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Harvard historian: strategy of climate science denial groups 'extremely successful'

Posted on 4 August 2014 by Guest Author

In 1965, US President Lyndon Johnson had a special message for the American Congress on conservation of the environment.

Worried about the "storm of modern change" threatening cherished landscapes, Johnson said: “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through… a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”

The same quote appears at the beginning of the 2010 book Merchants of Doubt: How A Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by science historians Erik Conway and Professor Naomi Oreskes.

Plainly the line – almost half a century old now – was picked to show just how long the impacts of fossil fuel burning have been known in the corridors of the highest powers.

The book explained the efforts since the 1960s of vested interests and ideologues to underplay the risks of pumping ever-increasing volumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

One of the most startling revealing aspects of the book was how some of the same institutions and individuals who held out against a wave of scientific warnings about the health impacts of tobacco smoke became integral to efforts to block any meaningful policy response to greenhouse gas emissions.

Oreskes is a Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University and she has a new book out, again co-written with Conway.

The Collapse of Western Civilisation: A view from the future is written from the perspective of a historian living in the year 2393 and looking back at what went horribly wrong in the lead up to the “Great Collapse”.

Here's my Q&A with Oreskes.

Q: Merchants of Doubt looked at the role of think tanks, vested interests and free market ideologies in attacking the science linking fossil fuel burning to climate change, smoking to cancer, pollution to acid rain and CFCs to the ozone hole. Four years later, has anything changed?

Not really. There are some new faces on the horizon, but recruiting “fresh voices” has been a tactic for a long time. So even the things that may look new are in fact old. The Heartland Institute has become more visible, and the George Marshall Institute a bit less, but the overall picture continues: these groups continue to dismiss or disparage the science, attack scientists, and sow doubt.

They continue to try to block action by confusing us about the facts. And the arguments, the tactics, and the overall strategy has remained the same. And, they’ve been extremely successful. CO2 has reached 400 ppm, meaningful action is still not in sight, and people who really understand the science—understand what is at stake—are getting very worried.

Q: How did you move from being a geologist working in Australia for the Western Mining Corporation to being a scholar of the history of science?

Oh this is a long story. I was always interested in broad questions about science. History of science gave me the opportunity to pursue those broad questions.

Naomi Oreskes discusses the background to the 2010 Merchants of Doubt

Q: You were filmed for an ABC documentary that pitched a climate change "advocate" against a "sceptic". You met Australian politician and climate science sceptic Nick Minchin - the key political kingmaker who engineered the leadership challenge that gave the now Prime Minister Tony Abbott the Liberal leadership. What were your impressions of Minchin?

Well, I think he is a basically nice guy who has fallen into a trap: the trap of imprecatory denial. He doesn’t like the implications of climate change for our political and economic system, so he denies its reality. But climate change will come back to bite us all. It is already starting to.

Naomi Oreskes meets former Australian politician and climate sceptic Nick Minchin. Clip from ABC documentary "I Can Change Your Mind About Climate" Produced by Smith&Nasht.

Q: So you worked in Australia as a geologist, toured here to promote Merchants of Doubt and had an academic role at the University of Western Australia, so you've seen a bit of how things have played out. How do you think Australia has been influenced by organised climate science denial?

Clearly. One sees all the same strategies and tactics being used there, plus a few additional ones (trotting out geologists to claim there are hidden underwater volcanoes that are responsible for the extra atmospheric CO2.) The Institute of Public Affairs in Australia has been very active trotting out skeptical and denialist claims with little or no basis in evidence. If you go to their web site, they link back to many of the very same groups whose activities we documented in Merchants of Doubt : the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, Competitive Enterprise institute, the Heritage Foundation.

It’s the same old, same old: defend the free market, deny the reality of market failure, block action that could actually address those failures. And of course, that is the point of the new book: by denying the reality of market failure, and blocking corrective action, these folks are actually undermining our economies, and laying the foundations for kinds of government interventions that will make them pine for the good old days of a carbon tax.

Q: Oh yes the new book - The Collapse of Western Civilisation: A view from the future. You've written it from the point of view of a historian writing about the "Period of the Penumbra (1988–2093) that led to the Great Collapse and Mass Migration (2073–2093)". It doesn't sound like there are too many laughs?

Not unless we are talking about black humour. Our editor, when he first approached us, said he found it funny in a Dr Strangelovian way. I took that as a huge compliment.

Q: Dr Strangelove - a character that apparently borrowed parts from the real life Edward Teller, the so-called "father" of the H-bomb. Your new book borrows much from real life events and modern science too doesn't it (it's a clunky segue, but I'm sticking with it)?

Click here to read the rest from Graham Readfearn

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Comments 1 to 4:

  1. "But the overall picture continues: these groups continue to dismiss or disparage the science, attack scientists, and sow doubt."

    Interesting about Johnson, I wondered why this wasn't obvious a long time ago (and now see that it was.) I've also been arguing for almost two decades that the basics of climate change are pretty much the same (and not dependent on shorter term patterns. (Since then we've had 14 of the 14 warmest years on record according to the composite data of the three major global data sets as compiled by the World Meteorological Organization, but all anybody can talk about is the misleading pause. And focus far too much on air temperature, and not ocean temperatures.) 

    Anyway, Oreskes is spot on.

    I think the difference is they come to believe it (much as a laywer advocating for a client often genuinely takes on that perspective) and many want to believe it for various reasons, laid out here, and it creates a kind of powerful self reinforcing effect - particularly on the internet where self selection leads to excessive insular reinforcement. It has almost become a religion, but climate change refuters see it as the opposite of course, and project that outward.

    There's a constant pattern that simply builds on and reinforces the idea that climate scientists are unscientifically engaging in a narrow, research grant funded groupthink expedition, and the clueless koolaid drinkers are following, while the intreped skeptic/refuter is bold enough to discover and know the true facts and objectively and cooly evaluate and assess the issue. -All while going nearly nuts over any sort of disagreement that makes a good point, or finding some way to simply dismiss it or not consider it, and often wildly disparagingly at the same time.  Even skeptical science, over at WUWT, has no merit according to them. Because it has to have no merit. If it had merit, then the extremeness of their views would start to seem unreasonable. So only those facts and ideas that reinforce or support those views are considered real, all others have been and are by one measure or another dismissed, not considered, or disregarded, or, simply, changed. By looking at it differently. (Such as with oceans, since, well we can't have measured every square inch, so once we measure the "right" things, it is no longer warming.)

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  2. Yes, the disinformation campaign has been successful — if you call 'success' winning a policy determined to make the lives of your few generations of descendants absolute misery.

    But it is about to get worse: I just saw an announcement on Quora of an even more shameful, bold fraud: the mysteriously and suspiciously named "NICPP", a new front group for The Heartland Institute, claiming scientific backing for many of the false criticisms of the ICPP that we have all heard before.

    I also noticed that nothing comes up in the search here at Skeptical Science when I input "NICPP" or "nicpp". That ought to change pronto.

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  3. Matt, you'll find of plenty of returns by trying "NIPCC" (not NICPP). This organization is well known of SkS contributors, as is the grotesque parody of information with which they have tried to infect the public place.

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  4. These same Paid Politcal Propagandists were also involved in the denial of Acid Rain and it's causes (like mercury and CO2 it was from burning coal) as well as denial of the Ozone Hole and CFC's contributions to it.

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