The phony debate on climate science

by Milan on September 29, 2010

in Climate change, Climate science, Ethics, Objections, The media

In their book Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway describe in great detail how industries that stand to lose from climate change regulations have allied themselves with libertarian think tanks to produce the false sense that climate science is deeply uncertain, and that no action should be taken as a result. Oreskes and Conway identify dozens of examples of deception and misconduct, as well as the financial and personal ties that lie between those who want climate change ignored and many of the most prominent people still arguing that the science is unsettled.

They conclude that this effort has been hugely successful. It has left many fair-minded people in a state of confusion, and allowed for continued paralysis on the issue within the political system. For being duped so easily and thoroughly, the media deserves much of the blame:

With the rise of radio, television, and now the Internet, it sometimes seems that anyone can have their opinion heard, quoted, and repeated, whether it is true or false, sensible or ridiculous, fair-minded or malicious.

The cacophony of conflicting claims is particularly unhelpful when it comes to sorting out matters related to science, because science depends on evidence, and not all positions are equally grounded in it. Indeed, we’ve seen throughout this book how a small group of men with scientific bona fides and deep political connections deliberately distorted public debate, running effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades. And we’ve seen how many skeptical claims are based on ignoring evidence. This presents a real difficulty, one that is not easily resolved, for how can you prove that someone has ignored something? One can often show what something is; it is far harder to demonstrate what it is not. Clearly, people have a right to speak; the question is, to whom should we be listening?

For half a century the tobacco industry, the defenders of SDI, and the skeptics about acid rain, the ozone hole, and global warming strove to “maintain the controversy” and “keep the debate alive” by fostering claims that were contrary to the mainstream of scientific evidence and expert judgment. They promoted claims that had already been refuted in the scientific literature, and the media became complicit as they reported these claims as if they were part of an ongoing scientific debate. Often the media did so without informing readers, viewers, and listeners that the “experts” being quoted had links to the tobacco industry, were affiliated with ideologically motivated think tanks the received money from the tobacco industry (or in later years the fossil fuel industry), or were simply habitual contrarians, who perhaps enjoyed the attention they got promoting outlier views. Perhaps correspondents felt that adding this information would be editorializing. Or perhaps they did not know.

Merchants of Doubt is not the first book to delve into all of this. Another example is James Hoggan’s Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming. That makes it especially pathetic that so many policy-makers and prominent individuals continue to be duped, particularly within right-leaning political parties. Just how shabby does this deception need to become, before those whose immediate interests it serves feel embarrassed about relying on it?

To be sure, there is plenty of real climate science left to be done. The climate system is complex and our understanding of it is imperfect. What is critical is that such scientific questions continue to be evaluated from a position of neutrality – not from one that takes protecting vested interests as a starting point. On the policy front, what is critical is basing our decisions on the best information available and acting in a way that manages risk – particularly the kind of severe and irreversible risks posed by climate change.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Byron Smith September 29, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Good post. Interestingly, not every party of the right is equally blind. If only this speech had been given by Obama. Instead, it came from UK Foreign Secretary (and former leader of the Conservative Party) William Hague. You’ve probably already seen it since you read CP, but thought it worth mentioning here.

Milan September 29, 2010 at 4:28 pm

For the most part, politicians in Europe are further along in the do-nothing spectrum:

  1. Deny that anything is happening
  2. Argue that climate change is caused by natural phenomena
  3. Argue that climate change is beneficial OR blame climate change on China
  4. Argue that climate change is a problem, but that it would be too expensive to do anything about
  5. Argue that we should act on climate change, but then implement only the most timid and ineffective policies

The Canadian government is publicly in stage five, though they are privately doing everything they can to increase emissions, by making environmental assessments less rigorous and doing all they can to promote the expansion of the oil sands.

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