Insights from a New Book on Sociology and Climate Change: The Heinous Denial Countermovement

head in sand

This is the second entry in a three part series on sociological insights about the social causes of climate change in a new book on sociology and climate change. The book is Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives by Riley Dunlap and Robert Brulle, eds., Oxford University Press, 2015, New York.

In the first entry in this series, we described the new book’s contributions to understanding why a sociological understanding of the cause of climate change and reflection on the deep ethical and moral problems with the arguments of the opponents of climate change policies are mostly missing from the dominant climate change literature and the media coverage of global warming. This entry looks at the books conclusions of how mainstream climate change science has been undermined by opponents of climate change policies and thereby changed the cultural understanding of climate change, initially in the United States, and later, in other countries.

damage-done-by-republicans1

The above illustration depicts, in a very abbreviated and sketchy form, that as the scientific evidence of the threat from human-induced climate change became stronger over a 40-year period and as the US political opposition to climate change policies successfully fought to prevent the adoption of robust US climate policies, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 rose from below 320 ppm (parts per million) to current levels of over 400 ppm.  (For a much more rigorous analysis of the role of the climate change policy opposition in US climate policy formation see, Brown 2002, chap 2 and Brown 2012, chap 2 and numerous articles on this website under the category of “disinformation campaign” and Chapter 10 of Dunlap and Brulle, 2015)

Before reviewing the contributions of the new book to understanding how powerful interests undermined proposed national responses to climate change through the creation of a countermovement, we note the enormity of the damage that has been caused by the over three decade delay in responding to climate change which is attributable to the success of this climate denial countermovement.

Now that: (a) atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are in excess of 403 ppm, (b) the world agreed to try and limit warming to 1.5 degrees C in Paris at COP21 under the UNFCCC to prevent potentially catastrophic harm to hundreds of millions of poor, vulnerable people around the world and the ecosystems on which they depend,  (c) to stay within the 1.5 degrees C warming limit will require rapid civilization challenging GHG emissions reductions in most countries, and (d) these needed reductions are so steep that it may be impossible to stay within a carbon budget that must constrain global GHG emissions to prevent warming from exceeding the limit, the denial countermovement discussed in this the book is likely responsible for enormous amount of harm around the world particularly to those poor people who are most vulnerable to rising seas, storm damage, drought, floods, vector borne disease, killer heat waves and,acidifying oceans. For this reason, the denier countermovement is not just a morally and ethically reprehensible phenomenon, but a heinous global tragedy.

Although the new book on sociology and climate change contains many insights about how economically powerful entities have changed the cultural understanding of climate change and thereby prevented the United States and some other countries from responding to the growing threat of climate change, one chapter, in particular, titled Challenging Climate Change, The Denial Countermovement describes how some fossil fuel companies, corporations that depended on fossil fuel, business organizations, and free-market fundamentalist foundations successfully prevented government action on climate change (Dunlap, R., & McCright, A., 2015. p. 300).

Before describing this chapter’s contribution to understanding how the climate disinformation campaign accomplished its goals of preventing the regulation of fossil fuel, we note that this website includes 17 entries on the climate change disinformation campaign which both explain many aspects of this campaign and importantly distinguish the tactics of this campaign from legitimate climate skepticism (See, Start Here and Index Tab above under Disinformation Campaign and Climate Ethics).

On this website, we have consistently noted that scientific skepticism is the oxygen of the scientific method and should be encouraged even on climate change issues. On the other hand, the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign are deeply morally reprehensible strategies designed to undermine mainstream climate change science. The tactics have included:

(a) lying about or acting with reckless disregard for the truth of climate change science,

(b) cherry-picking climate change science by highlighting a few climate science issues about which  there has been some uncertainty while ignoring enormous amounts of well-settled climate change science,

(c) using think tanks to manufacture claims about scientific uncertainty about climate science which have not been submitted to peer-review,

(d) hiring public relations firms to undermine the public’s confidence in mainstream climate change science,

(e) making specious claims about what constitutes “good” science,

(f) creating front groups and fake grass-roots organizations known as “Astroturf” groups that hide the real parties in interest behind opposition to climate change policies, and

(g) cyber-bullying scientists and journalists who get national attention for claiming that climate change is creating a great threat to people and ecological systems on which life depends.

