15, 2007

    I think that Patrick makes a good point in noting yhat the 11 page Newsweek article does not investigate and report on the denial phenominun in as much detail as some of us would like to see.

    But the significance of the article is that a large, national circulation magazine has rejected the position of the denial croud.

    So have several other prominant magazines during the last year. Sooner or later the country, and the entire world, must face up to the large scope and required changes in practices that global warming will require. At least we are starting to remove the obsticals in the way.

  8. Adam Stein - August 15, 2007

    Jan — yikes, indeed.
    You could try pointing out that it’s precisely because of things like the ice ages that we’ve come to understand how the climate system works. Climate scientists have models that peer into the future and also models that go back millenia, and it by tuning these models on data sets that include the ice ages that they are able to study the interactions of various factors.
    You could also point out that it was the existence of the ice ages that first got Victorian scientists so interested in the weather. The greenhouse effect was discovered over a hundred years ago. Svante Arrhenius, who won a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1905, did some of the earliest calculations of the effect of carbon dioxide on the earth’s temperature and predicted that industrialization would have a warming effect.
    But, sadly, this might be a lost cause.

  9. Monty - August 17, 2007

    For Newsweek to write this story is a bit like preeching to the choir, though. Given the circulation of Newsweek, and their left-leaning readership, I felt they should have peeled back the onion more on this story, as well.

  10. Meagan - August 20, 2007

    I don’t think it takes a psychologist to figure this out. I think it just means spending more time in small towns. I spent my past week on vacation biking and camping around rural Ohio. It was an attempt at a low-carbon vacation, but it also offered insight into why many rural US citizens think climate change does not involve them.

    1) They’re not farmers any more. Although country music and county fairs glorify the agricultural life, most rural folks are not actually farming. If they are, it’s day labor in the fields and they aren’t privy to the bigger picture of how climate change and environmental damage effects farming decisions. The small farmers who do manage to provide for their families do so with pesticides and herbicides. Yield matters now.

    2) At the demolition derby, vendors sell the US flag and the confederate flag side-by-side. I can better sum this up with a bumper sticker: “I love my country. I hate my government.” Patriotism (aka willingness to die to protect my lifestyle) is mingled with a deep distrust in the government-for the same reason. Because everyone should leave us alone, whether Al-Qaida or Al Gore. Rural Ohio is actually full of Liberatarians, but they vote Republican. Regulation of carbon emissions is just another way the government is trying to mess with their lives.

    3) Only in Ashtabula County…the rails-to-trails path has been highly controversial because now four-wheelers can’t just ride the old railroad tracks. They can’t ride the asphalt, but you can see their tracks along the side of the path. It’s the only county I saw where snowmobiles were allowed on the trail, and despite plenty of signs prohibiting using metal studs, the trail is ripped up from them. Four-wheelers (and pick-up trucks) are cool because they’re powerful. Bikes and hybrids are for pansy “citified” people. These are not trendy people, which is why they’re proud to be conservative. Tradition matters, strength matters.

    This is “small town America,” these are the Ohio voters that put Bush in office, and these are the people environmentalists need to start engaging. Talk to Future Farmers of America, 4H clubs, and small town pastors. Back in the 1800s, it was Ashtabula County that was heavily involved in the Underground Railroad-because of a rural willingness to ignore the stupid government. Can you see why energy independence is popular with this crowd, but emissions regulation is not? Denialism here is economic, aesthetic, political, and cultural. But it’s not because rural denialists are stupid or immoral. This is still a trend pushed by Manhattan-looking celebs and left-wing politicians. Just look at the discussion surrounding the Evangelical Climate Initiative: it’s not an impossible group to engage. But it does take an entirely different attitude than marketing hybrids.

  11. Adam Stein - August 20, 2007

    Meagan –
    I agree with much of what you say (although I also think there’s a lot more to this picture), but I do want to point out that there is much more room for rapprochement on this issue than some realize. The “hooks and bullets” crowd (fishers and hunters) is a very large and mobilized group in America — and they are also very well aware of climate change, because they see its effects in their local ecosystems.
    You are right that different approaches are needed to engage different communities, but there is still this underlying paradox. Climate change could at least theoretically be a unifying issue — we are all affected — but instead it’s insanely divisive.

  12. Anonymous - August 20, 2007

    Global warming is simply another method for liberals to steal from those in this country who actually have a job. It is the perfect weapon to use against corporate America and it reduces the power of our nation on a global perspective. It forces the geopolitical state of America more toward that of Europe which is what this lie is all about. Al Gore has made over 100 million flying around the world in his private jet telling you to turn off your bedroom light! If this was a real issue could he fly coach and save some of his “footprint.” There is no scientific data to support this lie. All of the data is “projected” or consensus based. No real data exists to prove anthropological climate change exists. The earth has cooled and warmed in natural cycles. Do you think that “big oil” brought an end to the ice age? Did the wooly mammoth inhale its last breath of life due to the carbon laced atmosphere created by combustion engines? Remember, the world is flat and earth is the center of the universe. Stop trying to take my freedom. Google “gaiaism” and find out the truth.
    [Ed. -- we usually delete this sort of stupidity, but it's actually a nice demonstration of the phenomenon I was discussing in the blog post. Here is a person who proudly flaunts his ignorance, which is fueled by some sort of weird resentment he feels towards "liberals" and others trying to "take his freedom." What motivates this stuff?]

  13. Aaron A. - August 21, 2007

    Anonymous said:
    Global warming is simply another method for liberals to steal from those in this country who actually have a job.
    Wait, I thought liberals were supposed to be the wealthy elite, kicking back in their lofts with their Brie and Chardonnay. How’s that work if they don’t have jobs?
    – A.
    Maybe you should get to know people
    rather than stereotyping them.

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