Shooting the Messenger

It’s an impressive document. Compiled by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the action plan is a 618-page list of recommendations for reducing Pennsylvania’s annual greenhouse gas emissions by 95.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents by 2020. That’s about the amount of greenhouse gas emitted by 11 billion gallons of gasoline — roughly what the United States consumes each month. The plan urges emissions reduction in homes and businesses primarily through the use of higher-efficiency building technologies and appliances.

The reductions are necessary, according to the plan’s executive summary, because the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has “concluded unequivocally that as a result of the substantial increase in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other gases caused by human activity, the Earth’s climate system is warming.” Man-made climate change has been accepted by the National Academy of Sciences, all top peer-reviewed scientific journals and the current White House (and even the Bush administration in 2007). Within the mainstream academic community, it is no longer a subject of debate. Although scientists argue about the scope and severity of the problem — and tinker around the theoretical edges — the cumulative evidence overwhelmingly points to an increasingly volatile and inhospitable global climate.

Yet, at least one-third of Americans think it’s a hoax, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Such anti-science hostility didn’t blossom in a vacuum: Climate-change deniers are fighting the scientific consensus with an increasingly sophisticated PR campaign that aims to dismantle the reputations of prominent scientists and portray the issue in starkly political terms. This campaign manifested itself in the media storm surrounding the theft and publication last month of e-mails between some of the world’s top climate scientists, including one Penn State University professor. It’s working, too. Polls show Americans increasingly turning away from the reality of man-made climate change.

You needn’t leave the Keystone State to see the proof.

Between Oct. 10 and Nov. 9, Pennsylvanians were invited to comment on the Climate Change Action Plan, and they obliged with more responses than the DEP has ever received, according to DEP Secretary John Hanger. Individuals and organizations sent in some 23,000 comments. A sample of about 130 comments was posted on the department’s Web site. Seventy of those supported the plan, with minor changes; 20 took more serious issue with the plan, but supported the underlying science. Roughly 40, however, denied the premise that human activity is heating the planet: “Climate change or global warming, however you want to spin it, is nothing more than a method to scare the American public into agreeing with legislation and regulation that will give state and the federal government more control and power,” wrote one.

“You want to tax me to change the weather???” asked another.

Why live life at full price?

“This is an absurd abandonment of reason,” wrote two spokespeople for the Independent Oil and Gas Association of Pennsylvania. “The politicians have ignored legitimate scientific and historical data that contradicts their cap-and-trade movement.”

Hanger claims that 99 percent of the total commenters favored the plan; opponents, however, sent in more comments per person. “Obviously we still have … some interests that are opposed to any action on climate change,” he says. “But people in Pennsylvania are really no different than the country as a whole, and the public agrees that loading the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases will change our climate over time.”

However, the proportion of Americans who believe that Earth’s temperatures are rising declined from 71 percent in April 2008 to 57 percent in October, according to a Pew poll. The percentage of respondents who believe temperatures are rising and attribute it to human activity also dropped sharply, from 47 percent in April 2008 to just 36 percent in October. Meanwhile, according to Pew, the percentage of Americans who deny global warming altogether has risen steadily, from 16 percent in January 2007 to 21 percent in April 2008 to 33 percent in October. What’s changed?

“Fewer elected officials are willing to openly challenge the science” since the publication of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, says Matthew Nisbet, a social scientist at American University in Washington, D.C., who studies strategic communication in scientific policy-making. On the other hand, Nisbet says, conservative pundits and interest groups are contesting the science as loudly as ever — and they have some new tactics of persuasion.

“What’s unique about the climate-change skeptic movement is that, even though there’s no central planning office, they’re very good at coming together and identifying a message that sticks,” he says. Most recently, that message is “public accountability” — the argument that scientists are unaccountable and prone to corruption. “The public accountability interpretation distracts from the scientific realities of climate change and deals more with the motivations of particular scientists.”

A prime example is the case of the e-mails hacked last month from servers at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in the United Kingdom, Nisbet adds: “Creating the tagline ‘Climate-gate’ instantly communicated the preferred storyline of climate-change skeptics, that somehow, scientists have abused the research process and sought to muzzle dissent.”

Nisbet’s assessment is shared by Michael Mann, a Penn State climatologist whose e-mails were among those stolen and published. Mann first learned of the theft when hackers tried to hijack a blog he runs with colleagues,, and post the e-mails onto it. “A lot of the groups that are looking to capitalize on these e-mails for gain in the climate-change debate are actively involved in promoting this story, and manufacturing a controversy out of it,” Mann says. “The opposition is not grounded in science. It’s based on a partisan, political way of looking at the world.”

