What my mens group taught me about politics, science, and climate change.
By Tim Connor
As Marco Rubio, the ambitious U.S. Senator from Florida recently demonstrated, people will say almost anything to get elected. In Rubio’s case, it matters not that we are only decades away from seeing large tracts of his home state recovered by the Atlantic Ocean.
“I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it,” he told ABC News in early May.
Most of the Floridians who’ll be abandoning their homes in Miami, or losing their fresh water supplies to seawater intrusions into the state’s limestone aquifers, are as yet too young to vote. Thus, in the dawning moments of what some scientists are now calling the Anthropocene epoch (denoting the effect mankind is having on the planet’s atmosphere) Rubio only needs to win the hearts and votes of die-hard conservative primary voters who will effectively decide whether he gets to be the Republican Presidential candidate in 2016. From his floating Tiki bar near the beach, Rubio offers this aging demographic vials of denial along with their daiquiris.
It may seem implausible that a loud argument in the back of an Indian restaurant in dusty Spokane would reveal as much as reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or the National Academy of Sciences. But it did for me.
The very day after Rubio dismissed the connection between human activity and global warming, newspaper headlines framed new scientific forecasts on what is expected to occur on the other side of the climate change event horizon.
“Antarctic Ice Sheet Collapse Unstoppable, Studies Find” read the front-page headline in the Spokesman-Review. “Sea levels may rise faster than expected, scientists say” read the subhead.
The most ominous message from the science beneath the headlines is that the escalating melting of the Thwaites Glacier in western Antarctica is almost certain to trigger a much broader disintegration of Antarctic ice. As Science Daily explained: “The fast-moving Thwaites Glacier will likely disappear in a matter of centuries, researchers say, raising sea level by nearly 2 feet. That glacier also acts as a linchpin on the rest of the ice sheet, which contains enough ice to cause another 10 to 13 feet (3 to 4 meters) of global sea level rise.”
Loosely speaking, scientists refer to events like the collapse of the Thwaites Glacier as “positive feedback loops” in that they trigger or expedite changes that only escalate the trend. As trends progress, physical systems may reach a “tipping point” at which a fundamental (and potentially devastating) change from one steady state to another is inevitable.
Tempers flared, obscenities flew from their cages, the owner of the restaurant looked on warily, as if he might need to wade into protect the furniture.
Even before I learned what Sen. Rubio had said, I was brooding over a different sort of tipping point toward our foreseeable climate catastrophes. No melting ice sheets here. Just the breath-taking repeal of the Enlightenment. It’s a ripe topic that my friend Taylor Weech recently addressed for The Inlander.
The epochal truth about global warming is that we, as a species, are the principle cause.
Although the visible and economic effects are already occurring far from melting ice sheets there are still threads of hope that the worst consequences can be avoided if we recognize the problem and change our behavior. Whether we admit it or not, we are participants in, and witness to, the human tipping point of this grand environmental tragedy. We either change in time, or we don’t. With apologies to future generations, the hard truth is we’re deeper into the quicksand of this problem than we realize and it is the most malignant features of the American political and media system that are primarily to blame.
An Argument in north Spokane
What had driven this home, for me, was a meeting of my men’s group on May 7th. Ironically, it was just off Division Street. How apt. First, I have to explain just what I was doing there because there’s really nothing in my closet of unmet needs that would point me toward joining a men’s group. I’m an introvert. Given a choice, I’d much prefer the company of women. But a year and a half ago I was invited to join an all-male discussion group. The invitation came with a small dose of flattery and some sensible reasons why I should put aside my reluctance. I’d thought, for a while, that as someone who has strong opinions and regularly gives voice to them, I just wasn’t spending enough time with people who disagree with me. This would solve that.
If the group has a purpose it is as an experiment to see if men from either end of the political spectrum can build kinship while also discussing and debating the most polarizing public issues. It is not for the faint of heart. Amongst my other friends I refer to it, affectionately, as “my crazy ass men’s group.”
By the time climate change arrived we had already done guns, Obamacare, marijuana, and a handful of other lightning rod topics. And it has, for the most part, gone well, mostly with agreements to disagree, but also with surprising agreements where, for example, my liberal disdain for the excesses of the Bush/Obama national security state is shared by the libertarians in our group.
