Confronting 'Forces of Darkness' on Warming

"We just haven't been doing the hard work of getting across to the public just how serious the situation is!"

The speaker was one of 48 American climate experts gathered from around the country and crowded into a small second-floor hotel meeting room for an all-day closed-door strategy session.

All day, the midtown Manhattan traffic swirled unnoticed beneath the windows as these men and women -- which included not only a number of America's pre-eminent climate scientists but two psychologists and other experts too -- wrestled with what they call a crisis.

Convened by Yale's Project on Climate Change at the Yale School of Forestry and Environment Studies, its purpose was not to debate global warming science but to figure out how to convey its most important findings to the public "with appropriate urgency and sustained for the long haul."

It is a goal these scientists see constantly thwarted by what they dubbed "the forces of darkness" -- a persistent disinformation campaign, waged by some fossil fuel companies and cooperating politicians that downplays the gravity of global warming.

A 'Ruined World' for the Children

"We will leave our children and grandchildren a ruined world if we don't dramatically change our behavior, and soon," said Gus Speth, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, after the meeting broke up.

To encourage frank discussion, Yale imposed what are called Chatham House Rules: No one attending, including the four invited journalists, could attribute quotes to specific people.

The assembled scientists pondered how they might create some sort of new "bridging institution" between scientists and the public.

They reviewed the tactics of naysayers who persistently "trick" journalists into thinking they have to present "the other side" on basic aspects of climate change, even though virtually all the world's thousands of professional climatologists now agree on them.

Junk Controversy

Several in the room sensed a recent shift in the media, but many still worried that too many editors remained susceptible to reporting what these experts see as junk controversy.

There is always controversy among scientists, they said, remarking how scientists, once they agree on something, quickly move on to new -- and real -- controversies.

A Sense of Urgency

A sense of urgency grew throughout the day as they shared news they'd picked up of new disinformation campaigns that global warming deniers have already planned to discredit "AR4."

Main findings from the Fourth Assessment Report on global climate change -- AR4 -- will be presented at a press conference in Paris Feb. 2.

Issued about every five years since 1991, these assessment reports are produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the idea for which started among a group of concerned climate scientists in the 1980s.

"The IPCC is unprecedented in world history," preeminent climate theorist Richard Somerville of Scripps Institution of Oceanography told me after meeting.

"An ongoing consensus of the world's scientists on a single issue -- it had simply never been tried before" said Somerville, who is now moonlighting from his science to write a history of the IPCC.

Psychological Resistance

As the afternoon advanced, the climatologists wrestled with the fact that neither they nor the media had yet taken the difficult step of conveying to the public what they calculate could well lie in store for the planet if man-made emissions are not curtailed -- filling out what Speth refers to as the "ruined world."

James Hansen, NASA's leading climate scientist, careful not to veer from his specific discipline, frequently uses the phrase "a different planet" to describe what could be coming.

There have been a few initial attempts to describe the future, such as in a recent Vanity Fair article and in the movie "An Inconvenient Truth," which showed large portions of major coastal cities -- New York, Washington, London -- underwater because of sea-level rise from thermal expansion and melting ice.

But scientists, aided by 16 supercomputers around the world that continually refine their climate projections, now study far more comprehensive projections -- with best, worst, and middle-case scenarios of worsening droughts, floods, spreading disease, ecosystem decimation and other effects of human-induced global warming -- they deem almost certain to occur if greenhouse gas emissions are not quickly curtailed.

The psychologists at this meeting spoke of the natural denial and resistance the public -- or anyone -- has on first learning of such projections.

One expert told of recently receiving a phone call from an old friend -- a well-educated, normally calm mother of two toddlers. She shed tears of anguish, having just read news accounts of the Stern Review, supervised by a former chief economist at the World Bank, that projected grim consequences for the world's economies and governments if humanity delays acting to curtail the emissions.

Stanford University pollster Jon Krosnick fascinated the room with findings about American attitudes toward global warming. Working with the Polling Unit of ABC News, Krosnick and others have reported that the American public basically gets it -- that 85 percent believe global warming is under way.

The assembled experts considered how such statistics suggest that a growing portion of the American public may now be more ready to listen to sobering research results.

Asked in my capacity as a professional journalist to offer some observations, I remarked that they or any experts usually have more success in getting stories across if they don't approach us -- professional journalists -- as potential propagandists. It is not our job as professional journalists to try to save the environment, but it is our job to tell what is happening.

It was one of the more intense conversations this journalist has ever witnessed -- 48 accomplished experts listening intently to each other one by one for 10 hours, not quite grim, but as if a war were coming or a great crisis loomed -- which in fact, after decades of scientific research, they now agree is already here.

Now, they want the rest of us to know.