September 02, 2009

Beware of Climate Change Denialism: You’re the Target

I love my job. Not many scientists get to work with a Congressional staffer one day, a military expert the next, and a business exec the day after that. These are all smart, resourceful people with backgrounds different from mine, and I love the variety of what I learn from these folks. And these different groups of professionals have something in common: they are all targets of a well-funded, organized, and professional PR campaign that intentionally spreads misinformation about climate change science with the aim of stalling policy action on climate change. Since climate change only complicates their jobs, many of them are susceptible to the rhetoric of denialism.

Hiding behind a seemingly scientific façade of half-truths and cherry-picked data, the denialists claim that manmade carbon dioxide emissions are not altering the climate or that, if they are, there are no risks associated with altering the climate or that, if there are, there is nothing we can do about it anyway. I’ve been told by my own colleagues that I should avoid the word denialist and use the word skeptic instead.

But as a scientist, like all good scientists, I am a skeptic.

Scientists posit a hypothesis and then consider all of the available evidence to see if they can reject the hypothesis; that is genuine skepticism. A hypothesis that survives repeated, aggressive attempts at evidence-based rejection eventually graduates to the flag rank of a scientific theory. Human-induced global warming has survived skeptical scrutiny for more than a century and now stands with such venerable theories as general relativity (explains gravity), germ theory (explains infectious disease) and electromagnetism (explains electricity and magnetic force).

By contrast, denialism is the incorrect application of highly selective—sometimes fabricated—evidence framed to support a predetermined outcome based on hidden motives. The principal tactic of climate change denialism is to create the appearance of profound disagreement within the scientific community on basic conclusions about which there is no serious debate, namely that climate change is real, is happening now, and the main cause is the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations resulting from the combustion of coal and oil. Examples of recent, organized denialist literature include the “Non-governmental International Panel on Climate Change” or NIPCC report (a play on the legitimate and scientifically robust Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC) and The Skeptics Handbook. In the past month I have received phone calls and emails from business leaders, Congressional staffers, and members of the national security and foreign policy communities asking for my reaction to these two documents. It is obvious that the PR misinformation campaign is aggressively targeting them.

Not coincidentally, both the NIPCC and The Skeptics Handbook are backed by the Heartland Institute, an advocacy group that opposes government restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions and tobacco use, citing a lack of scientific consensus regarding the carbon dioxide-climate link and the tobacco-health link. It is no accident that Heartland was part of the tobacco lobby before graduating to climate change; the climate change denialists have literally taken a page out of the tobacco industry’s playbook. For decades that industry worked relentlessly to “create a smokescreen: a manufactured controversy fostering enough doubt in the public mind that a P.R. disaster could be averted—or at least forestalled.” In fact, some of the same people who were involved with the PR campaign denying the tobacco-health link in the 1980s and 1990s were later directly involved in the climate change denialism campaign. Compare the following quotes from PR strategy memos, one written 40 years ago by a tobacco industry executive and the other written by a political strategist more than three decades later:

“Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.” (Smoking and Health Proposal, internal document of the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation, 1969)

“The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science…Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.” (Frank Luntz, “The Environment: A Cleaner, Safer, Healthier America,” political strategy memo, 2002)

The point is that a professional PR campaign (including other groups beyond just the Heartland Institute) is targeting the national security community with climate change misinformation because those who oppose government action on carbon dioxide emissions do not want this highly influential community talking about the security implications of climate change.

Rather than dissecting the false scientific claims of the denialism campaign, I will refer the reader to some reliable resources that expose the campaign and explain the flaws in its false scientific claims:

  • New Scientist magazine’s "Climate Change: A guide for the Perplexed" responds to a number of common denialist claims.
  • A group of practicing climate scientists maintains a blog called Real Climate. Although not their sole focus, they do follow and review the work of the denialist campaign. Since they are not PR professionals, their explanations can get deep and technical, but the motivated reader can get a lot out of this blog.
  • The deSmog Blog describes itself as “the world’s number one source for accurate, fact based information regarding global warming misinformation campaigns.” They track the comings and goings of the denialist campaigners and they do a good job with the science.
  • The Pew Center on Global Climate Change (my home base) has an FAQ that addresses some common misconceptions about climate change science that are promoted by denialists.
  • Last December I debated climate change denialist Lawrence Solomon, whose book The Deniers provides a prime example of how the misinformation campaign works. After the debate, organized by the National Chamber Foundation, I wrote an essay that digs into some of Solomon’s tactics of misinformation.

The resources above are useful for checking up on the tactics and claims of the denialists, but they are not the best way to learn about the science of climate change. Below are some reliable information sources on the basics of climate change as framed by the scientific method: