Climate change denial
- This article is about campaigns to undermine public confidence in scientific opinion on climate change. For challenges to the scientific consensus, see global warming controversy.
Climate change denial is a term used to describe organized attempts to downplay, deny or dismiss the scientific consensus on the extent of global warming, its significance, and its connection to human behavior, especially for commercial or ideological reasons. Typically, these attempts take the rhetorical form of legitimate scientific debate, while not adhering to the actual principles of that debate. Climate change denial has been associated with the energy lobby, industry advocates and free market think tanks, often in the United States. Some commentators describe climate change denial as a particular form of denialism.
Peter Christoff, writing in The Age in 2007, said that climate change denial differs from skepticism, which is essential for good science. He went to say that "almost two decades after the issue became one of global concern, the 'big' debate over climate change is over. There are now no credible scientific sceptics challenging the underlying scientific theory, or the broad projections, of climate change." The relationships between industry-funded denial and public climate change skepticism have at times been compared to earlier efforts by the tobacco industry to undermine what is now widely accepted scientific evidence relating to the dangers of secondhand smoke, or even linked as a direct continuation of these earlier financial relationships. Aside from private industry groups, climate change denial has also been alleged regarding the statements of elected officials.
Scientists (notably climatologists) have reached scientific consensus that global warming is occurring and is mainly due to human activity. However, political and public debate continues regarding the reality and extent of global warming and what actions (including economic ones), to take in response. Numerous authors, including several scholars, have asserted that some conservative think tanks, corporations and business groups have engaged in deliberate denial of the science of climate change since the 1990s. On the other hand, some commentators have criticized the phrase as an attempt to delegitimize skeptical views and portray them as immoral.
Meanings of the term
The August 2007 Newsweek cover story "The Truth About Denial" reported that "this well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks, and industry has created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change." "As soon as the scientific community began to come together on the science of climate change, the pushback began," according to University of California, San Diego historian Naomi Oreskes. The article went on to say that individual companies and industry associations—representing petroleum, steel, autos and utilities, among others—formed lobbying groups to enlist greenhouse doubters to "reposition global warming as theory rather than fact," and to sow doubt about climate research just as cigarette makers had about smoking research. Newsweek subsequently published a piece by Robert J. Samuelson, who called the article "a vast oversimplification of a messy story" and "fundamentally misleading" because although global warming had already occurred, we "lack the technology" to unwind it, and the best we can hope to do is cut emissions. He argues that "journalists should resist the temptation to portray global warming as a morality tale... in which anyone who questions its gravity or proposed solutions may be ridiculed".
Journalists and newspaper columnists including George Monbiot and Ellen Goodman, among others, have described climate change denial as a form of denialism. Several commentators, including Goodman, have also compared climate change denial with Holocaust denial, though others, such as conservative radio talk show host Dennis Prager, have decried those comparisons as inappropriate and trivializing Holocaust denial. Institute of Economic Affairs member Richard D. North notes that outright denial by climate scientists of the major points of scientific consensus is rare, though scientists are known to dispute certain points. He says, "It is deeply pejorative to call someone a 'climate change denier'. This is because it is a phrase designedly reminiscent of the idea of Holocaust Denial ...". He acknowledges that "there are many varieties of climate change denial", but says that "[s]ome people labeled as 'deniers', aren't." Peter Christoff also emphasizes the distinction between scepticism and denial, he says "Climate change deniers should be distinguished from climate sceptics. Scepticism is essential to good science."
The environmentalist writer and activist George Monbiot stated in his Guardian opinion column that he reserves the term for those who attempt to undermine scientific opinion on climate change due to financial interests. Monbiot often refers to a "denial industry." However, he and other writers have described others as climate change "deniers," including politicians and writers not claimed to be funded by industry groups.
Mark Hoofnagle defines denialism as the employment of rhetorical arguments to give the appearance of legitimate debate where there is none, an approach that has the ultimate goal of rejecting a proposition on which a scientific consensus exists. In recent years the term has been associated with a series of views challenging the scientific consensus on issues including the health effects of smoking and the relationship between HIV and AIDS, along with climate change.
In Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change (2010), Clive Hamilton describes a campaign to attack the science relating to climate change, originating with the astroturfing campaigns initiated by the tobacco industry in the 1990s. He documents the establishment of the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC) as a 'fake front group' set up 'to link concerns about passive smoking with a range of other popular anxieties, including global warming'. The public relations strategy was to cast doubt on the science, characterizing it as junk science, and therefore to turn public opinion against any calls for government intervention based on the science.As one tobacco company memo noted: "Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the "body of fact" that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy." As the 1990s progressed ... TASSC began receiving donations from Exxon (among other oil companies) and its "junk science" website began to carry material attacking climate change science.—Clive Hamilton, Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change
Naomi Oreskes, co-author of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, describes how a small group of retired cold-war nuclear physicists, who through their weapons work had become well-connected, well-known and influential people, promoted the idea of 'doubt' in several areas of US public debate. According to Oreskes, they did this, "not for money, but in defense of an ideology of laissez-faire governance and opposition to government regulation". In 1984, Robert Jastrow, Frederick Seitz and William Nierenberg were instrumental in founding the George C. Marshall Institute, initially to defend Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) against other scientists' boycott of it. Oreskes said that this first campaign of the Institute's, from 1984 to 1989, involved demanding equal air-time in the media when mainstream physicists and engineers were critical of the SDI, and producing militarily alarmist material such as the article America has five years left, published in 1987 by Jastrow in the National Review. At the same time, Seitz was employed as a consultant to R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. His principal strategy on their behalf, said Oreskes, was to defend their products by doubt-mongering, by insisting that the science was unsettled and therefore that it was always premature for the US government to act to control tobacco use.
After the Cold War ended, they continued through the Marshall Institute to campaign against environmental issues from acid rain, the ozone hole, second-hand smoke and the dangers of DDT on to a campaign against global warming. In each case their argument was the same: simply that the science was too uncertain to justify any government intervention in the market place. It is only recently, Oreskes said, that historians such as her have been able to 'join the dots': Individual environmental scientists, finding opposition to their warnings about ozone layer depletion or DDT residues, were at the time unaware that the same institute was using the same arguments at the same time against other scientists who were warning about the dangers of smoking, of second-hand smoke, and about climate change itself.
In one of the first attempts by industry to influence public opinion on climate change, a 1998 proposal (later posted online by Greenpeace) was circulated among U.S. opponents of a treaty to fight global warming, including both industry and conservative political groups, in an effort to influence public perception of the extent of the problem. Written by a public relations specialist for the American Petroleum Institute and then leaked to The New York Times, the memo described, in the article's words, a plan "to recruit a cadre of scientists who share the industry's views of climate science and to train them in public relations so they can help convince journalists, politicians and the public that the risk of global warming is too uncertain to justify controls on greenhouse gases." Cushman quoted the document as proposing a US$ 5,000,000 multi-point strategy to "maximize the impact of scientific views consistent with ours on Congress, the media and other key audiences," with a goal of "raising questions about and undercutting the 'prevailing scientific wisdom.'"
The Guardian reported that after the IPCC released its February 2007 report, the American Enterprise Institute offered British, American, and other scientists $10,000, plus travel expenses, to publish articles critical of the assessment. The institute, which had received more than $US 1.6 million from Exxon and whose vice-chairman of trustees is Lee Raymond, former head of Exxon, sent letters that, The Guardian said, "attack the UN's panel as 'resistant to reasonable criticism and dissent and prone to summary conclusions that are poorly supported by the analytical work' and ask for essays that 'thoughtfully explore the limitations of climate model outputs'." More than 20 AEI employees worked as consultants to the George W. Bush administration. Despite her initial conviction that with "the overwhelming science out there, the deniers' days were numbered," Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer said that when she learned of the AEI's offer, "I realized there was a movement behind this that just wasn't giving up."
