In the hot summer of 1988 - while Americans prepared to decide whether Vice President George H.W. Bush or the "Atari Democrat" – Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis – would replace Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office, James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, testified at a congressional hearing that he was convinced the earth’s atmosphere was warming up, that the warming was caused by human activity, and that severe shocks would result. A three-scenario graph accompanying his testimony sent a clarion warning.
The smears and propaganda began almost immediately from contrarians such as Patrick Michaels and a snake-oil salesman named S. Fred Singer. Eventually, it became known that both men (and others) were part of a well-financed campaign on the part of fossil-fuel companies to persuade Americans (and politicians) that global warming was a hoax and that Hansen and other scientists sounding the alarm were fools or worse.
The hearings in June 1988 weren’t the first time Hansen had said trouble was brewing. Nor were they the first time other scientists had publicly spoken of the potential crises warming might cause. But 1988 demarcated two periods. Before then, the science of climate change was tentative and the political opposition was mostly directly toward keeping data from being gathered in the first place, much less analyzed. Afterward, with the science ever more sure and cohesive, a cabal of petro-industrialists paid aggressive liars to attack the science and, sometimes, the scientists. Chief among those in the crosshairs were Hansen and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the research organization set up in that same watershed year by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Environment Program.
With the express purpose of casting "doubt on the theory of global warming," front groups with misleading names such as the Global Climate Coalition, the Global Climate Information Project, and the Cooler Heads Project (as well as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the National Consumer Coalition) spread fabrications while their corporate sponsors paid tens of millions of dollars for public relations campaigns, advertising, and contributions to Democratic and Republican politicians.
These slick propagandists were immensely successful. In the ‘90s, President Bill Clinton – under assault by retrograde ideologues over a wide range of issues – chose to invest only a smidgen of his political capital to deal with a crisis many in the chattering classes still claimed was bogus. Throughout the ‘00s, the propagandists’ comrades-in-avarice have directly controlled the federal machinery, censoring, distorting, threatening and dragging their feet. The professional deniers’ favorite targets, from the IPCC to Hansen to Al Gore, have been repeatedly vindicated. Global warming has become the worst nightmare of the deniers and delayers: a household phrase.
Yet their two-decade-long assault on science and sound policy continues its negative impacts. Key world leaders, even including Mister Bush, say they understand that global warming is a crisis. But their acknowledgement hasn't been transformed into a passionate commitment for what matters: bold action.
Scientific interest in climate change goes back nearly two centuries, but the politics of global warming are only 50 years old.
In 1957, the National Academy of Sciences published its first general report on climatology in which it was noted: "In consuming our fossil fuels at a prodigious rate, our civilization is conducting a grandiose scientific experiment." That metaphor was the invention of Roger Revelle, the Harvard geochemist and oceanographer whose lectures 10 years later would have a lasting impact on a young undergrad named Al Gore.
At the same time NAS was channeling Revelle, Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb and an avid advocate for building hundreds of nuclear power plants, warned at the December 1957 meeting of the American Chemical Society that increasing CO2 might someday melt the polar icecaps and flood the world’s coastal regions.
Teller’s remarks and Revelle’s testimony to a congressional committee sparked a Washington Sunday Star article by Phil Yeager and John Stark in January 1958: "Mystery of the Warming World." It was published on page 26 and included the prediction that CO2 warming of the climate might generate "a type of control regulation, law, interstate compact, and international agreement which could scarcely help clashing with some of our cherished notions of free enterprise. Industry, which might blossom in some directions ... would be hamstrung in others. ... Further, in view of the global nature of the problem, ordinary international agreements might prove inadequate for effective regulation." International controls backed up by penalties, the prescient pair wrote, would be "sure to foster great heat and controversy."
Meanwhile, in what would set the standard for later propaganda campaigns, Shell Oil rejected the idea that "our furnaces and motor car engines will have any large effect on the CO2 balance."
Over the next 20 years, climate science slowly took off as data was gathered by new agencies such as the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, satellite measurements became routine, and computer modeling became more sophisticated.
While much of the public first bumped up against the possibility of abrupt climate shift from the 2004 science fiction film The Day After Tomorrow, scientists meeting at a workshop at MIT in 1970 and an international conference in Stockholm in 1971 revealed to each other that evidence from ice cores and the ancient seabed hinted the atmospheric changes many of them had been speculating would come about gradually might actually happen in a single human life span, or a single generation. At the time, based on limited measurements available to them, the probable change they saw was another ice age.
Although the new findings came at what seemed a propitious moment – a mass movement was focusing attention on all things environmental – progress on the political front dragged. Congress didn’t hold its first hearings exclusively devoted to climate change until 1976. That same year, a Harvard postdoctoral researcher asked Jim Hansen’s help in calculating the greenhouse effect of humanmade gases in the earth's atmosphere.
In 1977, the National Academy of Sciences published and widely publicized the work of a panel of experts, "Energy and Climate." Chaired by Revelle, the panel said there was a possibility that average temperatures might climb a dangerous 6° Celsius by 2050. They urged more spending on research.
On the heels of that report, Congress passed the National Climate Act in late 1978 to set up the National Climate Program Office as part of NOAA. A meager budget, a weak mandate and a kind of we-did-our-part attitude from Congress hampered the office from the beginning. Frustrated and worried, geophysicist Wallace Broecker at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatorywrote a letter on April 7, 1980, to Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas.
As physicist-historian Spencer Weart writes:
Declaring that "the CO2 problem is the single most important and the single most complex environmental issue facing the world," and that "the clock is ticking away," Broecker insisted that a better research program was needed. "Otherwise, another decade will slip by, and we will find that we can do little better than repeat the rather wishy-washy image we now have as to what our planet will be like ..."
