It was a banner year for myth making about climate change. Despite mounting evidence that temperatures are rising, the deniers’ camp spun bigger, better and more believable tall tales than ever before.
And those stories worked like a charm in 2009. Amplified by broadcast bloviators and a compliant mainstream media, advocates for burying our collective head in the sand convinced millions of Americans that climate change isn’t happening, isn’t caused by people, or wouldn’t be such a bad thing anyway.
Here are five of the top 10 tall tales in the 2009 climate change denier’s storybook. I want your help with the rest of the list for next week’s column. Let me know in the comments section which ones I’m missing.
Temperatures have dropped over the last decade.
Tall tale: Yellow journalist Matt Drudge peddled this whopper with sensational headlines in 2008. This year, it was repeated so many times that it turned into the kind of contrarian cocktail party factoid that can’t be disputed by mere ... facts. The premise is simple: Draw a line from a particularly hot thermometer level (in this case, the one-time record hot year of 1998) to any lower temperature that came later. Voila! You’ve got a downward trend!
I don’t think so: The cooling myth has been debunked so many times, and so easily, that it’s painful. You don’t have to be a climatologist to understand that temperatures rise and fall all year, every year; a climbing trend can include steps down. Trends can best be identified by looking at moving averages. For example, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency readings show that the five-year averages for global temperatures have risen by more than half-a-degree Celsius since 1980. And before the denialists reading this declare NOAA to be part of a conspiracy, consider that the tall tale relies on the same data in the first place.
In October, the cooling myth was debunked by an Associated Press article in which the writer presented the data to four statisticians without telling them what it was about. Each concluded the cooling interpretation bogus. On Dec. 8, the World Meteorological Organization reported that this decade has been the warmest on record, which would have been difficult if temperatures had been cooling.
Media spin: To their credit, few national mainstream journalists swallowed the global cooling story whole. But the frenzy it generated on conservative blogs and airwaves was so pervasive that “cooling” has risen to the level of unassailable fact for a large portion of the population. Reflexive “truthiness,” stated confidently enough and said often enough, sticks around.
Fox News was particularly nonchalant about repeating the falsehood. Anchor Brett Baier announced in May “a number of studies now [show] there has been no global warming over at least the last 10 years, and that the Earth is actually cooling now.” He never cited those studies.
Then, there’s this sampling of righteous indignation from Glenn Beck:
Al Gore’s pushing the climate change myth so he can get rich.
Tall tale: Gore’s political enemies often gripe that he’s made a lot of money since losing the 2000 selection. They’re convinced not only that those were ill-gotten gains, but that the main reason he’s pushing now for climate legislation is so that he can make even more money on carbon credits, or green energy technology, or both, or something. The suspicions reached their apex in a congressional committee hearing when a backbench Republican from Gore’s home state of Tennessee interrogated him on his investments.
I don’t think so: The most obvious problem with the Gore’s-getting-rich complaint is that he’s allowed to do that. I mean we do still live in a capitalist country, don’t we? Vice presidents tend to be well-connected. Gore’s better positioned than most, partly because he earns $100,000 speaking fees and partly because he’s made some very good investments since leaving office.
But tying Gore’s wealth to investments that haven’t even happened yet seems more of an effort to appeal to class envy rather than to make a coherent argument that the Nobel Peace Prize winner has a devilish plan to take over global commerce.
Then there’s the timeline. Gore has been “mouthing” his concerns about climate change for more than two decades. In the 1980s, he began to develop the talk that became the basis for the movie An Inconvenient Truth. In 1990, I interviewed him after one of those talks from the backseat of a Toyota Tercel and reported then that I was surprised by the passion and detail he brought to the subject. In 1992, Gore’s first book on the climate threat, Earth in the Balance, was published. So when Milloy writes that Gore’s putting “his mouth where his money is,” he’s got it exactly backwards. The commitment on climate change came long before he started making money.
Gore also stresses that a fair chunk of his earnings tied to climate change go toward two non-profits that he’s founded to push for climate change action. The former vice president might quell the suspicions if he publicly released all his financial information. Then again, name me a private citizen who does that, and explain why Gore is the one who ought to.
Media spin: The mainstream media doesn’t seem so concerned about Gore’s money. But for the right-wing media he serves a useful purpose as the deniers’ bogeyman. It’s truly impressive how much vitriol is reserved for the man.
Tall tale: Every time you turn around, there’s another petition supposedly signed by skeptical climate scientists. First there was the list of “500 Scientists Whose Research Contradicts Man-Made Global Warming Scares,” put together by the anti-climate-action Heartland Institute. Then, there were more than 30,000 scientists who supposedly signed the “Oregon Petition.” And then, just before this month’s Copenhagen climate summit, 141 “Science and Technology Experts well Qualified in Climate Science” signed an open letter to the U.N. secretary-general demanding “convincing evidence” that climate change is occurring.
I don’t think so: Each document is far less than what it purports to be -- at times hilariously so. When contacted in 2008 by DeSmogBlog, dozens of scientists who found themselves on the list of 500 quickly responded with outrage, saying they never gave permission to be listed. One example: “I am horrified to find my name on such a list. I have spent the last 20 years arguing the opposite."
