'Science as the Enemy': The Traveling Salesmen of Climate Skepticism
Part 2: Experience Gained Defending Big Tobacco
Many scientists do not sufficiently explain the results of their research. Some climatologists have also been arrogant or have refused to turn over their data to critics. Some overlook inconsistencies or conjure up exaggerated horror scenarios that are not always backed by science. For example, sloppy work was responsible for a prediction in an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that all Himalayan glaciers would have melted by 2035. It was a grotesque mistake that plunged the IPCC into a credibility crisis.
Singer and his fellow combatants take advantage of such mistakes and utilize their experiences defending the tobacco industry. For decades, Big Tobacco managed to cast doubt on the idea that smoking kills. An internal document produced by tobacco maker Brown & Williamson states: "Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the minds of the general public."
In 1993, tobacco executives handed around a document titled "Bad Science -- A Resource Book." In the manual, PR professionals explain how to discredit inconvenient scientific results by labeling them "junk." For example, the manual suggested pointing out that "too often science is manipulated to fulfill a political agenda." According to the document: "Proposals that seek to improve indoor air quality by singling out tobacco smoke only enable bad science to become a poor excuse for enacting new laws and jeopardizing individual liberties."
In 1993, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published what was then the most comprehensive study on the effects of tobacco smoke on health, which stated that exposure to secondhand smoke was responsible for about 3,000 deaths a year in the United States. Singer promptly called it "junk science." He warned that the EPA scientists were secretly pursuing a communist agenda. "If we do not carefully delineate the government's role in regulating ... dangers, there is essentially no limit to how much government can ultimately control our lives," Singer wrote.
Reacting to the EPA study, the Philip Morris tobacco company spearheaded the establishment of "The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition" (TASSC). Its goal was to raise doubts about the risks of passive smoking and climate change, and its message was to be targeted at journalists -- but only those with regional newspapers. Its express goal was "to avoid cynical reporters from major media."
Singer, Marshall Institute founder Fred Seitz and Patrick Michaels, who is now one of the best known climate change skeptics, were all advisers to TASSC.
The Reagan administration also appointed Singer to a task force on acid rain. In that group, Singer insisted that it was too early to take action and that it hadn't even been proven yet that sulfur emissions were in fact the cause. He also said that some plants even benefited from acid rain.
After acid rain, Singer turned his attention to a new topic: the "ozone scare." Once again, he applied the same argumentative pattern, noting that although it was correct that the ozone concentration in the stratosphere was declining, the effect was only local. Besides, he added, it wasn't clear yet whether chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) from aerosol cans were even responsible for ozone depletion.
As recently as 1994, Singer claimed that evidence "suggested that stratospheric chlorine comes mostly from natural sources." Testifying before the US Congress in 1996, he said there was "no scientific consensus on ozone depletion or its consequences" -- even though in 1995 the Nobel Prize had been awarded to three chemists who had demonstrated the influence of CFCs on the ozone layer.
The Usual Suspects
Multinational oil companies also soon adopted the tried-and-true strategies of disinformation. Once again, lobbying groups were formed that were designed to look as scientific as possible. First there was the Global Climate Coalition, and then ExxonMobil established the Global Climate Science Team. One of its members was lobbyist Myron Ebell. Another one was a veteran of the TASCC tobacco lobby who already knew the ropes. According to a 1998 Global Climate Science Team memo: "Victory will be achieved when average citizens 'understand' (recognize) uncertainties in climate science."
It soon looked as though there were a broad coalition opposing the science of climate change, supported by organizations like the National Center for Policy Analysis, the Heartland Institute and the Center for Science and Public Policy. In reality, these names were often little more than a front for the same handful of questionable scientists -- and Exxon funded the whole illusion to the tune of millions of dollars.
It was an excellent investment.
In 2001, the administration of then-President George W. Bush reneged on previous climate commitments. After that, the head of the US delegation to the Kyoto negotiations met with the oil lobbyists from the Global Climate Coalition to thank them for their expertise, saying that President Bush had "rejected Kyoto in part based on input from you."
Singer's comrade-in-arms Patrick Michaels waged a particularly sharp-tongued campaign against the phalanx of climatologists. One of his books is called: "The Satanic Gases: Clearing the Air about Global Warming." Michaels has managed to turn doubt into a lucrative business. The German Coal Association paid him a hefty fee for a study in the 1990s, and a US electric utility once donated $100,000 to his PR firm.
Both Michaels and Ebell are members of the Cooler Heads Coalition. Unlike Singer and Seitz, they are not anti-communist crusaders from the Cold War era, but smooth communicators. Ebell, a historian, argues that life was not as comfortable for human beings in the Earth's cold phases than in the warm ones. Besides, he adds, there are many indications that we are at the beginning of a cooling period.
The professional skeptics tend to use inconsistent arguments. Sometimes they say that there is no global warming. At other times, they point out that while global warming does exist, it is not the result of human activity. Some climate change deniers even concede that man could do something about the problem, but that it isn't really much of a problem. There is only one common theme to all of their prognoses: Do nothing. Wait. We need more research.
People like Ebell cannot simply be dismissed as cranks. He has been called to testify before Congress eight times, and he unabashedly crows about his contacts at the White House, saying: "We knew whom to call."
Ebell faces more of an uphill battle in Europe. In his experience, he says, Europe is controlled by elites who -- unlike ordinary people -- happen to believe in climate change.
Einstein on a Talk Show
But Fred Singer is doing his best to change that. He has joined forces with the European Institute for Climate and Energy (EIKE). The impressive-sounding name, however, is little more than a P.O. box address in the eastern German city of Jena. The group's president, Holger Thuss, is a local politician with the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the respected Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and an adviser to Chancellor Merkel on climate-related issues, says he has no objection to sharing ideas with the EIKE, as long as its representatives can stick to the rules of scientific practice. But he refuses to join EIKE representatives in a political panel discussion, noting that this is precisely what the group hopes to achieve, namely to create the impression among laypeople that experts are discussing the issues on a level playing field.
Ultimately, says Schellnhuber, science has become so complicated that large segments of the population can no longer keep up. The climate skeptics, on the other hand, are satisfied with "a desire for simple truths," Schellnhuber says.
This is precisely the secret of their success, according to Schellnhuber, and unfortunately no amount of public debate can change that. "Imagine Einstein having to defend the theory of relativity on a German TV talk show," he says. "He wouldn't have a snowball's chance in hell."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: The Traveling Salesmen of Climate Skepticism
- Part 2: Experience Gained Defending Big Tobacco
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