Bad timing. Into the Oval Office strode Ronald Reagan. Opposed to government regulation in general and hostile to eco-concerns in particular, the new president appointed anti-environmentalists to key posts and began chopping funding for everything from conservation outreach to renewable energy R&D to CO2 studies. A price was to be paid for those going against the grain. Hansen, who by 1981 had been focusing on the subject intensively for four years and was the new chief at Goddard, published with seven colleagues a piece in Science which said:
"The combined warming of carbon dioxide and trace gases should exceed natural temperature variability in the 1980s and cause the mean global temperature to rise above the maximum of the late 1930s."
Next thing you know, The New York Times had put a story on the front page, and the Department of Energy had withdrawn funding it had promised Hansen, compelling him to lay off five Goddard staffers. It was the first round of something Hansen has become all-too-familiar with over nearly three decades: ignore the message, behead the messenger.
All research into the greenhouse effect might have been lost had it not been for Al Gore, by then a three-term Congressman from Tennessee. His hearings in 1981 got some short-lived press attention. As a new Senator, he pushed for new hearings in 1984 that included the testimony of climate scientist Carl Sagan, who, with other scientists, had been looking into "nuclear winter."
Further hearings took place in 1987. Congress passed four bills in which "global warming" was specifically mentioned, including the "Global Climate Protection Act" that required a plan for placing a ceiling on greenhouse gases. Among the issues being studied by early 1988 was a "carbon tax" levied on emissions of CO2.
With record temperatures and massive drought that summer, the public was primed to hear what Hansen had to say. From the scientists’ point of view, it appeared that, finally, they were going to be seriously listened to.
On June 23, Hansen sat before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. He later recalled for Audubon’s Robert H. Boyle that he had testified:
"First, that the world was getting warmer on decadal time scales, which I said could be stated with 99 percent confidence. Second, that with a high degree of confidence I believed there was a causal relationship with an increased greenhouse effect. And third, that in our climate model there was a tendency for an increase in the frequency and the severity of heat waves and droughts with global warming." Besieged by the media afterward, he said, "It's time to stop waffling so much and say that the greenhouse effect is here and affecting our climate now."
Accompanying Hansen’s testimony was this graph of three potential scenarios, part of a paper he and his colleagues published soon afterward. Given the uncertainties over the prospects for government regulation and about volcanic eruptions that can mask the effects of greenhouse emissions, the presentation of a spectrum of possibilities was precisely the behavior that should be expected of good scientists. After introducing the three scenarios, Hansen focused on Scenario B, the one he thought most likely. As can be seen, it matches what has actually occurred.
Flak burst around Hansen immediately. Soon, the new Bush Administration was complaining about him to NASA. Some respected scientists challenged the conclusions of his analysis. Hansen refused to shut up. In 1995, the IPCC vindicated him in its Second Assessment Report, which declared "the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate."
Typical of the barrage of malicious distortion from the various industry-funded "coalitions" initiated after Hansen’s 1988 testimony is that of the CATO Institute’s Patrick Michaels. In testimony to the House Committee on Small Business on July 29, 1998, Michaels intentionally – call that dishonestly – omitted the B and C scenarios so he could say that Hansen had been off by 400%, and, therefore, everyone was right to be skeptical of the entirety of global warming predictions. Michaels’ claim-by-omission would ultimately wind up in Michael Crichton’s novel, State of Fear, which the scientists at RealClimate thoroughly debunked.
Enter the second Bush administration. One of the first of its many anti-environmental moves was to suppress the U.S. National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change. The multi-volume assessment, mandated by the Global Change Research Act of 1990, had taken a decade of study and been published just two months before Mister Bush had taken the oath of office. It had immediately come under attack from the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the American Enterprise Institute. The assessment was not merely shelved like so many other government reports. The White House barred government scientists from using its contents or even referring to it. Future government reports relating to global warming got the administration’s special treatment. For instance, oil industry lobbyist Philip Cooney was made chief of staff at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Here’s some of his handiwork.
He resigned from the CEQ when his editing efforts were revealed in 2005 and was immediately hired by ExxonMobil.
While industry shills and right-wing ideologues could count on sockpuppets like Sean Hannity and other conduits for global warming denial, to their fury and that of the administration, Hansen continued to refuse to shut up. After a lecture in December 2005 in which he called for immediate cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, Goddard’s public affairs staff was ordered "to review his coming lectures, papers, postings on the Goddard Web site and requests for interviews from journalists." Officials have repeatedly claimed ever since that they weren’t trying to gag him. Hansen merely points skeptics toward Mark Bowen’s book, Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming.
Last month, Hansen delivered yet another sure-to-be-disputed heads-up. For years, many scientists thought that stabilizing atmospheric carbon to a level of 550 parts per million (vs. the pre-industrial level of 275 ppm) would stave off a global warming disaster. More recently, however, the view has been that 450 ppm is the so-called "tipping point" for when "fast-feedback" effects will lead to runaway warming. But at the San Francisco meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December, Hansen told gathered scientists that he thinks the tipping point may be 350 ppm.
We’re already at 383 ppm.
In the January 5, 2008, issue of New Scientist, in a review of Mark Bowen’s book, Chris Mooney writes of Hansen: "Here's a guy who really just wanted to get back to the hobbit hole of his research, but who was forced by the political situation in which he found himself - and the failures of others to step up and do the job - to march off and confront the dragon."
Hard not to call him a hero for having done so.
This essay couldn’t have been written without extensive cribbing from the analysis and bibliography of Dr. Spencer Weart at his extraordinary Web site The Discovery of Global Warming: A hypertext history of how scientists came to (partly) understand what people are doing to cause climate change. Weart is director of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Maryland.