Some commentators accused Mann of trying to “delete” a warm medieval period, based on an e-mail in which he discussed listing temperature records far enough back in history to “contain” such a period. Mann also came under fire in the The Wall Street Journal for trying to “blackball” a journal called Climate Research, based on an e-mail in which he noted that the journal had published a paper that “couldn’t have cleared a legitimate peer-review process anywhere.” (In 2003, the journal’s editor in chief and two other editors quit in protest after the journal published an article — funded, in part, by the American Petroleum Institute — that attacked Mann’s argument that the 20th century was not particularly warm.)

Mann has “no regrets or apologies” about the e-mails: “Look at some of the Web sites that promote information about the hacked e-mails — Sourcewatch, the Heartland Institute, and so on. They create Web sites that look like news sites, but in reality are just fronts for the industry-sponsored think tanks that are sponsoring them.”

As an active contributor to IPCC reports since 2001, Mann is no stranger to the deniers’ attacks. Indeed, one of the e-mail exchanges released last month contains a conversation between him and Phil Jones of the CRU about the hate mail they’ve received.

Timothy Ball, a former climatologist at the University of Winnipeg who now appears as an environmental consultant on Fox News, the Drudge Report and on behalf of the Heartland Institute, views the e-mails differently. Ball doesn’t think there’s anything dangerous about modern changes in climate. But he does see a serious threat posed by scientists like Mann. “It’s the biggest deception in history,” he says of the e-mails, particularly messages in which Jones referred to “fixing” a temperature record with a “trick” borrowed from Mann, or urged his colleagues to delete e-mails. These e-mails have become a focal point of the conspiracy theory.

That “trick,” Mann explains, consisted of supplementing one list of temperature records that ended in 1980 with another list that extended the data through the late 1990s, hardly a nefarious act. And, he adds, Jones wrote a message urging his colleagues to delete e-mails because he was “being badgered by climate-change deniers who were issuing frivolous Freedom of Information [Act] requests against him, [which] were later dismissed by the legal authorities.”

But to Ball, these exchanges evince criminality. He believes the scientists could be charged with “crimes against humanity,” and says that climate scientists have distorted the data to effect policies that will bring down industrialized nations. “Common-sense environmentalists have a very serious responsibility now to isolate these extreme environmentalists,” he says. “[Climate-gate] should help get out [John] Holdren” — director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, whose correspondence defending the boycott of Climate Research is included in the hacked e-mails. “But he’s an unelected, unaccountable bureaucrat. That’s where the real danger is.”

Jay Lehr, science director at the right-wing Heartland Institute, concurs. Those who deny man-made climate change have altruistic motives, he contends, but the scientists who support the theory do not: “More than anything, it’s about money, it’s about research grants, it’s about power, it’s about socialism,” he says. “The incentives to do this are huge. It’s absolutely the neatest thing if you want to have bigger government and greater control.”

The more the right-wing vanguard frames the issue in personal terms, Nisbet says, the harder it will be for scientists to educate the public. If scientists want to convince the public to care about climate change, they need to do it in our backyards: “As soon as the information is localized and convenient to them, they’ll pay a lot more attention. As long as it remains something that they hear about on Fox or press reports about the latest battle in Congress or Climate-gate, wider community engagement is never going to happen.”

Ball, meanwhile, thinks Climate-gate is a scandal from which climate scientists can never recover. And indeed, his ilk has collected at least one scalp: Phil Jones stepped down, temporarily, as head of the CRU on Dec. 1. Jones did not return City Paper‘s calls.

For Mann, Climate-gate has been, at worst, a distraction. He’s hopeful that the international climate-change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, which President Barack Obama is scheduled to join Dec. 18, will spur effective policy development.

And try as they might, climate-change deniers will have no effect on the Pennsylvania Climate Change Action Plan that Rendell receives that same day. Data supporting man-made climate change, the DEP’s Hanger says, have been found by scientists worldwide and working independently of each other. So even evidence of data-fudging — were it to surface — wouldn’t discredit the larger theory: “Nothing that happened at the East Anglia Research Unit had anything to do with the National Academy of Sciences, or an equivalent scientific organization in Europe or Asia,” he says. “So what happened with a few researchers at East Anglia is being used to try to create a sense of uncertainty when it just doesn’t exist.”

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