By Zeeshan Hasan
For the past few decades a struggle critical to the future of the planet has been fought between climate scientists on one hand, and think-tanks / politicians funded by fossil fuel companies on the other. During this time, climate scientists have reached an overwhelming scientific consensus that the carbon dioxide emissions caused by our reliance on coal, oil and gas have already caused significant global warming, and will endanger our planet unless all fossil fuels are phased out within the next decade. Simultaneously, the fossil fuel industry has run a huge misinformation campaign to keep the public in the dark about climate change. Ground-breaking scientist Michael Mann writes about this struggle in his book, The hockey stick and the climate wars; dispatches from the front lines.
The critical study which solidified scientific opinion about the truth of global warming was the “hockey stick graph” discovered by author Michael Mann himself in 1998, and highlighted in Al Gore’s documentary on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth. Mann’s graph showed global average temperatures slowly decreasing towards a distant new ice age for most of the past 1000 years, only to spike sharply upwards in the 20th century (like the end of a hockey stick). The ‘hockey stick graph’ showed that man-made global warming was real, and was already happening. The ‘hockey stick graph’ was confirmed by many subsequent scientific studies; the handful of studies which contradicted it were found to have critical errors. Among climate scientists, there was no longer any doubt about the reality and seriousness of global warming.
The fossil-fuel industry, composed of multinational coal and oil companies, sought to protect their business interests by sowing public doubt in global warming, and was quick to strike back at climate scientists. They funded think-tanks and web-sites propagating reports by their own “experts” who cast doubts on the ‘hockey stick’. These experts were usually economists and meteorologists/TV weathermen who knew little of climate science, as well as an ever-shrinking minority of climate scientists. The misinformation campaign took advantage of a public and media largely ignorant of science, and unable to appreciate that the real scientific debate on climate change was over. US Congressmen in the thrall of oil and coal lobbyists undertook an official witch-hunt of climate scientists in 2005. The US Congress was, however, unable to find any problems with the climate scientists’ views; but the damage was done. Widespread media coverage of politicians like Senator James Inhofe saying that climate change was “the single greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American public” ensured that doubts about global warming continued in the public mind. The anti-climate science campaign ultimately descended to criminal acts of hacking and baseless accusations of fraud directed at Mann and his fellow scientists. In the ‘Climate-gate’ incident in 2009, unknown hackers stole thousands of e-mail messages from the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in the UK. One particular e-mail from another climate scientist to Mann was repeatedly used as evidence to claim that Mann had used a “trick” to falsify his ‘hockey stick’ data and was thus able to “hide the decline” in global temperature.
Climate change denialists had a field day. In actual fact, the word “trick” is commonly used among mathematicians and scientists to describe a clever means of solving a difficult problem, seemingly by magic; it did not imply any wrongdoing. Likewise, the “decline” in that was being hidden was a series of temperature measurements from one particular study acknowledged by the original author to be doubtful due to pollution. A number of subsequent inquiries were conducted, and none found any wrongdoing on the part of climate scientists. Again, the damage was already done; public belief in global warming and political will to tackle it both fell dramatically.
The fog of public doubt created over global warming had long-term consequences. Firstly, President Barack Obama’s attempts at regulating carbon emissions were rejected by the US Congress. Secondly, the ‘Climate-gate’ hacking had been timed to occur just before the Copenhagen summit on global warming in December 2009. Due to doubts raised by the ‘Climate-gate’ as well as Obama’s failure to pass any carbon dioxide emissions legislation in the US, Copenhagen failed to produce any meaningful international agreement to prevent global warming. This failure has left the planet in continued peril of global warming and consequent sea level rise, cyclones and drought. The election of Donald Trump in the US and distraction of Europe and the US by Brexit have unfortunately resulted in the peril of climate change being ignored. It is up to the public now to put pressure on politicians to save the planet from catastrophic climate change..