The Goliaths are crazed environmentalists, corrupt scientists and secret socialists, on a mission to manufacture a crisis so they can implement a stealth agenda of government control, toy-sized automobiles and pork-barrel grants -- grants the scientists can then use to live off the hard-earned money of taxpayers forever.

Cue evil laugh track: Hah-hah-hah-hah-hah!

The Davids are the few brave souls who dare counter that juggernaut -- that hoax -- by pointing out that science is a complex endeavor, rife with unfulfilled hypotheses, and whose reputations have suffered because of their independence.

You may not see the debate that way. I sure don’t.

Whatever you and I think, though, the David/Goliath storyline, or something like it, will have more to do with the outcome of Congress’ current climate debate than will another dozen studies firming up the actual consensus that climate change is happening, is caused by humans, and is on a trajectory to lay a big whammy on civilization.

The Davids played their role in a Washington hotel last week at the Heartland Institute’s grandly named Third International Conference on Climate Change. Many prominent climate change doubters were there: former University of Virginia environmental scientist Fred Singer (introduced as “the godfather of global warming realists”); MIT meteorologist Richard Lindzen; Lord Christopher Monckton, who, well, come to think of it, actually isn’t a scientist, but has a swell accent.

The institute used the occasion to release a hefty report designed to counter the 2007 report of UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warned of warming’s grave consequences. The new report’s objective: “To call attention to widespread dissent to the asserted ‘consensus’ on various aspects of climate change and global warming.”

As an environmental reporter in the early 1990s, I frequently was invited to write about “studies” that had predetermined outcomes. If Greenpeace or Public Citizen announced a press conference to unveil a new “study” on, say, toxic releases, you knew beforehand it was going to excoriate the usual suspects. You’d often end up interviewing a company engineer or an independent scientist who skewered the environmental group’s report.

But anti-environmental think tanks have taken the fine art of slanting science to new levels.

Most “think tanks” used to be less partisan, which meant their scholars were independent enough to arrive at surprising conclusions. The granddaddy of D.C. think tanks -- the usually liberal Brookings Institution -- sponsors both Republican and Democratic experts. Brookings has come out with centrist, even conservative positions on issues ranging from war to environmental regulation.

The Heartland Institute is a different breed of think tank. Its work will never surprise you. The foregone conclusion is that every Heartland study on climate will arrive at the skeptics’ conclusion. And the institute sure seems to put more energy into swaying opinion than actual research.

Studying eco-skepticism

How did things get so polarized? Sociologists Riley Dunlap, Mark Freeman and Peter Jacques offered an explanation in a study published last year in the journal Environmental Politics.

They searched for all books published over three decades that could be classified as “environmental skepticism.” It turns out that more and more titles come out each year that fit that definition. At the same time, with the help of money from affected industries, more and more conservative, cause-oriented “think tanks” have been popping up.

Might there be a connection?

There seems to be. The three researchers found that 101 of 110 U.S. books classed as “environmental skepticism” were either published by “conservative think tanks” or written by scholars affiliated with those think tanks. In other words, little “academic” work from climate skeptics actually came out of academic institutions.

The distinction raises a critical question: Is climate change skepticism the product of open scientific inquiry or a predetermined agenda?

“Environmental skeptics are not, as they portray themselves, independent and objective analysts,” the article states. “Rather, they are predominately agents of [the activist think tanks], and their success in promoting skepticism about environmental problems stems from their affiliation with these politically powerful institutions.”

OK, so at this point, who cares? With President Obama and congressional leaders committed to climate action, haven’t we moved past the skeptics?

Video clips from the conference might reinforce that idea. How could skeptics contend the climate consensus was crumbling, when recent studies elsewhere pointed to more severe warming than previously projected? What skeptic in his right mind would celebrate that his side was finally winning the debate while a bill to cut greenhouse gases moves through Congress?

At least from what I saw on videos and press releases, Heartland’s speakers didn’t seem to be describing an alternative reality as much as an alternative to reality. The press, which usually loves arguments between scientists, didn’t even pay attention to the meeting; I couldn’t find one article about it in a major newspaper.

Measuring the divide

Here’s the problem though, if you want to see action on climate change: Nearly half the country still sees itself as sticking up for the Davids.

Matthew Nesbit of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University points out that over the last few decades, big domestic reforms haven’t gotten through Congress when one side on the partisan divide dug its heals in. Think Clinton on healthcare, Bush on Social Security.

And conservatives are digging their heals on climate change. After years of both sides slinging ammo at each other, the lines have been drawn very clearly: Liberals believe climate skeptics are stooges of industry. Conservatives believe they’re battling a nefarious alliance of activists, environmentalists, and journalists.

“Despite two decades of ever-stronger scientific consensus and record amounts of news coverage,” Nesbit argues, “the United States still appears locked in a perceptual divide over climate change, particularly along partisan and ideological lines.”

Recent surveys show the divide becoming more pronounced. And the plurality of people who believe the skeptics seems to be growing. A Gallup poll recently found that 41 percent of Americans believe the climate threat is “exaggerated.”

In the Senate, where it takes 60 votes to get past a filibuster, that level of doubt could give plenty of cover to senators who want to sink the legislation. All of which means skeptics can take heart in the words of a friendly senator at the Heartland meeting.

“Don’t be distressed when you see the House passes some kind of cap-and-trade bill,” Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., told the audience. “That isn’t going to work in my opinion because we can stall that until we get a new president -- that shouldn’t be a problem.”

Journalist Ken Edelstein writes the Media Mayhem column for the Mother Nature Network.

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