As we have explained in many articles on this website, these tactics are not responsible skepticism but morally reprehensible disinformation. (See for instance, An Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Is This A New Kind of Assault on Humanity?)

The Dunlap/Bruelle book refers to the climate change disinformation campaign as a countermovement. A countermovement is a sociological term for a social movement that arises in response to another social movement that threatens the interests of those who form the countermovement.  The climate change countermovement arose when those corporations and organizations who were threatened by calls for governments to take action to reduce the threat of climate change organized themselves to protect their economic interests that would be threatened by regulation of fossil fuels. The climate denial countermovement is often identified as an extention of an anti-environmental countermovement that began to form after Earth Day in 1970 when some corporations and free-market fundamentalists foundations reacted to the large number of environmental laws that were passed in the early 1970s at the beginning of the modern environmental movement.

The chapter in the new Dunlap/Brulle book on the climate denial countermovement both reviews some previously published sociological analyses of this countermovement and contains new information on how powerful economic interests have undermined government policy-making on climate change.

The Dunlap/Brulle book asserts that efforts to deny climate change began to get organized in the United States shortly after James Hansen testified in the US Senate in 1988 that climate change was already visible, testimony which put climate change squarely on the US public agenda (Dunlap, R. and McCright, A., 2015, p. 300). The book further claims that organized denial continued to grow and reached an unprecedented level in 2009 when the newly elected Obama administration and the Democratically controlled Congress increased the likelihood of US action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with the result that no climate change legislation was enacted. The book claims that these efforts have continued relatively unabated since then (Dunlap, R. and McCriight, A., 2015, p.300). Further, climate change denial has become a virtual “litmus test“ for Republican politicians, strongly enforced by elements of the conservative movement (Dunlap, R. and  McCriight, A., 2015, p. 300).

The book outlines the historical and cultural conditions that have provided fertile soil for the climate denial countermovement including the rise of the anti-government sentiment in the United States that grew with the Presidency of Ronald Reagan. This analysis attributes the displacement of Keynesian  economics from the late 1940s until the 1970s by the anti-regulatory economics of  neoliberalism as responsible for a fundamental shift in governing philosophy that significantly reduced constraints on capital accumulation and growth. This created a “global growth imperative” that was hostile to the kind of government regulation required to reduce the threat of climate change (Dunlap R., and McCright, A., 2015, p 303).The authors stress that an understanding of the success of the denial countermovement requires some understanding of the growth of the global economic system and its ideological grounding by conservative politicians (Dunlap, R. and McCright,  A., 2015, p. 303).

The chapter asserts that  leading fossil fuel corporations (most notably  ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal, industry associations (e.g. for example American Petroleum Institute and Western Fuels) initially led efforts to deny climate change. (Dunlap R. and McCright, A., 2015, p 310). These fossil fuel actors were joined by a wide range of other corporations and business associations to fund climate science deniers and Conservative Think Tanks and various groups promoting climate change science denial  (Dunlap R. and McCright, A., 2015, p. 310).

The book explains some corporations and their allies viewed the rise of the environmental movement in the1970s with alarm and as a result opposition to environmental programs developed particularly in the American West where battles over access to natural resources raged and became a component of a wider conservative countermovement that was born in the 1970s in reaction to the progressivism of the 1960 (Dunlap, R. and  McCright, A., 2015, p 304).

The chapter also notes that the international environmental policy agenda in the early 1990s, symbolized by the 1992 Rio “Earth Summit,” greatly threatened conservatives’ and industries’ neoliberal agenda and unfettered global markets (Dunlap. R. and  McCright, A., 2015, p. 305).

