Hat tip to our colleague, Paul H. Ray
Ethical Analysis of Disinformation Campaign’s Tactics: (1) Reckless Disregard for the Truth, (2) Focusing On Unknowns While Ignoring Knowns, (3) Specious Claims of “Bad” Science, and (4) Front Groups.
By DONALD A BROWN on January 21, 2012 1:32 PM
This is the second entry in a series looking at the climate change disinformation campaign through an ethical lens. The first entry explained:
(1) Why ethics requires great care when considering, discussing, and debating uncertainties about climate change impacts.
(2) Why climate change must be understood as an ethical problem, a fact that additionally requires that scientific uncertainties about climate change be approached in a precautionary manner by those who wish to use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for putting others at risk.
(3) The consensus position on climate change science and why it is entitled to respect despite some scientific uncertainty about the timing and magnitude of climate change impacts and,.
(4) The need to acknowledge the important role of skepticism in science even if one is deeply critical of the tactics of the disinformation campaign.
As we stated in the first entry, climate skepticism should be encouraged rather than vilified provided that skeptics play by the rules of science including publishing in the peer-reviewed literature, not making claims unsupported by scientific evidence, and not engaging in tactics discussed in this series.
This entry first explains what is meant by the climate change disinformation campaign and then examines a number of specific tactics deployed by this phenomenon. These tactics are:
• Reckless Disregard For The Truth
• Focusing on Unknowns While Ignoring Knowns.
• Specious Claims Of “Bad” Science
• Creation of “Front Groups”
The third entry in this series will examine these additional tactics:
• Manufacturing Bogus Science
• Think Tank Campaigns
• Misleading PR Campaigns
• Creation of Astroturf Groups
• Cyber-bullying Of Scientists and Journalists
The fourth and last entry in this series will make recommendations on ethical norms that should guide skeptics engaged in climate change research in light of what has been learned from the disinformation campaign discussed in this series.
There are thirty recent books and peer-reviewed journal articles that have investigated the climate change disinformation campaign that are listed in the Appendix to this entry. What follows is an ethical analysis of the disinformation campaign tactics based upon the findings of these books and articles. The main conclusion of this series is that the tactics of the disinformation campaign are ethically abhorrent despite potential contributions to understanding climate change that could be made by responsible scientific skepticism.
II. What Is The Disinformation Campaign.
The sociological literature of the disinformation campaign describes this phenomenon as a counter-movement. (See, for example, McCright and Dunlap, 2000: 559) A counter-movement is a social movement that has formed in reaction to another movement. (McCright and Dunlap, 2000: 504.) The climate change disinformation campaign can be understood to be a continuation of the counter-movements that arose among US political conservatives in reaction to the environmental, civil rights, women’s rights, and anti-war movements that arose in the 1960’s in the United States. And so, the climate change disinformation campaign’s methods and processes can be understood to be an extension of strategies that had already been developed among some, although not all, conservatives to counter the environmental movement that had developed in the late 1960s and 1970s around other environmental issues such as air and water pollution, safe disposal of waste and toxic substances, and protection of wetlands and endangered species.
Yet the emergence of global warming as an issue in the 1980s with its potential for large-scale social change needed to ameliorate its threat was seen as more threatening to conservatives in regard to industry, prosperity, life-style, and the entire American-way of life, than were traditional pollution problems. (McCright and Dunlap, 2000: 503) In other words, climate change directly threatened the central values of the US conservative movement even more than other environmental problems. (McCright and Dunlap, 2000: 505) As a result climate change has become the key environmental focus of the US conservative movement. In subsequent years the disinformation campaign would be taken up in other countries including the United Kingdom and Australia.
The climate change disinformation movement can be understood to be comprised of many organizations and participants including conservative think tanks, front groups, Astroturf groups, conservative media, and individuals. This disinformation campaign, as we shall see, frequently uses the tactics discussed in this series to convince people and politicians that the science supporting climate change policies is flawed. The central claims of the climate change disinformation movement have been:
• There is no warming.
• Its not caused by humans.
• Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will cause more harm than good.
(McCright and Dunlap, 2010: 111)
To support these basic counter-claims, as we shall see, the climate denial machine frequently has made claims that mainstream climate scientists are corrupt or liars, descriptions of adverse climate change impacts are made by “alarmists,” scientific journals that publish climate related research are biased against skeptics, and mainstream climate science is “junk” science. As we shall also see, the climate change disinformation machine also has made frequent ad hominem attacks on those who produce climate change science and sometimes has cyber-bullied both climate scientists and journalists.
The climate change disinformation campaign began in the 1980s when some of the same scientists and organizations that fought government regulation of tobacco began to apply the tactics perfected in their war on the regulation of tobacco to climate change. (Oreskes and Conway, 2010:169-215). According to Pooley the disinformation campaign began “spinning around 1988 in response to the increasingly outspoken scientific community…” (Pooley, 2010: 39) For almost 25 years this campaign has been waged to undermine support for regulation of greenhouse gases.
