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.
This website has produced many articles and several videos describing and analyzing the climate change disinformation campaign that has been funded by fossil fuel companies, other corporations whose economic interests are threatened by placing restrictions on fossil fuel use, industry associations, and free-market fundamentalist foundations. These analyses have concluded that these entities have engaged in morally reprehensible disinformation that should be distinguished from responsible scientific skepticism (See site index above under “disinformation campaign and climate ethics”).
For three short videos on why the climate change disinformation campaign cannot be considered responsible skepticism but must be judged as morally abhorrent disinformation see:
This study’s analysis of 20 years’ worth of communication data between participants in the climate change countermovement by Yale University researcher Dr. Justin Farrell shows beyond a doubt that ExxonMobil and the Kochs have been key actors who funded the creation of climate disinformation think tanks and ensured the prolific spread of their doubt products throughout our mainstream media and public discourse about climate change.
“The contrarian efforts have been so effective for the fact that they have made it difficult for ordinary Americans to even know who to trust,” Dr. Farrell told the Washington Post. “This countermovement produced messages aimed, at the very least, at creating ideological polarization through politicized tactics, and at the very most, at overtly refuting current scientific consensus with scientific findings of their own,” Dr. Farrell, the author of the study said.
The PNAS’s press briefing note about the article by Dr. Farrell said:
Corporate funding likely influences the nature and content of polarizing texts pertaining to climate change, according to a study. Political polarization has become a hallmark of climate change policy discussion, with multiple groups in various sectors contributing to public discourse regarding climate and energy. To quantify the influence of corporate funding in climate change discourse, Justin Farrell analyzed more than 39 million words of text produced by 164 organizations active in the climate change counter-movement between 1993 and 2013. The author examined the ideological content of the produced texts, as well as the funding behind the organizations that produced the texts.
Organizations with corporate funding were more likely to have produced polarizing texts, the author found, with ExxonMobil and the Koch family foundation acting as influential funders (emphasis added). Further, according to the author, corporate funding may have influenced the ideological content of produced texts. The results suggest quantitative evidence of the influence of funding in the climate change debate that had previously been hypothesized, and suggests an analytical model for integrating texts with the social networks that created them, according to the author.
Two main conclusions of this study are noteworthy because they are strong evidence for the role that fossil fuel interests played in creating a false cultural understanding of climate change science in the United States. The conclusions are:
First, that organizations with corporate funding were more likely to have written and disseminated texts meant to polarize the climate change issue.
Second, and more importantly, that corporate funding influences the actual thematic content of these polarization efforts, and the discursive prevalence of that thematic content over time (Study abstract).
Thus this study, which was published by the very prestigious US Academy of Sciences, provides further evidence that the public deception orchestrated by the fossil fuel industry actually influenced the cultural understanding of climate change in the United States, and therefore should prove valuable to investigators examining ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies as well as other current and future efforts to hold these corporations accountable for their disinformation. The following chart from the Natural Academy study depicts how the entities comprising the denial campaign communicated with each other.
Fig. 1.Which organizations produced discourse? Nodes in this network are organizations. The color of the node indicates whether they produced a text, and whether they received corporate funding
Recently, the Attorneys General from Massachusetts and New York initiated legal proceedings to hold Exxon and other fossil fuel companies liable for fraud. The fossil fuel industry has responded to these suits by fiercely waging a campaign that claims that any legal action against the fossil fuel companies for funding organizations engaged in climate change denial activities is tantamount to a legally inappropriate suppression of free speech (See: Climate change vs. free speech: Punishing fossil fuel companies for expressing doubt).
The tactics of the fossil fuel industry cannot simply be understood as its exercise of free speech. As we have seen in previous entries on the disinformation campaign on this website the disinformation Campaigns tactics have included:
1. Lying or reckless disregard for the truth about mainstream climate change science.
2. Cherry-picking mainstream climate science by focusing on an issue about which there may be some scientific uncertainty while ignoring a vast body of climate science which is well-settled.
3. Manufacturing non peer-reviewed climate change science claims.
4. The creating think tanks, front groups, and Astroturf groups which widely have disseminated untruthful claims about mainstream climate science and which were created to hide the real parties in interest, members of the fossil fuel industry.
5. Publishing and widely disseminating dubious manufactured climate change scientific claims that have not been subjected to peer-review.