The book claims that conservatives in the United States learned from the Reagan administration’s experience that it was unwise to attack environmental protection directly, given that Americans were generally supportive environment protection (Dunlap, R. and  McCright, A., 2015, p.306). As a result, the book claims the conservatives and their industry allies learned to prevent the implementation of government policies that might threaten their political and economic interests by undermining the scientific foundations of environmental policy proposals (Dunlap R.and  McCriight, A., 2015, p.306). As result conservatives seized upon the strategy of “manufacturing uncertainty” that had been previously effectively employed for several decades by corporations and entire industries, most notably the tobacco industry in efforts to protect their products from regulations and lawsuits by questioning the scientific adequacy of claims that their products were hazardous (Dunlap, R. and  McCright, A., 2015, p.306).  As a result, conservatives began labeling  science supporting the need to regulate industry to protect the environment as “junk science.” This strategy became the favored tactic employed by conservatives and their industry allies when government showed interest in expanding environmental regulation and the major focus of attempts to prevent the adoption of climate change policies in the early 1990s (Dunlap, R. and McCright, A., 2015, p.306).

The book explains that participants in the denial movement undermined the public’s confidence in climate change science by attacking the validity of climate models, the use of paleoclimate data to establish climate trends, attacked individual climate scientists and scientific institutions, published  dubious non-peer reviewed climate science reports, funded self-proclaimed climate scientists exporters,  and many other tactics that manufactured scientific uncertainty.

The book explains why the complexity of climate change science made it particularly vulnerable to a strategy of manufacturing uncertainty designed to defeat proposed government regulation of industry and to create public controversies about the science (Dunlap, R. and McCriight, A., 2015, p.309).

The book also explains how the denial countermovement has evolved, changed, and expanded over the past quarter-century, changes that included new key actors, supporters, and tactics while the basic strategy of manufacturing uncertainty has expanded into manufacturing public controversy about climate science up until the present (Dunlap, R. and McCright, A., 2015, p.309).

The book also identifies the major participants in the denial countermovement which include portions of the fossil fuel industry and corporate America, conservative think tanks, a relatively small number of contrarian scientists, front groups and Astroturf organizations, conservative politicians and media, and the denial blogosphere (Dunlap, R. and  McCriight, A., 2015, p.309).

The book also describes how the denial countermovement which began in the United States was diffused internationally to countries including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia,  and recently into several European countries including France, Sweden, and the Netherlands (Dunlap R. &  McCriight, A., 2015, p.316)

The chapter on the denial countermovement ends with an acknowledgment that further sociological research is necessary to better study the evolving countermovement’s components, strategies, and tactics not only within individual nations but also across nations to better understand how this phenomenon has become a full-fledged global advocacy network.

The last post in this series will identify the importance of sociological insights about government responses to  climate change for advocates of climate change policies.

References:

Brown, D. (2002) American Heat: Ethical Problems With the United States Response to Global Warming, Roman and Littlefield.

Brown, D.  (2012) Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, Climate Change Ethics, Routledge/Earthscan.

Dunlap, R., and McCright, A., (2015) Challenging Climate Change, The Denial Countermovement in Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R. (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press

Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R, (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Widener University, Commonwealth Law School

dabrown57@gmail.com

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Why The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign Is So Ethically Abhorrent

Video

This video explains why the climate change disinformation campaign is so utterly ethically abhorrent. It briefly identifies the  morally indefensible tactics used by a campaign designed to undermine mainstream climate science in ways that utterly fail to acheive minimum norms of responsible scientific skepticism while at the same time greatly endangering many of the world’s poorest people The video distinguishes responsible skepticism, something that should be encouraged,  from morally abhorrent disinformation.

