Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Climate Cover-Up

In their new book, Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming, James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore waste little time wringing their hands about the reality or seriousness of the global warming threat. They dispense with this question quickly, showing that the essential features of carbon-dioxide induce warming have been known for over a century.

Although a devil might lurk in the details, the recent state of the science is captured by Naomi Oreskes' 2004 literature study in Science, which found zero dissenters from the consensus among 928 journal articles referencing "global climate change." Similarly, the 2007 Fourth Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose political charter leads it to avoid poorly understood possibilities like collapsing ice sheets, nonetheless states that "most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic [greenhouse gas] concentrations."

In contrast, a Pew Survey released last week concludes that only 36% of Americans think there is solid evidence that the Earth is warming because of human activity, down from an already low 47% over the past few years. Climate Cover-Up explores how it has come to pass that the public still thinks that this is an open scientific question. Hoggan and Littlemore describe the extensive, organized efforts to make it appear open, largely funded by corporations with much to lose from effective climate actions.

Hoggan is a public-relations professional who says that PR people have a duty to serve the public good. In 2005 he founded DeSmogBlog to highlight just the sorts of systematic distortions that the book catalogs, and Littlemore is editor at the site. Their highly readable book describes these efforts, and the funding behind them, with journalistic precision and documentation.

Their laundry list of deception includes "astroturf" groups that use sanitized corporate funds to present a "grass roots" appearance; "think tanks" that increasingly eschew analysis for promotion of policies that favor their sponsors, and petitions signed by scientists who are not or who have little or no expertise in climate. Hoggan and Littlemore systematically discuss these and other programs to frame the "debate" as one in which huge uncertainties remain--as if that should be a source of comfort.

Sowing doubt is a tried-and-true strategy for delaying government response. David Michaels' excellent 2008 book, Doubt Is Their Product, for example, and Devra Davis' 2007 The Secret War on Cancer related how the tobacco industry perfected this technique to delay serious government action against their product for decades. Some of the same firms are coordinating the skeptical response to climate change, and some of the same scientists, like Frederick Seitz and S. Fred Singer, have played roles in both controversies (despite having expertise in neither cancer nor climate).

Hoggan and Littlemore describe how these omnipresent figures benefit financially from their support of corporate needs, and they reveal the irrelevance of many of the "thousands" of signatories on some highly publicized petitions. But they don't address why other scientists--many intelligent and sincere--sign on to such statements. Why are researchers who have no expertise in climate, as well as members of the public, so willing to question those who do, when they would never presume to second guess articles about cancer treatments or particle theory?

In the end, though, these efforts have achieved their goal: keeping the journalistic treatment of global warming "balanced," unlike the clear trend in expert opinion. This problem was captured in a 2004 study by Maxwell T. Boykoff and Jules M. Boykoff, "Balance as bias: global warming and the US prestige press" which was published in 2004 in the journal Global Environmental Change, and in Chris Mooney's story, "Blinded by science: how 'balanced' coverage lets the scientific fringe hijack reality" in Columbia Journalism Review later that year.

This book is not likely to convince true skeptics of the seriousness of global warming. For those who understand the stakes, however, the book is a powerful inoculation to help recognize the conspiracy-theory talking points, most recently regurgitated by the authors of SuperFreakonomics, for the misinformation it is.

Where there's smoke, there's not always fire. Sometimes, it's a massive corporate-sponsored campaign to blow smoke.

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