Victory Declared For The Climate Science Denialists

Read time: 6 mins

A VICTORY has been declared in the field of climate change but the lap of honour is not being run by research scientists or renewable energy bosses, or by coral reefs, drought-stricken farmers or the citizens of low-lying countries.

Rather, if you accept as valid this declaration of victory from one of Australia’s leading thinkers, then those popping the champagne corks are the fossil fuel lobby.

Standing by the track cheering this triumph, are the conservative think tanks and the free market ideologues that believe the world should be run on their terms. To follow the analogy through to the bitter end, the losers are everyone else.

Professor Robert Manne, a political philosopher at La Trobe University, is making this declaration in a 7000-word essay published tomorrow in The Monthly magazine – its cover screaming “Victory of the Denialists: How Climate Science Was Vanquished”.

Manne’s essay charts the decades-long effort to spread doubt and confusion about the science of human-caused climate change, focusing on the think tanks and corporations that created and backed a “relentless” campaign in the United States which has infected other parts of the western world, including Australia.

Manne draws on already published books and research papers about the climate denial industry, and so in that respect close watchers won’t find anything new. But it is his declaration that climate science denialists have won which will stick in the throat of many climate change campaigners and science communicators.

I asked Professor Manne why he had come to that conclusion.

I find it difficult to see how a reasonably objective observer could deny that this is what has happened–gradually at first but also dramatically since the end of 2009 due largely to the combination of the failure of Copenhagen and the impact of 'Climategate'.

The victory I write about is limited to the United States, although denialism is an important and almost certainly growing movement in Canada, Australia and the UK.

If climate change denialists are pleased [by the conclusion] then they have chosen to ignore the explicit claim of the article that they are part of an irrationalist movement that is placing the future of the Earth at risk. The role of analysis is to be as faithful to the truth as one can be, not to boost morale or to support delusion.

For the denialists to be “victorious” they do not need to “prove” that global warming is a “hoax”. All they have to do is to “manufacture doubt”, that is to say to create a substantial level of public doubt about the solidity of the science.

According to Manne, President Barack Obama has been “nobbled” by the denialist campaign and the Republican Party almost “entirely converted” to denying the science.

Manne concludes in his essay that the success of the denialist campaign is one that subsequent generations will look upon “as perhaps the darkest in the history of humankind”.

But just as Manne makes his declaration, a project funded by two of America’s greatest supporters of the “denialist” campaign has backfired spectacularly.

Professor Richard Muller, a physicist at the University of California at Berkeley, led a project that accepted a $150,000 donation from a foundation controlled by the Koch brothers to study global temperature records (the Kochs have pumped millions into the global climate denial campaign).

Muller had previously stated that claims by skeptics that temperature records were unreliable merited a major investigation. He has also previously criticised the work of Pennsylvania State University scientist Professor Michael Mann, whose research gave birth to the now famous hockey stick graph showing a sharp rise in recent global temperatures.

After going through 1.6 billion records from 36,000 temperature stations, Muller’s team says the world’s temperature has risen by 1.5C in the 250 years since the start of the industrial revolution. More than half of this increase has occurred in the last 50 years.

What’s more, Muller now says that human activity, mainly burning fossil fuels, is to blame for practically all of that warming.

Muller’s study, which has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, has been widely reported not because of a novel approach to climate science research, or because it tells us anything new, but rather because of his reported “conversion” from being skeptical to accepting the science.  He now describes himself as a “converted skeptic”.

Presumably, the oil rich Koch brothers were so convinced the world’s temperature gauges were lying, that they were happy to provide a no strings donation to Muller’s project, which stipulated its donors  “have no say over how we conduct the research or what we publish”.

But in a chronology, Muller’s work has come to essentially the same conclusion as the rest of the climate science community, except they got there a good decade or so earlier.

In The Monthly, Manne defines “denialists” as “orthodox members of a tightly knit group whose natural disposition is not to think for themselves”.

But on the same spectrum is a group of individuals, lobbyists and think-tankers who hide their skepticism behind a charade of pragmatism. Professor Clive Hamilton, recently appointed to board of the Australian Government’s Climate Change Authority, describes them as the “luke warmists”.

Luke warmists, Hamilton wrote recently, accept the science but relentlessly and unrealistically emphasise uncertainties, play down the dangers and advocate for only tokenistic, low-impact policy responses.

But what about those world leaders who have accepted the science of human caused climate change and have articulated the risks? Even these have hardly covered themselves in glory.

Because after Kyotos, Copenhagens, Durbans, Cancuns and revisits to Rio for new earth summits, the world’s emissions continue to boom reaching an all-time record last year.

Even though Australia has introduced a price on greenhouse gas emissions on the heaviest polluters, the scheme will allow these emitters to buy carbon credits from overseas to offset as much as half their liabilities.

