Ethics and climate has explained in numerous articles on this site why climate change policy raises civilization challenging ethical issues which have practical significance for policy-making. This article identifies five common arguments that are very frequently made in opposition to proposed climate change laws and policies that cannot be adequately responded to without full recognition of serious ethical problems with these arguments. Yet the national debate on climate change and its press coverage in the United States and many other countries continue to ignore serious ethical problems with arguments made against climate change policies. The failure to identify the ethical problems with these arguments greatly weakens potential responses to these arguments. These arguments include:
1. A nation should not adopt climate change policies because these policies will harm the national economy.
This argument is obviously ethically problematic because it fails to consider that high emitting governments and entities have clear ethical obligations to not harm others. Economic arguments in opposition to climate change policies are almost always arguments about self-interest that ignore strong global obligations. Climate change is a problem that is being caused mostly by high emitting nations and people that are harming and putting at risk poor people and the ecological systems on which they depend around the world. It is clearly ethically unacceptable for those causing the harms to others to only consider the costs to them of reducing the damages they are causing while ignoring their responsibilities to not harm others.
It is not only high emitting nations and corporations that are ignoring the ethical problems with cost-based arguments against climate change policies. Some environmental NGOs usually fail to spot the ethical problems with arguments made against climate change policies based upon the cost or reducing ghg emissions to the emitters. Again and again proponents of action on climate change have responded to economic arguments against taking action to reduce the threat of climate change by making counter economic arguments such as climate change policies will produce new jobs or reduce adverse economic impacts that will follow from the failure to reduce the threat of climate change. In responding this way, proponents of climate change policy action are implicitly confirming the ethically dubious notion that public policy must be based upon economic self-interest rather than responsibilities to those who will be most harmed by inaction. There is, of course, nothing wrong with claims that some climate change policies will produce jobs, but such assertions should also say that emissions should be reduced because high-emitters of ghgs have duties and obligations to do so.
2. Nations need not reduce their ghg emissions until other high emitting nations also act to reduce their emissions because this will put the nation that reduces its emissions in a disadvantageous economic position.
Over and over again opponents of climate change policies at the national level have argued that high emitting nations should not act to reduce their ghg emissions until other high emitting nations also act accordingly. In the United States, for instance, it is frequently said that the United States should not reduce its ghg emissions until China does so. Implicit in this argument is the notion that governments should only adopt policies which are in their economic interest to do so. Yet as a matter of ethics, as we have seen, all nations have a strong ethical duty to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions and national economic self-interest is not an acceptable justification for failing to reduce national ghg emissions. Nations are required as a matter of ethics to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions; they are not required to reduce other nations’ share of safe global emissions. And so, nations have an ethical duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions without regard to what other nations do.
3. Nations need not reduce their ghg emissions as long as other nations are emitting high levels of ghg because it will do no good for one nation to act if other nations do not act.
A common claim similar to argument 2 is the assertion nations need not reduce their ghg emissions until others do so because it will do no good for one nation to reduce its emissions while high-emitting nations continue to emit without reductions. It is not factually true that a nation that is emitting ghgs at levels above its fair share of safe global emissions is not harming others because they are continuing to cause elevated atmospheric concentrations of ghg which will cause some harm to some places and people than would not be experienced if the nation was emitting ghg at lower levels. And so, since all nations have an ethical duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, nations have a duty to reduce the harm that they are causing to others even if there is no adequate global response to climate change.
4. No nation need act to reduce the threat of climate change until all scientific uncertainties about climate change impacts are resolved.
Over and over again opponents of climate change policies have argued that nations need not act to reduce the threat of climate change because there are scientific uncertainties about the magnitude and timing of human-induced climate change impacts. There are a host of ethical problems with these arguments. First, as we have explained in detail on this website under the category of disinformation campaign in the index, some arguments that claim that that there is significant scientific uncertainty about human impacts on climate have been based upon lies or reckless disregard for the truth about mainstream climate change science. Second, other scientific uncertainty arguments are premised on cherry picking climate change science, that is focusing on what is unknown about climate change while ignoring numerous conclusions of the scientific community that are not in serious dispute. Third. other claims that there is scientific uncertainty about human induced climate change have not been subjected to peer-review. Fourth some arguments against climate change policies on the basis of scientific uncertainty often rest on the ethically dubious notion that nothing should be done to reduce a threat that some are imposing on others until all uncertainties are resolved. They make this argument despite the fact that if high emitters of ghg wait until all uncertainties are resolved before reducing their ghg emissions:
It will likely be too late to prevent serious harm if the mainstream scientific view of climate change is later vindicated;
It will be much more difficult to prevent catastrophic harm if nations wait, and
The argument to wait ignores the fact that those who will be harmed the most have not consented to be put at greater risk by waiting.
For all of these reasons, arguments against taking action to reduce the threat of climate change based upon scientific uncertainty fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.
5. Nations need only set ghg emissions reduction targets to levels consistent with their national interest.
Nations continue to set ghg emissions reductions targets at levels based upon their self-interest despite the fact that any national target must be understood to be implicitly a position on two issues that cannot be thought about clearly without considering ethical obligations. That is, every national ghg emissions reduction target is implicitly a position on : (a) a safe ghg atmospheric stabilization target; and (b) the nation’s fair share of total global ghg emissions that will achieve safe ghg atmospheric concentrations.
A position on a global ghg atmospheric stabilization target is essentially an ethical question because a global ghg atmospheric concentration goal will determine to what extent the most vulnerable people and the ecological systems on which they depend will be put at risk. And so a position that a nation takes on atmospheric ghg atmospheric targets is necessarily an ethical issue because nations and people have an ethical duty to not harm others and the numerical ghg atmospheric goal will determine how much harm polluting nations will impose on the most vulnerable.