To say that the campaign has been “waged” is not to claim that it has been a tightly organized, completely coordinated effort by a few groups or individuals or that all participants have the same motives. In fact different participants may have radically different motives including the fact that some may be sincere, some appear to be motivated by protecting free markets without government intervention, and many appear to believe that no restriction on fossil fuel use can be justified without very high levels of proof of harms. Yet, these different participants, according to Newsweek, since the 1990s for the most part have acted in a well-coordinated campaign among contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks, and industry to create a fog of doubt around climate change. (Begley, 2007) They have accomplished this through the production of advertisements, op-eds, lobbying, books, media attention, and quotations from skeptical scientists often associated with conservative think tanks. They have argued first that the world is not warming, measurements that indicate otherwise are flawed, any warming is natural, that is not caused by human activities, and if warming does occur it will be miniscule and harmless. (Begley, 2007)
Different groups created this counter-movement often acting independently of each other, yet connected through the internet to create a denial machine that has effectively responded to any public pronouncement by scientists or journalists that have asserted that human-induced climate change is a serious problem. (Begley, 2007) Conservative activists wrote hundreds of documents (including policy briefs, books, press releases, and op-eds), held numerous policy forums and press conferences, appeared regularly on television and radio programs, and testified at congressional hearings on global warming. (Dunlap and McCright, 2008)
As a result of the internet communication between participants in this campaign, charges by one of the participants have been quickly transmitted to others creating an echo chamber of counter-claims made in opposition to the mainstream scientific view of climate change. This echo-chamber effect has been visualized in the following diagram produced by Dunlap and McCright, 2010.
The disinformation campaign’s most important participants have been conservative think tanks according to the sociological literature. (Jaques et al, 2008) As we shall see, these think tanks developed the ideas, communications and media strategies, literature and press releases that have been widely deployed in rhetorical strategies to defend conservative interests by creating doubt about mainstream climate change scientific claims.
Initially most of the funding for this disinformation campaign came from fossil fuel interests and corporations whose products produce high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. On October 21, 2010, John Broder of the New York Times reported that
“the fossil fuel industries have for decades waged a concerted campaign to raise doubts about the science of global warming and to undermine policies devised to address it.” (Broder, 2010)
According to Broder, the fossil fuel industry has:
“created and lavishly financed institutes to produce anti-global-warming studies, paid for rallies and Web sites to question the science, and generated scores of economic analyses that purport to show that policies to reduce emissions of climate-altering gases will have a devastating effect on jobs and the overall economy.” (Broder, 2010)
Not surprisingly, the fossil fuel industry funded many of the initial efforts to prevent adoption of climate change policies. Both individual corporations such as ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal, as well as industry associations such as American Petroleum Institute, Western Fuels Associations, and Edison Electric Institute provided funding for individual contrarian scientists, conservative think tanks active in climate change denial, and a host of front groups that we will discuss below. (Dunlap and McCright, 2011:148)
Although the initial funding in the campaign may have come from certain corporations. McCright and Dunlap argue that recently conservative, free-market, and anti-regulatory ideology and organizations have been the main forces fueling the denial machine first and foremost. (Dunlap and McCright, 2011:144)
According to Dunlap and McCright the glue that holds the elements of the climate disinformation campaign together is a shared hatred for government regulation of private industry. (Dunlap and McCright, 2011:144) And so, a staunch commitment to free markets and a disdain for government regulation are the ideas that most unite the climate denial community. (Dunlap and McCright, 2011:144)
The mainstream conservative movement, embodied in conservative foundations and think tanks, quickly joined forces with the fossil fuel industry (which recognized very early the threat posed by recognition of global warming and the role of carbon emissions) and wider sectors of corporate America to oppose the threat of global warming not as an ecological problem but as a problem for unbridled economic growth. (Dunlap and McCright, 2011:144) And so the disinformation campaign has been a movement that has been waged both by conservative organizations and some corporations.
To use the word “campaign” is not meant to connote an organized conspiracy led by one or a few entities who coordinate all actors, but rather a social movement that creates widespread, predictable, and strong opposition to climate change policy and that consistently uses scientific uncertainty arguments as the basis of its opposition. This movement is a campaign in the sense that it is a systematic response of aggressive actions to defeat proposals to limit greenhouse gas emissions even though no one organization is coordinating all other organizations or individuals that participate in responses. And although some of the actors may be sincere, the tactics discussed in this article are, as we shall see, ethically reprehensible.
Those engaged in this disinformation campaign can be distinguished from responsible climate skeptics because the climate change denial campaign is a collective social movement run by professional advocacy working to discredit climate change” (Hoffman, 2011: 5) As such, this movement is not engaged in reasonable scientific skepticism but advocacy that stresses scientific uncertainty. In fact McCright and Dunlap summarize the disinformation machine as having been engaged on misrepresenting, manipulating, and suppressing climate change research results. (McCright and Dunlap, 2010: 111)
Although almost all of the disinformation campaign led opposition to climate change policies has been on the basis of inadequate scientific grounding for action, scientific arguments are usually coupled with economic arguments such as claims that climate change policies will destroy jobs, hurt specific industries, lower GDP, or are not justified by cost-benefit analysis.
Although these economic arguments often have their own ethical problems, this series examines the ethical problems with tactics used by the disinformation campaign that rely on scientific uncertainty arguments. We have examined ethical problems with economic arguments against climate change in other ClimateEthics entries in considerable detail. (See, for example, Ethical Issues Entailed By Economic Arguments Against Climate Change Policies,
The original organizations that sought to undermine public support on climate policies by exaggerating scientific uncertainty have expanded to include ideological think tanks, front groups, Astroturf groups (i.e., groups organized by industry that pretend to be a legitimate grassroots organization), and PR firm led campaigns. (Oreskes and Conway, 2010:169-215).
The tactics deployed by this campaign are now all well documented in the books and peer-reviewed sociological literature identified in the Appendix to this article.
III. An Ethical Analysis of Specific Tactics.
The following is an ethical analysis of the major tactics deployed by the climate change denial machine.
A. Reckless Disregard For The Truth.
Not all skeptical criticisms of the climate change consensus view are lies or constitute reckless disregard for the truth. Yet some of the most frequently repeated claims made by those engaged in the climate change disinformation campaign have been outright untruths about such things as the claim that the entire scientific basis for human induced climate change is a hoax or that there is no evidence of human causation. Given that 19 Academies of Science in the world have issued reports or statements in support of the consensus view, including at least four reports by the US Academy of Science, the very institution created to give advice to the US government on complex scientific issues, to say that the consensus view is a hoax is an obvious untruth. As we explained in detail in the first entry in this series, the consensus view on climate change has strong support among academies of science around the world, scientific organizations with expertise relevant to climate change science, and the vast majority of scientists that actually do climate change research. Therefor claims that there is no scientific support for the consensus view are not reasonable skeptical charges but obvious untruths.
As we have seen before, there is a strong scientific basis for concern about climate change. As the US Academy of Science said last year:
Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused primarily by the emission of greenhouse gases from human activities, and poses significant risks for a range of human and natural systems. Emissions continue to increase, which will result in further change and greater risks. In the judgment of this report’s authoring committee, the environmental, economic, and humanitarian risks posed by climate change indicate a pressing need for substantial action to limit the magnitude of climate change and to prepare for adapting to its impacts. (US Academy, 2011)
In light of the numerous pronouncements such as the above by the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world, it is deeply misleading to claim there is no scientific basis for the consensus view.
Now it is also obviously true that some who support climate change policies have occasionally exaggerated likely climate change impacts to humans and ecological systems. As we said in an earlier example of this, the movie “The Day After Tomorrow” portrayed rapid climate change impacts far faster than any reasonable interpretation of the peer-reviewed science would justify. Yet the consensus view discussed in the first part of the series is a consensus among research scientists that actually are engaged in climate change science and the most prestigious scientific organizations that have examined the relevant peer-reviewed science. The consensus position is the mainstream scientific view—- not the hyperbolic claims of environmental groups or others that support climate change policies. In other words, the climate change denial machine has been attacking the views of mainstream science, not just the claims of environmental organizations that perhaps may occasionally make exaggerated claims about climate change impacts. Unlike some other environmental controversies that have been brought to and kept in the public eye due primarily to the efforts of environmental organizations, mainstream scientific organizations have been the institutions articulating the nature of the climate change threat. And so, the climate change disinformation machine has been an all-out frontal attack on mainstream science including the scientists that publish climate science results in peer-reviewed journals, the journals themselves in which the mainstream scientific research is published, the scientific institutions that synthesize the peer-reviewed climate science such as the IPCC or the National Academy of Sciences, and the journalists that communicate climate science conclusions to the general public.
As we have seen there are many independent lines of evidence that humans are causing observable warming and that this warming cannot be explained by natural forces alone. This evidence includes multiple finger-print and attribution studies, strong correlations between fossil fuel use and increases in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, carbon isotope evidence that is supports that elevated carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are from fossil sources, and model predictions that best fit actual observed greenhouse gas concentrations that support human activities as the source of atmospheric concentrations. It is clearly an untruth to assert there is no evidence of human causation of observable warming even if one believes that human causation is not completely proven. To claim there is no scientific evidence of human causation is either a lie or reckless disregard for the truth.
Lying is usually understood to be knowingly misleading people about the truth. Is it reasonable to categorize these untruths pushed by the disinformation campaign as lying? There are several well-documented examples of some who have participated in the disinformation campaign that were claiming publicly that the consensus view was a complete fabrication while their scientific advisers were advising them that the consensus position is entitled to respect. For instance, Andrew Revkin of the New York Times reported that the scientists advising the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a now defunct organization that spent millions of dollars in lobbying against climate change policies and whose members were primarily corporations whose operations or products were large producers of greenhouse gases, reported to the GCC that:
The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Gas Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 is well established and cannot be denied. (Revkin, 2009)
Several politicians with ties to the fossil fuel industry have also claimed that the consensus view is a hoax. For instance, US Senator James Imhofe of Kansas called climate change “the greatest hoax ever” (Johnson , 2011) To claim that climate change science is the greatest hoax ever is at minimum, if not a lie, reckless disregard for the truth given the number of prestigious scientific organizations that have publicly supported the consensus view, the undeniable science supporting the conclusion that if greenhouse gases increase in the atmosphere some warming should be expected, the clear link between rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere and increases in fossil fuel use around the world, as well undeniable increases in warming being that have been experienced at the global scale.
