A Climate of DoubtBy Andrew C. Revkin
[UPDATE, 2 p.m.: I’ve added a fresh post with comments from two members of the climate coalition’s advisory committee.]
Documents have surfaced that offer a glimpse behind the public face of industries that, in the mid-1990s, were fighting hard to slow movement toward mandatory restrictions on greenhouse gases. You can read some of the material online. My article in The Times has more detail on how the documents illustrate the difference between the public stance of the Global Climate Coalition — the main industry voice on climate then — and what its own scientific advisers were saying.
At the time, the target was the international climate agreement that, in December 1997, became known as the Kyoto Protocol. While the United States signed the agreement, it was clear from a forceful Senate vote months earlier — a 95-to-0 preemptive rejection of any treaty that would harm the economy or be unfair — that President Clinton or any successor would have a very tough time getting the approval from Congress necessary for ratification.
There’s no way to gauge whether the industry-financed campaign of lobbying, public relations and advertising helped build that Senate blockade to ratification. But environmental campaigners say it’s clear that a little uncertainty goes a long way toward sustaining public inertia on an issue with the time scale and complexity of human-driven climate change.
“Their objective was always to slow things down,” said Kert Davies, a climate campaigner at Greenpeace. “Their argument was essentially the inverse of the precautionary principle: We shouldn’t do anything until we know everything.”
William O’Keefe, who was chairman of the Global Climate Coalition and a senior official at the American Petroleum Institute when the documents were produced, rejects such assertions. “The idea that there is some great industrial conspiracy to thwart progress is one of the greatest myths,” he told me. “Industry is rarely united on anything, and on this issue it’s totally not united.”
The most important document is the final draft of a status report on climate science written by the science and technology advisory committee to the climate coalition late in 1995. It raised a host of questions about the scientific orthodoxy at the time, as reflected in the 1995 report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But it was similarly critical of what it called “contrarian” arguments against the idea that human-generated gases could substantially warm the world.
That section was excised and the document itself never was publicly released. Have a look and see what catches your eye.