6. Widely attacking mainstream climate scientist and journalists who have called for action on climate change.
7 Cyber-bullying mainstream climate scientists and journalists.
A few of these tactics are always ethically troublesome including creating conservative think tanks, front groups, Astroturf groups, and PR campaigns whose very creation was motivated to fool people about who the real parties in interest are behind claims that attack mainstream climate science. These organizations have also manufactured bogus climate science claims, cyber-bullied climate scientists and journalists, and widely published claims about climate change science that have not been subject to peer-review.
Corporations who fund these ethically troubling tactics are particularly ethically loathsome because they are using their economic power to deceive the public and intimidate mainstream scientists and journalists in the pursuit of economic self-interest.
Certain facts about climate change make these ethically obnoxious tactics even more reprehensible. They include the fact that climate change is a problem that the longer governments wait to take action to prevent damage, the worse the problem becomes and the more difficult and more expensive it becomes to solve it. The climate change disinformation campaign has been responsible for at least 30 years of inaction and, as a result, enormous and expensive greenhouse gas reductions are now required of the entire world to prevent potentially devastating and catastrophic climate change impacts. These impacts will likely be most harshly experienced by poor countries around the world which have done very little to cause theca climate problem. In addition, those most vulnerable to the harshest climate impacts have never consented to nor been consulted about waiting until all climate science uncertainties are resolved before action is taken.
For these reasons, just as screaming fire in a crowded theater when no fire exists is not construed to be a justifiable exercise of free speech, climate change science disinformation cannot be justified on free speech grounds and must be understood as the morally indefensible behavior of many fossil fuel companies, some corporations and industry organizations, and free market fundamentalist foundations that have funded the climate change disinformation campaign. Just as It is morally reprehensible to call fire in a crowed theater when there is no evidence of a fire because such reckless behavior will likely cause harm to people panicking to run to safety, telling those responsible for GHG emissions that there is no evidence that human activities are causing and threatening climate induced harms will likely cause great damage because inaction guarantees that atmospheric concentrations of GHG will continue to rise and remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years and likely cause great harm and perhaps make it impossible to prevent catastrophic damages to human health and ecological systems on which life depends. In fact not only is the the deceit propagated by the fossil fuel companies and others funding the disinformation campaign unjustifiable on free speech grounds it is so harmful that it may create legal liability for those entities who have funded the disinformation campaign.
Climate change disinformation is responsible for almost a 40 year delay in reducing GHG emissions to safe levels and harsh climate change impacts are already visible in many parts of the world caused by rising seas, much more intense storms, droughts, and floods. And so some of the great harm caused by the climate change denial countermovement is already being experienced even though the most catastrophic climate change harms will be experienced in future decades.
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.
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.
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.
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
The National Academy of Sciences and its British counterpart, the Royal Society, have published Climate Change: Evidence and Causes, a very easy to understand primer on the science of greenhouse-driven global warming. Although there is not a lot new in this report as a matter of science, it makes the strong scientific consensus on human-induced climate change that has existed for some time clearer and more accessible for non-scientists particularly on the major issues that need to be understood by policy-makers and interested citizens. The report is written in simple language and filled with pictures and graphs which illustrate why almost all mainstream scientists actually engaged in climate change science are virtually certain that human activity is causing very dangerous climate change.
This report is ethically significant because:
a. It is a report of two of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world, namely US National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society. Because of the prestige of both of the institutions writing this report, those opposing actual climate change have an ethical duty to acknowledge that the scientific basis supporting action on climate change is entitled to respect. They cannot reasonably claim that there is no strong scientific basis for policy action on climate change or even worse that climate change science is a “hoax.” Which institutions have made claims that humans are engaged in dangerous behavior has ethical significance. If, for instance, someone is told by an expert in toxicology that chemicals he or she is discharging into a water supply will kill people, he or she has more of an ethical duty to stop discharging the chemicals until the issue of toxicology issues are resolved than they would if the claim about poisoning came from a religious leader or a tax accountant. When claims about danger are made by world-class scientific experts, as a matter of ethics, the burden of proof shifts to those potentially harming others to show that their behavior is not dangerous.
