“With all the hysteria, all the fear, all the phony science, could it be that manmade global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? I believe it is.” – US Senator James M Inhofe (Republican – Oklahoma), 28 July 2003.
Such is the rallying cry of the climate change denial movement. Since Senator Inhofe made this statement seven years ago, the drive to discredit climate change and the science that underpins it has enjoyed considerable success, even as awareness about climate change and the threat it poses to humanity has gone mainstream.
The US, widely seen as an indispensable participant in the fight against climate change, remains among the most skeptical internationally. A Gallup poll published last month found that concerns over climate change among Americans declined during the past two years.
The recent 'Climategate' scandal, the product of hacked e-mail correspondence from climate scientists at the University of East Anglia in the UK suggesting collusion to manipulate data, and a row over the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) use of non peer-reviewed sources to claim that the Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035 have cast further doubt.
The deluge of criticism culminated in the US with the publishing of In Denial by Steven F Hayward in the conservative Weekly Standard, a piece accompanied by an illustration of Al Gore standing somewhere near the North Pole, nude, shivering and clutching his groin to shield it from the biting cold while being ridiculed by polar bears.
What then keeps the climate change denial movement, a campaign shunned by all but a handful of scientists, alive and kicking? Examination suggests a confluence of factors.
Money talks. At the individual level, curbing emissions will result in higher energy costs, generating resistance at the polls. The businesses that provide energy to consumers equally do not want to see their profit margins squeezed and regard the status quo – and their position in it – as advantageous.
A lackluster economy, moreover, has likely shifted some of the political urgency elsewhere.
Corporate sector pushback comes in the form of congressional lobbying and public relations campaigns. James Hoggan from DesmogBlog, a website launched in 2006 to track and expose the interests and personalities behind climate change denial, explained to ISN Security Watch, “The oil, gas and coal industries are clearly the leaders in the climate denial campaign, although the big fossil fuel players have also made common cause with other energy intensive industries and even with industries like tobacco, which are also motivated to promote mistrust of science and government.
“Major energy companies like Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries (the largest privately owned fossil fuel company in America) have been revealed as big spenders in the campaign to deny climate science. And industry associations like the American Chambers of Commerce are also heavily implicated. But increasingly, industries have started hiding behind ‘non-profit’ think tanks, which can campaign aggressively – and expensively – while concealing the source of their funding.”
Koch Industries is co-owned by the $14 billion (each) brothers Charles and David Koch. David Koch quipped to Portofolio.com in October 2008, “My joke is that we’re the biggest company you’ve never heard of.”
The public space
The role of think tanks, as Hoggan maintains, is to provide a veneer of academic legitimacy to the campaign as well as to ensure maximum influence in the media to perpetuate doubt about the science of climate change. Poison the public discourse, establish a skeptical normative environment, kill legislation.
Some of the think tanks and lobbying groups in the vanguard include: the American Petroleum Institute (API), the Western Fuels Association (WFA), the CATO Institute, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the George C Marshall Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the now-defunct Natural Resources Stewardship Project (NRSP) in Canada and The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC) headed by famed lobbyist and FOX News contributor Steve Milloy.
The lack of a congenial atmosphere for discussion, moreover, helps taint already strained individual attitudes, argues Kari Norgaard, assistant professor of sociology and environmental studies at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, US.
In a background paper to the 2010 World Bank Development Report entitled Cognitive and Behavioral Challenges in Responding to Climate Change, researched in Norway, Norgaard concludes that the presence of negative emotions in conjunction with global warming (fear, guilt and helplessness), and the process of emotion management and cultural norms leads to the construction of a social reality in which climate change is held at arms length.
In other words, the complexity of climate change and the menace it implies overwhelms individuals and creates a cognitive dissonance. Rather than trying to internalize the concerns and marshal them for action, people cast them aside altogether.
Hoggan further complements Norgaard’s findings with the notion of burgeoning mistrust at the individual level: “Public opinion polls are increasingly revealing unprecedented levels of mistrust in the public mind. People don’t trust government. They don’t trust industry. Some polls show that they don’t even trust one another. And the denial industry has taken full advantage of this mistrust, even promoting it by questioning the motives, integrity and competence of some of the world’s greatest scientific bodies.”
Asked about the divergence in US and European responses to climate change by ISN Security Watch, Norgaard reckoned, “In Europe, where a limited emissions control regime with the EU Emissions Trading System is in place, concern for the environment is more institutionalized than in the states, generating more momentum. But again, even there, comprehensive steps are wanting.”
The climate change denial movement has tentacles the world over, but it is most influential and caustic in the US. Without America’s leadership, other countries, including China and India, have little incentive to act. Obama’s presidential directives, although welcome, only go so far.
For a bipartisan solution, legislators in Washington should look to the CLEAR Act currently being discussed in the US Senate.
Otherwise, it will be up to geoengineering to resolve the matter. That is an exceedingly risky fix.
By. Claudio Guler