Climate Cover-Up

I’m fairly new to the issue of climate change, and even newer to the politics surrounding it. I’ve spent the past two years reading about climate change causes, impacts, projections, myths, media blunders, and public misconceptions.

I knew that vested interests, such as the fossil fuel industry and political lobby groups, had played a part in the widespread public confusion. However, I naively assumed that they had simply taken advantage of said confusion – that the public was already unsure, so the vested interests decided to jump in and prolong it.

How wrong I was. How very, very wrong I was, as Jim Hoggan and Richard Littlemore proved to me in their new book, Climate Cover-Up.

Example after example, and story after story, showed that vested interests didn’t just take advantage of public confusion surrounding climate change. They created it. They deliberately constructed the so-called “debate” in an effort to – what? Earn more money? Fight socialism?

Take the Information Council on the Environment, one of the first climate change lobby groups. They were established in 1991, right after governments first started to respond to climate change – Thatcher, Bush Sr, and Mulroney all made promises to reduce emissions. The ICE flat-out stated that their objective was “to reposition global warming as a theory (not fact)” and “to supply alternative facts to support the suggestion that global warming will be good”.

The American Petroleum Institute was even more blatant. A leaked email contains a list of objectives for their PR campaigns:

Victory Will Be Achieved When

-Average citizens “understand” (recognize) uncertainties in climate science; recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the “conventional wisdom”

-Media “understands” (recognizes) uncertainties in climate science

-Media coverage reflects balance on climate science and recognition of the validity of viewpoints that challenge the current “conventional wisdom”

-Industry senior 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.

Everything that we’ve been bemoaning for years now. Misplaced public doubt, artificial balance in the media, Bush and Harper’s ties to the oil industry. It didn’t just happen by accident.

The email goes on to discuss strategies to achieve these objectives, including plans to produce and distribute “a steady stream of op-ed columns and letters to the editor” doubting climate change. So all those skeptical editorials in the popular press might not be written by journalists that have been taken for a ride. They might actually be by people with ties to lobby groups like the American Petroleum Institute.

You could look at Frank Luntz’s plans to capitalize on uncertainty. Or the American Enterprise Institute’s offer of $10 000 to any scientist who wrote a critique of the IPCC. Or how The Great Global Warming Swindle, a documentary oft-cited by YouTubers, creatively took statements from its interviewees out of context.

Climate Cover-Up made me so angry. I remember not being able to fall asleep the night I finished it. Then telling everyone I could about it. I had been immersed in the issue of climate change for two years, and yet I had failed to grasp the scope of vested interests’ influence on the public.

Many of our readers, who have been following this issue for years, are probably familiar with the stories and examples in the book. There isn’t anything in it that will be new to everyone.

But that wasn’t the book’s purpose, and climate scientists aren’t the book’s audience. Rather, Climate Cover-Up is aimed at those just becoming interested in climate change politics. It’s aimed at people who are unaware of the near-constant misinformation thrown at them, who are new to the immense power of money and industry over science and truth, who wouldn’t think to check the citations of editorials. It’s aimed at people like I was, two years ago.

I must also note that Climate Cover-Up is substantially easier to read than most books about climate change. The prose is witty and easy to follow. It doesn’t talk about science. It feels nothing like a textbook.

I’d like everyone in the world to read this book. But truthfully, I’d rather that it hadn’t needed to be written at all.

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23 thoughts on “Climate Cover-Up

  1. I haven’t read the book but that list of PR objectives actually sounds pretty reasonable to me, as does the full email. But did the things described in that email actually happen? Or was this just a proposal somebody made?

