Crime of the century

Dealing with global warming is difficult, but it shouldn’t be impossible. What we need to do is well understood. Yet a campaign to prevent and delay emissions reductions, which began in the 1980s almost as soon as science began warning there might be a problem, has been so successful that two decades later it seems that substantive action, the sorts of cuts required to leave us with a planet we can recognise, are impossible to put in place.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the people who coordinate and run that campaign are morally and ethically bankrupt (I’m being polite), but are they also criminally liable for the damage their actions will undoubtedly cause? Donald Brown, Associate Professor of Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law at Penn State University, discusses the issue in a recent article: A New Kind of Crime Against Humanity?: The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Disinformation Campaign On Climate Change. Brown points out that the issue is much more than just a matter of science, it has moral and ethical dimensions:

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The bad news, and the good

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have an interesting article in Yale Environment developing ideas from their book Merchants of Doubt. Some of it summarises the findings of the book concerning the organised campaigns of denial of science, but there are some new expressions of anxiety which are deserving of notice.

They draw attention to the fostering of a public image of climate science as a criminal conspiracy by a group called Cooler Heads Coalition, a creation of the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). The CEI itself has accused NASA, the largest funder of climate science, of faking important climate data sets. And earlier this year Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, whose positions are frequently cited and promoted by CEI, called for a criminal investigation of 17 climate scientists from a variety of institutions for allegedly falsifying or distorting data used in taxpayer-funded research.
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Gluckman: climate denial undermines all science

NZ PM John Key’s Chief Science Advisor, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, tackled denialism head on in a lecture at Victoria University of Wellington’s Institute of Policy Studies last night. Titled Integrity in Science: Implications from and for the Climate Change Debate [pdfof full text], it’s an interesting and worthwhile overview of the issue from someone steeped in the science. Gluckman’s thesis is that the tactics of those who deny climate change — for whatever reason (he defines three) — are undermining all science:

…in an electronically connected world the tactics of those who reject the consensus, whatever their motives, can undermine confidence in the entire science system. In a world that is increasingly dependent on science in many domains, I cannot regard it as helpful to actively promote distrust and suspicion of the scientific process for political ends.


Gluckman begins by discussing the nature of science and true scepticism, then moves on to define the climate debate thus:

At the heart of the climate change issue are three questions:

  • What is the rate of change in global temperature and what will be its local effects?
  • What is the level of certainty about these predictions and the assumptions made in reaching these predictions?
  • What is the nature of response that the world community must make?

The bulk of climate science and indeed the IPCC consensus approach has been an effort to deal with the first two questions.

Finding answers to the third question is the hard bit, because that’s where what science tells us feeds into policy decisions, and special interests and ideologies come into play. Gluckman defines three groups opposed to action on climate change:

…a small group of scientists who sustain a contrary view for a variety of reasons, some scientific and some not, those who have a vested interest in promoting denial and those who for a variety of reasons, largely philosophical, will reject the evidence.

One philosophy he considers in some more detail:

In particular, many with a libertarian ideology do not accept that the state should control how they live their lives, particularly when the actions required will not impact for a generation or so. The economic libertarian believes growth is paramount and if there is a problem then technology will eventually solve it. There seems to be some irony in accepting that science may solve a problem but that it cannot correctly identify the problem.

That might ruffle a few feathers. I suspect a pop-gun broadside will be on its way from Barry Brill in the near future. In reality, Gluckman is being rather cautious. I find it a little disappointing (if entirely understandable, given his position) that he doesn’t go on to describe how these groups have become intertwined, to the extent that climate denial is now almost a required position for anyone with strong right wing views. It’s also clear that the melange has been encouraged, planned and funded through a clever campaign by special interests. Gluckman notes the parallel with tobacco denial, but doesn’t draw the obvious conclusion: that the tactics and tools for delaying action were first developed there, and then transferred on to climate and other issues. If he hasn’t already got a copy of Merchants of Doubt or Climate Cover-Up, perhaps we should club together to send him copies…

The media plays an important part in all this, and Gluckman is pretty direct about the responsibility they carry:

The issue here that concerns me is that of how to communicate complex science. The public has a right to understand these issues and in the end they determine how society will respond. However without responsible media it is not clear how this can be achieved. Publishers, editors and journalists all have a role in ensuring quality in the information exchange.

