Doubt over climate science is a product with an industry behind it


The manufacturing of doubt on climate change science, backed by the fossil fuel industry, has its roots with the tobacco industry’s assault on climate science in the 1960s. Photograph: Richard Hamilton Smith/Richard Hamilton Smith/Corbis

Doubt over climate science is a product with an industry behind it

With its roots in the tobacco industry, climate science denial talking points can be seen as manufactured doubt

Graham Readfearn Thursday 5 March 2015 00.30 EST Last modified on Thursday 5 March 2015 00.42 EST

It’s a product that you can find in newspaper columns and TV talk shows and in conversations over drinks, at barbecues, in taxi rides and in political speeches. You can find this product in bookstores, on sponsored speaking tours, in the letters pages of local newspapers and even at United Nations climate change talks. This product is doubt – doubt about the causes and impacts of climate change, the impartiality of climate scientists, the world’s temperature records, the height of the oceans and basic atmospheric physics. … In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been given yet another glimpse into the global climate science denial industry and the machinery that produces all of this doubt. For those playing catch-up, the story revolves around Dr Willie Soon, who is a long-serving climate science denialist and worker bee for numerous conservative think tanks over the past 15 years.

Documents obtained from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, where Soon has a part-time research position, have raised questions over the rules around conflict of interest and funding disclosures in the journals where Soon has published his work. As The Chronicle of Higher Education has explained, The Smithsonian doesn’t actually pay Soon a wage and he has no association with the world-renowned Harvard University, despite the name of his institution suggesting there might be one. Soon chases money himself and in the last decade practically all of it has come either from the fossil fuel industry or conservative groups. The Smithsonian is now carrying out a review, after it also emerged that it had agreed to a clause preventing the institution from revealing the identity of at least one donor. Now three US Senators have asked 100 fossil fuel groups, conservative “free market” think tanks and conservative aligned funding groups for information about climate change research and scientists they might have been involved with. Soon claims the sun is the main driver of the world’s climate, but he also downplays concerns over rising sea levels and the health impacts of mercury from burning coal. Scientists have long criticised Soon’s work as flawed. Dr Gavin Schmidt, the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has described Soon’s work as “singularly poor” and “almost pointless”…..

The campaign to sow doubt and discredit science to maintain industry profits was one honed by the tobacco industry during its fight against the science linking its products with cancer.

In the book Merchants of Doubt (released as a film this week) authors Naomi Oreskes (an actual Harvard professor) and Erik Conway explain that some of the same individuals and think tanks who had worked with the tobacco industry had moved on to climate science denial. Documents obtained by US lawsuits against the tobacco industry in the 1990s and 2000s are now housed in the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library. Among the many thousands of documents, is Bad Science: A Resource Book
described in Merchants of Doubt as a “how-to handbook for fact fighters”. Produced by the tobacco industry to help any industry fight any legislation that responded to scientific findings, this was a representation of big tobacco’s playbook in written form. The book provided soundbites and ready-made talking points to arm any industry fighting regulation. Among the talking points the book suggested should be pushed home were:

Too often, science is manipulated to fulfil a political agenda. Government agencies, too often, betray the public trust by violating principles of good science in a desire to achieve a political goal. Public policy decisions that are based on bad science impose enormous economic costs on all aspects of society. Among the newspaper cuttings provided as back up were newspaper columns, several of which took climate science denialists viewpoints, with self-explanatory titles. There was “Warming Theories need a Warning Label”, “Earth Summit Will Shackle the Planet, Not Save It” and “Great Hoax On Asbestos Finally Ends”. In a famous 1969 tobacco industry memo, one executive wrote: Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the “body of fact” that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy. Within the business we recognize that a controversy exists. However, with the general public the consensus is that cigarettes are in some way harmful to the health. If we are successful in establishing a controversy at the public level, then there is an opportunity to put across the real facts about smoking and health. Doubt is also the limit of our “product”.

What’s clear – and has been clear for well over a decade – is that the climate science denial industry is largely an extension of a program developed in the 1960s by big tobacco. Much of its product, liberally spread, is a public relations exercise. The fact that this is not regularly acknowledged is possibly also a result of the production of doubt. You’ll probably be able to sample some of that product in the comment section of this post. Enjoy.


“Merchants of Doubt”: Meet the sleazy spin doctors who will stop at nothing to obscure the truth

A must-see new documentary from the director of “Food, Inc.” exposes the dirty tricks of professional deceivers

March 6, 2015

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