The collapse of the climate change movement is entering a new stage: the liberal media is waking up to the story. Slowly.
This, in a nutshell, is what’s happened. A whole series of missteps and misjudgments at two of the leading institutions of the climate change universe (the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change and the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia University in the UK) have seriously undercut some (by no means all) of the evidence for global warming and some high profile, headline grabbing predictions of imminent disasters associated with it. It’s too early to tell what will finally come out, but there’s enough on the table already to give climate change skeptics in the United States enough ammunition to generate the same kind of Tea Party energy against cap-and-trade and other ‘carbon-pricing’ legislation that a weakened Obama administration cannot get a comprehensive energy bill through Congress this year. Without US legislative commitments to carbon use reductions, the increasingly fragile movement toward a binding global agreement on climate change is doomed to collapse.
This is by any standard a big story, both domestically and internationally. Domestically it has serious implications for the Obama agenda; the President can either abandon one of his most important goals (and infuriate another major section of his political base) or he can push for legislation that will fail — and will energize his opposition going into the November elections. Internationally, the US may be headed back for the Dunce’s Corner it occupied during the Bush administration: blamed (sincerely by some, cynically by others) for blocking the effort to save the planet from the scourge of climate change.
Readers of The New York Times have no idea that any of this is happening (although this story in today’s paper hints that President Obama is retreating from the goal of a comprehensive climate bill). Those who get their news from the three old news networks haven’t heard about it. It’s likely that even key members of the Obama administration haven’t realized the full dimensions of the problem they face.
The word here is denial: there’s too much intellectual, political and moral energy invested in the climate change movement for liberals to pay attention to the dots, much less to connect up the whole dismaying picture. It looks very much as if reporters or (more likely) editors were so invested in climate change that they assumed that the initial charges were less consequential than they have turned out to be. They therefore failed to understand the effect of the cascading charges and revelations on American politics. Skeptics up, Obama down, cap-and-trade dead. Since they couldn’t see that, they failed to think through the consequences of cap and trade’s death for the global climate change process.
One lesson from this: the secret weapon of American conservatives is the liberal media. Had American liberals known what was coming, they could have taken some steps to limit the damage. But they didn’t see it coming because the media they rely on lacks the insight and the instincts to recognize a major story in time.
They do this much better in Britain. Readers of the Guardian, a left-leaning British newspaper that editorially has supported the climate change movement for many years, can read coverage from Fred Pearce and George Monbiot — both supports of the climate change movement — that dissects the problems of the IPCC and the East Anglia University’s troubled Climate Research Unit with great objectivity. Pearce and Monbiot both get it: if environmentalists aren’t at the forefront of attacking those who have corrupted or abused science in the name of the movement, the whole climate change movement will be discredited by the actions of a few.
Lately, however, the global warming meltdown is beginning to catch the attention of smart liberal journalists. Over at Mother Jones, Kate Shepperd laments that Democrats are –in Obama’s formulation–“running for the hills,” all but ensuring any sort of legislation that caps carbon will be passed anytime soon, and that the bill being tossed around might allow for more, not fewer, emissions. (Of course, in the comments section a reader attacks her as a ‘scare monger.’) Meanwhile, in The New Republic, Bradford Plumer writes about “Why the IPCC Needs Fixing,” and while he proposes some absolutely reasonable changes to their purview and methodology, I think he misses the point of this most recent set of scandals, underestimating the damage the IPCC brand has sustained lately. He is channeling far too much Pachauri (“I don’t see how one mistake in a 3,000-page report can damage the credibility of the overall report.”) when he breezily and parenthetically notes, “In the IPCC’s 2007 report, there was a line about how glaciers in the Himalayas could vanish by 2035; it turns out that line had zero basis in peer-reviewed science, yet still got past reviewers.” Well, it also turns out that little line was used to fund significant grants to Pachauri’s research institute. It also turns out it was the basis for selling immediate action to the Indians and Chinese. It turns out to be a claim about an issue that was said, then and now, to affect hundreds of millions or billions of lives. And it turns out people are annoyed. Plumer is right that “[t]his is a worthy topic”: I agree with him that some of the work the IPCC has done over the years is “terrific”, but after the scandal and the recalcitrance of Pachauri (see the video), climate change skeptics will have little trouble whipping up populist suspicion of the group and its reports.
American journalists have been slow to recognize just how deep is the doo-doo in which some of the climate change establishment is mired. The Guardian, based in the UK where the story surfaced in mainstream coverage, reports that the very same scientist who had a starring role in the ‘climategate‘ controversy is making an appearance in the ‘glaciergate’ scandal. Professor Jones, of East Anglia University, is under fire “for attempting to suppress data that could cast doubt on a key 1990 study on the effect of cities on warming – a hotly contested issue.” The Guardian, typically supportive of the case for human-caused climate change, is on the right track, though, by being out front on the issue by thoroughly investigating and castigating these scientists: this article is a result of “[a] Guardian investigation of thousands of emails and documents apparently hacked from the University of East Anglia’s climatic research unit [which] found evidence that a series of measurements from Chinese weather stations were seriously flawed and that documents relating to them could not be produced.”
The author is the same Fred Pearce referenced above; his pro-climate change credentials are clear: he is careful to ensure that wobbly readers don’t take this the wrong way:
“The revelations on the inadequacies of the 1990 paper do not undermine the case that humans are causing climate change, and other studies have produced similar findings. But they do call into question the probity of some climate change science.”
Now, I don’t know whether or not these revelations over the 1990 paper undermine the case for anthropogenic climate change; but it is a dead certainty that they undermine the political strength of the forces — especially in the US — who want to get a comprehensive climate bill through the Congress this year. The intellectual case for and against anthropogenic global warming is one thing; the political fate of the movement to get binding global climate change policies agreed is something else. The scientific controversy is a complex one and will go on for some time. Politically, however, these revelations are explosive in the American context. Between them, the IPCC and the East Anglia Climate Research Unit have killed the chances that the US will pass climate legislation this year; if the November midterms strengthen the Republicans in Congress as now looks likely, it is hard to see carbon limits getting through the Congress before 2013.
I wrote yesterday that American environmentalists need to move fast to limit the damage to their prospects — but they can’t move if they don’t yet know what is going on. For this ignorance, they can and should blame the American media; by failing to report this story and to link up the dots the American media have done American environmentalists (not to mention the Obama administration and the public at large) a terrible disservice.
I really don’t know why American conservatives spend so much time denouncing the liberal media. In this instance as in a number of others, the cluelessness of the mainstream media allows conservatives to assemble their forces and seize the political high ground while liberals are comfortably sitting by the fireside, telling one another how stupid and out of touch conservatives are. Remember the swift boat controversy in which the major media ignored a series of attack ads against Senator John Kerry’s candidacy in 2004? By the time the media, and Kerry’s campaign, had noticed the damage these attacks were doing, it was too late to respond.
It’s happening all over again.