By Jerome Page
THIS IS A CALL FOR HELP! After five intense weeks buried in the literature of climate change and its deniers — in all their variegated forms — I am unable to extricate myself, much less shape the crisp message I’d intended.
It is akin to having been thrown bodily into a massive garbage dump, told to look around for a few days, pulled out and asked to verbally reconstruct the civilization that produced the dump — and to do so in several thousand words. I had intended a couple columns on this problem, but the reconstruction required has ballooned my task.
By this point, clearly, the public has reached a kind of saturation point on the issue of climate change — so many voices, so many contradictions, such bewildering complexity and an overriding sense that with no scientific coherence, we might better discuss something realistic and exciting. Like Armageddon!
Later I will touch on the very critical problem of that bewilderment — and some of its causes — but for now I will continue by presenting the denialist position, as expressed by its leaders, together with questions concerning the validity of that position.
First, however, on a lighter note, I came upon a story that might be helpful as an opening to this piece. From the Mother Nature Network, it is titled “Media Mayhem: Deny-a-palooza,” by Peter Dykstra (March 2009):
“One of my favorite movies about climate change is ‘Dumb and Dumber.’ Perhaps I owe you all an explanation as to why.
“If you haven’t seen it, the movie was made about 15 years ago by the Farrelly Brothers, the highly successful purveyors of artfully done toilet humor. The leading men are Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels, playing gullible, good-natured imbeciles on a cross-country adventure.
“Carrey is smitten with a woman played by Lauren Holly. His character, Lloyd, asks her what his prospects are for romance.
“She coldly replies, ‘About one in a million.’
“Here’s where the climate change part comes in: Hardly discouraged by this slapdown, Lloyd’s eyes light up. And in the true spirit of a climate change denier, he says, ‘So you’re tellin’ me there’s a chance.’
“Yeah, folks, there’s a chance climate change isn’t for real. There’s always a chance. That’s the way science works. There’s always a chance that the mounting evidence, the computer models and long-term forecasts are wrong. That slim and slimmer chance is enough to create and sustain an indestructible denial lobby.” (I would add “movement and industry.”)
While Dykstra’s odds might be a bit overstated, the story does illustrate the dilemma.
Notwithstanding the many, many millions expended by the Koches, by Exxon, by Chevron, by the rest of the oil, gas and coal companies to deny its reality or by the Scaife foundations, true bulwarks against the onslaught of reality — climate change is happening.
No matter how many millions of words of snarky blogs, no matter the indignation, ridicule and ascription of foul motive from the ranks of the bloggers of the right, the science of climate change will continue to develop, to amend, to tune up its emphases, to sharpen its analyses and to grow. The great question — fast becoming one of the seminal questions of our time — is whether public understanding and public policy will be shaped by that science or by those millions.
One of the great ironies of this dilemma is that in recent times the battle cry of the New Right — now allied with oil, gas and coal — has been shaped around the deep, deep concern about the world we will be handing down to our children and grandchildren!
There is now a vast amount of literature, scientific reportage and analysis, critiques, books, programs and blogs from horizon to horizon on climate change. I will focus on a few of the major (and much-quoted) leaders in the denialist camp, particularly those associated with the Heartland Institute and other organizations in the “Cooler Heads Coalition.”
Dr. Frederick Seitz
I begin with Frederick Seitz, an oft-quoted leader in the denialist ranks. In a March 6, 2008, New York Times obituary, author Dennis Hevesi detailed some of the highlights of the work of Dr. Seitz, president of the National Academy of Sciences from 1962-69 and president of Rockefeller University, one of the nation’s leading research institutions, from 1968-78.
In the 1990s, as consensus about global warming was building, Seitz’s contrarian views became a spark for debate. As Hevesi wrote, “When, in 1998, Seitz issued a statement and circulated a petition attacking the scientific conclusions underlying international efforts to control emissions of industrial-waste gases, the National Academy of Sciences took the extraordinary step of refuting the position of one of its former presidents. …
“Dr. Seitz’s petition was accompanied by an article concluding that emissions of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, posed no climatic threat. Instead, the article said, the emissions amounted to ‘a wonderful and unexpected gift from the Industrial Revolution’ by stimulating atmospheric carbon dioxide and increasing plant growth. …
“From 1978-88, Seitz was a member of the medical research committee of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. His work for the company was the subject of a 2006 article in Vanity Fair magazine that criticized what it called an ‘overlap’ between scientists who deny climate change and ‘tobacco executives who denied the dangers of smoking.’” The Vanity Fair article further stated that Seitz had earned a total of about $585,000 from his contract with RJR.
Seitz also did considerable work with the George C. Marshall Institute, an organization heavily funded by Exxon Mobil Corporation.
Dr. Willie Soon
Dr. Soon is a physicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Since 1992, he has been an astronomer at the Mount Wilson Observatory; he is also a receiving editor with the journal New Astronomy and a major player on the Heartlands team.
Soon co-published a controversial review article titled, “Proxy climatic and environmental changes of the past 1,000 years” (Climate Research, 2003) with Dr. Sallie Baliunas. The article claimed that the 20th century was not the warmest in the past 1,000 years and that the climate has not changed significantly during this time. After it was published, three of the editors of Climate Research resigned in protest, including incoming editor-in-chief Hans von Storch, who declared the article was seriously flawed because “the conclusions (were) not supported by the evidence presented in the paper.” In addition to the resignations, 13 of the scientists cited in the paper published rebuttals stating that Soon and Baliunas had misinterpreted their work.
According to a 2007 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Smoke, Mirrors and Hot Air,” the National Research Council recently published research concluding that the “global mean surface temperature was higher during the last few decades of the 20th century than during any comparable period in the preceding four centuries.” Nonetheless, Soon’s paper was latched upon by the Bush administration, which noted that his work contradicted views held by many in the climate science community. This shaped and became a part of the rationale for the administration’s — and many subsequent deniers’ —approach to this issue.
The major methodological flaws identified in Soon’s research did not prevent its use by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who concluded, “With all of the hysteria, all of the fear, all of the phony science, could it be that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? It sure sounds like it.”
Doctors Soon and Baliunas have turned up as founding members of denier groups as far away as Argentina, where they are listed as members of the Argentinian Foundation for a Scientific Ecology. Soon’s 2005 CV shows he had papers published in both Russian and Spanish and he appeared at climate denier conferences across Europe.
Connections between the paper’s authors and oil industry groups have been well documented. Soon and Baliunas were at the time paid consultants of the George C. Marshall Institute. Soon also received multiple grants from the American Petroleum Institute between 2001 and 2007 totalling $274,000, and grants from Exxon Mobil between 2005 and 2010 totalling $335,000. Other contributors to Soon’s career have included the Charles G. Koch Foundation, which gave him grants totaling $175,000 in 2005-06 and again in 2010; and coal and oil industry sources such as the Mobil Foundation, the Texaco Foundation and the Electric Power Research Institute.
A Greenpeace report, “Dr. Willie Soon: a Career Fueled by Big Oil and Coal,” revealed that $1.033 million of Soon’s funding since 2001 has come from oil and coal interests. Since 2002, every grant he received originated with fossil fuel interests, according to documents received from the Smithsonian Institution in response to Greenpeace’s Freedom of Information Act requests.
It is Soon’s unshakable and obviously irrefutable position that he has “never been motivated by financial reward in any of my scientific research.” Which clearly closes the case.
To be continued ….
Jerome Page is a Benicia resident.