But the climate change discussion was a disaster. It broke down right from the start because we couldn’t agree on basic facts. A couple of us—myself included—sharply objected to an opening presentation that, in our view, was laced with disinformation. The presenter, one of the group’s founders, quickly became exasperated by the interruptions, as did some of his fellow conservatives. Tempers flared, obscenities flew from their cages, the owner of the restaurant looked on warily, as if he might need to wade in to protect the furniture.
I later apologized to the guys for my interruptions. But given this is arguably the most important debate of our times, I’m grateful for what the combustion brought to light. It may seem implausible that a loud argument in the back of an Indian restaurant in dusty Spokane would reveal as much as reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or the National Academy of Sciences. But it did for me. In the heat of the arguments, it became clear this wasn’t about the science, but rather about the changes that the science all but begs us to make. More importantly, the “facts” presented to challenge the prevailing science on climate change have a long root to them, one that connects to a cynically calculated and very successful campaign to block any U.S. response to the looming human tragedies that await as the heat rises, the ice melts, and drought brings it miseries.
Flogging the Science
The best window into climate science and the concerted effort to undercut it is through the life experience of former NASA climate scientist James Hansen. Hansen arrived at Earth from Venus. A protégé of the renowned physicist James Van Allen, Hansen’s early work helped shed light on the composition of the Venusian atmosphere. Early in its planetary life, Venus was much more Earth-like and apparently cool enough to have liquid water on its surface. Over time, however, carbon dioxide levels rose and a runaway greenhouse ensued, resulting in the modern Venus, shrouded in dense mists of sulfuric acid, with surface temperatures of 900 degrees F. This led Hansen to turn his attention to Earth, and to examine the question of whether man-made emissions of CO2 were altering climate and, if so, what the implications were.
A first answer came in 1981 with the publication, in the journal Science, of an article entitled: “Climate Impact of Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide.” The paper connected a global rise in temperatures to the greenhouse effect of CO2 emissions and offered this prognosis:
“Potential effects on climate in the 21st century include the creation of drought-prone regions in North America and central Asia as part of a shifting of climatic zones, erosion of the West Antarctic ice sheet with a consequent worldwide rise in sea level, and opening of the fabled Northwest Passage.”
Hansen’s standing among fellow scientists was enhanced with additional model predictions in the late 1980s that, within a decade, had proven to be remarkably accurate. But his reward for trying to alert his fellow Americans and the world to the looming tragedies of unabated greenhouse gas emissions was to be treated almost as though he were a traitor. This included efforts by the fossil fuel-promoting Bush Administration in 2005 to restrict his public speaking.
Within Hansen’s story is a microcosm of a large-scale human tragedy. The Catholic church’s efforts to silence Galileo for positing that the planets revolved around the sun remains the archetypal reference point for how power turns it claws toward inconvenient truths. But the push back on the proof of a heliocentric solar system didn’t cause droughts, destroy coral reefs, or submerge Tuvulu, Kiribati and other endangered island-societies. The politically motivated attack on Hansen’s message and climate science in general has far more dire consequences because, as Hansen explains as well as anybody, the cost of delay in drastically reducing carbon emissions is exponential—not linear.
Given this is arguably the most important debate of our times, I’m grateful for what the combustion brought to light. It may seem implausible that a loud argument in the back of an Indian restaurant in dusty Spokane would reveal as much as reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or the National Academy of Sciences. But it did.
In the tempest at my men’s group meeting there were at least three steaming chunks of disinformation that I called out. In order, they are:
(1) Reports of the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change are both exaggerated and baseless.
(2) The areal extent of arctic sea ice shows no effect from global warming.
(3) World-wide temperature data shows that no global warming has actually occurred in the past 15-16 years.
I’m not going to spend time, here, on items #1 and #2, because they are easily debunked. The 97% consensus on anthropogenic climate change derives from this study, and you really don’t want to get into an argument with a polar bear over the rapid decline of arctic sea ice.
It’s really item (3) that requires some attention. For one reason, it was my refusal to concede this as an “accepted fact” that blew a gasket in our men’s group discussion. More importantly, this claim is a staple among those who dispute the scientific consensus on global warming, including several Republican members of Congress.
If this assertion causes you to blink in disbelief, you’re hardly alone. If there’s been no appreciable rise in global temperatures since 1998, how it can be that the 1990s and the 2000s are the warmest decades on record?
The answer lies in how you select and configure the numbers.
