| Breaking into Politics (1980-1988)
|| - LINKS
| As the 1980s began, the question of global warming had become prominent
enough to be included for the first time in some public opinion polls.
A 1981 survey found that more than a third of American adults claimed
they had heard or read about the greenhouse effect. That meant the
news had spread beyond the small minority who regularly followed scientific
issues. When pollsters explicitly asked people what they thought of
"increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leading to changes in
weather patterns," nearly two-thirds replied that the problem was
"somewhat serious" or "very serious."
| Most of these people, however, would never have brought up the
subject by themselves. Only a small fraction of Americans understood
that the risk of global warming was mainly due to carbon dioxide gas
from fossil fuels. Meanwhile a survey of Canadians found that people
divided about equally among those who thought climate change was due
to some kind of industrial pollution, those who blamed nuclear tests,
and those who pointed to space exploration. (The last was no anomaly,
for a good many Americans surveyed in the 1990s still imagined that
nuclear power and the space program contributed to global warming.)
Most people suspected the issue was something they ought to be concerned
about, but among the world's many problems it did not loom large.
Even those who worried most about pollution were seldom concerned
with global affairs, directing their dismay at the oil spill or chemical
wastes that endangered a particular locality.(75a*)
Among climate scientists, concern continued to rise in the early and mid
1980s. Computer models of the climate were rapidly improving and
winning the trust of experts. The modelers now said they were quite
confident that a global warming of several degrees would come within
the 21st century. To an ordinary citizen, a change of a few degrees
might sound trivial. But the scientists understood that it was serious,
and science journalists passed along their predictions of sea-level
rise and other problems. (Later research confirmed the predictions.
For example, a 2004 study calculated that a rise of 3°C sustained
over centuries would suffice to melt the Greenland ice cap and put
the world’s coastal cities deep under water.) "Gloomsday Predictions
Have No Fault" was how Science magazine summarized the
report of one authoritative review panel. The report was noticed
even by the New York Times, although only deep on an inside
Full discussion in
|Studies of ancient ice,
from deep holes drilled in Greenland and Antarctica, backed up the
models. For they showed that over past glacial cycles, temperatures
and the CO2 content of the atmosphere had gone
up and down together in close synchrony. Meanwhile, British and
American groups announced that the global warming trend, after pausing
between 1940 and the mid-1970s, had resumed with a vengeance. On
average the world was hotter in 1980, 1981, and 1983 than in any
years as far back as good records went (to the mid-19th century).
| When their scientific findings met with public
indifference, more and more climate scientists around the world concluded
that they should work to influence government policy. Along with the
traditional scientists' goal of extracting more funds for their own
field of study, most weather experts had come to feel that knowledge
of climate change would be vitally important for our civilization.
Some went further than urging governments to support research. Convinced
that the world faced severe global warming within their children's
lifetime, they felt called upon to pressure the world's governments
to take active steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
| These concerns were reinforced and complicated
by the ties that some scientists found with other environmentalist
issues. An outstanding example was the distinguished biologist George
Woodwell, who was a founder and board member of both the National
Resources Defense Council and the World Wildlife Fund. Like many biologists
and environmentalists, Woodwell decried the destruction of virgin
tropical forests. He worried that changes in human use of land could
be so socially disruptive "as to be equivalent to the drastic changes
in the human condition that a warming of the climate might lead to."(78) The proliferating slash-and-burn peasants
who cleared new fields were driving countless species toward extinction,
arousing public sympathies for a battle to "save the rainforests."
Activists who linked destruction of tropical species with greenhouse
warming could make better headway on both issues. Magazine and television
images of landscapes going up in smoke began to catch the public eye.
Here at last was an immediate, visible connection of CO2
emission with ruined nature (even though the scientific connection
to global warming was far from certain). Scientists associated with
the Environmental Defense Fund, the World Resources Institute, and
similar groups began to issue reports and lobby Congress about global
| The great majority of scientists remained
politically inactive. They felt they were doing their job by pursuing
research, building up the solid evidence that would tell governments
what to do. "I really don't have that much talent to try to influence
politicians," one climate scientist explained. "It's much better using
my talent, staying as anonymous as possible here, and try to publish
a paper... Because once you start getting in the political arena,...
you lose credibility."(80) These scientists might answer a phone call from a reporter
but they did not offer the confident and snappy answers that journalists
wanted. If pressed to offer policy guidance, they preferred to work
in government-sponsored study panels and answer questions posed by
administrators. Surely official reports by government science agencies,
national academies, and international conferences, by conveying
information would force policy-makers to take appropriate action...?
| A few scientists felt the world would do too little to address
climate change, and too late, unless they personally took the initiative
to stir up the public directly. These scientists had to learn some
tricks. A Senator might brush off an academic who came to speak with
him or his staff, but the Senator paid attention if he saw the scientist
on television. Scientists were generally uncomfortable talking with
the media. Experience showed how journalists might grab a simple phrase,
ignoring the details and qualifications that were inseparable from
an accurate scientific account. A few scientists struggled to get
a hearing by deliberately wielding public relations techniques, such
as crafting approximately accurate but juicy "one-liner" statements
that journalists could pick up. Colleagues who had a rigid sense of
scientific precision were disgusted. One respected scientist publicly
accused his colleagues of publishing "fiction" instead of sound science,
speculating that "some of us feel compelled to emphasize the worst
case in order to get the attention of the decision makers who control
| There was indeed an ethical dilemma here, as Stephen Schneider
pointed out when other scientists criticized his approaches to the
public. It was not easy "to find the balance between being effective
and being honest," he admitted. "But promoting concern over the negative
connotations of the greenhouse effect in this media age usually means
offering few caveats and uncertainties at least if you want
media coverage. Twenty-second spots on national television programs...
do not afford time for hedged statements; and if one is going to influence
the public, one simply has to get into the media."(82)
| To get a reasonably accurate story to the public, the essential
people were professional science writers. There were only a few hundred
of them scattered about the world, spending most of their time writing
up medical news and other topics remote from geophysics. But many
of them were thoughtful people who took their responsibilities seriously.
They worked to maintain a symbiotic relationship with leading scientists,
each side seeking respect and understanding even as they openly used
the other for their purposes.
| When it came to deciding what scientific
developments were news, American journalists tended to take their
cues from the New York Times. The editors of the Times
followed the advice of their veteran science writer, Walter Sullivan.
A lanky and amiable reporter, Sullivan had frequented meetings of
geophysicists ever since the International Geophysical Year of 1957,
cultivating a set of trusted advisers in many fields. On the subject
of climate, he began listening to scientists like Schneider and, in
particular, James Hansen, conveniently located at a NASA institute
in New York City. Hansen was energized by his group's computer studies,
which showed that warming was likely. In 1981, Sullivan persuaded
his editors to feature a story about climate change, based on a scientific
article that Hansen had sent the reporter a few days ahead of its
publication in Science magazine. For the first time the greenhouse
effect made page one of the New York Times. Sullivan threatened
the world with global warming of "almost unprecedented magnitude,"
disrupting agriculture and possibly causing a disastrous rise of sea
level. The newspaper followed up with an editorial, declaring that
while the greenhouse effect was "still too uncertain to warrant total
alteration of energy policy," it was "no longer unimaginable" that
a radical policy change might become necessary.(83)
| This was just one example of a process that
brought the perils of climate change into newspapers, magazines, and
even occasionally television in the early 1980s. The stories usually
rested upon statements by leading scientists including Schneider,
Broecker, Nobel Prize winner Melvin Calvin and others. Politicians,
ever alert to shifts in what the public was worrying about, took notice.(84)
| The fossil-fuel industries, and other business interests, also took notice. Public
worries about greenhouse gases might lead to government regulations,
following the example of restrictions on smog and spray-can chemicals.
That threat caught the attention of political conservatives, who tended to lump
together all claims about impending ecological dooms as left-wing
propaganda. When environmentalist ideals had first stirred, around
the time of Theodore Roosevelt, they had been scattered across the
entire political spectrum. A traditional conservative, let us say
a Republican bird-watcher, could be far more concerned about "conservation"
than a Democratic steelworker (more recently, at the far end of the
traditional Left, Communist nations were the planet's most egregious
polluters). But during the 1960s, as the new Left rose to prominence,
it became permanently associated with environmentalism. Perhaps that
was inevitable. Many environmental problems, like smog, seemed impossible
to solve without government intervention. Such interventions were
anathema to the new Right that began to ascend in the 1970s.
| By the mid 1970s, conservative economic and ideological interests
had joined forces to combat what they saw as mindless eco-radicalism.
Establishing conservative think tanks and media outlets, they propagated
sophisticated intellectual arguments and expert public-relations campaigns
against government regulation for any purpose whatever. On global
warming, it was naturally the fossil-fuel industries that took the
lead. Backed up by some scientists, industry groups developed everything
from elaborate studies to punchy advertisements, aiming to persuade
the public that there was nothing to worry about.
| The message was easily accepted by many among
the public, including some who felt deep sympathy for the natural
world. Many still found it incredible that mere human industry could
seriously interfere with the awesome planetary forces, seeing these
as simply an "environment" that happened to contain and sustain living
creatures. Others had finally abandoned that viewpoint, only to take
up James Lovelock's radical "Gaia hypothesis." Named (in the spirit
of the times) after the Greek Earth-goddess, this hypothesis held
that the atmosphere was a "contrivance" maintained by the biosphere.
There was real scientific content in the idea. But supporters, pushing
ahead to assert that life on Earth necessarily and automatically maintains
an atmosphere suitable for itself, gave a spuriously scientific gloss
to the snug old confidence in the Balance of Nature. (However, some
suspected that Gaia would defend "her" balance simply by allowing
humanity to eliminate itself.)
| The most comforting ideas came from a respected
scientist, Sherwood Idso, who published arguments that greenhouse
gas emissions would not warm the Earth or bring any other harm to
climate. Better still, by fertilizing crops, the increase of CO2
would bring tremendous benefits. His book, Carbon Dioxide: Friend
or Foe? came down entirely on the side of Friend. In his opinion,
the increase of CO2 "is something to be encouraged
and not suppressed."(85) Along the way Idso attacked the "scientific
establishment" for rejecting his theories. His scientific and popular
publications stirred vehement controversy.
| As environmental and industrial groups and their scientific fellow-travelers
hurled uncompromising claims back and forth across a widening political
gulf, most scientists found it hard to get a hearing for more ambiguous
views. "Our instincts are to fight scientifically fair and to openly
admit uncertainty, even when unscientific weapons are deployed," a
climate scientist later remarked. "This mismatch often leads to an amplified
sense of 'scientific' controversy."(86) Journalists in search of a gripping
story tended to present every scientific question as if it were a
head-on battle between two equal and diametrically opposite sides.
Yet most scientists saw themselves as just a bunch of people with
various degrees of uncertainty, groping about in a fog.
| After Ronald Reagan became President in 1981, environmental issues
of every kind became a useful tool for opponents of the Republican
administration. Reagan and his supporters could be counted on to embarrass
themselves with a see-no-evil approach to any industrial activity.
The greenhouse effect question now became somewhat polarized along
political lines. You could often guess whether someone thought global
warming was likely to happen, if you knew what they thought about
any sort of government environmental regulation.
The fires of public interest were stoked
by Congressional hearings (promoted especially by Albert Gore, who
had taken an early interest in the topic). Still more newsworthy
was a controversy that broke out in 1983 when the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) issued a report declaring that the future
temperature rise could be catastrophic. As the New York Times
noted in a front-page story, the EPA report was the first time a
Federal agency had declared that global warming was "not a
theoretical problem but a threat whose effects will be felt within
a few years." Within decades, the Times suggested,
the sea level might rise and food production could suffer. That stood in stark contradiction to a soothing report that the National Academy
of Sciences issued just days later. According to this report,
as Sullivan summarized it in a Times editorial, "the greenhouse
effect is for real but we can live with it."
|Reagan administration officials, pointing to the Academy's reassurances,
criticized the EPA report as "alarmist." Here was a tale
of battling perspectives, just what journalists needed to make a lively
story. It even got onto national television. In the offices of NOAA,
the federal agency responsible for climate science, a scientist recorded
that "phones have been ringing all over the country." One
historian has suggested that it was this controversy that first pushed
climate change into full public view, "transforming the issue
from one of scientific concern to one of political controversy."
Certainly it was largely political skirmishing that prompted popular
magazines and newspapers to report on the greenhouse effect repeatedly
during the early 1980s.(86a)
|Far greater attention
went to other atmospheric changes. Air pollution remained a problem
in many cities, and now it was joined by dire warnings about "acid
rain." During the 1970s, scientists had begun to report that rain
carrying sulfates emitted by power plants and other industries was
devastating fish and forests, and even the paint on houses, in certain
vulnerable regions. Coal-burning industries quieted local protests
by building their smokestacks hundreds of feet high, but that only
spread the damage more widely. In the 1980s, the problem stirred extensive
political controversy and even international recriminations. Images
of moribund stands of trees and decaying statues, attacked by sulfuric
acid derived from smokestacks thousands of miles upwind, bore witness that
industrial emissions could be a problem for everyone, everywhere.
Local environmental activism was no use when power plants half a continent away sickened your neighborhood
lake.(87) Some environmentalists proclaimed that acid rain would
eventually damage the entire planet. And this was not the worst global
| In 1980, scientists announced a new theory
for what had killed off the dinosaurs tens of millions of years ago:
an asteroid had struck the Earth and clouded the atmosphere for years,
freezing plants and animals. The theory fascinated the public, perhaps
less because it addressed dinosaurs than because it addressed extinction.
That struck a resonance with deep-set fears of nuclear war, which
had revived around the time Reagan took office. As one scientist remarked,
the asteroid theory "commanded belief because it fit with what we
are prepared to believe... Like everyone else... I carry within my
consciousness the images of mushroom clouds." The idea of global extinction
caused by a blast coming from the sky, he said, "feels right
because it fits so neatly into the nightmares that project our own
|| <=World winter
| On Hallowe'en 1983, a group of respected
atmospheric scientists held a press conference to make a carefully
orchestrated announcement about a different climate catastrophe. They
had come to fear that soot from cities torched in a nuclear war might
blacken the atmosphere as much as an asteroid strike. Years of cold
and dark might jeopardize the survival of all humankind. Didn't that
prove that launching a nuclear attack, even if the other side never
fired back, would be literally suicidal? So maintained a group of
well-known experts, including West Europeans and Russians as well
as Americans, and most prominently Carl Sagan a chief spokesperson
for the group because his fame, much more as an astronomy popularizer
than as an atmospheric scientist, could attract television cameras.
The scientists' aim was frankly political. They meant to reinforce
a public movement that was just then calling on the United States
to reduce its inventory of bombs. Meanwhile the announcement added
another layer to public imagination of calamitous global climate change.
|| <=World winter
|Other scientists questioned the scientific
reasoning, and the Reagan administration heaped scorn on its critics.
