The fronts in the climate debate have long been etched in the sand. On the one side there is a handful of highly influential climate researchers, on the other a powerful lobby of industrial associations determined to trivialize the dangers of global warming. This latter group is supported by the conservative wing of the American political spectrum, conspiracy theorists as well as critical scientists.
But that alone would not suffice to divide the roles so neatly into good and evil. Most climate researchers were somewhere between the two extremes. They often had difficulty drawing clear conclusions from their findings. After all, scientific facts are often ambiguous. Although it is generally accepted that there is good evidence to back forecasts of coming global warming, there is still considerable uncertainty about the consequences it will have.
Both sides -- the leading climate researchers on the one hand and their opponents in industry and smaller groups of naysayers on the other -- played hardball from the very beginning. It all started in 1986, when German physicists issued a dramatic public appeal, the first of its kind. They warned about what they saw as a "climatic disaster." However, their avowed goal was to promote nuclear power over carbon dioxide-belching coal-fired power stations.
The First Scandal
At the time, there was certainly clear scientific evidence of a dangerous increase in temperatures, prompting the United Nations to form the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988 to look into the matter. However, the idea didn't take hold in the United States until the country was hit by an unusually severe drought in the summer of 1988. Politicians in Congress used the dry spell to listen to NASA scientist James Hansen, who had been publishing articles in trade journals for years warning about the threat of man-made climate change.
When Washington instructed Hansen to put more emphasis on the uncertainties in his theory, Senator and later Vice President Al Gore cried foul. Gore notified the media about the government's alleged attempted cover-up, forcing the government's hand on the matter.
The oil companies reacted with alarm and forged alliances with companies in other sectors who were worried about a possible rise in the price of fossil fuels. They even managed to rope in a few shrewd climate researchers like Patrick Michaels of the University of Virginia.
The aim of the industrial lobby was to focus as much as possible on the doubts about the scientific findings. According to a strategy paper by the Global Climate Science Team, a crude-oil lobby group, "Victory will be achieved when average citizens recognize uncertainties in climate science." In the meantime, scientists found themselves on the defensive, having to convince the public time and again that their warnings were indeed well-founded.
Industrial Propaganda for the 'Less Educated'
A dangerous dynamic had been set in motion: Any climate researcher who expressed doubts about findings risked playing into the hands of the industrial lobby. The leaked e-mails show how leading scientists reacted to the PR barrage by the so-called "skeptics lobby." Out of fear that their opponents could take advantage of ambiguous findings, many researchers tried to simply hide the weaknesses of their findings from the public.
The lobby spent millions on propaganda campaigns. In 1991, the Information Council on the Environment (ICE) issued a strategy paper aimed at what it called "less-educated people." This proposed a campaign that would "reposition global warming as a theory (not fact)." However, the skeptics also wanted to address better educated sectors of society. The Global Climate Coalition, for example, an alliance of energy companies, specifically tried to influence UN delegates. The advice of skeptical scientists was also given considerable credence in the US Congress.
Nonetheless, the lobbyists had less success on the international stage. In 1997, the international community agreed on the first-ever climate protection treaty: the Kyoto Protocol. "Scientists had issued a warning, the media amplified it and the politicians reacted," recalls Peter Weingart, a science sociologist at Bielefeld University in Germany, who researched the climate debate.
But just as numerous industrial firms began to acknowledge the need for climate protection and left the Global Climate Coalition, some scientists began getting too cozy with environmental organizations.
Stay informed with our free news services:
|All news from SPIEGEL International||Twitter | RSS|
|All news from World section||RSS|
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2010
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH