A lesson from Seattle for Copenhagen: Vigorous activism can defeat the denialists

Protest in Seattle, 1999.

By Patrick Bond

December 1, 2009 -- Preparations for the December 7-18 Copenhagen climate summit are going as expected, including a rare sighting of the African elites' stiffened spines. That's a great development (maybe decisive), more about that below.

While activists help raise the temperature on the streets outside the Bella Centre on December 12, 13 and 16, inside we will see global North elites defensively armed with pathetic non-binding carbon emissions cuts (US President Barack Obama's promise is a mere 4% below 1990 levels) and carbon trading, but without offering the money to repay the North's ecological debt to the global South.

The first and third of these are lamentable enough, the second is the most serious diversion from the crucial work of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. A nine-minute film launched on the internet on December 1, The Story of Cap and Trade, gives all the ammunition climate activists need to understand and critique emissions trading, and to seek genuine solutions.

Another important diversion emerged on November 20, when hackers published embarrassing emails from the University of East Anglia (UEA) Climate Research Unit. What I've understood from  http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2009/nov/25/monbiot-climate-leak-crisis-response  and http://enviroknow.com/2009/11/25/climategate-the-swifthack-scandal-what-you-need-to-know is roughly this:

  • The UEA researchers were silly egocentric, ultracompetitive academics who were at times sloppy -- an occupational hazard true of most of us -- only in this case there is a huge amount at stake so their silliness is massively amplified.
  • But a few academics who are silly about their work ethos do not reverse the universal understanding that scientists have regarding climate change.
  • People who want to distract the world from getting to the root of the climate crisis may well have a field day with the UEA emails scandal, which should in turn compel the rest of us to redouble our efforts to achieve real action to stop climate change

The unapologetic UEA researcher Phil Jones seems to think that because climate denialists have been a pain in the arse (since 2001), it was ok to hide scientific data (paid for by taxpayers), and to avoid wasting valuable time addressing the loonies' arguments: "Initially at the beginning I did try to respond to them in the hope I might convince them but I soon realised it was a forlorn hope and broke off communication."

Hucksters for status quo

Where I live, Durban in South Africa, we've had dreadful experiences with two kinds of life-threatening denialisms: apartheid and AIDS.

Dating back many decades, apartheid-denialists insisted that black South Africans had it better than anywhere else in Africa, that anti-apartheid sanctions would only hurt blacks and not foster change, and that if blacks took over the government it would be the ruination of South Africa, with whites having all their wealth expropriated etc.

From around 1999-2003, AIDS denialists very vocally insisted that HIV and AIDS were not related, that AIDS medicines were toxic and would do no good, and that the activists' lobby for the medicines was merely a front for the CIA and the big pharmaceutical corporations (denialist-in-chief Thabo Mbeki is now being widely cited for genocide involving 350,000 unnecessary deaths due to his presidency's withholding of AIDS medicines).

In both cases, as with human-induced climate change, the denialists' role was to entrench the status quo forces of state and capital. They were, simply, hucksters for vested interests.

In both cases they were defeated, thanks to vigorous social activism:

  • During the 1980s, the United Democratic Front, the African National Congress and other liberation forces found that the aparthied denialists' main damage was in opposing pressure for sanctions and disinvestment to be taken against the racist South African regime. So we intensified our efforts and by August 1985 won the necessary breakthrough when New York banks withdrew lines of credit to Pretoria, thus forcing a split between Afrikaner state rulers and white english-speaking capitalists. Within a few days, the latter travelled to Lusaka to meet the exiled ANC leadership, and then over the next eight years helped shake loose Afrikaner nationalism's hold on the state, and indeed today in South Africa you will search long and hard to find a white person who admits they ever defended apartheid.
  • The Treatment Action Campaign found that a mix of local and internationalist activism was sufficiently strong to pry open Big Pharma's monopoly on intellectual property rights and also overthrow opposition by the US and South African governments, a story worth revisiting in more detail in below. In short, by 2003, the coterie of AIDS denialists surrounding Mbeki lost to street heat, ridicule and legal critique, so today nearly 800,000 South Africans and millions more elsewhere have access to AIDS medicines.

We'll look back at the climate denialists and judge them as merely a momentary quirk in human rationality, ultimately not in the least influential. The real danger comes from fossil fuel firms which, like big tobacco corporations decades ago, know full well the lethal potential of their products. Their objective is to place a grain of doubt in our minds, and for that climate denialists are rather useful.