Even before the scientific study was published, government scientists
among the authors felt pressure to keep a low profile. The pressure
backfired. Forbidden to include the words "nuclear war" in the title
of their paper, one of them came up with an evocative phrase
"nuclear winter." Sagan and others battled their critics in sharp
partisan debate. From the outset, a person's views on the climate
scientists' predictions could usually be guessed from the person's
views about nuclear disarmament. Newspapers, magazines, and even television
gave the battle close attention. From this point on, computer calculations
of the effects of dust and the fragility of the atmosphere were inescapably
entangled in national politics.(89)
| While these issues were being thrashed out to exhaustion, public
interest in global warming flagged. Around 1984 the coverage of the
issue, as measured by numbers of books and magazine and newspaper
articles, dropped back.(90*)
The spell of unusually bad weather in the early 1970s was fading from
memory, and exclamations about an imminent catastrophe waned. Besides,
the Clean Air Act plus the ban on ozone-destroying chemicals suggested
to the public (as politicians intended) that the most urgent dangers
were well in hand. Anyway the news media rarely sustain a high level
of anxiety about any topic for more than a few years. Observers of the media have noted that there is a limited "news hole" that has to be filled with genuinely new topics. Editors dislike
publishing article after article on the same subject in the absence
of striking and novel events, for repetition quickly bores the public.
| The attention of the minority who continued
to worry about planetary doom likewise turned to other problems. Such
movements, including fears of nuclear war, tended to rise and fall
in decade-long cycles. Back in the mid 1960s, when Cold War tensions
had dwindled, many committed activists had turned from their grueling
campaign against nuclear weapons to spend their energies on environmentalist
causes. Now, with the Reagan administration trumpeting its anti-Soviet
belligerence, many activists turned their attention from the environment
back to the Cold War. The "nuclear winter" controversy was a milestone
in the transition to agitation for a "nuclear freeze," a halt in production
of nuclear weapons.(91)
| Fears of climate change decades in the future could not hold a candle to fears of imminent nuclear
war, nor even to the mounting public concern about peaceful nuclear
reactors with their risks of explosions and radioactive wastes. Climate
change did include some of the factors that are effective in rousing
public anxiety. People are not particularly afraid of risks that seem
familiar and within their personal control, feeling only too little
anxiety as they smoke or race a red light. Climate change offered less
comfortable risks. Dread of the unknown was fostered by a feeling
that great forces were at work, operating in a hidden fashion, mysterious
even to scientists. Worse, the threat was something new, and growing,
and far beyond anyone's personal control. However, nuclear energy
had similar factors in at least equal strength, plus many more hooks
digging into people's minds. Uncanny rays and poisons, menacing authority
figures (mad scientist, belligerent general, cold-blooded corporate
executive), images of Hiroshima, above all the actual existence of
nuclear missiles that might at any moment descend on your home
when such things came back to mind, they easily displaced abstract
worries about a few degrees of warming in the next century.(92)
|Although climate arguments faded from the news, they had left a
residue in the public mind. The idea that nuclear war might bring
global environmental disaster had been familiar for decades as a science-fiction
scenario. From the start it had brought to mind far older tales
the Ice-Winter at the world's end in Nordic myth, intertwined with
the Bible's apocalyptic rain of fire. Scientific calculations of "nuclear
winter" and other devastation now made it hard to dismiss such visions
as fantasy. We cannot observe the deep levels beyond logic where ideas
connect in the minds that make up the public, but we can guess at
what was happening there. Probably for many people the dread connected
with nuclear war, a complex of images and attitudes covering the entire
range from politics to paranoia, became loosely associated with feelings
about climate change. The idea that humankind itself might trigger
global atmospheric change as if in punishment for our transgressions
against the natural order was looking more than ever like a
| This attitude was nailed down in 1985 when a British group announced
their discovery of a "hole" in the ozone layer over Antarctica. The
discovery could have been made years earlier if scientists had been
more on the lookout for ways that human production of a small amount of obscure chemicals
could ravage the atmosphere. The apparent culprit was again CFCs,
banned from American spray cans but still widely produced around the
world for a variety of functions. Inevitably a new controversy began,
for again industrial interest groups automatically denied that any
of their products could be hazardous. Reagan administration officials
reflexively backed the industries against hostile environmentalists.
| This time the denials were short-lived. Within
two years experts were convinced. For the public, television showed
colorful maps displaying the lack of ozone. A few scientists warned
that the same chemicals that destroyed ozone could add to global warming,
but that was mostly overlooked. The immediate threat was the ozone
destruction, which would increase skin cancers and bring many other
biological harms. But many members of the public got ozone depletion
confused with global warming, as if the two problems were one. (Even at the peak of attention to ozone, climate change got many more stories in newspapers and television.)(92a) Ignorant
of the science, the majority only sensed obscurely that atmospheric
changes were looking more dangerous.
| The public took a strong
interest in the "ozone hole," forcing a political response. The outcome
was an international agreement, forged in Montreal in 1987, to gradually
halt production of ozone-destroying substances. If the agreement was
enforced, and if it was extended as industry produced new chemicals,
that would settle the ozone problem. It would do little to retard
global warming, but the agreement proved that the world could take
effective action against an atmospheric threat if the threat
was sufficiently convincing, immediate, and well publicized.
| The Summer of 1988 TOP OF PAGE
| While the
public was assimilating the lesson of the ozone hole the fact
that human activity could change the atmosphere both quickly
and seriously scientists were assimilating the latest research.
A new breed of interdisciplinary studies was showing that even a few
degrees of warming might have harsh consequences, both for fragile
natural ecosystems and for certain agricultural systems and other
human endeavors. Gradually experts were discovering that even a degree
or two of warming might devastate many of the world's coral reefs,
that tropical diseases would invade new territory, and so forth. Still
more troubling, it seemed that the entire climate system could change
more rapidly than most experts had suspected. A mere couple of decades
might bring a shocking surprise. In particular, some scientists speculated that the circulation of
water in the North Atlantic might shift abruptly, and bring
not warmth but severe cooling to the region.
| These research findings began to show up
sporadically in articles addressed to the science-attentive public.
Broecker in particular issued warnings, as when he wrote in Natural
History magazine that we had been treating the greenhouse effect
as a "cocktail hour curiosity," but now "we must view it as a threat
to human beings and wildlife." The magazine's editors went even beyond
that, putting a banner on the cover that read, "Europe beware: the
big chill may be coming." Might global warming bring a change in ocean
currents that would, paradoxically, make London as cold as Labrador?
(Broecker was annoyed, for in fact he had given little sustained thought
at that time to whether human activities might cause damaging changes
in ocean currents.)(93) The notion that a climate catastrophe might descend swiftly
was now on the world's public agenda.
| The idea was not widely heeded, even by the minority of people
who read about such matters. The risk that global warming would bring,
for instance, an oceanic change that could freeze Europe, was just
one small item among many futuristic concerns. Far more was written
about the potential threat of radioactive wastes from nuclear power
plants, the perils of genetically modified plants, the remote but
exciting possibility of bombardment by a giant asteroid, and so forth.
| The most visibly outspoken climate expert
was James Hansen. In 1986 and 1987, he created a minor stir among
those alert to the issue when he testified before a Congressional
committee. He insisted that global warming was no vague and distant
possibility, but something that would become apparent within a decade
or so. His group of climate modelers claimed that they could "confidently
state that major greenhouse climate changes are a certainty." In particular,
"the global warming predicted in the next 20 years will make the Earth
warmer than it has been in the past 100,000 years."(94*)
| News reporters gave only a little attention
to Hansen's November 1987 Congressional testimony, and they did not
quote Broecker’s January 1987 statement at all, as newspapers
filled their columns with stories of a severe winter storm. A report
a few months later that the 1980s were proving to be the hottest years
ever recorded did make it into the New York Times (March
29) but only on an inside page. As the summer of 1988 began, global
warming remained below the threshold of public attention. Roughly
half the American public were not even aware of the problem. Those
who had heard about warming mostly saw it as something that the next
generation might need to worry about... or might not.
| A shift of views had been prepared, however, by the ozone hole,
acid rain, and other atmospheric pollution stories, and by a decade
of agitation on these and many other environmental issues, and by
the slow turning of scientific opinion toward stronger concern about
global warming. Only a match was needed to ignite the worries. This
is often the case for matters of intellectual concern. No matter how
much pressure builds up among concerned experts, some trigger is needed
to produce an explosion of public attention.
| The trigger came that summer. Already by June, heat waves
and drought had become a severe problem, drawing public attention
to the climate. Many newspaper, magazine, and television stories showed
threatened crops and speculated about possible causes. Hansen raised
the stakes with deliberate intent. "I weighed the costs of being wrong
versus the costs of not talking," he later recalled, and decided that
he had to speak out. By arrangement with Senator Timothy Wirth, Hansen
testified to a Congressional hearing on June 23. He had pointed out
to Wirth's staff that the previous year's November hearings might
have been more effective in hot weather. Wirth and his staff decided
to hold their next session in the summer, although that was hardly
a normal time for politicians who sought attention.(95)
| Their luck was good.
Outside the room, the temperature that day reached a record high.
Inside, Hansen said he could state "with 99% confidence" that a long-term
warming trend was underway, and he strongly suspected that the greenhouse
effect was to blame. By the early 2000s, he predicted (correctly), the average global temperature would be markedly higher. Relying not only on his computer work but
also on elementary physical arguments, he warned that global warming
was liable to bring more frequent storms and floods as well as life-threatening
|Talking with reporters
afterward, Hansen said it was time to "stop waffling, and say that
the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here."
Some news reports confused Hansen's assertions, reporting that he
was virtually certain that the greenhouse effect was the cause of
the current droughts.(97) The story was no longer a scientific abstraction about
an atmospheric phenomenon: it was about a present danger to everyone
from farmers to the owners of beach houses.
| The timing was right, and the media leaped on the story. Hansen's
statements, especially that severe warming was likely within the next
50 years, got on the front pages of newspapers and were featured in
television news and radio talk shows.(98*) Many climate experts, innately repulsed by the inaccuracies
and exaggerations of the public arena, felt Hansen had gone too far
beyond what the scientific evidence justified. Some respected scientists
publicly rebuked him.(99) The problem, however, lay not so much with his explicit
statements as with his combative tone and the way the media reacted
| The story grew as the summer of 1988 wore
on. Reporters descended unexpectedly
upon an international conference of scientists held in Toronto at
the end of June. Their stories prominently reported how the world's
leading climate scientists declared that atmospheric changes were
already causing harm, and might cause much more; the scientists called for vigorous
government action to restrict greenhouse gases. Meanwhile the heat
waves and droughts continued, devastating wide regions of the United States. Old people died
in cities, shops ran out of air conditioners, many communities imposed
water rationing, there were fears of a new Dust Bowl, and the level
of the Mississippi River fell so low that barge traffic was paralyzed.
On top of that came "super hurricane" Gilbert and the worst forest
fires of the century. Cover articles in news magazines, lead stories
on television news programs, and countless newspaper columns offered
dramatic images of sweltering cities, sun-blasted crops, and Yellowstone
National Park aflame.
July '88 cover
| Reporters asked, were all these caused by the greenhouse effect?
Simply from endless repetition of the question, many people became
half convinced that human pollution was indeed to blame for it all.
The images triggered the anxieties that had been gradually building
up about our interference with weather. As one scholar who studied
these events put it, "Whether regarded as a warning signal or a metaphor
of a possible future, the weather unleashed a surge of fear that brought
concentrated attention to the greenhouse effect."(100)
| News reports often failed to explain that scientists never claimed
that a given spell of weather was an infallible reflection of global
warming. Schneider, who also testified in Congressional hearings and
was often quoted, suggested that "the association of local extreme
heat and drought with global warming took on a growing credibility
simply from its repeated assertion." He worried that the media exaggerations
would bring the public to dismiss climate science as unreliable when
the next cold, wet season arrived.(101) But Schneider, Hansen, and their fellows could only be
pleased that the issue had at last gotten into the spotlight. "I've
never seen an environmental issue mature so quickly," an environmental
advocate remarked, "shifting from science to the policy realm almost
|The number of articles on climate listed
in the Readers' Guide, which had held steady since the mid
1970s, took a quantum leap upward. Between spring and fall of 1988
the number of articles listed abruptly tripled, and over following
years remained at the new level. The number of American newspaper
articles on global warming jumped tenfold in 1988 over what was published
in 1987 (which was already well above the negligible number published
a decade earlier) and continued to rise in following years.(103*) For the first time, global warming showed up repeatedly
in the most widely read of all American media, the comic strips. In
the second half of 1988 the problem got a mention in such highly popular,
and normally scarcely topical, strips as "Kathy," "Calvin and Hobbes,"
"Little Orphan Annie" and even "Dick Tracy." Their creators could
take it for granted that readers understood their clever remarks about
| A killing heat wave in China, a ghastly flood
in Bangladesh, and spectacular episodes of ocean pollution in Europe
gave climate worries a global reach. The Toronto meeting, and many
other avenues of communication among environmentalists and scientists,
helped spread concern internationally. In Germany, to take one case,
a subgroup of the German Physical Society had already prepared attitudes
with a 1986 report carrying the dramatic title, "Warning of the Impending
Climate Catastrophe." Although most scientists quickly backed away
from the apocalyptic tone, from then on the phrase "Klimacatastrophe"
permeated Germany's media and public consciousness. Attention mounted
steadily through 1988 and into the early 1990s.(104)
|In September 1988 a poll found that 58% of
Americans recalled having heard or read about the greenhouse effect.
It was a big jump from the 38% that had heard about it in 1981, and
an extraordinarily high level of public awareness for any scientific
phenomenon. Most of these citizens recognized that "greenhouse effect"
meant the threat of global warming, and most thought they would live
to experience climate changes.(105) In other polls, a majority of Americans said that they
thought the greenhouse effect was "very serious" or "extremely serious,"
and that they personally worried "a fair amount" or even "a great
deal" about global warming. Fewer than one-fifth said they worried
"not at all" or had no opinion.(106*)
| Politicians could not overlook such strong public concern
nor could they overlook the heat in the capital city itself, where
the summer of 1988 was the hottest on record.Congress saw a flurry of activity
as some 32 bills dealing with climate were introduced.(107) Whether or not attention could be
sustained at such a high level, global warming had finally won a prominent
and enduring place on the public agenda.
| Just as there is a finite "news hole”" in the media, so psychologists report a "finite pool of worry" in individuals: if you are busy worrying about one thing, you have less energy to worry about another.(108)Nuclear war concerns were fading as the Soviet Union decayed,
and people striving to reform the world could redirect their energies
toward environmental issues. The environmental movement, which had
found only occasional interest in global warming, now took it up as
a main cause. Groups that had other reasons for preserving tropical
forests, promoting energy conservation, slowing population growth,
or reducing air pollution could make common cause as they offered
their various ways to reduce emissions of CO2.
Greenpeace, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club, and many
other organizations made reduction one of their top priorities.(109) Adding their voices to the chorus
were people who looked for arguments to weaken the prestige of large
corporations, and people who wanted to scold the public for its wastefulness.
For better or worse, global warming became identified more than ever
as a "green" issue. In principle it could have been viewed instead
as a technical problem of global engineering (how should we manage
the planet's climate?). But pollution and weather disasters brought
in high economic stakes and potent imagery. Global warming was no
longer just a research question, but a subject of political
| In the long perspective, it was an extraordinary novelty that such
a thing became a political question at all. Global warming was invisible,
no more than a possibility, and not even a current possibility but
something predicted to emerge only after decades had passed. The prediction
was based on complex reasoning and data that only a scientist could
understand. It was a remarkable advance for humanity that such a thing
could be a subject of widespread and intense debate.
| Discourse had grown more sophisticated in many ways. That may have
been partly because of the steady accumulation of knowledge, and also
because the public in wealthy countries had become better educated
(a larger fraction of young people was now going to college than had
gone to high school at the start of the century). Furthermore, stable
times encouraged people to plan farther into the future than in earlier
eras. So too, perhaps, did the unexpected addition of decades to the
| The discussion was also made possible by the new relationship that
had grown between people and the atmosphere, indeed with all nature.