Another tactic frequently used by the climate change disinformation campaign that also constitutes reckless disregard for the truth are claims made about one controversy among the enormous body of scientific literature that supports the consensus view that assert that this controversy proves that the entire scientific basis for the consensus view has been undermined by this controversy. Two examples are:
• EmailGate, a controversy that arose when emails between mainstream climate scientists were hacked from a server of the University of East Anglia. The climate change disinformation machine widely claimed that this controversy demonstrated that several key scientists fraudulently developed some key elements of the science on which the consensus view rests demonstrating that the consensus view was a complete hoax, even though the documents that were at the center of the controversy never were foundational to the consensus view and the scientists at the center of the controversy were exonerated by many independent investigations of the controversy. (Fahrenthold and Eilperin, 2009) Ideological climate skeptics and skeptical websites rapidly circulated charges on the internet and in the media that the emails proved that the consensus view was manufactured. (Fahrenthold and Eilperin, 2009). It is simply not the true that the hacked emails undermine the pillars of the scientific consensus on climate change, yet this charge has been relentlessly made in the disinformation echo chamber for two years since the controversy arose.
• Revelations of a few minor mistakes in the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment (AR4) were publicized by the disinformation machine as if these errors proved that the entire AR4 report had been undermined. Responsible skepticism would not assert that an error about the rate of Himalayan ice melt or the the amount of land in the Netherlands below sea-level was proof that an enormous body of scientific literature on other climate change issues was fraudulent. Yet this is a claim that widely circulated by the disinformation campaign.
Given that there are no peer-reviewed studies that claim to prove that the undeniable warming that the Earth is experiencing is the result of non-human causes, along with the observed reductions in global glacier and sea ice, increases in severe weather and ocean rise, visible changes in biological systems that are to be expected in a warming world, it is deeply irresponsible to claim that there is no evidence that humans are causing warming even if there are open questions about the amount of warming that will be caused by rising atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. This is particularly true in light of the fact that if the consensus view is correct the world is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change, the longer the world waits to take corrective action the worse the problem gets, those claiming that the science is a hoax are not those poor people who are most at risk around the world, and those most vulnerable to climate change have not consented to be put further at risk by delay.
Lying or reckless disregard for the truth are always ethically reprehensible but in a matter with so much at stake as climate change, spreading falsehoods about the science is deeply ethically troublesome. It not only deceives those that could and should act but to reduce climate change’s threats but also likely makes the damages much worse if the deception is responsible for policy delay. In this regard, the climate change disinformation campaign has succeeded for over twenty years in preventing climate change policies from being adopted in the United States and several other countries, During this time atmospheric CO2 concentrations have soared from about 345 ppm in 1985 to 392 ppm currently (NOAA, 2011) And so to not act on the basis of scientific uncertainty has consequences that threaten those most vulnerable to harsh climate impacts. For this reason, lies or statements made in reckless disregard for the truth about climate change are deeply ethically troublesome and, given what is at stake if the consensus view is correct, behavior that will cause immense harm.
B. Focusing On Unknowns While Ignoring the Knowns.
Frequently those engaged in the disinformation campaign stress what is unknown about climate change science while ignoring the huge amount of well-settled climate change science. This is often referred to as cherry-picking the evidence. This tactic relies upon emphasizing one of the variables that could affect ultimate warming about which some scientific uncertainty exists, such as the composition of clouds in a warming world, while ignoring what all that is scientifically settled, and then implying this unknown is characteristic of the entire scientific basis for scientific concern about climate change.
Given what is not in dispute about the science of climate change, this tactic is similar to someone arguing that we should not be worried about a bomb that has been placed in a railroad station because we don’t know for sure that the ignition has been wired to the explosives.
Focusing on what is unknown about climate science while ignoring what is known also implicitly is a claim that until all of the feedbacks of the climate system are known precisely, no claim about likely impacts of human activities on the climate system is warranted. Yet, as we have seen, all uncertainties about climate change impacts from human activities will likely never be resolved.
To prevent acceptance of the consensus view on human-caused climate change, climate deniers commonly select isolated papers that challenge the consensus-to the neglect of the broader body of research. (Washington and Cook, 2011:51). They then widely circulate these papers as if they prove that the consensus view is a complete hoax. This is reckless disregard for the truth, not reasonable skepticism.
The disinformation campaign’s tactics of focusing on unknowns while ignoring what is not in dispute has sometimes been pushed by political operatives linked to the disinformation campaign. For instance Frank Luntz, a Republican Party tactician, recommended that politicians emphasize scientific uncertainty about climate change, before the 2002 elections. (Mooney, 2005: 74)
As we shall see later in this series, public relations firms, front groups, and Astroturf organizations also have devised political strategies to push uncertainties and doubt, strategies that ignore what is not disputed in climate change science. These strategies also frequently make claims of uncertainty about some issues that have been well settled. For instance several years ago there was an issue about whether the stratosphere was cooling as predicted by climate models, a matter that was resolved a few years ago when it was discovered that that when the orbits of satellites were adjusted for their actual elevations the satellite measurements confirmed that the stratosphere was indeed cooling as predicted by global warming theory. Yet the disinformation campaign’s echo chamber has continued to repeat the claims that the stratosphere is not cooling, a matter that has been thoroughly refuted.
