Energy & Environment

Global Warming’s Golden Moment Has Passed

“Just three years ago the politics of global warming was enjoying its golden moment,”

Newsweek’s Stefan Theil writes. “Now, almost everywhere, green politics has fallen from its lofty heights.” Culprits include reality, “two of the harshest winters on record in the Northern Hemisphere;” utility, “an epic economic crisis;” and credibility, “last November’s ‘climategate’ affair over irregularities in the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”

The green golden age, Theil’s “A Green Retreat” points out, coincided with an Academy Award for Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth and Australia’s Kevin Rudd becoming the world’s first environmentalist elected leader. But Newsweek conspicuously omits a key component of 2007’s global-warming zeitgeist: the magazine’s own propagandistic “The Truth about Denial” cover story whose verbiage implicitly likened skeptics of man-made climate change to Holocaust deniers. “Since the late 1980s, this well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks and industry has created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change,” the article lamented.

Three summers ago, the crusading article by Sharon Begley, which used the ominous phrase “the denial machine” more than a dozen times, caused such a stir within Newsweek that one of its longest serving writers subsequently took to its pages to denounce the piece. Robert J. Samuelson wrote in Newsweek that Newsweek had provided a case study of how “self-righteous indignation can undermine good journalism.” The piece, Samuelson wrote, was “a highly contrived story.”  And that’s just what the friends of the weekly thought.

Environmental fads falling out of fashion are nothing new. Overpopulation yielded to acid rain, which yielded to saving the ozone layer, which yielded to preserving the rain forest, which yielded to global warming. Each succeeding cause provided its advocates a redemptive, world-saving mission, and tautologically, depicted its opponents as devil figures bent on allowing the destruction of the planet. The self-flattery inherent in the causes, more so than the science behind them, explains their widespread popularity.

What has separated global warming from its trendy antecedents has been its staying power. Global warming became the subject of congressional hearings and magazine cover stories in the late 1980s. Whereas proponents of the green cause of the moment, once it had been sufficiently discredited, could quickly move on to the next fleeting cause without losing face, global warming, because of its multi-decade endurance, is different. The likes of former Vice President Al Gore, NASA’s James Henson, and Hollywood’s Laurie David, as they say in poker, are “all in.” Evidence against the theory becomes an acid test calcifying the commitment of the true believers.

But that doesn’t seem the case with the mercurial Newsweek. Even though the piece, in its acknowledgment of the issue’s low poll numbers and the costly tradeoffs involved, is more realpolitik than renunciation of global warming, the magazine’s so-soon change of tune is significant. “A Green Retreat” is just the latest Newsweek retreat on climate change. Years before global-warming became the de rigueur cause, global cooling was touted as consensus science in its pages.

“The central fact is that after three quarters of a century of extraordinarily mild conditions, the Earth’s climate seems to be cooling down,” Newsweek claimed in its April 28, 1975 issue. The piece noted that some scientists believed that the Earth was headed for an ice age. The preventative measures discussed ranged from melting the North Pole with a blanket of soot to stockpiling massive amounts of food. Regarding the expected drop in temperature, and the resulting drop off in agricultural production, Newsweek declared, “The evidence in support of these predictions has now begun to accumulate so massively that meteorologists are hard-pressed to keep up with it.”

Put another way, “the denial machine” of 1975 were skeptics of the idea of global cooling.
How quickly the winds change.

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