    For instance, the email suggests establishing a "Global Climate Science Data Center" with a budget of $5 mil over two years. Did that happen? My guess is that it didn't happen. If it did, what was the resulting organization called? The top organization called GCSDC that google finds is the "Genesee County Singles Dance Club", which probably isn't it… :-)

    (Incidentally, your link to "Frank Luntz’s plans to capitalize on uncertainty" is a spam/linkfarm page) [Fixed now – sorry about that – don’t know what happened there. -Kate]

  2. Kate,

    I think another source that needs to be included when one speaks about manufacturing doubt is:

    Smoke, Mirrors & Hot Air – How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco’s Tactics to Manufacture Uncertainty on Climate Science (2007)

    http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/global_warming/exxon_report.pdf

    As a Canadian, you might also be very interested in reading Deep Climate’s newest blog post which exposes Friends of Science:

    http://deepclimate.org/2009/12/02/in-the-beginning-friends-of-science-talisman-energy-and-the-de-freitas-brothers/

  3. @Kate,
    “It didn’t just happen by accident. It was planned.”
    This statement makes me feel uncomfortable. I think that these words can be manipulated to suggest that you think a conspiracy theory was setted up some time ago. Remember that the denial machine is known for taking things out of context and stretching the truth. If we’re committed to an evidence-based world-view, these assertions are of no help. Just a suggestion.
    If you ask me how to best engage the denialist world, I have no answers:
    – More/different science, maths, logic and epistemology education?
    – Better science and general journalism?
    – Framing?
    – More science storytellers like Carl Sagan?
    – A science PR machine?
    – PR training for scientists?
    – Science tests for political aspirants?
    – More/different grassroots activism?
    – All of the above? Something else?

  4. Lucas: Yesterday, Dr. Andrew Weaver gave a (spectacular) talk at my university, and he honed in on that very question (even identifying my major complaint about journalistic objectivity vs. scientific objectivity). He identified three major problems:
    1) Scientists aren’t familiar with PR. For instance, Phil Jones waited a weekend before speaking on the CRU hack, which allowed for the spin doctors to weave a narrative in advance, since Jones is working on an academic rather than journalistic timeline.
    2) The media cannot identify an expert to save their lives. (The Credibility Spectrum would be a good weapon here.)
    3) There’s voter apathy to some extent. Motivating the youth would be a great place to start here. (I mentioned ClimateSight to him, although it was probably lost in the shuffle – we spent more time discussing the Friends of Science’s funding.)

    The biggest problem he identified, though, was that NGOs don’t have to identify their sources of funding. This is, in my opinion, the key factor missing in most discussions of scientific illiteracy – the lopsided double-standard between public and private research or advocacy groups. The CRU’s funding has to be completely disclosed and is rigorously audited, for instance, while the Friends of Science are free to launder their money eight ways before breakfast to hide its oily origins.

    Similarly, this applies to raw data as well. Consider the Data Quality Act, which is only about four lines long and basically says that publicly-funded research data must be available under Freedom of Information laws. On the surface this sounds fine, but you’ll notice it doesn’t apply to private research. It was used repeatedly by Big Tobacco (and other private research firms) to acquire the raw data from government studies indicating a health problem – and once they have the data, their own statisticians can juggle the data secretly (their data and methods aren’t subject to FOIA, remember) and publish a rebuttal paper saying the danger is exaggerated.

    Forcing these groups to be subject to the same transparency regulations as public research would go a *long* way to helping with this. That’s why DeSmog and Deep Climate have done such a spectacular job – they’ve been trying to uncover funding sources and make them public.

    (Slight aside to Kate: If you’re interested in what Dr. Weaver had to say, I have my notes and his citations (and can get his slides if necessary), but by his request they’re only to be shared privately rather than posted online. The CRU hack was obviously bugging him – understandably, especially since his office has been physically broken into twice in the past! – and as a result was leery about being quote-mined when speaking frankly and casually.)

  5. 1) Good post; I’ve recommended it as well on Amazon. If you haven’t, consider one there.

    2) Scott:thanks for that UCS reference. I have somehow missed that, and it’s *very* useful.

  6. Glen Raphael:

    that list of PR objectives actually sounds pretty reasonable to me, as does the full email.

    Except for the fact that the guys proposing the PR campaign and the requests for PR funding are from a group called the American Petroleum Institute.

    Hmm, an Institute. I thought an Institute is supposed to do, um, research? Rather than PR?