Given the fact that the basic physics of the expectation that if greenhouse gases are added to the atmosphere has been understood for 150 years, that there are numerous independent reasons for concluding that humans are responsible for increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, that every academy of science in the world that has taken a position on climate science supports the consensus view as well as the vast majority of scientists that do research in climate change, then focusing attention on what is not known deceptively gives the impression that there is no scientific basis for concern that the world is on a dangerous trajectory.
Given the need to be careful when talking about the uncertainties of climate change, this tactic is deeply ethically reprehensible. Nor can focus on uncertainty that ignores what is not in dispute be understood to be reasonable scientific skepticism. Legitimate climate skeptics concede settled science. Skeptics that believe there is a weak link in a causal chain pointing to human causation of climate change must admit that increases in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will initially push the climate system in the direction of warming, that greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere have increased in direct proportion to fossil fuel use as well as increases in uses of other greenhouse gases, that in addition to potential negative feedbacks in the climate system there may be unknown positive feedbacks that could accelerate the warming, that there has been a historical correlation between greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere and temperatures, and much more. In short skeptics must admit a great deal of the science supporting human-indued warming is well settled.
Focusing public attention on what is unknown about climate while ignoring the known is ethically troublesome particularly in light of the strong ethical duty to be careful about how scientific uncertainties are identified, discussed, and debated discussed in the first entry in this series.
Of course those who support climate change policies also have a duty to admit that there are features of the climate system that are not currently understood that may produce negative feedbacks that would lead to less warming than that identified in the consensus view even if they think the existence of negative feedbacks are extremely unlikely. Yet proponents of the consensus view do not claim that the warming and its associated harms have been absolutely proven by the evidence supporting the consensus view, they simply claim that increased warming due to human activities is highly likely or very probable.
As we have seen, the ethical problem with the tactics under consideration here is that those who stress the unknown and ignore what is scientifically settled misleads others who could act to reduce the threat of great harms they may be causing, is likely making the problem worse through delays, and is putting poor people at risk who have not consented to being harmed if the consensus view prevails.
There is no ethical problem with scientists who are skeptical about elements of the body of science on which the consensus climate science rests with making claims about these elements provided that these claims are subjected to the rigors of peer-review. In fact responsible skepticism has found a few relatively minor errors in the IPCC reports and could find more. Yet these errors have not undermined the major conclusions of the consensus view articulated originally by IPCC that has been supported by academies of science around the world, over 100 scientific organizations that scientific expertise relevant to climate change science, and the vast majority of scientists that actually do climate change research. As a result of reasonable skepticism, the IPCC has acknowledged that a paragraph in a 938 page WGII report on the projected date of melting of Himalayan glaciers is incorrect. (IPCC, 2010) Yet, as we have seen, this error and a few others found in the IPCC’s fourth assessment that have been discovered only deal with a very small number of facts in an assessment that has well over 1000 references, a degree of error that is not surprising given the length and ambitiousness of the IPCC assessment.
C. Specious Claims Of Bad Science.
Another common tactic of the disinformation campaign logically related to the tactic of pushing unknowns while ignoring knowns is to claim that the science that supports the consensus view as “bad” or “junk” science. In fact the climate change disinformation campaign took the promotion of environmental skepticism, a tactic developed earlier by the US conservative movement, to a new level, attacking the entire field of climate science as “junk science.” (Dunlap and McCright, 2011:146) Implicit in the claim that the consensus view is “bad” science is often the ethically very dubious assumption that only “proven” science is good science. This tactic takes advantage of the common misunderstanding of many people that science can describe what is harmful with relative certainty, that is that science is capable of dividing the world into things that are either harmful and safe. The reality of course is that scientific evidence for policy decisions-like science itself-is likely to be ambiguous or incomplete. (Fruedenburg et al, 2008: 4) The truth is that proof and certainty in science are actually in short supply. (Fruedenburg et al, 2008 :4) It is simply not true that scientifically based concerns that are not completely proven are based upon faulty science.
The counter-movement developed by conservatives that became the basis for the climate change disinformation machine learned that it was easier to undermine science that supported environmental policies than to convince people that environmental goals were misplaced. (Jaques, et al., 2008: 353) To undermine climate change science that supports the consensus position, it is necessary to claim that it is scientifically flawed, in other words that it is “bad” or “junk” science. This is a claim frequently made about the entire body of climate change science, not an isolated element in a huge peer-reviewed climate science literature.