 

 

This 14 minute video is only an introduction to many ethical issues raised by the disinformation campaign. Those interested in a more in depth analysis of the disinformation campaign should consult the four part series on the ethics of the disinformation campaign the last in the series can be found at

Irresponsible Skepticism: Lessons Learned From the Climate Disinformation Campaign at

http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2012/02/17/responsible_skepticism_lessons_learned_from_the_climate_disinformation_campaign/

 

By Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law, Widener University School of Law

The Ethics Of “Clean Coal” Propaganda.

For over a decade the coal industry has funded campaigns designed to convince Americans that coal can be burned without adverse environmental impacts. These campaigns raise troubling ethical issues. In fact, as we shall see, these campaigns have often been misleading and deceptive in several different ways.

This deception is classic propaganda because propaganda presents facts selectively to encourage a particular synthesis, or uses loaded messages to produce an emotional rather than a rational response to the information presented. Although many entities on both sides of an issue who are trying to persuade the general public to think a certain way will frequently resort to the use of propaganda, as we shall see, deceptive propaganda is particularly morally odious when it engages in lying or lying by omission. A lie by omission occurs when an important fact is left out in order to foster a misconception. The clean coal propaganda has frequently engaged in propaganda that must be understood as lying by omission, if not outright lying. It is also lying by omission about something which is potentially very harmful, making the lies even more morally abhorrent

Given that academies of science around the world have concluded that climate change is a huge threat to millions of people around the world, that coal is the dirtiest of fossil fuels currently used for electricity generation in regard to climate change, that there are no commercial scale coal-fired power plants in the United States now nor likely to be in wide-spread commercial operation for decades capable of actually removing heat trapping gases, a fact not revealed in TV commercials funded by the clean coal campaign, this campaign which implies that coal is “clean” is deeply misleading about likely harmful and dangerous human activities. In other words, this is deception with huge potential adverse consequences.for life on earth and ecological systems on which life depends.

Some TV commercials funded through clean coal campaigns visually or verbally reference clean coal without acknowledgment that coal combustion could be considered clean only if new unproven technologies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from coal combustion are widely deployed. Other commercials contain often vague references to clean coal technologies that could in theory reduce greenhouse gas emissions if commercial scale of these technologies is determined through future research to be environmentally benign and economically feasible. None of these commercials, however, reveal that there are serious open questions about whether geologic carbon sequestration or other unproven greenhouse gas emission reduction technologies for use with coal combustion will be proven to be environmentally acceptable and economically viable at commercial scale. The New York Times reported this month that there is new evidence that carbon capture and storage, the technology most frequently considered to be the best hope for reducing greenhouse gases from coal combustion, may not be economically viable because of cheaper and abundant amounts of natural gas. (Wald, 2012)

Claiming that coal is clean because it could be clean if a new technically unproven and economically dubious technology might be adopted is like someone claiming that belladonna is not poisonous because there is a new unproven safe pill under development that sometime in the future might be economically affordable and that may be taken with belladonna to neutralize belladonna’s toxic effects.

Who has been behind this campaign? According to Source Watch, these campaigns were initially created by the Center for Energy and Economic Development (CEED) in 2000. CEED also created Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC), a multimillion-dollar public relations campaign aimed at emphasizing the importance and downplaying the environmental impacts of coal-fired power production. CEED was founded by Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, Southern Company, and DTE Energy (Source Watch, 2012a). ABEC’s members also have included mining companies, electric utilities, and railroad companies. The CEED was merged with Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC) to form a new coal industry front group, American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, on April 17, 2008 (Source Watch, 2012a).

In addition to funding misleading TV commercials, on May 25 Think Progress reported that the coal industry has also recently funded AstroTurf efforts, that is fake grass roots campaigns, to give the false impression at public hearings that ordinary citizens oppose proposed EPA regulations that would regulate CO2 from coal-fired power plants. (ThinkProgress, 2012). According to ThinkProgress:

“Apparently unable to find real activists, the coal industry paid AstroTurfers $50 to wear pro-coal t-shirts at an Environmental Protection Agency hearing focused on the agency’s first-ever carbon standards for new power plants.”