Global warming, along with the ozone hole and acid rain and smog,
had obscurely entangled the atmosphere in politics. The winds and
clouds had taken on (as one observer later mused) "a vaguely sinister
cast... It was perfect weather for postmodernists: inescapably self-referential."(110) In an influential New Yorker magazine article
and book, nature writer Bill McKibben announced "The End of Nature."
In 1900, nature had surrounded our towns and fields. People saw it
partly as a nurturing setting for humanity, and partly as a savage
"outside" to be tamed and civilized. By the 1970s, more
and more people had come to see nature the other way around, as a
preserve surrounded by civilization. Now the preserve itself had been
|It was not just that our pollution invisibly invaded the atmosphere.
The feeling of contamination by radioactive fallout and acid rain
was bad enough, yet those seemed like reversible additions, superimposed
upon the old natural system. The greenhouse effect was different,
McKibben declared, for "the meaning of the wind, the sun,
the rain of nature has already changed." Now every cloud,
every breeze, bore the imprint of human hands. The taint was not only
around us but within us. People bowed to sadness and guilt as we realized
that we had "taken a hammer to the most perfectly proportioned of
| Rising Controversy TOP OF PAGE
| After the spate of global warming stories in the summer of 1988,
media attention inevitably declined as more normal weather set in.
As noted above, even for a potential danger, readers
will become discouraged or simply bored when nothing immediate is
done, and editors will look for something novel to fill their "news hole." Pinning the story on temporary weather crises did not help the winter of 1989 was a particularly
cold one. The climate change story also lacked an interesting enemy,
a devil (other than ourselves) to blame for the world's woes.(112) But even if an issue is no longer
in the forefront of everyone's mind, it can remain present. Although
press coverage of global warming sank after its peak in the summer
of 1988, it now fluctuated around a much higher average level than
in the early 1980s.(113)
| The issue had entirely caught the attention of one vital section
of the public the scientific community. It is impossible to
judge how far scientists altered their research plans because of aroused
public interest. Scientists were far more aware than the general public
of how the scientific findings of the past decade, the supercomputer
calculations and ice core measurements and data on rising global temperatures,
had raised the plausibility of greenhouse warming forecasts. At a minimum,
the big step up in public interest suggested that anyone studying
the topic would get a better hearing when requesting funds, recruiting
students, and publishing.
| For whatever reason, climate research topics now became far more
prominent in the scientific community itself. Prestigious general-science
journals like Nature and Science, and popularizing
magazines like the New Scientist, had published perhaps one
or two significant climate articles per year in the early and mid
1980s. Now they began to publish one almost every week. The higher
level was sustained over the following years. This was probably a
main reason why the general press, whose science reporters took their
cue from scientists and their journals, continued to carry numerous
articles on climate change.
| In the specialized scientific
journals themselves, citations to topics like "greenhouse gases" and
"climate modeling" had held fairly steady at a low level through the
mid 1980s, but after 1988 they rose spectacularly. References to the
subject continued to rise ever higher through the 1990s. Citations
to climate change in social-science journals began to soar at the
same time.(114) Meanwhile scientific conferences proliferated, ranging
from small workshops to highly publicized international events, so
numerous that nobody could attend more than a fraction.
| Environmentalist organizations continued to make global warming
a main focus, carrying on with sporadic lobbying and advertising efforts
to argue for restrictions on emissions. The environmentalists were
opposed, and greatly outspent, by industries that produced or relied
on fossil fuels. Industry groups not only mounted a sustained and
professional public relations effort, but also channeled considerable
sums of money to individual scientists and small conservative organizations
and publications that denied any need to act against global warming.(115)
This effort followed the pattern of scientific criticism and advertising
that industrial groups had used to attack warnings against ozone depletion
and acid rain (not to mention automobile smog, tobacco smoke, etc.).
Although those campaigns had been discredited after a decade or two,
fair-minded people were ready to listen to the global warming skeptics.
| It was reasonable to argue that intrusive government regulation
to reduce CO2 emissions would be premature, given
the scientific uncertainties. Conservatives pointed out that if something
did have to be done, the longer we waited, the better we might know
how to do it. They also argued that a strong economy (which they presumed
meant one with the least possible government regulation of industry)
would offer the best insurance against future shocks. Activists replied
that action to retard the damage should begin as soon as possible,
if only to gain experience in how to restrict gases without harming
the economy. They argued hardest for policy changes that they had
long desired for other reasons, such as protecting tropical forests
and removing government subsidies that promoted fossil fuel use.
|The topic was becoming more and more politicized. A study of American
media found that in 1987 most items that mentioned the greenhouse
effect had been feature stories about the science, whereas in 1988
the majority of the stories addressed the politics of the controversy.
It was not that the number of science stories declined, but rather
that as media coverage doubled and redoubled, the additional stories
moved into social and political areas.(116) Another study similarly found that
before 1988, some three-quarters of the articles on climate change
in leading American newspapers described the problem and its causes,
whereas by the early 1990s, more than half of the far more numerous
articles focused on claims about proposed remedies or on moral judgments.
Before 1988, the journalists had drawn chiefly on scientists for their
information, but afterward they relied chiefly on sources who were
identified with political positions or special interest groups.(117) Meanwhile the interest groups themselves, from environmentalists
to automobile manufacturers, increasingly advertised their views on
|Both scientific and political arguments were thoroughly entangled
with broader attitudes. Public support for environmental concerns
in generalbegan to wane after 1988. That may have been partly the natural exhaustion of any movement once it achieves major goals. But a study by social scientists found that political polarization on environmental concern surged in the U.S. public around 1992, "driven by increasing anti-environmentalism among conservative elites." While some conservatives had long opposed environmental regulation, the international triumph of environmentalism in the 1992 Rio "Earth Summit," the 1991 election of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union changed the focus on the political right from the Communist threat to a perceived "green" threat. The ignominious collapse of Soviet Communism also reinforced the confidence of those who opposed government intervention in economic affairs. Actually it was in the Soviet Union, more than anywhere, that unrestricted pollution had shown that the worst predictions of environmentalists could come true. But people who sought to restrict greenhouse gases could not shake loose from the association of restrictions with over-centralized command of the economy.(117a)
| Many believed that only good could come of
whatever the triumphant free-market economy produced, including greenhouse
gases. A few scientists sustained the old argument that the "enrichment"
of the atmosphere by CO2 would be a positively
good thing for agriculture and for civilization in general. Some thought
global warming itself would be all for the better. Russians in particular,
in their bleak winters, looked forward to a warmer climate. At
the end of 1988, the senior Russian climatologist Mikhail Budyko told
an international conference of scientists that global warming would
make tundra regions fertile an argument received, an American
scientist recalled, like "swearing in the church." (Budyko did agree
however that whatever the effects of global warming in the 21st century,
over the longer term it could well be dangerous.)(118*)
| The main argument offered against regulating
greenhouse gases was simply to deny that warming was likely to come
at all. A few scientists insisted that the statistics of record-breaking
heat since the 1970s were illusory. The most prominent of these skeptics
was S. Fred Singer, who retired in 1989 from a distinguished career
managing government programs in weather satellites and other technical
enterprises, then founded an environmental policy group. He got financial
support from conservative foundations and fossil fuel corporations.
Among other objections, Singer argued that all the expert groups had
somehow failed to properly account for the well-known effects of urbanization
when they compiled global temperature statistics. (119)
Other skeptics pointed to analysis
of satellite data that failed to show warming (debate continued all
through the 1990s, until errors in the satellite instrument record were ironed out). Some conceded that global
temperatures had risen modestly, but held that the rise was just a
chance fluctuation. After all, for centuries there had been gradual
drops and rises of average temperature around the North Atlantic. Why couldn't the next decades experience a cooling?
They entirely disbelieved the computer models that predicted warming
from the greenhouse effect. All of these arguments had some
validity, given the limits of scientific knowledge at the time. A citizen with a taste for science could pick up the
ideas from occasional semi-popular articles.
| Especially well founded
were the doubts about computer model predictions. Different models
gave different predictions for just how a given locality would be
affected by global warming (or at any rate by "global climate change,"
the more general phrase that cautious writers were adopting). Still,
all the models agreed pretty well on the projected average
warming.. The main trend turned out to faithfully confirm the predictions
of of simpler models from earlier decades. Yet when critics (like the
respected meteorologist Richard Lindzen) set a strict scientific standard,
demanding solid proof that no crucial effect had been left out, the
modelers had to admit that many uncertainties remained and they had
much work to do.
| The science remained ambiguous enough to leave scientists, like
everyone else, susceptible to influence from their deepest beliefs.
The wish to personally preserve and improve the world, often a strong
motivation for those who chose scientific careers, was not restricted
to supporters of environmental regulations. Journalists remarked that
the scientific critics of global warming were mostly strong political
conservatives. Their intense skepticism about global warming could seem, as
one journalist noticed, to grow less from research than from a "distaste
for any centralized government action" and an almost "religious" faith
that humanity could never be laid low.(120) Conservatives in return advised that the most strident
official and scientific warnings about global warming seemed designed
to promote government action, not only on behalf of the environment
but on behalf of empowering bureaucracies and climate researchers
themselves. Yet no scientists claimed that their chief concern was
political. What would ultimately matter was whether global warming
was truly a menace.
| The technical criticism most widely noted
in the press came in several brief "reports" not scientific
papers in the usual sense published between 1989 and 1992 by
the conservative George C. Marshall Institute. The anonymously authored
pamphlets came with the endorsement of Frederick Seitz, former head
of the National Academy of Sciences, an ageing but still highly admired
scientist whose expertise had been in solid-state physics (which had nothing to do with climate). The reports
assembled a well-argued array of skeptical scientific thinking, backed
up by vocal support from a few reputable meteorologists such as Singer. Claiming
that proposed government regulation would be "extraordinarily costly
to the U.S. economy," they insisted it would be unwise to act on the
basis of the existing global warming theories.
|The conservative political connections of the Marshall group (Seitz, William Nierenberg and Robert Jastrow) had been shown earlier. They had all lent their names in support of President Reagan's attempt to build giant lasers to shoot down nuclear missiles ("Star Wars") even as many other respected physicists attacked the scheme as technologically infeasible. The Marshall group's stance reflected a long-held belief in the supreme value of scientific and technological progress; ever since the nuclear debates of the 1960s, they had feared this progress was mortally threatened by environmentalists and the left in general. Seitz, Singer, and some of their colleagues had also joined the fight against regulation of tobacco smoke and similar causes. Their specialty was scientific arguments — which in the case of anti-missile lasers, tobacco smoke, and other issues usually turned out to be erroneous. It was so with the first and most important Marshall report. Its scientific argument insisted that recent global warming was due to solar activity. It predicted, wrongly, that as the activity declined in future decades, the planet would get markedly cooler.(121*)
| Opponents of regulation
made sure that the technical uncertainties described in the Marshall
Institute reports and elsewhere became widely known. In 1989 some
of the biggest corporations in the petroleum, automotive, and other
industries created a Global Climate Coalition, whose mission was to
disparage every call for action against global warming. Operating
out of the offices of the National Association of Manufacturers, over
the following decade the organization would spend tens of millions
of dollars. It supported lectures and publications by a few skeptical
scientists, produced slick publications and videos and sent them wholesale
to journalists, and advertised directly to the public every doubt
about the reality of global warming.(122)
|The criticism fitted well with the visceral distrust of environmentalism
that right-wing political commentators were spreading. The Marshall reports strongly influenced President George H.W. Bush's
administration. Enough of the public was likewise sufficiently impressed
by the skeptical advertising and news reports, or at least sufficiently
confused by them, so that the administration felt free to avoid taking
serious steps against global warming.
| Scientists noticed something that the public largely overlooked:
the most outspoken scientific critiques of global warming predictions
did not appear in the standard peer-reviewed scientific publications. The critiques tended to appear in venues funded by industrial
groups, or in conservative media like the Wall Street Journal.
Most climate experts, while agreeing that future warming was not a
proven fact, found the critics' counter-arguments dubious, and some
publicly decried their reports as misleading.(123) Other experts, Hansen for one, exclaimed
that "wait and see" was no way to deal with the "climate time-bomb."
Going beyond calls to limit greenhouse gas emissions, he concluded
that "governments must foster conditions leading to population stabilization."(124) On several points open conflict broke out between some
scientists, with acrimonious and personalized exchanges.(125)
| To science journalists and their editors, the controversy was confusing,
but excellent story material. The American media gave climate change
substantial coverage through the late 1980s and early 1990s, notably
in the New York Times, which still largely set the agenda
for other American media. News magazines published many stories, although
television gave only light coverage. Many reporters took a skeptical
view of the administration's position. Outside a few deeply conservative
media like the Wall Street Journal and right-wing talk radio
programs, journalists tended to accept that greenhouse warming was
underway. Following the usual tendency of the media to grab attention
with dire predictions, a majority of the reports suggested that the
consequences of global warming could be cataclysmic, with devastating
droughts, ferocious storms, waves attacking drowned coastlines, the
spread of deadly tropical diseases. The worst consequences were expected
for certain vulnerable developing nations, but as usual the America
media gave little attention to the rest of the world. Many stories
optimistically suggested that technological progress would solve the
problem. Journalists did not often emphasize that citizens might have
to make hard choices between conflicting values.
|Seeking the excitement of conflict, as was their wont in covering
almost any subject, some reporters wrote their stories as if the
issue were a simple fight between climate scientists and the Republican
administration. The ideological dimension was also stressed by conservative
think tanks (the Cato Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute,
Heritage Foundation, Hoover Institution, etc.) which increasingly
sponsored pamphlets, press releases, public lectures and so forth,
arguing that global warming was not really a problem at all. It
was just "junk science," they claimed, a "scare tactic"
worked up for selfish purposes by power-seeking bureaucrats and
Many journalists responded by presenting the issue as if it were
a quarrel between two diametrically opposed groups of scientists.
Reporters often sought an artificial balance by matching "pro"
with "anti" scientists, one against one. Publications that reported climate science news of ominous developments were hounded by angry letters to the editor demanding that the contrary view, denying global warming as a problem, should get equal time. A study of major
U.S. newspapers found that up to 1994, climate scientists who were
highly respected by their peers were cited considerably more frequently
than the skeptics associated with conservative think tanks, but
after 1995, as the conservatives grew more active, newspapers cited
the two groups about equally. A similar shift was noted in the United Kingdom in the early 1990s: climate scientists lost control of the issue.(126)
| When scratch surveys sought the real opinions
of climate scientists, most of them revealed mixed feelings. A modest
majority believed that global warming was very probably underway.
It was only a small minority who insisted there was no problem, while
at least as many insisted that the threat was acute. Amid the publicized
controversy, it was hard to recognize that there was in fact a consensus,
shared by most experts global warming was quite probable although
not certain. Scientists agreed above all that it was impossible to
be entirely sure. The media got that much right, for most reports
in the early 1990s emphasized the lack of certainty.
|Recognizing the need for a better representation of what scientists
did and did not understand, climate scientists and government officials
formed an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC’s
committees managed to forge consensus views that almost every expert
and official could accept, and published them as definitive reports.
