The Contrarian Complex
by: Blaine Skrainka
April 1, 2014
Last September, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released part one of their fifth assessment report, the Physical Science Basis, a comprehensive summary detailing the latest scientific consensus findings on the causes and consequences of a warming planet. It should have been the last word on climate change, closing any remaining doubts that policy makers and the public hold concerning the basic questions of man’s role in warming. But amidst a deftly organized effort on behalf of right-wing thought leaders, conservative media, and Republican politicians, public discourse in the United States remains marred as we bicker over the very existence of the problem—serious debates on moving towards a renewable tomorrow are quickly dismissed as politically implausible.
It wasn’t always this way. As recently as 2008, major political players—including Republican presidential candidates—not only acknowledged the threat but called for action through market-based carbon trading schemes. That was then. Today, dialogue has become confused and even fallen altogether silent. The media has played its role in providing equal voice to the denialist camp despite their resounding lack of evidence, and our elected officials either find it too risky to broach the subject, or worse, are actually championing the idea that the science of global warming is nothing more than fraud. What could have changed the trajectory of the conversation so drastically over just the last few years?
The IPCC says in no uncertain terms that humans have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since mid-century. Officially, the consensus position states with 95 percent certainty that we are driving “unequivocal” warming in the climate system, “and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia.” Global temperatures have increased, glacial ice has melted, our oceans have acidified, and sea levels have risen, all in tight tandem with skyrocketing concentrations of greenhouse gases—last May, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide reached 400 parts per million for the first time in over 2.5 million years. Even if we were to cut emissions to zero tomorrow, scientists now tell us that most aspects of climate change are effectively irreversible in our lifetimes.
Over coming decades, we will face prolonged droughts and severe wildfires in some regions, along with—seemingly paradoxically—intense precipitation and heavy flooding in others. Weather shocks pose huge risks to global food and water security, further increasing the dangers of poverty and disease—all well-established drivers of political instability and conflict. Much of the recent progress in bolstering a global middle class now faces reversal. The World Bank warns that “without bold action now, the warming planet threatens to put prosperity out of reach of millions and roll back decades of development.” While every region on the planet faces unique challenges in adapting, the poor and most vulnerable will be hit hardest. UNICEF estimates that by 2050, twenty-five million more children will be malnourished due to climate change. Already battling rising seas today, local officials in some Pacific island nations are making long-term preparations to resettle hundreds of thousands of people in programs deemed “migration with dignity.”
IPCC assessment reports represent the most current peer-reviewed literature on climate change trends. Thousands of scientists from around the globe participate in the review, making it an inherently cautious process, and just about anybody is afforded the opportunity to submit a comment or request points of clarification. Despite it’s repute, the IPCC has made mistakes, many of which climate deniers cling to. One glaring instance was in 2010, after the fourth assessment report, when the IPCC admitted that it had published an incorrect warning of the vanishing of Himalayan glaciers by the year 2035; the original research estimated that the glaciers would be gone by 2350. An error that likely began as a typo was made worse by sloppiness and a cagey admission of fault. For scientific research as a whole, the peer review method as a process of verification is indeed flawed—there is a crisis of replicability and the pressures of academic competition are real—but all science is provisional, and outright rejection of an entire field is not skepticism, but something else entirely.
The United Nations aren’t the only ones that say the planet is warming and we are at fault. Back in 2009, eighteen leading scientific organizations sent a letter to U.S. senators insisting that the climate is changing, “human activities are the primary driver,” impacts are projected to worsen “substantially,” and “if we are to avoid the most severe impacts, emissions of greenhouse gases must be dramatically reduced.” Separately, NASA, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), and the American Meteorological Society—to name a few—have all released public statements warning of the risks of man-made climate change. Moreover, a 2010 survey of studies published in the official journal of the NAS showed that 97 percent of climate researchers support the tenets of human-caused warming as outlined by the IPCC, and that “relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of anthropogenic climate change are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.”
Many apply the term skeptic to those who reject the scientific consensus on climate change. But this is wrong. Skepticism is inherent to the scientific method. A better term is climate change denier or contrarian. Aaron M. McCright, a sociologist at Michigan State University, is right when he defines “climate contrarians” as those who challenge, often with financial support from the fossil fuel industry and conservative think tanks, what they see as a false consensus of mainstream climate science. Armed with pseudoscience, contrarians are a political insurgency tasked, not with winning the scientific debate itself, but rather, with distracting the conversation just enough to hold back tangible progress.