Once a global ghg atmospheric goal is determined, a nation’s ghg emissions reduction target is also necessarily implicitly a position on the nation’s fair share of safe global ghg emissions, an issue of distributive justice and ethics at its core.
And so any national ghg emissions target is inherently a position on important ethical and justice issues and thus setting a national emissions reduction target based upon national interest alone fails to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.
A new peer-reviewed study by Dr. Robert Brulle from Drexel University documents how the funding of the climate change disinformation campaign has shifted in the last few years from corporations and some politically conservative foundations to pass-through 501(c) (3) foundations like Donors Trust and Donors Capital, whose funders cannot be traced.
Ethics and Climate Change has explained in great detail in 13 separate articles available in the Start Here and Index tab on this site under “Disinformation Campaign and Climate Ethics” why the climate change disinformation campaign is ethically abhorrent, and, in fact, is some new kind of crime or assault against humanity, gross human rights violation, or other kind of villainy. This is so, as explained in these articles, because although skepticism in science should be encouraged, the climate change disinformation campaign has engaged in tactics which can’t be understood as responsible skepticism. These tactics have included: (1) lying or reckless disregard for the truth about mainstream climate change science, (2) cherry-picking climate science, (3) making specious claims about “bad” science, (4) focusing on what is unknown while ignoring what is not in dispute about climate change science, (5) using think tanks, front groups, and AstroTurf organizations to hide the real parties in interest, (6) manufacturing bogus science in conferences or publishing in non peer-reviewed journals, (7) hiring public relations firms to convince citizens that there is no basis for mainstream scientific conclusions about climate change, and (8) cyber-bullying climate scientists and journalists. These tactics are not responsible skepticism but morally abhorrent misinformation.
The new study reviews the sociological literature on the climate change disinformation campaign while examining what is known about funding for this phenomenon. Major conclusions of the study include:
Conservative foundations have bank-rolled denial. The largest and most consistent funders of organizations orchestrating climate change denial are a number of well-known conservative foundations, such as the Searle Freedom Trust, the John William Pope Foundation, the Howard Charitable Foundation and the Sarah Scaife Foundation. These foundations promote ultra-free-market ideas in many realms.
Koch and ExxonMobil have recently pulled back from publicly visible funding. From 2003 to 2007, the Koch Affiliated Foundations and the ExxonMobil Foundation were heavily involved in funding climate-change denial organizations. But since 2008, they are no longer making publicly traceable contributions.
Funding has shifted to pass through untraceable sources. Coinciding with the decline in traceable funding, the amount of funding given to denial organizations by the Donors Trust has risen dramatically. Donors Trust is a donor-directed foundation whose funders cannot be traced. This one foundation now provides about 25% of all traceable foundation funding used by organizations engaged in promoting systematic denial of climate change.
Most funding for denial efforts is untraceable. Despite extensive data compilation and analyses, only a fraction of the hundreds of millions in contributions to climate change denying organizations can be specifically accounted for from public records. Approximately 75% of the income of these organizations comes from unidentifiable sources..
The new study also concludes that the climate change disinformation campaign is what is known in the sociological literature as a “counter-movement.” Social movements such as that which has arisen to reduce the threat of climate change are often opposed by a “counter-movement” which seeks to undermine the goals of the social movement. Social movements usually seek to frame public policy issues as matters requiring government action while counter-movements work to frame the issue in the mind of the public to undermine the case for government action. This creates cultural contests over the appropriate frame for the public advocated by social movements and counter-movements.
Counter-movements are “networks of individuals and organizations that share many of the same objects of concern as the social movements that they oppose. They make competing claims on the state on matters of policy and politics and vie for attention from the mass media and the broader public. Counter-movements seek to maintain the currently dominant frame and thus maintain the status quo by opposing, or countering, the efforts of movements seeking change. Significantly, counter-movements typically originate as the social change movement starts to show signs of success in influencing public policy, and threatening established interests. These counter-movements typically represent economic interests directly challenged by the emergent social movement.”
According to Brulle, the climate change disinformation campaign is a well-funded and organized counter-movement effort to undermine public faith in climate science and block action by the U.S. government to regulate emissions. This counter-movement involves a large number of organizations, including conservative think tanks, advocacy groups, trade associations and conservative foundations, with strong links to sympathetic media outlets and conservative politicians.
