What the Media Should Learn From Its Intense Coverage of COVID-19 About How to Cure Its Failed Reporting On the More Devastating Threat of Climate Change


I. Introduction

This article will explain how the US media’s recent intense focus on the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) provides many important lessons on how to cure the media’s dismal failure to provide adequate coverage of the more menacing crisis of climate change. While acknowledging a legitimate public interest in the media’s indispensable role in keeping citizens as well informed as possible on the status of the threat of COVID-19, this article examines the media’s consequential failure to adequately inform US citizens about a host of issues they need to understand to effectively evaluate any nation’s response to climate change and judge the argument’s that have been and continue to be made by opponents of climate change, a problem which we will explain is much more threatening than COVID -19.  This article also explains how the media’s coverage of COVID-19 provides lessons on how they could greatly improve their failing coverage of climate change.

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The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: What Kind Of Crime Against Humanity, Tort, Human Rights Violation, Malfeasance, Transgression, Villainy, Or Wrongdoing Is It? Part One: Is The Disinformation Campaign a Crime Against Humanity or A Civil Tort?

I. Introduction. The French philosopher Diderot said that skepticism in all things is the first step on the road to the truth.  Although responsible scientific skepticism about climate change science is a good thing that should be encouraged, as we have written about frequently on Ethicsandclimate.org, there has been a well-organized, well-funded disinformation campaign about the science of climate change that has used tactics that are deeply ethically reprehensible.  In this entry we continue to explore how society should classify this very harmful development.

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 ideological organized conferences and publications that don’t subject conclusions to peer-review
  • The use of ideological think tanks to promote the views of ideological skeptics
  • The use of front groups and fake grass-roots organizations known as Astroturf groups that hide the real parties in interests
  • 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

These tactics obviously do not constitute responsible scientific skepticism but disinformation, misinformation, propaganda, and even intimidation in the case of cyber-bullying.

EthicsandClimate.org has described this disinformation campaign in a four part paper series and a three part video series that has examined these ethically abhorrent tactics in considerable detail.

The four part written series can be found at:

1. Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Introduction to a Series.

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.

3.Ethical Analysis of Disinformation Campaign’s Tactics: (1) Think Tanks, (2) PR Campaigns, (3) Astroturf Groups, and (4) Cyber-Bullying Attacks.

4. Irresponsible Skepticism: Lessons Learned From the Climate Disinformation Campaign.

The three part video series can be found at:

Why The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign Is So Ethically Abhorrent.

The Ethical Abhorrence of The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign, Part 2.

The Ethical Abhorrence of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign, Part 3.

In this entry we continue to examine how we should classify this kind of disinformation, an important question because the disinformation campaign is, we believe, a new kind of assault on humanity which raises questions about how we should classify it and how society should sanction disinformation about potentially very harmful human behavior. We first examine the basis for claiming that the disinformation campaign is a crime against humanity.

II. Crime Against Humanity

Because the international community has lost over twenty years in developing an adequate solution to climate change, a matter discussed in considerable detail in this writer’s recent book Climate Change Ethics, Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, in no small measure due to the climate change disinformation campaign and given that the international community is now running out of time because of this delay to prevent dangerous climate change, the  disinformation campaign is likely responsible for huge quantities of human suffering.  That is this delay is causing or increasing the severity of droughts, floods, adverse human health impacts, intense storm damage, and heat related deaths among others adverse impacts.  Without doubt the failure to act in the last twenty years is putting hundreds of millions of people at great risk including some the world’s poorest people and the ecological systems on which their lives depend.

Given the scale of these impacts, what sense can be made of a claim that  the tactics of the disinformation campaign (to be distinguished from responsible scientific skepticism) is some new kind of crime against humanity.

Crimes against humanity are understood to be grave offenses that are part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population.

In 2002, the International Criminal Court (ICC) was established in The Hague (Netherlands) and the Rome Statute provides for the ICC to have jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. The definition of what is a “crime against humanity” are contained in Article 7 of the Rome Statute which says that:

For the purpose of this Statute, “crime against humanity” means any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack: (a) Murder; (b) Extermination; (c) Enslavement; (d) Deportation or forcible transfer of population; (e) Imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law;  (f) Torture; (g) Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity; (h) Persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, or gender, or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law, in connection with any act referred to in this paragraph or any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court; (i) Enforced disappearance of persons; (j) The crime of apartheid; (k) Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.

Thus far only these very odious acts have been recognized as crimes against humanity. Furthermore only crimes that have been committed in nations that have consented to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC) may be prosecuted in the ICC. Because the United States has not consented to the ICC and many of the activities of the disinformation campaign have taken place in the United States, it is not likely that fossil fuel companies who have participated in in the disinformation campaign could be prosecuted for a crime against humanity even if the court construes the tactics of the disinformation campaign as “inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering.” Furthermore it is not clear that the disinformation campaign constitutes a “systematic attack against a civilian population” as defined in the ICC statute. Therefor although the  disinformation campaign can be understood as a new kind of assault on humanity, it does not obviously fit the definition of crime against humanity under the ICC.

And so, although a strong case can be made that the intentional acts of those participating in  the disinformation campaign are metaphorically some kind of new crime against humanity, it is not likely that these acts would be construed to be legally prosecutable as crimes against humanity under existing international law.

Before accusing someone of a crime, it is also necessary to be able to prove that they knew or should have known that that they were misleading people in ways that could cause damage or harm. One might ask whether anyone engaging in the tactics discussed in this series on the disinformation campaign is ethically blameworthy. Some skeptics, for instance, who engage in the ethically dubious practice of stressing unknowns while ignoring the large body of well-settled science are simply expressing their opinions or their interpretations of what they know about the science. If people have a right to free speech, it follows that people should be able to express their views on climate science freely, even if their views are based upon incomplete knowledge of the peer-reviewed science on which the consensus view has been based.

Yet there is abundant evidence that some of those participating in climate change disinformation campaign were being advised by scientists advising them that the mainstream scientific view was entitled to strong scientific respect, yet they persisted in spreading claims that there was no scientific basis for concern about human-induced climate change.

Furthermore, those funding the disinformation campaign consistently funded organizations and individuals that were regularly making demonstratively false claims about the state of climate change science or claims made in reckless disregard for the truth.

And so, some of the activities of those engaged in the disinformation campaign could likely be prosecuted on criminal grounds provided a court had jurisdiction to make criminal determinations in such matters under a law that criminalized known false claims about very dangerous behavior.  Given the immensity of the harm from the climate change disinformation campaign, a case can be made that new laws criminalizing disinformation on matters as dangerous as climate change are warranted where the disinformation is transmitted to protect economic interests.

