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27 October 2021

How science conquered climate change denial

Experts and activists battled the fossil fuel lobby to establish the facts of global warming.

By Anjana Ahuja

In July 2004 Peter Stott was at Heathrow for a flight to Moscow, excited at the prospect of discussing climate change with Russian scientists, when he bumped into a colleague in the same delegation. Stott, a researcher at the Met Office and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, learned from his travelling companion that the Russians had dismantled the carefully agreed agenda at the last minute and were plotting something more hostile.

On arrival, the British scientists discovered that “many of the world’s most prominent proponents of climate denial had been summoned to Moscow to confront us”. Their surprise inquisitors included Richard Lindzen, a contrarian professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Piers Corbyn, eccentric brother of Jeremy and discredited weather forecaster (now an anti-vaccination conspiracy theorist). So began a surreal two-day show trial on the reality of man-made climate change. As tensions escalated, Stott and other members of the IPCC were compared by one critic to Nazi sympathising eugenics supporters.

This jaw-dropping episode is chronicled in Hot Air, Stott’s thorough account of the development of the science of the climate crisis and the decades-long battle to deny or downplay its existence. Climate literature (or cli-lit) is, along with its fiction cousin cli-fi, everywhere – especially in the run-up to the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, at which countries will once again gather to deliberate about how to stop temperatures rising further above pre-industrial levels. A failure to curb emissions promises a savage future: melting glaciers, rising sea levels, floods, droughts, wildfires, crop failure, mass extinction, forced migration.

[See also: The price of the planet: who will step up at Cop26?]

Our destiny is tied, for now, to the success of the Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty adopted in 2015 to limit temperature rise to below 2°C, ideally 1.5°C or lower. One strain of cli-lit embodies optimism that humanity can still act before the worst happens. Examples include Earthshot, brought out to coincide with its namesake innovation prize – one of five, each worth £1m, awarded annually by the Royal Foundation to solve environmental problems – and The Book of Hope, by primatologist Jane Goodall (as told to Douglas Abrams), whose hope for the Earth resides in a passionate younger generation, à la Greta.

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Another strand – cli-sci? – is dedicated to the science of how we got here. Three recently published books take on this history from different vantage points. Hot Air is a very personal story of modern climatology from a scientist whose research thrust him, reluctantly, on to the political front line. Our Biggest Experiment, by the London-based writer and climate campaigner Alice Bell, guides us through the science of climate change and how society woke up to it, from the industrial age to the present. And Saving Us, by the atmospheric scientist and evangelical Christian Katharine Hayhoe, explores the psychology of people’s beliefs about the climate crisis and offers lessons for how to change minds across the political divide.

Bell’s Our Biggest Experiment is a highly enjoyable rabbit hole of a book: she chronicles the science and history of climate change in an intuitive manner that glides easily from one episode to the next. It’s a sweeping narrative of industry, energy and atmospheric science, and much of Bell’s achievement lies in artfully assembling pieces of the climate puzzle scattered across time and space. At the beginning we meet Eunice Newton Foote, an American scientist, inventor and women’s rights campaigner, who first suggested, in 1856, that an atmosphere thick with carbon dioxide would cause global temperatures to rise (her observation had until recently been incorrectly credited to the Irish scientist and mountaineer John Tyndall, who published the same idea a few years later).

By then, Britain was on the cusp of an industrial golden age, powered by coal and steam, and symbolised by the Great Exhibition of 1851, housed in the dazzling iron-and-glass Crystal Palace. Visitors could learn about steam engines, the production of steel and cotton, and exotic goods from the empire, such as cocoa from Trinidad and cinnamon from Ceylon. The display, Bell writes, “reflected the start of something new: an age of prosperity for some, built on the burning of fossil fuels”. In 1895 the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius calculated that doubling carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could lead to a 6°C rise (though he worried more about cooling and a mini ice age). In the 1930s Guy Callendar, an amateur weather watcher suggested burning fossil fuels had warmed the Earth by a third of a degree. It was not until 1983 that an official report from the US National Academy of Sciences, using decades of land and ocean data, decreed that the planet was indeed warming – adding that it was no cause for alarm.

Another five years passed before the climate modeller James Hansen made his historic appearance before the US Senate, after another unusually hot summer, to declare a “high degree of confidence [in] a cause-and-effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming”. That was the moment that global warming went mainstream and environmentalism became a political force. The IPCC formed the same year, 1988; its workshops hosted observers from NGOs such as Greenpeace but also Exxon, BP and Shell.