The first IPCC report, released in 1990, rehearsed the usual ambiguous
warnings about the possibilities of global warming. This was nothing
exciting or surprising, and the report got hardly any
|Scientific opinion was shifting, but so gradually
that it would take a special event to make that appear as "news."An opportunity came with the IPCC's second report,
issued near the end of 1995. The somnolent public debate revived on the news
that the panel had agreed that the world really was getting warmer,
and that the warming was probably caused at least in part by humanity.
Although many scientists had been saying that for years, this was
the first formal declaration by the assembled experts of the world.
It was page-one news in many countries, immediately recognized as
a landmark in the debate. (Other warnings from the panel, such as
the possibility of climate "surprises," were less noted.)(128*)
|Better still for reporters, the report stirred up a
nasty controversy, for a few critics cast doubt upon the personal
integrity of some IPCC scientists. This marked a historic shift to ad hominem attacks. In earlier controversies, even the bitter wars over the dangers of tobacco smoke, debate had largely been confined to the scientific arguments, not the scientists themselves. The principal target of the 1996 attack was Ben Santer, a main author of the report. Accused of deliberate dishonesty in the way he summarized the scientific findings, Santer had to spend the better part of the following summer dealing with journalists and e-mails, not to mention death threats and disruption of his family life; the strain contributed to the breakup of his marriage. The accusations, orchestrated by people connected with right-wing organizations, were so dispiriting that Santer considered giving up science altogether.(129)
Even more newsworthy
was the international Kyoto Climate Conference, scheduled for December
1997. Here was where governments would make real economic and political
decisions on the use of fossil fuels. The administration of President
Bill Clinton made a bid for public support for a treaty, holding
a well-publicized conference of experts on climate change in October.
Editors saw a story line of conflict developing as they anticipated
the Conference. News reports were further stimulated by advertising
campaigns and other intense public relations efforts, funded by
environmental organizations on the one hand, by the Global Climate
Coalition of industrial corporations on the other. Television stories
dealing with global warming jumped from a mere dozen in July-September
to well over 200 in October-December. Surveys conducted around the
time of the meeting found about ten percent of the American public
saying they followed the global warming news "very closely,"
a substantial fraction for such an issue (for more exciting stories,
the fraction could be several times higher). Most of the news items
asserted that global warming was underway, with barely a tenth including
any expression of doubt.
|After the Conference, the wave of attention
faded away as quickly as it had come, leaving almost no change in
public opinion overall. However, a detailed survey found movement beneath the surface.
Asked whether global warming was happening, the gap between strong
Democrats (who mostly agreed with President Clinton that it was
a problem) and strong Republicans (mostly skeptical) had widened.
The main result of all the effort was only to further polarize the issue along a political dividing line.(130)
Sporadic Battles TOP OF PAGE
|Many climate scientists were taking a more
unequivocal or even activist stance. A much smaller number of skeptics
opposed them. Some of these skeptics argued publicly that the 20th
century's global warming (if it existed at all) had come only because
the Sun had temporarily turned more active. During the 1990s they
produced some fairly plausible data and theories on why global warming
either was not happening, or was not caused by humans. Most other
experts found these arguments weak. A historian of science who reviewed
nearly 1000 abstracts of technical articles, published in peer-reviewed
scientific journals between 1993 and 2003, found that "none
of the papers disagreed with the consensus position." (The
media would cite this study repeatedly over the next decade, and
the author was even invited to testify to a Congressional committee,
a rare use indeed of historical expertise.) In the minds of nearly
all climate experts, or at least those not connected financially to the
energy industries, the case for human-caused ("anthropogenic")
global warming was as well proven as anything in geophysics.(131)
|The editors of Nature magazine remarked in 2000 that "The
focus of the climate change debate is shifting from the question
of 'will there be climate changes?' to 'what are the potential consequences
of climate change?'" Even some of the few remaining skeptical
scientists would admit, if pressed, that the greenhouse effect would
make itself felt eventually. Some went on to claim that this would
bring net benefits. Others retreated to the position that in any
case it made no sense to regulate emissions, for the only reasonable
policy, as one prominent critic insisted, was "to adapt to climate change."(132)
international consensus of scientists became clear, some business
leaders began to think that it was only prudent to plan for the contingency
that restrictions would some day be imposed on greenhouse gas emissions.
Moreover, public opinion might turn against their business if it took
the wrong stand on global warming. Executives in the insurance industry
began to worry that climate change itself might hurt their profits,
for in fact their payouts for storms, droughts and floods were increasing
at a surprising rate. Pressed by environmentalist groups as well as
by general public opinion, prominent corporations pulled out of the
Global Climate Coalition. By 2000, many publicists were abandoning
the claim that there was no global warming problem, and shifting to
claims about the most business-friendly way to address it. More efficient
use of fossil fuels, alternative energy sources (not forgetting nuclear),
and changes in forestry and agriculture all held promise for improving
profits while reducing emissions. Other corporations persisted in
denial. The largest of all, ExxonMobil, continued to
spend tens of millions of dollars on false-front organizations that amplified
any claim denying the scientific consensus. It was joined by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, owners of a vast fossil-fuel empire, and others.(132a*)
|In between episodes of debate, the issue occupied
little of the public's attention. Television weather news, the only
place where much of the public might get climate information on a
regular basis, preferred to avoid the issue altogether. It was too
complex, too highly politicized, and perhaps too depressing for what
were basically entertainment programs. As one reporter put it, global
warming was "not the kind of bad news people want to hear in a weather
forecast." To be sure, weather news people saw themselves as trusted experts, as if they were scientists themselves. But many of them, extrapolating from their experience with the uncertainties of daily weather prediction, had little confidence in the forecasts of climate science (although climate was an entirely different kind of problem).(133) Most politicians likewise saw little to gain by stirring
up the public. In the absence of manifest public concern, why devote
time to such an issue — especially if it went against short-term business
interests? Even Gore mentioned global warming only briefly during
his run for the presidency in 2000.
| Science reporters would occasionally find
a news hook for a story. The press took mild notice when experts announced
that 1995 was the warmest year on record for the planet as a whole,
and when 1997 broke that record, and when 1998 broke the record yet
again. The impact was muted, however, since these figures were averages,
and the warming happened to be most pronounced in remote ocean and
arctic regions. Some smaller but important places in particular
the U.S. East Coast, with its key political and media centers
were not experiencing the warming that was becoming evident in many
official studies by government or international panels each had
their day in the limelight, but rarely more than a day. Stories
made more of an impression if they dealt with something visible,
as when ice floes the size of a small nation split off from the
Antarctic ice shelves.(134) Other chances to mention global climate change came in
stories about heat waves, floods, and coastal storms, especially
when the events were more damaging than anything in recent memory.
Citizens who attended more closely would see stories about shifts
in the range of species, from birds and butterflies to insects pests
and diseases. The concerns were largely parochial. Media in the
United States would scarcely notice a record-breaking heat wave
or flood that stirred up fears of global warming in Europe, and vice versa.(135)
<=Sea rise &
In fact, weather is so variable that any one of the widely reported
incidents might have had nothing to do with global warming. Yet
for symbolically conveying what scientists knew, the incidents could
be truer than any dry array of data. For example, when tourists
who visited the North Pole in August 2000 told reporters that they
had found open water instead of ice, news stories claimed that this
was the first time the Pole had been ice-free in millions of years.
That was dead wrong yet by many measures the Arctic Ocean
icepack was in fact thinning rapidly. Similarly, a few years later,
the announcement that the fabled snows of Kilimanjaro were vanishing
turned the mountain into a renowned icon of global warming. A few
critics argued that the main cause was a drought that brought less
snow, but the general lesson was still correct there was
no doubt that nearly all of the world's mountain glaciers and icecaps
were shrinking, and the only plausible explanation was global warming.(135a*) Or "climate change" — a phrase that was becoming more common than "global warming;" it included changes such as increases in floods, snowstorms, and other weather events that might be influenced by greenhouse gas emissions, but it also included normal, non-anthropogenic, climate changes.(136*)
Most journalists continued to pursue their ideal of "unbiased"
coverage by writing "balanced" stories that presented
both sides of an issue. That put them in the odd situation of including,
in a story that might describe years of research by teams with dozens
of experts, a response by one of the few scientists who
still denied the existence of human-caused global warming). Publicists for conservative and fossil-fuel
organizations worked hard to give an impression that the denying
scientists were a large and important minority. For example, Seitz and the Marshall Institute circulated a petition,
accompanied by a warming-denying review formatted to look like an article
printed in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,
and claimed to have gathered 15,000 signatures. The Academy took the
unprecedented step of announcing that it was not associated with the
activity of its former president, and inspection showed that very
few of the signatures belonged to people who had any expertise in
the science of climate change.
| But it is often enough to publicize
an idea, however wrong, to leave many people convinced that there
must be something to it. An analysis of news reports published between
1988 and 2004 in four influential American newspapers found that more
than half of the articles gave roughly as much attention to the small band of denier scientists
as they did to the view accepted by the IPCC and all the other rigorous
scientific panels. (skepticism about the IPCC's findings and the IPCC
itself was represented even better in editorial pages). On television
during 1995-2004, more than two-thirds of the news reports "balanced"
the opposing views as if they had equal support in the scientific
community. The denying scientists quoted in reports frequently
had financial ties to corporate lobbying groups, a fact the reporters
often failed to mention. The veteran American environmental journalist
Ross Gelbspan bitterly accused his colleagues of being duped, bought
out, or intimidated by fossil-fuel interests.(136a*)
|If so, it was largely an American phenomenon. In most other industrialized
nations, oil companies and their right-wing allies had less policy
influence. And it was mainly in the United States that they worked hard
to push their view of climate change upon the media. The deniers' views, however, were increasingly echoed in other English-speaking countries from Canada to Australia. Journalists elsewhere
rarely quoted deniers, and for much of the world climate change never became an intensely
polarized political issue.
|In the American media, after the Kyoto meeting
more attention went to the political controversy than to the scientific
evidence. In these policy discussions, three-quarters of the articles
in the four leading U.S. newspapers "balanced" scientists'
calls for strong action against the energy-industry's view that only
voluntary action, if any, was needed. Gelbspan called this "stage-two"
denial of the climate threat — people admitting that there might
be a problem, but ignoring or rejecting effective solutions.(137)
|Public understanding nevertheless kept up with the main points of
the evolving scientific consensus. Polls in the 1990s found that roughly
half of Americans thought global warming was already here and many
of the rest thought it was coming. Fewer than one in eight asserted
that it would never happen. Many citizens now believed that the scientists
who publicly cast doubt on global warming were unreliable, and had
a vague idea of what the greenhouse effect meant. But most did not
consider themselves well informed quite rightly (for example,
many well-educated adults still confused the ozone hole with global
warming). An increasing number of people suspected that they were
personally seeing global warming in their daily lives, in the latest
record-breaking drought or strangely balmy winter. Even Alaskans,
quick to scoff at environmentalist positions, began to worry as the
permafrost supporting their roads softened and dog-sled racers complained
that it was getting too warm for their huskies.(138)
|When the IPCC issued its third report in 2001,
concluding that it was "likely" that greenhouse gases were bringing
a sustained warming, it scarcely seemed like news. Brief stories in
the chief media focused, needless to say, on the report's worst-case
scenario the threat that future temperature rise might be more
dire than previous IPCC reports had suggested. Even that drew only modest attention.(139*)
| Also widely overlooked
were warnings, buried in the report, of a small but disturbing risk
that climate might change abruptly. If the computer
predictions were wrong, it might be that they were not too radical
but too conservative, neglecting the risk that a severe temperature
shift might take only a few years. New evidence of past climate shifts
was persuading many experts that large changes could strike in the
span of a decade or less. One plausible mechanism was a reorganization
of the global system of ocean circulation. Journalists and a few scientists
suggested that global warming could bring the Gulf Stream to a halt,
paradoxically freezing Europe even as other places grew too hot. A
close look at this specific scenario eventually showed it would violate
elementary principles of oceanography. But the experts who studied
the system of ocean currents and winds knew their understanding was
incomplete, and they worried about possible instabilities. "The climate
system is an angry beast," Broecker said whenever he got a public
platform, "and we are poking at it with sticks."(140)
| A National Academy of Sciences panel reported
in 2001 that "The new paradigm of an abruptly changing climatic system
has been well established by research over the last decade." They
added that "this new thinking is little known and scarcely appreciated
in the wider community of natural and social scientists and policy-makers."(141) Stories about the risk of sudden climate shifts did show
up occasionally in newspapers and magazines, sometimes exaggerated
into claims about a threatened collapse of civilization. People scarcely
noticed, for the stories lay amid the usual journalistic noise
warnings of future disasters from falling asteroids, runaway genetic
manipulation, and a hundred other conceivable threats. To most people,
climate change still meant an evolution over slow decades if not centuries.
Perhaps the scientists had gone a step beyond what ordinary people
were prepared to believe. As a geologist remarked (on why people failed
to prepare for great earthquakes), "To imagine that turmoil is in
the past and somehow we are now in a more stable time seems to be
a psychological need."(142)
|Political controversy raised a flurry of media attention in 2001-2002
after the new president, George W. Bush, made it clear that he would
never impose the limits on CO2 that the previous
administration and the rest of the world had agreed upon at the Kyoto
meeting. Europeans loudly expressed dismay, and many American publications
joined in the criticism. Editorials scolded the policy as a surrender
to business interests. So it was, and yet Bush's approach was not
far from what a majority of the American public and Congress wanted.
To be sure, most people thought something should be done about global
warming — but not if that would mean spending money or changing
The Imagery of Global Warming TOP OF PAGE
|The conservationist writer Bill McKibben lamented that global
warming "hasn't registered in our gut." It wasn't just
that the issue was a scientific one, although for many people that
was enough to repel thought. Andy Revkin, a New York Times science
reporter who led the pack in announcing global warming news, explained
that "It's a century-scale story, and newspapers are dealing
with a day or an hour kind of scale... to get them to think about
something important that may happen three generations from now,
in terms of its full flowering, is almost impossible." People
whose interest normally focused on a local crime or scandal could
scarcely grasp a phenomenon that operated on a planetary scale.
If you did accept climate change as something that could affect
your own community in your own lifetime, you might feel obliged
to change your pattern of consumption, and perhaps some political
opinions. For many people, this was enough to raise mental barriers
to further consideration. One way to resolve the dissonance between
personal predilections and scientific statements was to deny that
we needed to do anything about climate change.(143a)
|Global warming was beginning to resemble nuclear war, which many
people had met with simple denial. This potent psychological mechanism
was well illustrated by a child who demanded that her father turn
off a television documentary about climate change because it scared
her. In any case most people, scarcely understanding the causes of
climate change, could not name specific practical steps to forestall
it. Citizens were more likely to scrupulously eschew spray cans, which
in fact no longer used CFCs, than to improve the insulation of their
homes, even though the lower fuel expense would repay their investment
within a few years.(143b)
|A 1998 study using focus groups dug deeper, catching what had probably
been the general feeling of Americans since 1988, and perhaps long
before. Most felt confused, believing the scientific community had
not reached a consensus. While the great majority of citizens said
they thought global warming was underway, few felt really sure of
that. Some people hoped that new technologies would somehow fix any
problems. Others despaired of all technology, and vaguely foresaw
a general apocalyptic environmental collapse. Few thought their own
personal efforts could make any difference. A group of Swiss psychologists concluded from a similar focus group study that such arguments were "socio-psychological denial mechanisms" erected to bridge the gap ("dissonance") between the understanding that something fundamental had to be changed in their lives — indeed in our entire industrial economy — and the reluctance to make such a big leap. Studies with focus groups in later decades produced similar findings.