The fossil fuel firms -- especially BP, Shell, Chevron and ExxonMobil -- not only fund denialist think tanks and ``astroturf'' outfits, such as the Global Climate Coalition (i.e. fake green groups). They support members of the US Congress -- such as Rick Boucher from Virginia -- who energetically sabotage legislation aimed at capping emissions (Congress' offsets, carbon trading and other distraction gimmicks mean there will be no net US cuts until the late 2030s). They also work with mainstream ``green'' groups -- the World Wide Fund for Nature comes to mind -- to halt environmental progress.

These corporations are far more insidious than the email hackers. I hope we aren't further distracted by the UEA affair and that this is a quickly forgotten little episode of dirty academic laundry meant for the dustbin of our sloppy movement where it belongs, so we can make the movement stronger, more transparent, more rigorous, more democratic and much more militant in trying to defeat the fossil fuel industry.

Seattle, 1999

One way to do so is to flash back to Seattle a decade ago, when the World Trade Organisation (WTO) mobilisations on November 30, 1999, taught civil society activists and African leaders two powerful lessons. Veteran anti-apartheid and social justice activist comrade Dennis Brutus from South Africa -- who turned 85 years old on November 28 -- reminded us of two lessons from one of the most eventful weeks in his amazing life.

Dennis Brutus.

First, working together, African and global South leaders and activists have the power to disrupt a system of global governance that meets the global North's short-term interests against both the global South and the longer-term interests of the world's people and the planet. Second, in the very act of disrupting global malgovernance, major concessions can be won.

Spectacular protests against the WTO summit's opening ceremony is what most recall about Seattle, 1999: activists ``locking down'' to prevent delegates entering the conference centre, a barrage of tear gas and pepper spray from hundreds of riot cops, a sea of broken windows and a municipal police force later prosecuted for violating US citizens' most basic civil liberties. (See David and Rebecca Solnit's excellent new book, The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle.)

That was outside the convention centre. Inside, when negotiations belatedly got underway, African leaders quickly grew worried that further trade liberalisation would damage their tiny industrial sectors. The damage was well recognised, as even establishment research revealed Africa would be the continent to suffer the worst net losses from corporate-dominated free trade.

The US trade representative, Charlene Barchefsky, repeatedly insulted African elites who raised this point. With the exception of South African trade minister Alec Erwin, who enjoyed an insider role to promote South Africa's self-interest, delegations from the Organisation of African Unity (OAU, since renamed the African Union) were soon furious.

As OAU deputy director general V.J. McKeen recalled: "They went out to a dinner in a bus, and then were left out in the cold to walk back... When we went into the room for our African group meeting, I mean, there was no interpretation provided... so one had to improvise. And then even the microphone facilities were switched off."

Tetteh Hormeku, from the African Trade Network of progressive civil society groups, picks up the story: "By the second day of the formal negotiations, the African and other developing-country delegates had found themselves totally marginalised... [and threatened] to withdraw the consensus required to reach a conclusion of the conference. By this time, even the Americans and their supporters in the WTO secretariat must have woken up to the futility of their 'rough tactics'."

AIDS campaign

By walking out, the Africans' strong willpower earned major concessions in the next WTO summit, in Doha, in November 2001. At the same time as the global justice movement began widening into an anti-imperialist movement in the wake of the USA's post-9/11 remilitarisation, African activists delved deeper into extreme local challenges, such as combating AIDS. In Doha, African elites joined forces with activists again.

On this occasion, the positive catalyst was a South African government law -- the 1997 Medicines Act -- which permitted the state's compulsory licensing of patented drugs. In 1998, the Treatment Action Campaign (http://www.tac.org.za) was launched to lobby for AIDS drugs, which a decade ago were prohibitively expensive -- US$15,000 per person per year -- for nearly all South Africa's HIV-positive people (roughly 10% of the population).

That campaign was immediately confronted by the US State Department's attack on South Africa's Medicines Act, a "full court press", as bureaucrats testified to the US Congress. The US elites' aim was to protect ``intellectual property rights'' and halt the emergence of a parallel inexpensive supply of AIDS medicines that would undermine lucrative Western markets.

US vice-president Al Gore directly intervened with South African government leaders in 1998-99, aiming to revoke the Medicines Act. Then in mid-1999, Gore launched his presidential election bid, a campaign generously funded by big pharmaceutical corporations, which that year provided $2.3 million to the Democratic Party.

