Late in the summer of 1989, John Christy discovered the earth wasn’t warming. Satellites spinning through the atmosphere reported no upward trend line, and above the tropics, the University of Alabama atmospheric sciences professor and his research partner, the NASA scientist Roy Spencer, learned that the satellites had actually recorded cooling. The two men were the first to crunch the enormous volume of data captured by the satellites since their launch a decade earlier, the first to build a database that showed the surface readings depicting a warming earth were overblown. They were pioneers. They submitted a paper to Science magazine, and in March the following year, they became celebrities. NPR called. The Los Angeles Times called. Jay Leno made a joke about it on national TV.
Such attention today would not faze Christy. He’s testified numerous times before federal lawmakers. He has done so many interviews with reporters that he’s begun repeating himself. This year he began advising the director of the Environmental Protection Agency. He is now so widely seen as an obstacle to climate action that on Earth Day week in 2017, late at night, seven 5.7 mm rounds snapped through the office window next to his. The FBI told him the shooter had likely mistaken his neighbor’s office for his. But in the spring of 1990, Christy was in his late 30s, without tenure and surprised, suddenly, by the attention. “It was the first time I had gone through something like that,” he said.
Two years earlier, in 1988, the country seemed to have come to the opposite conclusion. “The greenhouse effect has been detected,” the NASA scientist James Hansen told the U.S. Senate during that dry, hot summer when the Midwest plunged into Dust Bowl–like drought, “and it is changing our climate now.” He was “99 percent” certain that artificial greenhouse gases were warming the planet, he said, and government must sharply cut emissions to fight the crisis. The front page of the New York Times the next day announced global warming had begun. That fall, the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization established the global authority on climate science—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Delegates from some 60 nations met in the Netherlands a year later, in 1989, to approve the outlines of a binding treaty to limit carbon emissions.
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Global warming threatens every living thing on earth, but cutting the pollution that causes it threatens the profits of enough executives, the climate researcher Richard Heede told the Guardian, to fit on a couple of Greyhound buses. Some of those—though not all of them—decided money was more important, and to protect their money they invested in a network of free-market think tanks and advocacy groups to manufacture celebrities of academia like Christy. These were academics who, crucially, already believed the climate crisis was no crisis at all, academics so ideologically aligned with the free-market values of the polluters that they couldn’t be bothered with the damning data signaling a crisis. These academics were true believers.
While people around this warming earth protest inaction—locking legs and locking arms, blocking roads and blocking bridges, wielding signs that say there is no planet b and i’m sure the dinosaurs thought they had time too—the United States, which is the second largest emitter of carbon dioxide, actively represses climate science throughout federal agencies and slashes environmental regulations to the glee of the network that bolsters these contrarian celebrities. The Trump administration, infamous for alternative facts, has vigorously renewed demand for an alternative science that was losing salience. Many of the alternative scientists and nonscientists have died, retired, or gone quiet since Christy discovered the earth wasn’t warming. But I found eight other professors who linger—call them the holdouts.
In 1998, months after countries finally adopted the first international agreement to cut carbon emissions, a coalition of some of the U.S.’s largest oil companies (including ExxonMobil and Chevron), industry trade groups, and free-market advocacy hubs convened the “Global Climate Science Team.” Their mission: recruit scientists to undercut climate science. “These will be individuals who do not have a long history of visibility and/or participation in the climate change debate. Rather,” the group’s plan stated, “this team will consist of new faces who will add their voices to those recognized scientists who are already vocal.” (Five years earlier, Western Fuels Association had already been recruiting scientists “who are skeptical about much of what seemed generally accepted about the potential for climate change,” according to a 1993 annual report, but the Global Climate Science Team refined the strategy.)
- While people around this warming earth protest inaction, the United States, which is the second largest emitter of carbon dioxide, actively represses climate science throughout federal agencies and slashes environmental regulations.