I find that a bit of history can
clear up a lot of fog:
The notion of global warming goes back to 1896 when the Swedish scientist Svente
Arrhenius calculated that doubling the Earth’s concentration of carbon dioxide would raise average global
temperatures by 5-6 C. But I don’t think it became a political issue until 1988 when NASA climatologist James Hansen
told Congress he believed that a long-term warming trend had begun, probably caused by the “greenhouse effect”. At
this point, environmentalists began to call for reduced emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, and many vested
interests fought back.
In 1988, under the auspices of the United Nations, scientists and government
officials inaugurated the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a global scientific body that would
eventually pull together thousands of researchers to evaluate the issue of global warming. The IPCC was supposed to
establish the “gold standard” of climate science.
One year later, the petroleum and automotive industries and
the National Association of Manufacturers established their own “gold standard”: the Global Climate Coalition (GCC),
which sought to prove that global warming was a natural phenomenon, if not an outright hoax.
IPCC’s first assessment report, published in 1990, the science remained open to reasonable doubt. But the IPCC’s
second report, completed in 1995, concluded that amid purely natural factors shaping the climate, humankind’s
distinctive fingerprint was evident. And with the release of the IPCC’s third assessment in 2001, a strong consensus
had emerged: Notwithstanding some role for natural variability, human-created greenhouse gas emissions could, if
left unchecked, ramp up global average temperatures by as much as 5.8 degrees Celsius by the year 2100.
National Academy of Sciences endorsed the IPCC’s assessments and many old “skeptics” (most notably Shell, Texaco,
BP, Ford, GM, and Chrysler) pulled out of the GCC — which eventually went defunct in 2002.
At this point
ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute switched their focus from the scientific community to the business
community and began funding numerous think tanks and public policy groups (like the Cato Institute, the American
Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, the Advancement of Sound Science Center, and the Free Enterprise
Action Institute). These groups were able to target opinion leaders within the business community and reach a
broader audience through web sites such as JunkScience.com, CSRWatch.com and TechCentralStation.com. They were also
able to organize high profile public events with familiar names (such as Michael Crichton).
words industry lost the battle of science vs science (GCC vs IPCC) and has now switched to the PR front, where it
holds a decisive advantage.
A good example of how this works is the recent “controversy” surrounding the Arctic
Climate Impact Assessment, released on November of 2004.
The ACIA was and international study — commissioned
by he Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum that includes the United States — that combined the work of nearly
300 scientists. The study warned that the Arctic is warming “at almost twice the rate as that of the rest of the
world,” and that early impacts of climate change, such as melting sea ice and glaciers, are already apparent and
“will drastically shrink marine habitat for polar bears, ice-inhabiting seals, and some seabirds, pushing some
species toward extinction.”
Senator John McCain took the report seriously and called for a Senate
hearing on the issue.
FoxNews.com columnist Steven Milloy (an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute)
published an opinion piece entitled “Polar Bear Scare on Thin Ice”. (Citing a single graph from a 146-page overview
of a 1,200+ page, fully referenced report, Milloy claimed that the document “pretty much debunks itself” because
high Arctic temperatures “around 1940” suggest that the current temperature spike could be chalked up to natural
variability.) Two days later the Washington Times published the same column (without referencing Milloy’s ties to
the oil industry or the ACIA author’s rebuttal to his “critique”).
Shortly thereafter TechCentralStation.com
published a letter to Senator McCain from 11 “climate experts,” who asserted that recent Arctic warming was not at
all unusual in comparison to “natural variability in centuries past.” Meanwhile, the George C. Marshall Institute
($310,000 in Exxon-Mobil donations) issued a press release asserting that the Arctic report was based on
“unvalidated climate models and scenarios…that bear little resemblance to reality and how the future is likely to
The day of McCain’s hearing, the Competitive Enterprise Institute put out a press release, citing
the above critiques as if they should be considered on a par with the massive, exhaustively reviewed Arctic report:
“The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, despite its recent release, has already generated analysis pointing out
numerous flaws and distortions.” The Fraser Institute ($60,000 from ExxonMobil) also released a statement, calling
the Arctic warming report “an excellent example of the favored scare technique of the anti-energy activists: pumping
largely unjustifiable assumptions about the future into simplified computer models to conjure up a laundry list of
All this drama gives the impression of a scientific controversy when really there is
Naomi Oriskis, a science historian at the University of California at San Diego, reviewed nearly a
thousand peer-reviewed papers on global climate change published between 1993 and 2003, and was unable to find one
that explicitly disagreed with the consensus view that humans are contributing to the phenomenon. That doesn’t mean
no such studies exist. But given the size of her sample, it’s safe to assume that the number is “vanishingly
The real controversy is political. As of last February, 140 governments have signed on to the Kyoto
Protocols for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The US — which is by far the largest source of these emissions,
accounting for something like 25% of the total — has refused to take action.
Americans aren’t stupid.
Computer models may be incredibly complex and maybe you can’t get two scientists to agree on which variables should
be included. But the basic structure of the “greenhouse effect” can be demonstrated in a 6th grade science lab.
(Take 3 aquariums, 3 heat lamps, 3 thermometers, and three stopwatches. Add a bowl of backing soda and vinegar to
one aquarium, a bowl of soda lime to another, and plain old vinegar to the third. Turn on the heat lamps and measure
the rise in temperature over 30 second intervals.)
The only reason all this oil industry PR is taken seriously
is that it’s telling us something we want to hear.
The bottom line is that people don’t want to give up their
way of life (or their national supremacy) for no scientific theory.