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June 02, 2006

Achenbach skewers the climate skeptics

The Tempest, Joel Achenbach's article on global warming deniers, is generating a lot of commentary in the blogosphere.

Matt McIrvin wonders if Achenbach scored a climate change BINGO!. Brad DeLong warns Achenbach to mend his ways, lest the ghost of CEI's Fred Smith haunt him forever.

I see their point. It galls me to see climate skeptics at the Competitive Enterprise Institute getting any attention at all. They're the intellectual equivalent of the Discovery Institute, pseudoscientific propagandists masquerading as public interest groups.

Still, I agree with John Quiggin's defense of Achenbach. If you look past the fawning, maudlin introduction of "maverick" meteorologist Bill Gray, and the disjointed "he said/she said" structure of the article, Achenbach still skewers gthe global warming skeptics:

    If you read the piece with any attention it’s impossible to avoid the conclusions that:
  • Richard Lindzen, prominent MIT climate scientist, is an irresponsible contrarian, who’s prepared to defend an implausible position on the off chance of being right when everyone else is wrong
  • The Competitive Enterprise Institute, well-known Washington thinktank, is a set of industry shills who will say whatever Exxon pays them to say
  • William Gray, respected hurricane expert, is a raving loon who thinks climate change is a conspiracy to bring in world government and compares Al Gore to Hitler (as Achenbach notes, it’s almost impossible to keep the Nazis out of the discussion in GW-sceptic circles)
  • All these guys know the score as regards the others

It's obvious that Achenbach regards the global warming deniers as a motley crew of cranks and shills.

His conversations with fellows at the Competitive Enterprise Institute are hilarious. (As you may recall, the CEI is behind the charming oil-funded CO2 is life advertising campaign):

[At CEI] You'll find S. Fred Singer, author of Hot Talk, Cold Science, who points to the positive side of the melting Arctic: "We spent 500 years looking for a Northwest Passage, and now we've got one."

This is one of my favorite parts:

The Free Market Solution: Zoos

[CEI fellow Fred] Smith takes an abrupt detour into the issue of endangered species. The solution is to let the private sector handle it. They should be privatized, like pets or livestock. Dogs, cats, chickens, pigs: These creatures won't ever go extinct.

I want to make sure I understand what he is saying, so I begin to ask a question: "For endangered species, people should --"

"-- own them," Smith says.

But isn't there a difference between animals that live in zoos and animals that live in the wild?

"Yes and no," Smith says. " 'Zoo' is a pejorative term that PETA has turned into an animal slavery community. A zoo is nothing more than an elaborate ark."

Another Fred Smith gem:

We pass an asbestos ad.

"When I was a kid, this was called the miracle mineral," he says.

Even the avuncular Bill Gray turns out to have a darker, whackier side:

And Gray has no governor on his rhetoric. At one point during our meeting in Colorado he blurts out, "Gore believed in global warming almost as much as Hitler believed there was something wrong with the Jews."


Gray has his own conspiracy theory. He has made a list of 15 reasons for the global warming hysteria. The list includes the need to come up with an enemy after the end of the Cold War, and the desire among scientists, government leaders and environmentalists to find a political cause that would enable them to "organize, propagandize, force conformity and exercise political influence. Big world government could best lead (and control) us to a better world!"

Gray admits that he has a dark take on human nature: "I have a demonic view on this."

Achenbach gives the motor-mouthed CEI fellows the rope to hang themselves. The reader immediately understands what these people are: Free market evangelists on the corporate dole.

And if you think Achenbach casts a jaundiced eye on the skeptics, check out WaPo photographer Karen Ballard's accompanying portrait.

The CEI fellows come across as less-charming versions of tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor of the Institute for Tobacco Studies in Jason Reitman's Thank You For Smoking.

Matt McIrvin and Brad DeLong are absolutely right when they say that Achenbach isn't doing science journalism. However, pieces like The Tempest are serving another equally important role in the fight for public opinion on climate change. Readers need to know the science, but we can't win the scientific debate with facts alone. We have to expose and mock the dishonest brokers who spread confusion for money.

Speaking of mockery, check out The Editors' hilarious post on Greg Easterbrook, Al Gore, and an Inconvenient Truth.


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To the extent that there is actually a scientific "debate" about human-caused global climate change, this Washington Post Magazine Article by Joel Aschenbach outlines it in vivid detail. It is sad to hear the story of hurricane-chaser Bill Gray, a man wh [Read More]


I was more sympathetic to Achenbach once I found out that he wrote the piece for the Sunday magazine, not as a news story. I think a news story should do a better job of stating the facts, of telling readers what they need to know, per DeLong. But I can see the merit in writing a longer form piece for the magazine from a somewhat different perspective.

I have argued at enormous length that the piece is weaker than it should be. It's quite possible that the editors garbled it.

The intro sentence talks about "serious blowback", but GW denial is not serious.

The whole first page is without a hint of criticism of the skeptics. Then there's something pretty good on the second page, and after that it's mostly neutral. There is no summation at the end to the effect that there's really no scientific controversy and that the skeptics are wrong.

A good reader who's fairly well informed gets the point. A careless reader or one sympathetic to the skeptics can miss it. This is partly because the paragraph explaining the scientific facts is not hooked into the body of the piece (about the akeptics as people) with a link sentence like "In fact, there is no scientific controversy" or "But Gey is wrong."

On one thread someone reported that her GW skeptic friends were sending the piece to her.

A more forthright piece would have caused a stink, and the Post was chicken. Considered as political journalism, it failed because it only informed the careful readers. But the key demographic for Bush is apathetic, ill-informed whim voters ("swing voters") who read carelessly. Achenbach's piece was not forthright enough for them to understand. Thus, Rove will have no complaints about the piece. He doesn't hope to get votes from thoughtful, careful readers.

Achenbach himself and John Quiggin on CT talk about how hard it is to write about controversial issues, and John Quiggin praises Achenbach for doing a good job within the confines of objectivity and neutrality.

But the reason this was a hard piece to write isn't because of some abstract problem with American political dialogue. It's because of an organized, funded right-wing claque which would have raised a big stink if the piece had spelled things out. The Post flinched.

Even within the confines of "neutrality", it might have been possible to write a strong piece (though there would have been flak): "If the facts are partisan, print the facts." The fact is that there is no GW controversy in science the way there still is in journalism. (There's LOTS of argument about detail, but the GW skeptics are not part of that argument.)

However, I think that the ideal of neutrality is the problem. Where one side of a controversy is just wrong, there's no reason to respect both sides.

And newspapers also do not have to try to be the last word on a topic either (which is what objectivity and neutrality require them to be: don't say anything until you're absolutely sure.) If one newspaper effectively comes down on one side of an issue, it's up to other newspapers to correct it. Achenbach seems to think newspapers are forbidden to put in their two cents on anything that's politically controversial, but why shouldn't they?

I would love to live in a country where at least some of the major media routinely dismissed the GW controversy as fake. Unfortunately, I live in a country where none of the major media dare to do that.

Given the prohibitions in place, Achenbach did a great job. But we shouldn't accept those prohibitions.

Minor point: the book Thank You for Smoking is much better than the movie. Footnote: Christopher Buckley, who wrote the book, had "Fuck You" tattooed on the heel of his right hand so that, when he saluted, the text was correctly displayed toward the recipient of the salute. I would call this an adjustment reaction to authority. (He is, of course, the son of William Buckley, Jr.)

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