Commentary

The Heated Rhetoric of Global Warming

By Jerry Taylor
September 15, 1997

As the nations of the world busily prepare an international treaty to address greenhouse gas emissions, the public debate over global climate change is heating up. Yet the political debate over what to do about global warming is far different from the scientific debate surrounding the issue, and the gulf between the two is widening, not closing. Politics — not science — is increasingly driving this debate, and truth is increasingly the casualty.

If you rely on the national news media for information about the public debate, here’s what you “know”: the overwhelming consensus is that the science is in, but the naked clout of an unconscionable energy industry is holding up a solution. Consider remarks made last month by Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt: “Oil and coal companies in the United States have joined in a conspiracy to hire pseudoscientists to deny the facts, and then begin raising political arguments that are essentially fraudulent… . Energy companies need to be called to account because what they’re doing is un-American in the most basic sense. They are compromising our future by misrepresenting the facts by suborning scientists onto their payrolls and attempting to mislead the American people.”

Yet Babbitt is sugarcoating it as far as Ross Gelbspan, a Boston-based journalist, is concerned. Gelbspan, author of The Heat Is On, a book currently receiving fawning attention from the New York Times, the Washington Post and most of the other major newspapers, accuses industry of masterminding a conspiracy to cover up the truth and indulging in “the big lie” as “a prelude to a kind of totalitarianism” envisioned in George Orwell’s 1984.

Most members of the political and journalistic community accept Babbitt’s and Gelbspan’s characterization of the debate, but they’re clearly uneasy that the American public evinces such little concern about global warming and that the administration has yet to commit to the kind of policies necessary to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They are right to worry.

The scientific debate — that is, the debate in the scientific journals and refereed literature — is as different from the public debate as night is from day. While Babbitt, Gelbspan and their sympathizers were huffing and puffing about greenhouse skepticism, the scientific community was, to a large degree, embracing it.

On May 16, America’s most prestigious scientific journal, Science, published an article titled “Greenhouse Forecasting Still Cloudy.” Said the article, “Many climate experts caution that it is not at all clear yet that human activities have begun to warm the planet — or how bad greenhouse warming will be when it arrives.” Dr. Benjamin Santer, author of a key chapter in the latest report of the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), conceded that “it’s unfortunate that many people read the media hype before they read the [IPCC] chapter” on the detection of greenhouse warming. “I think the caveats are there. We say quite clearly that few scientists would say the attribution issue [the argument that global warming is caused by human industrial activity] was a done deal.”

On June 2, Bert Bolin, chairman of the IPCC, conceded in a debate with environmental scientist Fred Singer of the Science & Environmental Policy Project that “the climate issue is not ‘settled’; it is both uncertain and incomplete.” Bolin further noted that the small amount of warming during the past century occurred mainly before 1940 and is most likely a natural recovery from previous cooling, not a manifestation of human-induced warming.

On July 19, the distinguished British journal New Scientist published a cover story titled “Greenhouse Wars: Why the Rebels Have a Cause.” After a thorough review of the scientific evidence marshaled by both sides, the magazine concluded that the skeptics are “among the world’s top scientists.” The unmistakable if unspoken bottom line of the article is that these skeptics have the better of the scientific argument at present.

Have Babbitt and Gelbspan somehow failed to notice this genuine debate in the world of science? Of course not. As the old lawyers adage goes: When you have the facts on your side, hammer the facts; when you have the law on your side, hammer the law; when you have neither, hammer the table.

Alarmists in the media and the Clinton administration clearly have decided that the best way to win the global warming debate is by shouting down the opposition and demonizing them in the eyes of the public. But that is not dispassionate scientific debate; it is more like a “struggle meeting” during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Four months before an international conference in Kyoto where a global warming treaty is to be signed, Bruce Babbitt has given us a hint of the debate to come.

Jerry Taylor is director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute and senior editor of Regulation magazine.