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What Fuels Climate Change Denial?
How a corporate campaign of science denial became
the template for the climate debate
Attitudes are changing, policies are not and getting worse
By Ray Cunneff
March 16, 2019
I chose the word “fuels” quite deliberately. But this post is not about Big Oil or the millions they spend each year to oppose any and all measures to combat climate change and the human activity that has contributed to it. Neither is this an attempt to refute these arguments. This is about the deniers themselves, the many themes of denial, the arguments and the anger. And the ultimate question, why?
The first line of denial arguments have long followed some basic themes: normal variation, solar activity, volcanoes or "God’s will".
That is followed by the anti-science arguments, that there is no scientific consensus, that the science is inexact, or that scientists are simply distorting the evidence and chasing grant money.
Then there is the public opinion denial argument, that people don’t really care about climate change and don’t see it as anything more than a distant threat. But that line of thought has become generational, younger Americans far more concerned about the future they will inherit than their elders.
But finally, denial arguments become economic and political, that taking actions against climate change will destroy economies, redistribute wealth, and nullify national sovereignty as part of a massive globalist conspiracy. And it’s this argument that generates the greatest anger and is a testament to the relentless campaign by the fossil fuel lobby to turn what should be a scientific, economic, societal and security issue into a partisan political one.
Why has denial become political/ideological?
Americans are taking global warming more seriously than at any time in the past twenty years, according to several measures in Gallup's annual environment poll. Most emblematic is the rise in their stated concern about the issue. Seventy-five percent of U.S. adults now say they are worried a "great deal" or a "fair amount" about global warming, up from fifty-five percent four years ago.
Five times in the last three years we've seen what have been described as "thousand-year storms" in the U.S. Extreme weather events have become "the new normal". Deniers can make excuses forever, and probably will, but we're seeing highly unusual weather events that ought to be getting the deniers' attention but for their heads buried too deeply in the sand (or someplace else).
Not dealing with climate change is already costing the tax payers a great deal of money, and will cost a great deal more in the near future, just like not dealing with the infrastructure is costing us. This nonsense of waiting until we have disasters or accidents rather than allowing ourselves to be proactive can be deadly, just as not taking care of our bodies costs us more in the long run than the cost of taking care does.
One of Donald Trump's chief science advisers insists the Earth is actually cooling. The irony is that, based only on current levels of solar activity, the Earth should be cooling.
It’s difficult to find another topic that generates as much rage, derision and ridicule as the mere mention of climate change or “global warming”.
Extreme weather events are very much a part of the climate change models. Droughts, wildfires, floods, tornadoes in winter, unseasonal heat waves, arctic blasts and "thousand-year storms" are all part of it.
Deniers deny denying. They begin from a conclusion then cherry-pick data that appears to support their foregone conclusion, the scientific method in reverse.
They are adamant, inflexible and impervious. But the question remains why? What's the vested interest? What's the payoff? Why so passionate in denial when 97% of climate scientists reach an entirely different conclusion? Do they believe that they know more, better? Do they not understand the difference between weather and climate? How did climate change denial become so deeply ingrained?
Merchants of Doubt
It began at a lecture by Fred Singer who, years before, had been a key skeptic concerning the science behind the dangers of smoking, particularly second-hand smoke. When asked by (then) graduate student Erik Conway if he still believed tobacco posed no health risks, Singer replied, "How would I know? I'm no expert on cancer". And two books and now a documentary film were born.
Conway, now resident historian at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, contacted Naomi Oreskes, Professor of History and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Her essay "Beyond the Ivory Tower" was a milestone in the fight against climate change denial. Together they collaborated on their first book "Fighting Facts", a history of science denial covering a broad range of subjects from tobacco, pesticides, acid rain, ozone depletion and climate change.
In writing their first book, they discovered that many of the same people, a loose-knit handful of scientists and scientific advisers, with deep connections in politics and industry, employing and refining many of the same tactics, led highly effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades. As one tobacco executive wrote, "Doubt is our product".
In "Merchants of Doubt" Oreskes and Conway took us on a trip down what they called "tobacco road", a trip in which renowned scientists become so maligned that they abandoned their research, in which environmental science was equated with Communism and the surprising linkages between Cold War rhetoric and climate change denial. But the trip was not an altogether somber one, it's actually very funny in retrospect the lengths and logical acrobatics (and outright lies) deniers would employ to sow the seeds of doubt.
One of the oddest connections was between Manhattan Project scientists of the 1940's and the cult of denial that has confronted virtually every major public health and environmental initiative of the last sixty years. The original culprits were physicists Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, William Nierenberg, and Robert Jastrow. Sietz and Neirenberg had been involved in building the atomic bomb, and both had worked on other weapons programs. Nierenberg had been the Director of the Scripps Institute and Jastrow, an astrophysicist, had headed up The Goddard Institute for Space Studies and he'd been a successful author of books popularizing space. Singer was a virtual rocket scientist and he had been the first Director of the National Weather Satellite Service. Seitz had been President of the National Academy of Sciences.
Impressive credentials. So why would scientists dedicated to uncovering the truth about the natural world deliberately misrepresent the work of their colleagues? Why would they spread accusations with no basis? Why would they not correct their arguments once they had been shown to be incorrect? And why did the press continue to quote them, year after year, even as their claims were shown, one after another, to be false?