    Identify, recruit and train a team of five independent scientists to participate in media outreach. These will be individuals who do not have a long history of visibility and/or participation in the climate change debate. Rather, this team will consist of new faces who will add their voices to those recognized scientists who already are vocal.

    If this were done by the actual climate science community, the inactivists would have been up holding pitckforks and screaming “Propaganda!” “Activism!” “Bias!” “My taxpayer money!”

    But since the API are inactivists, it’s suddenly “pretty reasonable” to do these things.

    bi

  7. So the problem is the Data Quality Act? We should not bother trying to get the data from publicly funded research? How about
    get the data, and don’t believe the counter studies if they don’t provide their data?

    [Mike, I think the problem is more that we can’t get data from private research – it’s not as transparent as public research. -Kate]

  8. @Brian D,
    – “The media cannot identify an expert to save their lives. (The Credibility Spectrum would be a good weapon here.)”
    So true. The media can’t identify experts [1], they can’t identify reliable sources of information [2] and they are innumerate [3]

    – “Similarly, this applies to raw data as well. Consider the Data Quality Act, which is only about four lines long and basically says that publicly-funded research data must be available under Freedom of Information laws. On the surface this sounds fine, but you’ll notice it doesn’t apply to private research. It was used repeatedly by Big Tobacco (and other private research firms) to acquire the raw data from government studies indicating a health problem – and once they have the data, their own statisticians can juggle the data secretly (their data and methods aren’t subject to FOIA, remember) and publish a rebuttal paper saying the danger is exaggerated.”
    I’ve been looking into this issue:
    “The nation’s biggest tobacco companies are demanding more than a half-century’s worth of documents, notes and personal files from 10 universities, setting off a debate over the limits of academic freedom and the confidentiality of scholarly research.
    As part of their defense in the Justice Department’s lawsuit against them, tobacco companies like Philip Morris and R. J. Reynolds first subpoenaed the records late last year, trying to glean an inside look at government-financed research on smoking that goes back to the 1940’s.” [4]
    More here: http://lightbucket.wordpress.com/2009/10/10/tobacco-part-4-subpoenas-and-legal-chill/

    – “Forcing these groups to be subject to the same transparency regulations as public research would go a *long* way to helping with this. That’s why DeSmog and Deep Climate have done such a spectacular job – they’ve been trying to uncover funding sources and make them public.”
    This is another failure of journalism. Few journalists are doing investigative journalism and following the money trails. Couple this with the “balance and fairness” and “political correctness” issues, the result becomes predictable.

    – “The CRU hack was obviously bugging him – understandably, especially since his office has been physically broken into twice in the past! – and as a result was leery about being quote-mined when speaking frankly and casually”
    The security breaches are not just physical:
    “An alleged series of attempted security breaches at the University of Victoria in the run-up to next week’s Copenhagen summit on climate change is evidence of a larger effort to discredit climate science, says a renowned B.C. researcher.
    Andrew Weaver, a University of Victoria scientist and key contributor to the Nobel prize-winning work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says there have been a number of attempted breaches in recent months, including two successful break-ins at his campus office in which a dead computer was stolen and papers were rummaged through.” [5]
    This is extremely worrying and a classic example of the “doubt is our product” strategy [6]

    Matthew C. Nisbet, of “Framing Science” fame, has an interesting take on the CRU hack: http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/2009/12/the_climate_change_emails_impl.php

    1- http://www.ischool.utexas.edu/~palmquis/courses/biblio.html
    2- http://www.robertniles.com/data/
    3- http://www.robertniles.com/stats/
    4- http://www.nytimes.com/2002/01/20/us/tobacco-industry-in-fight-to-get-universities-data.html
    5- http://www.nationalpost.com/news/canada/story.html?id=2300282
    6- http://www.defendingscience.org/Doubt_is_Their_Product.cfm

  9. MikeN: Kate’s exactly right. This is further compounded by who is requesting the data and when – almost universally, it’s requested by industry groups who would be threatened with further regulation, upon learning of research that further regulation might be based on. (Didn’t you read the article I linked?)

    If it were only lay folk like you and me, I’d agree with you, but lobbyists prevent that from being a viable option.

