Monday, March 1, 2010

'The O.J. Moment of the Twenty-First Century'

Posted By on Mon, Mar 1, 2010 at 5:43 PM

Sometimes I think about the first environmentalists in our country. Do you realize most of them were Christian Republicans?

The idea, at the time, was God gave us the Earth so we should protect it, nurture it and be thankful for it.

What's changed?

What do you think?

Somehow, someway money became God.

In 1989, I could fit just about every scientific study on climate change on top of my desk. The science was still thin. If my reporting made me think it was nonetheless convincing, many scientists were not yet prepared to agree.

Now, you could fill the Superdome with climate-change research data. (You might not want to, though, since Hurricane Katrina demonstrated just how easy it was to rip holes in its roof.) Every major scientific body in the world has produced reports confirming the peril. All fifteen of the warmest years on record have come in the two decades that have passed since 1989. In the meantime, the Earth's major natural systems have all shown undeniable signs of rapid flux: melting Arctic and glacial ice, rapidly acidifying seawater and so on.

Somehow, though, the onslaught against the science of climate change has never been stronger, and its effects, at least in the United States, never more obvious: fewer Americans believe humans are warming the planet. At least partly as a result, Congress feels little need to consider global-warming legislation, much less pass it; and as a result of that failure, progress towards any kind of international agreement on climate change has essentially ground to a halt.

Climate-Change Denial as an O.J. Moment

The campaign against climate science has been enormously clever, and enormously effective. It's worth trying to understand how they've done it. The best analogy, I think, is to the O.J. Simpson trial, an event that's begun to recede in our collective memory. For those who were conscious in 1995, however, I imagine that just a few names will make it come back to life. Kato Kaelin, anyone? Lance Ito?

The Dream Team of lawyers assembled for Simpson's defense had a problem: it was pretty clear their guy was guilty. Nicole Brown'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, or the fact that Los Angeles detective Mark Fuhrman had used racial slurs when talking to a screenwriter in 1986.

If anything, they were actually helped by the mountain of evidence. If a haystack gets big enough, the odds only increase that there will be a few needles hidden inside. Whatever they managed to find, they made the most of: in closing arguments, for instance, 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.

But it's a mistake to concentrate solely on the science for another reason. Science may be what we know about the world, but politics is how we feel about the world. And feelings count at least as much as knowledge. Especially when those feelings are valid. People are getting ripped off. They are powerless against large forces that are, at the moment, beyond their control. Anger is justified.

So let's figure out how to talk about it. Let's look at Exxon Mobil, which each of the last three years has made more money than any company in the history of money. Its business model involves using the atmosphere as an open sewer for the carbon dioxide that is the inevitable byproduct of the fossil fuel it sells. And yet we let it do this for free. It doesn't pay a red cent for potentially wrecking our world.

By the way, if you think there's a scam underway, you're right--and to figure it out, just track the money going in campaign contributions to the politicians doing the bidding of the energy companies. Inhofe, the igloo guy? Over a million dollars from energy and utility companies and executives in the last two election cycles. You think Al Gore is going to make money from green energy? Check out what you get for running an oil company.

Worried that someone is going to wreck your future? You're right about that, too. Right now, China is gearing up to dominate the green energy market. They're making the investments that mean future windmills and solar panels, even ones installed in this country, will be likely to arrive from factories in Chenzhou, not Chicago.

Coal companies have already eliminated most good mining jobs, simply by automating them in the search for ever-higher profits. Now, they're using their political power to make sure that miners' kids won't get to build wind turbines instead. Everyone should be mighty pissed--just not at climate-change scientists.

In the long run, the climate deniers will lose; they'll be a footnote to history. (Hey, even O.J. is finally in jail.) But they'll lose because we'll all lose, because 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's what gives the climate cynics ground to operate. That's what we need to overcome, and at bottom that's a battle as much about courage and hope as about data.

Read the rest of this Nation / TomDispatch article, by Bill McKibben, here.

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