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The Surreal Success of Professional Climate Denial

An excerpt from David Lipsky’s The Parrot and the Igloo: Climate and the Science of Denial

A blindfolded man.
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Let’s say you’ve shipped out as a denier.

You’re in it for the action, the dollars, the travel, the fun. And you shade your eyes, glance up at a tall number: 97%, the percentage of active-duty climate researchers who accept man-made climate change.

This is what pollster Frank Luntz understood in 2002. “Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming,” Luntz wrote, in his famous battle memo. “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly.”

And this is what was also understood by Dr. S Fred Singer and Frederick Seitz, two of the graybeard prophets who launched the global-warming skepticism movement in the 1990s, that crucial tipping point in the battle between the warmers and the deniers. A word — a concept, a percentage — was your enemy. And every six years the IPCC, the international climate science body, would stamp along on its five thousand legs and drop down another big dose of consensus. Plant it in the headlines of every newspaper. Here was the spot on the tree to carve your “X.” As you spit in your palms and lifted the axe.

Dr. Singer, an atmospheric physicist who would become one of the world’s most prominent climate deniers, tried twice. The anti-consensus petitions have names: The Leipzig Declaration, the Heidelberg Appeal. They sound like spy movies: lovelorn and crestfallen thrillers starring a tongue-tied Jason Bourne, about the cities where he tried to make his feelings known.

The appeal came first, in 1992. Dr. Singer and an associate helped arrange a conference in Heidelberg, Germany. Scientists were invited to sign a petition.

At first, Dr. Singer called it a “statement.” Time passed, coasts cleared. And he was like a man alone at the breakfast bar, filling his plate. Dr. Singer called it “strongly worded.” Said the appeal “expressed skepticism on the urgency for global action to restrict greenhouse-gas emissions.” That it “urged statesmen to go slow on climate-change policies.”

As it happens, the Heidelberg Appeal never once mentions global warming. It’s very pro-science. It’s just not at all anti-climate science.

But it was a list of science names and got weaponized anyway. When denial Senator James Inhofe quoted the petition in Congress, this is how the message ran. “The Heidelberg Appeal, which says that no compelling evidence exists to justify controls of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. They agree it is a hoax.” Two possibilities: Either the senator had never read the appeal, or he hoped you hadn’t.

Dr. Singer took a firmer hand on the next go-round. New and improved — now with global warming.

This was 1995. Earlier that year, Dr. Singer had sent a fossil fuel company his prospectus. For a very reasonable $95,000, the scientist promised to help “stem the tide towards ever more onerous controls on energy use.”

His hook was ozone. The spray cans that had been phased out, Dr. Singer explained, “all on the basis of quite insubstantial science.”

So if funds were provided “without delay,” Dr. Singer could deliver: an event, a panel, and a round number — “a Statement of Support by a hundred or more climate scientists.” With the Singer specialty: “This Statement could then be quoted or reprinted in newspapers.”

I don’t know whether Dr. Singer ever secured his funding. But that November, a panel did convene: in Leipzig, Germany. And one year later, his Statement did appear: the Leipzig Declaration. With the promised one hundred signatures.

The names crinkled brows. (Harvard’s John Holdren, later science advisor to the Obama White House, wrote of them as a mirage or the dream you reconstruct over breakfast: the list “dissolves under scrutiny.”) Sleuths from Danish Broadcasting attempted to track down the 33 European signers. Four could not be located. Twelve denied signing or even knowing about any Leipzig Declaration. Three were offended to hear their names were associated with it. The Statement had also been signed by dentists, lab techs, engineers, and one off-course entomologist who landed briefly on the page.

But the Leipzig Declaration packed its bags and coast-to-coasted anyway — from the Wall Street Journal to the Orange County Register, migrating also to Canada, London, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand. “It is widely cited by conservative voices,” write journalists Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber. “And is regarded in some circles as the gold standard of scientific expertise on the issue.”