This means that Australia’s domestically generated emissions will likely rise for the next 20 years, although not nearly as quickly as they would have risen without the scheme altogether.

Bizarrely, this situation is seen by some as major progress.

The carbon price is an important step forward and will help drive the roll-out of renewable energy in the same way that decades of subsidies have helped the fossil fuel industry to retain its market dominance.

But then there is Australia’s hypocritical position of claiming to be concerned about climate change while at the same time becoming a world leader in the export of coal and gas to be burned outside the jurisdiction of any carbon pricing mechanism (although plans to price carbon in China could change things).

Research just published by not-for-profit group Beyond Zero Emissions suggests when Australia’s domestic emissions are added to those from the coal and gas we export, Australia becomes a major global emitter, ranking sixth globally.

The BZE Laggard to Leader report finds that by 2030, the emissions locked-up in Australian coal and gas exports would combine with domestic emissions to give the country an annual carbon footprint in the region of 2.2 billion tonnes.

In terms of exports, these emissions from Australian coal and gas exports will be almost double those coming from Saudi Arabia’s exports of oil.

And this is the position currently being advocated by Australia, whose Prime Minister Julia Gillard says that inaction on climate change is “ultimately threatening for our planet”. She is certainly no “denialist”.

Robert Manne says the denialist triumph might not be stable “in the long term”.“Who can tell?” he said in an email to me. “As Maynard Keynes once famously observed: in the long-term we are all dead.”

Get DeSmog News and Alerts


It’s hard to disagree with Manne’s conclusion.  This pyrrhic victory will only be overturned when the evidence is incontrovertible, by which time it may well be too late to do anything about the consequences.

I wish I didn’t agree but I do.  On the one hand the numbers say we are on the cusp of being too late to avert serious consequences.  On the other hand the denial machine rolls on. 

If you’re vaguely scientifically literate you read the stuff they churn out and wonder why anybody would be willing to embarass themselves so spectacularly in a public forum.  But they don’t need to convince anyone who is capable of following the science, just the majority who can’t.  Reasoned argument is not really a valuable weapon in this debate.

Really good McKibben article here: - compares the existing reserves to the amount of CO2 we can still (possibly) get away with emitting.  It makes it very clear why the fossil fuel companies are so committed to denial.

Not encouraging.

Came to that conclusion quite a while ago.

First I was baffled about what motivates these people, then I learned as much as I could, including coming here and to other blogs. Even taught a class about denialism.

Two important distinctions though:

1. The victory is political, and so it is fitting a “political philosopher” wrote the opinion. The victory is neither scientific nor moral, nor anything else. But then it does not need be seeing that politics trumps everything.

And indeed, the political will to change things will eventually return, either because current “leaders” die, or societally overwhelming consequences force the leadership to change. The latter is the consequence denialists fear much more than other consequences, because it could be swift and completely overturn their worldview. They even named it: “C”AGW, and fight that on the blogs tooth ‘n’ nails. Problem is: CAGW comes in many flavors; nobody wants it, nobody knows exactly what it might look like, but we all dread it. The “believers” because of the physical and social consequences worldwide, the “deniers” because the moral consequences (for them).

2. The victory is more a battle-field then a whole war one, as described in Manne’s reply above. There are a few “holdouts” (countries) worldwide that are trying to make a difference, successfully or not. It is not that denialism does not exist there (my students actually found quite a few places quickly after I had ventured to ascertain that country x had no such denialism movement …), but it does not (usually) get a prominent platform! The denialists though are actively working to change that, I suspect in many countries.  IMHO, the media landscape (in a country) has a lot to do with denialist prominence. Imagine everyone in the US watched the PBS newshour habitually … what a difference it would make.

I don’t accept Manne’s declaration at least not here in the USA. The denialists have won nothing, the science still proceeds and the scientific research for solutions to cheap clean energy continues uninterrupted and advances. It is inevitable that coal use in the USA will be going the way of whale oil as an energy source. Something like 54 more coal power plants are being shuttered/converted in 2012 with an additional 106 to close by 2016.

The idea that Obama has been “nobbled” by the denialist campaign and the Republican Party is probably true, but I would argue that it didn’t really require all that much nobbling. IMO Obama was never that supportive of CO2 reduction issues. His days as a state Senator saw him supporting coal, gas, oil and ethanol companies in Illinois. Obama has always done what is in HIS best interest in getting elected. It’s not a criticism but rather just a fact of politics.   

I get the feeling that all politicians wheel around what is popular.  Conservative or liberal, it doesn’t matter.

In BC, Conservative Premier who is pro Enbridge pipeline has come out against it;  (In case you’re confused Windy… Liberal in Canada means ‘center’.)  Conservative Christy Clark has been coming out and repeating all the environmental mantra.  No jobs, no money, all the risk.

This will all be over when public opinion sways to understanding and accepting climate change.