Who's Polluting the Climate Conversation?

Money, think tanks, and the scientists-for-hire behind the doubt and denial.

The loudest voices in the U.S. climate conversation come not from scientists, but from dirty energy industries, with their paid experts and think tanks, who are promoting a view of science that serves their economic interests.

Illustration by Jutta Kuss/Getty Images

Scientists now warn that climate change is happening faster, and is a bigger threat, than they predicted just a few years ago. Yet the number of Americans who believe climate change is occurring at all is decreasing. That’s shocking—but not surprising.

It’s shocking because the stakes are so high and the science is so clear. A recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences carried an article reporting that sedimentary records from an Arctic lake show warmer temperatures in the last few decades than at any time in the past 200,000 years. At the same time, the Pew Research Center reported that the number of Americans who believe the Earth is warming has dropped from 71 percent to just 57 percent in the last 18 months.

How can that be unsurprising? Well, because the loudest voices in the U.S. climate conversation come not from scientists, but from dirty energy industries, with their paid experts and think tanks, who are promoting a view of science that serves their economic interests, regardless of what is actually true. This is not an idle assertion. It comes from four years of research on the climate website DeSmogBlog.com, which Richard Littlemore and I have compiled into the new book Climate Cover-up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming.

Industry pays more every year to promote climate confusion.

Among our most disturbing discoveries were three instances in which corporate associations set out strategy and tactics for attacking the science of climate change—or science in general.

The coal barons went first. They recognized the strength of the science almost two decades ago. In 1991, the Western Fuels Association and the Edison Electric Institute crafted a plan to argue that global warming would be a good thing. They hired PR people, tested messages, and recruited compliant scientists to argue their case. They put out radio ads with messages like, “If the Earth is getting warmer, why is Minneapolis getting colder?” (Even though Minneapolis was, in fact, warming faster than the planetary average.) Then they paid scientists like the University of Virginia’s Patrick Michaels to write skeptical editorials for small town papers—publications unlikely to have the resources to check whether someone was being paid by industry.

Philip Morris joined the climate-change fight in 1993. They were already heavily invested in strewing confusion about science, having spent decades defending a product that is lethal when used as directed. But no one was taking them seriously anymore, so they established a fake grassroots organization—an “Astroturf group”—called The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC). They recruited other businesses, like oil companies, that had a stake in undermining public faith in science. Together, they started hiring and promoting willing scientists like Dr. S. Fred Singer, who was equally happy to argue for the safety of secondhand smoke or to deny that climate change was real.

A third denial campaign was started on behalf of the American Petroleum Institute in 1997 by spin doctors with experience denying everything from the dangers of tobacco (Steve Milloy, at the time the executive director of TASSC) to the hazards of ozone depletion (Candace Crandall, Fred Singer’s then-wife). The API’s “Global Climate Science Communication Action Plan” detailed how to take advantage of small newspapers and TV stations to spread disinformation. They recruited more scientists-for-hire and gave them media training and editorial support, promoted them as interview subjects, and distributed their skeptical articles widely.

The strategies are still popular, and many of the original players are still in the game. Industry pays more every year to promote climate confusion. An Astroturf group, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), spent between $35 million and $40 million for a huge campaign during the last presidential election. Some of the propaganda was obvious. You couldn’t watch the presidential debates without seeing “clean coal” ads. Other activity was less transparent. For example, the Hawthorn Group PR firm recruited and paid young people to wear bright white “clean coal” T-shirts and baseball caps to electoral rallies. They offered bonuses to anyone who got their photo taken with a candidate and got it on the news.

We can’t save the world from climate change with just a few lifestyle changes. We have to take back the public discourse.

For the debate over the Waxman-­Markey climate change bill, ACCCE hired a Washington, D.C., Astroturf specialist called Bonner & Associates to generate fake grassroots opposition. Bonner employees got scripts directing them to hide who they were working for. (“Hi, I’m working with seniors/retirees to help stop their utility bills from doubling.”) They forged letters on purloined letterhead and sent them to Congress ahead of the vote. Congressman Markey’s office discovered the scripts and forgeries and continues to investigate.

In each of these cases, the funders actually admit their intent to confuse the public and undermine the credibility of legitimate scientists. They use Astroturf front groups because people know who not to trust: A recent poll showed that only 19 percent of people believe what corporations say about climate change.

The Greenpeace “Exxon Secrets” project, and similar groups, have documented other huge corporate investments in confusion and attacks on climate science. And the oil and gas industry keeps adding to the budget—in 2008, its expenditures on lobbying alone increased by 50 percent.

Neither the major media nor politicians are counterbalancing these campaigns. And that leaves a huge burden on you, the individual.

It also creates a great opportunity. People are crying out for leadership on this issue, and they would rather follow leaders they know. If you inform yourself and speak out , people will appreciate and emulate your example. If you call foul when you hear or see information being misused, your friends and colleagues will be grateful. And if you start demanding more from media, from business, and especially from government, others will applaud.

We can’t save the world from climate change with just a few lifestyle changes. We have to take back the public discourse. We could begin, for example, by demanding that think tanks like the Heartland Institute, which lobbies on behalf of tobacco companies and against climate-change legislation, have to declare the source of their funding. We could demand that companies like Bonner & Associates have to acknowledge their clients—that all Astroturfers should declare when they are operating on behalf of self-interested corporations.

Climate change can be beaten , quickly and affordably. It’s time we all insisted that it be done.

Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming

James Hoggan didn’t set out to write an indictment of public relations. He does public relations for a living. But when he started looking into the climate controversy he’d heard so much about, he turned up a story of disinformation, scientists-for-hire, and a campaign orchestrated by members of his profession to keep the public in the dark about the real science of climate change. This book details where the lies are coming from, who’s paying for them, and who’s telling them—and gives us a professional’s advice on what we can do to stop the lies.

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