This is the sixth in a series of articles that examines tragic communications failures of the US media about climate change. In this series we examine how the American media has utterly failed to communicate to US citizens about five essential aspects of climate change that need to be understood to know why climate change is a civilization-challenging problem that requires dramatic, aggressive, and urgent policy action to avoid harsh impacts to hundreds of millions of people around the world. EthicsandClimate.org has developed a video that summarizes these failures: Five Grave Communication Failures of US Media on Climate Change that can be found at: http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2012/10/15/five-grave-communications-failures-of-the-us-media-on-climate-change/
This is the fifth paper that examines in more detail the issues briefly examined in the video. In previous entries we examined the failure of the US media to communicate about: (a) the nature of the strong scientific consensus about human-induced climate change, (b) the magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change,(c) the practical significance for policy that follows from understanding climate change as essentially an ethical problem, and (e) the consistent barrier that the United States has been to finding a global solution to climate change in international climate negotiations. In this paper we look at the failure of the US media to help educate US citizens about the well-financed, well-organized climate change disinformation campaign.
II. The US Media Failure to Educate American Citizens About The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign
For over 30 years, there has been a debate about climate change that most Americans are at least dimly aware of. In this debate, sometimes those opposed to action on climate change are characterized as climate “skeptics.” Skepticism is the oxygen and catalyst of science and should be encouraged. Yet most Americans are completely unaware that a well-financed, well-organized climate change disinformation campaign has been operating for over two decades that has used tactics which cannot be classified as responsible skepticism. In fact, this campaign has been engaged in tactics that are deeply ethically abhorrent. To the extent that the US mainstream press has covered this controversy, it has reported on disputes between mainstream climate scientists and scientific skeptics and in so doing ignoring the ethically abhorrent tactics of the disinformation campaign discussed in this article and at the same time giving opposition to climate change policy legitimacy that the disinformation campaign does not deserve because its tactics cannot be understood as responsible skepticism. Also, as we have described in considerable detail in a prior entry, the mainstream press has utterly failed to cover the strength of the climate change scientific consensus position on climate change.
This disinformation campaign has largely been responsible that the United States failure to enact comprehensive climate change policies. Given the enormity, harshness, and destructiveness of climate change impacts, the duties that high-emitting countries like the United States have to not harm hundreds of millions of people around the world who are vulnerable to climate change, and the fact that the world has now lost several decades in finding a solution to climate change at a time when the world may be running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change, the failure of the US media to report on the nature of this campaign to the American people is a grave, tragic, and profound failure.
There is a growing peer-reviewed sociological literature on the disinformation campaign which describes this phenomenon as a counter-movement. (See, for example, McCright and Dunlap 2000: 559) A counter-movement is a social movement that has formed in reaction to another movement. (McCright and Dunlap 2000: 504.) The climate change disinformation campaign can be understood to be a continuation of the counter-movements that arose among US political conservatives in reaction to the environmental, civil rights, women’s rights, and anti-war movements that arose in the 1960′s in the United States. And so, the climate change disinformation campaign’s methods and processes can be understood to be an extension of strategies that had already been developed among some, although not all, conservatives to counter the environmental movement that had developed in the late 1960s and 1970s around other environmental issues such as air and water pollution, safe disposal of waste and toxic substances, and protection of wetlands and endangered species.
Yet the emergence of global warming as an issue in the 1980s with its potential for large-scale social change needed to ameliorate its threat was seen as more threatening to conservatives in regard to industry, prosperity, life-style, and the entire American-way of life, than were traditional pollution problems. (McCright and Dunlap 2000: 503) In other words, climate change directly threatened the central values of the US conservative movement even more than other environmental problems. (McCright and Dunlap 2000: 505) As a result climate change has become the key environmental focus of the US conservative movement.