Skepticism in climate science should still be encouraged, but skeptics must play by the rules of science including: (a) subjecting all claims contradicting the mainstream scientific view on climate change to peer-review, (b) subjecting claims that humans are not causing dangerous climate impacts to review by scientific institutions that have sufficient broad interdisciplinary expertise among its members to review such claims against all the contrary evidence from all relevant scientific disciplines, and (c) acknowledging all the contradictory evidence. Given the enormity of harms to citizens around the world and future generations predicted by mainstream scientists, those who seek to undermine proposed climate change policies on scientific certainty grounds should be understood to have the burden of proof to show by high levels of proof that human-induced climate change is not dangerous.
b. The report includes clear explanations of the scientific evidence in regard to specific justifications for not taking action on climate change very frequently made by those who oppose climate change policies. These justifications and responses to them include, for instance:
Scientists don’t know that recent climate change is largely caused by human activities?
Scientists know that recent climate change is largely caused by human activities from an understanding of basic physics, comparing observations with models, and fingerprinting the detailed patterns of climate change caused by different human and natural influences.
Direct measurements of CO₂ in the atmosphere and in air trapped in ice show that atmospheric CO₂ increased by about 40 percent from 1800 to 2012. Measurements of different forms of carbon reveal that this increase is because of human activities.
The recent slowdown of warming means that climate change is no longer happening?
No, recent weather is not evidence that warming is not happening. Since the very warm year 1998 that followed the strong 1997-1998 El Niño, the increase in average surface temperature has slowed relative to the previous decade of rapid temperature increases. Despite the slower rate of warming, the 2000s were warmer than the 1990s. A short-term slowdown in the warming of Earth’s surface does not invalidate our understanding of long-term changes in global temperature.
CO₂ is already in the atmosphere naturally, and so human emissions are not significant.
Human activities have significantly disturbed the natural carbon cycle by extracting long-buried fossil fuels and burning them for energy, thus releasing CO₂ into the atmosphere.
Variations in output from the sun have caused the changes in the Earth’s climate in recent decades.
The sun provides the primary source of energy driving Earth’s climate system, but its variations have played very little role in the climate-changes observed in recent decades. Direct satellite measurements since the late 1970s show no net increase in the sun’s output while, at the same time, global surface temperatures have increased.
If the world is actually warming, some recent winters and summers would not have been so cold?
Global warming is a long-term trend, but that does not mean that every year will be warmer than the previous one. Day-to-day and year-to-year changes in weather patterns will continue to produce some unusually cold days and nights, and winters and summers, even as the climate warms.
A few degrees of warming is not cause for concern.
Even though an increase of a few degrees in global average temperature does not sound like much, global average temperature during the last ice age was only about 4°C to 5°C (7 °F to 9 °F) colder than now. Global warming of just a few degrees will be associated with widespread changes in regional and local temperature and precipitation, as well as with increases in some types of extreme weather events.
These are only a few of the justifications that have been made by those denying responsibility to reduce the threat of climate change that are directly and clearly refuted in the report.
c. The report also has ethical significance because its so clear that policy makers cannot reasonably claim that there is no scientific evidence about the major issues of concern to the climate change scientific community. As we have explained on this website, policy-makers may not, as a matter of ethics, rely on their own uninformed opinion about climate change science once they are informed by respectable scientific organizations that people and organizations within their jurisdiction are likely harming others around the world. This responsibility to not rely upon their own uninformed opinions increases when there are easy to understand explanations from respected scientific institutions of the scientific basis for concluding that people within their jurisdiction are harming others. The new report from the US Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society is such a clear explanation. And so government officials have a strong duty to go beyond their own uninformed opinion about whether humans are causing dangerous climate change. They must justify their refusal to act on strong, peer-reviewed scientific evidence that is accepted by mainstream scientific institutions that have the breadth of expertise to consider the interdisciplinary scientific issues that make up climate change science.
d. Because politicians have an affirmative duty to rely upon mainstream scientific views in regard to human activities that could cause great harm until peer-reviewed science establishes that the mainstream view is erroneous, the press has a journalistic duty to help citizens understand the limitations of any politician’s views that opposes action on climate change on scientific grounds particularly when there are easy to understand explanations of climate change science such as that in the new US National Academy and Royal Academy report. The new report will enable the press to fulfill its journalistic responsibilities by asking more precise and clearer questions of those who deny the mainstream scientific view.
For these reasons, the new report is ethically significant.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence and Professor
Sustainability Ethics and Law, Widener University School of Law,
Hurricane Sandy is clearly responsible for a renewed interest in the American press about climate change. For a good sample of how the US media has, at least for the short-term, woken up to climate change see an excellent summary of press coverage of links between Sandy and climate change on the website Residence on Earth at www.anothergreenblogg.wordpress.com,
Will this new interest in human-induced global warming lead to a cure of the grave US media failures to communicate adequately to the American people the urgency and magnitude of the threat to the world entailed by climate change?