It is also true that environmental groups and proponents of climate policies sometimes claim that all scientific questions about human causation of global warming are settled, a claim that is also not true, despite a very strong scientific basis for the claim that human activities are a serious threat to human well-being and ecological systems. Yet, very rapid and harsh adverse climate change impacts are scientifically plausible, a conclusion reached by the US Academy of Science in a report about very dangerous climate surprises that could result from current business-as-usual human activities. (US Academy, 2002) And so, it is not an exaggeration, according to the US Academy of Sciences, to assert that business-as-usual greenhouse gas emissions may lead to rapid, non-linear climate changes. Yet the think tanks, front-groups, Astroturf organizations, and corporate lobbyists participating in the disinformation campaign have characterized the “entire field of climate change science as “junk” science and launching attacks on such pillars of science as the importance of peer-reviewed publications. (Dunlap and McCright, 2011:146). This attack on mainstream science is not reasonable skepticism but an attempt to manufacture uncertainty and doubt. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:146)
That only proven facts should count about dangerous behavior can be shown to be ethically problematic by looking at how societies often deal with other kinds of unsafe behavior. For instance, many societies make dangerous behavior criminal such as dangerous driving, irresponsible use of hazardous substances, or negligently setting fire to a forest. Ethics requires that burdens of proof and quantities of proof needed to shift the burden of proof should shift depending upon what is at stake, who may be harmed, whether society can wait until the uncertainties are resolved before harms are experienced, and whether those harmed by the a decision to not act because of uncertainty have consented to be put at risk. In other words, when the burden of proof should shift to those proposing to do something dangerous or how much proof should satisfy the burden of proof in such cases are ethical questions that need to take into consideration many different factors. Because these are ethical questions, they cannot be answered by an algorithm or a “value-neutral” scientific calculation. That is, there is no escaping asking the question what is the right thing to do given uncertainty about links between human behavior, increased atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, and rising temperatures. In other words the uncertainties entailed by climate change raise ethical questions and claims that governments should not take preventative action in response to unproven risks are ethically unportable.
If scientists are expected to produce scientific knowledge that can be applied to public policy questions, they must be able to describe threats that are not fully proven. From the standpoint of public policy, therefore, scientists should not deny that climate change creates risks once it is established that human activities are increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, that greenhouse gases are arising in proportion to fossil fuel use, that warming is being experienced as greenhouse gas concentrations increase, and other uncontested elements of climate change science.. When science is applied to public policy that establishes that there is scientific basis for concluding that some human release of greenhouse gases is dangerous, science has an important role in communicating scientifically plausible dangerous risks-not just proven facts. When science is playing this role, it is not “bad” science because potential harms have not been proven.
Those engaged in the disinformation campaign often characterize matters that are not fully proven as “bad” science even in cases where there is strong evidence for conclusions that are based upon “the balance of the evidence, ” that is, in cases where there is no claim that the science is fully proven. Because climate change impacts will never be fully predictable, insisting on absolute or very high levels of proof creates a burden of proof that can’t be met. This is not reasonable skepticism but an ideological assumption that makes protective action impossible that is motivated by a need to avoid serious potential harm.
In the mid-1990s, environmental conservatives and climate change skeptics promoted the idea of “sound science” or the notion that only incontrovertible proof consisting of observational data was an adequate grounds for policy making. (Edwards, 2007 :xviii) Some in the climate disinformation campaign have applied a charge of “bad” science to the entire body of climate science supporting the consensus view.
By 1996, a consensus in the scientific community had developed that humans were responsible for some of the observable warming by a “balance of the evidence.” (Hulme, 2009, 50) Yet ideological skeptics called this “bad” science and in so doing implicitly conflated high levels of proof with “good” science. Because most people don’t understand that science sometimes must make conclusions before absolute proof is in, the disinformation campaign was successful in leading many to conclude that in the absence of high levels of proof climate scientific conclusions constitute “bad” science. Claims of “bad science” in this context are deeply misleading because, as we have seen, scientists must often be called upon to draw conclusions about dangerous human activities to alert policy makers that protective action may be prudent. .
The climate change disinformation campaign has taken advantage of the fact that many non-scientists believe that science can produce conclusions that are either black or white, that is, fact or fiction. (Washington and Cook, 2911: 6) This is simply not how science works. Almost all scientific conclusions are provisional, that is, subject to revision as the scientific process moves forward.
Without doubt, the climate change disinformation machine has campaigned to emphasize the uncertainties associated with climate change with the intention of giving the impression that lack of certainty undermines scientific conclusions. A team assembled by the American Petroleum Institute (API) created a “Global Climate Science Action Plan” that had as its purpose to convince the public that climate science is awash in uncertainty. (Hoggan, 2009: 42) An API document describes the mission they were supporting as the following
Victory will be achieved when:
• Average citizens understand uncertainties.
• Media understands uncertainties.
• Media coverage reflects balance on climate science and recognition of the validity of viewpoints that challenge current conventional wisdom.
• Industry senor leadership understands uncertainties in climate science, making them stronger ambassadors to those who shape climate policy.
• Those promoting the Kyoto treaty on the basis of extant science appear to be out of touch with reality.