III. Civil Liability Under Common Law for Disinformation

A tort is a violation of civil duties, that is a tort, in common law jurisdictions, is a civil wrong. Tort law deals with situations where a person’s behavior has unfairly caused someone else to suffer loss or harm. A tort is not necessarily an illegal act but an act that causes harm. The law allows anyone who is harmed to recover their loss.

We begin with a specific case,  Kivalina vrs ExxonMobil Corporation, because although this case has now been dismissed, the plaintiffs in this case set out in the complaint assertions they claimed they could prove about the actions of the defendants actions, the majority of which were fossil fuel companies,  that are are relevant to to the disinformation campaign.

Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corporation, et al. is a lawsuit filed on February 26, 2008 in a US district court asking for climate change damages from flooding to the Alaskan village of Kavalina. This case has subsequently been dismissed by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in October of 2012 on the basis that climate change raises political issues that need to be decided by legislative action rather than by  a court.

Nevertheless, the allegations made by the plaintiff, an Alaskan village,  asserted that some of the defendants including ExxonMobil Corporation, BP America, Inc., Chevron Corporation, ConocoPhillips Company,  Peabody Energy Corporation, American Electric Power Company, Inc, Duke Energy Corporation, and The Southern Company, conspired to misinform the public on the science of climate change either individually or through their various front groups or  industry trade associations. The complaint in this case further asserted that the object of the conspiracy was to create unwarranted doubts about the existence of global warming and its causes among the public and that the defendants did this to protect their economic interests.

The plaintiffs also claimed that some of the  defendants have conspired to mislead the public about the science of global warming creating flooding harms to the Village of Kivalina.

The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants  also funded “front groups,” including ƒƒphony citizens’ organizations and bogus scientific bodies, to regularly publish views expressing doubts about global warming in mainstream publications such as the Wall Street Journal. The plaintiffs also alleged that the defendants funded and circulated misleading advertising which questioned the “science” of global warming and human causation. The plaintiffs also alleged that defendants coordinated a “skeptics campaign” that include funding for energy industry groups and other public policy organizations which voiced skepticism regarding global warming, creating the appearance of numerous independent voices speaking out against global warming.

The plaintiffs further claimed that the defendants engaged in a civil conspiracy by ƒƒand through agreements to participate in the intentional creation, contribution to and/or maintenance of a public nuisance through global warming by undermining the public’s understanding of climate change science.

The plaintiffs also alleged that the fossil fuel companies were being told by scientists that were advising them that climate change was a serious threat, yet they continued to fund projects which sought to undermine the science.

The court finally dismissed the case on the ground that the “the solution to Kivalina’s dire circumstances must rest in the hands of the legislative and executive branches of our government, not the federal common law.” Kivalina may be the last blow for parties that are seeking to address climate change via the federal common law. Kivalina was the last in a series of cases seeking to recover damages from climate change under  theories of liability for a public nuisance. These other cases also have been dismissed on the grounds that climate change liability is a matter that must be resolved by legislatures not courts.  The opinion in the Kivalina case makes it clear that both abatement actions and monetary damage actions pertaining to greenhouse gas emissions have been displaced by the Clean Air Act. Most observers have concluded that  public nuisance litigation in the future will likely be litigated in the states, where common law public nuisance actions are still viable although efforts to address climate change via state common law have been unsuccessful (at least so far).

The apparent reasoning followed by the court in this case is that there is no right to damages from climate change under the theory of public nuisance in federal courts because climate change emissions now must be regulated under the federal Clean Air Act. In other words, federal statutory law has preempted the way in which greenhouse gas emissions will be regulated and the penalties that will be allowed for excess emissions. Such a decision is not understood to conclude that the defendants have not been harmed by the conspiracy of the defendants to mislead the public, only that there is no right to recover damages from this harmful behavior in US federal courts using common law tort theories.

And so the tactics employed by fossil fuel companies to undermine the public’s understanding of mainstream scientific conclusions about climate change may be a wrong without a civil remedy for damages under common law, at least in the United States. It is not clear, however, that civil liability for disinformation may not be adjudicated in courts outside the United States. Only time will tell.

Because climate change damages are likely to be so catastrophic for some people in some places, a case can be made that governments should create statutes that would impose severe financial penalties on parties that spread false information about very harmful behavior such as spreading misinformation about climate change.

Part II in this series will look at other legal theories for responding to the disinformation including human rights theories.

IV Conclusion

Thus far we have shown that although the climate change disinformation campaign is equal in destructive power to many human activities that are classified as crimes against humanity, yet the current international legal regime for prosecuting crimes against humanity does not provide an adequate remedy for climate change caused damages that have been caused by those participating in the disinformation campaign. This is so despite the fact that there is strong evidence that at least some of those participating in the disinformation campaign knew or should have known that they were spreading false information about the enormous threat of climate change and did so to protect economic interests.

We have also seen, there appears to be no civil law remedy for damages that tens of millions will experience at least in part because of tactics of the disinformation campaign. Yet a strong case can be made that there should be some civil legal remedy for those who have been harmed by the those responsible for the disinformation campaign.


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law


Anderegg, William R. L., James W. Prall, Jacob Harold and Stephen H. Schneider. 2010. “Expert Credibility in Climate Change.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107 (27):12107-12109.

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Bedford, Daniel. 2010. “Agnotology as a Teaching Tool: Learning Climate Science by Studying Misinformation.” Journal of Geography 109:159-165.

Bradley, R. 2011, “Global Warming and Political Intimidation, How Politicians Cracked Down On Scientists as the Earth Heated Up”, University of Massachusetts Press, 2011,

Dieltham, Pascal and Martin McKee. 2009. “Denialism: What Is It and How Should Scientists Respond?” European Journal of Public Health 19 (1):2-4.

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Dunlap, Riley E. and Aaron M. McCright. 2010. “Climate Change Denial: Sources, Actors and
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Dunlap, Riley E. and Aaron M. McCright. 2011. “Organized Climate Change Denial.” Pp. 144-160 in J. S. Dryzek, R. B. Norgaard and D. Schlosberg (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change. London: Oxford.

Edwards , P., 2010, “A Vast Machine, Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming,” MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Freudenburg, William R., Robert Gramling, and Debra J. Davidson. 2008. “Scientific Certainty Argumentation Methods (SCAMs): Science and the Politics of Doubt.” Sociological Inquiry 78:2-38

Hoggan, J, 2009, “Climate Cover Up, The Crusade To Deny Global Warming”, , Greystone Books, 2009

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.

Lahsen, Myanna. 1999. “The Detection and Attribution of Conspiracies: The Controversy over Chapter 8.” Pp. 111-136 in G.E. Marcus (ed.), Paranoia Within Reason: A Casebook on Conspiracy as Explanation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lahsen, Myanna. 2005. “Technocracy, Democracy, and U. S. Climate Politics: The Need for Demarcations.” Science, Technology & Human Values 30:137-169.