Many people in these focus groups were convinced that not only
climate changes but all environmental harms were the fault of social
decline a rising tide of selfishness, gluttony and corruption.
(In one week of unusual warmth during November 1989, I heard two
people separately say that the Earth was paying us back for the
harm we humans were doing to it.) People saw climate change through the filter of their world-views about how nature works, what makes for a fair society, and so forth, views that they had developed since childhood. Many thought first of a generalized "pollution,"
the material and moral evils intertwined. Belief in an all-powerful God had a major influence. Some believers, including prominent
scientists, wondered if we had invited divine retribution. Most
Americans believed they were personally powerless to change morality and society, and therefore saw the problem of global warming as
insoluble. Anxious and baffled, "people literally don't like to
think or talk about the subject," the authors of the 1998 study (like later studies) concluded.
"Their concern translates into frustration rather than support for action."(143c)
|The world's image makers had failed to come up with vivid pictures
of what climate change might truly mean. Nothing happened like the
response to the risks of nuclear war and nuclear reactors in earlier
decades, when hundreds of novels and movie and television productions,
some by top-ranking authors or directors, had commanded the world's
attention. Global warming did show up in several substantial science-fiction
novels and the 2001 Stanley Kubrick/Steven Spielberg movie "AI,"
which set its final scenes in a future drowned city. In most of these
works, however, global warming was merely incidental background, only
one of many evil consequences of a civilization fallen into decay.(144*)
|In the new century some more-substantial works
began to appear. Non-fiction reports by journalists drew increasing
attention. The first widely-read literary novel centered on global warming was T.C. Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth, appearing in 2000. In its dystopian future, the world of 2025 was already ravaged by torrential downpours and scorching winds. His protagonist, an aged eco-warrior, had accomplished nothing; the novel satirized all sides, presenting questions without suggesting answers. Oryx and Crake (2003), by the leading novelist
Margaret Atwood, portrayed a future world where global warming was
one of several technological causes of ruin. In one scene the protagonist
looked out over the wrecks of buildings half submerged in the ocean.
These were the forerunners of an entire new genre of "cli-fi" (the term, widespread by 2013, was coined in 2007 as a sub-genre of science fiction), with enough published works to provide substance for entire college courses.(144a)
|Also widely noted was a huge and unsettling mural by the painter Alexis
Rockman, "Manifest Destiny" (2004). It showed a scene much
like Atwood’s, a future Brooklyn half submerged, given over
to tropical wildlife and jungle. However, Atwood's novel featured
global warming as only one of many harms of technology, less central
than artificial manipulation of organisms (an issue that had long
preoccupied Rockman too). Her story resembled hundreds of earlier
tales of a Last Man in despair after the collapse of civilization,
for example wandering amid the wreckage of a city after a nuclear
war. Rockman acknowledged links to illustrations of bombed cities
and to still earlier 19th-century paintings of elegiac vine-covered
ruins. In such productions, global warming was only an example and
manifestation of inexorable social evolution, another civilization
laid low by its own pride and greed.(145*)
|No panel of climate scientists
ever suggested that global warming could destroy our entire civilization,
but the idea was spreading in public consciousness, especially among
groups already inclined to worry about environmental harms. Through
the 1990s, as researchers dug up (sometimes literally) ever more data
on past climates, archeologists had come to suspect that certain ancient
civilizations had collapsed during prolonged periods of drought —
actually laid low by a climate change. Widely read articles and books
prophesied that the same Biblical fate would befall us unless we awoke
and changed our ways.(145a)
of doom became vivid scenes of cataclysm in "The Day After Tomorrow,"
a special-effects spectacular from a popular movie director. Along
with a novel by a leading science fiction author that also appeared
in the spring of 2004, it was the first fictional work centered on
global warming to reach a mass public. Both included authorities denying
any possibility of danger, a familiar plot element in science-fiction
disaster fables. The new works continued in that mode, beginning with
real scientific concerns about changes in ocean circulation and stretching
to cataclysms beyond anything that scientists thought was possible,
notably an instant ice age. While critics worried that such horrific
phantasms would only push audiences toward despair and denial, surveys
in the United States, Britain and Germany found that people who saw
"The Day After Tomorrow" became a bit more more receptive
to political action to forestall climate change. The movie, a great
commercial success worldwide, was seen by roughly a tenth of all American
adults and generated ten times as much media coverage as the IPCC’s
2001 report. Even that was not enough to measurably shift American
public opinion as a whole.(145b*)
|Political cartoonists managed to come up with a few realistic and
effective images in direct reference to immediate political choices.
They might comment on a bill before Congress, for example, with a
sketch of a withered desert landscape under a scorching sun. Television
similarly showed parched crops or smog-shrouded cities. Calls for
action against the threats of rising sea level and worsening storms
got a visible face in television clips of advancing waves and hurricanes,
and in political cartoons that showed buildings half underwater, whirling
tornadoes, or both together. Meanwhile pictures of factory smokestacks belching smoke pointed, inaccurately, to the cause of warming.
|These were strong images, but limited
by their familiarity. After all, smoke was an ancient complaint, while drought, flood and storm images had
long been associated with ordinary weather problems. A 2013 study of the impact of imagery found that pictures of weather disasters did make people more concerned about global warming, but at the same time made them feel there was nothing they could personally do about it. Another type of imagery promised solutions: pictures of wind farms, solar energy panels, and so forth. These images, the study found, helped people feel they could take effective action — but did little to make them more concerned about global warming. As a pair of communications
experts explained, "in the absence of a symbol for the greenhouse
effect, the media ... is limited in its interest and its impact."
|More-specific images appeared as actual
climate changes began to show up. People who paid attention to the
topic would see then-and-now photographs
of receding mountain glaciers or images of northern houses sinking
into the melting permafrost. On television and in magazines, picturesque
Alaskan natives and Pacific islanders described their fears about
changes they saw in the ocean. No report on climate seemed complete
unless it showed a block of ice breaking from a glacier to plunge
into the sea; the exotic image became a self-contained symbol of global
warming. Starting around 2005 an even more popular icon emerged turning
up frequently even in cartoons: the polar bear, said to be
threatened with extinction. There were scattered reports of children
frightened by images of global warming. "My son is convinced," a mother
said, "that in his lifetime he will see the world thawed,
warmed, and thoroughly cooked."(146)
Polar bear T-shirt
|Overall, it is doubtful whether any of these images meant much to adults
who were not already concerned about global warming. Not everyone worried about the fate of the polar bear, that fearsome man-eater, and the collapse of arctic glaciers seemed even more remote from daily concerns. Solar panels and the like could promote vague hopes of a painless technological solution. As one critic
complained when reviewing a show of artistic paintings on climate
change, "a far more compelling case" was made by the plain
graph of the rise
of global temperature. Graphs, however, impressed only the more data-minded
type of person.
|The outstanding writer Ian McEwan tried another approach in his 2010 novel Solar, a satire about a self-indulgent man who became concerned about global warming, even as he grew dangerously overweight and shut his eyes to his threatening skin cancer. McEwan argued that "we will not rescue the earth from our own depredations until we understand ourselves a little more." But even he had to admit that "The best way to tell people about climate change is through non-fiction." Nobody had produced a significant novel or movie that
showed, in realistic human form, the travails that climate change
might realistically bring upon us — the squalid ruin of the
world's mountain meadows and coral reefs, the impoverishment caused
by crop failures, the invasions of tropical diseases, the press of
millions of refugees from inundated coastal
Deadlock (2000s) TOP OF PAGE
|In the early years of
the new century, polls in the United States showed an outright decline
in concern for global warming. Since the late 1980s, a large majority
of Americans had told poll-takers that they personally worried about
global warming, but the fraction who claimed they worried about
it "a great deal" — roughly a third — declined
in the early 2000s, and by 2004 a bare majority in the United State
expressed any worry at all about global warming. This was in parallel
with a dwindling concern about all environmental issues. West Europeans
meanwhile grew more concerned, especially when a terrible
heat wave assailed the continent in the summer of 2003, bringing
huge crop losses, forest fires, and tens of thousands of excess
deaths. Comparable calamities might have happened in earlier times, but
the 2003 heat wave surpassed anything in the modern record and
was probably made worse by greenhouse warming. (That also held for another record-breaking and disastrous heat wave that hit Russia in 2010.) The heat wave made a gripping
story, although it still lacked the concentrated symbolic heft of
a Hiroshima or Chernobyl. The divergence of West European from American
opinion created diplomatic friction as President Bush rejected any
steps to control emissions, or even negotiations about it.
|Despite the efforts of the deniers, some science reporters and their
editors were beginning to recognize that the scientific debate over climate
change was essentially over. They began to feel they should explain
the situation straightforwardly, even at risk of angering part of
their audience. Coverage of climate change in major U.S. newspapers,
after declining in the mid 1990s, began to climb back. In 2004 the
American public could read extensive cover-story articles in respected
journals like Business Week and National Geographic,
stoutly declaring that global climate change was truly a serious and
immediate problem. Meanwhile several books and dozens of well-maintained
Websites attempted to explain the situation. Far more widely noticed,
however, was a best-selling thriller, State of Fear. The
author, Michael Crichton, built his plot on the fantasy that fear
of global warming was a deception propagated by evil conspirators
and their dupes. As in his earlier novels, Crichton played upon a
theme beloved of right-wing populists — the scientific establishment
was arrogant, wrong-headed and untrustworthy, if not actively corrupt.(147*)
This was in line with a proliferation of Websites and blogs that
vehemently denounced the scientific consensus on global warming, usually from a right-wing standpoint. Some writers were supported by conservative think tanks, but others were independent citizens — denial was taking on a life of its own. Meanwhile there was a rapidly growing stock of books with titles like Hot Talk, Cold Science: Global Warming's Unfinished Debate (by Singer) and The Skeptical Environmentalist (by an economist, Bjørn Lomborg). Often supported by right-wing funds but increasingly including self-published works, these books, along with the Websites and blogs, passed around detailed warming-denial arguments supported by scraps of anomalous data. There are always anomalies at the research front,
of course. But when scientists resolved a problem the deniers
fastened on a newer one, while the old disproved arguments stubbornly lived
on among the Web's countless niches. The deniers had constructed
what one neutral observer called an "alternative universe"
where "basic findings of mainstream science are rejected or
|Some of the
statements in blogs, books, radio talk shows, newsletters and other media
began to resemble the typical American diatribe against wicked elites. "Nothing gets me as many crazed emails and comments as any reference to climate change," reported New York Times columnist and blogger Paul Krugman. "An important part of the population just doesn't want to believe in the kind of world in which we have to limit our appetites on the say-so of fancy experts."(147b) Such arguments also began to show up in West Europe, Japan, and especially
Russia, but Americans were the most prone to openly distrust scientists.
Populist American politicians were often more scornful of intellectuals
than were policy-makers in other advanced nations, and more responsive
to pressure from oil and related corporations. Remarkably, the science-fiction
novelist Crichton got an appreciative hearing as a "climate expert"
on visits to Congress and the White House. Such antics widened the
divide between the United States and most other nations, and helped
maintain polarization over the issue at home.
|But outside Washington, important groups were shifting their stance.
One turning point was a 2002 meeting in Oxford, England, where leaders
of evangelical church organizations convened with scientists who shared
their religious beliefs. Devout Christian scientists such as John
Houghton, a lay preacher and co-chair of the IPCC's 2001 report, convinced
some church leaders that they were called upon to protect God’s
creation from greenhouse warming. In February 2006, a group of important
American evangelical leaders issued a statement calling for government
controls on emissions, backed up by television and radio
|Business leaders also began to speak out forcefully. Some European
firms, notably oil giant BP under the farsighted John Browne, had
already decided (as he put it in 1997), that "it falls to us
to take precautionary action now." Starting around 2005, a growing
number of leading American corporations like General Electric and
Wal-Mart also pledged to limit their emissions. Business Week
called 2006 "the year global warming went from controversial
to conventional for much of the corporate world." Some executives
"spoke of a personal awakening," the magazine reported.
An environmental consultant agreed that "Suddenly CEOs were expressing
genuine concern about the issue." He repeatedly heard variations
on the story of a CEO’s daughter who came home from college
and said, "Dad, we can’t be that stupid." (Polls did not find young people much more concerned about
global warming than their elders, so these are probably cases where
family dynamics brought views that were now mainstream to a resistant
|Executives who remained skeptical felt pressure from many directions.
Promising to fight climate change would improve their corporate image,
and it would also build morale
among their own staff. More directly, some major corporations were
hit with lawsuits for the damage their emissions were causing, and
more of the same might be feared. Meanwhile powerful investors, from
state pension funds to Wall Street giants like Goldman Sachs and JP
Morgan Chase, began to weigh global warming risks before investing
in a company. After all, business magazines like Fortune
were warning of imminent "droughts and floods not seen since
ancient times." Most important, legal restrictions on emissions
seemed inevitable. As the Wall Street Journal reported, "The
global-warming debate is shifting from science to economics... The
biggest question going forward no longer is whether fossil-fuel emissions
should be curbed. It is who will foot the bill for the cleanup."
A wise corporation would take the lead in discussing just which business
operations should be taxed or regulated. If you’re not at the
table, the Journal remarked, you’re on the menu.(149)
sensed how the wind was blowing. Not only were corporations pressing
them for decisions so they could make business plans, but calls for
action on climate lifted public approval ratings. And it was getting
harder to argue that action was unwise. The IPCC’s fourth assessment, which would be issued in early 2007 and widely reported in the media, would only report what
many people already perceived from the media or their own experience —
stresses from global warming were now apparent around the world. The
scientists were confident that worse was all but certain to come.
Meanwhile a team of British economists calculated that these impacts
might be as harmful as a great depression or world war, but they could
be staved off at modest cost. Even some staunch Republican leaders,
like California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, pushed their states
or cities to curb their greenhouse gas emissions. A surprising number
of political units pledged they would meet the Kyoto goals.
One important reason for the
change was the disastrous summer of 2005, the worst Atlantic hurricane
season on record, capped by Hurricane Katrina’s devastation
of New Orleans. Attention to climate change in the American press
climbed to the highest level ever. "Are We Making Hurricanes
Worse?" asked the October 3 cover of Time magazine.
Probably so, the editors concluded. Scientists were in fact divided
on that, and vigorously debated whether global warming had raised
the risk to New Orleans at all. This was another case where an event
that was not really a clear sign of global warming nevertheless
taught an accurate lesson, for it was certain that rising sea levels
would eventually lift storm surges over the existing levees. But
what really mattered was the imagery. The half-submerged buildings
of science fiction, the "environmental refugees" that
experts had been foreboding for decades, now filled Americans’
television screens in real time.