DeSmogBlog found even more wrong with the Oregon Petition. Many of its signers were undergraduate science majors, not scientists. Others didn’t even exist. Only 39 of the 30,000 signers actually turned out to be climatologists -- but even that claim couldn’t be verified. Et cetera. In the more recent list of 141 “well-qualified experts,” “well-qualified” is in the eye of the beholder. A close look reveals that many are scientists in unrelated fields, while others are engineers rather than scientists.
Why do deniers keep coming up with new petitions? Seems to me it’s because every time one petition is thoroughly discredited, the bloggers, broadcasters and political operatives can breathlessly trot out a fresh one that hasn’t been debunked yet.
Numerous petitions by thousands of actual climate scientists have pressed for politicians to take strong action quickly on climate change, but those efforts haven’t drawn nearly the attention of the deniers’ petitions. Neither have credible polls of scientists, including one early this year in which 97 percent of climatologists agreed that “human activity been a significant factor in changing mean global temperatures.”
In an entry on “Scientific Opinion on Climate Change,” Wikipedia lists 45 scientific organizations that concur with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s assessment that some global warming is likely caused by people. It adds: “no remaining scientific body of national or international standing is known to reject the basic findings of human influence on recent climate change.”
Media spin: It’s not surprising anymore that right-wing blogs, industry-funded think tanks, talk radio hosts and Fox News amplify denier-slanted petitions without mentioning their flaws, or that they fail to mention the more credible evidence of the overwhelming consensus of anthropogenic climate change.
It’d be a heck of a lot cheaper to fix things after the fact.
Tall tale: The economist and the journalist who wrote the spectacularly successful Freakonomics published the followup this fall: SuperFreakonomics. It’s filled with all kinds of errors about climate change, among them that the Earth is cooling, and that solar panels and trees make the Earth hotter.
The most entertaining of bit of unsubstantiated conjecture is that, rather than reducing greenhouse gases, it would be more effective and less expensive to suppress climate change through “geo-engineering” -- by pumping vast amounts of sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere to reflect away heat.
I don’t think so: Authors Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt market themselves as iconoclasts -- unafraid to attack sacred cows and to push novel solutions. The problem is that they don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to climate change -- a subject upon which there’s no shortage of expert opinion and, for that matter, creative thinking.
In a post on a science blog, geophysicist Raymond T. Pierrehumbert pretty convincingly accuses Levitt of “academic malpractice.” Meanwhile, Dubner admitted grudgingly -- and incompletely -- on the New York Times’ Freakonomics blog that he and Levitt misquoted a key source on geoengineering. His mea culpa came across as careful backpedaling. And the miracle cure they suggest for climate change comes across more like one of the predictable ideas you’d see in an old Popular Mechanics magazine than like original thinking.
Media spin: Hell hath no fury like a writer scorned. When I reported last month on Levitt and Dubner’s freaky ideas about climate change, I gave them the benefit of the doubt. They didn’t seem like dishonest deniers to me -- more like they over-reached to make their book more sensational.
Climategate discredited the ‘myth’ of anthropogenic climate change.
Tall tale: E-mails stolen from a British climate research center proved once and for all that an insider gang of climate scientists fudged data showing that the Earth is getting colder. The proof? Two or three missives out of thousands between leading climate scientists. In one, a researcher talks about using the “Nature trick” to “hide the decline”; deniers say that proves scientists were hiding temperature declines from the public for years (see #2, above). In another, a scientist says: "I have been fiddling with the best way to illustrate the stable nature of the medieval warm period.” Hmmm. “Fiddling.” Sounds suspicious doesn’t it?
I don’t think so: The stolen e-mails are embarrassing. Wouldn’t some of the stuff you wrote to friends and colleagues over the past 13 years look embarrassing? Some seem nasty on a personal level. A few show possible attempt to skirt British open records laws. There’s even a question as to whether pressure placed by at least one e-mailer on scientific journal editors to not publish the work of skeptical scientists went beyond usual competitive world of academia.
All of that obscures the fact that nobody has pointed to anything -- anything -- in any of the e-mails that discredits the theory of anthropogenic climate change. Scientists pointed this out from the very start, and news organizations that belatedly reviewed the actual facts arrived at the same conclusion.
Media spin: The anti-climate-action media filed error-ridden “Climategate” reports loudly and early. One example: columnist George Will, who wrongly stated on ABC’s This Week that, “One of the e-mails said it is a travesty, his word, it is a travesty that we cannot explain the fact that global warming has stopped” and that another scientist said “he wished he could delete, get rid of, the medieval warming period.” ABC hasn’t corrected the errors. Don’t hold your breath.
On “Climategate,” the right-wing media served as a predictable echo chamber; what’s more important is that the mainstream media utterly failed in its duty. Rather than balancing legitimate, authoritative sources with right-wing spin -- as often occurs -- mainstream reporters just opted for the right-wing spin this time.
Now, the spin has become its reality, even down to the name -- “Climategate.” The story morphed from sloppy reporting about the facts into coverage of calls for investigations and talk about the momentum skeptics were feeling on the eve of the Copenhagen talks.
The actual fact that there was no evidence of data manipulation? Boring. Even three weeks after the story broke, in fact, a CBS anchor and reporter bantered about how the e-mails “cast doubt on the very science” behind climate change. As has so often been the case in 2009 when it came to climate change, they were talking about a mythic world where reality didn’t matter as much as a neat story line.
So I want your help with the rest of the list for next week’s column. Let me know in the comments section which ones I’m missing.