Skeptics cite 700 “scientists” who doubt global warming. Except few are climatologists. And Joseph Romm says they’re conducting the greatest disinformation campaign in history.
In February, after record snowstorms pummeled large swaths of the East Coast, including Washington, D.C., climate skeptics declared it proof that global warming didn’t exist, or at least, was over-hyped. Glenn Beck said the storms were God saying, “I got your global warming here, eh!” The cover of the Weekly Standard depicted a naked Al Gore quivering next to the headline: “Exposed!” Sean Hannity said the storms “contradict Al Gore’s hysterical global warming theories.” The family of Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), who has called global warming “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” built an igloo on the National Mall and dubbed it “Al Gore’s new home.”
But it wasn’t just the record snow that had emboldened skeptics. They had also gotten new energy from the discovery of errors in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 report, which concluded that global warming was real and largely man-made (the errors had no impact on the conclusion). Furthermore, in November, an apparent scandal erupted over the illegal hacking of more than a thousand emails from England’s Climate Research Unit. The emails, between prominent climatologists, appeared to throw some climate science into question, as terms like “trick” and “hide the decline” were held up as evidence that data on past warming was being suppressed (analyses of the emails, by the British Parliament and Penn State University, among others, determined this to be untrue). All of this has resulted in a vocal minority growing even louder, and the booming claims of dissent have had an effect on public opinion. A Gallup poll conducted last month found that almost half of Americans now believe the seriousness of global warming is exaggerated, and only 52 percent believe a scientific consensus exists. Is the doubt warranted?
A survey by the University of Illinois released last year discovered that 97 percent of climatologists believed that global warming was real and largely human induced. At least sixty major scientific organizations have concluded the same, with not a single reputable scientific body holding an opposing view (a few remain non-committal). While skeptics often cite a list of seven hundred dissenting scientists as proof against consensus, an analysis by the Center for Inquiry discovered that less than 10 percent of those on the list were climatologists, and only about 15 percent had been published in peer-reviewed literature on subjects related to climate change. So the numbers certainly indicate consensus. But that isn’t the same as public support or political will, and the longer a debate exists about whether a debate exists, the longer before meaningful action is taken to mitigate the risks. Some have detected striking similarities on this point with the artificially prolonged debates about the link between tobacco use and cancer. In that case, the tobacco industry’s strategy was famously summed up in a memo by an industry executive: “Doubt is our product.”
So is this what’s happening with climate change—a widespread doubt movement manufactured by interests whose bottom lines are at risk if America moves toward a clean-energy economy? Or is the dissent chiefly political? Or perhaps it’s simply misgivings about the competency of modern science?
Joseph Romm is a physicist, author, and founder of the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions. He keeps an influential blog—climateprogress.org—and last year Time Magazine named him one of its Heroes for the Environment for 2009. Romm is also a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, and he served as acting assistant secretary at the Department of Energy in the nineteen nineties. His latest book, Straight Up, will be released later this month. I spoke with Romm in the days immediately following passage of the healthcare bill, and the atmosphere was, perhaps appropriately, politically charged.
—Jake Whitney for Guernica
Guernica: What did the record snow this winter say about global warming?
Joseph Romm: No single weather event tells you much about the climate. So it is absurd to point to those storms as proof that global warming isn’t happening. But they were certainly used by people pushing disinformation to ridicule the reality of global warming. Not only do these storms not provide evidence against the theory of human-caused global warming, but in fact the scientific studies have predicted greater and more severe winter storms.
Guernica: You mention “people pushing disinformation.” One reason skeptics have been successful in creating the impression of scientific uncertainty is because there is such a mountain of data out there and scientific bodies do occasionally look at the same data and draw different conclusions.
Joseph Romm: There is no question that in a vast sea of literature, with hundreds of papers and thousands of scientists, that the anti-science crowd can always find something to glom onto, especially when they misrepresent the results or misquote the scientists, which are their favorite tactics. One can waste a lot of time trying to respond to every single thing that the disinformation campaign throws out. If you take the time to rebut it, then you’ve wasted your time. If you don’t, they say, “Hey, no one’s ever rebutted this.” It’s a great challenge because there is just too much disinformation to cover.
The right-wing has repeated over and over that the message has been oversold and exaggerated. That doesn’t have any basis in truth.
Guernica: Skeptics often use the term “alarmist.” Do you think there has been alarmism or exaggeration about the potential consequences on the part of James Hansen, Al Gore, or any other high-profile climate experts?
Joseph Romm: To ask if anyone out there has exaggerated is too open-ended a question. In the main, there is no question that the message that has been delivered by scientists and environmentalists to the public and the media has underestimated impacts. Scientists are a very conservative bunch. By and large, they will only say what they can prove in the scientific literature and which will stand up to the toughest scrutiny of their colleagues. But if you ask them what they believe based on their research, most of them will tell you that they are far more concerned that [the consequences] will be worse. There was a study done that surveyed the scientific literature since the 2007 IPCC report. It found that for every study that said impacts would be less than expected, there were ten that said impacts would be worse than expected. But it is certainly true that the right-wing has repeated over and over that the message has been oversold and exaggerated. That doesn’t have any basis in truth.
Guernica: I’d say it’s especially true of NASA’s James Hansen. The skeptics paint him as a kook.
Joseph Romm: Hansen has been more vindicated than virtually any scientist in this arena, and he has earned the right to make the arguments that he makes. One of the things that Hansen has done that is rare among scientists is that he’s educated himself about the energy system. So he has a great understanding about how difficult it will be to reduce emissions. Because of that Jim has an urgency that perhaps other scientists do not.
It’s the most successful disinformation campaign
in human history.
Guernica: Do you think climate scientists might benefit from taking a page from the Republican playbook of how to better convey their message? I watched a debate between you and Marc Morano, the Republican communications guy, and he was generally much more aggressive. He kept interrupting, probably tripled your word output, and kept repeating key phrases. These kinds of tactics seem to work on a public with a short attention span.
Joseph Romm: That technique is called the Gish Gallup. It was invented by a Creationist. You talk fast, interrupt and throw out a non-stop stream of one-line lies or half-truths. There’s not much one can do about that technique, because in a debate you can’t constantly say, “That’s false, that’s false, that’s false.” Every one of those sentences takes a paragraph to rebut. So again you’re left in this realm of what you don’t rebut goes unrebutted. When you do rebut you use up all of your time. So I don’t think there’s anything productive to be gained by those debates. Juan Cole [President of the Global Americana Institute] wrote a piece urging climate scientists not to debate because you’re automatically giving equal weight to disinformation.
Guernica: But you still need to effectively get your message across. The skeptics have been using the errors in the IPCC report and the perceived conflicts of interests by its chairman to erode that body’s credibility. The polls suggest it’s working.
Joseph Romm: I don’t think the IPCC stuff has influenced the polls very much. The economic recession has caused people to focus on things like jobs and money, issues that have immediate consequences. People understand that global warming’s biggest consequences are in the future. And even though the planet continues to heat up, both 2008 and 2009 saw relatively cool weather in the U.S. When you ask people if they think global warming is happening, their answer is driven by the [weather] where they live. So the relatively cool weather in the U.S. affected the poll numbers. But of course the fossil-fuel companies and the right-wing have been very effective in their disinformation campaign. It’s the most successful disinformation campaign in human history.
Guernica: That’s a strong statement.
Joseph Romm: If we don’t take action, it certainly will be. And if the ice sheets of Greenland and West Antarctica melt, it will be the most consequential. But there are a lot of progressive politicians who have been persuaded not to talk so much about global warming. There’s a misimpression that it is not good to tell people about all the potentially bad consequences. If you give people in focus groups a dial and tell them bad news, then they turn the dial down. They don’t like bad news. That, however, does not mean that the message is an ineffective one. I agree that there are better and worse ways to talk about it. But that’s true of every issue.
The people who’ve been misled have a political perspective that makes them skeptical of certain message-deliverers, and that would include environmentalists and by extension, scientists.
Guernica: You mention the “disinformation campaign.” But some of the skeptics are just people with legitimate questions, right?