Lahsen, Myanna. 2007. “Experiences of Modernity in the Greenhouse: A Cultural Analysis of a Physicist “Trio” Supporting the Backlash Against Global Warming.” Global Environmental Change 18:204-219.

Lynch, Michael J., Ronald G. Burns and Paul B. Stretsky. 2010. “Global Warming and State-Corporate Crime: The Politicization of Global Warming under the Bush Administration.” Crime, Law and Social Change 50:213-239.

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. 2003. “Defeating Kyoto: The Conservative Movement’s Impact on U.S. Climate Change Policy.” Social Problems 50:348-373.

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.

McCright, Aaron M. and Riley E. Dunlap. 2011. “The Politicization of Climate Change and Polarization in the American Public’s Views of Global Warming, 2001-2010.” Sociological Quarterly 52:155194.

McCright, Aaron M. and Riley E. Dunlap. “Cool Dudes: The Denial of Climate Change among Conservative White Males.” Global Environmental Change 21: In press. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2011.06.003

Mooney, C., 2005, “The Republican War On Science,” Chris Mooney, Basic Books. 2005

Oreskes, Naomi and Erik M. Conway. 2008. “Challenging Knowledge: How Climate Science Became a Victim of the Cold War.” Pp. 55-89 in R. N. Proctor and L. Schiebinger (eds.), Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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In Praise and Criticism of the PBS Frontline Program, Climate of Doubt

On October 23, 2012,  the PBS program Frontline aired a program called Climate of Doubt.  available on the PBS website at www.pbs.org/frontline/  This program describes the success of right-wing organizations and some corporations in both undermining the public’s understanding of the mainstream scientific view about human-induced climate change and in preventing legislative action to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions. Climate of Doubt explains that the disinformation campaign has succeeded despite the fact that the vast majority of climate scientists that actually engage in climate change scientific research strongly support the consensus scientific view that humans are causing dangerous warming.

In a very introductory manner, the Frontline program explains how the climate change disinformation campaign has managed to weaken support for doing something about climate change and for this reason the program is a welcome addition to the otherwise largely non-existent US media coverage of who is behind the climate change disinformation campaign.

Although the Frontline program should be welcomed for bringing much needed attention to this tragic manipulation of a democracy,  at the same time the program can be criticized for missing important elements of the story necessary to get a full understanding  of the outrageousness,  if not criminality, of the climate change disinformation campaign.

Missing from the Frontline description of the disinformation campaign are:

(a) A stronger sense of the strength of the consensus view, (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 sense of the urgency for the need to make greenhouse gas emissions reductions as soon as possible to avoid dangerous climate change.

(c) The civilization challenging magnitude of the reductions that will be necessary to prevent dangerous climate change,

(d) 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.

(d) The fact that high-emitting nations and individuals are putting hundreds of millions of world’s poorest people at risk who have done nothing to cause the problem,

(e) The fact that the United States has been a major barrier to a global solution in climate negotiations for over two decades due to the disinformation campaign,

(f) The fact that even the Obama administration is unwilling to make commitments for emissions reductions consistent with any reasonable interpretation of the US fair share of safe global emissions,

(g) The fact that climate change must be understood as a moral and ethical issue, an understanding that undermines the purely US self-interested economic arguments made by those who oppose action on climate change,

(h) 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,

(i) 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. and

(j) The fact that each year the United States has waited  to take action, the problem has become worse.

In summary, the Frontline program, although a welcome overdue US media analysis of the climate change disinformation campaign, fails to adequately explain why the disinformation campaign should be considered as some new kind of crime against humanity. The Frontline program give far to much attention to some of the climate deniers while failing to communicate adequately the strength of the consensus position.

Given what is at stake from climate change, ethics requires that those who want to discuss the uncertainties of climate change science must proceed with extreme care including limiting their claims to peer-reviewed science and not overstating the significance of individual studies.   Skepticism in science is the oxygen of science and therefor is a good thing, but many of the tactics of the disinformation campaign are clearly not responsible skepticism.  They are often deeply deceitful, ethically abhorrent disinformation.

Ethicsandclimate.org has  looked at the disinformation campaign in considerable more detail than the issues covered in the Frontline program in a four part series:

1. Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Introduction to A Series Series.

2.Ethical Analysis of 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.

3.Ethical Analysis of Disinformation Campaign’s Tactics: (1) Think Tanks, (2) PR Campaigns, (3) Astroturf Groups, and (4) Cyber-Bullying Attacks.

4. Irresponsible Skepticism: Lessons Learned From the Climate Disinformation Campaign

Ethicsandclimate has also produced a video on why the climate change disinformation campaign is so ethically abhorrent. See. Why the Climate Change Is So Ethically Abhorrent.


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of  Law


The Ethical Abhorrence of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign, Part 3

This is the third in a three part video series that looks at the ethical obnoxiousness of the climate change disinformation campaign. All three of these are available on http://ethicsandclimate.org. The first in the series introduced the concept of the disinformation campaign that has been described in a rich sociological literature while explaining why this movement has been so ethically abhorrent. The second entry looked at some of the specific tactics of this campaign while distinguishing this phenomenon from responsible skepticism. This entry continues the examination of specific tactics and concludes with lessons learned about this disinformation campaign.



To view the other two videos in this series see the two proceeding entries on this website.


A much more detailed four part written analysis of the disinformation campaign is available on this website under the category of “climate disinformation.”

The series is:

1. Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Introduction to A Series Series.

2.Ethical Analysis of 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.

3. Ethical Analysis of 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

4. Irresponsible Skepticism: Lessons Learned From the Climate Disinformation Campaign


B y:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law


Is Higher Education Failing to Adequately Educate Civil Society About the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign?

Is higher education failing to adequately educate citizens about a movement referred to in the sociological literature as the “climate change disinformation campaign?” An event at Penn State University will examine this topic on April 30th.

A well-educated citizen should know how science works including the indispensable role of skepticism in moving science forward. Yet throughout human history, ideologically motivated movements have made claims inconsistent with well-established scientific conclusions. These, for instance, have included claims that the Earth is the center of the universe, the holocaust did not happen, and evolution can’t explain life on Earth. Particularly when these ideologically motivated but demonstratively false claims encourage citizens to behave in ways that are harmful to others, a strong argument can be made that higher education has a strong duty to educate their students and civil society about problems with these claims.