Oreskes and Conway followed the trail through the original denier/delayer effort, the cynical "doubt is our product" campaign of the tobacco industry, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), acid rain, the ozone hole, second-hand smoke, a swipe at "The Silent Spring" author Rachel Carson, and the ongoing denial campaign against man-made climate change.
Each of these campaigns fits the same template: seemingly credible scientists, conservative think tanks (some created just for the campaigns), allied with industry, lubricated liberally with money and PR savvy, and leavened with a conviction that the ends justifies the means.
Deniers have successfully, if simplistically, argued that there is no such thing as "settled science" and that there is no consensus. They challenge consensus and, if there is, why does it matter? After all, they argue, wasn't it once the scientific consensus that the Earth was flat or that the sun orbited around the Earth? Even the Theory of Gravity cannot be considered settled science until the long-elusive "unified field theory", uniting gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces, can be contained in one set of equations. For professional science skeptics, "well understood" isn't good enough.
"One objection against consensus messaging is that scientists should be talking about evidence, rather than consensus. After all, our understanding of climate change is based on empirical measurements, not a show of hands. But this objection misunderstands the point of consensus messaging. It's not about "proving" human-caused global warming. It's about expressing the state of scientific understanding of climate change, which is built on a growing body of evidence."
- The Guardian
The Political Climate
Climate change deniers share a deep conviction in small government and the potential evils of big government, a doctrinaire belief in unconstrained free markets, the purity of capitalism, and the conviction that "tree-hugger" environmentalism and other do-gooder efforts threatened our free market, capitalistic system. Threats to their brand of uber-capitalism are seen as threats to the United States and that environmental science came to be seen by them as "green on the outside, but red on the inside."
No disinformation campaign can succeed without the cooperation of the press, and the authors provide some outrageous examples of how the press in general, and conservative organs like the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Times in particular, printed long-discredited information and baseless personal attacks, then declined to print rebuttals or retractions when the errors were pointed out. Whether the media was complicit or just lazy is purely speculative.
As a consequence of the disinformation/misinformation campaigns, there is a significant gap between public perception of scientific agreement and the actual 97% consensus. This discrepancy has been termed the "consensus gap" (Cook 2013). The consensus gap leads to lower belief among lay people in the reality of climate change and as a result, an overall lack of support for policies to mitigate the change.
While many factors influence how people think about climate change, an increasing body of evidence indicates that correct understanding of the high level of scientific agreement that humans are causing global warming is an important "gateway belief," a belief that in turn influences a number of other beliefs and attitudes about the environment (Ding and others 2011; Lewandowsky and others 2013; van der Linden and others 2014).
However, numerous surveys indicate the public in many countries have been led to believe that there is significant disagreement among climate scientists about whether humans are causing global warming (Kohut and others 2009; Comres 2014; Leiserowitz and others 2014).
In the end, the authors correctly note that what motivates deniers is political ideology, not science. As Joe Romm put it in "Hell and High Water", the reason most political conservatives and libertarians deny the reality of human-induced climate change is that they simply cannot stand the solution. So they attack both the solution and the science.
Hurricane Harvey: A Texas wake-up call
2017's Hurricane Harvey, that devastated the Houston area in particular, demonstrated how warmer atmosphere enhances evaporation rates and increases the carrying capacity of rainstorms. Harvey drew its energy from a warmer-than-usual Gulf of Mexico, which will only grow warmer in the decades to come. At its peak, Harvey produced rainfall rates in excess of six inches per hour in Houston, and its multi-day rainfall total was close to the theoretical maximum expected for anywhere in the United States.
Weather patterns are also getting “stuck” more often, boosting the chances that a storm like Harvey would stall over an area with deluge consequences, inflicting $125 billion in damage. Some scientists have linked this to melting Arctic sea ice, which reduces the strength of the polar jet stream and weakens atmospheric steering currents that can otherwise keep a storm like Harvey moving. A storm like Harvey might have been possible in the absence of climate change, but there are many factors at play that almost certainly made it more likely.
The symbolism of the worst flooding disaster in U.S. history hitting the sprawling capital city of America’s oil industry was not lost on scientists, politicians and the public. Climate change hits the vulnerable in any community hardest. Hurricane Harvey tied with 2005's Hurricane Katrina as the costliest tropical cyclone on record, although fortunately the death toll was a fraction of that in New Orleans. Institutionalized climate denial in our political system and climate denial by inaction by the rest of us have real consequences. And the future will almost certainly be far worse.
A FOOTNOTE: The largest, most consistent money fueling the climate denial movement are a number of well-funded conservative foundations built with so-called "dark money," or concealed donations, according to an analysis released in 2013.
The study, by Drexel University environmental sociologist Robert Brulle, is the first academic effort to probe the organizational underpinnings and funding behind the climate denial movement. It found that the amount of money flowing through third-party, pass-through foundations like Donors Trust and Donors Capital, whose funding cannot be traced, has risen dramatically over the past eight years. In all, 140 foundations funneled $1.5 billion to almost 100 climate denial organizations from 2010 to 2018.
In the end, Brulle concluded public records identify only a fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars supporting climate denial efforts. Some 75 percent of the income of those organizations, he said, comes via unidentifiable sources.
- Scientific American