Climate change denial: a history

“Climategate” was the latest in a long line of baseless, right-wing attacks on scientists.

On 31 March, the House of Commons science and technology committee, charged with investigating potential wrongdoing by Phil Jones and his colleagues at the University of East Anglia (UEA), concluded that there was "no case to answer" on the allegation of scientific dishonesty. An international panel commissioned by UEA in consultation with the Royal Society agreed. Yet, after a media frenzy back in December over what was inevitably called "Climategate", the vindication of the climate scientists has received very little coverage at all.

Vindication is not as sexy as accusation, and many people are still suspicious. After all, some of those emails, taken out of context, sounded damning. But what they show is that climate scientists are frustrated, because for two decades they have been under attack.

In the late 1970s, scientists first came to a consensus that global warming was likely to result from increasing greenhouse gases released by burning fossil fuels. This idea had been around since the turn of the century, but the development of computer models now made it possible to make quantitative predictions. Almost immediately, a small group of politically connected and conservative scientists began to question these conclusions. As the scientific evidence got stronger, their attacks became more unprincipled. They used data selectively and often misrepresented what was being published in the scientific literature.

In 1992, world leaders gathered in Rio de Janeiro to sign the United Nations Framework on Climate Change. President George W Bush promised to translate the written document into "concrete action". Three years later, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declared that the human impact on the earth's climate was no longer a prediction, but an observed fact. That's when things started to get ugly.

In the early 1990s, a group of sceptics claimed that Roger Revelle, one of the first climate scientists, had changed his mind about global warming and no longer believed it was a serious problem. The claim was repeated through several news outlets, including the Washington Post. When a graduate student named Justin Lancaster - who had worked closely with Revelle before his death in 1991 - tried to insist that Revelle had not changed his view, he was sued for libel. Lancaster was obliged to settle out of court. The charges were repeated again and again, and echo on the net today.

In 1996, when the IPCC released its second assessment report, stating that the human impact on climate was "discernible", a fossil-fuel-industry-funded group called the Global Climate Coalition accused the IPCC author Benjamin Santer of making unauthorised changes to make global warming appear more certain than it was. The following year, Frederick Seitz, chairman of the libertarian George C Marshall Institute, repeated the charges in the Wall Street Journal in an op-ed piece headlined "A major deception on global warming".

Letters were sent to US members of Congress demanding an investigation and then from Congress to the US energy department, demanding that it withdraw funding from the laboratory that employed Santer.

Massive attack

Had Santer made unauthorised changes to the IPCC report? No: his changes were made in response to peer review. He was doing what every scientist is expected to do - and what IPCC rules required him to do - accepting criticism and using it to make the science clearer. Frederick Seitz was a former president of the National Academy of Sciences, so it was not plausible that he did not know about the peer-review process.

In 2007, the claims were repeated in Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years, a book whose premise is that "human-emitted CO2 has played only a minor role" in contributing to global warming. The authors are Dennis Avery and Fred Singer, a physicist with a track record of challenging scientific evidence who had taken part in the previous attack on Santer.

Both the IPCC and Santer's co-authors took considerable pains to set the record straight, denying that Santer had done anything wrong. Yet, in their book, Avery and Singer reassert that "scientific reviewers discovered that major changes had been made 'in the back room' after they had signed off on the science chapter's contents" and that "Santer single-handedly reversed the 'climate science' of the whole IPCC report". The idea that any one individual could reverse the entire IPCC process is absurd, and yet, like the "Revelle changed his mind" claim, it remains on the internet today.

Climate scientists have been subjected to repeated attacks of this kind. In 2005, Congressman Joe Barton of Texas demanded that Professor Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Centre at Pennsylvania State University, produce a huge volume of paperwork relating to his research. In February, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma accused a dozen climate scientists of criminal violations of federal law, based on alleged evidence contained in the UEA emails. Recently, Virginia's attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, went after Mann again, asking for the University of Virginia to produce thousands of pages of documents relating to Mann's work when he taught there.

We, too, have been objects of attack. When one of us (Naomi Oreskes) published a review in the journal Science of the book The Republican War on Science, in which we noted some connections not pursued in that book, Science was threatened with a lawsuit unless it published a rebuttal. (We supplied documents, Science held firm, and the threat went away.)

Blaming scientists for speaking truth to power is an old story. Scientists have long recognised that both the government and public can be
reluctant to accept scientific evidence leading to discomfiting conclusions. In 1949, when the USSR detonated its first atomic bomb, the US had to face the reality that it had lost its monopoly on nuclear weapons. Scientists had been warning of this since 1945, but the success of their predictions did not increase their standing. When they then said that any attempt to stay ahead of the Soviets by building the H-bomb would only speed up the arms race, they were accused of being disloyal. As Harold Urey, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1934, wrote: "Because we [scientists] told disagreeable truths, we have even been accused of wishing to give up our progress because we are impractical dreamers or plain traitors."

What is most disagreeable to many "resistors" of global warming is the fear of climate change being used as a warrant for heavy-handed government intervention. There is a parallel with 1949: fear of the Soviet Union then was not fear of a potential invasion, but that the Soviets would export communism to Europe, from where it might spread to the US.

Today, US conservatives and right-wing com­mentators are red-baiting once again. In December, the columnist Charles Krauthammer alleged that "with socialism dead . . . the left was adrift until it struck upon a brilliant gambit: metamorphosis from red to green". Patrick J Michaels, some-time policy scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute, labelled plans for a cap-and-trade system to control greenhouse gases as "Obamunism". The irony is that in 1990, Bush installed a cap-and-trade regime to reduce acid rain because it was an acceptably market-based mechanism. Yet now, when Congress is finally taking the model seriously, conservatives call it communism by other means.

Market failure

“Climategate", and the wider attacks on climate science, had nothing to do with the science itself, and neither did the entire earlier history of global-warming denial we have studied. Scientists have just been an easy target. The real issue is the politics of defending the free market.

Since the mid-1990s, the fossil-fuel industry has made common cause with old cold warriors, maverick scientists and conservative and libertarian think tanks to undermine climate science. The obvious reason is that climate change is what Nicholas Stern calls "the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen". If the free market has failed, then governments will need to act. And that is precisely what various constituencies, from Inhofe to Cuccinelli and a host of think tanks, do not want. It was also what Seitz and his colleagues didn't want. These scientists were passionately anti-communist, and viewed any form of government regulation as a step towards socialism.

No wonder we see the rise of McCarthyite tactics today: the stakes, at least in some people's eyes, are the same. But what these people seem to have forgotten from the 1950s is that McCarthyism didn't just destroy the careers of many innocent people: in the end, it destroyed Joe McCarthy, too.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway are the authors of "Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming", published by Bloomsbury (£20)

This article first appeared in the 31 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war on the veil

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 31 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war on the veil