A growing substantial sociological peer-reviewed literature has arisen that describes an ideological movement usually referred to as the “climate change disinformation campaign.” ClimateEthics has recently completed a four part series that summarizes this literature, explains what is meant by the term “disinformation campaign,” describes the tactics of this campaign, subjects these tactics to ethical analyses, distinguishes these tactics from responsible skepticism, and makes recommendations about scientific norms that should be followed in light of the fact that skepticism in science should be encouraged while disinformation should be condemned. (See the last entry in this series, Irresponsible Skepticism: Lessons Learned From the Climate Disinformation Campaign )

On April 30th at 7 pm in room 101 Thomas Building at Penn State’s University Park, a panel will examine the climate change denial machine while calling for greater involvement by higher education in educating citizens about these matters. Presenters will include Dr. (Juris) Donald Brown from Science, Technology, and Society and Program Manager for United Nations Organizations at the United States Environmental Protection Agency Office of International Environmental Policy, Peter Buckland, A.B.D. in Educational Theory and Policy, Dr. Janet Swim from Psychology and chair of the 2009 American Psychological Associations task force on the psychology of climate change, Dr. Rick Shuhmann of Mechanical Engineering and the Engineering Leadership program, and Dr. Michael Mann, director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center and author of the recent book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines.

Sponsors of this event include Penn State’s Center for Sustainability, The Rock Ethics Institute At Penn State University, The Penn State Program on Science, Technology, and Society, Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, Elk County C.A.R.E.S., Juniata Valley Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, Pennsylvanians for Clean Air and Water, PennEnvironment, Sierra Club Pennsylvania, Sierra Club Moshannon, Sustainability Now Radio,Voices of Central Pennsylvania, The Interfaith Coalition on the Environment, and the Pennsylvania Environmental Resource Consortium.

Donald A Brown,

Irresponsible Skepticism: Lessons Learned From the Climate Disinformation Campaign

I. Introduction.
This is the fourth and last entry in a series that has examined the climate change disinformation campaign as an ethical matter. The purpose of this series has been to distinguish between responsible scientific skepticism, an approach to climate change science that should be encouraged, and the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign, strategies deployed to undermine mainstream climate change science that are often deeply ethically offensive.

The first entry in this series, explained:

(1) Why ethics requires great care when considering, discussing, and debating uncertainties about climate change causes and impacts.

(2) The consensus position on climate change science and why it is entitled to respect despite some scientific uncertainty about the timing and magnitude of climate change.

(3) The need to acknowledge the important role of skepticism in science even if one is deeply critical of the tactics of the disinformation campaign.

The second and third entries explained what is meant by the climate change disinformation campaign and then examined in separate sections tactics used by this campaign including: making statements with a reckless disregard for the truth, foregrounding uncertainties while ignoring what is well-settled, specious claims of “bad” science, the use of front groups, public relations campaigns, the funding and use of think tanks, PR firms and strategies, Astroturf groups, and finally the deeply, ethically obnoxious practice of cyber-bullying.

The first entry of this series acknowledged that not all who have made skeptical claims about the mainstream scientific view are guilty of the tactics discussed in this series. Many who describe themselves as climate change skeptics simply articulate what they believe. Given this, it is not the intent of this series to discourage responsible free speech or reasonable skeptical inquiry. In fact, as we have said many times, responsible skepticism about the mainstream scientific view of human-induced climate change should be encouraged rather than vilified. The tactics of the disinformation campaign, however, may not be classified as responsible skepticism. They are methods of deceiving in order to protect economic interests or radical free-market ideology. Skepticism is a valued approach in science to find the truth whatever it may be.

The lessons learned from the climate change disinformation campaign discussed in this series point to the need to establish new societal norms that encourage responsible skepticism but protect society from disinformation disguised as skepticism. For reasons discussed in this series, all the tactics deployed by the climate change disinformation machine are ethically offensive, although some are more odious than others.

In this entry, first we examine who may be blameworthy for the use of the tactics discussed in this series, and then we identify norms needed to prevent irresponsible skepticism.

II. Assigning Moral Blame.
One might ask whether anyone engaging in the tactics discussed in this series is ethically blameworthy. Some skeptics, for instance, who engage in the ethically dubious practice discussed in the second entry of this series of stressing unknowns while ignoring the large body of well-settled science are simply expressing their opinions or their interpretations of what they know about the science. If people have a right to free speech, it follows that people should be able to express their views on climate science freely even if their views are based upon incomplete knowledge of the peer-reviewed science on which the consensus view has been based. Very frequently ClimateEthics encounters skeptics who appear to be sincerely stating their views about whether humans are responsible for climate change, but who at the same time display great ignorance about important elements of climate science on which the consensus view is based, such as the fingerprint and attribution studies that are strong evidence of human causation.

Also, sometimes, climate change policy advocates make assertions about likely impacts of climate change that display ignorance of climate science, such as the claim that everything is settled in climate science, a conclusion that is inconsistent with the fact that there are some scientific climate issues about which uncertainty is acknowledged by mainstream climate scientists. These issues include, for instance, how clouds will be formed in a warming world and whether hurricanes will increase both in intensity and frequency.

The structure of future cloud formation is one of the unknowns that has led to uncertainty about climate sensitivity and an example of issues that are not yet fully settled.

In cases where individuals make claims that are inconsistent with well-settled science, can it be said that individuals are acting unethically? To this question we would argue that for people who are simply stating their individual views and are willing to revise their opinions in light of previously unconsidered evidence there is no ethical problem in expressing an opinion about the risks from human-induced climate change provided they are willing to have their views tested in the crucible of peer-review.

Debates about climate change very frequently take place among people on both sides of the argument who are obviously ignorant of a great deal of the vast peer-reviewed literature on which the consensus view is based. In fact, the scientific literature relevant to climate change is so voluminous and multi-disciplinary that very few people are knowledgeable about that the breadth, scope, and extent of the climate science literature on which the consensus view is based. Nor do most people have the intellectual skills to form an educated opinion about this vast literature.
When it comes to specific issues like the reliability of the climate models on which projections of future climate are made, only a handful of people around the world understand the assumptions and limitations of the models. In addition few people have been trained to evaluate the reliability of the models, and for these reasons almost everyone engaging in public discussions of climate change science are taking positions based at least in part on faith.

In addition, the climate change consensus position is based upon a synthesis of evidence from physics, chemistry, ecology, biology, meteorology, geology, mathematical modeling, botany, geology, oceanography, paleoclimatology, geophysics, geochemistry, hydrology, and carbon cycle sciences. For this reason, even the best of our climate scientists often must rely on the expert opinions of others scientists who have the intellectual skills to evaluate evidence from their disciplines. And so, final conclusions about the state of climate science must rely upon a collaborative effort among scientists from different disciplines and involves some amount of faith in the veracity of some elements of climate science.

