A dark ideology is driving those who deny climate change
People who claim that climate Science is a Conspiracy or the work of charlatans are talking rubbish
Life can be hard in Moscow. The Russian capital is sweltering in temperatures that reached a record 37.7C last week. Vast stretches of peat bog surrounding the city have dried out and caught fire covering Moscow with choking smog. The changing of the horse guard in Cathedral Square was cancelled as sentries wilted in traditional woollen uniforms. Elsewhere, more than 2,000 Russians – many drunk – drowned trying to cool off in lakes and rivers and at least 10 million hectares of crops have been ruined. States of emergency have been declared in 23 regions.
Nor is Russia alone. New York has baked in a thick tropical heat and humidity that is gripping eastern America. Public cooling centres have been set up while black-outs are common. In the Arctic, sea ice coverage continues to dwindle while a report last week revealed that levels of phytoplankton – tiny marine plants that are the foundation of the oceans' food chain – are plummeting, victims of global warming.
Our world is starting to sizzle as rising levels of greenhouse gases trap more and more of the sun's heat in the lower atmosphere – a point that was confirmed on Wednesday when the Met Office reported that sensors from around the world were showing that 2010 would be the hottest, or just possibly the second hottest year on record.
Either way, the news surprised many people, despite those tales emanating from New York and Moscow. A freezing UK winter and the collapse of the Copenhagen climate talks – along with the damaging leak of "climategate" emails from the University of East Anglia – had persuaded many that global warming was a dead issue. If only.
In fact, that record rise in global temperatures, far from appearing unexpectedly had been predicted. Last January, the Met Office announced that it believed this year would, indeed, be a record scorcher. Given that Britain was then coated in thick snow, the prediction was brave.
It was accurate nevertheless. Western Europe and eastern America may then have been going through a grim, cold winter but other areas – including Asia and western America – were experiencing unexpectedly hot weather. The overall trend was a warming one. Few took notice, however, and the Little Englander's myopic view of the world – that only local events matter – continued to dominate newspaper columns and blogs. Global warming was nonsense, they insisted.
Thus the deniers got it wrong while climate scientists got it spectacularly right. Indeed, we should note just how prescient the latter have been. In 1999, the Met Office's head of climate modelling Peter Stott – working with Oxford University's Myles Allen and other meteorologists – published a paper in Nature on the likely impact of greenhouse gas emissions. Using temperature data from 1946 to 1996, the paper estimated future global temperatures and included a graph of a range of predicted outcomes for 2000 to 2040 with a dotted line indicating the most likely path. Crucially, for the year 2010, that dotted line showed there would be a rise of 0.8C since the Second World War– which is exactly what we are experiencing today.
So scientists not only predicted how hot this year was likely to be six months ago, they forecast a decade ago just how much the world would heat up 10 years later. Bear this in mind when deniers tell you climate Science is a Conspiracy or the work of charlatans. They are talking rubbish.
Such precision is encouraging for it indicates climate scientists know what they are talking about, though at a deeper level, the news is disturbing – for it is clear that few people are actually listening to this message. Why? What lies behind scientists' failure to get their warning over? Most answers have concentrated on the difficulty of explaining Science – riddled as it is with uncertainties and qualifications. And to some extent, these explanations are correct. Atmospheric physics and meteorology are complex. However, there is a second, more sinister explanation, one that forms the focus of Merchants of Doubt, by US academics Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, which is to be published this month by Bloomsbury. This analysis of right-wing politics and its impact on science shows how a handful of individuals have managed to obscure the truth on issues that range from the dangers of smoking to global warming. These right-wing libertarians include such scientists as Fred Seitz and Fred Singer – who both worked on the Cold War projects such as the US hydrogen bomb project and who helped set up institutions like the US's Heritage Foundation and Marshall Institute.
Funded by corporations and conservative foundations, these outfits exist to fight any form of state intervention or regulation of US citizens. Thus they fought, and delayed, smoking curbs in the '70s even though medical science had made it clear the habit was a major cancer risk. And they have been battling ever since, blocking or holding back laws aimed at curbing acid rain, ozone-layer depletion, and – mostly recently – global warming.
In each case the tactics are identical: discredit the science, disseminate false information, spread confusion, and promote doubt. As the authors state: "Small numbers of people can have large, negative impacts, especially if they are organised, determined and have access to power."
In Britain, links between deniers and big business are less obvious. Yet it is clear lessons have been learned and tactics copied. Consider these examples: the leaking of the "climategate" emails and the wild over-reaction to the mistaken insertion of a paragraph in the IPCC's last climate assessment, that suggested wrongly that Himalayan glaciers are melting rapidly. Both created a furore with the former revealing "a massive fraud" that represented "the final nail in the coffin" for the theory of global warming, deniers argued.
This claim was later shown to be nonsense, though it took three inquiries to establish the point. The overall effect, however, was the spread of confusion among the public and an increase in doubt about climate change. And given that the email leak involved a specific act of computer hacking, one must conclude this was the specific goal of that electronic "break-in".
In this way, scientists' warnings – that without action the world will get at least two degrees hotter this century – have been obscured by a small group of ideologues who believe individual liberties are more important than any other cause. Our planet may burn, millions may die, and cities such as Moscow and New York may smoulder, but at least we will be free of petty regulation and bureaucracy. It seems a stiff price to pay.