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The O.J. tactic

Climate change skeptics sound like Simpson's lawyers: If the winter glove won't fit, you must acquit.

February 24, 2010|By Bill McKibben

In recent years, every major scientific body in the world has produced reports confirming the peril of climate change. All 15 of the warmest years on record have come in the last two decades. And Earth's major natural systems are all showing undeniable signs of rapid flux: melting Arctic and glacial ice, rapidly acidifying seawater and so on.

Yet because of a recent onslaught of attacks on the science of climate change, fewer Americans now believe humans are warming the planet than did just a few years ago.

The doubters of climate science have launched an enormously clever -- and effective -- campaign, and it's worth trying to understand how they've done it. The best analogy is perhaps the O.J. Simpson trial.

The "dream team" of lawyers assembled for Simpson's defense had a problem: The evidence against their client was formidable. Nicole Brown Simpson's blood was all over his socks, and that was just the beginning. So Johnnie Cochran, Robert Shapiro, Alan Dershowitz, F. Lee Bailey, Robert Kardashian et al decided to attack the process, arguing that it put Simpson's guilt in doubt -- and doubt, of course, was all they needed. Hence, those days of cross-examination about exactly how Dennis Fung had transported blood samples and which racial slurs LAPD Det. Mark Fuhrman had used.

In his closing arguments, Cochran compared Fuhrman to Adolf Hitler and called him "a genocidal racist, a perjurer, America's worst nightmare and the personification of evil." His only real audience was the jury, many of whom had good reason to dislike the Los Angeles Police Department, but the team managed to instill considerable doubt in lots of Americans tuning in on TV as well. That's what happens when you spend week after week dwelling on the cracks in a case, no matter how small they may be. They made convincing mountains from the molehills they had to work with.

Similarly, the immense pile of evidence now proving the science of global warming beyond any reasonable doubt is in some ways a great boon for those who deny that the biggest problem we've ever faced is actually a problem at all. If you have a three-page report, it won't be overwhelming, but it's also unlikely to have many mistakes. Three thousand pages (the length of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)? That pretty much guarantees you'll get some things wrong.

Indeed, the panel managed to include half a dozen errors -- most egregiously a spurious date for the year by which Himalayan glaciers will disappear. It won't happen by 2035, as the report indicated -- a fact that has now been spread so widely across the Internet that it's more or less obliterated the indisputable fact that virtually every glacier on the planet is busily melting.

Similarly, much has been made of the so-called Climategate scandal involving thousands of hacked e-mails and documents from a British research center. A few of the communications suggested the scientists were dismissive of research that came to conclusions they disagreed with. One British scientist, Phil Jones, has been placed on leave while his university decides if he should be punished for, among other things, not complying with Freedom of Information Act requests.

Jones could be considered the Mark Fuhrman of climate science; focus on him and maybe people will ignore the inconvenient mountain of evidence about climate change that the world's scientific researchers have compiled.

The skeptics also have taken advantage of lucky breaks that have crossed their path, such as the recent record set of snowstorms that hit Washington. It doesn't matter that such a record is just the kind of thing scientists have been predicting, given the extra water vapor global warming is adding to the atmosphere. The doubters simply question how it can be suddenly super-snowy if the world is actually warming.

For a gifted political operative like, say, Marc Morano, who runs the Climate Depot website, the massive snowfalls this winter provided grist for a hundred posts poking fun at the very idea that anyone could still possibly believe in, you know, physics. Morano truly is talented -- he immediately posted a link to a live webcam so readers could watch snow coming down. Meanwhile, his former boss, Oklahoma's Republican Sen. James Inhofe, had his grandchildren build an igloo on the Capitol grounds, with a sign that read: "Al Gore's New Home."

These are the things that stick in people's heads. If the winter glove won't fit, you must acquit.

In the long run, the climate-deniers will be a footnote to history. But by delaying action, they will have helped prevent us from taking the steps we need to take while there's still time. If we're going to make real change while it matters, it's important to remember that their skepticism isn't the root of the problem. It simply plays on our deep-seated resistance to change.

That inertia is what gives the climate cynics ground to operate. That's what we need to overcome, and at bottom that's a battle about data, but also about courage and hope. In the last year, we've rallied millions of people in almost every country to demand action on climate change, and to start building the world beyond fossil fuel. The truth will out.

Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, including the forthcoming "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet." He's a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont and the founder of 350.org, a global grass-roots climate campaign. A longer version of this article can be read at tomdispatch.com

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