The global summit on climate change in Copenhagen kicked off Monday—with skeptics enjoying a surprisingly strong wind at their backs.
Until recently, the movement seemed to be all in the environmentalists’ favor. President Obama had made cap and trade legislation—aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions—a key plank of his budget. The House had passed a cap and trade bill. On the eve of the summit, Obama pushed back his arrival date in Denmark—amid feverish speculation that he, India and China had worked out a deal.
“Global-warming momentum was dead long before Climategate happened,” said Marc Morano. “Climategate just ensures the carcass isn’t going to be embalmed—it will rot for all to see.”
But momentum has been shifting of late. A scandal brewing over embarrassing emails from climate scientists in England has put progressives on the defensive. New polls show a decline in belief in established science regarding global warming. And cap and trade legislation faces a tough road in the Senate, shackled by an arcane filibuster rule that requires a 60-vote majority to overcome obstructionist lawmakers.
The skeptics are crowing over their latest good fortune, with several prominent activists bragging that the “Climategate” scandal is part of a broader hot streak.
“Global-warming momentum was dead long before Climategate happened,” Marc Morano, a former staffer to global-warming denier Sen. Jim Inhofe who runs Climate Depot, a hub where skeptics gather to reinforce their beliefs, told The Daily Beast. “Climategate just ensures the carcass isn't going to be embalmed—it will rot for all to see.”
Morano's Web site, a one-stop aggregator for undermining established science, has seen its traffic spike since news broke in late November that hackers had unearthed thousands of emails between scientists at University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit, some of which featured scientists insulting climate skeptics, seeking to keep competing views out of peer-reviewed journals, and discussing how to present data to maximally emphasize warming trends. According to traffic monitor Alexa, the site at one point was bringing in more visitors than RedState.com, one of the most popular conservative blogs on the Web.
Morano, like his old boss Inhofe, is in attendance at the Copenhagen summit to undermine its efforts at every turn with press events, “truth squads,” and protests.
The Climategate scandal, while embarrassing for the scientists involved (one of whom stepped down this week from his position), does not undermine the actual data supporting climate-change models, which have been independently verified by many different sources and are overwhelmingly accepted by scientists around the world. The timing of the scandal could end up being disastrous for the environment, however: With potentially significant Democratic losses looming in 2010 and health care still eating up the clock in the Senate, the next few months may be the last chance for meaningful climate legislation to pass.
Climate scientists warn that without a major reduction in carbon emissions, the world may heat up as much as 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, leading to such consequences as rising sea levels and significantly decreased crop yields. Already some scientists have pointed to major droughts in Australia as early harbingers of climate change and the president of the Maldives government recently held an underwater cabinet meeting to draw attention to the danger posed to their island country, which is sinking into the ocean, by melting ice caps.
While the underlying science may be sound, even some supporters of established climate research say that the current scandal needs to be taken seriously.
“You can’t beat the skeptics by aping their tactics,” Ross Gelbspan, an environmental activist and author of The Heat Is On, said. “The worst thing they did is not that they used the word 'trick' in adjusting temperatures, it's that they vowed to keep skeptical articles out of the journals. That's censorship.”
Nobody’s surprised that the debate has heated up, as a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress discussed taking action. The movement in Washington has stirred industry groups who were quieter during President George W. Bush’s less-threatening tenure.
They’re awake now. An analysis of public records by the Center for Public Integrity this week found that some 1,150 companies and advocacy groups, many of whom represent energy interests and high energy users, hired approximately 2,810 lobbyists ahead of the House vote in June—a fourfold increase over the number of lobbyists six years earlier, when another climate-change bill was under consideration. The Chamber of Commerce has also been a leading critic of cap and trade legislation, prompting business giants Apple and Nike to resign their membership in protest. An unknown amount of cash from energy interests also goes to funding "astroturf" organizations and think tanks amenable to watering down or blocking climate legislation.
Myron Ebell, director of Energy and Global Warming Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and one of the country's most prominent climate skeptics, is a member of one such organization. The free market think tank collected some $2 million in donations from ExxonMobil alone from 1998-2005, according to company reports compiled by Greenpeace, before the oil giant cut off ties as part of a campaign to soften its image on global warming.
Ebell told The Daily Beast he believed momentum in the climate wars had shifted his way for a variety of reasons, even suggesting some people just like warmer weather, rising oceans be damned.
“I grew up on a ranch and we were feeding cattle when it was 30 below zero,” Ebell said. “I think people who have a close connection to the material world, people who dig up stuff, grow stuff, and make stuff, they realize weather changes and we get along... life is easier in warmer temperatures and more pleasant.”
Ebell said he hoped the East Anglia scandal could give conservatives like Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) or Byron Dorgan (D-ND) an easy excuse to join a Republican filibuster against a climate bill.
The industry has some media help. Matt Drudge, for example, is famous for being the leading purveyor of the single most inane tactic of the entire movement: juxtaposing news of individual cold days with climate-change news to suggest that global warming isn’t happening. Last Thursday, with Climategate updates plastered across his site throughout the week, Drudge Report's lead story was “HOUSTON MAY SEE 'EARLIEST SNOWFALL EVER.'”
Steven Milloy, a climate-change denier who pens a column, Junk Science, for Fox News, is also a prominent voice with a major media platform.
Milloy told The Daily Beast that he hoped the Climategate emails might convince some uncommitted observers to join his side.
“If you were on the fence, thinking they might have a point, and you look at Climategate and the emails and see how dastardly the other side is, I think you're going to be persuaded to give us another shot.”
Despite a difficult month, some climate activists are optimistic that brighter days are ahead.
“I think there's no reason to think there will not be a bill in 2010—I expect one,” Joseph Romm, a physicist and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress said. “But it's certainly not a sure thing.”
Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.