<=Sea rise &
|Meanwhile scientific reports on
surprising changes in ocean currents and ice sheets spurred fears
that that the world might soon pass what many had begun to call a
"tipping point" — a point where calamitous climate
change would become unavoidable.(150*)
"Suddenly and unexpectedly, the crisis is upon us," declared
a reporter in 2006. Another mused that "global warming has the
feel of breaking news these days." Reporters admitted that they
had leaned over backward too far in granting "equal time"
to the remnant of denying scientists. As one reporter put it, "journalists
increasingly have assessed the weight of the evidence and explained
who was behind the opposing views." A study found that whereas in 2003-2004 many American media reports had diverged widely from the scientific consensus, in 2005-2006 most no longer insisted on an artificial "balance." The resolutely middle-of-the-road national newspaper USA Today headlined a 2005 article, "The Debate Is Over: Globe Is Warming."
|In November 2005 alone, PBS
public television stations, the Turner Broadcasting System, and even
the right-wing Fox News Channel all ran specials stating plainly that
global temperatures would rise, and a much larger audience saw movie
idol Leonardo DiCaprio explain the problem on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
The Weather Channel added reports on climate change as a "niche"
market. In the spring of 2006, people could see a thorough analysis
of the danger in two widely read books by top science journalists,
a week-long series of reports on ABC television and radio, and a special
issue of Time magazine ("Be worried," the cover
advised. "Be very worried.")(151*)
|The greatest media attention of all went to a shoestring-budget
documentary film. Since 1990, Gore had occasionally told the global
warming story in a convincing illustrated lecture, and in the gloomy
days after his defeat in the 2000 election, his wife persuaded him
to take it up again. Honed before many hundreds of audiences, Gore's
presentation was converted into a film titled "An Inconvenient
Truth." In the year following its May 2006 opening, it garnered
the third highest box-office receipts of any documentary in history.
Meanwhile an associated book reached the top of the best-seller list.
Critics made much of a few points where Gore had been misleading (he
showed a sea level rise without explaining it would take centuries,
and used images of hurricanes without noting that their relationship
to global warming was conjectural). But scientists generally gave
the film high marks for explaining a complex subject with accuracy
and grace. The film by itself could not do much to shift American
public opinion as a whole. But it did strongly impress the sort of
people who saw documentaries, including key policy-makers.(152*)
|Official statements were laboriously drafted and published by many leading scientific societies such as the American Physical Society and the American Geophysical Union, and by the world's chief academies of sciences from the United States to China — all endorsing the IPCC consensus. Poll-takers found that people around the world were rapidly becoming
more aware of global warming and more concerned about it. In the
United States, concern about global warming climbed back up to the
level where it had stood in 1989. This was not simply a response
to official pronouncements, Hurricane Katrina, and other matters in the media, but part of
a general revival of concern about all environmental issues. In
fact, when asked to name problems facing the nation, Americans would
think of pollution of drinking water, the ozone hole, or the destruction
of tropical forests ahead of global warming. This contrasted with
Europe, where climate change generally ranked top among environmental
|As often happens
with such issues, after the wave of attention surged forward it receded:
the number of media reports on global warming fell almost as fast
during 2008 as it had risen during 2006. This was a general feature of ongoing stories such as those involving the environment: after a while other issues of the moment would arise and capture the attention of media and the public, in an "issue-attention cycle." Growing economic and political problems easily pushed aside environmental concerns.(152a) Meanwhile, not all the media had accepted the scientific consensus. The Wall Street Journal and some other conservative newspapers, Fox News (after its brief excursion), talk radio stars such as Rush Limbaugh, along with a variety of bloggers and others, continued to insist that climate science was all doubtful if not fraudulent. Their persistent work was having an effect.
|Polls of Americans in 2009
found that they had grown a bit less concerned about global
warming. And the ranks of those who denied there was any problem had grown. Polarization intensified as polemicists of every stripe leaped on any
new scientific announcement that seemed to support their position. Good
scientists took their time; they understood that when you stood at
the frontier of what was known, no finding could be trusted until
it had been verified and set alongside other findings. The news media,
however, inevitably featured the latest results, which were often
unreliable. Hurricanes were increasing!...oops, no they weren't! The oceans were warming! ...no, they were cooling! ...oops,
they really were warming! Small wonder if many citizens concluded that climate science was unreliable. Scientists themselves, and people who followed the science news with care, paid more attention to the slowly accumulating weight of evidence confirmed by years of study.
|This weight was moving steadily
in the wrong direction: the world was undoubtedly getting warmer. In the range of possibilities the IPCC
had warned about, the worst was coming to pass. For example, the summer
ice covering the Arctic Ocean was shrinking remarkably swiftly, by
2008 exposing seas that experts had expected would be ice-bound for
decades more. But many citizens, unaware that practically every scientific institution and government agency now endorsed the IPCC consensus, saw the
entire discussion of global warming as nothing more than partisan political posturing.(153)
<=Sea rise &
|This tendency was reinforced by global-warming deniers on the internet (now ahead of paper media as the main source of news for Americans, although not yet ahead of television). Millions of dollars continued to be spent on professional public relations denying any risk from global warming, aided by a variety of independent bloggers. The deniers, frank political partisans, increasingly made ad hominem assaults on supporters of the scientific consensus. Angry letters, even virulent hate mail, assailed journalists who wrote about global warming. The number of items on the internet that connected global warming with the words "hoax," "lie," or "alarmists" more than doubled just between January 2008 and January 2009.(153a*)
|The public controversy invaded the quiet lives of prominent climate scientists themselves. Experts who had published analyses of temperature records were bombarded with requests for their data sets, ranging from serious to frivolous to frank harassment (dozens of requests in a single day). Right-wing think tanks and Capitol Hill pelted them with skeptical missives or demands for detailed information, including lawsuits and calls for testimony under oath. Their email in-boxes were polluted by long and occasionally obscene harangues, demands for their resignation, even death threats. And worse was to come.
|In late 2009 the number of media reports on climate temporarily spiked again, higher than ever before. One reason for this was a major international meeting in Copenhagen, where hopes for a comprehensive climate treaty flourished and then were crushed. The other reason for the spate of media attention was an event intended to influence the meeting: the anonymous release of more than a thousand emails, selected from many tens of thousands of emails stolen from a prestigious British climate-research institution.
|Bloggers made much of quotes extracted out of context from a dozen or so of the emails. The other media quickly followed suit. Countless newspapers and radio and television programs repeatedly published excerpts which contained words like "trick," "hide," and "travesty." The naive climate scientists quickly lost the public-relations battle; the issue came to be called "climategate," implying that a serious scandal had been unearthed. Deniers boasted that they now had solid proof of dishonesty, fraud, a conspiracy to undermine the peer-review process, collusion to suppress data that contradicted the mainstream view of global warming, and much else. Major media reported these claims while rarely attempting to explain the emails' context of past controversies. For many citizens, it was enough that the stolen emails revealed a petty and even childish side in a few scientists — who had occasionally reacted in outrage and disgust against the personal attacks and incessant demands that deniers had leveled against them.
|The important question, to be sure, was whether there was any truth to the accusation that climate scientists had suppressed or falsified data? Investigations were launched by groups ranging from universities to the Associated Press to the British parliament. In the end they all reported that, while the scientists had sometimes failed to make their data appropriately available, the data sets and the results of their analysis were trustworthy. Hardly a surprise: this was science, after all, so the results of the British group had long since been double-checked and found correct by groups elsewhere, using independent measures. The confirmations of reliability, however, were not reported anywhere near as prominently nor as frequently as the deniers' claims of fraud.
|The "climategate" controversy was closely watched by at least a quarter of American adults. Public trust in climate scientists, which had already been weakening, declined further in the United States and elsewhere. Newspapers and television programs from the BBC to the New York Times reverted to artificially "balancing" statements from leading climate researchers by quoting deniers of every stripe. The main effect, however, was to sharpen the politicization of the issue. Most of the increase in denial of the dangers of global warming took place among citizens on the right-hand side of the political spectrum. As one result, by 2010 nearly all Republican politicians, even those who had once warned of the threat from global warming, either refused to take a stand on the issue or openly adopted the deniers' standpoint. Most Democrats, by contrast, continued to worry. But not as an immediate issue: the wave of media attention was once again receding. By 2011 US newspaper coverage was back down to the level of 2005.
Waves of attention: US newspaper stories on climate change / global warming, 2000-2016, with peaks mostly around the time of IPCC reports or major conferences.
Reproduced by permission. For more and updated graphs see http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/media_coverage/
Media coverage and public concern revived a bit in 2012 following a spate of weather disasters, which many (including some scientists) thought could be partly blamed on global warming. In the wake of newsworthy droughts, wildfires and storms, non-governmental organizations concerned with climate changed the emphasis of their press releases: up to 2007 they had mainly warned of risks in the distant future, but now they were mainly emphasizing current risks. A 2014 IPCC report also caught widespread attention by emphasizing that serious climate effects were already present, that harm to food supplies would provoke conflicts, and so forth. On the other hand, around 2013 the world media began to give attention to claims of a "hiatus" or pause in global warming — the average global atmospheric temperature was only slightly above what it had been in the unusual year 1998. (The temperature of the oceans, where most of the heat building up in the system was stored, continued to soar, but only scientists noticed that.) In any case, according to a major study of American public opinion, the vagaries of weather and media attention were not the main factors in the post-2005 decline of public concern. The largest factor was elite opinion, as represented in particular by representatives in Congress — their skepticism or enthusiasm did more than anything to shift the public. As a secondary factor, the economic troubles that afflicted the nation had displaced climate as a matter of concern.(153b)
|International polling found that around the world, a majority of people had heard of global climate change (with large majorities in the developed nations). Of these people,
in most nations a quarter to half felt “a great deal”
of concern about it, substantially higher than just a few years
earlier. Educated people in most developing nations expressed more
concern about climate change than their counterparts in the industrialized
nations, and more commitment to action.
|The United States lagged
behind most of the world. Fewer than a fifth of its citizens expressed strong concern, reverting to where the public had been a decade before. However, a large majority did express some concern. Many were unaware that the concern was so widely shared, and also unaware that most scientists saw global warming as a severe problem. Unlike people in most other countries, the majority of Americans did not think that they were currently personally affected by global warming. Still, a large majority of Americans thought it was a problem that would eventually affect them, and that the government should take action to address it even if it cost something. Almost everywhere else, citizens gave the issue higher priority for action. Around the world polls found
resentment against the United States, which had put much more CO2 into the atmosphere than any other nation yet refused to take responsibility for it.(154)
In all countries, even though majorities claimed to worry about global
warming, many people still saw the problem as distant and abstract.
Climate change felt remote not only in years but in geographical
and emotional distance. To people in the developed world, global
warming was not so much a problem for folks like themselves as for
Pacific island natives and polar bears. One study concluded that
most Americans still "lacked vivid, concrete, and personally-relevant
affective images of climate change, which helped explain why climate
change remains a relatively low priority...issue."
|Smaller groups (each perhaps 5-10% of the public) took stronger
views. On one side stood people alarmed by what they saw as an imminent,
even disastrous, threat to their own way of life and perhaps all creatures
on the planet. On the other side stood people who dismissed it all
as a myth, if not a deliberate hoax concocted by self-serving scientists, intellectuals and leftist activists.
|If you guessed that a member of the first group leaned politically
to the left, and a member of the second group to the right, you would
usually be correct — at least in the United States, for the
issue remained more politically polarized there than in most other nations. A
2010 Gallup poll found that 70% of Democrats, but only 29% of Republicans, believed that effects of global warming were already happening (in 2001 the figures had been 60% and 49%). Political independents stood in between. The divide extended into the Republican party itself, where it was mostly more conservative people who stuck to a strong denial position.
|The political divide lay along a line that more generally separated
people according to their feelings about authority, individual responsibility,
risk-taking and related personal issues. People of an egalitarian bent tended to worry about climate change, along with other environmental dangers; those of an individualistic bent did not. Global warming in particular could become a surrogate for deeply felt disagreements over the value and future of the entire industrial economic system. But viewpoints also depended on national
political circumstances and history (in the United Kingdom, Conservatives
in the tradition of Margaret Thatcher had criticized the Labor government
for doing too little about global warming). Each side found
confident endorsement of its views in its favorite media, where exaggerated
pronouncements served to attract and retain an audience by conforming
to that audience's prejudices. (155)
|Some observers worried that the major media had swung too far, promoting a language of crisis and looming catastrophe that fitted poorly with the gradual nature of the actual problem. But only a small minority of citizens seemed paralyzed by what they saw as a catastrophe beyond human control. Indeed, only a minority in the U.S. saw global warming as a serious and immediate challenge at all. Americans were increasingly out of step with the rest of the world. By 2015, more than half the citizens in most nations were worried that global warming would harm them in their own lifetimes.(156) Significant political opposition to any action was rare outside the United States and a few other nations where fossil-fuel interests were powerful. But everywhere, even the people who felt concern usually undertook only small symbolic steps, if any. To launch actions on a scale large enough to arrest the tremendous flux of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, bold leadership was necessary.
Some farsighted individuals in U.S. business, local and state government, federal agencies including the military, and other influential fields did recognize that they had a responsibility to offer such leadership. And the segment of the public that was acutely concerned became increasingly active. Old and new environmental groups formed organizational coalitions and focused on bringing public pressure to bear. One of their rallying points was a scientific calculation that the rise of global temperature could not be held below 2°C (the internationally accepted point at which the warming would become "dangerous") unless at least half the known reserves of fossil fuels were left in the ground. Popularized in 2012 by Bill McKibben, the discovery led to pressure on colleges and businesses to divest themselves of investments in corporations that relied on such "stranded assets."Another push came from an encyclical the Catholic Church promulgated in 2015. It was a moral duty, declared the popular Pope Francis, to preserve the environment by reducing consumption, in particular through curbing greenhouse gas emissions.(157)
|A huge 2014 "People's Climate March" in New York City and elsewhere around the world was only one sign of a growing tendency to organize and demonstrate. Yet a determined fraction
of the public remained unconvinced about global warming, while most
of the rest gave the problem a lower priority than more immediate
issues. In the face of potent opposition by ideological and financial interests, only mild initiatives were politically feasible in most of the leading
nations. It hardly seemed to matter that an overwhelming majority
of scientists insisted that half measures would not suffice, in face
of what they increasingly regarded as one of the most severe long-term
risks that world civilization had ever faced.
What can people do about global warming, and what
should we do? See my Personal Note
Impacts of Global Warming
Government: The View from Washington, DC
The Modern Temperature Trend
Rapid Climate Change
Ice Sheets & Rising Seas
75. McEwan (2010), pp. 15-16. BACK
75a. 38% had heard, half ignorant: Opinion Research
Corporation poll, May 1981, USORC.81MAY.R22. 5% Not at all serious, 16%
Not too serious, 28% Somewhat serious, 37% Very serious, 24% Don't know:
Opinion Research Corporation poll, April 1980, USORC.80APR1.R3M. Data
furnished by Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, Storrs, CT. Canadian
survey (10% nuclear, 12% people/pollution/urbanization, 14% space exploration): Harrison (1982), p. 731. For 1990s surveys
and a valuable general discussion see Thompson
and Rayner (1998), pp. 270-73. BACK
76. Wade (1979); New York
Times, Nov. 5, 1979, p. IV:16. These refer to National
Academy of Sciences (1979); the conclusion was reinforced by National Research Council (1982). Greenland: Gregory
et al. (2004). BACK
77. Note omitted.
78. Woodwell (1978), p. 34,
see p. 43.