The new study also identifies the level of funding to the major organizations engaged in the climate change disinformation campaign and the amount of funding being provided to these organizations. The study ranks these organizations as follows with funding amounts in millions:
American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, $86.7, 16%
Heritage Foundation, $76.4, 14%
Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, $45.4, 8%
Manhattan Institute Policy Research, $33.1, 6%
Cato Institute, $30.6, 5%
Hudson Institute, $25.5, 5%
Altas Economic Research Foundation, $24.5, 4%
Americans for Prosperity Foundation, $22.7, 4%
John Locke Foundation, $18.0, 3%
Heartland Institute, $16.7, 3%
Reason Foundation, $15.0, 3%
Media Research Center, $14.5, 3%
Mercatus Center, $14.3, 3%
National Center for Policy Analysis, $13.9, 3%
Competitive Enterprise Institute, $12.5, 2%
State Policy Network, $12.0, 2%
Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, $11.4, 2%
Independent Womens Forum, $7.4, 1%
Landmark Legal Foundation, $7.0, 1%
FreedomWorks Foundation, $5.3, 1%
49 Other Organizations < 1%, $63.7, 11%
The new report also identifies foundation funding source of these organizations and ranks them as follows in millions:
Donor Trust/Donors Capital Fund, $78.8, 14%
Scaife Affiliated Foundations, $39.6, 7%
The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, $29.6, 5%
Koch Affiliated Foundations, $26.3, 5%
Howard Charitable Foundation, $24.8, 4%
John William Pope Foundation, $21.9, 4%
Searle Freedom Trust, $21.7, 4%
John Templeton Foundation, $20.2, 4%
Dunn’s Foundation for the Advancement of Right Thinking, $13.7, 2%
Smith Richarson Foundation, Inc., $13.5, 2%
Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program, $13.1, 2%
The Kovner Foundation, $12.8, 2%
Annenberg Foundation, $11.3, 2%
Lily Endowment Inc., $10.3, 2%
The Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, $10.0, 2%
ExxonMobil Foundation, $7.2, 1%
Brady Education Foundation, $6.8, 1%
The Samuel Roberts Foundation, Inc., $6.7, 1%
Coors Affiliated Foundations, $6.2, 1%
Lakeside Foundation, $5.8, 1%
Herrick Foundation, $5.7, 1%
118 Others < 1%, $170.4, 31%
Because much of the funding for the climate change disinformation campaign has shifted to organizations that prevent tracing the actual donors who are receiving a tax deduction for their contributions, a case can be made that tax payers are paying for the disinformation campaign. The new funding scheme also prevents citizens from knowing where the funding is coming from, facts which are necessary to understand who the parties in interest are behind the counter-movement. Because the tactics of the disinformation are so ethically reprehensible, the new funding scheme most likely shields large funders from public scrutiny that would reveal ethically abhorrent behavior.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence and Professor, Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University School Of Law
Part-time Professor, Nanjing University School of Information Science and Technology, Nanjing, China
This is the second in a series looking at how to classify the climate change disinformation campaign given that it is some new kind of assault on humanity, yet not easily classifiable into existing categories of behaviors that cause great harm. Part One of this series identified four prior articles and three videos that Ethicsandclimate.org has previously produced on this subject as well as looking at whether this effort to undermine the mainstream scientific view about climate change can be classified as a crime against humanity or a tort under common law. These previous articles distinguished the tactics of the disinformation campaign from responsible skepticism and the acceptable exercise of free speech after explaining what is meant by the “climate change disinformation campaign” and how it operated.
I. Is The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign A Human Rights Violation?
A very strong case can be made that human-induced climate change triggers human rights violations because of the destructive nature of climate change damages. If human rights are to be understood to be recognition of those norms that are necessary to protect human dignity, inadequate climate change policies must be understood to trigger human rights violations because climate change will not only make human dignity impossible for millions of people around the world, including countless members of future generations but also directly threaten life itself and resources necessary to sustain life. And so, as we shall see, climate change causing activities create human rights violations because of the enormity of harm to life, health, food, property, and inviolability of the right of all people to enjoy the places where they live.
Yet finding legal remedies under human rights legal theories for the the destructive role that the disinformation campaign has played in preventing or delaying solutions to climate change will require finding at a minimum: (a) a specific human right under and an existing human rights regime that has been violated by climate change, (b) a human rights regime that has the jurisdiction and legal authority to grant the requested remedy in the specific human rights controversy before it, (c) a legal theory supporting the claim that non-state actors, not just governments, responsible for the violations of human rights have duties to prevent human rights, and (d) a legal justification to link the duties of non-state actors to prevent human rights violations to the activities of the disinformation campaign.
B. Which human rights are violated by climate change and do human rights fora have the authority to adjudicate claims based upon the tactics of the disinformation campaign?
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is usually viewed to be the foundational document in modern international human rights law. (UN, 1948). The UDHR is a non-binding ‘soft-law’ agreement among nations that over time has been complemented by a series of legally binding international treaties while retaining its status as customary international law. Because it is customary international law it could be relevant to damage claims made in civil litigation requesting damages in cases before international courts such as the International Court of Justice.
The two most important global human rights treaties in addition to the UDHR often stated to be the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
The Universal Declaration on Human Rights identifies the following as entitled to rights protections that are relevant to climate change:
(a) Life, liberty, and security of person. (Article 1)
(b) Right to an effective remedy by national tribunals for violations of fundamental or constitutionals rights. (Article 8)
(c) Full equality to a fair public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of a person’s rights and obligations. (Article 10)
(d) Freedom from arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home or correspondence. (Article 12)
(e) Freedom from being arbitrarily deprived of property. (Article 17)
(f) Right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. (Article 25)
(g) Rights to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms can be fully recognized. (Article 28) (UN1948)
The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) identifies the following as entitled to rights protections relevant to climate change protections:
(a) The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent. (Article 11)
(b) The States Parties to the present Covenant, recognizing the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through international co-operation, the measures, including specific programmes, which are needed:
a. To improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food by making full use of technical and scientific knowledge, by disseminating knowledge of the principles of nutrition and by developing or reforming agrarian systems in such a way as to achieve the most efficient development and utilization of natural resources;
b. Taking into account the problems of both food-importing and food-exporting countries, to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need.
(c) The right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health… The steps to be taken by the States Parties to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include those necessary for:… (c) prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, and occupational and other diseases. (Article 12)
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) identifies the following as entitled to rights protections that are relevant to climate change protections:
(a) Inherent Right to Life. This right shall be protected by law. (Article 5)
(b) Right to be protected from arbitrary and unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home…. (Article 15)
A strong case can be made that climate change prevents people all around the world from enjoying the above rights.
These three documents i.e. the UDHR, the ICESCR, and the ICCPR are often considered to be the foundational documents that comprise an international bill of rights. Yet not all nations have adopted all three documents. Although the UDHR has been accepted by most nations of the world, the ICPCR and ICCPR have been less widely so. In fact the ICESCR has not been ratified by the United States and therefore may be inapplicable to climate change caused human rights violations in the United States. To date, these two treaties have been ratified by about 75 percent of the world’s countries. The UDHR is a “soft-law” document which has normative, but not legal force in the international system. The ICESCR and ICCCPR were the first of many treaties that have been enacted to give the protections identified in the UDHR the force of law.