(Hoggan, 2009: 43)
This API document demonstrates that some participants in the climate change disinformation machine were more interested in framing climate change as uncertain than they were in educating citizens about the scientific basis for concern. This tactic must be understood to be not only greatly misleading given what is not in contention about climate change but also an attempt to manipulate people and governments to protect the economic interests of the members of the American Petroleum Institute..
A version of the “bad” science argument that has frequently been deployed by the climate change disinformation campaign are attacks on climate impacts predictions based upon climate models. Without doubt mathematical models are acknowledged to have great limitations in predicting behaviors of complex systems and for this reason if model outputs are to be used to support climate change policies all the limitations of models should be acknowledged and understood. Yet some kind of climate model is indispensable to make future predictions of the climate system and IPCC has identified several reasons for respect in the climate models including the fact that models are getting better in predicting what monitoring evidence is actually observing around the world in regard to temperature, ice and snow cover, droughts and floods, and sea level rise among other things. And so, although there are reasons for being suspicious of model based predictions there is also evidence for respecting the models on which climate predictions are made. In addition if no climate policies are adopted until all uncertainties associated with models are resolved, no policies will ever be adopted. This is so because models will likely never be able to describe all climate change impacts accurately, yet they are necessary tools for predicting the future climate. To equate climate models with “bad” science must be understood to be an attempt to undermine any scientific justification for climate change policies because models are needed to make predictions about the future states of complex systems.
Those opposing policies on the basis of uncertainties about models often fail to acknowledge that the models could be wrong not only in overstating the impacts of climate change but also in greatly understating climate impacts.
A significant and serious concern among mainstream climate scientists in this regard is the inability of the models to predict climate surprises, that is, rapid non-linear changes in the climate system that have happened in the historical climate record and that may be triggered by current human activities. These climate surprises may have very harsh impacts on people and the ecological systems on which they depend. A 2002 report commissioned by the US Academy of Sciences to look at the possibility of human actions triggering climate surprises concluded. that:
Given our understanding of the climate system and the mechanisms involved in abrupt climate change, this committee concludes that human activities could trigger abrupt climate change. (US Academy, 2002: 107-108)
Very serious impacts of climate change caused by climate surprises are scientifically feasible even it not completely proven. To the extant that the climate change disinformation machine has equated lack of high levels of certainty about potentially harsh consequences of climate change with “bad” science, it is ethically problematic because it is deeply misleading. Although there are legitimate questions about which scientific assertions are entitled to higher levels of support, lack of certainty is not a legitimate criterion for ignoring scientific concerns as a matter or ethics.
Yet there is another ethical issue relating to insisting on certainty that is even more important to understand. As ClimateEthics has explained in some detail in the past, ethical obligations to act can be triggered long before certainty about a threat is established. (See, Brown, 2008) This is so because, from a proposition that a problem like global warming creates a particular threat or risk, one cannot, however, deduce whether that threat is acceptable without first deciding on certain criteria for acceptability. The criteria of acceptability must be understood as an ethical rather than a scientific question.
For instance, although science may conclude that a certain increased exposure to solar radiation may increase the risk of skin cancer by one new cancer in every hundred people, science cannot say whether this additional risk is acceptable because science describes facts and cannot generate prescriptive guidance by itself. The scientific understanding of the nature of the threat, of course, is not irrelevant to the ethical question of whether the risk is ethically acceptable, but science alone cannot tell society what it should do about various threats. In environmental controversies such as global warming where there is legitimate concern, important ethical questions arise when scientific uncertainty prevents unambiguous predictions of human health and environmental consequences. This is so because decision-makers or those engaged in risky behavior cannot duck ethical questions such as how conservative “should” scientific assumptions be in the face of uncertainty or who “should” bear the burden of proof about harm. To ignore these questions is to decide to expose human health and the environment to real risk before changing the risky behavior, that is, a decision to not act on a serious environmental threat has grave potential consequences. Science alone cannot tell us what assumptions or concerns should be considered in making a judgment about what to do about potentially dangerous behavior. This is an ethical question. And so from the standpoint of ethics, potential risks are relevant to what should be done.
For this reason, environmental decisions in the face of scientific uncertainty must be understood to raise a mixture of ethical and scientific questions. Yet, participants in the climate change disinformation machine often speak as if it is inappropriate to talk about duties to reduce greenhouse gases until science is capable of proving with high levels of certainty what actual damages will be.
Because scientists are expected to produce scientific knowledge that can be applied to public policy questions, they must be able to describe threats that are not fully proven. From the standpoint of public policy, therefore, scientists should not deny that climate change creates risks to humans and ecological systems as long as those risks are scientifically plausible. A claim that there is no potential link between climate change and human activities is misleading given what is not in dispute. If someone is concerned about whether to adopt policies reducing the threat of climate change they need to know whether human-induced climate change creates risks of damage even if there are open questions about the nature of the harms in a warming world.
Claiming that conclusions based upon uncertain science are the use of “bad” or “junk” science is ethically troublesome because it hides the dubious normative basis for such assertions, namely that protective action is not ethically required until all uncertainties are resolved.