Dr. Singer identifed a hardy, Band of Brothers spirit among his “one hundred climate scientists.” As he explained in the Wall Street Journal, “It takes a certain amount of courage to do this.”

What it didn’t necessarily take was a degree in science. Florida’s Saint Petersburg Times ran their Leipzig story on the front page. Because (a) Florida, sea level. And (b), one signer was a local, the weather guy over at Tampa Bay’s WTVT. Who lacked “a Ph.D. in any scientific field,” the paper noted. “Or, for that matter, a bachelor’s.”

Dr. Singer had met his quota by reaching out to these sportscasters of the air. Twenty-five weathermen signed in, a big klatch from the state of Ohio. This included Richard Groeber, owner and operator of Dick’s Weather Service: you dialed his phone number and he told you the weather.

The Petersburg newshound dialed. Was Dick Groeber, he asked, really a scientist?

“I sort of consider myself so,” Groeber replied. “I had two or three years of training in the scientific area, and 30 or 40 years of self-study.”

The reporter brought his concerns to the keeper of the signatures, Dr. Singer. The scientist’s answer is a testament to the virtue of persistence, of keeping an eye fixed always on the prize. What was truly important, Dr. Singer said, was “the fact that we can demonstrate that 100 or so scientists would put their names down.”

And I wonder if it bothered Dr. Singer. If it’s the story of his outranked life. That for the Oregon Petition — the signature list that did go over the top — the push came from the bigger, better honored, more consequential Fred.

The Parrot and the Igloo.This article was excerpted from David Lipsky’s new book "The Parrot and the Igloo."Courtesy W.W. Norton

I don’t know who took care of the introductions. I do know S. Fred Singer sent Arthur Robinson — a biochemist, five-time Republican nominee for Oregon’s 4th congressional district, and the founder of the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, a privately funded lab — material to beef up the research paper that accompanied the Oregon Petition. And I know that the Marshall Institute —— founded by the other Fred, Dr. Seitz, the physicist and tobacco industry consultant Business Week once called the “granddaddy of global-warming skeptics” — dispatched two specialists, climate Sherpas, to lug and guide Arthur along the trickier science crevasses.

One of them was later exposed on the front page of TheNew York Times. Dr. Willie Soon had been the beneficiary of $1.2 million in fossil fuel largesse. The last of his dinosaur generation to find their way into the tar pits.

“In correspondence with his corporate funders,” the Times reported in 2015, Dr. Soon “described many of his scientific papers as ‘deliverables’ that he completed in exchange for their money.”

And then a beautiful single-sentence short story: capturing the whole project and spirit of denial. “Though often described on conservative news programs as a ‘Harvard astrophysicist,’ Dr. Soon is not an astrophysicist and has never been employed by Harvard.”

Arthur cowrote his paper with the two Dr. Seitz specialists, and a fellow member of the Oregon Institute faculty: his 21-year-old son, Zachary.

This father-son teamwork produced something strange. First, their paper said climate change would not occur. Then, somewhat unexpectedly, it reversed field and explained that the change was already in progress and accomplishing marvels.

Their concluding sentences drop the effort of science entirely. The language pans across streams and meadows — takes in a drowsy summer morning, with the sound of bees. “We are living in an increasingly lush environment of plants and animals,” the Robinsons write, a little dreamily, “as a result of the CO2 increase. Our children will enjoy an Earth with far more plant and animal life than that with which we are now blessed. This is a wonderful and unexpected gift of the Industrial Revolution.”

Arthur’s paper had never been published or peer-reviewed. It was entirely homeschool.

And here’s where you can appreciate the great, freewheeling advantage of having fun. Arthur Robinson and Frederick Seitz collaborated on a tremendous prank.

Arthur had his report professionally printed. Now this home-cooked meal, this sloppy Joe, resembled an entrée at the end of a Food Network episode. The National Academy of Sciences produces one of the world’s most distinguished journals. Garnishing with font and layout, Robinson labored until his blessing looked, in the words of the journal Nature, “exactly like a paper from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

Everybody has the one résumé line they lean on. It’s whispered before you sweep over to shake hands; it will lead the obituaries when you step away forever. Frederick Seitz was the former National Academy president — publishers of the Proceedings journal whose format Arthur had copied.

