In the book "Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming," authors James Hoggan, co-founder of DeSmogBlog.com, and Richard Littlemore detail an extensive public relations campaign that, they say, aims to sow doubt in the public mind about the science of human-induced climate change.
The goal of this PR campaign: to forestall meaningful action on curbing fossil fuel use, a major contributor to the buildup of heat-trapping gases, and to allow oil and coal companies to continue reaping record profits.
The authors equate the tactics in this "coverup" to those employed by tobacco companies in their four-decade-long fight against regulation. Indeed, as they point out, many of the scientists involved in that campaign are have also lent their voice to the climate skeptic cause.
For instance, one major climate skeptic organization, the Heartland Institute, hosts a "smoker's lounge," billed as "the place to go for sound science, economics, and legal commentary on tobacco issues." The message: smoking is not as bad for you as you've been led to believe. It's been unfairly and unduly demonized by "left-liberal" interests bent on quashing the true libertarian spirit of the nation.
By now, not many Americans buy this argument, even those who smoke. Asked why this message is no longer effective with regards to tobacco, Mr. Hoggan points out that the news that smoking was bad for one's health often came from a trusted and familiar source, the family doctor. Also, he says, a large swath of Americans know someone who's been afflicted with a smoking-related illness. That drives the point home in a very real way.
But while these arguments are touted with decreasing effectiveness in the tobacco arena, they're used with growing effectiveness around the issue of human-induced climate change.
One poll conducted in October by the Pew Research Center found that the percentage of Americans who believe that there's evidence global warming is happening shrank from 71 percent in 2008 to 57 percent this year.
A more recent ABC-Washington Post poll found a slightly smaller, but nonetheless significant drop — from 80 to 72 percent.
One of the more notable aspects is how the belief in human-induced climate change has become a partisan issue. The drop among Republicans and independents is more precipitous than among Democrats. The Pew poll found that 75 percent of Democrats believe in global warming, compared to 83 percent last year. But only 53 percent of independents believe, compared to 75 percent perviously. And just 35 percent of Republicans believe, as opposed to 49 percent last year.
Hoggan argues that these numbers represent a PR coup, a campaign that he says has succeeded in politicizing science. Previous issues, such as worries over ozone depletion from CFCs in the 1980s and '90s, never became partisan. The world addressed the problem in a relatively expedient fashion. Not so with the rising concentrations of heat-trapping gases.
We asked Hoggan why he thought public opinion on climate-related issues has been so easy to manipulate, especially during a period when scientists have become ever more certain that human activity is changing Earth's climate.
Here are his responses, somewhat edited, to this and other questions:
A: We are too easy to manipulate. There are a number of reasons for that. Two of the most important reasons are: the media are quite easy to manipulate; and we also don't take the time to understand many of the issues of the day. People are busy. And people have a lot of problems that they're facing. So I think there's a limited capacity to be worried about issues. I also think that people are kind of warn out by public relations spin. They have become very cynical and mistrustful. There are many people who just see science as another point of view. They don't see it as removed from belief and faith as people more familiar with science would see it. That's a scientific literacy issue.
And once you politicize science to the point that it's partisan, then the meaning of what you're talking about, in this case the science of heat-trapping gases leading to changes in Earth's climate, takes on a complex worldview and emotional commitment that far exceeds just the science. The science turns into a threat to a world view, or to democracy and what the US should stand for. Then it becomes a highly emotionally-charged issue that has nothing to do with science.
Q: Is there an asymmetry between the two camps — scientists trying to inform policymakers and the public about humanity's impact on climate on one side, and the PR campaign you describe arguing that humanity's impact on climate is minimal or nonexistent, and that doing anything to curb fossil fuel is impractical and will destroy the economy on the other?
A: I think the advantage here is in the skeptics' court on a number of fronts. One reason is the enormous amount of money that has gone into doing basic research on framing the issue and messaging. That information gets passed around and amplified. You have a network to create an echo chamber, and you can do it over a couple of decades — especially when you're only trying to sell doubt. You're not trying to get people to change their way of life, or learn more, like environmentalists, who need to think about this issue, and think about options.
I'm inclined as an average person to not have any more to worry about. If there's an easy answer when there's a big problem — in this case, that the science is full of doubt so action isn't warranted — and I've already got a lot on my plate, then I'm inclined to accept the skeptics' message. The situation is suited to people who are up to mischief.
Q: What can people do?
A: The reason we wrote this book is that we feel we understand the public relations behind the campaign and the public's growing confusion on the issue. One of the things that solves the problem of being manipulated is awareness. Deceit loses its power when people become aware of it. So we, as citizens, need to demand more of ourselves, of the media we read, and we need to stop either manipulating public opinion, or being manipulated by it. Creating awareness is the first step.