The creation of AstroTurf groups around carbon energy issues has been a known tactic of the climate change disinformation campaign that began in the 1990s and a tactic which is itself ethically problematic because an AstroTurf group’s very purpose is to hide from the general public the real parties in interest.

The practice of using AstroTurf groups is expressly prohibited by the code of ethics of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA, 2012) This code requires that PR professionals expressly identify real sponsors of PR activities (PRSA, 2012). Because front groups and AstroTurf organizations usually are designed to hide the real parties in interest, an ethics advisory of the Public Relations Society on these practices proclaims that it is unethical for PR professionals to represent front groups and/or other deceptive or misleading descriptions of goals, tactics, sponsors, or participants. (PRSA advisory, 2012) This advisory specifically includes AstroTurf groups as an unethical front group activity covered by the ethics advisory. (PRSA advisory, 2012)

Defenders of the clean coal campaign will sometimes argue that the clean coal campaign is simply an exercise of the coal industry’s right to free speech. Although free speech is to be strongly protected, speech which tells untruths about very harmful behavior is morally odious. This is the moral basis for the understanding that people are not free to yell fire in a crowded theater. In fact, the clean coal campaign is more like someone in a theater shouting that there is no fire who has no factual basis for claiming that no fire exists when smoke first appears in the theater.

And so, the clean coal campaigns cannot be understood as a responsible exercise of free speech but as deeply deceptive disinformation. It is deceptive for two reasons as we have seen.
First, the implied claim that coal combustion is environmentally clean is not true. It is also not true that new technologies capable of sequestering CO2 from coal fired power plants will likely be in widespread operation in the near future according to a recent article in the New York Times that explained that coal combustion that relies upon carbon sequestration may not be economically viable given competition from other fuel sources and additional costs of geologic carbon sequestration (Wald, 2012) .

Second, the failure to disclose who the real parties in interest are behind front groups, AstroTurf campaigns, and those who show up at public events claiming that coal is clean are tactics meant to deceive.
Given what is at stake with climate change, these are deceptions about potentially very, very harmful human activities.

There would be no problem with coal industry calls for public support for research that could make coal combustion environmentally acceptable, yet even such campaigns should reveal that there are open questions about whether these technologies if developed can economically compete with other fuel options.

From the standpoint of climate change, new technologies that would allow coal combustion without greenhouse gas emissions would be an important positive step to achieve urgently needed greenhouse gas emissions reductions. However, as we have seen, there are very open questions about whether these technologies will be technically and economically feasible at commercial scale. There are no doubt places in the world that geologic carbon sequestration that traps heat-trapping gases will work, yet there are serious questions about whether these technologies are technically feasible in many places of the world that do not have the right geology needed to seal in the CO2 and prevent if from escaping into the atmosphere nor the large spaces needed to bury the huge volumes of CO2 that are created in coal combustion. However, probably a bigger barrier to widespread deployment of this technology is whether these technologies can be deployed at acceptable cost.

References:

Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) (2012) Member Code of Ethics, http://www.prsa.org/AboutPRSA/Ethics/CodeEnglish/

Public Relations Society of America (PRSA advisory) (2012) Professional Advisory-07, Engaging in Deceptive Tactics While Representing Front Groups. http://www.prsa.org/AboutPRSA/Ethics/ProfessionalStandardsAdvisories/PSA-07.pdf

Source Watch (2012a) Clean Coal Marketing Campaign, http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Clean_Coal_Marketing_Campaign,

Source Watch (2012b) CEED, http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Center_for_Energy_and_Economic_Development

Think Progress (2012) Coal Industry Pays Fake Activists $50 To Wear Pro-Coal Shirts At Public Hearing, http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/05/25/490340/coal-astroturfing-epa-hearing/

Wald, M. (2012) With Natural Gas Plentiful and Cheap, Carbon Capture Projects Stumble, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/19/business/energy-environment/low-natural-gas-prices-threaten-carbon-capture-projects.html

By:
Donald A. Brown
dab57@psu.edu