A country ratifying a UN human rights treaty agrees to respect and implement within domestic law the rights the treaty covers. It also agrees to accept and respond to international scrutiny and criticism of its compliance. It does not necessarily agree to make the human rights norm directly enforceable in domestic courts. That usually requires implementing legislation.
Treaty enforcement is accomplished within the UN often with the creation of a body to monitor states’ performance, and to which member states are required to submit periodic reports on compliance. For instance, the ICCPR is implemented through the Human Rights Committee (HRC) which was created to promote compliance with its provisions. The HRC frequently expresses its views as to whether a particular practice is a human rights violation, but it is not authorized to issue legally binding decisions. Other treaties and bodies exist within the UN system with varying enforcement and implementation powers and duties to implement human rights goals. For the most part, these enforcement powers are weak and improvements in human rights violations are best achieved through holding offending nations to the court of international opinion rather than law.
In addition, several regional human rights regimes have been enacted that promote human rights in particular parts of the world. These regions include Europe, the Americas, and Africa which have their own declarations and conventions for enforcement of human rights on a regional basis.
Thus far no one has successfully brought a human rights claim for climate change caused damages although the Inuit Peoples filed such a claim in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Before a successful human rights claim can be brought in an existing legal forum in regard to climate change, several potential legal hurdles need to be overcome that have little to do with whether a nation or an individual has committed a human rights violation. These hurdles include jurisdictional, issues, questions of proof, and authority of the relevant forum. For this reason, the failure to successfully bring legally recognized human rights claims may have little to do with whether the offending behavior has created a violation of the protected right but more with the limitation of the existing legal regime. And so, the failure to bring a successful action against the climate change disinformation campaign in an existing human rights forum does not mean the disinformation campaign is not responsible for human rights violations.
Examining climate change through a human rights lens has the benefit of providing potential access to legal fora that have been created to adjudicate aspects of human rights violations. Given that there are no obvious legal fora to bring civil actions against those who have participated in the climate change disinformation campaign, pursuing remedies for human rights violations caused by climate change has the advantage of being able to file legal claims in existing judicial fora.
Potential fora include, at the global level, the Human Rights Committee established by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights established by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Regional tribunals include the Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights. In addition, claims could potentially be pursued in national courts–for example, in the United States under the Alien Tort Statute.
Yet each of these fora have different jurisdictional limits on bringing legal actions on human rights basis. In this regard, a case brought on behalf of the Inuit Peoples in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights sought to find that the United States was responsible for international human rights violations is illustrative of potential road blocks to bringing successful cases for human rights violations in existing legal rights fora.
The petition detailed the effects of rising Arctic temperatures on the ability of the Inuit to enjoy a wide variety of human rights, including the rights to life (melting ice and permafrost make travel more dangerous), property (as permafrost melts, houses collapse and residents are forced to leave their traditional homes) and health (nutrition worsens as the animals on which the Inuit depend for sustenance decline in number). The petition connected the rising temperatures to increasing levels of greenhouse gases, and in particular, to the failure by the United States to take effective steps to reduce its emissions.
In November 2006, the Commission informed the petitioners
that it had determined that “it will not be possible to process your
petition at present.” The IACHR did not explain its reasoning, stating only that “the information provided does not enable us to determine whether the alleged facts would tend to characterize a violation of [protected human] rights.” The Commission did hold a hearing on the connection between climate change and human rights in March 2007, but it has taken no further action.
It would appear that IACHR did not believe it had the legal authority to order the specific relief requested by the petitioners, namely to issue an order to the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. And so the IACHR did not decide the case on the merits of the underlying claim that the United States had contributed to human rights violations of the Inuit people, it appeared to decline to act on the basis of legal issues about its own authority.
(B) Do the duties to prevent human rights violations bind non-state actors including corporations?
It is not clear as of yet the extent to which human rights regimes create duties for individuals and corporations, that is non-state actors. Bodansky summarizes the current state of this legal question.
[A] crucial question is whether the duties to respect, protect and fulfill apply to private actors as well as states. International criminal law demonstrates that international law can in some case impose duties directly on individuals, and some have proposed that corporations have duties to respect human rights. So, at least in theory, human rights law could impose a duty on private actors to respect human rights by limiting their emissions of greenhouse gases. But generally, human rights law – like international environmental law – imposes duties on states rather than on corporations. If this is true of climate change,then human rights law limits the activities of non-state actors only to the extent that states have a duty to protect against climate change by regulating private activities.
And so, it is not clear whether the corporations that have participated in the disinformation campaign can be sued in the various human rights tribunals, yet nations may have a duty to regulate emissions from those corporations participating in the climate change disinformation campaign under human rights theories.
(C) Are the participants in the disinformation campaign liable for contributing to human rights violations?
A final issue that needs to be overcome to successfully bring a legal action against the participants in the disinformation campaign for violating civil rights of people around the world is identifying a legal basis for concluding that the disinformation campaign unlawfully caused the violation of civil rights. Because most of the participants in the disinformation campaign are corporations that are also emitters of greenhouse gases, these corporations like all greenhouse gas emitters arguably have duties to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to levels that in combination with other emitters do not deprive people around the world from enjoying legally protected rights. Yet it is not clear, that the tactics of the disinformation campaign alone make the participants in the disinformation campaign responsible for human rights violations by themselves.
