Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Climate Denial Industry is Out to Dupe the Public. And it's Working

George Monbiot
7 December 2009

When you survey the trail of wreckage left by the climate emails crisis, three things become clear. The first is the tendency of those who claim to be the champions of climate science to minimise their importance. Those who have most to lose if the science is wrong have perversely sought to justify the secretive and chummy ethos that some of the emails reveal. If science is not transparent and accountable, it's not science.

I believe that all supporting data, codes and programmes should be made available as soon as an article is published in a peer-reviewed journal. That anyone should have to lodge a freedom of information request to obtain them is wrong. That the request should be turned down is worse. That a scientist suggests deleting material that might be covered by that request is unjustifiable. Everyone who values the scientific process should demand complete transparency, across all branches of science.

The second observation is the tendency of those who don't give a fig about science to maximise their importance. The denial industry, which has no interest in establishing the truth about global warming, insists that these emails, which concern three or four scientists and just one or two lines of evidence, destroy the entire canon of climate science.

Even if you were to exclude every line of evidence that could possibly be disputed – the proxy records, the computer models, the complex science of clouds and ocean currents – the evidence for man-made global warming would still be unequivocal. You can see it in the measured temperature record, which goes back to 1850; in the shrinkage of glaciers and the thinning of sea ice; in the responses of wild animals and plants and the rapidly changing crop zones.

No other explanation for these shifts makes sense. Solar cycles have been out of synch with the temperature record for 40 years. The Milankovic cycle, which describes variations in the Earth's orbit, doesn't explain it either. But the warming trend is closely correlated with the accumulation of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. The impact of these gases can be demonstrated in the laboratory. To assert that they do not have the same effect in the atmosphere, a novel and radical theory would be required. No such theory exists. The science is not fixed – no science ever is – but it is as firm as science can be. The evidence for man-made global warming remains as strong as the evidence linking smoking to lung cancer or HIV to Aids.

The third observation is the contrast between the global scandal these emails have provoked and the muted response to 20 years of revelations about the propaganda planted by fossil fuel companies. I have placed on the Guardian's website four case studies; each of which provides a shocking example of how the denial industry works.

Two of them are drawn from Climate Cover-Up, the fascinating, funny and beautifully written new book by James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore. If every allegation it contained could not be traced back to leaked documents (I have checked all the sources), their findings would be unbelievable. Nothing exposed by the hacking of the Climatic Research Unit's server is one tenth as bad as the least of these revelations.

When I use the term denial industry, I'm referring to those who are paid to say that man-made global warming isn't happening. The great majority of people who believe this have not been paid: they have been duped. Reading Climate Cover-Up, you keep stumbling across familiar phrases and concepts which you can see every day on the comment threads. The book shows that these memes were planted by PR companies and hired experts.

The first case study I've posted reveals how a coalition of US coal companies sought to persuade people that the science is uncertain. It listed the two social groups it was trying to reach – "Target 1: Older, less educated males"; "Target 2: Younger, lower income women" – and the methods by which it would reach them. One of its findings was that "members of the public feel more confident expressing opinions on others' motivations and tactics than they do expressing opinions on scientific issues".

Remember this the next time you hear people claiming that climate scientists are only in it for the money, or that environmentalists are trying to create a communist world government: these ideas were devised and broadcast by energy companies. The people who inform me, apparently without irony, that "your article is an ad hominem attack, you four-eyed, big-nosed, commie sack of shit", or "you scaremongers will destroy the entire world economy and take us back to the Stone Age", are the unwitting recruits of campaigns they have never heard of.

The second case study reveals how Dr Patrick Michaels, one of a handful of climate change deniers with a qualification in climate science, has been lavishly paid by companies seeking to protect their profits from burning coal. As far as I can discover, none of the media outlets who use him as a commentator – including the Guardian – has disclosed this interest at the time of his appearance. Michaels is one of many people commenting on climate change who presents himself as an independent expert while being secretly paid for his services by fossil fuel companies.