He underlines his point by quoting from a recent essay and book review (pdf) by Philip Kitcher in Science (which is well worth a read in its own right):

“It is an absurd fantasy to believe that citizens who have scant backgrounds in the pertinent field can make responsible decisions about complex technical matters on the basis of a few five minute exchanges amongst more or less articulate speakers…”

He goes on a few sentences later to say:

“Those covering the questions in the media, have the duty to convey the results so that citizens can cast their votes as an enlightened expression of freedom, justifiably aimed at the outcomes for which they hope. Staging a brief disagreement between speakers with supposedly equal credentials, especially when it is not disclosed that one of them is answering to the economic aspirations of a very small segment of society, is a cynical abnegation of that duty“.

Clearly, communicating science in those circumstances is a difficult task, and Gluckman notes how difficult and frustrating that can be for working scientists. Naomi Oreskes (reported in a Revkin tweet) goes further:

Scientists and academic institutions need to expand definition of what their “real work” is: “The work is not done, in my opinion, until it’s communicated in a way that citizens understand.”

It’s just as difficult and frustrating for communicators who aren’t working scientists, forever playing whack-a-mole with arguments and ideas that have been repeatedly debunked, dealing every day with the deluge of denialist propaganda. And I can’t help but have sympathy for the under-resourced and hard-pressed non-specialist journalists who have to deal with the issue in New Zealand’s media. The easy option may sometimes be the only feasible option.

Gluckman’s key point, however, is that the encouragement of confusion and mistrust of climate science has wider implications:

There is a growing concern among those of us who have some role in marrying science and policy that the way the debate is being framed is undermining confidence in the science system.

I would put it more strongly. The tactics being used to delay and undermine action climate change are quite deliberately poisoning the interface between science and policy-making. It has become almost standard corporate practise to deny, delay and defer action. Policy-makers are left in an invidious position — especially when those corporates and their shareholders play a significant role in funding politicians and parties. John Key’s appointment of Gluckman was a step in the direction of a solution. One can only hope that the PM is following his advice.

Merchants of Doubt

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming

Why should four distinguished American physicists ally themselves in their later years with movements to fight the scientific evidence and spread confusion on many of the most important issues of our time?  That’s a question Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway address in their admirable new book Merchants of Doubt. Three of the physicists were Fred Seitz, William Nierenberg and Robert Jastrow. The fourth, Fred Singer, is still living.

The issues in which the men, jointly or severally, played a part cover a wide range.  A surprising range at first sight.  What have tobacco smoking, the strategic defence initiative, acid rain, ozone depletion, second-hand smoking and climate change got in common? They were not areas of professional expertise for the four scientists. Oreskes and Conway point to the fact that they all involved the possibility of government regulation of market activities in the interests of the environment. Regulation was the road to socialism. All four men were stout defenders of free market capitalism and strident anti-communists. Nierenberg and Seitz hated environmentalists, viewing them as Luddites.

As eminent scientists who had played important roles on a national level they were men of influence and did not hesitate to use it when opportunity offered. The book traces in considerable detail the way they added their weight to the battle against regulation in the fields they engaged with. Seitz, on retirement, was employed by R J Reynolds Tobacco Company to oversee the distribution of a very large grant to biomedical research. To some degree this worked to create friendly witnesses for the tobacco industry.  Seitz agreed with the industry’s position that there was “no proof” that tobacco caused harm.  When in later years the battle moved to secondhand smoke, the Environmental Protection Agency called the epidemiological evidence conclusive. Seitz and Singer leapt in to create confusion. Singer claimed that the EPA was taking “extreme positions not supported by the science.” He and Seitz became advisers to The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition which attacked the science and campaigned against it. Singer argued that the EPA assumed the risk from second-hand smoking was directly proportional to the exposure, whereas it should have assumed a “threshold effect” – that doses below a certain level would have no effect.

Ozone depletion is a serious matter on which to oppose the science, and fortunately the science won out in the Montreal protocol of 1987 and its subsequent revision in 1990.  But Singer, at the time chief scientist at the US Department of Transportation wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal dismissing ozone depletion as localised and temporary and insisting that there was no proof that CFCs were responsible. The ozone hole he accounted for as part of Earth’s natural climate variability. There was therefore no need to regulate CFCs. His writing on this issue had three major themes: the science is incomplete and uncertain; replacing CFCs will be difficult, dangerous, and expensive; and the scientific community is corrupt and motivated by self-interest and political ideology. It reads like a striking prefiguring of the attacks on climate science that persist today.