However, most governments make it a crime for individuals to conspire to deprive people of their human rights. For instance, under US law it is a crime for persons to conspire to deprive another of the rights of an individual that has been secured by the individual through the United States Constitution or through any other laws of the United States. Although this specific law has not been tested in regard to climate change, it is generally viewed to be a breach of civil and sometimes criminal law to conspire to deprive people of their rights. As we saw in Part One of this series, the Plaintiffs in the case of Kivalina versus ExxonMobil et al asserted that the fossil fuel companies that have been part of the disinformation campaign conspired to harm the residents of Kavalina. And so there may be sufficient facts about the disinformation campaign that could form the basis of a claim that if proven could be the basis for finding responsibility for individuals participating in the climate change disinformation campaign yet only an actual case will test this possibility.
(D) Conclusions in regard to classifying the disinformation campaign as a violation of human rights.
There is little question that the more than 20 year delay in taking action on climate change in the United States for which the disinformation campaign is at least partially responsible for has prevented people around the world from enjoying a host of human rights that are now recognized in a variety of human rights regimes around the world. Yet, as was the case in categorizing the disinformation as a crime against humanity or a common law tort, there may be no existing legal remedy under existing human rights law that can be deployed to deal with the harms created by those participating in the disinformation campaign. And so once again, there may be serious deprivations of human rights caused by the disinformation campaign without legal remedies. Only time will tell whether those who have been harmed by climate change will be able to successfully bring a legal action against those engaged in the disinformation campaign for damages.
II. What Kind of Malfeasance, Transgression, Villainy, Or Wrongdoing is The Behavior of the Disinformation Campaign?
We have seen thus far from the previous analysis in this two part series that there may be no legal remedy under existing law relating to crimes against humanity, civil tort, or human rights law for the harms caused by the climate change disinformation campaign. Yet the harms attributable to the disinformation campaign are so potentially catastrophic to hundreds of millions of people around the world that laws relating to crimes against humanity, civil tort, and human rights should be amended to provide legal sanctions under these legal theories for at least for the more egregious tactics that have sometimes been deployed by some participants in this campaign.
Yet there is no doubt that some of the tactics deployed by the disinformation campaign, to be distinguished from responsible skepticism that should be encouraged, constitute some kind of malfeasance, transgression, villainy, or wrongdoing. To understand the full moral abhorrence of the disinformation campaign, a complete description of the tactics employed by the disinformation campaign is necessary and how the moral abhorrence of these tactics can be distinguished from the reasonable exercise of free speech, the right of individuals to express opinions, and the benefits to society from skeptical inquiry. Ethicsandclimate.org reviewed these issues in four articles and three videos. These prior articles explained what is meant by the disinformation campaign, distinguished the tactics of the campaign from responsible scientific skepticism which should be encouraged, and described how the disinformation campaign was funded and organized.
This video explains how destructive the disinformation campaign has been in preventing or delaying government action to reduce the threat of climate change.
In summary, at least some of the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign are some new kind of assault on humanity which could be dealt with under expanded legal theories about crimes against humanity, civil tort, or human rights.
The philosopher Hans Jonas argued that the potential of new technologies to create great good and great harm creates the need to establish new social norms about how to deal with scientific uncertainty. Following Jonas’ logic, the enormity of potential harms from a problem like climate change creates the need to establish new norms about the need to be extraordinarily careful about claims that there is no danger threatened by certain human activities. We have examined in the last of the four articles above, what these new norms might look like given the need to encourage responsible skepticism yet assure that assertions that there is no danger are made responsibly. Because the climate change disinformation campaign deployed tactics that were designed to undermine the scientific basis that supported taking policy action to reduce the threat of climate change and in so doing used tactics that are ethically abhorrent, the climate change disinformation campaign should be used to develop new legal and moral norms about the need to be responsible when discussing very dangerous human activities. Just as it would be morally abhorrent for someone to tell a girl who is lying on a railroad track that she can continue to lie there because no train is coming when that person did not have reliable knowledge that no train was coming while having an economic interest in the girl staying on the track, so it is deeply ethically troublesome for those engaged in the disinformation campaign to tell the US people that there is no evidence that fossil fuels are causing climate change without subjecting their claims to the rigor of peer-review.
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.
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 phony 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 and 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.
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.
Beder, Sharon. 1999. “Corporate Hijacking of the Greenhouse Debate.” The Ecologist 29 (March/April):119-122.
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,
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Dunlap, Riley E. and Aaron M. McCright. 2008. “A Widening Gap: Republican and Democratic Views on Climate Change.” Environment 50 (September/October):26-35.
Dunlap, Riley E. and Aaron M. McCright. 2010. “Climate Change Denial: Sources, Actors and
Strategies.” Pp. 240-259 in Constance Lever-Tracy (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Climate Change and Society. London: Routledge.
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.
Oreskes, Naomi, Erik M. Conway, and Matthew Shindell. 2008. “From Chicken Little to Dr. Pangloss: William Nierenberg, Global Warming, and the Social Deconstruction of Scientific Knowledge.” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 38: 109-52.
Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. Conway. 2010. “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming” New York: Bloomsbury Press.
Pooley, E., 2010, “Climate War, True Believers, Power Broakers and The Fight to Save the Earth,” Hyperion,
Powell, James Lawrence. 2011. “The Inquisition of Climate Science”. New York: Columbia University Press.
Washington, Haydn and John Cook. 2011. “Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand”. London: Earthscan.
Weart, Spencer. 2011. “Global Warming: How Skepticism Became Denial.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 67 (1):41-50.