In solidarity with the South Africans, the US AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACTUP) began protesting at Gore's campaign events in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. The demos soon threatened to cost Gore far more in adverse publicity than he was raising in Big Pharma contributions, so he changed sides.

As pressure built, even during the reign of president George W. Bush and his repressive trade representative Robert Zoellick (now World Bank president), the WTO's Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights system was amended at Doha in late 2001 to permit generic drugs to be used in medical emergencies.

This was a huge victory for Africa, removing any rationale to continue to deny life-saving medicines to the world's poorest people.

In 2003, with another dreadful WTO deal on the table in Cancun and 30,000 protesters outside, once again the African leadership withdrew from the consensus, wrecking the plans of the US and Europe for further liberalisation. The WTO has still not recovered.

Main lesson

These are the precedents required to overcome the three huge challenges the North faces in Copenhagen: 2020 greenhouse gas emissions cuts of at least 45% (from 1990 levels) through a binding international agreement; the decommissioning of carbon markets and offset gimmicks; and payment on the vast ecological debt owed to victims of climate change.

Realistically, the adverse balance of forces currently prevailing will not permit victories on even one, much less all three. What response is logical?

In Barcelona, in early November, African negotiators boycotted the pre-Copenhagen talks, making good on African Union leader Meles Zenawi's September threat, because the North had put so little on the negotiating table.

Indeed, that is the main lesson from Seattle: by walking out -- alongside mass action by civil society protesters -- and halting a bad deal in Copenhagen on December 18, we can together pave the way for subsequent progress.

Two years after Seattle's failure, progress was won through African access to life-saving medicines. We must ensure it doesn't take two years after Copenhagen's failure for Africa to get access to life-saving greenhouse gas emissions cuts and to climate debt repayment, alongside the demise of carbon trading -- but those are surely the battles just ahead.

[Patrick Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society. A version of this article was originally a ZNet commentary. It has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Patrick Bond's permission.]


By Renfrey Clarke

November 28, 2009 -- Climate change deniers, conservative politicians and right-wing newspaper columnists were all but incontinent with delight. Flooding the internet in mid-November were thousands of documents and private emails that had been exchanged over more than a decade by prominent climate scientists.

The emails were posted anonymously after hackers penetrated the server of one of Britain’s main climate change research centres, the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia.

Here was the chance, opponents of orthodox climate science evidently told themselves, to discredit forever the “theory” of anthropogenic — that is, human-caused — global warming.

What would the emails reveal? Doubts about the climate change case, bullying of scientific dissidents, suppression of evidence, outright scientific fraud?

Even if the messages revealed nothing of the kind, the myth would have taken wing: that the great global warming scam had met with its “Climategate”.

The Australian on November 24 quoted right-wing Liberal Senator Nick Minchin stating: “These emails reveal at least prima facie evidence that supporters of the theory of anthropogenic global warming are going to considerable lengths to doctor evidence and to suppress information and intimidate those who don’t support that theory.”

Adelaide University professor of mining geology and leading climate change denier Ian Plimer was still more categorical. “This substantiates what I hinted at”, Plimer told the Australian. “Here we have the Australian government underpinning the biggest economic decision this country has ever made and it’s all based on fraud.”

But what have the deniers actually trawled from their ocean of stolen messaging?

Probably the most damning single allegation relates to a remark by CRU chief Dr Phil Jones about the use he made of work by a colleague, Dr Michael Mann of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University.

“I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.”

To believe the denialist bloggers, that is a confession of gross falsification — signed, sealed and delivered. But take its context into account, and the passage becomes completely innocuous.

A “trick”, in the jargon of scientists, is an ingenious way of overcoming a problem. Mann’s “trick” involved juxtaposing observed temperature records to “hide” a false decline implied by tree-ring temperature data known to be partly inaccurate.

What else, then? Might scientists be artificially boosting temperature rises through choosing to believe computer models, rather than the objective evidence?

Dr Kevin Trenberth of the US Center for Atmospheric Research complains in one of the emails that modelling of sea surface temperatures “shows there should be even more warming”.

“We can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment”, Trenberth laments, “and it is a travesty that we can’t”.

The observed data, he surmises, “are surely wrong”, and the observing system, he maintains, is inadequate.

But has Trenberth reacted to the discrepancy by suppressing or “doctoring” evidence? There is no suggestion, in the emails or anywhere else, that he has.