Some of the press coverage of climate change after Sandy is likely to improve. For instance, there is some hope after Sandy that the press will no longer ignore the monumental scale of the potential damages to the United States as our planet continues to heat up. As the Los Angeles Times recently reported:
Perhaps the most important message from Sandy is that it underscores the enormous price of underestimating the threat of climate change. Damage increases exponentially even if preparations are only slightly wrong. (Linden 2012)
And so Sandy may convince Americans that the threat of climate change is real and the damages of inaction are immense. However, there is very little evidence in the most recent reporting in the US press on Sandy and climate change that other grave failures of the American media to cover climate change will be remedied. In fact US media reporting on climate change in the last few weeks has focused primarily on whether Sandy demonstrates that the threat of climate change is real. Still missing from mainstream media coverage of climate change are the 5 features on climate change that US citizens must understand to fully comprehend the urgent need of United States government to enact strong policies to reduce US emissions of greenhouse gases. As we have explained in the last six articles on EthicsandClimate.org missing from US media coverage of climate change are:
the nature of the strong scientific consensus on climate change,
a clear understanding of the magnitude and the urgency of total greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent catastrophic warming,
a recognition a of the practical significance for policy that follows from an understanding that climate change is a civilization challenging ethical issue,
acknowledgments that the United States has been a significant barrier to finding a global solution to climate change for over 2 decades, and
an understanding of the nature of the well-organized, well-financed disinformation campaign that has been operating in the United States for over 20 years and that has been funded largely by fossil fuel interests and free market fundamentalist foundations.
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 Doubtexplains 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:
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.”
This is the second in a three part video series on why the climate change disinformation campaign is so utterly ethically offensive. The fist video in this series looked at the how the campaign was responsible for allowing greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations to rise from 320 ppm when warnings of the harsh impacts of climate change were articulated in the scientific community in the 1960s to 395 ppm now. This series distinguishes between scientific skepticism which is good and should be encouraged from the tactics of the disinformation campaign which are shown to be ethically odious.
This second video in the series looks at several of the tactics of the disinformation campaign in more depth and contrasts them with responsible skepticism.
A third video in the series will be posted soon that continues the examination of disinformation campaign tactics and then examines these tactics through an ethical lens. A detailed four part written series on the disinformation campaign can be found on EthicsandClimate.org under the category “climate disinformation.”
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law
Dear former subscribers to ClimateEthics and new visitors to Ethicsandclimate.org:
After over 80 articles on the ethics of climate change at ClimateEthics.org, I am moving to Widener University School of Law where the analyses formerly posted on ClimateEthics as well as new posts will continue at this site, EthicsandClimate.org.
Climate change must be understood essentially as a civilization challenging ethical and moral problem. This realization has profound practical consequences for policy formation. Yet the ethical implications of policy responses have usually been ignored in policy debates that have now spanned thirty years. Despite 20 years of international negotiations to come up with a global solution to climate change under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the ethical and justice dimensions of national positions remain the key missing element in the positions of national governments.
This site examines the ethical dimensions of climate science, economics, politics, policy responses, trading, atmospheric greenhouse gas stabilization goals, as well as the obligations of nations, governments, businesses, organizations, and individuals to respond to climate change and pay for adaptation responses and damages.
The site will follow the positions taken by governments in international climate change negotiations and subject them to an ethical critique. The site will subject arguments made by proponents and opponents of climate change policies to ethical scrutiny.
The site believes that turning up the volume on the ethical dimensions of climate change is key to moving the world to a just solution to climate change.
Because many of the most important ethical issues that need to be faced in climate change policy formation are often hidden in dense scientific and economic discourses that most people, including many policy professionals, have difficulty in unpacking, this sites seeks to help those concerned about climate change understand the ethical issues often obscured by what first appears to be the “value-neutral” languages of science and economics.
For these reasons, the purpose of this site is to help civil society understand, debate, and respond to the ethical dimensions of climate change.
Prior subscribers to ClimateEthics and new visitors to this site, please subscribe to this new website by clicking on the subscribe button.
Donald A. Brown EthicsandClimate.org
As of July 1, 2012,
Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law,
Widener University School of Law
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.