D. Creation of Front Groups
Economic interests opposed to action on climate change have often created or funded “front groups” that hide the real parties in interest. A front group is an organization that claims to represent one agenda when in reality it represents parties that are often hidden or rarely mentioned. Often these front groups are created by industry or public relations firms with the goal of influencing public opinion in a way that protects the interests of those who created them. Often the identify of the founders of these front groups are hidden because if the public understood who the real party in interest was behind claims made by the front group they would be suspicious that the claims are biased.
The Union of Concerned Scientists published a list of 43 organizations that were funded at one time by ExxonMobil and that have challenged the mainstream view on climate change science although it is not obvious from the names of these organizations that they are linked to fossil fuel interests. (UCS, 2007)
The front groups working on environmental issues main mission is often to create doubt about the scientific claims supporting environmental concern. Front Groups that have been engaged in undermining the consensus view on climate change have included among others:
• Global Climate Information Project
• The Coalition for Vehicle Choice
• The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC)
• The Information Council on the Environment
• The Global Climate Coalition
• Greening Earth Society
• Center for Energy and Economic Development
• The Cooler Heads Coalition.
• The Committee for A Constructive Tomorrow
(Dunlap and McCright, 2011& Beder, 1999)
The front groups work to undermine mainstream science by creating campaigns to, among other things:
• Reposition climate change as a theory not a fact . (The Information Council on the Environment, an organization created by coal interests ) (Dunlap and McCright, 2011:150)
• Work to persuade the public and governments that climate change is not a threat, mainstream climate science. ( Global Climate Coalition, a coalition of 50 US trade associations and private companies representing oil, gas, coal, automobile and chemical companies and trade associations). (Beder, 1998)
• Amplify the voices of contrarian scientists, (Cooler Heads Coalition, created by conservative think tanks) Dunlap and McCright, 2011: 151)
• Convince people that “using fossil fuels to enable our economic activity is as natural as breathing.”(The Greening Earth Society, established by Western Fuels Association). (Beder, 2011)
These front groups often create campaigns that include multi-media strategies to convince the public that there is no scientific basis to support the adoption of climate change policies. One of these groups, The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, was connected to the PR firm APCO who recommended that TASSC work on the following tasks or projects:
• Publishing and distributing a monthly update report for all TASSC members, which will quantify media impressions made the prior month and discuss new examples of unsound science.
• Monitoring the trade press (e.g. public interest group newsletters and activities) and informing TASSC members of upcoming studies and relevant news.
• Arranging media tours.
• Issuing news releases on a regular basis to news wire services, members, allies, and targeted reporters.
• Acting as a clearinghouse for speaking requests of TASSC scientists or other members and maintaining a Speakers Bureau to provide speakers for allies and interested groups.
• Drafting “boilerplate” speeches, press releases, and op-eds (opinion page articles) to be used by TASSC field representatives.
• Placing op-ed articles in trade publications to serve as a member recruitment tool in targeted industries, such as agriculture, chemical, food additive, and biotechnology fields..
• Monitoring the field and serving as a management central command for any crisis that occurs.
• Developing visual elements that help explain some of the issues behind unsound science
(Hoggan, 2009, 40)
This list makes it clear that TASSC, a front group, was being coached by a PR firm about how to convince the greatest number of citizens possible that climate change science is “unsound.” Given that much of the science backing the consensus view is not in contention, and given that as we saw in the last entry in this series that there is an ethical need to be very careful in talking about the uncertainties associated with climate science, a PR firm led strategy that emphasizes uncertainty without regard to how much of the science is settled is extraordinarily unethical. This strategy appears to have been conceived without any concern for what the truth actually is in regard to scientific certainty. In fact the front groups advocacy to undermine the mainstream science must be understood to be an example of obfuscation, misrepresentation, manipulation, and suppression of mainstream climate science. The climate disinformation front groups have not been interested in publishing reports, journal articles, or conclusions of mainstream scientists that support the conclusion that human-induced warming is a threat to people and ecological systems around the world. Like the ideological think tanks and Astroturf groups discussed later in this report, these front groups are not interested in educating the public about the large body of science that supports concern that greenhouse gases are threatening people around the world and the ecological systems on which they depend. These front groups missions are to undermine support for climate change policies, a mission that virtually guarantees they will publish and promote claims that lead citizens to conclude that there is no risk from increasing levels of greenhouse gases emissions around the world. And so, the front groups can be counted on to spin any scientific information about climate change without regard to the truth of their claims. Such behavior is classical propaganda in the service of the economic interests who they are really representing not responsible skepticism.
The climate change disinformation campaign use of front groups is ethically troubling for several reasons. First their very purpose is to mislead the public about who the parties in interest are. Second, the front groups do not engage in the give and take of responsible skepticism but have been created to undermine the mainstream climate science. For this reason, they are doubly misleading and therefore ethically troubling.
The third entry in this series will examine additional tactics in the climate change disinformation campaign that will include; manufacturing bogus science, think tank campaigns, misleading PR campaigns, the use of Astroturf groups, and cyber-bullying scientists and journalists The last entry in the series will identify ethical norms that should guide climate skeptics in light of the experience with the climate change disinformation campaign discussed in this series..
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