The third example shows how a list published by the Heartland Institute (which has been sponsored by oil company Exxon) of 500 scientists "whose research contradicts man-made global warming scares" turns out to be nothing of the kind: as soon as these scientists found out what the institute was saying about them, many angrily demanded that their names be removed. Twenty months later, they are still on the list. The fourth example shows how, during the Bush presidency, White House officials worked with oil companies to remove regulators they didn't like and to doctor official documents about climate change.

In Climate Cover-Up, in Ross Gelbspan's books The Heat is On and Boiling Point, in my book Heat, and on the websites DeSmogBlog.com and exxonsecrets.org, you can find dozens of such examples. Together they expose a systematic, well-funded campaign to con the public. To judge by the comments you can read on this paper's website, it has worked.

But people behind these campaigns know that their claims are untrue. One of the biggest was run by the Global Climate Coalition, which represented ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, the American Petroleum Institute and several big motor manufacturers. In 1995 the coalition's own scientists reported that "the scientific basis for the greenhouse effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well-established and cannot be denied". The coalition hid this finding from the public, and spent millions of dollars seeking to persuade people that the opposite was true.

These people haven't fooled themselves, but they might have fooled you. Who, among those of you who claim that climate scientists are liars and environmentalists are stooges, has thought it through for yourself?

The denial industry case notes

1 The public persuasion campaign

In 1991 the Western Fuels Association, National Coal Association and Edison Electric Institute set up a group called the Information Council for the Environment (Ice). Its founding documents were leaked. The text has been made available online by the scientist Naomi Oreskes. The strategy was spelt out in a document produced by the Western Fuels Association: to "reposition global warming as theory (not fact)".

Ice was given $510,000 to test its messages in key markets, all of which happened to be the homes of members of the energy and commerce or ways and means committees of the US House of Representatives. The purpose was to "demonstrate that a consumer-based media awareness program can positively change the opinions of a selected population regarding the validity of global warming." If it worked, Ice would "implement program nationwide".

It identified "two possible target audiences": "Target 1: Older, less educated males". These people, Ice said, would be receptive to "messages describing the motivations and vested interests of people currently making pronouncements on global warming – for example, the statement that some members of the media scare the public about global warming to increase their audience and their influence … "

"Target 2: younger, lower-income women" … "These women are more receptive ... to factual information concerning the evidence for global warming. They are likely to be "green" consumers, believe the earth is warming, and to think the problem is serious. However, they are also likely to soften their support for federal legislation after hearing new information …"

Ice discovered that "members of the public feel more confident expressing opinions on others' motivations and tactics than they do expressing opinions of scientific issues." Here are some of the messages it tested:

"Some say the earth is warming. Some also said the earth was flat."

"Who told you the earth was warming … Chicken Little?"

"How much are you willing to pay to solve a problem that may not exist?"*

These messages must have worked, because they were later used by Ice in a wider media campaign.

* James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore, 2009. Climate Cover-Up. Greystone Books, Vancouver.

2 Undisclosed interests

Dr Patrick Michaels is often used by the media on both sides of the Atlantic as one of the very few people who deny that manmade climate change is happening and who is also a practising climate scientist. Among many other outlets, he has written for the Guardian's website, which describes him as "a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Climate of Extremes: Global Warming Science They Don't Want You to Know." But there's something Michaels doesn't want you to know: as far as I can tell, he has never voluntarily disclosed the following information.

In 2006 the Intermountain Rural Electric Association (Irea) circulated a memo to electricity generators, transmitters and distributors[2]. The memo explained that most of the electricity its members provided is generated by coal plants, and Irea was intending to engineer a "considerable shifting from gas-fired generation" to coal. But the profits from this enterprise were now under threat. "A carbon tax or a mandatory market-based greenhouse gas regulatory system would erode most, if not all, of the benefits of the coal-fired generation."

In the hope of averting this disaster, Irea had "decided to support Dr Patrick Michaels and his group (New Hope Environmental Services Inc). Dr Michaels has been supported by electric co-operatives in the past and also receives financial support from other sources ... In February of this year Irea alone contributed $100,000 to Dr Michaels. In addition we have contacted all of the G&Ts [generators and transmitters of electricity] in the United States and as of the writing of this letter, we have obtained additional contributions and pledges for Dr Michaels' group. We will be following up with the remaining G&Ts over the next several weeks."