In addition there have been some American industries whose welfare depends upon fossil fuel use have also participated in the disinformation campaign by funding this effort. The climate change disinformation movement can be understood to be comprised of many organizations and participants including conservative think tanks, front groups, Astroturf groups, conservative media, and individuals. This disinformation campaign frequently has used certain tactics to convince people and politicians that the science supporting climate change policies is flawed. The central claims of the climate change disinformation movement have been:
• There is no warming.
• Its not caused by humans.
• Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will cause more harm than good.
(McCright and Dunlap 2010: 111)
To support these claims, the climate denial machine frequently has made claims that: (a) mainstream climate scientists are corrupt or liars, (b) descriptions of adverse climate change impacts are made by “alarmists,” (c) scientific journals that publish climate related research are biased against skeptics, and (d) mainstream climate science is “junk” science. The climate change disinformation machine also has made frequent ad hominem attacks on those who produce climate change science and sometimes has cyber-bullied both climate scientists and journalists. In summary, the climate change disinformation campaign has engaged in these tactics and others identified in this paper that may not be classified as responsible skepticism, yet the US media has covered this campaign as if it was the output of reasonable scientific skepticism.
The climate change disinformation campaign began in the 1980s when some of the same scientists and organizations that fought government regulation of tobacco began to apply the tactics perfected in their war on the regulation of tobacco to climate change. (Oreskes and Conway 2010:169-215). According to Pooley the disinformation campaign began “spinning around 1988 in response to the increasingly outspoken scientific community…” (Pooley 2010: 39) For almost 25 years this campaign has been waged to undermine support for regulation of greenhouse gases.
To say that the campaign has been “waged” is not to claim that it has been a tightly organized, completely coordinated effort by a few groups or individuals or that all participants have the same motives. In fact different participants may have radically different motives including the fact that some may be sincere, some appear to be motivated by protecting free markets without government intervention, and many appear to believe that no restriction on fossil fuel use can be justified without very high levels of proof of harms. Yet, these different participants, according to Newsweek, since the 1990s for the most part have acted in a well-coordinated campaign among contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks, and industry to create a fog of doubt around climate change. (Begley 2007) They have accomplished this through the production of advertisements, op-eds, lobbying, books, media attention, and quotations from skeptical scientists often associated with conservative think tanks. They have argued first that the world is not warming, measurements that indicate otherwise are flawed, any warming is natural, that is not caused by human activities, and if warming does occur it will be miniscule and harmless. (Begley 2007)
Different groups created this counter-movement often acting independently of each other, yet connected through the internet to create a denial machine that has effectively responded to any public pronouncement by scientists or journalists that have asserted that human-induced climate change is a serious problem. (Begley 2007) Conservative activists wrote hundreds of documents (including policy briefs, books, press releases, and op-eds), held numerous policy forums and press conferences, appeared regularly on television and radio programs, and testified at congressional hearings on global warming. (Dunlap and McCright 2008)
As a result of the internet communication between participants in this campaign, charges by one of the participants have been quickly transmitted to others creating an echo chamber of counter-claims made in opposition to the mainstream scientific view of climate change.
The disinformation campaign’s most important participants have been conservative think tanks according to the sociological literature. (Jaques et al 2008) As we shall see, these think tanks developed the ideas, communications and media strategies, literature and press releases that have been widely deployed in rhetorical strategies to defend conservative interests by creating doubt about mainstream climate change scientific claims.