It’s a tactic we’ve seen before. In the 1960s, tobacco industry executives spearheaded a concerted effort, led by unscrupulous scientists, to make opaque the otherwise clear risks to public health posed by smoking. “Doubt is our product,” read a now infamous memo sent by a big tobacco executive.
Similarly, conservative think tanks today promote doubt through a series of tactics that hinder public understanding and burden the scientific process. Among the most notorious are groups like the Cato Institute, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the Heartland Institute—all claiming 501(c)(3) status that renders them nearly tax-exempt and does not require them to disclose their donors.
These activist organizations undertake tactics such as drafting model legislation against policies favoring renewable energies, and flooding climate researchers with Freedom of Information requests that slow down research. The Heartland Institute, for its part, sponsors entire conferences dedicated to climate change denial. They came under fire last year after running a billboard of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski with the caption, “I still believe in Global Warming. Do you?”
One of the biggest successes for climate change contrarians was the faux-scandal Climategate, which ripped across news feeds in 2009, just before world leaders were set to meet for the COP15 Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen. It began when emails between climate researchers were stolen from hacked university servers. Conservative blogs sorted through the content, and pulled quotes out of context that suggested scientists were hiding data. At least six separate inquiries into the scandal exonerated researchers of wrongdoing. But the damage had already been done; the banal details of reality simply do not make for such compelling headlines.
One man, a professional contrarian, sticks out among the ever-slimming group of climate change deniers. Christopher Monckton, officially titled the third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, has made a political career out of touring the globe in denial. Though he wields less and less influence as the years pass, he represents the quintessential climate contrarian in its most hypnotic and potent form. He is the chief policy advisor of the ambiguously-named Science and Public Policy Institute, and his profile is listed on the Heartland Institute’s page of experts.
Charismatic and plainly likeable, Lord Monckton woos audiences with seemingly sensible explanations of the climate fraud. He has a habit of cherry-picking scientific data to support his own view that global warming is overblown—data courtesy of scientists who often go on the record to say that they’ve been misquoted and taken out of context. The Englishman is particularly popular at Tea Party rallies, and though he’s not published a single peer-reviewed scientific paper, on any topic, he’s been invited to testify as a climate expert in front of Congress on four separate occasions.
In 2012, at COP18 in Doha [Qatar], Monckton slipped into the chair of the Myanmar climate envoy and delivered a brief speech asserting that there has been no observed global warming for a full 16 years. Further, he declared that the costs of mitigation and adaptation would far outweigh the costs of doing nothing (these have long been his go-to arguments). He was escorted from the building and given a lifetime ban from attending U.N. climate talks—which, in truth, only serves to strengthen his argument that the climate change community is bent on boxing out voices like his own.
Monckton tells me that the global warming scare is driven more by politics than by science. He blames a small group of bad scientists for promoting the scare, accusing them of seeking personal gain and the promotion of a hard left ideology. “A poisonous faction has bent their data and results so as to spin up a grain of truth into a mountain of scary nonsense for the sake of politics and profit,” he says. He warns that China now pays lip service to the climate scam in order to shut down Western economies, and that “Russian agents” are guilty of “peddling the nonsense that fracking [hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas] is dangerous and environmentally damaging.”
And, apparently, the conspiracy is right here in our own backyard: “The Socialist wing in politics, Mr. Obama being a notable instance, promotes the climate scare not because it is true (beyond a grain of truth, most of it is self-evidently false), but because it is a pretext for accelerating the dismal policy of Socialism, Fascism, and Communism everywhere: the transfer of wealth and power from the poor to the rich, from the little guy to the big guy, from the sans-culottes to the cuisses-de- cuir, from us to them,” he says. The conflation of opposing political ideologies aside, Monckton does, ironically, raise an interesting question: Has the scientific basis for climate change been besmirched by politics?
Climate change contrarians point to scores of out-of-context factoids to build a case against the scientific consensus. These zombie lies—thoroughly debunked falsehoods that refuse to die—are parroted by the conservative media-political complex, irresponsibly sowing confusion in the public.
A favorite talking point among those in denial, and a key to Monckton’s central argument, is the idea that global warming has “paused” over the last 16 years. Dr. Alan Robock, a climatologist at Rutgers University and a lead author on the IPCC fifth assessment report, tells me this is one of the most common lies repeated about climate change. The so-called pause ignores that the years between 2001 and 2012 rank among the warmest since record-keeping began, and that each of the last three decades has been the warmest on record. In fact, if you were born after February 1985, you’ve never experienced a below-average month in terms of global temperature.
For a contrarian though, the temperature record, which only goes back to around 1850, is far too short to reflect natural variations. The self-contradiction is one to behold: in the same breath, they say that a single decade of flat surface temperatures is evidence enough that global warming is overblown, but record-breaking temperatures over the last three decades do not provide enough data to show the true historical trend.
To compound the head-scratching: some two dozen reconstructions of paleoclimate records now show that the latter half of the 20th century experienced temperatures unprecedented in more than a millennium, but to a contrarian, paleoclimate models, as with future projections, cannot be trusted.
Even the very claim that there has been no observed warming over the last decade and a half is misleading. It is true that the rate of increase of average global surface temperatures has slowed, but the effects of global warming as a whole have by no means come to a halt. Arctic ice continues to disappear, our seas continue to rise, and ocean warming has kept right on pace. This last bit is key.
Focusing in on only a decade of surface temperatures, contrarians (and the media at large, for that matter) ignore that more than 90 percent of the extra heat created by the greenhouse effect is actually absorbed by the oceans. In fact, only about 2 percent of the added energy goes into the atmosphere, affecting day-to-day seasonal temperatures. This means ignoring 98 percent of global warming actually occurring on our planet. Kevin Trenberth and John Fasullo of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who recently published a paper on ocean warming, reaffirm, “[Global warming] is very much alive but being manifested in somewhat different ways than a simple increase in global mean surface temperature.” Since 1960, the amount of energy accumulating in the oceans is estimated to be about the equivalent of two Hiroshima “Little Boy” atomic bomb detonations per second, every second, for the last five decades.
Monckton’s claim that we haven’t seen warming over the last 16 years is probably his most egregious misconception given the media’s widespread adoption of the same line, but he has an entire grab bag of falsehoods. He says there is no scientific consensus; that empirical data does not support the idea that man-made global warming might be catastrophic; that solar activity can explain most of the modest warming we have observed; that arctic sea ice is just fine; that northern hemisphere snow cover has increased throughout the 33-year satellite record; that the Medieval Warm Period was warmer than today; and that even with continued global warming, the cost of mitigation would be far more expensive than doing nothing. The list of fallacies and half-truths go on.
Monckton even warns that the climate scam is actually responsible for killing people, and that it will take more than vocal advocacy to stop the scientists: “Two or three of the worst pseudo-scientists who have contrived the global-warming scare should be prosecuted for racketeering under the RICO statute, and locked up for a very long time for what has proven to be the largest and most costly fraud in the history of man. The rest of the profiteers of doom would very soon scuttle for cover and the scare would be over.”
John Cook, the author of Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand, and founder of SkepticalScience.com, a blog dedicated to exposing climate myths, tells me that because of continued public confusion, it’s important to provide “coverage of climate contrarians [that] places them in [a] broader context.” Skeptical Science has an entire section dedicated to countering the inaccuracies preached by Christopher Monckton, but Cook says that they have “paid less attention to Monckton over time, as he has become more marginalized and extremist in his views. He is notorious for promoting extreme and bizarre conspiracy theories.”
No longer should the debate center on going tit for tat with the opposition on the fundamentals of established science—being forced to debunk hollow arguments incessantly is exactly the strategy of a contrarian. For the layman, a basic understanding of a given issue is requisite for any democratic debate, but at some point the expert consensus should be adhered to. What remains clear is that the community of deniers is not assembled of some diverse spectrum of censored scientists and concerned citizens contributing to the debate in good faith, but rather, the usual suspects.
Polling by researchers at Yale University shows that only around one third of Tea Party members believe in global warming, while around 80 percent of those same people consider themselves fairly or very informed on the subject. Further, a majority polled go on to say that they need no more information on the subject to develop a firm opinion. Sociologists at Michigan State and Oklahoma State Universities similarly find that “conservative white males are significantly more likely than other Americans to endorse denialist views…and that these differences are even greater for those who self-report understanding global warming very well.”
