In the issue of NEWSWEEK dated April 28, 1975—the cover that week, about the pending fall of Saigon, was called "The Last Battle" —the magazine ran what is probably the most-cited single-page story in our history. Headlined the cooling world, it explored worries about a new ice age. Global warming soon led scientists to put such concerns aside, but those who doubt that greenhouse gases are causing significant climate change have long pointed to the 1975 NEWSWEEK piece as an example of how wrong journalists and researchers can be. (If you type NEWSWEEK and global cooling into Google, you get 262,000 hits—not bad for a 33-year-old article.)
As Sharon Begley writes in this week's cover, however, we are living in a very different time. On global cooling, there was never anything even remotely approaching the current scientific consensus that the world is growing warmer because of the emission of greenhouse gases inextricably linked to human activity (like, say, driving).
When Sharon and I—along with Julia Baird and Debra Rosenberg, the editors on the project—began talking about what Sharon calls "the denial machine," I was somewhat skeptical. Corporate America is calling for action and thinking green. California is curbing emissions. Al Gore is now an Oscar-winning PowerPoint presenter. If Gore, whom George H.W. Bush called "Ozone Man" in 1992, and ExxonMobil could agree on the gravity of the issue, then who, I wondered, wasn't onboard?
Too many people, as it turns out. Sharon's reporting illuminates how global-warming skeptics have long sown doubt about the science of climate change, doubts that have affected—and are still affecting—our response to a real and growing problem.
Our story is not a piece of lefty cant. Honest, well-meaning people can disagree about what we should do about climate change, but it is increasingly difficult to maintain that the problem simply does not exist, or is a minor threat.
We are not saying that it is time for all Americans to give up their cars and bike to work, or that Gore should be canonized or that the board of the Sierra Club should be given emergency powers to run the country. But Sharon is saying that to reflexively deny the scientific consensus does a disservice to the debate, which is shortchanged and circumscribed when Rush Limbaugh tells his listeners, as he did earlier this year, that "more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is not likely to significantly contribute to the greenhouse effect. It's just all part of the hoax."
Last week Idaho Sen. Larry Craig told our Eve Conant that there "is still a bit of a game out there—who has the better science? Political science and climate science are both just based on good guesses. But if you want to make trillion-dollar changes to the economy, you damn well better have it right." Exactly so. The reality of global warming is no longer just a guess, however, and it is surely not a game.
In 2040, will the editor of NEWSWEEK hold up this week's issue as an alarmist and discredited report in the tradition of 1975's "global cooling" story? One can hope, for that would mean America and the rest of the world had reversed the effects of warming so quickly that climate change will seem as rare and remote as polio. But I fear our successors will find that our concerns were the right ones, and that we were on the safest of scientific ground this week. Denying reality does not make it go away. Facts, as John Adams said, are stubborn things.