What climate denial has learnt from tobacco denial

In a recent Skeptical Science post, John Cook responded to an article by Anthony Cox published in the Newcastle Herald. In his article, Cox attempts to cast doubt on the scientific consensus on man-made climate change by focusing on Cook et al.'s 2013 peer-reviewed paper. Cox effectively rejects the paper's findings by using a well-known technique developed in the 1970s by the tobacco industry: “unrealistic expectations”. More precisely, according to Cox a paper no longer supports the consensus if it does not explicitly specify the percentage of global warming caused by humans. As Cook points out, this allows Cox to ignore many papers that clearly state that human activities are behind ongoing climate change. For instance, a paper which includes

"Accumulating evidence points to an anthropogenic 'fingerprint' on the global climate change that has occurred in the last century"

does not endorse the scientific consensus when rated according to Cox's selective criterion. It is clear that Cox is demanding an unreasonable level of scientific proof which simply cannot be met. No matter how much evidence supports anthropogenic climate change, it will be conveniently ignored since the bar has been set arbitrarily high without justification.

That those who reject the science of climate change use the same tactics as the tobacco industry is well documented. Yet some, including Cox, argue that the situations cannot be compared since the science supporting the link between tobacco and cancer/addiction is settled, unlike the science of man-made climate change. This ignores two things. First, the consensus on tobacco and its adverse effects on health was already strong when the tobacco lobby was trying to spread doubt about the science. There simply came a point when the evidence could no longer be ignored by the majority of people. We are currently seeing the same process at play in relation to climate change: there is a deliberate effort to spread doubt in order to maintain the status quo. Secondly, the consensus on man-made climate change emerged as a result of decades of research that have produced a large body of converging evidence. In other words, there is virtually no doubt that our climate is changing and that human activities are responsible for this change. In this respect, the science is also settled.

The tactics used by the tobacco industry were successful in delaying government regulation for years. Therefore it is not surprising to see these same techniques used by those who oppose action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Peter Sinclair has produced an excellent video that leaves no doubt about the similarities between what happened then and what is happening now. Some of the main parts are even being played by the same people.

NOTE: this report by the Union of Concerned Scientists or Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. Haydn Washington and John Cook have also written Climate Change Denial in which they cover the five techniques, including unrealistic expectations, in more depth.  

Posted by Anne-Marie Blackburn on Saturday, 30 November, 2013

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