Why some Americans remain skeptical about climate change

Two new analyses examine 'how a culture of misinformation' can be spread within the American public, according to their author.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Kyana Pinto-Desbrosses, 7, accompanied by her mother, joins a rally outside the White House in Washington, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015, in support of the climate talks in Paris. Government and business leaders are banking on clean energy technology to fight global warming, kicking off this week's high-stakes climate change negotiations by pledging tens of billions of dollars for research and development.

A network of conservative donors and interest groups in the US form an intricate ecosystem effective at converting dollars to public doubts about global warming.

That is the broad conclusion from an exhaustive analysis of 20 years' worth of IRS documents, as well as speeches, blog posts, books, and position papers from politicians, conservative think tanks, and trade groups.

The analysis spans two research papers, the latest of which was published Monday in Nature Climate Change. It follows a study published Nov. 23 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that in effect set the table for the latest study.

Taken together, the analyses by Yale University sociologist Justin Farrell, does the best job yet of connecting the dots along the paths from donation to representation of contrarian viewpoints by politicians and in the media, from whom people take many of their cues on policy, says Robert Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Monday's study fills what Dr. Brulle calls a key gap in the sequence of steps that leads from donations to the appearance of climate-contrarian
language in the media, where most people get their climate information. It suggests that the message donors are paying for increasingly has worked its way into the media, where the public gets most of its information on climate change.

This follows work Dr. Farrell published Nov. 23 that identifies the links within the network, highlights several themes contrarians have included in their material, and explores the impact funding has on the emphasis those themes receive.

Over the past decade, other peer-reviewed studies, as well as books, have been written about efforts by key players in the fossil-fuel industry and among conservative groups to sow doubt among politicians and the public about the need to curtail the greenhouse-gas emissions that are driving global warming.

It's not a question of winning over a majority of Americans, notes Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications and a collaborator on a project with researchers at George Mason University in Virginia that tracks public opinion on climate-change issues.

Contrarians “just need to be strong enough to say no” to major policy decisions aimed at curbing global warming, he says.

The broader issue remains, however – “how a culture of misinformation can be spread so effectively within the American public,” writes Farrell in an e-mail.

In trying to help answer that question, the new work “adds a level of detail and integration that we did not previously have,” adds Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard University and co-author of the book, “Merchants of Doubt,” in an e-mail.

Farrell opted to treat climate contrarians as a social movement and searched for the links between all of the key players to gauge their relative influence with politicians and the media.

Initial outlines of the network have appeared in previous studies. Two years ago, for example, Dr. Brulle's research identified 140 foundations that between 2003 and 2010 collectively contributed nearly $560 million to 91 conservative organizations focused either exclusively or in part on casting doubt on climate change and the need for action to counter it.

Farrell identified another 73 groups, expanding the sample to 164. To represent the donor community, he focused on ExxonMobile and the Koch Family Foundations. Previous studies had identified these two organizations as among the most influential.

In addition, he used computer-based text analysis to hunt for common themes among nearly 41,000 documents or speeches the network produced during the 20-year period.

The first part of the analysis, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focused on the donors and the organizations they fund.

Not all contrarian groups in the sample received money from ExxonMobil or the Koch Family Foundations, the study noted. Those that did, however, were more likely than the received-nots among contrarian groups to write and publish documents aimed at polarizing public views on climate change.

Prior to this analysis, “we didn't know that there was a difference between these two groups,” Brulle says. “We knew there were variations among groups, but we hadn't tied that to their funding.”

Perhaps more important, the money was a signal of the recipients' places nearest the center of the contrarian network. That's where the money goes because “they are better organized and better connected, which leads to more influence,” Farrell notes.

In addition, Farrell's data hint at the influence corporate and foundation money may have on the themes that recipients emphasize. By 2013, for example, funded groups were placing a higher focus on criticizing scientists' analysis of global temperature than groups that had not received funding. That marked a reversal from what had been the norm during the past 20 years, and the change took place over the past eight years, data show.

The shift loosely tracks the rise of the so-called hiatus or pause in global warming as an issue. The notion of a pause didn't come from the scientific literature, where researchers are interested in trends over century time scales, notes Drexel's Brulle.

Instead, “it was a climate disinformation meme” he says, one that the media amplified. It sent scientists scrambling to explain it, even though the decade in question not only was the warmest on record, it hosted several of the warmest years on record – later to be topped by 2014 and now expected to be topped by 2015.

The second of Farrell's two studies takes the initial analysis an extra step by exploring the potential connections between the material contrarian groups funded by elite donors publish and similarities in the climate concepts appearing in the media – dubbed semantic similarity.

The media information comes from articles published in The New York Times, USA Today, and the Washington Times. He also tracks the language similarities with presidential speeches and speeches from the floor of Congress.

Over the past 20 years, the semantic similarity between climate contrarian groups and these high-profile public outlets has increased across the board, he finds. Although the steepest increase occurred in the media, the research doesn't distinguish between news and opinion pieces, and does not include the context of the broader article in which the terms appeared. That was followed by a less pronounced increase in presidential speeches. The smallest increase in similarity appears in congressional speeches.

“Contrarian language began to filter in to what news media were writing,” Farrell explains. “Over time, the language in the media began to reflect this language.”

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