This is the sixth in a series of articles that examines tragic communications failures of the US media about climate change. In this series we examine how the American media has utterly failed to communicate to US citizens about five essential aspects of climate change that need to be understood to know why climate change is a civilization-challenging problem that requires dramatic, aggressive, and urgent policy action to avoid harsh impacts to hundreds of millions of people around the world. EthicsandClimate.org has developed a video that summarizes these failures: Five Grave Communication Failures of US Media on Climate Change that can be found at: http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2012/10/15/five-grave-communications-failures-of-the-us-media-on-climate-change/
II. The US Media Failure to Educate American Citizens About The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign
For over 30 years, there has been a debate about climate change that most Americans are at least dimly aware of. In this debate, sometimes those opposed to action on climate change are characterized as climate “skeptics.” Skepticism is the oxygen and catalyst of science and should be encouraged. Yet most Americans are completely unaware that a well-financed, well-organized climate change disinformation campaign has been operating for over two decades that has used tactics which cannot be classified as responsible skepticism. In fact, this campaign has been engaged in tactics that are deeply ethically abhorrent. To the extent that the US mainstream press has covered this controversy, it has reported on disputes between mainstream climate scientists and scientific skeptics and in so doing ignoring the ethically abhorrent tactics of the disinformation campaign discussed in this article and at the same time giving opposition to climate change policy legitimacy that the disinformation campaign does not deserve because its tactics cannot be understood as responsible skepticism. Also, as we have described in considerable detail in a prior entry, the mainstream press has utterly failed to cover the strength of the climate change scientific consensus position on climate change.
This disinformation campaign has largely been responsible that the United States failure to enact comprehensive climate change policies. Given the enormity, harshness, and destructiveness of climate change impacts, the duties that high-emitting countries like the United States have to not harm hundreds of millions of people around the world who are vulnerable to climate change, and the fact that the world has now lost several decades in finding a solution to climate change at a time when the world may be running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change, the failure of the US media to report on the nature of this campaign to the American people is a grave, tragic, and profound failure.
There is a growing peer-reviewed sociological literature on the disinformation campaign which describes this phenomenon as a counter-movement. (See, for example, McCright and Dunlap 2000: 559) A counter-movement is a social movement that has formed in reaction to another movement. (McCright and Dunlap 2000: 504.) The climate change disinformation campaign can be understood to be a continuation of the counter-movements that arose among US political conservatives in reaction to the environmental, civil rights, women’s rights, and anti-war movements that arose in the 1960′s in the United States. And so, the climate change disinformation campaign’s methods and processes can be understood to be an extension of strategies that had already been developed among some, although not all, conservatives to counter the environmental movement that had developed in the late 1960s and 1970s around other environmental issues such as air and water pollution, safe disposal of waste and toxic substances, and protection of wetlands and endangered species.
Yet the emergence of global warming as an issue in the 1980s with its potential for large-scale social change needed to ameliorate its threat was seen as more threatening to conservatives in regard to industry, prosperity, life-style, and the entire American-way of life, than were traditional pollution problems. (McCright and Dunlap 2000: 503) In other words, climate change directly threatened the central values of the US conservative movement even more than other environmental problems. (McCright and Dunlap 2000: 505) As a result climate change has become the key environmental focus of the US conservative movement.
In addition there have been some American industries whose welfare depends upon fossil fuel use have also participated in the disinformation campaign by funding this effort. The climate change disinformation movement can be understood to be comprised of many organizations and participants including conservative think tanks, front groups, Astroturf groups, conservative media, and individuals. This disinformation campaign frequently has used certain tactics to convince people and politicians that the science supporting climate change policies is flawed. The central claims of the climate change disinformation movement have been:
• There is no warming.
• Its not caused by humans.
• Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will cause more harm than good.
(McCright and Dunlap 2010: 111)
To support these claims, the climate denial machine frequently has made claims that: (a) mainstream climate scientists are corrupt or liars, (b) descriptions of adverse climate change impacts are made by “alarmists,” (c) scientific journals that publish climate related research are biased against skeptics, and (d) mainstream climate science is “junk” science. The climate change disinformation machine also has made frequent ad hominem attacks on those who produce climate change science and sometimes has cyber-bullied both climate scientists and journalists. In summary, the climate change disinformation campaign has engaged in these tactics and others identified in this paper that may not be classified as responsible skepticism, yet the US media has covered this campaign as if it was the output of reasonable scientific skepticism.
The climate change disinformation campaign began in the 1980s when some of the same scientists and organizations that fought government regulation of tobacco began to apply the tactics perfected in their war on the regulation of tobacco to climate change. (Oreskes and Conway 2010:169-215). According to Pooley the disinformation campaign began “spinning around 1988 in response to the increasingly outspoken scientific community…” (Pooley 2010: 39) For almost 25 years this campaign has been waged to undermine support for regulation of greenhouse gases.
To say that the campaign has been “waged” is not to claim that it has been a tightly organized, completely coordinated effort by a few groups or individuals or that all participants have the same motives. In fact different participants may have radically different motives including the fact that some may be sincere, some appear to be motivated by protecting free markets without government intervention, and many appear to believe that no restriction on fossil fuel use can be justified without very high levels of proof of harms. Yet, these different participants, according to Newsweek, since the 1990s for the most part have acted in a well-coordinated campaign among contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks, and industry to create a fog of doubt around climate change. (Begley 2007) They have accomplished this through the production of advertisements, op-eds, lobbying, books, media attention, and quotations from skeptical scientists often associated with conservative think tanks. They have argued first that the world is not warming, measurements that indicate otherwise are flawed, any warming is natural, that is not caused by human activities, and if warming does occur it will be miniscule and harmless. (Begley 2007)
Different groups created this counter-movement often acting independently of each other, yet connected through the internet to create a denial machine that has effectively responded to any public pronouncement by scientists or journalists that have asserted that human-induced climate change is a serious problem. (Begley 2007) Conservative activists wrote hundreds of documents (including policy briefs, books, press releases, and op-eds), held numerous policy forums and press conferences, appeared regularly on television and radio programs, and testified at congressional hearings on global warming. (Dunlap and McCright 2008)
As a result of the internet communication between participants in this campaign, charges by one of the participants have been quickly transmitted to others creating an echo chamber of counter-claims made in opposition to the mainstream scientific view of climate change.