For starters, 1998 was an “El Niño year, exceptionally warm year, the hottest on record up until that time. Given the normal fluctuations in annual surface temperatures, if you make 1998 the starting point you can (depending on what data sets you use) make a superficial case for what climate change skeptics call the “pause”—a leveling out of aggregated earth surface temperatures in the years downstream of 1998.
If you’re pushing “the pause” to discredit the science on global warming, you probably don’t want your audience to know that the Earth’s oceans actually absorb and store about 90% of the energy added to the planet due to rising CO2 levels. Even as land surface temperatures have (in the aggregate) remained relatively stable in the years since 1998, the oceans have been warming at a dramatic pace. (The “El Niño” phenomenon includes an unusually large transfer of heat from the ocean to land, thus helping to explain the much warmer land temperatures measured in 1998.)
Lord Monckton, wearing an American flag tie, asks his audience of Tea Partiers to shout their “American-speak” word for global warming. “Bullshit!,” the crowd roars back, obligingly. “All together,” Monckton replies. “Global warming is…?” “Bullshit!,” the crowd shouts back, even louder.
Penn State climatologist Michael Mann—whose research focuses on how natural variations effect the pace and variation of global warming—refers to “the pause” as the “speed bump.”
“(T)he fact that global surface temperatures have not increased as much over the past decade as many climate models predict they should have, doesn’t necessarily contradict the model predictions at all,” he writes. “In reality, the speed bump may simply reflect the short-term natural fluctuations of climate (and keep in mind that, by some measures such as the melting of Arctic sea ice, climate change is actually proceeding faster than the models have predicted).”
When Frontlines aired its “Climate of Doubt” documentary in late 2012, it used “the pause” as a prime example of how climate change deniers manipulate the numbers. There is enough variation in the year-to-year data that, by choosing peaking years as starting points, you can find slight cooling trends in every recent decade EVEN as the broader trend is dramatically upward. It’s a statistical trick called ‘going down the up escalator.’
But what’s most valuable about Catherine Upin and John Hockenberry’s reporting in “Climate of Doubt” is their focus on the people behind the attack on the scientific consensus that anthropogenic global warming is occurring.
To be sure, there is inherent skepticism built into the very process by which theories and measurements of anthropogenic climate change are evaluated. That’s just part of the gamut of science in which the burdens of proof lean upon those who purport to show something new, or out of the ordinary.
But that’s not what’s going on here. As Michael Mann explains in his 2012 book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, when the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change had solidified in the mid-1990s it properly begged the questions of what the policy options were and how much they would cost. Yet, this is where ideological and industry-funded critics doubled down, Mann writes, “intent on preempting that debate (on how to respond to the science) by continuing to argue that climate change itself, if not a massive and deliberate hoax, was based on bad science.”
On Division Street the animated conversation about the science swiftly slid off the rails into the swamp of a boundless and chaotic discussion about ideology and economic freedom. This was the raw nerve, the indignation that scientists and environmentalists were attacking free market principles and turning to government intervention for solutions. The push back over the science was/is just part of a reflexive, tactical response, like throwing a stool in a bar fight.
Mann and others point to a now-infamous 2002 memo by Republican pollster and political strategist Frank Luntz.
“The scientific debate is closing,” Luntz warned his GOP clients, “but not yet closed.”
Luntz reported that while the public still sensed there was no scientific consensus on climate change, public views would shift if they believed the science was settled, that climate change was occurring as a result of human activities. Thus, Luntz advised: “you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”
‘Green is the new Red’
In their Frontlines reporting, Upin and Hockenberry dive quite a bit deeper. Not that anybody should be shocked, but the core of the exposé is that the successful effort to shake public confidence in the science of climate change was and is a political campaign. It is fueled by the Koch Brothers and other fossil fuel profiteers, and is guided by ideologues who believe, as one of them puts it, that “green is the new red.” Their core value is to prevent government intervention in corporate decision-making.
One of the proudest and unabashed voices in the film is that of Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) , a hub of climate change skepticism funded by Exxon, the American Petroleum Institute, etc. In 1998, Ebell—who is not a scientist—penned a strategy memo to manufacture public doubts about climate change.
“Victory will be achieved,” he wrote, when the American public recognizes uncertainties in climate science.”
Hockenberry takes his camera crew to visit Ebell at his CEI office and, with the cameras rolling, he asks Ebell about the array of promotional posters for anti-climate change books displayed on the office walls. This is from the Frontlines transcript:
MYRON EBELL: They’re all CEI authors. What we’re fighting is the expansion of government. And there are many pretexts for expanding government.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Opposing government action on climate change to defend American freedom is a perfect fit.
