Monday, January 11, 2010

Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming / James Hoggan with Richard Littlemore -- Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2009

Two discussions are taking place regarding climate change: one among scientists and another among policy makers. The former is well-advanced and making progress daily. The latter seems mostly mired in conflict and confusion. James Hoggan's book Climate Cover-Up sheds light on why there is such a lack of progress in the policy discussion -- why there has been little progress toward adopting sensible public policies regarding climate change. With the perspective of a public relations professional with decades of experience, Hoggan identifies and describes several sophisticated public relations campaigns designed to block needed mitigation policies and stall the policy debate.

The great majority of climate scientists accept the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This should come as no surprise, since the mandate of the IPCC is to review and report on the conclusions drawn by the great majority of climate scientists. It is, of course, possible that the IPCC misunderstands -- and so is misreporting -- the state of knowledge among climate scientists, but the breadth and detail of the IPCC's review of the literature makes this unlikely.

Certainly, there is no comparable study that suggests something different from the IPCC's reports. Indeed, the only other literature review of this kind, conducted by Naomi Oreskes and published in Science (2004), confirms the IPCC's summation of the views of climate scientists. Broadly speaking, the scientific conclusions are that the planet is warming quickly, that greenhouse gases produced by human activity are the primary cause of this warming, and that we will face serious problems if we do not significantly reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that we are pouring into the atmosphere.

In the face of this, governments around the world have done little. Some have made promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but the promises of the most important emitters (the U.S. and China) are not legally binding ones. China's motives are easily understood: industrial development holds the promise of reducing the dire poverty of its citizens, but a more nuanced explanation is needed to account for the reluctance of the U.S. This is where Hoggan's Climate Cover-Up makes a valuable contribution. Hoggan explores the various public relations campaigns designed to confuse the issue and convince the lay public that doubt remains within the scientific community. With public confusion as a backdrop, lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry have been able to block needed governmental actions.

Hoggan's book is packed with revealing accounts of how lawyers, public relations professionals, writers, and libertarian think tank fellows have enlarged minor points of uncertainty, distorted the statements of scientists, and at times, propagated outright falsehoods about the climate. Their goal has not been to refute the scientific research, but to delay the day when the public widely accepts these conclusions and demands governmental action.

One early PR campaign was launched by the Western Fuels Association, a creation of the coal industry, using half a million dollars "to reposition global warming as theory (not fact)." This was done by testing and using advertising slogans selected for their persuasive effectiveness, not their scientific accuracy.

Another significant PR campaign had its origins in the Public Relations firm APCO Worldwide. Philip Morris hired APCO in the early 1990s to discredit the science connecting cigarettes to cancer. To do this APCO Worldwide created a foundation called The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC). Its stated purpose was to sew doubt among the public that cigarettes cause cancer. To disguise the connection between TASSC and Philip Morris, APCO diversified TASSC by finding other industries that would support TASSC. These included the fossil fuel industry.

But as the effort to protect Philip Morris from medical science became hopeless, APCO began using TASSC to protect the interests of the fossil fuel industry against the emerging conclusions about global warming. The strategy was identical to their effort to save the cigarette industry: convince the public that there is no scientific agreement about climate change and/or that carbon emissions are not responsible for climate change.

A key technique of both the Western Fuels and the APCO campaigns was to amass the names of scientists who they said rejected the conclusions of the IPCC. Hoggan shows how these scientists often were either unqualified to critique the IPCC's reports or were not scientists at all. Frequently, the scientists appearing on these lists were unaware that they had been listed, and when told, they were indignant that their names are being used to advance views that they do not hold.

Hoggan's experience in the public relations industry enables him to reveal the techniques and tactics of many of the most prominent people and groups behind these and other PR campaigns designed to discredit the IPCC and key climate scientists. In Climate Cover-Up Hoggan clearly establishes the connections between the fossil fuels industry and think tanks that support what can only be called a disinformation campaign.

Most critical to the effort is the nexus of mostly libertarian think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Frasier Institute, the Heartland Institute, the George C. Marshall Institute, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Frontiers of Freedom Institute, and the Hoover Institution; but foremost among these is the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

These organization do not employ climate scientists. Instead, they publish and re-publish the public relations materials, thereby creating an "echo chamber" that magnifies and reinforces the confusing message. Their writers serve as "expert sources" for conservative media, like Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, and Canada's National Post and Calgary Herald, along with other smaller market media, and sometimes in more liberal national media.

The careful exploitation of media is critical. The APCO campaign specifically targeted smaller market media outlets, on the assumption that their message would be more readily received and disseminated. While the markets are small, they are numerous, and collectively, they are large enough to sew sufficient doubt in the public mind to delay mitigation policies. Hoggan is particularly disdainful of the credulousness and/or complicity of media outlets, when the evidence for climate change and the poor credentials of the skeptics are so readily available.

Another tactic is to file law suits against anyone criticizing the actions of the spokespersons of the public relations campaign, regardless of the merits of the suit. In such cases, defendants are often unable to afford to defend themselves and agree to retract their criticisms. In this way, the plaintiff can effectively silence their critics without actually refuting the criticism. Hoggan describes three such cases, but cautions the reader that he can not be certain of the motives of the plaintiffs.

None of this is very surprising. It would be surprising, instead, if powerful industries with a large stake in climate change mitigation policies would stand back and allow public policy to be fashioned in a manner that harmed their interests, particularly when they have in-house public relations departments paid to address just such threats to their profitability. That climate science is demonstrating the links between carbon emissions and our rapidly warming climate only means that the fossil fuel industries must confuse the issue as long as possible to protect their interests, just as the tobacco industry did years ago. It's up to us to see through this and to insist upon public policies that will protect us from the economic, social, political, and environmental catastrophes that are unfolding.