79. Ingram and Mintzer (1990).
80. Manabe, interview by Weart, Dec. 1989.
81. Rasool et
al. (1983); the stimulus was Hansen
et al. (1981) or perhaps the related newspaper reports.
82. Schneider (1988), p. 114;
see also Schneider (1989), ch. 7; Nelkin (1987).
83. Sullivan, "Study finds warming trend that could
raise sea levels," Aug. 22, 1981, p. 1, and editorial, Aug. 29, 1981,
p. 22, reporting on Hansen et al. (1981).
The Washington Post also carried an editorial. Hansen, interview
by Weart, Nov. 2000, AIP. BACK
84. Among other sources for this section, I draw on a talk given
by J. Jensen in April 1991.
85. Idso (1982); popularized
as unproven but possible by a science journalist, Gribbin
(1982), ch. 9; "encouraged" Idso (1984), p. 22; see also
86. Mahlman (1998),
p. 97. BACK
86a. Philip Shabecoff, "E.P.A.
Report Says Earth Will Heat Up Beginning in 1990's," New York
Times, Oct. 18, 1983, p. 1. Walter Sullivan, "How to Live in
a Greenhouse" (editorial), ibid., Oct. 23, 1983, p. IV:18. "Alarmist:"
presidential adviser Keyworth, quoted New York Times, Oct. 21,
1983, p. 1. Phones: Elliott (1977-89),
Oct. 24, 1983 entry. Oreskes (2008b),
p. 113. BACK
87. McKibben (1989), p. 37.
88. Levenson (1989), p. 32. On Cold War concerns and global warming see Masco (2010).
89. Badash (2001) (Turco's
term "nuclear winter" on p. 87); also Poundstone (1999), pp.
292-319; Schneider (1988).
90. Magazines and newspaper article counts: Ingram et al. (1990). Books: my counts from the Library
of Congress catalog, under "climate" call number QC981, which includes
both popular and technical works.1975-77: 73 books. 1979-81: 97. 1983-1985:
91. Weart (1988), pp. 262-69,
299-302, 323-327, 375-87.
92. Ungar (1995), includes
discussion and references on dread factors and waves of public concern; Weart (1988), passim. For a direct climate-nuclear perceptions comparison see Palfreman (2006).
92a. Ungar (2000), p. 304. BACK
93. Another example: James Gleick, "Instability of climate
defies computer analysis," New York Times, March 20, 1988. Broecker (1987), quote p. 82; on annoyance Broecker (1991), p. 88. BACK
94. The 1986 hearings, held by Republican Senator John
Chafee, "transformed the priority of the greenhouse issue, making it more important in policy
decisions" according to Pomerance (1989), pp. 262-63; quotes:
Hansen et al. (1987), prepared for testimony to the United States
Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, 9 Nov. 1987.
95. Pool (1990), quote p. 672.
Also Hansen, interview by Weart, Nov. 2000.
96. Hansen (1988); Hansen et al. (1988) gives the scientific basis, predicting
global temperatures in the 1990s would be indisputably above 1950s levels.
In 2000 Pat Michaels claimed that time had shown Hansen"s 1988 prediction
of temperature increase was exaggerated by 450%, a claim later picked
up by novelist Michael Crichton and others. In fact Hansen had presented
three scenarios, including a worst-case one (no volcanic eruptions to
hold down temperature, accelerated emissions, etc.) and two more likely
ones. Michaels et al. spoke only of the worst-case scenario and did not
mention Hansen’s predictions of what was likely, which have turned
out to be correct. BACK
97. Philip Shabecoff, "Global Warming Has Begun, Expert
Tells Senate," New York Times, June 24, 1988, p. 1. See Hansen, interview
by Weart, Nov. 2000, AIP, and Stevens (1999), pp.
131-33; Weiner (1990), pp. 87-97. BACK
98. E.g., Howard Koppel's "Nightline" ABC-TV. The following
day (24 June) I heard worries voiced by a number of callers to a radio talk show (Jim Althoff,
WKING). Hansen was mentioned or quoted more than twice as often as anyone else on the issue
during 1985-1991 according to Lichter (1992).
99. Criticism by scientists: Kerr
(1989a); Kerr (1989b); Bolin
(2007), p. 49. BACK
100. Ungar (1992), p. 491
101. Schneider (1988), p.
102. Michael Oppenheimer quoted in New York Times
8/23/88 as quoted in Stevens (1999), p. 133.
Calvin & Hobbes strip.
Calvin continues: "They say the pollutants we dump in the air are
trapping in the sun's heat and it's going to melt the polar ice caps!
Sure, you'll be gone when it happens, but I won't! Nice
planet you're leaving me!" Mom: "This from the kid who wants
to be chauffeured any place more than a block away." Calvin: "Hey,
nobody told me about the ice caps, all right?" From Bill Waterson,
Yukon Ho! (1989), copyright © 1988 Bill Waterson.
103. My counts of Readers' Guide. Annual number
of articles about global climate change printed in major U.S. newspapers (Los
Angeles Times, New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post, Wall
Street Journal) was zero in 1979-1980, rising to roughly two per newspaper
per year through 1987, then from 1987 to 1988 jumped to some twenty per newspaper.
Ingram and Mintzer (1990), p. 4; see also Trumbo
(1996), p. 276; Wilkins (1993), pp. 75-76 (newspaper stories rose from
73 in 1987 to 574 in 1990); between 1986 and 1990 there was a fivefold jump
in climate change articles in three German news publications, O'Riordan
and Jäger (1996), p. 27; see Beuermann and
(1996), p. 192; Ungar (1995), pp. 446-47.
104. Weingart et al. (2000).
105. 1988: Kane, Parson poll for Parents
USKANE.88PM7.RO98 and R11, data furnished by Roper Center for Public Opinion
Research, Storrs, CT. By 1989, another poll found that 79% of the public had
heard of the greenhouse effect: survey of public by Research Strategy/Management
Inc., 'Global Warming and Energy Priorities,' Union of Concerned Scientists,
11/89, as reported in W. Kempton, "Global Environmental Change," 6/91.
106. Sept. 1988 poll of voters by Market Opinion Research
found 53% considered the greenhouse effect "Extremely serious" or "Very serious" and another
25% "Somewhat serious." USMOR.ATS9.R11. May 1989 Gallup poll, worries on various issues:
35% Great deal about global warming, 28% Fair amount, 18% Only a little, 12% Not at all, 7%
No opinion. USGALLUP.051589.R3J. Data furnished by Roper Center for Public Opinion
Research, Storrs, CT.
107. The seven days of temperatures 100°F or higher
exceeded anything seen before or in the following decade. Doe
(1999). Congress: Ingram and Mintzer
(1990), p. 4. N.b. The lower Congressional activity count cited in my "government" essay is
based on Balco's simple computer word search.
108. Weber (2006); the classic work is Linville and Fisher (1991). See also Hansen et al. (2004).
109. Sarewitz and Pielke
(2000), pp. 57-58.
110. Burdick (2001).
111. McKibben (1989),
quotes p. 48, 86.
112. Ungar (1992), pp.
113. Trumbo (1996).
114. Chambers and Brain
(2002). The authors point out that this may partly reflect a greater likelihood of putting
terms like "climate change" in the titles of papers that dealt with narrow problems.
115. Gelbspan (1997), esp.
116. Wilkins and Patterson
(1991), pp. 169-70.
117. Trumbo (1996), pp.
278-29; see also Wilkins (1993), p. 78.
117a. McCright et al. (2014). BACK
118. McGourty (1988).
Budyko spoke even more strongly about the benefits in my 1990 interview with him, AIP, and I
have heard other informed Russians say global warming would be a good thing for their country.
119. On Singer see, e.g., Lancaster (1994); Stevens
(1999), ch. 14; Singer (1998); Oreskes and Conway (2010). See his Science and Environmental Policy Project site.
120. "distaste:" Royte
121. See this site's solar
essay. Seitz et al. (1989); Seitz (1990);
Seitz (1992), p. 28; on this and similar
criticism see Stevens (1999), ch. 14, and Hertsgaard
(2006). On Seitz, Singer, et al. see Oreskes and Conway (2010); Lahsen (2008). BACK
122. Union of Concerned
Scientists (2007); Edwards (2010), pp. 407-08. See also information on the Coalition compiled
by the Center for Media & Democracy, Madison, WI,
in particular here, and Greenpeace (2010). For sponsors of "denial" propaganda in general see Monbiot (2007), ch. 2. BACK
123. E.g., Roberts (1989).
124. Hansen and Lacis
125. See, e.g., Lancaster
(1994) and references therein.
126. Lichter (1992);
Wilkins (1993); also Anderson
(1992). Think tanks and newspaper counts: McCright
and Dunlap (2003), see also McCright
and Dunlap (2000). U.K.: Carvalho and Burgess (2005). Here and below I also use my own observations of
popular media, publicity by private groups, and scientific publications
and meetings. BACK
127. The New York Times put the news on p. 6
(May 26, a Saturday). BACK
128. "Unlikely to be entirely due to natural causes"
was the phrase quoted from a preliminary draft, by William K. Stevens
in the New York Times, Sept. 10, 1995, p. 1, see also Nov. 18,
p. 1. The less dramatic final negotiated statement ("the balance of evidence
suggests that there is a discernible human impact") was more widely noted
than the scientific report, which said, "the observed warming trend is
unlikely to be completely natural in origin," IPCC
(1996a), p. 5. BACK
129. The attack began with an op-ed by Seitz in the Wall Street Journal, June 12,
1996. See Edwards and Schneider (2001);
Masood (1996); Stevens (1999), ch. 13; Bolin
(2007), pp. 128-130; Pearce (2010), ch. 9; Lahsen (1999).
130. 9% closely followed the U.S.global warming policy
debate in November and 11% the Kyoto conference in December, according
to Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, "Public
Attentiveness to News Stories: 1986–2006" (accessed 5/07);
Krosnick et al. (2000), TV counts
p. 241, doubts in 15 percent of newspaper stories and 8 percent of television,
p. 242, politicization p. 253; Mahlman
(1998), pp. 101-103. See Dunlap and McCright (2008). BACK
131. Study of papers: Oreskes
(2004). U.S.Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Dec.
6, 2006. BACK
132. Admission: e.g.,Singer
(1998), p. 71. The admission that warming will come is implicit in
the book, but he said it explicitly in a throwaway remark in a physics
dept. colloquium I attended at the University of Maryland, College Park,
24 Nov. 2000. Prominent critic: Michaels
and Balling (2000). Nature (2000).
of Concerned Scientists (2007), p. 2. Greenpeace International posted
documentation at http://www.exxonsecrets.org/.
Shortly after publication of the UCS study, ExxonMobil, now under a new CEO,
announced it had cut its ties with the Competitive Enterprise Institute,
a linchpin of the publicity and lobbying, and in 2008 the corporation cut off other institutions including the Marshall Institute and the Institute for Energy Research. However, ExxonMobil continued to generously fund right-wing organizations that included doubts about global warming in their portfolio. See Coll (2012). BACK
133. "Not the kind:" Seabrook (2000), p.
53. According to one weather report producer, angry responses from viewers
who doubted the risk from global warming made him "hesitant to do
more on the air. We hate to run things that turn off viewers." Linda
Baker, "Just Say It's Sunny," Salon.com (viewed April
4, 2004; no longer online). Weathercasters: Wilson (2009), Homans (2010). By 2015 most U.S. broadcast weather forecasters accepted that global warming was underway: Edward Maibach et al., "A National Survey Of Broadcast Meteorologists About Climate Change: Initial Findings," George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication (April 17, 2015), online here. BACK
134. For details of the episodic coverage, see Boykoff (2011), pp. 110-117. Ice: e.g., New York Times, March 2, 1995, p.
135. Ungar (1995),
p. 453. BACK
135a. John Noble Wilford, "Ages-old icecap at North
Pole is now liquid, scientists find," New York Times, Aug 19,
2000, p. 1. Lonnie Thompson's report from Kilimanjaro made the front page
of the New York Times: Andrew Revkin, "Glacier Loss Seen
as Clear Sign of Human Role in Global Warming," Feb. 19, 2005. Thompson
later produced evidence that Kilimanjaro's icecap was indeed melting in
an unprecedented way, Thompson et al. (2009). Glacier National Park, rapidly losing its characteristic
feature, served as another, indisputably accurate icon. In a world survey,
"For the period from 1900 to 1980, 142 of the 144 glaciers retreated:"
Oerlemans (2005). BACK.
136. See Boykoff (2011), pp. 8-9. The Google book archive shows very little use of the terms "global warming" and "climate change" in books until the mid 1980s ("climatic change" does appear, pretty steadily, through the entire 20th century). Starting around 1986 there is a steady climb of both terms, continuing into the 21st century, with "climate change" more common than "global warming" increasingly from 1995 onward. "While global warming has
catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more
controllable and less emotional challenge," etc. Memorandum to Republican
image-makers ca. 2002 by strategist Frank Luntz, p. 142, online at luntzspeak.com. BACK
136a. The Marshall/Seitz petition was signed by many who were
not scientists at all. See e.g., Bolin
(2007), p. 155; William K. Stevens, "Science Academy Disputes
Attack on Global Warming,"New York Times, April 22, 1998.
Newspapers covered: New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal,
Los Angeles Times, in Boykoff and Boykoff
(2004). Editorial pages: Wilkins
(1993), p. 79. TV news covered: ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, in Boykoff
(2008). Gelbspan (2004), p. 83, see chap.
4. I do not mean to use the term "denier" pejoratively — it has been accepted by some of the group as a self-description — but simply to designate those who deny any likelihood of future danger from anthropogenic global warming. BACK
137. Newspapers covered: New York Times, Washington
Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Boykoff
and Boykoff (2004), p. 134. See also Mooney
(2005), pp. 252-253. Gelbspan (2004), p.
83. Paul D. Thacker, "Climate skeptics in Europe? Mostly missing
in action," SEJournal Summer 2006, online as Society of Environmental
excerpts (accessed 7/18/06). According to a survey of major newspapers
in New Zealand, Finland and the US ca. 2000, "The U.S.'s media states
that global warming is controversial and theoretical, yet the other two
countries portray the story that is commonly found in the international
scientific journals." Dispensa
et al. (2003), p. 74. BACK
138. E.g., Bostrom
et al. (1994); Read et al. (1994);
Kempton (1991), and see Gallup and other references
cited below. I heard some of these stories on visits
to Alaska. "Greenhouse-effect skeptics become believers,"
Juneau Empire Online, March 18, 2001. Also, e.g., See also, e.g.,
Charles Wohlforth's blog entry here.
139. One news magazine gave a cover story, Shute (2001), but others (like the New York Times)
put it in back pages. The impact was blunted partly because some conclusions
had been leaked piecemeal in advance. BACK
140. This particular version (one of many) of the
quote is from the Desert
Research Institute Newsletter, Spring 1999. The earliest I've noticed
was, "far from being self-stabilizing, the Earth's climate system
is an ornery beast which overreacts even to small nudges," Broecker (1995).
141. National Academy of
Sciences (2002), p. 1 (draft published in 2001).