The Royal Society conducted a survey that found ExxonMobil had given US$ 2.9 million to American groups that "misinformed the public about climate change," 39 of which "misrepresented the science of climate change by outright denial of the evidence". In 2006, the Royal Society issued a demand that ExxonMobil withdraw funding for climate change denial. The letter, which was leaked to the media, drew criticism, notably from Timothy Ball and others, who argued the society attempted to "politicize the private funding of science and to censor scientific debate."
ExxonMobil has denied the accusations that it has been trying to mislead the public about global warming. A spokesman, Gantt Walton, said that ExxonMobil's funding of research does not mean that it acts to influence the research, and that ExxonMobil supports taking action to curb the output of greenhouse gasses. Gantt said, "The recycling of this type of discredited conspiracy theory diverts attention from the real challenge at hand: how to provide the energy needed to improve global living standards while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions." 
In 1994, according to a leaked memo, the Republican strategist Frank Luntz advised members of the Republican Party, with regard to climate change, that "you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue" and "challenge the science" by "recruiting experts who are sympathetic to your view." In 2006, Luntz stated that he still believes "back [in] '97, '98, the science was uncertain", but he now agrees with the scientific consensus.
In 2005, the New York Times reported that Philip Cooney, former lobbyist and "climate team leader" at the American Petroleum Institute and President George W. Bush's chief of staff of the Council on Environmental Quality, had "repeatedly edited government climate reports in ways that play down links between such emissions and global warming, according to internal documents." Sharon Begley reported in Newsweek that Cooney "edited a 2002 report on climate science by sprinkling it with phrases such as 'lack of understanding' and 'considerable uncertainty.'" Cooney reportedly removed an entire section on climate in one report, whereupon an oil lobbyist sent him a fax saying "You are doing a great job." Cooney announced his resignation two days after the story of his tampering with scientific reports broke, but a few days later it was announced that Cooney would take up a position with ExxonMobil.
Connections to the tobacco lobby
Several journalists have argued that efforts to downplay the significance of climate change resemble the campaign by tobacco lobbyists, after being confronted with new data linking cigarettes to cancer, to shift public perception of the discoveries toward that of a myth, unwarranted claim, or exaggeration rather than mainstream scientific theory. In 2006, The Guardian discussed similarities in the methods of groups funded by Exxon, and those of the tobacco giant Philip Morris, including direct attacks on peer-reviewed science, and attempts to create public controversy and doubt.
Former National Academy of Sciences president Dr. Frederick Seitz, who, according to an article by Mark Hertsgaard in Vanity Fair, earned about US$585,000 in the 1970s and 1980s as a consultant to R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, went on to chair groups such as the Science and Environmental Policy Project and the George C. Marshall Institute alleged to have made efforts to "downplay" global warming. Seitz stated in the 1980s that "Global warming is far more a matter of politics than of climate." Seitz authored the Oregon Petition, a document published jointly by the Marshall Institute and Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine in opposition to the Kyoto protocol. The petition and accompanying "Research Review of Global Warming Evidence" claimed:
The proposed limits on greenhouse gases would harm the environment, hinder the advance of science and technology, and damage the health and welfare of mankind. There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate. ... We are living in an increasingly lush environment of plants and animals as a result of the carbon dioxide increase. Our children will enjoy an Earth with far more plant and animal life than that with which we now are blessed. This is a wonderful and unexpected gift from the Industrial Revolution.
George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian that this petition, which he criticizes as misleading and tied to industry funding, "has been cited by almost every journalist who claims that climate change is a myth." Monbiot has written about another group founded by the tobacco lobby, The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), that now campaigns against measures to combat global warming. In again trying to manufacture the appearance of a grass-roots movement against "unfounded fear" and "over-regulation," Monbiot states that TASSC "has done more damage to the campaign to halt [climate change] than any other body."
