Climate of Doubt (Fear, Corruption, and Lies)

ClimateOfDoubtFRONTLINE

A few days ago I had the pleasure of watching Climate of Doubt, which is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.  Paradoxically, it was also one of the most nauseating.  It focused on the American media and climate change and was hosted by John Hockenberry.  Hockenberry did a fantastic job interviewing several individuals currently involved in the climate debate.  These interviews specifically revealed the reality behind how money in politics has corrupted climate science, consequently destroying policies that could reduce the detrimental affects of human caused global warming.

2008

I remember before the 2008 presidential election (I was just starting my undergraduate degree), the general public throughout North America seemed to accept the fact that global warming was happening, and that humans are the primary cause of that warming.  At the time I had just started to immerse myself in the scientific literature and made a point to read a few of the most influential books out at the time (e.g., An Inconvenient TruthThe Weather Makers).  I was completely convinced that the science was sound – global warming was a reality – and I was excited that the most powerful country on the planet was in the process of electing a president that would implement policies to prevent our planet from experiencing a runaway greenhouse effect.  I felt that if America led the way, other developed countries, and eventually other developing countries, would follow suit.  Many people I knew shared these views and I felt like the scientific and political climate indicated we were going to see real action against climate change.  In my mind, it was one of the best examples of scientific research in action, being used to propose policies that could save our planet and ensure the survival of our species.

Manufacturing Doubt

As the Climate of Doubt showed, this is not the progression that occurred.  It truly made me realize that over the past 4-5 years global warming has been subject to a firestorm of propaganda in the American media, and there has been little to no progress on policies that would help America transition away from a fossil fuel based economy.  Special interest groups, like the American Heartland Institute, Americans for Prosperity and the American Tradition Institute have ensured that global warming becomes a partisan, divisive issue by pouring millions of dollars into commercials, other forms ofadvertising and books that are designed to make people doubt the reality of global warming.  They have also bought the Republican Party.

So how exactly has this tactic successfully beaten a 97-98% scientific consensus and a National Academy of Science statement that clearly explains “Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activity, and poses significant risks for – and in many cases is already affecting – a broad range of human and natural systems.” (Anderegg et al., 2010).  Part of it has to do with the media’s approach to discussing divisive issues, and part of it has to do with contrarian scientists twisting data.  Despite the fact that the evidence for climate change is overwhelming the American media approaches the issue as if both sides of the debate have equal validity.  CNN frequently runs headlines like “Is global warming fact or fiction?” as if that is a valid question to ask.  And they will invite a climate scientist to discuss the issue with a contrarian.  This gives the public a reason to doubt whether global warming is happening, and most importantly it reduces the publics willingness to support policies to prevent it.

However, special interest groups are really the heart of the issue.  Professional contrarians likeChristopher Monckton and Fred Singer are hired by these institutes to write books and give presentations at annual ‘climate conferences’ and even in congress.  They fudge data by playing around with the start and end of global climate trend lines and convince people to be “brave enough to do nothing”.  They argue that the climate has always changed and that humans have little to nothing to do with these trends.  They accuse mainstream scientists and democrats of being “socialist” and “alarmists” and argue that policies to reduce carbon emissions will destroy the economy.  With the help of billionaire individuals and companies donating money to protect the energy status quo (e.g.David KochEXXON mobile), these contrarians have successfully built a message of doubt.

This has deeply affected the American political system.  John Kerry explained the situation in the documentary with brutal honesty: “American politics is being completely defined by huge sums of money.  A broad coalition wanted to do something [about climate change].  But as the campaign of fear built up people began to retreat – they [e.g., American Heartland Institute] spent huge sums of money and built major disinformation campaigns that had a profound impact.  This has made many people gun-shy of having those kinds of money spent against them.”  So who are the ‘people’ who began to retreat from the issue of climate change?  That would be the entire GOP.  In 2012, literally the entire Republican Party is against any action on climate change and either believes it is not happening or that humans are not responsible for it.  Republicans who did believe in climate change, like Bob Inglishave had their careers destroyed by the major disinformation campaigns Kerry mentioned.  This has become so extreme and ridiculous that even the Republican Chair of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, James Sensenbrenner, remains ‘unconvinced’ by the 97% scientific consensus.

Action Now

Unfortunately, preventing a runaway greenhouse effect is not an issue that can wait for an American partisan divide to subside.  Scientists have undeniably revealed that glaciers are melting, temperatures over land and oceans are increasing, humidity is increasing, air temperature is increasing, sea surface temperature is increasing, ice sheets are melting, sea level is rising and sea ice is decreasing (check out Skeptical Science for the Big Picture).  Every decade since we started recording average global temperature has been warmer than the last.  The 2000’s were the hottest on record and 2012 has been the hottest year on record.  Greenhouse gases (particularly carbon dioxide) are increasing in our atmosphere, because of our actions (primarily the burning of fossil fuels), and greenhouse gases have been unequivocally linked to rising global temperature.  Furthermore, scientists already have enough evidence to conclusively state that this warming will continue if we don’t fundamentally restructure our energy economy and the net result of this warming will be horrific for our global civilization.

The good news is that this does not have to be our fate.  But it will take political action.  Now.

climate-of-doubt

References

Anderegg et al., 2010.  Expert credibility in climate change.  PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1003187107

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About Cadell Last
I am a science educator, freelance science writer, and founder of The Advanced Apes based in Toronto, Ontario. In the past my academic research focused on the evolution, ecology, and behaviour of non-human primates (i.e., chimpanzees, gorillas, ring-tailed lemurs). Currently, my official blog, The Ratchet, can be found via The Advanced Apes and Svbtle. I enjoy exploring recent research in human evolutionary sciences, as well as biology, ecology, astronomy, physics, and computer science. My work has been featured in Scientific American, American Humanist, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Jane Goodall Institute of Canada. I am also exploring science popularization in new mediums in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios with an animated YouTube channel. You can contact me on Twitter (@cadelllast) or via email: cadell.last@gmail.com

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