April 19, 2005

As the world burns.

In the latest issue of Mother Jones, Bill McKibben explains how environmentalists won an important victory at the 1991 Kyoto negotiations on global warming, but lost the war for public opinion to a clever, but crude, media campaign against taking action to respond to climate change:

At the very least, the "energy sector" needed to stall for time, so that its investments in oil fields and the like could keep on earning for their theoretical lifetimes. The strategy turned out to be simple: Cloud the issue as much as possible so that voters, already none too eager to embrace higher gas prices, would have no real reason to move climate change to the top of their agendas. I mean, if the scientists aren't absolutely certain, well, why not just wait until they get it sorted out?

The tactic worked brilliantly; throughout the 1990s, even as other nations took action, the fossil fuel industry's Global Climate Coalition managed to make American journalists treat the accelerating warming as a he-said-she-said story. True, a vast scientific consensus was forming that climate change threatens the earth more profoundly than anything since the dawn of civilization, but in an Associated Press dispatch the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change didn't look all that much more impressive than, say, Patrick Michaels of the Cato Institute or S. Fred Singer, former chief scientist at the U.S. Department of Transportation. Michaels and Singer weren't really doing new research, just tossing jabs at those who were, but that didn't matter. Their task was not to build a new climate model; it was to provide cover for politicians who were only too happy to duck the issue. Their task was to keep things under control.

It was all incredibly crude. But it was also incredibly effective. For now and for the foreseeable future, the climate skeptics have carried the day. They've understood the shape of American politics far better than environmentalists. They know that it doesn't matter how many scientists are arrayed against you as long as you can intimidate newspapers into giving you equal time. They understand, too, that playing defense is all they need to do: Given the inertia inherent in the economy, it's more than sufficient to simply instill doubt. [emphasis added]

In short, the deniers have done their job, and done it better than the environmen- talists have done theirs. They've delayed action for 15 years now, and their power seems to grow with each year. How, even as the science grew ever firmer and the evidence mounted ever higher, did the climate deniers manage to muddy the issue? It's one of the mightiest political feats of our time, accomplished by a small group of clever and committed people. It's worthwhile trying to understand how they work, not least because some of the same tactics are now being used in debates over other issues, like Social Security. And because the fight over global warming won't end here. Try as they might, even with all three branches of government under their control, conservative Republicans can't repeal the laws of chemistry and physics.

McKibben's piece is part of an MJ special project on global warming. You can read the three stories in the project here.

Posted by Magpie at April 19, 2005 10:58 AM | Environment | Technorati links |