This extraordinary complexity, however, does not mean that people who have some basic understanding of science may not engage in critical thinking about climate science claims if they are willing to: (a) be guided by a critical thinking process that is evidence-based, (b) adjust their opinions on the basis of new relevant evidence, and (c) make no final claims about their skeptical views until the views have been tested by peer-review. For this reason, those who choose to express opinions about climate change should agree to be guided by an open, transparent, and evidence-based process that they will rely upon to formulate conclusions about the threat of human-induced climate change.

This requirement of being responsive to evidence is applicable to any public policy question that needs to be formed in light of scientific understanding of harms that might be created by human actions. Yet, because predicting how the climate might respond to increases in atmospheric greenhouse gases is so scientifically complex, rests on synthesizing evidence from so many scientific disciplines, and is about a problem that could create extraordinarily harsh impacts on human health and well-being worldwide, climate change is a problem that particularly requires that those who choose to express opinions on the magnitude of the threat caused by it base their opinions on evidence that has been subjected to rigorous and careful scientific scrutiny. For this reason, skeptical claims about mainstream climate science should be expressed with great care and acknowledged as provisional until they have been subjected to peer-review.

Because peer-review is the process in science designed to check scientific claims for errors, peer-review of scientific claims about climate change is a minimum expectation that should be met before scientific claims about climate change impacts are relied upon for expressing the truth about climate change threats. As we shall see, peer-reviewed evidence is only a minimum requirement for scientific conclusions because peer-review is not a perfect process for avoiding all scientific errors and some peer-reviewed scientific conclusions must be reconsidered in the face of new evidence and the large body of human-induced climate change evidence. And so, final conclusions about the nature of climate change caused harms should be reviewed by experts from all the disciplines relevant to drawing conclusions about the nature of dangerous climate change.

For these reasons, although there are no initial ethical problems with people expressing their opinions about the extent to which human activities are affecting the environment, individuals must be willing to modify their opinions if there is an evidentiary basis for so doing, subject any claims to peer-review, and abide by other norms for responsible skepticism discussed in this entry. This fact makes several of the tactics discussed in this paper deeply, ethically problematic if they are engaged in without the willingness to revise the claims in response to contradictory evidence including the tactic of stressing unknowns and ignoring what is known about connections between human behavior and climate change, manufacturing bogus scientific claims that have not been subjected to peer-review while claiming that the opinions are entitled to scientific respect, and making claims in reckless disregard for the truth. Corporations are particularly ethically blameworthy if they finance people or organizations who deploy these tactics without any recognition of the need to abide by the norms of reasonable scientific skepticism because their motivation is to undermine mainstream science to protect economic interests.

A few of the tactics discussed in this series are always ethically troublesome including: creating front groups, PR campaigns, and Astroturf groups whose very creation was motivated to fool people about who the real parties in interest are behind the claims, and cyber-bullying. Corporations who fund these ethically troubling tactics are particularly ethically loathsome because they are using their economic power to deceive the public or intimidate mainstream scientists or journalists in the pursuit of economic self-interest.

And so, not all people who publicly make erroneous skeptical claims about human-induced warming are ethically blameworthy, but some are. In addition, some of the tactics used by the climate change disinformation campaign are always ethically troublesome and those who engage in these tactics are ethically blameworthy.

As we have said throughout this series, responsible climate skepticism should be encouraged not vilified. However, lessons learned from a review of the climate change disinformation campaign lead to norms that should guide responsible climate skepticism. A discussion of these norms follows.

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Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Introduction to A Series.

I. Introduction to The Series:

Over the next few weeks, ClimateEthics will take a deeper look at what has been referred to as the “climate change disinformation campaign” through an ethical lens

This series is based upon the assumption that skepticism in science is essential to increase understanding of the natural world. Yet, ideologically based disinformation is often ethically abhorrent particularly in regard to behaviors about which there is credible scientific support for the conclusion that these activities threaten life and the ecological systems on which life depend. This report focuses on specific tactics that have been deployed in the climate change disinformation campaign. It is not a critique of responsible skepticism.

Although ClimateEthics has examined these issues briefly before, see: An Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Is This A New Kind of Assault on Humanity?, this is the first in a series of posts that will examine this phenomenon in depth.

The climate disinformation campaign can be understood as a movement of organizations and individuals that can be counted on to systematically attack mainstream climate change science in ways that radically depart from responsible scientific skepticism. In the next entry in this series we will look more closely at what we mean by a “campaign” or “movement.”

Later entries in this series will look in more detail at specific tactics used by the disinformation movement. Because skepticism in science should be encouraged rather than vilified, the last entry in this series will make recommendations about norms that should guide responsible skepticism in climate science.

The tactics that will be examined in this series include:
• Lying Or Reckless Disregard For the Truth
• Focusing On Unknowns While Ignoring The Knowns.
• Specious Claims Of “Bad” Science
• Creation of Front Groups
• Manufacturing Bogus Climate Science
• Think Tank Campaigns
• Misleading PR Campaigns.
• Creation of Astroturf Groups
• Cyber-bullying Scientists and Journalists

The series will demonstrate that the controversy over climate change science that has unfolded in the last twenty years is a strong example of the urgent need to create new societal norms about how to deal with scientific uncertainty for human problems about which there is a justifiable scientific basis for great concern about potential impacts but uncertainty about the magnitude and timing of these impacts.

The philosopher Hans Jonas argued that scientific uncertainty about the consequences of technologies that have great potential for good and harm create new, profound ethical challenges for the human race. (Jonas, 1979). This is so because although humans are now capable of engaging in technologically mediated behavior that may create great harm as well as good, traditional ethical reasoning relied upon through the course of recent civilization is not up to the challenges of dealing with scientific uncertainties about impacts of these new technologies. Because of the magnitude and power of new technologies, the complexity of ecological systems affected by these technologies, and the scope of the kinds of impacts that may be caused by these technologies, humans are faced with new challenge to ethical reasoning.

In light of the fact that accurate predictions may not be made about whether great harms will be caused by these new technologies, Jonas claimed that the ethics of dealing with scientific uncertainty may be the most pressing ethical problem facing the human race.

Because there is a lot at stake from the new technologies, but uncertainties about the nature of the harms that could take decades to be resolved if they can be resolved at all, ethical reasoning is deeply challenged.  Because of this, Jonas argued that ethics requires that humans must apply a “heuristics of fear” to their deliberations about whether they should deploy new potentially harmful technologies about which there is reasonable scientific basis for concern. That is, decision-makers should assume the harms will occur if there is a scientific basis for concern that significant harms could occur. Jonas claimed that in such situations, precaution is both ethically mandated and may be necessary for human survival. Furthermore, precaution in these situations requires that those who propose dangerous activities assume the burden of proof to show that the activities are safe. This is especially true for human behaviors that could create catastrophic harms.

