According to an August 2000 Harris Poll, more than 70 percent of Americans surveyed believed in global warming, with only a small minority (20 percent) rejecting the science and an even smaller segment (13 percent) claiming global warming was not a serious threat. But in the decade since that poll, the numbers have dramatically narrowed: In a 2010 Gallup poll, less than half of American respondents said they believed that the globe was warming due to human causes.
No new, disconfirming scientific evidence has emerged to account for such a shift in popular opinion; in fact, the evidentiary case for climate change has only gotten stronger. Alongside the quiet data-gathering work of climate scientists, we have dramatic weather events like last winter's massive snowstorms and this spring's floods and tornadoes, all of which were made worse by the ongoing rise of global temperatures. Climate change is not some day to come; it's already here.
Why then have so many Americans stopped believing in climate change? The answer lies in partisan politics. Denial of global warming has become a shibboleth for the right wing, an easy way of marking one's tribal identity as a conservative in good standing. A 2009 Harris Poll makes this growing partisan divide undeniable; while 73 percent of Democrats polled in that survey believed that greenhouse gases released by human activity cause global warming, only 28 percent of Republicans did. Right-wing media personalities have even begun to insist—in direct contradiction of all available evidence—that the globe is actually cooling, suggesting their ultimate epistemological allegiance may just be to the opposite of whatever liberals think.
Orrin H. Pilkey, professor emeritus at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, and his son Keith C. Pilkey step into this increasingly fraught political arena with the explicit intent of combating climate denialism. In their new book, Global Climate Change: A Primer, Pilkey and Pilkey have no interest in appearing "fair and balanced," and while they acknowledge gray areas in current climate science, they do not pretend that there is any serious question about the reality of climate change. "Global change is upon us," begins the preface. "Of this there can be no doubt among those who observe the Earth." The book accordingly seeks both to inoculate its reader against denialist memes as well as arm her with an arsenal of facts to be deployed against right-wing relatives on Facebook or at the next family reunion. Each of the book's nine chapters concludes with a section labeled "Myths, Misinterpretations, and Misunderstandings of the Deniers," which contains paragraph-length rebuttals to common denialist talking points—seemingly representing the authors' primary interest in writing this book.
Particularly crucial are chapters 3 and 4, which temporarily turn away from the science of climate change to what the Pilkeys call "the manufacture of dissent," detailing the coordinated efforts by Fox News, Koch Industries and other right-wing outlets to generate false doubts about climate science. This, they write, is the true "hoax" involving climate change—a hoax that calls to mind the efforts of tobacco industry lobbyists to obscure the truth about cigarette smoking and which, indeed, is in many cases being perpetrated by exactly the same individuals. The ginning up of the so-called Climategate scandal is one of the best-known examples of this wide-ranging PR strategy; in truth, as the Pilkeys demonstrate, Climategate shows scientists behaving unprofessionally, but not inappropriately, and lends no credence whatsoever to paranoid claims that climate science is being manipulated by some left-wing conspiracy. In fact, the very opposite is true; the actual conspiracy is on the right, is incredibly sophisticated and well-financed, and is implacably dedicated to denialism.
The Pilkeys have made the interesting choice to illustrate their book not with the expected facts and figures but with colorful batik prints of important climate sites illustrated by South Carolina artist Mary Edna Fraser. Many of these prints are on display at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh this summer as part of a collaboration between Fraser and Orrin Pilkey titled "Our Expanding Oceans." Batik art is an unexpectedly effective way to portray the threat of climate change depicted in the book—almost memorializing in advance such low-lying areas as Pacific atolls, Boston, Miami and North Carolina's Outer Banks, which all face severe disruption and even out-and-out elimination as a result of rising sea levels. The stunning images are somehow more effective than traditional images would be, as the ancient batik cloth-dying technique and indigenous designs it produces generated for this reader an overriding mood of mourning, loss and regret—as if the disaster has already happened, as if we've already failed to stop it.
With a book like Global Climate Change: A Primer, the question of audience seems supreme. Who is this book for? For a person well read in climate science, the book may be too basic, though the end-of-chapter engagements with specific denialist talking points may still be very helpful. For a person who believes in climate change without knowing much about it, the book will probably be useful as a primer, though more complete resources can be found for free on the Internet. (I frequently recommend the incomparable "How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic" series managed by grist.org, a FAQ succinctly debunking every denialist talking point I've ever heard.) For a climate skeptic who is genuinely curious, the book may well be eye-opening—but I'm certain it would be completely ineffective on my right-wing relatives, for whom no amount of evidence on climate change has ever been enough.
The book's last chapter—on the insufficiency and unreliability of geo-engineering efforts given the scale of the climate crisis—ends with a call for "the planet's nations and political leaders to find the courage to put the future of humanity ahead of their own short-term economic interests." This last page is illustrated with a Fraser batik reimagining the famous "Earthrise" picture from the Apollo 8 mission to the moon. The image has been a favorite of environmentalists for decades, and even makes an appearance in Al Gore's 2006 climate documentary An Inconvenient Truth to suggest the smallness and fragility of the only planet we will ever have. Quoting James Lovelock, the caption for the batik reads: "We're not really guilty. We didn't deliberately set out to heat the world. But we did ... Now our biggest problem is to convince the denier to recognize what we've done and where we are heading."
There is precious little evidence that this campaign of persuasion is making any headway. The polling trends are still going the other way—and the propaganda successes have only led the denialists to dig in. GOP hopefuls for 2012 like Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman are currently denouncing their previous support for cap-and-trade, which was the official position of the McCain campaign as recently as 2008. Perhaps we should focus less on convincing the denialists and more on just defeating them. The noble efforts of books like the Pilkeys' notwithstanding, I suspect that nothing other than their own Pyrrhic victory could ever convince the denialists of the terrible wisdom of the Cree proverb: "Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realize we cannot eat money." But by then it will be too late for the rest of us, too.