Joseph Romm: Legitimate questions tend to be raised by scientists with multiple publications in the field. Does it sometimes happen that people who aren’t scientists raise scientifically legitimate questions? Yes. On the other hand, you can go on the Internet and find dozens of people who say they’ve disproven Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Major scientific theories rest on reams of evidence. One apparent contradiction does not overthrow the theory. And the deniers are simply not held to the same standards. [The climate scientists] Spencer and Christy maintained for a decade that the satellite data, which they analyzed, showed no evidence of warming. This was a major talking point [of the skeptics]. If one held them to the same standards then no one would ever listen to [Spencer and Christy] again. Because it just so happens that they made serious mistakes that just happened to push their analysis in the direction which they just happened to believe.
Guernica: By legitimate questions, I meant basic questions about how science can know certain things. Those people aren’t necessarily pushing disinformation.
Joseph Romm: When I use that label I’m talking about the leaders of the disinformation campaign, not those who have been misled by it. The people who’ve been misled are often center-right people who watch Fox News. They have a political perspective that makes them skeptical of certain message-deliverers, and that would include environmentalists and I guess by extension, scientists. [Right-wing] news channels couch the message [about climate change] in half-truths or falsehoods that are spun to sound persuasive. If your choice is between believing in something that requires you to change or believing in something that doesn’t, the human inclination is to believe the message that requires the least amount of effort. It’s very unfortunate, and they will come to see over the next ten to fifteen years how tragically wrong the people they listen to have been.
Guernica: Here are two of those questions, raised by a friend, which are pretty common on the blogosphere. Throughout history, there have been times when science has claimed to know more than it did. For example, the practice of bleeding patients to rid them of disease. How do we know this is not one of those times? Also, how can scientists accurately predict the climate in fifty years when meteorologists have trouble predicting the weather next week?
Joseph Romm: The answer to the second one is that weather isn’t climate. It’s very hard to know exactly what the temperature is going to be two weeks from now. That’s weather. It is incredibly easy to know that July is going to be warmer than January. That’s climate. I could make a large bet on what the average temperature this June will be. But nobody in their right mind would make a bet on what the temperature on June 10th will be.
Guernica: One scientist said predicting the difference between weather and climate was similar to predicting the size of the fifth wave that hits shore compared to predicting the tide.
Joseph Romm: That’s very good. Yes, we have tidal charts that can predict the tides a long time in advance. But nobody knows what the wave height will be at 3:25 in the afternoon. As far as warming goes, the heat-trapping equations are pretty basic physics. But scientists often take things for granted. We take it for granted that everybody knows that certain gases trap heat. Well, they don’t know that because they’ve been told repeatedly that humans aren’t changing the climate. But warming is unequivocal. Everywhere you look we’re warming. It is also unequivocal that human emissions are warming the planet. It is physics. One can call it a fact.
Guernica: So to what do you attribute the increasing public doubt?
Joseph Romm: The disinformation campaign has hired some of the best, like Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster. He popularized “death tax” and did extensive polling on words and phrases. He wanted conservatives to use “climate change” because it sounded friendlier than “global warming.” So the disinformation campaign is very sophisticated. It has come up with a bunch of talking points. Some of them are completely false and some of them are half-truths, but they all sound compelling. Like: “You can’t predict the weather, so how can you predict the climate?” That is something that your friend can hold onto. Regarding his question about bleeding the sick, I don’t know that scientists ever advocated that. The march of science is a march toward a better and better explanation of the things that we observe. Your friend is pointing back to pre-scientific times, which were overthrown by scientific times.
Guernica: What about the fact that scientific theories are often overthrown?
Joseph Romm: Scientists make their name overturning theories, and the fact that no one has been able to overturn the theory of human-caused warming should tell you something. If it could be overturned, it would be a very big deal, much as if you could overturn the Theory of Evolution with Creationism, that would be a very big deal. But you can only overturn science with science. We have all these observations that the planet is warming. We have the physics that say heat-trapping gasses warm the planet. We have models that have accurately predicted the warming we’ve seen. If you were going to falsify the theory of global warming, it wouldn’t be enough to just say, “Hey, it’s the sun [doing the warming].” You’d also have to come up with a theory to explain what was negating the well-known physics of heat-trapping gasses. So you have this massive body of evidence that confirms warming and the human fingerprint. If you were to supersede the theory of human-caused warming, you’d still have to explain all that data.