    A book I’ve been suggesting as a companion to Climate Cover-Up is Doubt Is Their Product by David Michaels. It goes into extended detail on this and other issues of this sort, and prior to Climate Cover-Up it was my first recommendation for those interested in industry and PR. (It’s still very highly ranked, and to be honest, Climate Cover-Up only exceeds it because it’s tightly focused on climate, while Doubt Is Their Product deals with a much larger range of problems.)

    (Cause for hope: The last chapter of Doubt Is Their Product deals with a prescription for changes to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration to close the loopholes used to manufacture doubt. Take a look at the author’s most recent gig.)

  10. So if the private research can’t be tested, then don’t trust it.
    EPA, NIH, FDA won’t accept private research unless it passes proper peer review, sometimes conducting the tests themselves. EPA has a huge peer-review handbook explaining this in detail for agency employees.

  11. I don’t see anything quite so nefarious in your explanation. So if people think one thing, and you would like to change that, then you are obviously manufacturing uncertainty, not tapping into existing uncertainty.
    Pretty much every political change happens in that way.

    [However, manufacturing uncertainty in science, rather than politics, is very different. Politics is about opinion. Science is about a hypothetical physical truth. -Kate]

  12. Again, MikeN, that works with individuals but doesn’t work in the lobby system.

    Read Doubt Is Their Product. The research doesn’t go to the EPA – it goes into generating noise and producing confusion in the public, into congressional testimonies*, and into discrediting public research.

    *sort of like the infamous Soon & Baliunas 2003 paper that led to half the editorial board resigning from Climate Research, due, in part, to a skeptical editor (Chris de Freitas, most recently in the news due to McLean, De Freitas and Carter 2009; scholarly rebuttal here) being lax on quality standards. The paper got trumpeted by Inhofe on the Senate floor before it was challenged in the literature.

  13. @Brian D,
    “A book I’ve been suggesting as a companion to Climate Cover-Up is Doubt Is Their Product by David Michaels. It goes into extended detail on this and other issues of this sort, and prior to Climate Cover-Up it was my first recommendation for those interested in industry and PR. (It’s still very highly ranked, and to be honest, Climate Cover-Up only exceeds it because it’s tightly focused on climate, while Doubt Is Their Product deals with a much larger range of problems.)”
    I also recommend “The Cigarette Century” [1] by Allan M. Brandt. Read the review by The New England Journal Of Medicine:
    “Given its status as the single biggest preventable cause of death and illness in modern times, the cigarette is an important topic in its own right. But there is more to this book than the title suggests. For in telling the story of cigarettes, Brandt illuminates a veritable scientific revolution in the way people think about disease. Proving the connection between smoking and disease, he explains, “required a fundamental transformation in medical ways of knowing in the mid-twentieth century.” Unlike the development of the scientific method, which arose from the bacteriologic revolution and was famously codified in the Koch–Henle postulates, establishing the link between smoking and disease required a new kind of investigation, one that was “collaborative and iterative, rarely the work of a single scientist experimenting in isolation and rarely yielding definitive answers in a single stroke.” It required “the integration of methods and approaches across the biomedical sciences.”
    This type of scientific work was also particularly vulnerable to industry efforts to unsettle it. Brandt details at length the tobacco industry’s long, determined campaign to create uncertainty about the health effects of smoking.
    (…)
    Faced with powerful commercial interests that were determined to promote smoking, public health authorities responded with a new kind of procedural science, exemplified by the celebrated Surgeon General’s report of 1964, in which not only the collection of data but also the process of its interpretation became subject to new rules of analysis.” [2]
    Compare the science of tobacco’s health effects with the one in global warming:
    – New kind of of investigation, which is “collaborative and iterative, rarely the work of a single scientist experimenting in isolation and rarely yielding definitive answers in a single stroke.”
    – Integration of methods and approaches across the Earth sciences.
    – Existence of uncertainties which are ready to be exploited by industry efforts.
    – New kind of procedural science (the IPCC) in which not only the collection of data but also the process of its interpretation became subject to new rules of analysis (consensus making).

