by Kevin Krajick
Many lawmakers have been listening seriously since the 1980s to scientists' warnings that humans are altering the global atmosphere. In 1988 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) formed and started tracking the state-of-the-art consensus. After a drumbeat of news about record-breaking yearly temperatures took hold in the public mind, National Geographic declared 2004 the year that global warming "got respect." In 2007 the IPCC won the Nobel Peace Prize. In late 2009 the nations of the world prepared to gather in Copenhagen to "seal the deal," in the words of U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, to abate rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
Then governments hesitated. Copenhagen was declared dead before arrival. During the run-up, hackers used e-mails stolen from top researchers in Britain and the US to suggest they had systematically exaggerated the threat. This January, it came to light that the IPCC had no peer-reviewed evidence to support its contention that Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) (who calls the threat of catastrophic global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people"), began calling for criminal investigations of scientists.
Bloggers and anonymous e-mailers flooded websites and scientists' in-boxes with hostile screeds and even death threats. James Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA and now perhaps the loudest voice among scientists calling for the world to do something about CO2, has on occasion been afforded police protection. A March Gallup poll says the proportion of Americans who think the seriousness of global warming is "generally exaggerated" has risen to 48% -- up from 35% in 2008 and 31% in 1997.
What the Hell Happened?
How could so-called climate deniers make such a comeback -- and why are they driven by the kind of fury once reserved for gun control or abortion? Is the science fraying, or have its opponents just gotten slicker about undercutting it?
Two new books drill into these questions. Merchants of Doubt, by science historian Naomi Oreskes and writer Erik Conway, investigates a sort of reverse conspiracy theory: ecoterrorists and socialists are not the ones foisting dubious science upon us; rather it is deniers who are running their own well-funded and organized long-term hoax. Several previous works (notably, The Republican War on Science, by Chris Mooney) have ably illuminated similar themes, but this one hits bone. The Climate War, by former Time and Fortune political/business reporter and editor Eric Pooley, narrates the skirmishes and machinations leading up to last year's congressional debates about climate legislation and the Copenhagen summit. Taken together, the books provide the historical perspective and the current political insights needed to get a grip on what is happening now.
First, a Word about "Theory."
Most people misunderstand the word theory - they think it's merely a hunch, conjecture, or speculation. Actually, in science-speak, a theory is what scientists develop after examining substantial evidence. It represents their best current understanding of how something works. Hence, the theory that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa; the theory of biological evolution; the theory that germs cause disease; the theory of plate tectonics; and the theory of human-induced climate change. Obviously, some theories have been around longer than others, and more evidence for them has accreted. Global warming is a newer one. Its details in many areas are still fuzzy, but there is an overwhelming scientific consensus about its basic truth.
The fact is, science is not composed of eureka moments, when an apple bonks a genius on the head and suddenly everyone accepts what he has to say. It is a slow, repetitive process, frequently involving thousands of people accumulating evidence for decades and centuries. Even then, nature is so complicated that almost no phenomenon fits perfectly into any model. Basically, nothing can be "proved" with 100% certainty; science is the process of trying to reduce the amount of uncertainty.
Furthermore, science and society are inseparable. The point at which something becomes a "fact" is subjective. If we are not ready to accept some piece of science because of religious, political, or economic factors, it won't be accepted. Some people will never believe certain theories, because they conflict with their worldview; witness the many devout American Christians who reject evolution.