The disinformation campaign’s most important participants have been conservative think tanks according to the sociological literature. (Jaques et al 2008) As we shall see, these think tanks developed the ideas, communications and media strategies, literature and press releases that have been widely deployed in rhetorical strategies to defend conservative interests by creating doubt about mainstream climate change scientific claims.
Initially most of the funding for this disinformation campaign came from fossil fuel interests and corporations whose products produce high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. On October 21, 2010, John Broder of the New York Times reported that:
“the fossil fuel industries have for decades waged a concerted campaign to raise doubts about the science of global warming and to undermine policies devised to address it.” (Broder 2010)
According to Broder, the fossil fuel industry has:
“created and lavishly financed institutes to produce anti-global-warming studies, paid for rallies and Web sites to question the science, and generated scores of economic analyses that purport to show that policies to reduce emissions of climate-altering gases will have a devastating effect on jobs and the overall economy.” (Broder 2010)
Not surprisingly, the fossil fuel industry funded many of the initial efforts to prevent adoption of climate change policies. Both individual corporations such as ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal, as well as industry associations such as American Petroleum Institute, Western Fuels Associations, and Edison Electric Institute provided funding for individual contrarian scientists, conservative think tanks active in climate change denial, and a host of front groups that we will discuss below. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:148)
Although the initial funding in the campaign may have come from certain corporations, McCright and Dunlap argue that recently conservative, free-market, and anti-regulatory ideology and organizations have been the main forces fueling the denial machine first and foremost. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:144)
According to Dunlap and McCright the glue that holds the elements of the climate disinformation campaign together is a shared hatred for government regulation of private industry. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:144) And so, a staunch commitment to free markets and a disdain for government regulation are the ideas that most unite the climate denial community. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:144)
The mainstream conservative movement, embodied in conservative foundations and think tanks, quickly joined forces with the fossil fuel industry (which recognized very early the threat posed by recognition of global warming and the role of carbon emissions) and wider sectors of corporate America to oppose the threat of global warming, not as an ecological problem, but as a problem for unbridled economic growth. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:144) And so the disinformation campaign has been a movement that has been waged both by conservative organizations and some corporations.
To use the word “campaign” is not meant to connote an organized conspiracy led by one or a few entities who coordinate all actors, but rather a social movement that creates widespread, predictable, and strong opposition to climate change policy and that consistently uses scientific uncertainty arguments as the basis of its opposition. This movement is a campaign in the sense that it is a systematic response of aggressive actions to defeat proposals to limit greenhouse gas emissions even though no one organization is coordinating all other organizations or individuals that participate in responses. And although some of the actors may be sincere, the tactics discussed in this article are, as we shall see, ethically reprehensible.
Those engaged in this disinformation campaign can be distinguished from responsible climate skeptics because the climate change denial campaign is a collective social movement run by professional advocacy working to discredit climate change.” (Hoffman 2011: 5) As such, this movement is not engaged in reasonable scientific skepticism but advocacy that stresses scientific uncertainty. In fact McCright and Dunlap summarize the disinformation machine as having been engaged on misrepresenting, manipulating, and suppressing climate change research results. (McCright and Dunlap 2010: 111)
Although almost all of the disinformation campaign led opposition to climate change policies has been on the basis of inadequate scientific grounding for action, scientific arguments are usually coupled with economic arguments such as claims that climate change policies will destroy jobs, hurt specific industries, lower GDP, or are not justified by cost-benefit analysis.
Although these economic arguments often have their own ethical problems, a series on Ethicsandclimate.org has examined in considerable detail the ethical problems with tactics used by the disinformation campaign that rely on scientific uncertainty arguments.
The original organizations that sought to undermine public support on climate policies by exaggerating scientific uncertainty have expanded to include ideological think tanks, front groups, Astroturf groups (i.e. groups organized by industry that pretend to be a legitimate grassroots organization), and PR firm-led campaigns. (Oreskes and Conway 2010:169-215)
The tactics deployed by this campaign are now all well documented in the books and peer-reviewed sociological literature identified in the Appendix to this article. The tactics used by the climate change disinformation campaign have included the following ethically abhorrent tactics:
Lying or reckless disregard for the truth
Cherry picking the science
Cyber-bullying and ad hominem attacks on scientists and journalists
Manufacturing bogus, non-peer-reviewed science in fake conferences and publications
The use of ideological think tanks
The use of front groups that hide the real parties in interest
The use of fake grass-roots organizations known as Astroturf groups
Specious claims about “bad science” that are based upon the dubious assumption that no conclusions in science can be made until everything is proven with high levels of certainty.
EthicsandClimate.org has described this in a four part paper series and a three part video series that has demonstrated that these tactics are ethically abhorrent.
Although the mainstream US media has sometimes but infrequently covered the disinformation campaign, missing from their coverage has been:
(a) A stronger sense of the strength of the consensus view on climate change, (every academy of science in the world supports the consensus view, over a hundred scientific organizations whose members have relevant scientific expertise support the consensus view, much of the science that should have been the basis for US action on climate change was settled 150 years ago, and there are clear qualitative differences between peer-reviewed science and the manufactured, non-peer reviewed science usually relied upon by the disinformation campaign),
(b) A description of the tactics of the disinformation campaign which cannot be understood as responsible skepticism, such as: (1) making claims that not only have not been peer-reviewed but are at odds with well-settled science, (2) cherry picking the science, (3) treating one study as undermining the entire body of climate science even though the issue in contention is not consequential in regard to the major mainstream scientific conclusions, (4) cyber-bullying scientists and journalists that publish statements that climate change is a significant threat, (5) making completely false claims that are either lies or reckless disregard for the truth such as the claim that the entire scientific basis for action is a hoax when every academy of science supports the consensus view, and (6) the use of front groups and Astroturf groups that hide the real parties in interest behind the disinformation campaign, namely fossil fuel companies and free-market fundamentalist foundations.