When burdens of proof should shift is a complex ethical question but without doubt an ethical question at its core, not a “value-neutral” scientific matter alone. To determine when burdens should shift, ethics would require that other questions be examined such as who may be harmed, have they consented to be put at risk, what is at stake, will waiting to resolve the uncertainties make the problem much worse, who wants to use uncertainty as an excuse for continuing dangerous behavior, what is the probability that great harms could be triggered by the behavior in question, and other questions.

Climate change is an extraordinary example of the kind of problem that Jonas was worried about. That is so because it is a problem about which there will always be some uncertainty about the precise impacts from human-induced warming, yet these impacts are potentially catastrophic particularly for tens of millions of current people and innumerable members of future generations. Therefore great care must be taken in considering uncertainty about climate change. That is, climate change is a problem about which some facts are uncertain (although as we shall see, there is a strong scientific consensus about many aspects of this problem), yet the stakes are extraordinarily high. Therefore, ethics requires enormous care in discussing and considering uncertainties in these situations.

If Jonas is right, great care is called for in regard to how scientific uncertainty about climate change impacts is considered, discussed, and identified. Jonas foresaw the ethical challenges entailed by decision-making in the face of uncertainty for a problem like climate change but perhaps underestimated how economic interests aligned with the technologies threatening humanity would distort public discussion of the potential harms created by human activities.

This series will both review the climate change disinformation campaign in light of these concerns and make recommendations about what should be expected from scientific skepticism in light of the issues of concern to Jonas. The series will further argue, in light of the tactics of the disinformation campaign, that deeper societal reflection about the norms that should guide public discussions of scientific uncertainty is urgently needed.

II. Climate Science and Uncertainty

Climate change must be understood to be at its core an ethical problem because : (a) it is a problem caused by some people in one part of the world who are threatening poor people who are often far away in time and space, (b) the harms to these victims are potentially catastrophic, and (c) the victims can’t protect themselves by petitioning their governments who have no jurisdiction over those causing the problem. The victims must hope that those causing the problem will see that their ethical duties to the vulnerable require them to lower their greenhouse gas emissions.

Because climate change is an ethical problem, those causing the problem may not use self-interest alone as justification for policy responses; they must fulfill responsibilities, obligations and duties to others. Because climate change is a moral problem, those who are putting others at risk through no fault of their own have a special duty to be precautious about scientific uncertainty. If anything, the need for care in considering harms from powerful technology recognized by Jonas is even more salient in the case of a problem like climate change because it is a problem that is caused by some that are putting others at great risk.that have not consented to be threatened.

This series should not be construed to discourage scientific skepticism. Skepticism is both the oxygen and catalyst of science. Climate science continues to need skeptical approaches to current understandings of how human activities may affect the climate to help scientists understand what we don’t know about human impacts on the climate system.

However, a review of the tactics used by the scientific disinformation campaign will reveal that these tactics can’t be construed as the application of reasonable scientific skepticism, but, as we shall see, often constitute malicious, morally reprehensible disinformation. Yet these tactics provide important lessons about norms that should guide reasonable skepticism.

This series should also not be interpreted to discourage free speech. Some people that have echoed the misinformation on climate science produced by others are simply repeating what others have said. Yet free speech is morally reprehensible if it deceives people about vitally important matters. For instance, it would be morally reprehensible to tell a child laying on a railroad track that no train was coming if the person telling the child did not have strong evidence for the claim that no train was actually coming. For this reason, a case can be made that despite free speech, all public claims about climate change should be made carefully. Although all people are free to state their views on the dangers of climate change, if they are claiming that they are experts to convince a wider public about what climate science entails, they have a special duty to be very careful about their claims.

Now it is undoubtedly true that a few that have argued in support of climate change policies have exaggerated what the consensus science is saying about likely impacts of human activities that release greenhouse gases. A notable example of this was a movie, “The Day After Tomorrow,” that depicted extremely rapid climate change at rates far faster than would be supported any reasonable scientific speculation. Yet, the disinformation campaign discussed in this series is not simply attacking hyperbole on the part of those that support climate change policies, it is attacking the consensus view that has been based, as we shall see, upon peer-reviewed science, not on the hyperbole of climate change policy proponents. That is, this series examines the tactics of the disinformation campaign in relation to the conclusions of mainstream science that has largely been established through the process of peer-review. However, we are not claiming that peer-reviewed science is the final word on any scientific issue, only that peer-review is the scientific process that has been established to prevent unsupportable scientific claims. Those who believe that the peer-reviewed literature on any scientific subject is untrustworthy. must themselves subject their claims to peer-review particularly in the case of a problem like climate change, a matter about which the stakes are extraordinarily high and great care about uncertainty claims is ethically warranted.

We note that peer review of the consensus view has found a few problems with the IPCC statements about climate change impacts and is likely to do so in the future. Yet these problems have been few in number and to be expected in any report as voluminous as the IPCC reports. Nor have these mistakes affected the conclusions reached by IPCC in any major way.

Although one can find hyperbolic claims about climate change from those who support climate change policies, however, the consensus view does assume that human-induced climate change could be very catastrophic for some people and places if not most of the world. This is not hyperbole, it is where the mainstream science points as potential consequences of business-as-usual. Yet, to say that catastrophic consequences are possible is not to claim they are absolutely certain. All reasonable climate scientists will admit that there may be negative feedbacks in the climate system that we don’t understand. Yet the mainstream scientists claim that these negative feedbacks are increasingly unlikely. These worries about potential catastrophic impacts are not hyperbolic, however, just because they are not proven. In fact, as we shall see, ethics actually requires people to act responsibly once it becomes evident that their actions could cause great harm. As a matter of ethics, responsibility does not start only when it is proven that behavior will cause great harm. For instance, laws of reckless endangerment that have been enacted around the world make dangerous behavior criminal. Defendants in reckless endangerment cases may not defend themselves on the grounds that the prosecution did not prove that their behavior would cause harm, the prosecution need only prove that the behavior could cause serious harm. That is potential harm is relevant to ethical considerations.