142. Eldridge Moores in McPhee
(1998), p. 605. For the media in this period see Boykoff
and Boykoff (2007). BACK
143. Scolded: e.g., Time
(2001), including polls. BACK
(2005). Much work on "cognitive dissonance" theory provides
evidence for this mental mechanism. "Century-scale," Andrew
Revkin on "Living on Earth," National Public Radio, Sept. 10,
2004. For more recent references and results on visual and verbal imagery see O'Neill et al. (2013). BACK
143b. Poll of voters by Mellman Group
for World Wildlife Fund, 9/97, see panda.org
(N.b. by the time you see this, these sites may be offline and you may
need to contact the organization or an internet archive to get the text.)
Gallup polls of general public 11/97, 4/99, 4/01, 3/02, etc. (I saw these
on Gallup’s Website but
they are now available only for a price. You can get some recent information
by using a search engine to locate news reports.) For analysis, see Kempton (1991); Bostrom
et al. (1994) (spray cans); Read
et al. (1994); non-U.S. polls: O'Riordan
and Jäger (1996), using a 1995 report by W. Rudig; also Bord
et al. (1998); see also Stamm et al. (2000) and other articles in the
same issue. There are many other polls from this period, see pollingreport.com and, e.g., americans-world.org.
Child’s denial: White (2005);
on nuclear denial cf. Weart (1988),
esp. pp. 149-51. BACK
(1999); summary in Showstock (1999);
here I also draw upon Thompson and Rayner (1998), pp. 270-73; on
pollution, see Weart (1988), pp. 188-190; an early and widely
read statement of global warming concern connected with a call for "a
simpler life" was McKibben (1989). Swiss: Stoll-Kleeman et al. (2001). For similar results from an excellent and deep Norwegian study see Norgaard (2011). Wolf and Moser (2011) review focus group studies. See also Lynas (2000), pp. 288-89, and for much more on denial and apathy, American Psychological Association (2010), online here. BACK
144. On the "lack of ready-made metaphors in the popular culture:" Ungar (2000), p. 305; Bill McKibben, "Imagine That," Grist.org,
April 21, 2005. For nuclear productions see Weart
(1988). Examples of science fiction based on devastating climate change
are Ready (1998), well-meaning but
scarcely noticed; Turner (1989),
a story of civilization collapsing under the pressures of war and economic
forces as well as global warming (noted fairly widely for its literary
quality); and, by two of the field's major authors, Silverberg
(1994) (little noted), emphasizing the greed, stupidity and ambitions
that were bringing vast destruction through ozone as well as global warming,
and Sterling (1995), where colossal
storms mingle with stormy political conspiracy. The future climate change in Ballard (1962) was spectacular but not specifically anthropogenic. The Hugo-award-winning Robinson
(1994) included disastrous global warming but only in the background. Glass (2009), a thriller based on global warming, had sales far below the warming-denial thriller Crichton (2004). Global warming was one
of the background problems related to overpopulation in the pioneering
environmentalist film Soylent Green (1973). The polar ice caps
melted to set the scene for a highly touted and financially disappointing
action movie, "Waterworld" (1995, directed by Kevin Reynolds). BACK
144a. Boyle (2000). Atwood
(2003), start of ch. 5; see also the sequel, Atwood (2009). J.K. Ullrich, "Climate Fiction: Can Books Save the Planet?" theAtlantic.com, Aug 14, 2015, online here. See Dan Bloom's Cli-Fi Report. BACK
145. For Rockman see, e.g., Stevens
(2004), Weart (2005). [Disclosure:
by an odd coincidence, my daughter Kimi was Rockman's assistant
while this painting was made.] Rockman has since done several other paintings
in this genre. Yannick Monget painted Paris and other cities ruined by
climate change, see Grousson (2006) and Monget (2007). I review the "last man" and "ruined cities"
themes in Weart (1988), pp. 19-20,
220-221. The masterpiece of the genre is Max Ernst's superb "Europa
nach dem Regen" ("Europe after the Rains," 1942), which
uses the titular climate change as a metaphor for the destructive forces
of war and politics. BACK
145a. E.g., Diamond
(2004) (paperback reprint Penguin, 2005); Kolbert
(2004) was the first volume of a trilogy; the second volume,
Robinson (2005), featured a sudden freeze in
Washington, DC. "The Day After Tomorrow" (2004) was directed
by Roland Emmerich, his third summer "blockbuster" movie in
which New York City is wrecked (respectively by aliens and Godzilla).
Its receipts put it among the top 100 all-time U.S.movies. Anthony Lane,
the New Yorker movie critic, wrote (June 7, 2004, p. 103), "The
very silliness of 'The Day After Tomorrow' means that global warming will
become, in the minds of moviegoers, little more than another nonspecific
fear about which they must uncomprehendingly fret." U.S.response:
Leiserowitz (2004). Germans surveyed, unlike
Americans, grew more skeptical about climate change after seeing the movie,
perhaps because it violated what they already understood fairly well,
but they became more concerned about the risk of abrupt climate
change. Reusswig et al. (2004) Contrariwise,
British film viewers became slightly more concerned about climate change
but reduced their belief that climate change would bring extreme events,
perhaps because they now identified that as fantasy, Lowe
et al. (2006). BACK
146. 2013 study: O'Neill et al. (2013). "In the absence," Wilkins
and Patterson (1991), p. 176. See, e.g., Weber
(2006) for an introduction to the important literature on how people
judge or misjudge risks. Viewers of Gore's "Inconvenient Truth"
movie were especially impressed by an animation of an exhausted polar
bear who could not find an ice floe to rest on. It was reported that bears
were in fact drowning, Simonite (2005). Children:
Allegra Goodman, "The Dark Dreams of Global Warming," Boston
Globe, Sept. 8, 2008; similarly, John Stossel, "Man vs.
Nature: Challenging Conventional Views About Global Warming," ABC
News, Oct. 19, 2007; Anne Applebaum, "The Apocalypse Is Not Upon Us," slate.com, Dec. 14, 2009. BACK
146a. "More compelling,"
referring to "the Hadley Centre's horrifying J-curve," Richard
Hamblyn, "Message in the Wilderness," Times Literary Supplement
no. 5389, July 14, 2006, p. 18. McEwan (2010). On avoiding the issue see also Barbara Kingsolver's novel Flight Behavior, Kingsolver (2012). Understand ourselves: interview in Ryan Roberts, ed., Conversations with Ian McEwan (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010), online here. Non-fiction: interview with Nicholas Wroe, "Ian McEwan: 'It's Good to Get Your Hands Dirty a Bit'," The Guardian, March 6, 2010. For consequences of climate change see the essay on impacts. BACK
147. Newspaper coverage: Boykoff
and Boykoff (2004), figs. 2, 4, see also Boykoff
and Boykoff (2007). Carey (2004);
Appenzeller (2004) (a giant 74 pages).
Nat’l Geographic editor Bill Allen wrote in his editorial
that "some readers will even terminate their memberships," but
he couldn’t look himself in the mirror if he didn’t print
the article. He later told a reporter that some readers did indeed cancel.
An especially well-received book was Speth
(2004). For other books and Websites see my links
page. At year-end Crichton (2004)
was no. 3 on the New York Times Book Review best-seller list
and no. 2 worldwide in sales on Amazon.com. For an analysis of Crichton’s
errors see realclimate.org.
Earlier Crichton books criticizing scientists included The Andromeda
Strain (1969) and Jurassic Park (1991). BACK
147a. Dunlap and Jacques (2013). Singer (2001); Lomborg (2001). For Lomborg and his errors see this note in the essay on Impacts. "Alternate:" Ruddiman
(2005), p. 187, see ch. 18. BACK
147b. Paul Krugman, "Climate Rage," Dec. 8, 2009, online here. BACK
148. Evangelical appeal: christiansandclimate.org;
Kintisch (2006); Haag
149. "It falls to us...,"
Browne, speech at Stanford University, May 19, 1997, at stanford.edu
and other Websites. On BP and its conversion (reportedly spurred by a memo from a staff geologist) see Lovell (2012). Jim Carlot, "J.P. Morgan Adopts ‘Green’
Lending Policies," Wall Street Journal, April 25, 2005,
p. B1; Aston and Helm (2005); Michael
Barbaro and Felicity Barringer, "Wal-Mart to Seek Savings in Energy,"
New York Times, Oct. 25, 2005, p. C1; Linden
(2006), p. 136; "the year global warming," Business
Week (2006); and other articles in these and other business media.
For David Crane, an energy CEO who read up on climate change and "realized
it was a moral issue," see Whitford
(2007), p. 76 "Dad," Adler (2007),
p. 48; see also Amanda Griscom Little, "The Greening of Fox,"
May 17, 2007. Some polls show more concern among young people, some less,
some little age difference; e.g., HSBC Climate Confidence Index 2007 (London:
HSBC, July 2007), 20 pp., online at hsbc.com;
Pew Center, "A Deeper Partisan Divide Over Global Warming,"
5/8/08, on the Pew
website; Jeffrey Ball, "New Consensus: In Climate Controversy,
Industry Cedes Ground," Wall Street Journal, Jan. 23, 2007
(p. 1). BACK
150. The term "tipping point,"
popularized in 2000 in a book of that title by Malcolm Gladwell, was popularized
for climate by, i.a., Lindsay
and Zhang (2005) and Kluger (2006),
see also Kluger (2005); New
York Times, Sept. 28, 2005; Juliet Eilperin, "Debate on Climate
Shifts to Issue of Irreparable Change," Washington Post
(page one lead), Jan. 29, 2006 — the same day the New York Times
led with a story of administration attempts to silence James Hansen's
warnings (see essay on "Government").
Gabrielle Walker reported in 2006 that "In 2004, 45 newspaper articles
mentioned a 'tipping point' in connection with climate change; in the
first five months of this year, 234 such articles were published."
(Nature 441, p. 802). BACK
151. "Unexpectedly" and Time
cover, Kluger (2006), p. 35, part
of special report, pp. 34-42; "Breaking news," Andrew Revkin
"Meltdown," New York Times (Week in Review) April 23,
2006; "journalists... assessed," Carey
(2007), p. 92. Study: Boykoff (2011), pp. 133-37. USA Today, June 13, 2005 by Dan Vergano, as cited by Boykoff (2009), p. 431, q.v.; "Global Warming: The Signs and the Science,"
PBS (South Carolina ETV and Stonehaven Productions), Nov. 2, 2005; "Earth
to America!" starring many well-known figures, Turner Broadcasting
Sytem (TBS), Nov. 20, 2005; "The Heat Is On," Fox News Channel,
Nov. 13, 2005 (see following note); "Global Warming 101" with
Leonardo DiCaprio, Oprah Winfrey Show, Oct. 28, 2005. Books: Among Amazon.com's
200 top-selling books in March 2006 were Flannery
(2006) and Kolbert (2006), the
latter previously published in the New Yorker [Kolbert
(2005)]; some commentators hoped one or the other would serve like
Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962), which spurred action against
pesticides and environmental pollution in general. Also, for example,
Vanity Fair "Green Issue," no. 549 (May 2006); ABC reports
on "Good Morning America," "Nightline," "World
News Tonight," ABC news radio, etc., week of March 16, 2006. BACK
152. "An Inconvenient Truth,"
dir. Davis Guggenheim, Participant Productions, 2006, and illustrated
book, Gore (2006). Origins: Pooley
(2007), p. 37. Publicity included many radio and television interviews
and magazine cover stories. I saw the talk in the early 1990s, where Sen.
Gore illustrated the soaring of CO2 in the atmosphere
by standing on a chair. The book spent four weeks at the top of the New
York Times Book Review bestseller list and was on the list for 38
weeks. After the film was widely seen, U.S.public opinion turned modestly
in Gore’s direction, but perhaps only as part of a general shift
toward environmentalism: Saad (2007). There
is anecdotal evidence from several sources on the influence of Gore’s
presentation on elites. For example, the first Fox News documentary (see
preceding note) "was approved after environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy,
Jr. reportedly ‘dragged’ Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes to
a lecture by former Vice President Al Gore, ‘kicking and screaming’."
Randy Hall and Marc Morano, CNS
News, Nov. 9, 2005, . Florida Governor Charlie Crist, pushing emissions
reduction in 2007, "said the movie influenced his views deeply,"
Joe Follick, Gainesville
Sun, July 4, 2007. BACK
152a. Downs (1972). See Boykoff (2009); Boykoff (2011), pp. 20-23. BACK
studies by Robert Brulle and by Maxwell Boykoff & Mara Mansfield,
and discussed by Andrew Revkin, New York Times blog, Dec. 4,
2008, online here;
Gallup, Pew Research Center and Rasmussen Reports polls, summarized and
discussed by Revkin Jan. 2, 2009, online here
and March 11, 2009, online here. Sea
ice: e.g., Andrew C. Revkin, "Analysts See 'Simply Incredible' Shrinking
of Floating Ice in the Arctic," New York Times, Aug. 10,
153a. Professional PR: see Hoggan (2009), esp. chs. 10,14. Google searches by Kevin Grandia, “A Troubling Trend in Global Warming Denial on the Internet,” DeSmogBlog.com (Jan. 15, 2009). Searches I conducted Jan. 1, 2012 gave much higher numbers (e.g., 2.63 million blog hits for "global warming" + hoax). BACK
153b. IPCC (2014c). Leiserowitz et al. (2010a); on hiatus, Boykoff (2014). For context, starting-points are Pearce (2010) and the detailed discussions and comments Nov. 2009-Nov. 2010 on the blog realclimate.org. US newspaper coverage: see graphs. Major study: Brulle et al. (2012). NGOs: Amy Luers, Carl Pope and David Kroodsma, "Climate Risks: Linking Narratives to Action," Stanford Social Innovation Review blog, Aug. 19, 2013, online here . BACK
154. U.S. polls at Gallup.com,
details available only for a fee, but summaries of these and similar results
from many other polls are easily found on the internet, see pollingreport.com.
Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, global
attitudes survey, spring 2006; HSBC Climate Confidence Index 2007
(London: HSBC, July 2007), 20 pp., online at hsbc.com.
Results are often inconsistent among polls; it is important to make comparisons
only within polls asking exactly comparable sequences of questions and
among comparable populations (for example, surveys in the developing world
usually reached only the more affluent). For polls see e.g., Brett W. Pelham, "Awareness, opinions about global warming vary worldwide," Gallup (2009), online here; Leiserowitz et al. (2010b) and other work by Leiserowitz's group, and Council on Foreign Relations, "Public Opinion on Global Issues" (2011), online here. BACK
(2005), and especially Leiserowitz (2006),
"lacked vivid" p. 55. Also Lorenzoni
and Pidgeon (2006); Ereaut and Segnit (2006);
Saad (2007). Gallup: see preceding note. For 2001-2010 political divide see McCright and Dunlap (2011) and Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, e.g., Jan.
2007 poll and Nov. 2011 poll. There is growing evidence that "hierarchically arranged
groups... tend to perceive industrial and technological risks as opportunities
and thus less risky, whereas more egalitarian groups tend to perceive
them as threats to their social structure." Weber
(2006), p. 111. This may extend to individual personalities with respect
to their concerns about authority vs. fairness, etc. See
Haidt (2007); Kahan (2010). Surrogate: see Feygina et al. (2010); McCright (2011). BACK
156. Bruce Stokes, Richard Wike and Jill Earle, "Global Concern about Climate Change, Broad Support for Limiting Emissions," Pew Research Center, Nov. 5, 2015, online here. BACK
157. McKibben (2012). See http://www.350.org. Pope Francis, "Laudato Si," online here. BACK
copyright © 2003-2016 Spencer
Weart & American Institute of Physics