Attack of the climate spam?

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    These protesters in Beijing make their opinions on global warming known as they lift a balloon model of Earth. Others get their message out by leaving comments on websites.
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Yesterday, Monitor environment blogger Eoin O'Carroll posted on forgeries by coal industry lobbyists. There's a related phenomenon observable on discussion boards hosted by news organizations across the country. You might call it "climate spam."

As any regular visitor to the environment section of the Monitor website may note, stories about climate change and climate science tend to garner many comments from both sides of the "climate change is" or "isn't happening" spectrum. Some are vituperative, some thoughtful, some informative, some humorous.

And some are, for lack of a better description, strangely aloof. They stand out for not directly addressing the topic at hand.

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Aware of these comments for some time, I've conducted a very informal and hardly scientifically rigorous experiment. I began Googling, between quotation marks, long sentences from these somewhat generic-seeming comments.

Sure enough, I found several instances where the same comments appear verbatim on other news organizations' websites.

One such comment begins:

The root of the climate change problem? We’re letting the United Nations decide what is best for America. And they’re failing us. The premise that CO2 drives global warming is based on United Nations’ climate reports that are tainted by politics and an agenda.

It shows up at news organization websites across the country, including the Orlando Sentinel and The New York Times. The commenter left a link to a website, so I e-mailed to ask what his intent was. Robert Moen's response, by e-mail: "Sometimes I re-use comments, sometimes I write a comment from scratch and sometimes I post a combination of the two.... The purpose of my comments are two-fold:  I try to educate readers directly through the comment process and also drive traffic to my site so people can educate themselves in energy policy."

So sometimes there is a little self-promotion.

Here's another comment that has appeared on the Monitor's site and elsewhere. It starts:

The US government has spent over $79 billion since 1989 on policies related to climate change, including science and technology research, administration, education campaigns, foreign aid, and tax breaks.

It shows up verbatim in too many places to count, and seems to originate on the Science and Public Policy website.  "Proved: There Is No Climate Crisis," reads one of the site's more popular headlines. Again, the poster includes a link to the site, so the comment is not entirely unsourced.

Here's another comment that shows up in several places verbatim, followed by a bulleted list, also verbatim, of "global warming is not happening" talking points:

The main cause of global warming appears to be change in solar activity and change in the earth’s orbit and tilt. Recent reductions in sunspots on the solar surface suggest that we may be entering into a cooling period.

So what to make of any of this? Are these commenters using news organizations' discussion space for free advertising? Or are they simply individuals who are quoting here – and in many other places – an argument they find particularly well-formulated?

Perhaps it's not a single commenter but many — a coincidence. Perhaps many different people across the Web all happened to very much like and quote, verbatim, the same block of text. Or maybe it's one person with a point to make, but who finds it easier to take the copy-and-paste approach.

Impossible to say. And yet, one might reasonably conclude that whatever the motives of these commenters, real discussion between real people — a primary purpose of these comment forums — is not primary among them.

And there's some history here.

It's been fairly well-documented that, when it comes to the public discussion around climate, a strategy of those opposed to action on climate matters has been to inject as much doubt into public discourse as possible.

In a memo leaked in 2003 [PDF], Republican strategist Frank Luntz lays it out — uncertainty as a political tactic:

Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community.... Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate, and defer to scientists and other experts in the field.

He also says: "The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science."

In a box called "words that work" he outlines what's become a central "global warming can't be happening" talking point:

You can't look back a million years and say that proves we're heating the globe now hotter than it's ever been. After all, just 20 years ago scientists were worried about a new Ice Age.

See the Bright Green Blog's post – Were they really predicting an ice age in the 1970s? – on that, by the way.

Mr. Luntz has since said that he thinks humans are probably changing Earth's climate. But the strategies he put forth continue to be employed en force.

The bloggers over at RealClimate – they're also real scientists — call it the "deniosphere." In 2007, Newsweek's Sharon Begley called it the "denial machine."

An academic at Stanford University coined a term to describe the "cultural production of ignorance" — agnatology. And agnatology as a political strategy begins long before the current era of worry over global warming. Big Tobacco quite successfully "agnatologized" during its more than 40 years battling against regulation.

Indeed, Naomi Oreskes of the University of California at San Diego has documented that many of the same scientists involved in the pro-tobacco lobby now argue that global warming isn't happening.

In an essay entitled "Challenging Knowledge: How Climate Science Became a Victim of the Cold War" she writes:

On first glance, it seems just plain weird that several of the same
individuals — all retired physicists — were involved in denying that cancer causes
smoking, that pollution causes acid rain, that CFCs destroy ozone, and that
greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming. But when you put these
things together — tobacco regulation, the banning of CFCs, the delay of controls on
CO2 emissions — then they do add up, summing to a radical free market ideology
that opposes any action restricting the pursuit of market capitalism, no matter the
justification.

Dr. Oreskes herself received some criticism for an article last year in The Times of London in which she incorrectly said that President Ronald Reagan had commissioned a report about global warming from physicist William Nierenberg. (Congress commissioned it.) Here's the correction. And here's a response from Dr. Nierenberg's son.

And that brings us back to the "climate spam" that somehow ends up on discussion boards. Even those arguing that global warming is happening sometimes employ this "copy and paste" tactic — although with less frequency, according to my very informal analysis, than those who argue that global warming isn't occurring.

Below is a comment that shows up on the Monitor's site and – in duplicate, triplicate, and quadruplicate – across cyberspace. The commenter includes a link to this paper [PDF], which contains much of the comment's material verbatim.

The comment begins:

The denialists cannot be reached using logic. The five elements are conspiracy, cherry-picking, fake experts, moving goalposts, and logical fallacies. Whatever the motivation, it is important to recognize denialism when confronted with it. The normal academic response to an opposing argument is to engage with it, testing the strengths and weaknesses of the differing views, in the expectations that the truth will emerge through a process of debate. However, this requires that both parties obey certain ground rules, such as a willingness to look at the evidence as a whole, to reject deliberate distortions and to accept principles of logic.

As always, readers are invited to comment.

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