MYRON EBELL: We felt that if you concede the science is settled and that there’s a consensus, you cannot— the moral high ground has been ceded to the alarmists.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: (on camera) So you had to go to work and break down this consensus.
MYRON EBELL: Yes. And we did it because we believed that the consensus was phony. We believed that the so-called global warming consensus was not based on science, but was a political consensus, which included a number of scientists.
On camera, Ebell is gleeful about how successful the pushback against the science has been. For insight into the rigor of the technical criticism, Frontlines cameras go to rallies organized by Ebell’s coalition partner, Tim Phillips of Americans for Prosperity, a favorite front organization for the Koch Brothers. Phillips brings a hot air balloon to the rally as a prop to mock the warnings about climate change.
“Global Warming Alarmism” says the banner on the large balloon. “Lost Jobs, Higher Taxes, Less Freedom.”
A featured speaker at one raucous event is CEI’s Lord Christopher Monckton, a former British journalist and advisor to arch-conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Like Ebell and Phillips, Monckton has no scientific credentials but is a talented charlatan.
Monckton, wearing an American flag tie, asks his audience of Tea Partiers to shout their “American-speak” word for global warming.
“Bullshit!,” the crowd roars back, obligingly.
“All together,” Monckton replies. “Global warming is…?”
“Bullshit!,” the crowd shouts back even louder.
The campaign worked, and public opinion polls showed a sharp rise in the number of Americans who were skeptical that global warming is occurring. It would eventually take comedians like John Oliver to point out the dark absurdity of measuring public opinion on a fact.
And this is the key point. By attacking the science with disinformation and ladling political chum to Tea Partiers, the well-organized and well-funded, free market fabulists managed to scuttle any movement in Congress to address the emerging threat of climate change.
In their interviews with Frontlines—explaining how they were able to politically exploit the doubts they’d manufactured about climate change science—Ebell and the other architects are aglow with self-congratulation.
Given the ramifications, it’s a little sickening to watch.
If only this were just about a multi-billion dollar corporate tax break, a bridge to nowhere, or a gold-plated defense contract for Halliburton. You know, something that time, a few prosecutions, and a few billion dollars would assuage. Most debacles are reparable, and they don’t melt the permafrost. This one is different though.
Dogs Barking at Scientists
A few days after the disturbing news about the Thwaites glacier in Antarctica, James Hansen was featured on a national radio program. With him (to rebut Hansen’s call for a fee on carbon emitting fuels) was Marlo Lewis, a senior fellow and colleague of Myron Ebell’s at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
During the broadcast the show’s host, Tom Ashbrook of Boston’s WBUR, pushed Lewis to see if he was in Senator Rubio’s camp as a climate change denier. Here’s what Lewis said:
“Well I don’t know that he (Rubio) said that. I certainly don’t say that. And nothing that I’ve said would indicate that I think climate change isn’t happening. I think it is happening. I do think that human emissions are contributing to it; maybe even the greatest factor in the last fifty years, as the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) says.”
Say what? I actually went back and listened to the program again to make sure I heard Lewis correctly.
Let’s see. So, the same organization that sends Myron Ebell and Lord Christopher Monckton out to whip crowds into denouncing climate change as “bullshit” will offer a different message about the state of science when it actually has to debate a real climate scientist. And the message is—“I think it is happening” and that “human emissions” may be the largest contributor. In other words, the science isn’t “bullshit” after all.
Lewis elaborated: “There are relatively few honest brokers in this debate,” he told Ashbrook. “There are honest people. I’d say that an honest person is one who tells you straight up that he’s not an honest broker. I’m a dog in the fight. I don’t claim to be above the fray and simply report what ‘the science’ has told us, like some people do.”
Under further questioning by the host, Lewis added that his “motivation” in the climate debates “is that I think the economic liberty and economic growth are the best guarantors of human health and welfare that the world has ever seen.”
And, thus, the real problem with all this talk about climate change is that governments might actually try to do something about it, and this would interfere with “economic liberty and economic growth.”