On the falsification of research results — a career-ending offence for scientists — all the scouring through the emails has come up with nothing.

But not to worry. As propagators of the anthropogenic warming myth, the scientists are clearly the sort of people who would do such things.

And for true deniers, that is enough.

Those reading the emails not stuck in a conspiracy theory, meanwhile, have been struck by what is not there. There is no evidence of almost everything denialists have confidently maintained goes on in climate research institutes.

RealClimate site observed on November 20 that the e-mails revealed “no evidence of any worldwide conspiracy, no mention of George Soros nefariously funding climate research … no admission that global warming is a hoax, no evidence of the falsifying of data, and no ‘marching orders’ from our socialist/communist/vegetarian overlords”.

The denialists, of course, are not simply buffoons — and correspondingly, the materials released onto the internet have a darker, almost tragic side. They reveal a very human bitterness among climate scientists at attacks that have intensified in recent years.

Modern-day Galileos, the scientists confront an Inquisition based in wealthy right-wing circles and the “think tanks” that serve them.

The pressures on the scientists are described eloquently in a November 23 Washington Post blog interview with physicist and historian Spencer Weart, who said: “We’ve never before seen a set of people accuse an entire community of scientists of deliberate deception and other professional malfeasance.

“Even the tobacco companies never tried to slander legitimate cancer researchers.”

To their credit, leading climate scientists have fought back against demands that they make concessions to bad science. A prominent figure in this resistance has been the CRU’s Jones — which perhaps explains why his institute was the target of the hacker attack.

The New Scientist said Jones and Mann in a 2003 exchange of emails discussed urging scientific authors to boycott the journal Climate Research after it published “extremely poor papers” by known denialists.

New Scientist said the journal’s editor-in-chief and half the editorial board resigned over the matter.

In 2004, Jones and Mann discussed ways of blocking two papers, whose content they regarded as unscientific, from being assessed for use in a report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In other emails, ways are discussed of keeping temperature data, largely covered by confidentiality agreements, out of the hands of denialists.

As depicted by denialist bloggers, the atmosphere that has arisen inside the climate science community is one of arrogant intolerance, with dissenting voices ruthlessly silenced. But again, an understanding of the context is vital.

In the first place, anthropogenic global warming is no longer just a theory, but established fact. Trenberth was quoted as saying in the November 22 Washington Post that “it is incontrovertible” that the world is warming as a result of human actions.

Predicted by fundamental laws of physics, human-caused global warming has now been demonstrated by real-world evidence so overwhelming, and from so many sources and directions, that refusal to accept it is simply perverse.

There are no legitimate sceptics any more, just the ignorant or wilful deniers.

Second, within the climate science community there is no longer dissent on the basic concept of human-caused global warming. All working climate scientists — that is, those who publish in peer-reviewed journals — now agree anthropogenic warming is real.

The unresolved questions relate to its degree and precise mechanisms. On these, debate is rich and generally cordial.

Third, tolerance is not a virtue in dealing with people out to subject humanity and nature to intolerable risks.

Jones and his colleagues are aware, like few others, that the consequence of failing to combat denialist pseudo-science would very likely be a catastrophe of civilisation-ending proportions.

Finally, climate change deniers, especially in the US and Australia, are hardly isolated and picked on. Historically they have been well funded, not least by big energy corporations, and they have huge media resources at their disposal.

Disturbingly, they are gaining ground. In a recent Pew Research Center poll in the US, only 36% of respondents felt that human activities lay behind a temperature increase. That was down from 47% in 2006.

In Australia, the corresponding figure in September this year was a far-from-overwhelming 67%.

So when Jones, Mann and others mount a tough, uncompromising fight for scientific rationality, do they deserve to be pilloried? Adelaide University Climate Change Professor Barry Brook has, perhaps, the best take on this question.

On November 27 Brook told Green Left Weekly that anyone who wants to criticise the scientists involved should “first place the contents of their email archive for the last 10 years on a public repository, such that anyone has the opportunity to download it, peruse it, and cherry-pick out-of-context statements”.

Minchin and Plimer, to name just two, would be unlikely to fare well.

From: International News, Green Left Weekly issue #820, December 2, 2009.


Nature 462, 545 (3 December 2009) | doi:10.1038/462545a; Published online 2 December 2009

Climatologists under pressure

Stolen e-mails have revealed no scientific conspiracy, but do highlight ways in which climate researchers could be better supported in the face of public scrutiny.

The e-mail archives stolen last month from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (UEA), UK, have been greeted by the climate-change-denialist fringe as a propaganda windfall (see page 551). To these denialists, the scientists' scathing remarks about certain controversial palaeoclimate reconstructions qualify as the proverbial 'smoking gun': proof that mainstream climate researchers have systematically conspired to suppress evidence contradicting their doctrine that humans are warming the globe.

This paranoid interpretation would be laughable were it not for the fact that obstructionist politicians in the US Senate will probably use it next year as an excuse to stiffen their opposition to the country's much needed climate bill. Nothing in the e-mails undermines the scientific case that global warming is real — or that human activities are almost certainly the cause. That case is supported by multiple, robust lines of evidence, including several that are completely independent of the climate reconstructions debated in the e-mails.

First, Earth's cryosphere is changing as one would expect in a warming climate. These changes include glacier retreat, thinning and areal reduction of Arctic sea ice, reductions in permafrost and accelerated loss of mass from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. Second, the global sea level is rising. The rise is caused in part by water pouring in from melting glaciers and ice sheets, but also by thermal expansion as the oceans warm. Third, decades of biological data on blooming dates and the like suggest that spring is arriving earlier each year.

Denialists often maintain that these changes are just a symptom of natural climate variability. But when climate modellers test this assertion by running their simulations with greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide held fixed, the results bear little resemblance to the observed warming. The strong implication is that increased greenhouse-gas emissions have played an important part in recent warming, meaning that curbing the world's voracious appetite for carbon is essential (see pages 568 and 570).

Mail trail A fair reading of the e-mails reveals nothing to support the denialists' conspiracy theories. In one of the more controversial exchanges, UEA scientists sharply criticized the quality of two papers that question the uniqueness of recent global warming (S. McIntyre and R. McKitrick Energy Environ. 14,
751–771; 2003 and W. Soon and S. Baliunas Clim. Res. 23, 89–110; 2003) and vowed to keep at least the first paper out of the upcoming Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Whatever the e-mail authors may have said to one another in (supposed) privacy, however, what matters is how they acted. And the fact is that, in the end, neither they nor the IPCC suppressed anything: when the assessment report was published in 2007 it referenced and discussed both papers.

If there are benefits to the e-mail theft, one is to highlight yet again the harassment that denialists inflict on some climate-change researchers, often in the form of endless, time-consuming demands for information under the US and UK Freedom of Information Acts. Governments and institutions need to provide tangible assistance for researchers facing such a burden.

The theft highlights the harassment that denialists inflict on some climate-change researchers. The e-mail theft also highlights how difficult it can be for climate researchers to follow the canons of scientific openness, which require them to make public the data on which they base their conclusions. This is best done via open online archives, such as the ones maintained by the IPCC (http://www.ipcc-data.org) and the US National Climatic Data Center (http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/ncdc.html).

Tricky business But for much crucial information the reality is very different. Researchers are barred from publicly releasing meteorological data from many countries owing to contractual restrictions. Moreover, in countries such as Germany, France and the United Kingdom, the national meteorological services will provide data sets only when researchers specifically request them, and only after a significant delay. The lack of standard formats can also make it hard to compare and integrate data from different sources. Every aspect of this situation needs to change: if the current episode does not spur meteorological services to improve researchers' ease of access, governments should force them to do so.

The stolen e-mails have prompted queries about whether Nature will investigate some of the researchers' own papers. One e-mail talked of displaying the data using a 'trick' — slang for a clever (and legitimate) technique, but a word that denialists have used to accuse the researchers of fabricating their results. It is Nature's policy to investigate such matters if there are substantive reasons for concern, but nothing we have seen so far in the e-mails qualifies.

The UEA responded too slowly to the eruption of coverage in the media, but deserves credit for now being publicly supportive of the integrity of its scientists while also holding an independent investigation of its researchers' compliance with Britain's freedom of information requirements (see http://go.nature.com/zRBXRP).

In the end, what the UEA e-mails really show is that scientists are human beings — and that unrelenting opposition to their work can goad them to the limits of tolerance, and tempt them to act in ways that undermine scientific values. Yet it is precisely in such circumstances that researchers should strive to act and communicate professionally, and make their data and methods available to others, lest they provide their worst critics with ammunition. After all, the pressures the UEA e-mailers experienced may be nothing compared with what will emerge as the United States debates a climate bill next year, and denialists use every means at their disposal to undermine trust in scientists and science.