3 Science by petition

The Heartland Institute is a lobbying group which has received $676,000 from ExxonMobil. In 2007 it published a list of "500 Scientists Whose Research Contradicts Man-Made Global Warming Scares" (pdf). These people, it maintained, supported "the very important view that the Modern Warming is natural and no more dangerous than were the Medieval Warming, the Roman Warming and the Holocene Warming before it."

But they didn't. Kevin Grandia of DeSmogBlog.com started contacting the people the Heartland Institute had listed. He asked them whether they endorsed the views the Heartland Institute said they held. Within 48 hours, 45 people responded, all outraged that they had been traduced. Here are some samples of their replies to Kevin and their messages to the author of the list, Dennis Avery:

"I am horrified to find my name on such a list. I have spent the last 20 years arguing the opposite."

Dr David Sugden, professor of geography, University of Edinburgh

"I have NO doubts ... the recent changes in global climate ARE man-induced. I insist that you immediately remove my name from this list since I did not give you permission to put it there."

Dr Gregory Cutter, professor, department of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences, Old Dominion University

"Please remove my name. What you have done is totally unethical!!"

Dr Svante Bjorck, Geo Biosphere Science Centre, Lund University

"Because none of my research publications has ever indicated that the global warming is not as a consequence of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, I view that the inclusion of my name in such list without my permission or consensus has damaged my professional reputation as an atmospheric scientist."

Dr Ming Cai, associate professor, department of meteorology, Florida State University

"They have taken our ice core research in Wyoming and twisted it to meet their own agenda. This is not science."

Dr Paul F Schuster, hydrologist, US Geological Survey

"Please remove my name IMMEDIATELY from the following article and from the list which misrepresents my research."

Dr Mary Alice Coffroth, department of geology, State University of New York at Buffalo

None of these names have yet been removed from the institute's list.

4 The Inside Track

When George W Bush was president, White House staffers collaborated with the oil industry to fix government policies on climate change.

In 2004, Harper's magazine published a leaked memo from Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute to Phil Cooney, the chief of staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. The Competitive Enterprise Institute has been given more than $2m by Exxon. Ebell's memo showed that the White House and the institute had been working together to discredit a report on climate change produced by the Environmental Protection Agency, whose head at the time was Christine Todd Whitman.

"Dear Phil,

Thanks for calling and asking for our help … As I said, we made the decision this morning to do as much as we could to deflect criticism by blaming EPA for freelancing. It seems to me that the folks at EPA are the obvious fall guys, and we would only hope that the fall guy (or gal) should be as high up as possible. I have done several interviews and have stressed that the President needs to get everyone rowing in the same direction. Perhaps tomorrow we will call for Whitman to be fired[1]."

The New York Times later discovered that Phil Cooney, who is a lawyer with no scientific training, had been imported into the White House from the American Petroleum Institute to control the presentation of climate science. He edited scientific reports, striking out evidence that glaciers were retreating and inserting phrases suggesting that there was serious scientific doubt about global warming. When the revelations were published he resigned and took up a post at Exxon.

The oil company also had direct access to the White House. On 6 February 2001, 17 days after George W Bush was sworn in, AG (Randy) Randol, ExxonMobil's senior environmental adviser, sent a fax to John Howard, an environmental official at the White House[3]. It began by discussing the role of Bob Watson, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It suggested he had a "personal agenda" and asked: "Can Watson be replaced now at the request of the US?"[4]

It went on to ask that the United States be represented at the panel's discussions by a Dr Harlan Watson[8]. Both requests were met. One Watson was sacked, the other was appointed, and went on to wreak havoc at international climate meetings.

[1] Letter from Myron Ebell to Phil Cooney. Published in the May 2004 edition of Harper's magazine: White House Effect.

[2] AG (Randy) Randol III, Senior Environmental Adviser, ExxonMobil, 6 February 2001. Memo to John Howard. Bush Team for IPCC negotiations. Facsimile, sent from tel no. (202) 8620268.

[3] ibid, p2

[4] ibid, p5