Dr. Seitz wrote the letter that accompanied the Oregon Petition.

The United States is very close to adopting an international agreement that would ration the use of energy. ... This treaty is, in our opinion, based upon flawed ideas. ...We urge you to sign and return the petition card.

Dr. Seitz signed with his résumé line: Past President, The National Academy of Sciences.

A cover letter from an Academy president. A paper formatted to look exactly as if it had been published in the Academy magazine. (Plus the plural we urge, the institutional in our opinion — the speaking voice of an organization.) Arthur and Seitz had pulled off the greatest soundalike in denial history.

The package was then sent all across America — as one researcher wrote, to “virtually every scientist in every field.” And how could recipients fail to believe, tearing open their envelopes, that the Academy was reaching out to them, at an hour of scientific need?

In 1996, Nature had written about the “dwindling band of skeptics.” You picture palm fronds and breakers, the shoreline from Lord of the Flies: a rocky atoll among rising seas.

This line vexed deniers. It so bugged S. Fred Singer he ascribed it, for ease of attack, to Al Gore. (The scientist loved to attack the vice president.). So the other aim of the petition: to grow the movement, at least in the eyes of key readerships in the Washington metro area.

It really was their weakness: Demographics. Max Planck once made an ice-eyed observation about scientific change. It doesn’t result from fresh evidence, or the Kevlar argument. Positions get too dug in for that. It steals on gradually, in calendars and gravesides. “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light,” the physicist wrote. “But rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

The plain truth was the deniers weren’t getting any younger. Actual science was drawing the young PhDs. (When S. Fred Singer addressed a roomful of such climatologists in the spring of the Oregon Petition, the reception was not hostile. It was charity. His audience “politely pointed to datasets and to scientific research,” wrote science journalist Myanna Lahsen, “none of which Dr. Singer appeared to be familiar with.”) It’s why the great denial work was brought off by Frederick Seitz, 86, and S. Fred Singer, 78; and by Arthur Robinson, aged 56, whose footsteps two-time Nobel Prize laureate Linus Pauling had long ago banished from institutional hallways.

“What will happen is clear,” Arthur told supporters, in a sort of pre-invasion essay, as his envelopes mustered at the post office. “The warmers will be deprived of the central pillar that underlies their entire campaign.”

This was that tall, shade-throwing word: consensus. “Remove their facade of scientific consensus, and they will likely lose — if it is removed in time.”

And it worked. In the House and Senate, lawmakers said the petition proved climate change was “bogus” — a non-issue for “the vast majority” of scientists. (They needed something like it to be true. So they went ahead and believed it into truth.) It worked because it’s a big library, and we’re all busy people. And, as the bibliothecary Jorge Luis Borges once observed, “The person does not exist who, outside their own specialty, is not credulous.”

“Happy Earth Day, Al Gore!” Fred Singer wrote in his Washington Times column. “Your much-touted ‘scientific consensus’ on global warming has just been exposed as phony.” They’d finally found a way to bring down the tree.

In 2001, Scientific American went through Arthur Robinson’s signature books. Present on Arthur’s list were names submitted in a spirit of substitute-teacher abuse. (Arthur told the Associated Press that he had “no way of filtering out a fake.”) There was Shirl E. Cook and Richard Cool and Dr. House, and the presumably dependable Knight and the presumably less steady Dr. Red Wine, also the accommodating Betty Will, the in-terrible-distress W. C. Lust. Also someone who gave their name only as Looney. Plus a dash of celebrity like Michael J. Fox and John Grisham and the dramatis personae of the medical series M*A*S*H. Even some businesses, like R. C. Kannan & Associates, and Glenn Springs Holdings, Inc., had found a way to lift the pen and get involved. Dick Groeber — Dick’s Weather Service — had once again elected to lend the effort the weight of his endorsement. All these names appeared on Arthur’s petition as it was cited in Congress.