As it happens, Lord Monckton is also staunchly religious. He tells me that religion is a fundamental necessity to appreciate why science matters, and that the climate scam has succeeded due to a lack of religious study, going so far as to say that science should only be practiced by those who adhere to religion, preferably of the Christian variety. “Scientists need an external standard of morality, such as religion provides, to keep them straight,” he says. He goes on to highlight Catholicism as a “particularly valuable discipline” for scientists because the denomination “insists on intellectual rigor.”
It would be one thing if climate change denial were confined to the realm of Tea Party rallies and conservative media. But it’s not just Fox News (where, according to Media Matters, 69 percent of guests and 75 percent of mentions cast doubt on climate science) and talk radio that have served as a platform for misinformation. Mainstream print and TV media outlets have amplified marginal viewpoints in an effort to fit norms of journalistic balance. It’s a bias toward being “unbiased,” and special interest groups have taken advantage. In 1998, a memo by the public relations team at the American Petroleum Industry read, “Victory will be achieved when uncertainties in climate science become part of the conventional wisdom’’ for ‘‘average citizens’’ and ‘‘the media.” The plan suggested training so-called skeptic scientists in media relations to highlight the legitimate uncertainties of climate science.
Overwhelmingly, however, those taking to the op-ed pages of newspapers and television debate panels lack scientific credentials. Readers and viewers are tasked with sorting through arguments presented by bloggers, political figures, and media pundits. Dr. Robock says that though improving, journalists are culpable for sending mixed messages to the public: “It is getting better, but media still sometimes portrays it as an argument that has equal merit on both sides, rather than just educating the public about the settled science.” Media Matters also points out that although only 3 percent of climate scientists reject the climate consensus, doubters comprised over 18 percent of those quoted in Bloomberg News, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. It’s not fifty-fifty anymore, but it still fails to reflect reality.
So why focus on fringe voices like Christopher Monckton and right-wing pundits? It might be easier to brush them aside if conservative officials elected to high office weren’t echoing the same exact rhetoric. James Inhofe, a Republican Senator from Oklahoma, famously said that, “the idea that man-made gases, CO2, are causing catastrophic global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” Even Mitt Romney backtracked from his relatively green days as Massachusetts governor. Campaigning on the presidential stump, Romney clarified that while he does indeed think the world is getting hotter, he doesn’t know if humans are to blame, and he is unwilling to spend on “something I don’t know the answer to.”
In the 113th Congress, more than half of Republicans in the House and two-thirds in the Senate have gone on record to say that they question or reject that climate change is real, is happening, and is caused by humans. Rising up the ranks to leadership positions, 17 out of 22 Republican members sitting on the House Science Committee are in denial, and a full 90 percent of Republican leadership in both House and Senate deny climate change.
Looking towards the future, presidential hopefuls Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio all reject the scientific consensus.
Probable Former G.O.P. front-runner [editors note: this piece was originally published before the George Washington Bridge scandal] Chris Christie says climate change is real but has taken on few efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions during his tenure as governor of New Jersey.
With financial backing from the fossil fuel industry, and an upswell of party activists taking the issue of climate change into the twilight zone of American culture wars, Republican legislators feel little pressure to sign on to the scientific consensus, let alone attach their name to a pro-climate agenda.
Climate change is a burgeoning global crisis that will require vast cooperation between nation-states, both in public and private sectors. It will likely involve some redistribution of wealth from rich to developing nations in order to mitigate and adapt to climate changes—a burden for which the former is, historically, largely responsible. This reality is ideologically untenable to absolutist libertarians, causing them to reverse-engineer and outright reject the basics of the science. But if the warnings of the climate science community continue to pan out, what would be their proposed solution? It might involve doing nothing, letting the markets adjust over time, but already the damage will have been long locked in place.
As with other major policy challenges in the U.S., like comprehensive immigration reform or gun control, the intransigence of a political minority continues to stifle progress. But how much blame should we assign to climate change deniers for our collective inaction? Are we letting those most informed and in touch with reality off the hook by focussing on the fringe? Longtime journalist and grassroots organizer Bill McKibben agrees this might be the case: “I think the bigger problem is with institutions and people who know better but don’t do much, from the White House on down.”
Blaine on Twitter Follow @themindofskank