    I’ll also read “Merchants of Doubt” by Erik Conway and Naomi Oreskes when it becomes available [3]

    Excellent article in Scientific American titled “War Is Peace: Can Science Fight Media Disinformation?” by Lawrence M. Krauss [4]:
    “The increasingly blatant nature of the nonsense uttered with impunity in public discourse is chilling. Our democratic society is imperiled as much by this as any other single threat, regardless of whether the origins of the nonsense are religious fanaticism, simple ignorance or personal gain
    (…)
    The rise of a ubiquitous Internet, along with 24-hour news channels has, in some sense, had the opposite effect from what many might have hoped such free and open access to information would have had. It has instead provided free and open access, without the traditional media filters, to a barrage of disinformation. Nonsense claims had more difficulty gaining traction in the days when print journalism held sway and newspaper editors had the final word on what made its way into homes and when television news consisted of a half-hour summary of what a trained producer thought were the most essential stories of the day.
    (…)
    What makes people so susceptible to nonsense in public discourse? Is it because we do such a miserable job in schools teaching what science is all about—that it is not a collection of facts or stories but a process for weeding out nonsense to get closer to the underlying beautiful reality of nature? Perhaps not. But I worry for the future of our democracy if a combination of a free press and democratically elected leaders cannot together somehow more effectively defend empirical reality against the onslaught of ideology and fanaticism.” [5]

    1- http://www.cigarettecentury.com/
    2- http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/356/20/2115
    3- http://www.amazon.com/Merchants-Doubt-Handful-Scientists-Obscured/dp/1596916109
    4- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_M._Krauss
    5- http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=war-is-peace

  14. You two just contradicted each other. One says manufacturing uncertainty in science not politics, the other demonstrates in politics. I think the latter is closer to the truth.

  15. MikeN, if the private research doesn’t get submitted to peer review – it often doesn’t, being “internal reviews/reports” designed for industrial rather than academic purposes – it may look like science, but it is merely a simulacrum of it, instead serving the role of politics. The point of the studies I used as illustrations was *not* to further our understanding, but to basically say “We’ve looked over the government’s numbers and found them unconvincing”. Frequently they will be third-party and independent in appearance, but will in truth be a front group for the industry facing regulation. Due to a lack of transparency, uncovering this relationship (or even checking their research) can be impossibly difficult.

    Read. The. Fracking. Book. Both Doubt Is Their Product or Climate Cover-Up go into this at length.

    As for Lucas’ suggestions, I haven’t read them (though Merchants of Doubt has been on my wish list since I first heard of it, and I’ve been following Krauss for years), though his summaries makes me want to. I’ve had The Cigarette Century suggested to me several times.

  16. The whole point of the Data Quality Act and similar things exploits the fact that public science is open but private science does not need to be, and the law does not distinguish between the two.

    If you can get skepticism on unverified science enshrined in law, then we can discuss this again. As it stands, trying to have a conversation with you is like trying to have a conversation with a dining room table, and this will be the last I will write on the subject.

    Shifting gears, Kate, today I learned of two other related books that definitely sound interesting. I’ve already borrowed one of them, from a familiar author – Science As Contact Sport by Dr Stephen Schneider – and it looks like a very engaging read. The other is unfamiliar, Not A Conspiracy Theory: How Business Propaganda Hijacks Democracy by Donald Gutstein. It’s only just appeared on my radar, but is getting frequent mention alongside Climate Cover-Up (although it appears closer to Doubt Is Their Product). Once I can secure a copy, a review will be forthcoming. (Here’s hoping it’s better than the last book I bought for this reason.)

    [I just read Science as a Contact Sport. It was absolutely fantastic. Sort of like a memoir of what it’s like to be a climate scientist. It inspired six ideas for posts and you’ll be hearing a lot about it soon. -Kate]

  17. I think this book is a good read for anyone interested in the role of public relations firms in redefining the debate on climate change. After reading this book I spotted some of the people mentioned in subsequent ‘news’ stories on tv.

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