You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

A River in Egypt

Global-warming denialists in denial.

Fred Smith isn't exactly known for his timidity on the subject of climate change. The president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a free-market think tank based in Washington, D.C., he has derided concern over global warming and has gone ontelevision to rail against Al Gore's "evil consumptive ways." But, in February, when Smith was called to testify before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, he sounded like a cornered man.

"I am aware," he began somewhat cautiously, "that CEI is regarded as a contrarian voice on the science of climate change." Senate Republicans had invited him to comment on an emissions reductionplan put forward by a group of green-minded companies, including General Electric and Duke Energy. But, with Barbara Boxer wielding the gavel, Smith couldn't simply launch into his usual tirade against global warming. Instead, like a boy forced to apologize for pulling his sister's hair, he ceded grudgingly, "I am happy for the purposes of this discussion to accept all the scientific arguments behind their proposals." Hence, he sniffed, "attempts to allege 'climate denialism' in response to my points are ad hominem attacks not worthy of consideration."

It's getting hard out here for a global-warming skeptic. Al Gore has an Oscar. The latest assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (ipcc) has declared with 90 percent certainty that greenhouse gases are largely responsible for heating the planet, a conclusion even the White House now accepts. Capitol Hill--where groups like CEI could once count on a friendly hearing from congressional Republicans, 84 percent of whom are still unconvinced that climate change is caused by humans--is now controlled by Democrats. Meanwhile, ExxonMobil, which had donated more than $2 million to CEI since 1998, recently announced that it would no longer fund the organization. Mocked by longtime enemies, abandoned by erstwhile friends, what's a global-warming skeptic to do?

It wasn't long ago that CEI was reveling in its role as the country's most notorious skeptic group. In 1997, the organization helped form the Cooler Heads Coalition to "dispel the myths ofglobal warming" by, among other things, sending pseudo-experts totestify before Congress and appear on television. The group's director of energy and global warming policy, Myron Ebell, playedan instrumental role in convincing President Bush to reverse his campaign pledge to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions from theutility industry. (The Clean Air Trust named Ebell its "clean airvillain of the month" in March 2001 for his "ferocious lobbyingcharge.") Last year, to preempt the release of Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, the institute aired two schmaltzy 60-second spots in 14 cities singing the praises of carbon dioxide. Both ended with the tagline: "They call it pollution ... we call it life."

That sort of misinformation has long been the group's metier. CEI was following a strategy like the one outlined in a memo from the American Petroleum Institute, which The New York Times obtained in 1998: "Victory will be achieved when ... recognition of uncertainty becomes part of the 'conventional wisdom.'" So long as people were forced to spend their waking hours debating whether climate change was really happening, they wouldn't have time to discuss what to do about it.

Unfortunately for CEI, that debate is over, and climate-change skeptics are on the losing end. Now, the group finds itself beleaguered in Washington--not to mention vilified in the national press. Ellen Goodman of The Boston Globe recently wrote that climate-change doubters are "on a par with Holocaust deniers" in a column that skeptics love to cite as evidence that they're being persecuted. At the end of an interview, CEI's in-house lawyer, Chris Horner, told me with a resigned sigh, "Look, don't write the standard story here, making us out to be the bad guys."

So, with their careers in peril, CEI types are adapting to the new climate. Although there are still plenty of unabashed global-warming deniers out there--especially on college campuses, where budding conservatives who don't seem to have gotten the memo yet are churning out op-eds--many skeptics are now coalescing around a more moderate-sounding approach. Ebell insists that neither he nor his colleagues dispute the fact of global warming as they once did. "We try to react to the scientific research thatcomes out--and we've adjusted our political rhetoric as well," hesays. And adjust they have, developing a new line that goes something like this: Sure, we'll accept that global warming is occurring and humans bear some responsibility. But it's hard to predict exactly how bad a warmer world will be. And the proposals for reducing emissions in the United States are all costly and rife with problems. And, even if they could work, we can't stop climate change because it's impossible to convince India and China to curb their rapidly growing emissions. And so on.

One tactic that lately seems to give deniers special pleasure is mounting their case against the global-warming consensus from the left. So you get the odd spectacle of Smith going before the Senate to denounce cap-and-trade--the widely endorsed idea that the government should set a national ceiling on carbon emissions and then allow companies to buy and sell pollution credits--on populist grounds. "The corporations we see baying for a cap-and-trade program are out to enrich themselves without thought for the poor," he told Congress. (He even pointed out that--horror--Enron had once supported the idea.) Or you get conservative Senator James Inhofe referring to companies that would benefit from a cap-and-trade regime as "climate profiteers." Or Paul Driessen--the author of Eco-Imperialism: Green Power, Black Death--saying things like,"It's incredibly patronizing and colonialistic to tell Africa you can't develop because we're concerned about global warming," while arguing that funding the fight against global warming "takes money away from spending on malaria."

Even as they claim to be on board with the latest science, some deniers have continued peddling half-truths. This became clear during my conversation with Ebell. "We've had a flat global mean temperature since 1998," he notes. "So what are we worried about?"(Ebell is cherry-picking here--1998 was an exceptionally hot year, thanks to El Nino, but global average temperatures have risen steadily since 1900.) He also notes, as did many other "reformed"skeptics I talked to, that the latest ipcc assessment actually lowered previous estimates of the magnitude of the human contribution to warming. (This is misleading; the ipcc mainly just increased its estimate of the cooling effect of aerosols. Those particles will eventually get cleaned up due to clean-air laws, and the result will be more warming, not less.)

Meanwhile, many global-warming skeptics are suffering the indignity of having to deny that they were ever deniers in the first place. Take Kenneth Green of the American Enterprise Institute. Green has previously praised Michael Crichton's State of Fear, a novel thick with disinformation about global warming, for having "educated millions of readers about climate science. " And, in 2004, he wrote a paper with notorious climate-change denier Timothy Ball called The Science Isn't Settled. The paper argued that the scientific models used to predict global warming were "of dubious merit." Now he insists that he accepts the ipcc's baseline conclusions about climate change and says of his relationship with Ball, "We don't agree. The fact that we haven't worked together since then suggests we don't agree." Sounds like the heat is getting to him.