Breaking the Mainstreet Barrier: Popular Science Exposes the War on Climate Scientists
June 21, 2012
Deniers are royalty pissed about this. Popular Science gives the mainstream, barbershop-and-dentist-office-reading blessing to that there new-fangled global warming science.
Right in there with “The Food We’ll Eat on Mars”, and “How to Make your Own Home Drink Carbonation System”.
Scientists who speak up quickly become targets. Both Milloy and his counterpart Marc Morano, who runs the site ClimateDepot.com and once declared that climate scientists “deserve to be publicly flogged,” occasionally publish the e-mail addresses of climate researchers, a stunt that can result in scientists receiving a flood of vitriolic messages. A few weeks before our meeting, Milloy had offered a $500 bounty for a video of anyone who would heckle Mann with “an alarmism-debunking” question during the California leg of his book tour. The hecklers never materialized but, as with the white powder in Mann’s letter (which the FBI determined to be cornstarch), the threat made an impact.–“Multiple feet of sea level rising in the next few decades, that’s just fantasy,” says Myron Ebell, the director of energy and global-warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank. Ebell is in a taxi heading down K Street, Washington’s lobbyist row, talking to a reporter from the Naples Daily News in Florida. The journalist called to get his perspective on a new scientific study that warns of more frequent flooding along U.S. coastlines as higher temperatures accelerate rising sea levels. “The evidence is inconclusive,” Ebell says. “The [Antarctic] ice sheet is not shrinking but may in fact be expanding. The reality from the experts is . . . ”
Ebell does not claim to be a scientist. His background is in economics, and like Milloy, he was a member of the American Petroleum Institute task force in 1998. Yet his lack of scientific credentials has not deterred a stream of journalists from requesting his opinion of the newly released study. “Happens every time I get quoted in the New York Times,” he says. Ebell provides two things most scientists can’t: a skeptical view of climate science and clear, compelling sound bites ready for the evening news or the morning paper. For a deadline-pressured journalist covering “both sides” of a complex issue, Ebell might seem an ideal source. Yet by including unscientific opinions alongside scientific ones, that same journalist creates an illusion of equivalence that can tilt public opinion.
“It’s that false balance thing,” Mann says. “You’re a reporter and you understand there’s an overwhelming consensus that evidence supports a particular hypothesis—let’s say, the Earth is an oblate spheroid. But you’ve got to get a comment from a holdout at the Flat Earth Society. People see the story and think there’s a serious scientific debate about the shape of the Earth.”
On the taxi’s radio, a weatherman forecasts that tomorrow will be Washington’s hottest March 15 in recorded history. Ebell glances out the window at the cherry trees, in full bloom two weeks earlier than usual, as he thumbs down to his next call. “This one’s a producer at PBS NewsHour,” he says. “They’re interviewing one of those sea-level guys and they want to know how they should approach asking him a negative question.”
Ebell connects with the producer: “What they’re saying is, we’ve got to throw huge, scarce resources into what is essentially a nonproblem, that would be the point I’d make to him. The modelers will never admit that their models have no forecasting ability. They’re just saying that this could happen.” Then he winds up for his kicker. “Well, I’m sorry, a lot of things could happen. The Earth could be hit by an asteroid tomorrow.”
“There are powerful voices of unreason,” says Ben Santer, who led the 1995 IPCC team, “but every year, the science becomes stronger and the data are telling an ever more consistent story.” As with tobacco, the more consistent the scientific story, the more difficult it will become for skeptics to reject anthropogenic climate change. That point was driven home after the Charles Koch Foundation donated $150,000 toward a study by Richard Muller, a physicist at the University of California at Berkeley who was, at the time, a darling of the climate-skeptic community. Muller spent two years investigating claims by global-warming deniers that temperature rises verified by multiple studies were skewed because of flawed analysis, unreliable weather stations and the effect of urban heat islands. Muller and his research team (which included Saul Perlmutter, the joint winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics) compiled 1.6 billion readings at 39,000 sites and examined other historical data.
Muller’s conclusion was most likely not what the Koch brothers had in mind. Last October, his team announced that the global mean temperature on land had increased by 1.6 degrees since 1950, a result that matched the numbers accepted by the mainstream climate-science community. “The skeptics raised valid points, and everybody should have been a skeptic two years ago,” Muller told me. “Now we have confidence that the temperature rises previously reported had been done without bias. Global warming is real.”
Some conservative think tanks have since begun to soften their positions. Jeff Kueter, the current president of the George C. Marshall Institute, which has been advocating against mainstream climate science since the 1980s, told me in his office in Virginia last month that “climate change is not a hoax” and that “human activities undoubtedly have an impact on climate change.”
Those who fund the denial machine are likewise reconsidering their positions. Exxon has scaled back its annual anti-climate-science funding by 78 percent, or $2.7 million, since 2006. Other publicly traded oil companies have followed suit. In response to Heartland’s billboard campaign, some of its biggest donors, including State Farm Insurance, the beverage giant Diageo, and the insurance and financial-services company USAA, announced that they were pulling their funding. In a message on Heartland’s website, Bast wrote, “We do not apologize for running the ad, and we will continue to experiment with ways to communicate the ‘realist’ message on the climate.” The billboard, however, was gone a day after it was put up.
Public opinion in the U.S. about anthropogenic climate change is also changing. This spring, four major universities released polls showing that a clear majority of American citizens now say that the world is warming and that the country should take action. Jon Krosnick, a professor of communications at Stanford University, conducted one of the polls. He found that 83 percent of Americans say they believe that the Earth has been warming. One significant factor, he suggests, is that Americans can finally see and feel climate change happening.