To understand the full moral unacceptability of the disinformation campaign, one must know something about the state of climate science. There is a “consensus” view on climate science that has been articulated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (IPCC, 2010a)

The IPCC was established by World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in 1988 to assess for governments the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant for the understanding of climate change, an identify its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation. (IPCC, 2010a) IPCC does not do original research but synthesizes and summarizes the extant peer-reviewed climate change science to make recommendations for governments and policy makers. (IPCC, 2010a)

Any government that is a member of the WHO or UNEP may be a member of IPCC. Currently 194 countries are members of the IPCC (IPCC, 2011). The coordinating work of the IPCC is the IPCC general assembly, where every member country has one vote. The IPCCs summary for policy makers requires unanimous agreement. Governments that have often opposed international action on climate change on scientific grounds because of economic concerns including the United States and Saudi Arabia, not to mention China and India who have been afraid that climate change policies could prevent their governments from lifting their poor out of poverty have the same power as governments that have traditionally strongly supported international action on climate change. Governments supporting international action on cliamte change include those in the European Union and many of the small island developing states including the Tuvalu, Kiribati, and the Maldives. Given that the IPCC’s reports must be unanimously approved by all member countries, including representatives of countries that have for most of the history of international climate change negotiations opposed establishing international enforceable climate change regimes, one can conclude that there is broad consensus about IPCC’s scientific conclusions among all nations around the world. In light of the consensus process, it is not credible to conclude that IPCC’s conclusions are biased to overstating the risks of climate change. In addition, IPCC ties its conclusions to peer-reviewed evidence in thousands of foot-notes in their reports.

The first IPCC assessment report was published in 1990; the second in 1996; the third in 2001; and the fourth in 2007. Each IPCC report drew conclusions linking human activities to observable warming with increasing levels of certainty. (IPCC, 2010a) The IPCC shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President of the United States Al Gore.

The Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) was completed in early 2007. Like previous reports, this assessment consisted of four reports, three of them from each of its working groups. Working Group I assesses the physical science basis for climate change. Working Group II examines climate change impacts. Working Group III assesses options for mitigating climate change through limiting greenhouse gas emissions or enhancing activities that remove carbon from the atmosphere. (IPCC, 2010b) In addition to the reports of these three Working Groups, AR4 also included a Synthesis Report. (IPCC, 2010c)

The Working Group I Summary for Policymakers in AR4 concluded that human actions were causing dangerous climate change with higher levels of certainty than in previous reports. Its key conclusions were that:
• Warming of the climate system is unequivocal.
• Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increases in anthropogenic (human) emissions greenhouse gas concentrations.
• Anthropogenic warming and sea level rise will continue for centuries due to the timescales associated with climate processes and feedbacks, even if greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations are stabilized, although the likely amount of temperature and sea level rise varies greatly depending on the fossil intensity of human activity during the next century.
• The probability that this is caused by natural climatic processes alone is less than 5%.
• World temperatures could rise by between 1.1 and 6.4 °C (2.0 and 11.5 °F) during the 21st century. As a result:

o Sea levels will probably rise by 18 to 59 cm (7.08 to 23.22 in.) during the 21st century.
o There is a confidence level greater than 90% that there will be more frequent warm spells, heat waves and heavy rainfall.
o There is a confidence level greater than 66% that there will be an increase in droughts, tropical cyclones and extreme high tides.

• Both past and future anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions will continue to contribute to warming and sea level rise for more than a millennium.
• Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750 and now far exceed pre-industrial values over the past 650,000 years.
(IPCC 2007: Summary for Policy Makers)

Throughout this series we will refer to these IPCC conclusions about climate change as the “consensus” view because, as we will see, this view has been supported by almost all scientific organizations with expertise in relevant climate change science issues and most scientists that actually do climate change research.

By the early 1990s, a ”consensus” had developed in the scientific community that warming had occurred and that humans were at least partially responsible. (Edwards 2007:6)

Yet, criticisms of IPCC’s conclusions have been frequently made by skeptical scientists, some of whom are affiliated with conservative think tanks, while others are scientists playing the appropriate role of a scientific skeptic, a role necessary for science to advance, that is producing peer-reviewed scientific papers that challenge conventional scientific wisdom.

Skeptical claims about the consensus view are of many types and range from claims that IPCC is overestimating adverse climate change impacts to assertions that there is no evidence that observed warming is attributable to human actions. Some of the ideological climate change deniers discussed later in this series have argued that the entire body of science supporting the consensus view is a hoax.

Recent reports have concluded that the vast majority of scientists actually doing research in the field support the consensus scientific view. For example, a 2009 study–published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States–polled 1,372 climate researchers and resulted in the following two conclusions.

(i) 97-98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of ACC (Anthropogenic Climate Change) outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and
(ii) The relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.
(Anderegga et. al 2010)

Another poll performed in 2009 of 3,146 of known 10,257 Earth scientists concluded that 76 out of 79 climatologists who “listed climate science as their area of expertise and who also have published more than 50% of their recent peer-reviewed papers on the subject of climate change” believe that mean global temperatures have risen compared to pre-1800s levels, and 75 out of 77 believe that human activity is a significant factor in changing mean global temperatures. (Doran and Zimmerman, 2009)

In response to arguments from some climate change skeptics, many scientific organizations with expertise relevant to climate change have endorsed the consensus position that “most of the global warming in recent decades can be attributed to human activities” including the following:
• American Association for the Advancement of Science
• American Astronomical Society
• American Chemical Society
• American Geophysical Union
• American Institute of Physics
• American Meteorological Society
• American Physical Society
• Australian Coral Reef Society
• Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
• Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO
• British Antarctic Survey
• Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences
• Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
• Environmental Protection Agency
• European Federation of Geologists
• European Geosciences Union
• European Physical Society
• Federation of American Scientists
• Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies
• Geological Society of America
• Geological Society of Australia
• International Union for Quaternary Research (INQUA)
• International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics
• National Center for Atmospheric Research
• National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
• Royal Meteorological Society
• Royal Society of the UK
(Skeptical Science, 2010)

The Academies of Science from nineteen different countries all endorse the consensus view. Eleven countries have signed a joint statement endorsing the consensus position.
They are:
• Academia Brasiliera de Ciencias (Brazil)
• Royal Society of Canada
• Chinese Academy of Sciences
• Academie des Sciences (France)
• Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina (Germany)
• Indian National Science Academy
• Accademia dei Lincei (Italy)
• Science Council of Japan
• Russian Academy of Sciences
• Royal Society (United Kingdom)
• National Academy of Sciences (USA):
(Skeptical Science, 2010):

From this it can be seen that the consensus view articulated by IPCC is strongly supported by the vast majority of climate change scientists that actually do research on human-induced climate change and organizations comprised of scientists with relevant climate change expertise. For this reason, the IPCC consensus position is entitled to strong respect that, at the very minimum, climate change poses a legitimate significant threat to human well-being and the natural resources on which life depends.

In fact, some critics have contended that the IPCC reports tend to underestimate climate change dangers and risks because the process that leads to the IPCC conclusions give representatives from countries that have consistently opposed the adoption of international climate regimes power to pressure the IPCC scientists to report only the lowest common denominator. (For a discussion of the limits of IPCC, see, Brown, 2008) In fact observations of actual greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations, temperatures, and sea level rise are near or exceeding IPCC worst-case predictions. One recent comparison of greenhouse gas concentrations, temperatures, and sea-level rise observations versus predictions concluded:

Overall, these observational data underscore the concerns about global climate change. Previous projections, as summarized by IPCC, have not exaggerated but may in some respects even have underestimated the climate changes that have been observed.
(Rahmstorf et al., 2007)

It is important as a mater of ethics to remember that if the consensus view is wrong, it could be wrong in two directions. That is, not only could IPCC be overstating the magnitude and timing of climate change in the future, they may be understating the harshness of climate change harms..

However, even if one concludes that there is a strong scientific basis for the mainstream scientific conclusion that human-induced climate change is a great threat to people around the world and the ecological systems on which they depend, this does not mean that responsible scientific skepticism may not play an important role in climate change science in the future. Yet, as we shall see, much of the ideological climate disinformation that has been prominent in the climate change debate in the United States and a few other developed countries is sometimes deeply ethically abhorrent.

This consensus is not a consensus on all scientific issues in climate science; it is a consensus about the fact that the planet is warming, that this warming is largely human caused, and that under business-as-usual we are headed to potentially catastrophic impacts for humans and the natural resources on which life depends.

Furthermore, these harms are likely to be most harshly experienced by many of the Earth’s poorest people.

Mainstream climate science openly acknowledges uncertainties that could affect the warming response of the global climate system to increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. As Hulme notes:

Some uncertainty originates from incomplete understanding of how the physical climate works-the effect of atmospheric aerosols on clouds, for example, or the role of deep oceans in altering surplus heat exchange. Some of these uncertainties can be reduced over tie, or at least quantified formally. Other sources of uncertainty emerge from the innate unpredictability of large, complex, chaotic systems such as the global atmosphere and oceans. (Holme, 2009 :83)

In fact all uncertainties about the impacts of human activities on the climate system will likely never completely be resolved. This is so because, the climate system is comprised of many interlocking systems including the atmosphere, the oceans, the cryosphere (ice and snow), the land surface (soil and reflecting substances), and the biosphere (ecosystems, agriculture, forests, etc). (Edwards, xv) It is also a chaotic system which means that small changes in inputs can create large system responses as thresholds are exceeded that create non-linear responses. It is very unlikely that humans will ever be able to eliminate all uncertainties that have confounded accurate climate system predictions. Yet the scientific basis for concluding that humans are affecting the climate system in a way that could cause harsh consequences for tens of millions of people is a matter about which a strong scientific consensus has emerged.

The next entry in this series will examine several specific tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign though an ethical lens after discussing the nature of the disinformation movement. The third in the series will examine other tactics of that have been deployed to undermine mainstream science. The last entry will make recommendations for responsible climate science skepticism in light of what was discussed earlier in the series and with full recognition that skepticism should be encouraged provided it plays by the rules of science.

Donald A. Brown
Associate Professor,
Environmental Ethics, Science and Law
Penn State University

Agrarwala, Shardul and Stiener Anderson, 1999, Indispensability and Indefensibility?:The United States In Climate Treaty Negotiations. ” 2w Governance 5, December 1999).

Brown, Donald, 2008, Ethical Issues Raised by the Work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): Report On The Bali Workshop (COP-13). Climate Ethics. http://rockblogs.psu.edu/climate/2008/02/report-on-the-workshop-at-the-13th-conference-of-the-parties-of-the-united-nations-framework-convention-on-climate-change.html

Doran, Peter T.; Maggie Kendall Zimmerman, 2009. Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change, EOS 90 (3): 22-23
Edwards, Paul, 2006, A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and The Politics of Global Warming, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC), 2007, IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007, Working Group I, Summary for Policy Makers,
Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC), 2010a, History,

Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC), 2010c,

Jonas. H. 1979, Imperative of Responsibility, In Search for Ethics In A Technological Age, University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Rahmstorfl Stepen, Anny Cazenave, John A. Church, James E. Hansen,Ralph F. Keeling, David E. Parker, Richard C. J. Somervilles, 2007, Recent Climate Observations Compared to Projections, Science, Vol 316 , May 2007

Skeptical Science, 2010, What the Science Says: shttp://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-scientific-consensus-intermediate.htm (retrieved, Jan 3, 2011)

A New Kind of Crime Against Humanity?: The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Disinformation Campaign On Climate Change

I. Introduction.

This post examines the question of whether some US companies are guilty of a new kind of crime against humanity that the world has yet to classify. This post is not meant to be a polemic but a call for serious engaged reflection about deeply irresponsible corporate-sponsored programs that have potentially profound harsh effects upon tens of millions of people living around the world, countless millions of future generations, and the ecological systems on which life depends. This post seeks to encourage further reflection on the issues discussed here.

II. Corporate Disinformation Campaign

Although skepticism in science is needed to make science advance, for almost thirty years some corporations have supported a disinformation campaign about climate change science that has been spreading untruths and distortions about climate science. Several recent books document how this disinformation campaign began in the1980s including a book by Oreskes and Conway, Merchants of Doubt. (Oreskes and Conway, 2010)

Although it may be reasonable to be somewhat skeptical about climate change models, some corporate sponsored participants in the climate change disinformation campaign have been spreading deeply misleading distortions about the science of climate change. These untruths are not based upon reasonable skepticism but outright falsification and distortions of climate change science. These claims have included assertions that that the science of climate change that is the foundation for calls to action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have been “completely debunked” and that there is no evidence of human causation of recent observed warming. Reasonable skepticism cannot make these claims or others frequently being made by the well-financed climate change disinformation campaign.

Given that there are thousands of peer-reviewed scientific studies that support the consensus view on the dangers of continuing to emit increasing levels of greenhouse gases, that most Academy of Sciences around the world have issued statements in support of the consensus view articulated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there are virtually no peer-reviewed scientific articles that prove beyond reasonable doubt that observed warming is naturally caused, that there are a huge number of attribution, fingerprinting, and analyses of isotopes of greenhouse gases that are appearing in the atmosphere that point to human causation, that the basic physics of exactly what initially happens when greenhouse gases are added to the atmosphere in terms of absorbing and reradiating heat in watts per square meter has been understood for over 150 years, claims that the science of climate change have been “completely debunked” and that there is no evidence of human causation are patently false. These claims do not represent reasonable skepticism but utter distortions about a body of evidence that the world needs to understand to protect itself from huge potential harms.

On October 21, 2010, the John Broder of the New York Times, http://community.nytimes.com/comments/www.nytimes.com/2010/10/21/us/politics/21climate.html?sort=newest&offset=2, 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.” According the New York Times article, 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.”

Without doubt those telling others that there is no danger heading their way have a special moral responsibility to be extraordinarily careful about such claims. For instance, if someone tells a child laying on a railroad tracks that they can lie there all day because there is no train coming and has never checked to see if a train is actually coming would be obviously guilty of reprehensible behavior.

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