The Ministry of Climate Change Misinformation
A new book exposes the climate change denial machine.I really didn't want to write anything about the stolen climate scientist emails. Besides the fact that the personal accounts of scientists in the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia were illegally hacked, the supposedly incriminating quotes were taken well out of context, and, frankly, the actual content of the correspondences contains nothing to suggest that climate change isn't very real and a very immediate threat. The emails certainly don't change the fact that the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change remains strong.Not that the scientific consensus seems to matter in this day and age of misinformation.But these emails reared their ugly heads the same week that I happened to be reading a new book on the long-running "crusade to deny global warming," an exposé of the intricate and highly orchestrated efforts of fossil fuel companies (and the politicians, mad men, and reactionary media flacks in their back pockets) to discredit real climate science and manufacture confusion. Climate Cover-Up grew out of the good, old-fashioned muckracking that James Hoggan (with co-author Richard Littlemore) has been publishing since 2005 on the invaluable website DeSmogBlog. The book, through meticulously documented analysis, lays out the deliberate, nefarious, and immoral campaign to manipulate the public discourse on climate change. It also helps explain why, despite the well-established science, there are still ads on TV trumpeting the benefits of carbon dioxide ("They call it pollution, We call it life"), why anonymous commenters continue to bombard climate-related articles and blog posts (and, likely, this column) with uninformed "it's a hoax" or "the world is cooling" denial talking points, why just over half of registered Republicans believe climate change is happening at all, and why, last week, some stolen personal emails from climate scientists that don't actually discredit their work is a bigger news story than the very severe, enormously dire findings released by the scientifically sound Copenhagen Diagnosis."This is a story of betrayal, a story of selfishness, greed, and irresponsibility on an epic scale," writes Hoggan to open the book. Fighting words, you might think, typical of a riled-up environmentalist. But hold on, Hoggan doesn't fancy himself an environmentalist. ("I spend too much money on art, fine wine, skis, and high-end bicycle parts, and I am in recovery from my habit of buying luxury cars.") He's a PR guy. As president and founder of Hoggan and Associates, a leading Canadian public relations firm, Hoggan's got a keen sense for how the game is played and this perspective proves invaluable."I started to notice evidence of the campaign everywhere I looked," Hoggan writes in the preface. "To a trained eye, the unsavory public relations tactics and techniques and the strategic media manipulation became obvious. The more I thought about it, the more deeply offended I became." And the more he looked into it, building on the foundation laid out in journalist Ross Gelbspan's similarly revealing (and equally alarming) book The Heat Is On, he unearths what Bill McKibben calls "the crime of the geological epoch."Back in 1991, then-President George H.W. Bush was already recognizing climate change as a serious problem, promising to "fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect." Meanwhile, a group of coal companies got to work on a PR campaign to, in their own words, "reposition global warming as a theory (not fact)" and "supply alternative facts to support the suggestion that global warming will be good."It worked. Running radio ads (Who told you the Earth was warming...Chicken Little?) on frigid days in Minnesota, the messaging resonated. When they found that the public didn't trust coal or electrical utility officials to give them environmental advice, they found some scientists-though rarely climate experts-who would put their names on Op-Ed pieces in newspapers and show up for radio or television interviews. The media, suckered by a false sense of balance, kept putting these junk scientists on. And still do to this day.Conservative think tanks such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute happily keep lists of "skeptical" climate scientists, compensated by the think tanks themselves, for media appearances. "The beauty of this tactic," Hoggan writes, "as a method of keeping the debate alive is that none of these ‘scientists' ever have to conduct any actual research or put their views forward to be tested in the scientific peer-review process. They don't even have to be experts in a related field. And they certainly don't have to win the argument. As long as groups of scientists are seen to be disagreeing, the public continues to assume that the science is uncertain." But putting junk scientists on air is just one scheme. The book is dripping with juicy stories of a whole broad range of dirty measures that these well-oiled ideologues have employed to confuse the public and undermine scientific consensus. There's manipulation of data and baseless slander. There's a petition signed by thousands of "scientists" including Michael J. Fox and Geri Halliwell (yes, the Spice Girl). There are scientists silenced by expensive lawsuits and even more intimidated by the threat. There's the tragic tale of Roger Revelle, one of Al Gore's teachers and earliest mentors, who was coerced shortly after a heart-attack, mere months before he died, to review a "look before you leap"-themed article urging delayed climate action, and whose name wound up, against his will, as co-author of the piece. And there's money, lots of money, flowing fast and plentifully to anyone willing to publicly back the deniers' cause. Climate Cover-Up does lack one tactic, however: internet espionage and email hacking. I hope and expect that Hoggan and Littlemore will tackle this in a future edition.