Initially most of the funding for this disinformation campaign came from fossil fuel interests and corporations whose products produce high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. On October 21, 2010, John Broder of the New York Times reported that:
“the fossil fuel industries have for decades waged a concerted campaign to raise doubts about the science of global warming and to undermine policies devised to address it.” (Broder 2010)
According to Broder, the fossil fuel industry has:
“created and lavishly financed institutes to produce anti-global-warming studies, paid for rallies and Web sites to question the science, and generated scores of economic analyses that purport to show that policies to reduce emissions of climate-altering gases will have a devastating effect on jobs and the overall economy.” (Broder 2010)
Not surprisingly, the fossil fuel industry funded many of the initial efforts to prevent adoption of climate change policies. Both individual corporations such as ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal, as well as industry associations such as American Petroleum Institute, Western Fuels Associations, and Edison Electric Institute provided funding for individual contrarian scientists, conservative think tanks active in climate change denial, and a host of front groups that we will discuss below. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:148)
Although the initial funding in the campaign may have come from certain corporations, McCright and Dunlap argue that recently conservative, free-market, and anti-regulatory ideology and organizations have been the main forces fueling the denial machine first and foremost. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:144)
According to Dunlap and McCright the glue that holds the elements of the climate disinformation campaign together is a shared hatred for government regulation of private industry. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:144) And so, a staunch commitment to free markets and a disdain for government regulation are the ideas that most unite the climate denial community. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:144)
The mainstream conservative movement, embodied in conservative foundations and think tanks, quickly joined forces with the fossil fuel industry (which recognized very early the threat posed by recognition of global warming and the role of carbon emissions) and wider sectors of corporate America to oppose the threat of global warming, not as an ecological problem, but as a problem for unbridled economic growth. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:144) And so the disinformation campaign has been a movement that has been waged both by conservative organizations and some corporations.
To use the word “campaign” is not meant to connote an organized conspiracy led by one or a few entities who coordinate all actors, but rather a social movement that creates widespread, predictable, and strong opposition to climate change policy and that consistently uses scientific uncertainty arguments as the basis of its opposition. This movement is a campaign in the sense that it is a systematic response of aggressive actions to defeat proposals to limit greenhouse gas emissions even though no one organization is coordinating all other organizations or individuals that participate in responses. And although some of the actors may be sincere, the tactics discussed in this article are, as we shall see, ethically reprehensible.
Those engaged in this disinformation campaign can be distinguished from responsible climate skeptics because the climate change denial campaign is a collective social movement run by professional advocacy working to discredit climate change.” (Hoffman 2011: 5) As such, this movement is not engaged in reasonable scientific skepticism but advocacy that stresses scientific uncertainty. In fact McCright and Dunlap summarize the disinformation machine as having been engaged on misrepresenting, manipulating, and suppressing climate change research results. (McCright and Dunlap 2010: 111)
Although almost all of the disinformation campaign led opposition to climate change policies has been on the basis of inadequate scientific grounding for action, scientific arguments are usually coupled with economic arguments such as claims that climate change policies will destroy jobs, hurt specific industries, lower GDP, or are not justified by cost-benefit analysis.
Although these economic arguments often have their own ethical problems, a series on Ethicsandclimate.org has examined in considerable detail the ethical problems with tactics used by the disinformation campaign that rely on scientific uncertainty arguments.
The original organizations that sought to undermine public support on climate policies by exaggerating scientific uncertainty have expanded to include ideological think tanks, front groups, Astroturf groups (i.e. groups organized by industry that pretend to be a legitimate grassroots organization), and PR firm-led campaigns. (Oreskes and Conway 2010:169-215)
The tactics deployed by this campaign are now all well documented in the books and peer-reviewed sociological literature identified in the Appendix to this article. The tactics used by the climate change disinformation campaign have included the following ethically abhorrent tactics:
- Lying or reckless disregard for the truth
- Cherry picking the science
- Cyber-bullying and ad hominem attacks on scientists and journalists
- Manufacturing bogus, non-peer-reviewed science in fake conferences and publications
- The use of ideological think tanks
- The use of front groups that hide the real parties in interest
- The use of fake grass-roots organizations known as Astroturf groups
- Specious claims about “bad science” that are based upon the dubious assumption that no conclusions in science can be made until everything is proven with high levels of certainty.
EthicsandClimate.org has described this in a four part paper series and a three part video series that has demonstrated that these tactics are ethically abhorrent.
The four part written series can be found at:
2.Ethical Analysis of the Disinformation Campaign’s Tactics: (1) Reckless Disregard for the Truth, (2) Focusing On Unknowns While Ignoring Knowns, (3) Specious Claims of “Bad” Science, and (4) Front Groups.