The four men were closely involved in the attack on climate science in the early days. In 1980 Nierenberg chaired a National Academy of Sciences committee report in which economists Nordhaus and Schelling argued, contrary to the natural scientists’ contributions, that because there were enormous uncertainties about climate change and its potential costs, policymakers should do nothing but fund more research. The report synthesis followed the economists’ line.  It was heavily criticised, but not by the White House which used it to refute two EPA reports advising immediate action to reduce coal use. Then in 1989 the Marshall Institute produced a report written by Jastrow, Seitz and Nierenberg which rejected Hansen’s 1988 claim that warming as a result of CO2 emissions was detectable and instead blamed rising temperature on the sun. It went down well at the White House. “They are eminent scientists. I was impressed,” said one member of the cabinet affairs office. Singer joined in during the 90s with a litany of complaints at the findings of the 1996 IPCC and a vicious attack on climatologist Ben Santer for alleged unauthorised changes to the chapter of which he was a lead author.

The book tracks the ways in which these four men lent their considerable scientific prestige to a series of issues in which vested interests tried to deter government action to regulate business activities. They did so not by engaging with the science but by downplaying it or attacking it. The motive was ideological. It’s a sad story.

Part of the interest of the book is its reflections on the nature of science. Science doesn’t provide certainty or proof. What it does provide is the consensus of experts, based on the organised accumulation and scrutiny of evidence. Thus the geological theory of plate tectonics, for example, has emerged as accepted scientific knowledge. Modern science is a collective enterprise. What counts as knowledge are the ideas that come to be accepted by the fellowship of experts, the jury of one’s scientific peers.  If a claim is rejected the honest scientist moves on to other things. When Robert Jastrow and his colleagues first took their claims to the halls of public opinion rather than to the halls of science, they were stepping outside the institutional protocols that for four hundred years have tested the veracity of scientific claims. Many of the claims of the climate science contrarians had already been vetted in the halls of science and had failed to pass the test of peer review. Many were never even submitted for vetting.

Modern journalism often misunderstands the process. It’s considered only fair to give due consideration to another viewpoint. Journalists don’t always understand that the contrarian has already received due consideration by peers. And contrarians are often very insistent that they should be given a hearing. In the case of the four men who are the subject of this book journalists were also fooled by their stature as scientists. But the authors point out that they were never really experts on the diverse issues in which they engaged “in their golden years”. They couldn’t be. Modern science is far too specialised for that. Physicists can’t also be epidemiologists, ecologists, atmospheric chemists or climate modelers.

The sensible conclusion of the book is that we  must trust scientific experts who work in and through the scientific community of which they are part. The credentials of the experts matter, of course, but they are scrutinised by scientific bodies. We should take seriously the judgments of such groups as the National Academy of Sciences or the IPCC when they report on their searches of the science. It doesn’t make sense to dismiss the consensus of experts because someone dissents, especially if the dissenter is superannuated, disgruntled, a habitual contrarian, or in the pay of an interest group.

I took some comfort from the fact that this book is incidentally a record of the ultimate defeat of  those who attacked the science in the issues the authors cover. But in every case the attackers succeeded in delaying appropriate action. When one considers the magnitude of some of the dangers they denied, their confidence seems irresponsible in the extreme. There is little doubt that the science of climate change will also ultimately prevail. But delay is costly and dangerous. It is to be hoped that many journalists and policy makers read this book and learn from it to ignore the specious attacks climate science still suffers from deniers who play little or no part in its patient work.

[Buy via Fishpond NZ,, Book Depository UK]

A walk on the supply side

 “…we tend to assume that the public are confused because they have a deficit of scientific knowledge, education and cognitive skills. That is to say that they’re scientifically illiterate.”

In these words science historian Naomi Oreskes, speaking with others at a symposium at the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting, depicts the reaction of most scientists to the puzzling gap between scientific knowledge and public perception of climate change. I might add that although I’m no scientist I share the assumption she describes, since it was reading climate science (at the lay level) which made me aware of  the reality of the crisis.


