(Photo: Ben McLeod / Flickr)
Why have hopes faded for a binding agreement at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen that began this week? Why aren't the people of the world demanding that their national leaders act to avert the greatest environmental crisis the world has ever known?
High on the list of causes of this historic failure of political will is a cleverly orchestrated, well-funded campaign of junk science designed to mislead the public into believing there is a split in scientific opinion about climate change. For years, this misinformation campaign has been largely funded by the oil and coal industries, working under the guise of fake grassroots groups ("astroturf groups") and industry front groups with names designed to suggest that they represent the public interest.
The misinformation is working. Recent Harris and Washington Post-ABC polls show alarming drops in the percentage of the public that believes climate change is happening.
"Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming," by James Hoggan with Richard Littlemore, is a brilliant exposé of this war on science. Hoggan is the co-founder of DeSmogBlog.com and Littlemore is the web site's lead writer. Their new book is a chilling description of greed, conflicts of interest and the oil and coal industries' shenanigans; it picks up where other books, like Ross Gelbspan's "The Heat Is On" (1997) and "Boiling Point" (2004), left off.
The collapse of the integrity of the public conversation about climate change is largely due to the failings of the mainstream media, whether due to inadvertence, understaffing, or, in certain outlets, an actual intent to misinform. Too many mainstream media reporters have given up investigative journalism in favor of purported "balanced" reporting that is really just disguised bias.
Reporters could choose to expose the phony scientific "experts" who cast themselves as "climate skeptics" to make money on the lecture circuits and TV talk shows. Instead, reporters choose the less-strenuous route of presenting a falsely "balanced" story with competing quotations, regardless of how fact-free one side is. For good reason, we recognize that the flat earth theory doesn't deserve equal time - it's just wrong; the world is round. When will journalists bring the same realism to climate change reporting?
"Climate Cover-Up" describes how University of California Professor Naomi Oreskes exhaustively researched peer-reviewed scientific journal articles on climate change published between 1993 and 2003 and found that of 928 articles, not a single one took exception with the fact that humans' releases of greenhouse gases were causing climate change. Yet between 1998 and 2002, fifty-three percent of climate change stories in four leading US newspapers - The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times - "quoted a scientist on 'one side' of the issue and a spokesperson on the other," according to an analysis by brothers Jules and Max Boykoff.
Mainstream media reporters' fondness for stories about apparent climate-science controversies, whether bogus or not, was satisfied by a deluge of material created and paid for the oil and coal industries, who were assisted by their hired-gun public relations firms. Industry groups' internal documents show that part of their strategy was to create and operate through "astroturf" groups rather than industry lobby groups - a tactic which made it easy to conceal who was funding the public campaigns run by the climate deniers ("climate skeptics" is too generous a term).
Rather than challenging the scientific consensus on climate change with a head-on attack through published articles subject to peer review, the climate deniers began a campaign of "science-by-petition," often involving signatures by fake climate experts (including academics and scientists who tried to portray themselves as experts outside their area of expertise) or fake signatures by real climate experts whose names had been added without their consent.
"Climate Cover-Up" tells dramatic stories about how phony climate experts and "junk scientists" succeed, helped by: (1) the fact that the "scientific debate" about climate change is now occurring largely outside of scientific institutions; (2) the "echo chamber" created by the "reverberating network of think tanks, blogs, and ideologically sympathetic mainstream media outlets that distribute and circulate contrarian information"; and (3) the talents and skills of those who lead the public relations push or ride the climate deniers' lecture circuit.
"Climate Cover-Up" exposes major climate-change denier phonies like Marc Morano, who led the Swift Boat campaign against presidential candidate John Kerry.
Hoggan and Littlemore aptly call the climate change cover-up "an intergenerational crime." Forget complaining about wimpy leadership at Copenhagen. In a variant of Gandhi's message, "We must become the change we want to see," Hoggan and Littlemore remind us, "You're the person who is going to have to start taking responsibility, not just for your own actions, but for the position of your government and the integrity of the public climate change conversation."
Climate change is getting worse much faster than predicted just a few years ago. Melting permafrost is releasing methane, a greenhouse gas 20 to 60 times more potent than carbon dioxide, creating a dangerous feedback loop. Our oceans have served as a vast carbon sink, but are now saturated with carbon and may be losing their ability to soak up more greenhouse gases. The carbon that they have already absorbed has harmed coral and other marine life, with repercussions up the food chain.
If you don't feel up to fighting the oil and coal industry's disinformation campaign, think about this: DeSmogBlog's Kevin Grandia reported in the Huffington Post in January 2009 that the frequency of climate denier material reported on the internet had at least doubled from the previous year.
Don't believe any of it? See the December 7 New York Times story, "Before Climate Meeting, a Revival of Skepticism."
If you still don't feel up to fighting this battle, go read "Climate Wars" by Gwyne Dyer to see what's in store for us if we don't get this right.
Your future, your children, your choice.
About the Authors:
Madeleine Austin is vice president of the World Business Academy; editor of the World Business Academy's 2007 book, "Freedom from Mid-East Oil," and a member of the Hawaii Energy Policy Forum. She is the co-author with Rinaldo Brutoco of "The Nuclear Nemesis" (ABA, Trends May/June 2008) and "The Nuclear Nemesis Redux" (Forum CSR International, Dec. 2008).
Rinaldo Brutoco is a well-known futurist and the founding president of the World Business Academy, a nonprofit think tank launched in 1987 with the mission to educate and inspire the business community to take responsibility for the whole of planetary society. He is a frequent public speaker and a prolific author on renewable energy, climate change and sustainable business strategies. He is the co-author of "Freedom from Mid-East Oil" (2007), a leading book on energy and climate change, and "Profiles in Power" (1997) a college textbook on nuclear power and the dawn of the solar age.