Global warming skepticism is fueled by public relations, author says

In the book 'Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming,' James Hoggan says the campaign to create skepticism about climate change is 'by far and away the biggest public relations campaign that I've ever seen.'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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There's a new book on the public relations aspect of human-induced climate change that's well worth the read. It's called "Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming."

Author James Hoggan, cofounder of the DeSmogBlog.com, has been in the public relations business since 1972. His experience gives him a unique perspective on what he labeled, in a phone conversation, "by far and away the biggest public relations campaign that I've ever seen."

In 17 chapters, he details the campaign's methods and techniques, from astroturfing and media manipulation to "swift boat"-like campaigns to discredit scientists. And he tells the story with a PR professional's understanding of how to steer — or hijack, as the case may be — a conversation.

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Mr. Hoggan also shores up his assertions with facts. He traces the money trails connecting various individuals and organizations with fossil fuel interests. And he provides resources for laypeople to continue their own fact-checking.

Want to know which "think tanks" Exxon, the world's largest corporation, is funding, and how certain frequently-quoted climate skeptics are affiliated with them? Take a look at exxonsecrets.org, a database of these relationships maintained by Greenpeace.

Care to know which politicians oil and gas interests are contributing to? Browse opensecrets.org, a record kept by the Center for Responsive Politics.

The campaign Hoggan describes has been remarkably successful at sowing doubt and confusion on an issue about which, scientifically speaking, there is next to none. Even as scientists have become ever more certain of humanity's impact on the climate, the public's confusion over climate change — what to do about it and whether we should do anything at all — has only grown more acute.

Indeed, If the issue of climate weren't so important, the campaign's success might be studied in PR classes everywhere as a shining example of a well-planned, well-executed — and, at two decades long, sustained public relations campaign.

Unfortunately, climate change is among the greatest challenges humankind has ever faced, and arguably the greatest challenge. As such, Hoggan's account is chilling.

The good news is, despite the huge amount of disinformation echoing throughout cyberspace — and despite the fact that very little was actually achieved at COP15 — the world did meet in Copenhagen this month. Despite much confusion on the issue among laypeople, world leaders are taking climate change seriously, says Hoggan.

And yet, in democracies where leaders are subject to a vote, the public's understanding of an issue does matter.

On that front, Hoggan offers some sound advice on how to approach the various claims on the issue of human-induced climate change. He urges that journalists and laypeople alike ensure that "experts" are actually experts. See what, if anything, they've published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, and on what topics. Check where they get their funding.

Also, remember that true scientific debates happen in peer-reviewed scientific journals, not on blogs or even, necessarily, newspapers. That's where scientists discuss science in a meaningful way.

And finally, fact-check everything including, Hoggan urges, his book.

Hoggan tells one story that's especially pertinent given the kerfuffle around Climategate. Much has been made of the attempts to quash dissent that those hacked e-mails purportedly reveal. In one, Penn State scientist Michael Mann writes: "Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal."

Hoggan, who was writing his book before the stolen e-mails came to light, tells the story behind the study in question, which was published in 2003. It was titled "Proxy Climatic and Environmental Changes of the Past 1000 years" and it concluded that recent climate change was no different than climate change in the past. It sparked an uproar in the climate science community, including among some editors at the journal Climate Research, where it was published. Three resigned in protest over the study's publication. (See this essay on the resignations at Scientists for Global Responsibility.)

Scientists whose work was cited in the study, meanwhile, reaffirmed elsewhere that they think recent climate change is real, that it's unusual, and that it's due to human activity. Here's an American Geophysical Union press release to that effect l. It names 13 scientists who took issue with how the Climate Research article interpreted their work.

Finally, Otto Kinne, the publisher of Climate Research, issued a statement [PDF]. He conceded that, with regards to this article, the process of quality control had failed: "CR [Climate Research] should have been more careful and insisted on solid evidence and cautious formulations before publication," he wrote.

Hoggan's telling of this story reminds us that "Climategate" increasingly seems an inaccurate moniker. What, exactly, was the scandal that deserves the "-gate" suffix? Besides a few unfortunate word choices by scientists in private e-mails, not much. Here's a recent AP story to that effect.

The only real malicious intent seems to be the hacking itself. And Hoggan's book reminds us to ask: Who pilfered the e-mails, and with what goal in mind?

Hoggan reserves some blame for the media. In pursuit of "fairness" and "balance," they quoted people who were not really experts in the field. In doing so, they inadvertently perpetuated and amplified the impression that there was a debate over human-induced climate change in scientific circles. (There isn't.)

Budget cuts and staff reductions across the media landscape didn't help. In essence, he argues, the media — like the public — were bamboozled by a sophisticated public relations campaign.

On Monday, we'll continue this topic with a Q and A session with author James Hoggan. Click here to read it.

Editor’s note: The Monitor's Environment section has a new URL. And there's a new URL for its Bright Green blog. We hope you'll bookmark these and visit often.

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