Kivalina v. ExxonMobil
On February 26, 2008, attorneys for the Native American Rights Fund and the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment brought suit against ExxonMobil Corporation and two dozen other members of the energy lobby, including BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Royal Dutch Shell. The complaint sought to recover damages for the destruction of Kivalina, Alaska, a village which "is being forced to relocate because of flooding caused by the changing Arctic climate." Kivalina v. ExxonMobil was reported to be the first climate-change lawsuit with "a discretely identifiable victim." The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined in 2006 that Kivalina residents would be forced to relocate, at a minimum cost of US$95m, as soon as 2016. According to Stephan Faris, a writer for The Atlantic, the Kivalina suit accuses ExxonMobil et al. of
"... conspiring to cover up the threat of man-made climate change, in much the same way the tobacco industry tried to conceal the risks of smoking — by using a series of think tanks and other organizations to falsely sow public doubt in an emerging scientific consensus."
The suit was dismissed by the United States district court for the Northern District of California on September 30, 2009, on grounds that "the law suit raised non-justiciable political questions and that the plaintiffs did not have standing, because their harm was not fairly traceable to the defendants’ conduct."  An appeal was filed with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in November 2009.
Some journalists attribute the government inaction to the effects of climate change denial. However, a recent Angus Reid poll indicates that global warming skepticism in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom has been rising, apparently continuing a trend that has progressed for "months, even years" There may be multiple causes of this trend, including a focus on economic rather than environmental issues, and a negative perception of the "role the United Nations has played in promoting the global warming issue." Another cause may be weariness from overexposure to the topic: secondary polls suggest that "many people were turned off by extremists on both sides," while others show 54% of U.S. voters believe that "the news media make global warming appear worse than it really is." A poll in 2009 regarding the issue of whether "some scientists have falsified research data to support their own theories and beliefs about global warming" showed that 59% of Americans believed it "at least somewhat likely", of which 35% believed it is "very likely".
According to former U.S. senator Tim Wirth, the denial effort has affected both public perception and leadership in the United States. "They patterned what they did after the tobacco industry. [...] Both figured, sow enough doubt, call the science uncertain and in dispute. That's had a huge impact on both the public and Congress." Newsweek reports that whereas "majorities in Europe and Japan recognize a broad consensus among climate experts that greenhouse gases —mostly from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas to power the world's economies— are altering climate," as recently as 2006 only one third of Americans considered human activity to play a major role in climate change; 64% believed that scientists disagreed about it "a lot." A 2007 Newsweek poll found these numbers were declining, although majorities of Americans still believed neither that scientists agree climate change is taking place, nor that scientists agree climate change is caused by human activity, nor that climate change has yet had noticeable effect. Citing the following remarks in Science by physicist and U.S. Representative Rush Holt, the Newsweek report attributes American policymakers' failure to regulate greenhouse gas emissions to consistent undermining of science by the "denial machine":
- "...for more than two decades scientists have been issuing warnings that the release of greenhouse gases, principally carbon dioxide (CO2), is probably altering Earth's climate in ways that will be expensive and even deadly. The American public yawned and bought bigger cars. Statements by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Geophysical Union, American Meteorological Society, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and others underscored the warnings and called for new government policies to deal with climate change. Politicians, presented with noisy statistics, shrugged, said there is too much doubt among scientists, and did nothing."
- Business action on climate change
- Climate change alarmism
- Environmental skepticism
- Global warming conspiracy
- Global warming controversy
- Information Council on the Environment
- List of scientists opposing the mainstream scientific assessment of global warming
- Risk perception
- Scientific skepticism
- Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change
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- "Some Like It Hot." Chris Mooney, Mother Jones, May/June 2005
- "The Denial Machine." CBC
- "Hot Politics" PBS Frontline
- Timeline of the Political and Scientific Responses
- U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (Minority). (2007–12–20). U.S. Senate Report: Over 400 Prominent Scientists Disputed Man-Made Global Warming Claims in 2007. Retrieved 2009–12–25.
- "Industry Ignored Its Scientists on Climate" By Andrew C. Revkin, The New York Times, 23 April 2009
- PR Executive James Hoggan on "Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming" - video report by Democracy Now!
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