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Do You Accept the Science of Climate Change? [Excerpt]

Some reject global warming science thanks to a misinformation campaign funded by fossil-fuel companies
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Courtesy of William Hewitt

Editor's Note: Excerpted from A Newer World—Politics, Money, Technology, and What's Really Being Done to Solve the Climate Crisis, by William F. Hewitt. With permission from the publisher, University of New Hampshire Press. Copyright © William F. Hewitt, 2012. (University of New Hampshire Press is an imprint of University Press of New England, www.upne.com.)

A concerted, focused, and well-funded campaign of disinformation has been waged against climate change.

This attempt to discredit the science, to instill a sense of doubt about the conclusiveness and the extent of the agreement within the scientific community, is a story well told by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in Merchants of Doubt. Oreskes looked at 928 — 10 percent — of all the papers published on climate change in peer-reviewed science journals over a ten-year period. She chose the 928 papers at random. Not one disputed the view that manmade greenhouse gases (GHGs) were causing a catastrophic environmental crisis.

Greenpeace, for one, has published well-documented reports on the funding for climate change denial by ExxonMobil and Koch Industries, among others. Journalists James Hoggan and Ross Gelbspan have also done considerable spadework in uncovering the campaigns mounted by fossil fuel special interests to discredit climate science. Hoggan writes, for instance, that "it's a story of deceit, of poisoning public judgment — of an anti-democratic attack on our political structures and a strategic undermining of the journalistic watchdogs who keep our social institutions honest."

Gelbspan says, "The reason most Americans don't know what is happening to the climate is that the oil and coal industries have spent millions of dollars to persuade them global warming isn't happening." Greenpeace notes that the ongoing "campaigns against climate science continue to receive funding from big oil and energy interests — not just ExxonMobil, but a raft of other companies and foundations whose profits are driven by the products that cause global warming."

A prominent public relations consultant, Frank Luntz, wrote a memo in 2000 that was widely circulated among conservatives seeking to debunk climate science and blunt any public policy progress on the issue. "Voters believe there's no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. 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."

The problem lies in the fact that even though the misinformation and doubt promulgated by the denialists flies directly in the face of the unequivocal evidence produced by scientists over more than 30 years — and wholly accepted within the scientific community — the media has too often taken the misinformation at its face value. At best, the media has continuously opined that there is a "debate" in scientific circles. At worst, they have broadcast the most outrageous of the claims being touted.

As early as 1994, Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer saw the danger: "What they've done is try to take scientific understanding and put it on the same level with political opinion. After all, if scientific understanding is the same as political opinion, then everybody's opinion is equally valid. There are no facts. And if there are no facts, there is no extra validity to acting on environmental problems than not acting." (As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said: "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.")

We enjoy a vast architecture of science — peer-reviewed journals, conferences, research institutions, and graduate schools, plus government, foundation, and corporate funding to support it all. We have come to rely on science to inform us about dangers to public health and the health of our ecosystems, to provide cures for many of our ills, including fixes for the ills we have brought on ourselves through industrial pollution. Further, we rely on science to inform public policy so that we will better know where to devote the finite resources at our disposal for maximum benefit to ourselves and to posterity. Responsible policy makers have long since become confident in the knowledge that they can depend on expert scientific testimony to help guide them.

Science has been called "the most reliable and self-correcting method ever devised by humans for finding empirical truths about the real world." But what happens if this most reliable knowledge is cast into doubt by a concerted campaign of disinformation? What is the result if environmental problems, and more particularly what many scientists consider the ultimate environmental problem, global climate change, is redefined in some discourse as "non-problematic?" The paper "Defeating Kyoto: The Conservative Movement's Impact on U.S. Climate Change Policy" characterizes the disinformation campaign to discredit the findings of thousands of scientists reflecting decades of work as an attempt to "redefine" their findings. It is a redefinition because this science was — and is — well established, thoroughly tested, and universally accepted.

Regarding the media's culpability, The New Yorker journalist Elizabeth Kolbert's view is that there have been some failures by journalists and news organizations in properly reporting climate change but that, because of its complexities and its low place on the national political agenda — and because the news media report on things that are current and high profile — climate change has not been well and truly covered. "I think that the media has contributed to the general sense of it not being an urgent problem because it's not the lead story of the paper every day," she says. Overall, though, she perceives that the quality and the quantity of media coverage of climate change has been on the upswing.

Combating climate denialism is one of the rationales for websites like Climate Central. A conference of top scientists, journalists, and other parties in 2005 identified the need for an authoritative voice on climate issues. Climate Cen­tral, a nonprofit organization, came into being in 2008 to "popularize good information about global warming."

Another key source for lucid information and commentary on climate science, albeit for those interested in some of the more difficult and esoteric questions, is the blog RealClimate. It was founded and is run by working climate scientists, among them NASA climate modeler Gavin Schmidt.

Schmidt agrees with Kolbert that reporters need a "news peg." The media sees the news in terms of a new story, and often one that has immediacy, a sense of conflict or sensationalism. Why, though, hasn't the disinformation been better filtered out by the media? In the particular case of the American media, Schmidt identifies a "journalistic reticence for calling people out." He in fact considers this a "gross ethical violation." Kolbert wrote in Climate Change: Picturing the Science — a book co-edited by Schmidt — that "the re­porter's habit of giving equal time to the opposing sides on any issue is easily exploited, and of course has been by so-called global warming skeptics."

A 2010 New York Times article on the defense of climate science by the academy notes, quite accurately, that "the battle is asymmetric, in the sense that scientists feel compelled to support their findings with careful obser­vation and replicable analysis, while their critics are free to make sweeping statements condemning their work as fraudulent." But a letter to the editor in response says: "If this unfair application of different rules and standards is true, doesn't the fault lie more with the media and the practice of journalism than with the scientists?" The writer goes on to say: "In the apparent interest of balanced reporting, equal voice is too often given to those whose opinions have no demonstrable basis in fact. Journalists owe it to their readers to subject the claims of climate skeptics to the same scrutiny that they apply to mainstream science."

This "asymmetric" journalism, however, has been diminishing over time, and as the volume of stories has grown, so has the quality. Social scientist Matthew Nisbet, director of the Climate Shift project at American Univer­sity's School of Communication, concluded in a comprehensive report that "with the exception of the editorial pages at The Wall Street Journal, in 2009 and 2010 the major national news organizations overwhelmingly reflected the consensus view on the reality and causes of climate change."

Overall, the professionalism of environmental journalism has been steadily improving. The Society of Environmental Journalists was founded in 1990 "to strengthen the quality, reach and viability of journalism across all media to advance public understanding of environmental issues." There are 1500 members from North America and 27 countries around the globe. At their annual conferences, climate change has been a persistent theme.

Similarly, in June 2010, 1500 people from science, politics, business, and the media came from 95 countries to Bonn for the annual Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum to discuss climate change and the media along a wide range of subject areas such as religion's role, the influence of social media and films, and the importance of renewables and effective urban mass transit, among many others. If there is a misinformation campaign, there is also an effort to get the story of the science of climate change right.

Excerpted from A Newer World - Politics, Money, Technology, and What's Really Being Done to Solve the Climate Crisis, by William F. Hewitt. With permission from the publisher, University of New Hampshire Press. Copyright © William F. Hewitt, 2012.  University of New Hampshire Press is an imprint of University Press of New England, www.upne.com

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