Seven years after the Supreme Court made Al Gore the loser in one of the closest elections in American history, the former vice president addressed a packed house in Norway as a Nobel laureate for his work on climate change.
In the years between his presidential campaign and his Nobel Prize, Gore had gained cult status in the environmental movement. An Inconvenient Truth, his documentary about the rising threat of global warming, had grossed nearly $50 million and garnered two Academy Awards.
But Gore’s larger-than-life status and dire warnings gave climate-change deniers and those who oppose a legislative solution a villain they could use to woo nearly half the country to their side.
“Al Gore was the perfect proponent and leader of the global-warming alarmists because he’s very politically divisive and controversial,” said Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment, part of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank. “He was a wonderful target for our side.”
Gore was hardly controversial, but simply being a Democrat made his message unpalatable to many Americans. During Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, he was painted as a liar, an image conservatives used to discredit him on global warming. They tried to discredit his science and dubbed him a warmist, a pejorative for anyone who believes human activity contributes to climate change.
Gore is featured prominently on skeptic websites. Their conferences feature anti-Gore propaganda. His name alone brings audiences to their feet in anger and/or ridicule. They malign him as a coward for refusing to debate the science with skeptics. This was all part of an overarching strategy to make the public doubt Gore and, by extension, to doubt what is essentially settled science.
During the 1990s, big carbon industries ramped up their efforts to curtail regulation of greenhouse gases. Many fossil-fuel companies objected to the Kyoto Protocol on the grounds that it would hurt the U.S. economy. Companies also argued that developing nations should not get a free pass.
Sociologist and Stanford fellow Robert Brulle has studied what he calls the environmental countermovement. “This is a long-standing Republican complaint, and it fits nicely with their opposition to increased government interference in the economy,” says Brulle. “They want to push back the state and not have it get involved.”
Economists, lawyers and public policy specialists—not scientists—formed groups to cast doubt on the science when the consensus was overwhelming and getting stronger. Exxon went after the science and surreptitiously funded free-market studies and PR campaigns by organizations such as the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute to challenge the science.
“We felt that if you concede the science is settled and that there’s a consensus, the moral high ground has been ceded to the alarmists,” said Ebell.
This tactic is reminiscent of those of the tobacco industry, which spent decades denying that smoking caused cancer. In 1998 the American Petroleum Institute developed a comprehensive plan to shift public opinion by going after the science itself. The group said success would be achieved when the average citizen believes there are uncertainties in climate science and when media coverage also includes the skeptics’ view. By that measure, the plan has been a rousing success. Each year, tens of thousands of scientific papers document the role of human activity in a warming planet, but the scant few written by skeptics get the media buzz. Most reporting on climate change now includes the contrarian view in the name of balance.
“It’s not a real debate, but if you can move the debate out of the scientific community and into the public arena, where the word of Rush Limbaugh equals that of scientists, then you’re in business,” says Brulle. “We’re the only country in the world where this is actually disputed. It’s like denying gravity.”
Gore famously said that the climate crisis was a “moral and spiritual challenge,” not a political issue. It looked that way during the 2008 presidential campaign, when both John McCain and Barack Obama supported action on climate change. But it has since become a starkly partisan issue, with little room in the Republican tent for anyone who accepts the science.
“The fossil-fuel industry basically purchased the Republican Party,” says environmental activist Bill McKibben. “The Chamber of Commerce, which is the biggest fossil-fuel front group and one of the biggest campaign contributors, gave more than 90 percent of its money to climate deniers, almost all of them Republicans. Consider the role of the Koch brothers in the party, and then look at where their money comes from.”
A Pew Research poll found only 42 percent of Romney supporters believe there is strong evidence of global warming and just 18 percent acknowledge its anthropogenic origin. Compare that with the 88 percent of Obama supporters who say the planet is warming and 63 percent who say it is anthropogenic.
Last year, the climate was one of the biggest news stories. U.S. farms were devastated by the worst drought in 50 years. Deadly floods and superstorms paralyzed the Northeast and other parts of the country. It was also the hottest year on record for the contiguous U.S. Yet skeptics continue their campaign to discredit Gore. Instead of being cowed, the former vice president has redoubled his efforts to push for a worldwide solution. In 2011 he launched the Climate Reality Project to counter the deluge of propaganda from skeptics.
While the argument continues about which side is lying and why, the debate about finding a legislative solution has all but vanished. In that respect, the skeptics have already achieved a major victory.