The Global Warming Denial Machine

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Let’s begin with the preliminaries. The first is that global warming isn’t a scientific theory, it’s a scientific fact. The time for debate has ended. We can still argue over tipping points and the minutia — like when the arctic will become ice free during the summer months, or how much world sea levels will rise by 2050 — but the core truth is as solid as the rock of Gibraltar. Global warming is a scientific fact. We’re just dotting the Is and crossing the Ts.

Of course, many people, including Canada’s Prime Minister and US Senator James Inahofe, have been bamboozled into believing that global warming is a hoax or a socialist money grab, ignoring the fact that conservative governments throughout the world are already vigorously fighting climate change.

And many others think that scientists are still engaging in a vigorous debate. It’s amazing. As a science journalist, I know that thousands of studies all point in the same direction, and that reputable contrarian studies don’t exist. So how is it possible that so many still don’t understand the overwhelming danger.

Well, we can thank the tobacco companies. In the 1980s, big tobacco paid big money to establish “independent” think tanks and “research” institutes that were charged with confusing the public over the dangers of sidestream — or secondhand — smoke. Astroturfing began when Imperial Tobacco, Canada’s largest tobacco manufacturer, commissioned a secret study that weighed various strategies for combating the growing influence of nonsmoking groups like The Lung Association and the Nonsmokers Rights Association.

“Passive smoking [should be] the focal point,” the study suggests. “Of all the health issues surrounding smoking… the one that the tobacco industry has the most chance of winning [is to argue] that the evidence proclaimed by [anti-smoking groups] is flawed… It is highly desirable for us to control the focus of the debate.” Later, the study urges a comprehensive attack on “the credibility of the evidence presented to date,” and tells the company to hire several doctors and scientists who would be willing to take their side.

And that’s exactly what they did.

Companies like Phillip Morris used their huge profits to create institutes and smokers-rights groups to promote pseudo-science and false research as the real thing, thereby confusing many people who don’t really understand how the scientific process works. The campaign convinced many nonsmokers that secondhand smoke was just another unfounded fear — a fear that could be equated to concerns over cell phones, pesticides and, believe it or not, global warming.

Ten years later, when study after study confirmed that global warming was real, and that it seemed likely to roll over us and lead to catastrophic warming, scientists sounded the alarm. The oil industry saw the way the wind was blowing. But rather than do the ethical thing, and join the fight to slow global warming, most companies took a page from the tobacco industry playbook.

The industry and industry lobbyists created research institutes and public policy centers — all very official sounding — that are paid to distort and confuse. They aren’t trying to disprove global warming; they’re trying to convince decent folk everywhere that the debate is still ongoing, and that the scientific community still isn’t speaking with one voice. After all, why dramatically transform society if we’re still not sure.

In a nutshell, these groups are paid to lie in a very clever, media-savvy way.

And it’s worked. It’s still working. People are busy. We lead frenetic lives. In the attempt to provide balance, newspapers give voice to people who can lie boldly and confidently, and still sleep at night.* As a result, most people in the North America still don’t believe that climate change is a major concern, or they still believe that we have to put the economy and jobs before the melting glaciers. Most Canadians believe that our country is getting warmer, but they seem to think the real problems are a century away, or that technology will solve the issue before it gets out of hand.

Both possibilities are nothing more than pipe dreams. What we do it the next five or 10 years will determine the fate of humanity. If we fail to convince governments in North America and throughout the world to tackle climate change with the same steely resolve that we displayed during WW II, then we are putting the health of our bank accounts before the physical and emotional well being of our descendants, beginning with your children and grandchildren.

This climate change debate has become a story of citizen journalism gone awry, for the blogosphere is littered with amateur writers who have been duped into fighting against global warming by slick web sites with official-sounding names like the Science and Public Policy Institute and the Friends of Science. There you will find “climate scientists” who spout all manner of opinion that muddies the global warming waters. But if you did deeper, you’ll find that SPPI — and their ilk — are sponsored by oil companies who borrowed the tobacco industry’s guidebook. Their experts aren’t experts; they either pocket oil industry money, or they can’t publish their work in respected scientific journals.

To make a climate skeptic sputter, you need to as ask him for real evidence — published in a respected, peer-reviewed scientific journal and authored by a scientist with a PhD in climatology — that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 can rise above 450 parts per million (ppm) without affecting global temperatures. No expert will make that claim. The overwhelming majority of climate scientists believe that a global tragedy is drawing nigh.

Our parents have been described as the greatest generation. If we fail to act, we will be known as the selfish generation, and our children and grandchildren will remember us for the rest of our days — for all the wrong reasons.

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2 Responses to The Global Warming Denial Machine

  1. Alissa says:

    Great post, Richard. I get annoyed when a question of science becomes a political issue as the global warming thing seems to have become in the US. Ten or twenty years down the road the people denying global warming are going to look like the people who protest against the teaching of evolution in schools. In the meantime, I will have to put up with my father telling me how I have been “brainwashed” by the liberal media.

  2. Agreed, Alissa. When did believing in science (as if it was some mysterious, eastern religion) come to equal perpetuating the communist plot to destroy America?

    Well, I guess Richard kinda answered that one.

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