The three part video series can be found at:
Although the mainstream US media has sometimes but infrequently covered the disinformation campaign, missing from their coverage has been:
(a) A stronger sense of the strength of the consensus view on climate change, (every academy of science in the world supports the consensus view, over a hundred scientific organizations whose members have relevant scientific expertise support the consensus view, much of the science that should have been the basis for US action on climate change was settled 150 years ago, and there are clear qualitative differences between peer-reviewed science and the manufactured, non-peer reviewed science usually relied upon by the disinformation campaign),
(b) A description of the tactics of the disinformation campaign which cannot be understood as responsible skepticism, such as: (1) making claims that not only have not been peer-reviewed but are at odds with well-settled science, (2) cherry picking the science, (3) treating one study as undermining the entire body of climate science even though the issue in contention is not consequential in regard to the major mainstream scientific conclusions, (4) cyber-bullying scientists and journalists that publish statements that climate change is a significant threat, (5) making completely false claims that are either lies or reckless disregard for the truth such as the claim that the entire scientific basis for action is a hoax when every academy of science supports the consensus view, and (6) the use of front groups and Astroturf groups that hide the real parties in interest behind the disinformation campaign, namely fossil fuel companies and free-market fundamentalist foundations.
(c) The fact that it already too late to prevent climate-change caused grave suffering for some people in some parts of the world and that the world has lost over twenty years during which action could have been taken to reduce the now enormous threat,
(d) The fact that hundreds of millions of people around the world who are most vulnerable to climate change’s worst threats have never consented to be put at risk while the United States waits for absolute certainty.
(e) The fact that for each year the United States has waited to take action, the problem has become worse.
Given what is at stake from climate change, the failure of the US media to cover the disinformation campaign is a tragic, profound, and grave error. The mainstream US media has not only failed to cover this campaign, it has treated it as if it was reasonable scientific skepticism giving it a legitimacy that has increased its influence.
Begley, S. (2007) Global Warming Deniers: A Well-Funded Machine, Newsweek, http://msl1.mit.edu/furdlog/docs/2007-08-13_newsweek_global_warming_denyers.pdf (visited Jan. 13, 2011)
Boycoff, J. and M. Boycoff (2004) Journalistic Balance as Global Warming Bias
Creating Controversy Where Science Finds Consensus Fair, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1978
Broder, John, (2010) Climate Change Doubt Is Tea Party Article of Faith, New York Times, October 21, 2009, http://community.nytimes.com/comments/www.nytimes.com/2010/10/21/us/politics/21climate.html?sort=newest&offset=2
Dunlap, Riley E. and Aaron M. McCright (2008) A Widening Gap: Republican and Democratic Views on Climate Change. Environment 50 (September/October):26-35.
Dunlap, Riley E. and Aaron M. McCright (2010) Climate Change Denial: Sources, Actors and Strategies Pp. 240-259 in Constance Lever-Tracy (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Climate Change and Society London: Routledge.
Hoffman, Andrew J. (2011) Talking Past Each Other? Cultural Framing of Skeptical and Convinced Logics in the Climate Change Debate, Organization & Environment 24:3-33.
Jacques, Peter, Riley E. Dunlap, and Mark Freeman (2008) The Organization of Denial: Conservative Think Tanks and Environmental Skepticism, Environmental Politics 17:349-385.
McCright, Aaron M. and Riley E. Dunlap (2000) Challenging Global Warming as a Social Problem: An Analysis of the Conservative Movement’s Counter-Claims, Social Problems 47:499-522.
McCright, Aaron M. and Riley E. Dunlap (2010) Anti-Reflexivity: The American Conservative Movement’s Success in Undermining Climate Science and Policy, Theory, Culture and Society 26:100-133.
Oreskes, Naiomi and Erik Conway (2010) Merchants of Doubt, How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth On Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Bloosmbury Press, New York.
Pooley, E. (2010) Climate Wars, True Believers, Power Broakers and The Fight to Save the Earth, Hyperion, New York
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence
Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University School of Law