She goes on to critique the response of the scientific community:

“So if the problem is a deficit, then the remedy for it is a surfeit. So it seems to me that the scientific community has succumbed to or fallen into or pursued what I would call a supply side response… we try to supply good information with public outreach efforts…And there are many examples of this, but since we’re here at AAAS, one of my favourites is our AAAS Press Room… If you actually read this web page you find it’s filled with fantastic information, but how many people are going to take the time, how many people in the public even know that we have a AAAS Press Room?”

The supply side model has failed.

“…our message has not gotten through to the American people. In fact a completely different message has gotten through which is that scientists are arguing, that there is still a lot of scientific uncertainty, that more research is needed, and that a lot of what we’re seeing can be explained by natural variability.”

She has tried to understand how this message of uncertainty and doubt is the one that has got through to the public and has found that for the past 30 years the American people have been subject to a very organised and systematic campaign to spread that alternative message.  Her forthcoming book, co-authored with Erik Conway, will document the campaign. (The book will be reviewed on Hot Topic.) But in the meantime she offered the symposium an example which the book doesn’t cover.

After the first President Bush signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Western Fuels, a consortium of coal producers, launched one of many campaigns to challenge the scientific evidence. They did this by hiring a PR firm, a group known as Bracy Williams & Co, and a set of market researchers, Cambridge Reports, to specifically plan a strategy, to test that strategy, and if it were successful, to implement it. The main point of this strategy was to reposition global warming as theory, not fact.

They began with a series of print ads. Oreskes sums up the message of those ads as follows:

“’Who told you the Earth was warming?’ Chicken Little, so there’s your alarmism argument. ‘Some say the Earth is warming, some also said the Earth was flat.’ So scientists are now cast as the opposite, as the anti-science. And ‘How much are you willing to pay for a problem that may not exist?’ That’s an argument that we’ve seen repeatedly over the last 20 years.”

Then they organised public relations tours in combination with this ad campaign

“and a big part of this public relations tour was to get scientists who could appear on TV, so arrange television appearances by sceptical scientists, usually not climate scientists, but people who had what appeared to be relevant credentials.”

Next step was to analyse the results through focus groups, which showed that yes, you could market attitude change. But it worked best if the evidence was presented as facts by technical spokespeople, that is to say people who were scientists or who appeared to be scientists. Therefore that it was essential to recruit scientists to deliver the message.

The scientists were duly found and incorporated into step two of the campaign, the production of a video called The Greening of Planet Earth.  Most of them weren’t climate scientists, but mostly actually agronomists from the US Department of Agriculture making the claim that we know for a fact that carbon dioxide increases agricultural productivity, and in fact not just agricultural productivity but productivity of all plants.

“So it’s a very, very positive message, it’s all good, the scientists are all very kindly-looking, they’re very nice, they’re very calm, and they just tell this good news message over and over again.”

In a weird way, Oreskes comments, the opponents of scientific information have been more scientific than the science community. They studied and tested and built on the evidence they gathered from the testing. More scientific, more organised, more aggressive  The scientific community meanwhile has relied on peer reviewed journals and websites which are too technical for the general public.

People are not confused, she argues, because they are ignorant of the science. They are confused because people have tried to confuse them. Successfully. The misinformation campaigns get reported in the mass media.  The scientists’ responses are made in peer reviewed journals.

What’s to be done? Oreskes raises PR possibilities, but recognises they may not enhance scientific credibility. But at least, she says, since what the scientific community has been doing in the past has clearly not been effective, it might be worth considering some alternatives. Yes indeed, but what?

Oreskes is doing an excellent job of revealing the enormity of what the science has been up against over the past two decades. It certainly isn’t scientific scepticism. But I don’t see any possibility of science matching the kind of organised campaigns that Western Fuels mounted and others have continued. They are highly unethical.  They are cynical and manipulative.  They have no scientific basis.  Those and many other considerations make it impossible for the scientific community to even think of doing battle on that ground.  Science is the only weapon the scientists have.  Not that they have to confine themselves to peer reviewed papers.  These are critical times and it would be good to see more of them entering into the public arena, seeking out journalists, expressing their fears, writing op-eds, badgering editors, publishing books.  But when all is said and done it is only the dawning realisation of the seriousness of the science that will tell against the false assurances of the deniers. It seems to me we’re stuck with that.