Crimes Against the Future
This week's Newsweek contains an article ("The Truth About Denial") that, on the surface, offers a good look at the politics of global warming pseudo-skepticism. When you read between the lines, however, it becomes increasingly clear that we've hit a phase transition in the politics of global warming, and -- especially when coupled with this week's Time story on the fragility of the recovery of New Orleans -- how close we are to treating the carbon-emissions industries as enemies of society. In short, the tobaccofication of carbon is imminent.
Since the late 1980s, this well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks and industry has created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change. Through advertisements, op-eds, lobbying and media attention, greenhouse doubters (they hate being called deniers) argued first that the world is not warming; measurements indicating otherwise are flawed, they said. Then they claimed that any warming is natural, not caused by human activities. Now they contend that the looming warming will be minuscule and harmless. "They patterned what they did after the tobacco industry," says former senator Tim Wirth, who spearheaded environmental issues as an under secretary of State in the Clinton administration.
The Newsweek article goes on for six damning pages. Few readers will be surprised that this was not (and has never been) an honest effort to make sure that the climate field respected a scientific process of considering all plausible explanations. This was, from very early on, a conscious effort to obfuscate, undermine and delay (pun intended) any and all official efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Scientific accuracy didn't matter, only resistance to any government activity.
Those of us who have been following this issue closely will come away from the article having learned little that's new, but what's remarkable about the piece is that something this dismissive of the global warming deniers (let alone the denialist position) is the cover story of a mainstream news magazine. This isn't just another piece reaffirming the reality of global warming as science; it's a brutal evisceration of the corrupt industry that emerged through the efforts of ideologues and crony capitalists. The companies and think tanks involved in the denialist effort come across not as defenders of their beliefs and industry, but as people willing to say and do anything to protect the accumulation of short-term profits, the future (and the world) be damned.
Whether or not Katrina could be indisputably linked to global warming, it has become the iconic global warming event in the public mind -- a climate 9/11, if you will. When New Orleans is hit again (and it will be), the ineffective projects from FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the sundry contractors hired to rebuild hurricane defenses will be brushed aside, and the city will be hit all the harder. (Ironically, because the poor residents of New Orleans are still largely unable to rebuild their homes and communities, they may end up being spared this second hit if it comes in the next few years.) When that happens, or when we have a big hurricane hit on a city that isn't even as prepared as New Orleans (such as, say, Washington D.C.), this emerging recognition that the carbon industries have been working to prevent us from acting against global warming -- in effect, working to harm us in the name of maximizing profits -- is likely to take on even greater vigor.
For the global warming denial industry, congressional hearings will be the least of their worries. In a post-Katrina II America, aware that some of the largest companies and the most influential think tanks worked hard to make sure that attempts to mitigate climate disruption were stopped, the perpetrators of this crime may face far greater trials. It couldn't happen to a more deserving bunch.