Sea ice researchers, surrounded by Arctic melt ponds, set out to check the thickness of an ice floe. Photo: Don Perovich

By Jeff Goodell
12 September 2013

(Rolling Stone) – On September 27th, a group of international scientists associated with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will gather in an old brick brewery in Stockholm and proclaim with near certainty that human activity is altering the planet in profound ways. The IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report offers slam-dunk evidence that burning fossil fuels is the cause of most of the temperature increases of recent decades, and warn that sea levels could rise by almost three feet by the end of the century if we don't change our ways. The report will underscore that the basic facts about climate change are more established than ever, and that the consequences of escalating carbon pollution are likely to mean that, as The New York Times recently argued, "babies being born now could live to see the early stages of a global calamity."

A leaked draft of the report points out that the link between fossil-fuel burning and climate change is already observable: "It is extremely likely that human influence on climate caused more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010. There is high confidence that this has warmed the ocean, melted snow and ice, raised global mean sea level and changed some climate extremes in the second half of the 20th century." If you look beyond the tables and charts and graphs that fill the reports, you can see the Arctic vanishing, great cities like Miami and Shanghai drowning, droughts causing famine in Africa, and millions of refugees fleeing climate-related catastrophes. Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the IPCC, recently told a group of climate scientists that if we want to avoid this fate, governments must act now to cut carbon pollution: "We have five minutes before midnight."

But, of course, this is nothing new. In 2007, when the IPCC released its Fourth Assessment Report, it was also nearly certain that human activity was heating up the planet, with grave consequences for our future well-being. And six years before that, when the IPCC released its Third Assessment, scientists were pretty certain about it too. But phrases like "high confidence" in warming do not, to the unscientific ear, inspire high confidence in the report's finding, since they imply the existence of doubt, no matter how slight. And in the climate wars, "Doubt is what deniers thrive on and exploit," says Bob Watson, who was head of the IPCC from 1997 to 2002. The final report has not even been released yet, and already prominent bloggers in the denial-sphere, like Anthony Watts, are calling it "stillborn."

But perhaps the most significant thing about the new IPCC report is not the scientific findings. It's that the release of the report may actually mark the beginning of a new phase of the climate wars – one in which scientists and activists learn to fight back. […]

Deniers have always been cranked up about the IPCC, in part because of the black-helicopter paranoia of many conservatives who see climate change as a U.N. plot to take away freedom. And from the beginning, they have fought dirty, attacking not just the science but the scientists themselves. After the IPCC released its Second Assessment in 1995, the deniers were not happy that the report directly linked global warming with the burning of fossil fuels ("The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate"). So they attacked one of the lead authors of the report, Ben Santer, an atmospheric scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. A fossil-fuel-industry-funded group called the Global Climate Coalition accused Santer of removing mention of uncertainties in the chapter to make global warming appear more certain than it was. Later investigations found that Santer's so-called scientific cleansing involved little more than clarifying language suggested by fellow scientists. "Nothing in my scientific training prepared me for what I faced in the aftermath of that report," Santer says now. One night years later, he opened his front door and found a dead rat on his porch. In the street, he watched a yellow Hummer drive off, the driver yelling obscenities at him.

As the prominence of climate change grew and the evidence became stronger, attacks escalated. In 2009, just weeks before the Copenhagen climate summit, hackers broke into the servers of the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit in the U.K. and publicly posted hundreds of private e-mails from climate scientists involved with the IPCC's Fourth Assessment report. Deniers seized on these messages, taking a few barbed comments out of context (in one, for instance, Santer wrote that if he ran into Pat Michaels – a well-known shill for the fossil­fuel industry – he would "be tempted to beat the crap out of him") and claimed they now had their smoking gun, proof of a global conspiracy among scientists to keep out information that didn't fit their thesis that the Earth was warming. The substance of the e-mails was subsequently investigated by five agencies, all of whom cleared scientists of any professional or personal misconduct. And not surprisingly, the hackers who broke into the East Anglia servers and stole the e-mails were never found.

"For a lot of scientists, ClimateGate was a real awakening," says Naomi Oreskes, a science historian at Harvard and co-author of Merchants of Doubt, which chronicles the fossil-fuel industry's long battle to undermine climate science. "It was clear that if you were going to work on climate change, you were a public figure. And it was no longer enough to just do the science. You also had to go out and explain it to people – and defend it." By then, Santer reports, he was receiving countless death threats.

"Most of the world does not have a problem with denial of climate change," says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. "It's only an issue in Australia, Canada and, most significantly, the United States." Although the U.S. population as a whole is moving toward accepting the reality of climate change, Congress remains a scientific backwater. One recent analysis by the Center for American Progress found that almost a third of the 535 members of the House and Senate are climate deniers. Not coincidentally, those 161 reps have taken more than $54 million in political contributions from the fossil-fuel industry.

But lately, climate activists are less shy about calling out deniers. Organizing for Action, the successor of President Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, recently created the Congressional Climate Change Awards, honoring 135 members of Congress, including Dana Rohrabacher, Steve King and House Speaker John Boehner, for "exceptional extremism and ignoring the overwhelming judgment of science." And of course it doesn't hurt that President Obama has broken his silence about climate change and seems determined to make it part of his agenda in the second term.

But the biggest change is in the public profile of scientists themselves. Leading the charge is Michael Mann, an IPCC veteran and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State, who has become a presence on TV talk shows and is author of a must-read book about the politics of climate science, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. Mann is taking the unprecedented step of suing the conservative National Review for defamation after the magazine's blog quoted a story that called Mann "the Jerry Sandusky of climate science" because he "molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science."

Mann can't talk about the pending lawsuit, but he points out that "concerted industry-funded attacks on our science" by deniers have mobilized many scientists to fight back. In Mann's view, ClimateGate and other denier campaigns are deliberately designed to erode the credibility of scientists: "Public polling shows that scientists are among the most trusted messengers around when it comes to issues such as climate change," Mann says. "So clearly this was an effort by fossil-fuel-industry front groups and advocates to go right at that. It was a deeply cynical effort to undermine the public faith in scientists and science." [more]

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