Guernica: Let’s turn to politics. Obama has been the subject of quite a few conspiracy theories by those on the right. And many skeptics seem to believe that climate change, much like healthcare reform, is a plot by liberals to impose their own global agenda. But to believe that, it seems you’d have to believe that all the world’s scientists have been co-opted. How much do you think conspiracy theories play into the skeptics’ belief system?
Joseph Romm: There is a quote I use in my book from [New York Times reporter] Andy Revkin, who went to the Heartland Conference of deniers. He said that the deniers—I don’t like to call them that, I prefer disinformers—don’t even agree among themselves about a lot of things. But what they do agree upon is that government regulation is bad. So they don’t like the cure. And because they don’t like the cure they can’t stand the diagnosis and will do everything they can to challenge it. It’s like if you told them they were obese and they need to diet and exercise. Since they don’t want to diet and exercise, they’d say, “You’re crazy; I know I weigh three hundred pounds, but that’s just natural.”
They don’t want this framed as them versus the scientists, because you just can’t accuse the entire scientific community of having some sort of political agenda.
Guernica: Sounds like you’re saying that much of the dissent is because the solutions being offered are generally Democratic fixes, such as cap-and-trade and increased regulation.
Joseph Romm: I wouldn’t necessarily call them Democratic. Look at California. Schwarzenegger has been a leader [in clean energy]. It’s only inside the D.C. beltway that this has become an overtly partisan issue. You must remember that for all of the vilification of cap-and-trade, it was the EPA under George Bush, Sr., which put in place the cap-and-trade system for sulfur under the Clean Air Act. One of the goals of the disinformation campaign is to frame [climate change] as a straight political issue: their political goals versus the imagined goals of liberals and progressives. They want to take the scientists out of the equation. They don’t want this framed as them versus the scientists, because you just can’t accuse the entire scientific community of having some sort of political agenda.
Guernica: But that’s exactly what they seem to be doing.
Joseph Romm: It’s true that they vilify every scientist who speaks out on this subject. That’s their strategy. That’s why they developed this absurd pitch that scientists are in it for the money: because that’s where all the research money goes. But anybody who knows scientists knows that they did not get into it for the money. If they wanted to make money they’d have gone into about half a dozen other fields, including law or medicine or business. But the point is they want this framed as a political issue because then they get equal time in the media. So they have to move the story away from the science.
Guernica: How much do you think anti-intellectualism is a part of the dissent? Here are two comments I saw online about Michael Mann, the climatologist who authored the “hockey stick graph,” which measures temperature trends. One said: “We all know what BS is. MS is just more of the same. And PhD is just piled higher and deeper.” The other said: “Peer reviewed publications…what a joke.” These kinds of comments are extremely common on the blogosphere.
Joseph Romm: That strain has always been present among conservatives. Anybody who might have some expertise or experience, their views are denigrated. But there are conservatives who’ve been worried about the anti-intellectual strain of the Republican Party.
Guernica: David Frum, most recently.
Joseph Romm: David Frum is the perfect example. Frum simply pointed out that the strategy adopted by conservatives in dealing with healthcare may have been flawed. That got him thrown out of a think tank. Well, guess what—then it really isn’t a think tank. [Anti-intellectualism] is a dangerous thing. If you can’t base your policies on the best scientific or medical evidence, then you’re really just headed in random directions. The other sad thing about it—and this is something that Lindsey Graham understands—is that the rest of the world isn’t anti-intellectual. In particular, China. They are aggressively pursuing clean energy. They understand that it’s the future. Graham said that every day we’re not pricing carbon is another day that China is taking the lead in clean energy. The Texas Board of Education’s recent decision with the text books is another example [of anti-intellectualism]. If the policies and education of the United States are based on ideological purity, whereas Europe’s, Japan’s, and China’s are based on a sound recognition of science and engineering, then they’re going to have a big advantage.
Anti-intellectualism is a dangerous thing. If you can’t base your policies on the best scientific evidence, then you’re really just headed in random directions.
Guernica: I’ve also heard it suggested that if global warming is really as bad as scientists say, it could be viewed as a judgment on Republican philosophy, which for decades advocated growth and consumption, often at the expense of the environment.
Joseph Romm: The current strain of conservatism is not the one that’s always been with us. It was basically Teddy Roosevelt who created the conservation movement and the National Parks system. Where does the word conservative come from? The notion of conserving that which we have. Doing nothing when the overwhelming majority of the climate scientific community tells you that doing nothing could destroy the livable climate that gave us this wealth and civilization; that’s not conservative. It’s hard sometimes to know what is driving modern conservatives. Look at the Tea Party movement, which often seems so contradictory: Obama is a socialist, but he’s also the Joker, who’s an anarchist, and then he’s also in the pocket of the big banks because of the bailout, which was actually a Bush policy. It has no intellectual consistency so it is difficult to offer a consistent intellectual critique.
Guernica: You said that you don’t refer to the skeptics as “deniers,” like some do, but prefer the term “disinformers.” But on your site you posted a link to a paper from the European Journal of Public Health about denialism. The paper holds that denialism has five main components: a belief in conspiracy theories, the use of fake experts, the cherry-picking of facts, false expectations about what science can accomplish, and the use of logical fallacies. That sounds like what we’re seeing.
Joseph Romm: This strategy was developed by the tobacco industry to delay tobacco regulation for a long time, which they succeeded in doing. The main goal is to create doubt. But a lot of people don’t like the term denier because they think you’re calling them a holocaust denier. I ultimately decided that I don’t use that term because I don’t think that what’s interesting about them is that they’re denying something. What’s most salient about them is that they’re spreading disinformation. There’s nothing wrong with denying something that’s not true. But if you’re actively spreading disinformation about something that is true, then what you are is a disinformer.
Guernica: How would you rate Obama so far in dealing with climate change?
Joseph Romm: In terms of what he’s done on clean energy and what he’s done on regulations, he’s been better than all the other presidents combined. He got a bill through the House of Representatives, which is a stunning achievement. But if Congress can’t pass a climate bill with a shrinking cap on carbon and a rising price, then he will not have succeeded on this issue. But I wouldn’t want to single him out. Our entire political system will have failed and all of us will have failed.
Doing nothing when the overwhelming majority of the climate scientific community tells you that doing nothing could destroy the climate that gave us this wealth and civilization; that’s not conservative.
Guernica: Was Copenhagen a success or a failure? I’ve heard it described as both. I understand that an agreement was made to reduce emissions but nothing is binding.
Joseph Romm: Copenhagen would have been a failure if it weren’t for Obama. He negotiated personally with a number of leaders to get an agreement. One hundred and ten countries so far have signed onto it, and a great many of them have made very specific pledges that would take us off of the business-as-usual emissions path. But if anyone thought that Obama and his team could easily undo eight years of the Bush Administration’s actively obstructing action, well, it just could not be undone in several months. If the U.S. Congress can agree to specific action then we’ll have a deal, if they don’t then it’s going to be very hard.
Guernica: Is this the most important issue of Obama’s presidency?
Joseph Romm: No question about it. If we don’t stop catastrophic warming, do you think future generations will care about whether another twenty-five million people had healthcare? Healthcare is good because if the climate is suffering then more people could potentially be suffering and it will be good if they have healthcare. But if we haven’t stopped Greenland and West Antarctica from disintegrating, no one’s going to remember anything else. And [future generations] will judge us all as failures. Though I do hope they distinguish between the people who were working for change and the people who were fighting it.
Guernica: In your book Hell and High Water you say this is indeed the great question of the age: “Do we humans have the political will to stop the great ice sheets of Greenland and West Antarctica from melting?” Are you more or less encouraged since you wrote that in 2007?
Joseph Romm: I wrote that when Bush and Cheney were in power so we’re definitely in better shape than that. But at the same time the science has become more alarming. So it’s a mixed bag. But I’m more optimistic because other countries clearly get it and are taking action. And at least we have genuine leadership now [in the U.S.], whereas before we had genuine misleadership.
Guernica: How is history going to judge the people you call the disinformers—people like James Inhofe, Michael Crichton, and George W. Bush?
Joseph Romm: Very harshly. They will be seen in the category of Neville Chamberlain or people who were shills for the tobacco industry. And future generations won’t understand it. They won’t understand how people could be actively shouting “No fire!” in a burning theater and attacking the credibility of the fire department.
Warming to Reality, an interview with Elizabeth Kolbert.
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Photo courtesy of Center for American Progress