(c) The fact that it already too late to prevent climate-change caused grave suffering for some people in some parts of the world and that the world has lost over twenty years during which action could have been taken to reduce the now enormous threat,
(d) The fact that hundreds of millions of people around the world who are most vulnerable to climate change’s worst threats have never consented to be put at risk while the United States waits for absolute certainty.
(e) The fact that for each year the United States has waited to take action, the problem has become worse.
Given what is at stake from climate change, the failure of the US media to cover the disinformation campaign is a tragic, profound, and grave error. The mainstream US media has not only failed to cover this campaign, it has treated it as if it was reasonable scientific skepticism giving it a legitimacy that has increased its influence.
Boycoff, J. and M. Boycoff (2004) Journalistic Balance as Global Warming Bias
Creating Controversy Where Science Finds Consensus Fair, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1978
Dunlap, Riley E. and Aaron M. McCright (2008) A Widening Gap: Republican and Democratic Views on Climate Change. Environment 50 (September/October):26-35.
Dunlap, Riley E. and Aaron M. McCright (2010) Climate Change Denial: Sources, Actors and Strategies Pp. 240-259 in Constance Lever-Tracy (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Climate Change and Society London: Routledge.
Hoffman, Andrew J. (2011) Talking Past Each Other? Cultural Framing of Skeptical and Convinced Logics in the Climate Change Debate, Organization & Environment 24:3-33.
Jacques, Peter, Riley E. Dunlap, and Mark Freeman (2008) The Organization of Denial: Conservative Think Tanks and Environmental Skepticism, Environmental Politics 17:349-385.
McCright, Aaron M. and Riley E. Dunlap (2000) Challenging Global Warming as a Social Problem: An Analysis of the Conservative Movement’s Counter-Claims, Social Problems 47:499-522.
McCright, Aaron M. and Riley E. Dunlap (2010) Anti-Reflexivity: The American Conservative Movement’s Success in Undermining Climate Science and Policy, Theory, Culture and Society 26:100-133.
Oreskes, Naiomi and Erik Conway (2010) Merchants of Doubt, How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth On Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Bloosmbury Press, New York.
Pooley, E. (2010) Climate Wars, True Believers, Power Broakers and The Fight to Save the Earth, Hyperion, New York
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:
The US media has utterly failed to communicate to the American people about five essential aspects of climate change that they need to understand to know why climate change is a civilization challenging problem that requires dramatic, aggressive, and urgent policy action to avoid harsh impacts to hundreds of millions of people around the world. EthicsandClimate.org has recently developed a video on these failures entitled: Five Grave Communication Failures of US Media On Climate Change
We now provide a more detailed written description of these failures in this and subsequent posts. In this post we look at the first of these communications failures, namely the failure to communicate to US citizens the strength and nature of the current scientific consensus position on climate change.
Subsequent posts will examine the following additional communication failures of the US media:
The magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions reductions that are necessary to prevent dangerous climate change.
The consistent barrier that the United States has been in finding a global solution on climate change for over 20 years.
The fact that climate change must be understood as a civilization challenging ethical problem, an understanding that is of profound significance for climate change policy formation.
The nature of the climate change disinformation campaign in the United States.
II. The Strength And Nature Of The Current Scientific Consensus Position On Climate Change.
Most US citizens are aware that there has been an ongoing debate about the science of climate change, yet most American are completely unaware of the strength of the “consensus” position on climate change.
The consensus position is understood to be that which has been articulated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC was established by the 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, and to identify its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation. (IPCC, 2010) The 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) The consensus position is not the consensus on all scientific issues entailed by climate change. Yet, the consensus position has the following elements:
The planet is warming
The observable warming is very likely mostly caused by human activities
Under business as unusual human-induced warming will likely range from 2 to 5 degrees C (although it could be greater). This warming will harm some people more than others from rising seas, increased droughts and floods, increased storms, increased vector-borne disease, deaths from heat waves, reducing food productivity, and diminished availability to water.
To stabilize GHG in the atmosphere will require huge reductions from business as usual.
There are several strong reasons why the “consensus” view is entitled to respect including the following:
One, 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 the 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)
Two, 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)
Three, 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):
Among the academies of sciences around the world that have issued reports supporting the consensus view is the United States Academy of Sciences that has issued four reports.
From this it can be seen that the consensus view articulated by the IPCC is strongly supported by: (1) the vast majority of climate change scientists that actually do research on human-induced climate change (2) the most prestigious scientific organizations comprised of scientists with relevant climate change expertise, and (3) academies of sciences around the world, the very institutions that have been created to advise governments on complex scientific issues. 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 the 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 the 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.
And so, the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world support the consensus view on climate change. Yet. the United States media has almost always failed to communicate this fact when discussing controversies about climate change science. Although the US media has from time to time acknowledged that most climate scientists support the consensus view, they have almost always failed to describe strength of the consensus view that becomes apparent when one understands the magnitude of support for the consensus view by the most prestigious scientific organizations end researchers described above.
Given the enormity and harshness of impacts to hundreds of millions of people around the world from climate change coupled with the fact that United States has a special responsibility for the civilization challenging problem because of the comparatively large levels of the emissions coming from America, the failure of the US media to describe strength the scientific consensus on change is a grave and tragic error.
Agrarwala, Shardul and Stiener Anderson, 1999, Indispensability and Indefensibility?: The United States In Climate Treaty Negotiations. ” 2w Governance 5, December 1999).
Rahmstorf, 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)
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.”