The real climate hoax: denying reality and demonising scientists


ENVIRONMENT: The Inquisition of Climate Science, By James Lawrence Powell, Columbia University Press, 240pp, £19.50

THE RECENT removal of some of Australia’s leading climate scientists to safer accommodation, to protect them against death threats, was a shocking illustration of the virulent campaign now being waged by climate change deniers — often the same people who want the biblical story of creation taught in schools as a counterpoint to evolution.

After all, hadn’t that scary right-wing US media star Rush Limbaugh called for all those promoting the “global warming hoax” to be “named and fired, drawn and quartered” while Britain’s Lord Monckton branded them as “evil pseudo-scientists [who] should stand trial alongside Radovan Karadzic” because they were equally “guilty of genocide”?

This demonisation of climate scientists, as James Lawrence Powell writes, is not dissimilar to what Galileo faced when he endorsed the “heretical” thesis that the Earth moves around the sun. It is a “modern inquisition conducted . . . on the front pages of newspapers, on right-wing radio and television, on the blogosphere and on denier websites”.

Galileo, who is widely regarded as the father of modern science, was absolutely right, of course — just as Copernicus had been before him — even though it took the Catholic Church more than 350 years to recant. So it is apt that Cristiano Banti’s 1857 painting Galileo Facing the Roman Inquisitionfeatures on the front cover of Powell’s book.

And he is no “green fascist”, as the deniers would claim. He was twice appointed to the US National Science Board — first by Ronald Reagan and then by George Bush senior. What he has written is the most comprehensive, illuminating and searing account yet of the murky world of climate change denial and the charlatans who populate it.

Powell is very clear about the difference between scepticism and denial.

“When evidence becomes strong enough, an honest sceptic is honour bound to accept it,” he writes. But global warming deniers don’t merely question the evidence, they “denounce climate science and those who practise it, ridiculing them and questioning their ethics . . .

“Having no labs to go to, deniers conduct a public relations stunt by issuing a ‘declaration’, a cleverly worded statement that dresses up their denial in fancy duds. To paraphrase Kris Krishtalka, a denier declaration is nothing more than anti-science in a cheap tuxedo”. And so, the author dissects the denial campaign and its dubious ideology.

It is largely run by Washington-based libertarian “think-tanks” such as the Heartland Foundation, the Marshall Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and supported financially by ExxonMobil — “the most profitable company in the history of the world” — and others with vested interests in the status quo.

“Just as Big Tobacco spent millions trying to convince the public that smoking was not harmful to health, even though it knew the opposite to be true, so the companies supporting the Global Climate Coalition continued to pour millions into convincing the public that global warming was not dangerous, even though their own scientists were telling them it was”.

The Global Climate Coalition started to fall apart in 1997 when Amoco, BP, DuPont, Ford and Shell pulled out because they could no longer lend their support to its denial campaign. In 2008, ExxonMobil said it would “discontinue contributions to several public policy research groups” because of their stance, but Powell maintains it still funds some.

In 2006, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists even gave its journalism award to best-selling science fiction writer Michael Crichton for his preposterous “eco-terrorism” novel State of Fearbecause “it has the absolute ring of truth”. Crichton was also given an hour-long audience in the Oval Office by president George W Bush.

Powell is scathing about the media’s role in seeking “balance” in their reporting of climate change.

“Right-wing media like the Wall Street Journaland Fox News are guilty, but so are the Washington Postand the New York Times. The two decades long success of the industry of denial could not have happened without the complicity of the media.”

Even as the actual evidence of a steadily warming world grows stronger, the overall effect of their coverage has promoted uncertainty and misled readers about the most important environmental issue of our era. “American media have decided — and it must have been an actual decision, not an accident — to ‘teach the controversy’, not the science.” Powell points out that “no national science academy or international organisation of scientists denies the truth of global warming”. Sure, some individual scientists do, but he asks why we should place our faith in these contrarians rather than accept the overwhelming evidence assembled by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“For global warming to be a hoax, climate scientists, research laboratories, university administrators, funding agencies, scientific journals, the United Nations, government science agencies, ministers and diplomats would all have to be part of a vast international conspiracy unprecedented in human history.” Hardly likely, is it? Powell deals effectively with “Climategate” — the controversy that ensued when unknown persons “hacked” into the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit computer system — and notes that six independent inquiries had found “not a single faked data point, not a single deleted e-mail, not a single article prevented from publication”.

However, his understanding of the Kyoto Protocol is disappointingly weak.

He appears to confuse it with the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, saying the 1997 protocol required “no nation to do anything” and that developed countries “failed to meet their voluntary targets” under Kyoto. In fact, they are mandatory and will largely be met.

Apart from that, this is a highly authoritative and accessible book that should be read by everyone who has any doubts about the reality of climate change.

Frank McDonald is Environment Editor of The Irish Times