Every small step toward the acceptance of the climate crisis seemed to be followed by a violent yank backwards by well-funded vested interests. Peter Stott, who once studied how radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear accident travelled on atmospheric winds, started feeling the heat in the mid 1990s, when he was recruited by the Met Office to work on climate prediction. “I quickly discovered that this bright new endeavour came with a darker side,” he writes in Hot Air. “The research was under attack from a plethora of lobby groups promoting climate change denial.” It was not the usual rigorous, data-led critique but a “concerted attempt to discredit our work”. Colleagues daring to link rising atmospheric temperature to human-induced greenhouse gas emissions were accused of distorting data for political ends (the irony!). The 2004 Moscow show trial was an attempt by Russia to secure a get-out from the Kyoto Protocol, another treaty to limit emissions.

The backlash came from all sides. In 2006, when Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth was put on the British school curriculum, a shadowy group called the Scientific Alliance, modelled on the maverick climate think tanks established in the US, took the Labour government to court for “indoctrinating” pupils. Stott was a key witness for the defence, responsible for assessing how well the film’s central contentions – such as that there was a link between extreme weather events and global warming – held up against the scientific record.

A High Court judge eventually ruled the film should still be shown but the accompanying teaching notes watered down to weaken the claimed link between climate change and extreme weather. The experience gave Stott a depressing insight into the modus operandi of the deniers, which was to cloak their true motives in the guise of science: “The back rooms of business and politics… had won another tactical battle in their long-haul campaign for obfuscation of scientific findings and delay to climate action.”

[See also: The wild ride to come]

Hot Air also covers the 2009 Climategate saga, the subject of the recent television drama The Trick. The emails of the British climate scientist Phil Jones were hacked and selectively presented to imply he was pushing a misleading climate change agenda. Jones was hounded and demonised; the Daily Mail’s Melanie Phillips crowed: “The seas are not rising, the ice is not decreasing. The temperature is going down not up.”

In the Trump era deniers were welcomed in the White House; Scott Pruitt, whose political career was partly funded by the fossil fuel industry, was appointed head of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Things have improved since Trump’s exit, but when 200 countries work together, the smallest spanner can stall progress: one IPCC statement that greenhouse gases “have contributed substantially to the observed warming” nearly foundered, Stott reveals, on Saudi Arabia’s claim that “substantial” did not translate into Arabic, one of the UN’s six working languages. Hot Air, with its exhaustive detail, is more inflated than it needs to be, but is an invaluable record of how climate scientists have fought deep pocketed lobby groups.

While Alice Bell seems relatively gloomy about the future – “one of the toughest things about campaigning on climate change is you can’t really win, because in many ways we’ve already lost” – Katharine Hayhoe, if Saving Us is anything to go by, has perfected the art of climate optimism. “I’m getting used to being hated,” she tells us cheerily. “Communist, libtard, lunatic; Jezebel, liar and whore; high priestess of the climate cult and handmaiden of the Antichrist, I’ve been called it all.”

Her crime is trying to talk about climate change, not by force-feeding facts to captive audiences but by finding shared values with those who think differently. She notes that “people’s rejection of the science on climate change is rarely about the science itself… people’s opinions… [are] most strongly correlated not with education or knowledge but rather with ‘values, ideologies, world-views and political orientation’.” Research suggests that people fall into one of six groups on the issue: dismissive, doubtful, disengaged, cautious, concerned and alarmed. Only the dismissives, she believes, are out of reach.

[See also: Ahdaf Soueif on climate loss: In Egypt, we watch as concrete is sunk into the Nile]

The trick is to shift the conversational “frame”, the cognitive structure that influences how we see the world, to emphasise common ground. Hayhoe is a white evangelical Christian, a group that apparently worries less about climate change than any other, even though it “disproportionately affects the poor, the hungry, and the sick, the very ones the Bible instructs us to care for and love”.

There is a slightly “live, laugh, love” feel to her upbeat offering, which encourages us to find hope and courage in a world on fire. That is not meant as a slight; no matter how familiar the climate crisis feels, its sheer scale can often seem overwhelming. As the seas rise and the forests burn and countries do battle at Cop26, we may find some strength, as Hayhoe does, in the words of the climate activist Katharine Wilkinson: “It is a magnificent thing to be alive in a moment that matters so much.”

Peter Stott will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 18 November

Our Biggest Experiment: A History of the Climate Crisis
Alice Bell
Bloomsbury Sigma, 384pp, £20

Hot Air: The Inside Story of the Battle Against Climate Change Denial
Peter Stott
Atlantic, 336pp, £18.99

Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World
Katharine Hayhoe
Atria/One Signal, 320pp, £20

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This article appears in the 27 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Our Fragile Future