This exchange had a very familiar ring to it. Albeit at a lower volume, it was what I experienced in my men’s group, after some of the shouting dissipated. On Division Street the animated conversation about the science swiftly slid off the rails into the swamp of a boundless and chaotic discussion about ideology and economic freedom. This was the raw nerve, the indignation that scientists and environmentalists were attacking free market principles and turning to government intervention for solutions. The push back over the science was/is just part of a reflexive, tactical response, like throwing a stool in a bar fight.
And this is what Lewis was speaking to when he outlined his “motivation” during the recent radio debate with James Hansen. What he and other free market ideologues are saying is that they are far more afraid of government regulation than they are concerned over what climate change portends for the future of civilization, let alone Miami. It all flows from the article of faith among conservatives that the free market is inherently virtuous and that government regulation is inherently flawed, if not outright evil. It’s a simple, core belief that addresses the externalized costs of pollution and environmental degradation by simply ignoring them. What others see as dishonest and willful blindness, free market conservatives see as timeless wisdom.
The hard truth is that faith doesn’t alter the laws of physics and that reading Ayn Rand to a melting glacier doesn’t help. The rapidly emerging costs of climate change due to the continued burning of fossil fuels are nothing short of calamitous. That’s what the science tells us.
At least with cigarettes, the harm to future generations is limited to the reach of second-hand smoke. While an avoidable epidemic of lung cancer is a bad thing, it doesn’t threaten to make large tracts of the planet uninhabitable for future generations.
Inside this problem, the math is not our friend. What most of us are coming too late to realize is that the curve of the response required of us—that is, how quickly we need to reduce CO2 emissions—is not linear. It is exponential, in that the longer we wait, the more drastic our actions have to be if we’re to have a prayer of avoiding the worst effects of climate change.
Imagine you’re driving a car along a thoroughfare. You’re heading downhill at 40 m.p.h. and you see a red rubber kickball bouncing out onto the roadway, followed by a running child. In that hair-raising moment, you can feel, intuitively, the weight and hazard of inertia. Every fraction of a second matters, because of the time and distance needed to bring the car to a stop.
Much the same is happening with CO2 and climate change, in that we can’t stop global warming on a dime. Even if we were to halt all CO2 emissions, tomorrow, we would expect temperatures to rise by about 1 degree Fahrenheit over the next half century. So, yes, given the entrenched political opposition to doing anything about climate change, it is promising news that the Obama EPA has announced it will take unilateral, regulatory action to cut CO2 emissions from power plants by 30 percent over 15 years. But, as Ezra Klein quickly explained, a several years-long delay in hitting the brakes means that we’re already facing a dramatically more difficult challenge and doing so with a plan that is less ambitious than what both political parties proposed during the 2008 Presidential campaign. Thus, what looks like a positive step is really akin to a marathon runner finally locating and putting on his running shoes, a half hour after the race has begun.
Like James Hansen and so many others, I absorb the news of dwindling polar sea ice and collapsing ice sheets in Antarctica with fear and remorse.
But the most bitter sea change is what we can see, in our politics, as a cynical betrayal of the Age of Reason. Michael Mann and others have noted that the blueprint for the coordinated disinformation by “skeptics” was the earlier campaign by tobacco companies to try to shield themselves from regulation and litigation. At least with cigarettes, the harm to future generations is limited to the reach of second-hand smoke. While an avoidable epidemic of lung cancer is a bad thing, it doesn’t threaten to make large tracts of the planet uninhabitable for future generations.
What we’ve seen with the concerted attacks on climate science and climate scientists is a bleak reminder of how craven and short-sighted human beings can be. You’d like to think that if we had to do it over again, as a global community with an evolved, coherent sense of survival, we would have taxed coal and oil severely in order to create incentives for solar and other green energy sources with a much smaller carbon footprint. But that assumes that we could have had a rational discussion, one that should have resulted in national and international actions that were commensurate to the crisis.
When I walked out the door at the end of my men’s group meeting in May I was aghast—completely out of words. Besides the raw emotions unloosed, what was disorienting is that we’d started miles apart on the facts and, failing to close the gap. Instead, the discussion degenerated into arguments about beliefs. So nothing really happened, except that we’d had a noisy dinner together and not come close to finding common cause. In short, the evening was, on a small scale, a vivid reflection of the larger impasse. There are no absolutions and there is no lipstick of hope to reach for here. To suggest otherwise would be an insult to the people of Tuvulu, Kiribati, the Seychelles and others around the world who are already up against the wall of this preventable tragedy.
Previous essays on climate change: