Climate of Denial

One morning in Kyoto, we won a round in the battle against global warming. Then special interests and pseudoscience snatched the truth away. What happened?

Illustration: <a href="" target="new">Nathan Fox</a>

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It was around eight in the morning in the vast convention hall in Kyoto. The negotiations over a worldwide treaty to limit global warming gases, which were supposed to have ended the evening before, had gone on through the night. Drifts of paper—treaty drafts, industry talking points, environmentalist press releases—overflowed every wastebasket. Delegates in suits and ties were passed out on couches, noisily mouth breathing. And polite squadrons of workers were shooing people out of the hall so that some trade show—tool and die makers, I think—could set up its displays.

Finally, from behind the closed doors, word emerged that we had a treaty. The greens all cheered, halfheartedly—since it wasn’t as though the agreement would go anywhere near far enough to arrest global warming—but firm in their conviction that the tide on the issue had finally turned. After a decade of resistance, the oil companies and the car companies and all the other deniers of global warming had seen their power matched.

Or so it seemed. I was standing next to a top industry lobbyist, a man who had spent the last week engineering opposition to the treaty, huddling with Exxon lawyers and Saudi delegates, detailing the Venezuelans to change this word, the Kuwaitis to soften that number. Right now he looked just plain tired. “I can’t wait to get back to Washington,” he said. “In Washington we’ll get this under control again.”

At the time I thought he was blowing smoke, putting on a game face, whistling past the graveyard of corporate control. I almost felt sorry for him; it seemed to me (as sleep-deprived as everyone else) that we were on the brink of a new world.

As it turned out, we both were right. The rest of the developed world took Kyoto seriously; in the eight years since then, the Europeans and the Japanese have begun to lay the foundation for rapid and genuine progress toward the initial treaty goal of cutting carbon emissions to a level 5 to 10 percent below what it was in 1990. You can see the results of that long Kyoto night in the ranks of windmills rising along the coast of the North Sea, in the solar panels sprouting on German rooftops, and in the remarkable political unanimity in most of the world on the need for rapid change. Tony Blair’s science adviser has repeatedly called global warming a greater threat than terrorism, but that hasn’t been enough for Britain’s Conservatives; the Tory leader (the equivalent of, say, Tom DeLay) rose last summer to excoriate Blair for moving too slowly on carbon reductions.

In Washington, however, the lobbyists did get things “under control.” Eight years after Kyoto, Big Oil and Big Coal remain in complete and unchallenged power. Around the country, according to industry analysts, 68 new coal-fired power plants are in various stages of planning. Detroit makes cars that burn more fuel, on average, than at any time in the last two decades. The president doesn’t mention the global warming issue, and the leaders of the opposition don’t, either: John Kerry didn’t exactly run on solving the climate crisis. The high-water mark for legislative action came in 2003, when John McCain actually managed to persuade 43 senators to support a bill calling for at least some carbon reductions, albeit much lower than even the modest Kyoto levels. But given that it takes 60 votes to beat a filibuster and 66 to override a veto, and given that the GOP has since added four hard-right senators to its total, it’s safe to say that nothing will be happening inside the Beltway anytime soon.


IT WAS NEVER going to be easy. Controlling global warming is not like the other battles (dirty water, smog) that environmentalists have taken on, and mostly won, over the years. Carbon dioxide, a.k.a. CO2, or just “carbon” for short, is not a conventional pollutant. It’s tasteless, colorless, odorless. Unlike carbon monoxide, which is what kills you if you leave your car running in the garage, CO2 doesn’t do anything to the human body directly. It does its damage in the lower atmosphere by holding in heat that would otherwise escape out to space. And even more unfortunate, there’s no easy way to get rid of it, no catalytic converter you can stick on your tailpipe, no scrubber you can fit to your smokestack. To reduce the amount of CO2 pouring into the atmosphere means dramatically reducing the amount of fossil fuel being consumed. Which means changing the underpinning of the planet’s entire economy and altering our most ingrained personal habits. Even under the best scenarios, this will involve something more like a revolution than a technical fix.

You would think the Europeans would have had a harder time making reductions; after all, they were already fairly energy-efficient, thanks to decades of high taxes on coal and oil. Their low-hanging fruit had long since been plucked. For the United States, there were loads of relatively easy fixes. We could have quickly reduced our emissions by trimming the number of SUVs on the road, for instance, while the French were already in Peugeots. However, in certain ways, America was more firmly locked into coal and oil than our European peers: sprawling suburbs, oversized houses, abandoned rail lines. We had the single hardest habit to break, which was thinking of energy as something cheap. This staggering inertia meant that even when our leaders had some interest in controlling energy use, they faced a real challenge. Al Gore wrote a book insisting that the future of civilization itself depended on battling global warming; during his eight years as vice president, Americans increased their carbon emissions by 15 percent.

What makes the battle harder still is the tangibility gap between benefits and costs. Everyone is, in the long run, better off if the planet doesn’t burn to a crisp. But in any given year the payoff for shifting away from fossil fuel is incremental and essentially invisible. The costs, however, are concentrated: If you own a coal mine, an oil well, or an assembly line churning out gas-guzzlers, you have a very strong incentive for making sure no one starts charging you for emitting carbon.

At the very least, the “energy sector” needed to stall for time, so that its investments in oil fields and the like could keep on earning for their theoretical lifetimes. The strategy turned out to be simple: Cloud the issue as much as possible so that voters, already none too eager to embrace higher gas prices, would have no real reason to move climate change to the top of their agendas. I mean, if the scientists aren’t absolutely certain, well, why not just wait until they get it sorted out?

The tactic worked brilliantly; throughout the 1990s, even as other nations took action, the fossil fuel industry’s Global Climate Coalition managed to make American journalists treat the accelerating warming as a he-said-she-said story. True, a vast scientific consensus was forming that climate change threatens the earth more profoundly than anything since the dawn of civilization, but in an Associated Press dispatch the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change didn’t look all that much more impressive than, say, Patrick Michaels of the Cato Institute or S. Fred Singer, former chief scientist at the U.S. Department of Transportation. Michaels and Singer weren’t really doing new research, just tossing jabs at those who were, but that didn’t matter. Their task was not to build a new climate model; it was to provide cover for politicians who were only too happy to duck the issue. Their task was to keep things under control.

It was all incredibly crude. But it was also incredibly effective. For now and for the foreseeable future, the climate skeptics have carried the day. They’ve understood the shape of American politics far better than environmentalists. They know that it doesn’t matter how many scientists are arrayed against you as long as you can intimidate newspapers into giving you equal time. They understand, too, that playing defense is all they need to do: Given the inertia inherent in the economy, it’s more than sufficient to simply instill doubt.


IN SHORT, the deniers have done their job, and done it better than the environmen- talists have done theirs. They’ve delayed action for 15 years now, and their power seems to grow with each year. How, even as the science grew ever firmer and the evidence mounted ever higher, did the climate deniers manage to muddy the issue? It’s one of the mightiest political feats of our time, accomplished by a small group of clever and committed people. It’s worthwhile trying to understand how they work, not least because some of the same tactics are now being used in debates over other issues, like Social Security. And because the fight over global warming won’t end here. Try as they might, even with all three branches of government under their control, conservative Republicans can’t repeal the laws of chemistry and physics.

Bill McKibben is a contributing writer to Mother Jones and the author of several books, including his most recent, Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America’s Most Hopeful Landscapes, Vermont’s Champlain Valley and New York’s Adirondacks.

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