'Science as the Enemy' The Traveling Salesmen of Climate Skepticism
A handful of US scientists have made names for themselves by casting doubt on global warming research. In the past, the same people have also downplayed the dangers of passive smoking, acid rain and the ozone hole. In all cases, the tactics are the same: Spread doubt and claim it's too soon to take action.
With his sonorous voice, Fred Singer, 86, sounded like a grandfather explaining the obvious to a dim-witted child. "Nature, not human activity, rules the climate," the American physicist told a discussion attended by members of the German parliament for the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) three weeks ago.
Marie-Luise Dött, the environmental policy spokeswoman for the parliamentary group of Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), also attended Singer's presentation. She said afterwards that it was "extremely illuminating." She later backpedaled, saying that her comments had been quoted out of context, and that of course she supports an ambitious climate protection policy -- just like Chancellor Merkel.
Merkel, as it happens, was precisely the person Singer was trying to reach. "Our problem is not the climate. Our problem is politicians, who want to save the climate. They are the real problem," he says. "My hope is that Merkel, who is not stupid, will see the light," says Singer, who has since left for Paris. Noting that he liked the results of his talks, he adds: "I think I achieved something."
Salesman of Skepticism
Singer is a traveling salesman of sorts for those who question climate change. On this year's summer tour, he gave speeches to politicians in Rome, Paris and the Israeli port city of Haifa. Paul Friedhoff, the economic policy spokesman of the FDP's parliamentary group, had invited him to Berlin. Singer and the FDP get along famously. The American scientist had already presented his contrary theories on the climate to FDP politicians at the Institute for Free Enterprise, a Berlin-based free-market think tank, last December.
Singer is one of the most influential deniers of climate change worldwide. In his world, respected climatologists are vilified as liars, people who are masquerading as environmentalists while, in reality, having only one goal in mind: to introduce socialism. Singer wants to save the world from this horror. For some, the fact that he made a name for himself as a brilliant atmospheric physicist after World War II lends weight to his words.
Born in Vienna, Singer fled to the United States in 1940 and soon became part of an elite group fighting the Cold War on the science front. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Singer continued his struggle -- mostly against environmentalists, and always against any form of regulation.
Whether it was the hole in the ozone layer, acid rain or climate change, Singer always had something critical to say, and he always knew better than the experts in their respective fields. But in doing so he strayed far away from the disciplines in which he himself was trained. For example, his testimony aided the tobacco lobby in its battle with health policy experts.
'Science as the Enemy'
The Arlington, Virginia-based Marshall Institute took an approach very similar to Singer's. Founded in 1984, its initial mission was to champion then US President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), better known as "Star Wars." After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the founders abruptly transformed their institute into a stronghold for deniers of environmental problems.
"The skeptics thought, if you give up economic freedom, it will lead to losing political freedom. That was the underlying ideological current," says Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at the University of California, San Diego, who has studied Singer's methods. As scientists uncovered more and more environmental problems, the skeptics "began to see science as the enemy."
Oreskes is referring to only a handful of scientists and lobbyists, and yet they have managed to convince many ordinary people -- and even some US presidents -- that science is deeply divided over the causes of climate change. Former President George H.W. Bush even referred to the physicists at the Marshall Institute as "my scientists."
Whatever the issue, Singer and his cohorts have always used the same basic argument: that the scientific community is still in disagreement and that scientists don't have enough information. For instance, they say that genetics could be responsible for the cancers of people exposed to secondhand smoke, volcanoes for the hole in the ozone layer and the sun for climate change.
It almost seems as if Singer were trying to disguise himself as one of the people he is fighting. With his corduroy trousers, long white hair and a fish fossil hanging from a leather band around his neck, he comes across as an amiable old environmentalist. But the image he paints of nature is not at all friendly. "Nature is much to be feared, very cruel and very dangerous," he says.
At conferences, Singer likes to introduce himself as a representative of the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC). As impressive as this title sounds, the NIPCC is nothing but a collection of like-minded scientists Singer has gathered around himself. A German meteorologist in the group, Gerd Weber, has worked for the German Coal Association on and off for the last 25 years.
According to a US study, 97 percent of all climatologists worldwide assume that greenhouse gases produced by humans are warming the Earth. Nevertheless, one third of Germans and 40 percent of Americans doubt that the Earth is getting warmer. And many people are convinced that climatologists are divided into two opposing camps on the issue -- which is untrue.
So how is it that people like Singer have been so effective in shaping public opinion?
- Part 1: The Traveling Salesmen of Climate Skepticism
- Part 2: Experience Gained Defending Big Tobacco