Arthur claimed only one false name was ever found to soil his list. (Some jokester had snuck on Dr. Geri Halliwell — Ginger Spice, of the empowerment band Spice Girls.) But post-media, all these names were quietly withdrawn. W. C. Lust and Betty Will and Glenn Springs Holdings, Inc., and Dick’s Weather Service, scrubbed from history.

The names Scientific American examined were real. Barrier to entry was not high. If you claimed a bachelor’s in math, science, or engineering, to Arthur’s way of thinking you were a climate scientist. (Even so, Dick Groeber had no real business being on this list.) Your kid’s math teacher could sign. So could her shop teacher, and the veterinarian.

These names were Styrofoam peanuts, packaging, and brushed aside. Scientific American took “a random sample of 30 of the 1,400 signatories claiming to hold a Ph.D. in a climate-related science.”

Of the 26 names they could identify through the databases, “11 said they still agreed with the petition.” The magazine went on, “One was an active climate researcher, two others had relevant expertise, and eight signed based on an informal evaluation. Six said they would not sign the petition today, three did not remember any such petition, one had died, and five did not answer repeated messages.” The magazine estimated that Arthur had managed about 200 climate researchers — “a small fraction of the climatological community.” Remove number from box, shake off the packaging: What Arthur Robinson and Frederick Seitz had delivered was a sweaty means of confirming the consensus.

And still there were international headlines (“NO SCIENTIFIC CONSENSUS ON GLOBAL WARMING”). And still Frederick Seitz and S. Fred Singer could make their use of the data.

Dr. Seitz told reporters the petition represented “the silent majority of the scientific community.” (Which meant at least 51 laconic percent.) And Dr. Singer called it “the largest group of scientists ever,” as if the petition combined a Caltech homecoming weekend with an especially congested Burning Man.

Arthur kept up the petition drive. Yet among supporters, he couldn’t quite bring himself to call the signers colleagues. The tongue values what it values.

“We’ve got now about 17,000 scien—” Arthur caught himself. “People with degrees in science.” As of 2008, he’d nearly doubled his figure.

S. Fred Singer experienced the same performance trouble. In 2012 he was still quoting it. Because it was the only thing — Arthur had given the movement the strongest evidence it ever had. But even the famously reliable Singer tongue went rogue. “There’s hundreds of us — thousands,” he said on PBS. “Look, 31,000 scientists and engineers signed a statement.” Then the scientist went a bit green. “Look, they’re not specialists in climate.”

But in 1998, when the ground was fresh, Dr. Singer told Congress that signers were “specialists in fields related to global warming.” He told readers, while the issue was being contested, they were “experts in the pertinent scientific fields.”

Arthur’s website gives his patriotic side of the figure. “31,487 American scientists,” he writes. “Including 9,029 Ph.D.s.” You needed a data point, a comparison.

So, for the doctoral number: America is home to half a million science and engineering PhDs. Arthur netted 1.8%. His yield was small. And for the bachelor’s number: We’ve awarded 10 million first degrees in science and engineering. Here Arthur’s petition was an absolute crash: 0.3%.

Arthur again sounded the Academy horn in a press release. “More than 40 signatories are members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.” But Arthur had withheld the comparison. The Academy’s got 2,200 members. His yield was eerily consistent: 1.8%. The generally accepted number for climate scientists and warming is 97% to 3%. Arthur’s fate was to spend 25 years as superintendent of a consensus he loathed.

This article was excerpted and condensed from David Lipsky’s book The Parrot and the Igloo: Climate and the Science of Denial, available now from W. W. Norton & Company ©2023.

David Lipsky profile image

David Lipsky

David Lipsky is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Absolutely American and Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which became the basis for the movie The End of the Tour. He has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Harper’s Magazine, and New York, and he is a recipient of the National Magazine Award and the GLAAD Media Award. His work has been collected in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Magazine Writing. He teaches writing and literature at New York University and lives in New York City.


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