by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
December 27, 2009
'DOUBT INDUSTRY' MUDDIES THE CLIMATE CHANGE DEBATE
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- There were many reasons why the United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen ended without a binding agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
But one big obstacle to reaching an agreement is arguably the ongoing, cleverly orchestrated and well-funded campaign of junk science designed to mislead people into thinking that there is a difference in scientific opinion about climate change.
It's not a particularly new tactic. The tobacco industry perfected it years ago. They called it "manufactured doubt." In the early 1950s, there was a spate of scientific reports linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer that were starting to have an effect on cigarette sales; people began to be concerned about the health risks associated with smoking.
The solution was a simple one. The tobacco companies hired one of the world's largest public relations firms, Hill and Knowlton, to design a PR campaign to convince people that smoking was not dangerous. They helped set up a organization called the Council For Tobacco Research (CTR) that would produce science favorable to the tobacco industry and call into question any independent, unfavorable research.
CTR's work in delaying and reducing regulation of tobacco products was outlined in a recent book, "Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health," by David Michaels, the epidemiologist at George Washington University who is President Obama's nominee to head the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
Michaels wrote that Hill & Knowlton's strategy was simple. "The industry understood that the public is in no position to distinguish good science from bad. Create doubt, uncertainty, and confusion. Throw mud at the anti-smoking research under the assumption that some of it is bound to stick. And buy time, lots of it, in the bargain."
Hill & Knowlton's strategies for Big Tobacco worked so well that manufacturers of asbestos, lead, vinyl chloride, dioxin and other products shown by science to be hazardous to our health employed them to great effect. A new "science for hire" industry was born to generate misleading information and false controversy. The goal? To protect profits.
And so it goes with climate change. The oil and coal industries have funded fake "grassroots" groups (known in the trade as "astroturfing"), think tanks and industry front groups to manufacture doubt about global warming.
Many corporate media outlets, too lazy to check out where information is coming from or who's paying for it, uncritically report the findings of these phony experts. They give equal weight to the claims of the so-called "climate skeptics," the people who believe that the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities are not responsible for global warming, without pointing out that this claim runs counter to the findings of nearly every reputable scientist in this field.
Another recent book, "Climate Cover-up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming," by James Hoggan with Richard Littlemore, outlines how widespread the disinformation campaign is.
For example, University of California professor Naomi Oreskes researched 928 peer reviewed scientific journal articles published between 1993 and 2003 and found not a single article took exception to the fact that manmade releases of greenhouse gases were causing climate change. Yet, despite the nearly unanimous agreement of the scientific community, 53 percent of the stories that appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times between 1998 and 2002 gave equal weight to the statements of scientists and climate skeptics.
As Hoggan and Littlemore found, nearly all the "scientific debate" about climate change largely happens outside of scientific institutions, and the echo chamber created by think tanks, blogs and media outlets sympathetic to the climate skeptics' cause helps amplify the message of doubt and protects the profits of the fossil fuel industry.
That's why we now have the manufactured scandal of "Climate-gate" -- the information contained in 10 years worth of hacked e-mails from the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in Great Britain which has been embraced with such fervor by the global warming deniers. They allege they provide the "smoking gun" that some climatologists colluded in manipulating data. But the truth is that these e-mails don't alter the huge body of evidence that strongly supports the conclusion that modern climate change is real and has been mostly caused by human activity.
Despite this huge body of evidence, all that the nations at Copenhagen agreed to do was "note" the scientific evidence. There's no road map to achieve what the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says is needed to keep our planet's temperature from rising by 2 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. Climate scientists say the likely outcome, even if the Copenhagen commitments are honored, is that the world's temperature increases by 3.9 degrees Celsius (or 7 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100.
Climate change is not only real, it is happening faster that scientists predicted just a few years ago. At the same time, in just the second quarter of this year, the fossil fuel industry has outspent the environmental sector by a factor of 14 to 1 in lobbying Congress. Lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry outnumber those working for environmental, health and alternative energy groups by more than seven to one.
That's why what we got in Copenhagen, as Naomi Klein summed it up this week for The Nation, "was nothing more than a grubby pact between the world's biggest emitters: I'll pretend that you are doing something about climate change if you pretend that I am too."
That's why the rich countries weren't willing to reduce their emissions significantly or pledge meaningful funding to help poorer nations. And the poorer nations weren't willing to be sold out for chump change, since this conference more or less assured that, according to Joss Garman of the British branch of Greenpeace, we will see "the collapse of the Amazon rainforest, droughts across South America and Australia, and the depletion of ocean habitats" in the coming years.
That's why this conference was a cruel joke for many of the inhabitants of the places -- from fishing villages in the Arctic to subsistence farmers in Africa to the low-lying island states of the South Pacific -- that were left to die by the negotiators in Denmark.
That's why the doubt industry's efforts to discredit climate science and obfuscate the issue may ultimately prove to be the most deadly public relations campaign ever done.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For extra added thrills, read his ongoing daily blog on The Harvard Classics.