We all know how difficult it can be to maintain denial of climate change in the face of ever-mounting evidence of global warming. The question is, how does one defend the free market and protect our lifestyle in this era of elitist science and socialist politics? Luckily there are some tried and true techniques for combatting the myth of the climate change apocalypse. Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, outlines many of the tricks of the trade. The most successful methods of climate change skeptics involve generating doubt and manufacturing controversy.
1. Focus on the Uncertainties; Portray Scientists as Divided
One of the most effective strategies, especially for a lay audience, is to focus on the uncertainties in the research on climate change. All scientific work is incomplete – but the average American doesn’t know that (Oreskes and Conway 273). In the second National Academy of Sciences (NAS) assessment of global warming, economist Thomas Schelling argued that policy makers should do nothing except fund more research because too much uncertainty still existed (174). The first NAS review, headed by Jule Charney in 1979, found that ocean mixing would delay the warming effect associated with carbon emissions for several decades, which put a dimple in scientists’ hopes that they could promptly prove that warming was underway (173).
It would take many years for global warming to be proven (and coincidentally, it would be much more difficult to stop it). In the meantime, the fossil fuel and related industries could carry on unimpeded by government. As S.J. Green of British American Tobacco put it, “A demand for scientific proof is always a formula for inaction and delay, and usually the first reaction of the guilty” (273). An appeal for proof looks good to the public and ensures a lengthy postponement of policy decisions. By alleging that the science isn’t settled, one can purport that the scientists are divided on climate change as well. Keeping the controversy alive keeps greenhouse gas-related industries safe from regulation.
2. Organize Delay
We’ve already mentioned one route to delaying action on climate change: Focusing on uncertainties, which favors the status quo (267). A related method of delaying decision-making and action is to request more assessments of the situation. This is what the White House did after the Jasons released their review of the scientific literature on climate change in 1977 (172). President Carter’s science advisor asked for a review of the review to be carried out by the National Academy of Sciences, led by Jule Charney. Shortly thereafter, the White House Office of Science and Technology asked for another assessment from NAS, led by Thomas Schelling (174). In 1980, Congress authorized a third NAS study of carbon dioxide, chaired by Bill Nierenberg (176). While scientists like John Perry had suggested that no more research was needed by the NAS’s Climate Research Board to make their conclusions and recommendations, Nierenberg had been lobbying for more studies. This meant more delays before mitigation plans and regulations could be made.
3. Delegitimize the Science and Scientists
One way to delegitimize studies on climate change is to argue that scientists are being alarmist or exaggerating the evidence. People tend to like this approach because they don’t want to hear scary claims in the first place. By reframing the science as a fabrication or hyperbole, it offers people the means to dismiss the evidence for climate change and regain their feeling of security. The U.S. Department of Energy seemed to be wary of hyperbole from the beginning, and warned the NAS’s Climate Research Board that they “’did not approve of … speculative, alarmist, “wolf-crying” scenarios.’ They simply wanted ‘guidance on the on-going research program.’” (Climate Board meeting notes qtd. in Oreskes and Conway 182).
One can also point to political agendas and personal bias to tarnish scientists’ studies. In 1995, atmospheric scientist Ben Santer wrote the “Attribution of Causes” chapter of the second assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (3). The chapter summarized the evidence that global warming was indeed caused by greenhouse gases. Because the paper implicated humans as the main cause of climate change, it was quickly attacked by skeptics (4). After a review by other leading authors of the IPCC Second Assessment Report, Santer was told to remove summary statements from the end of his chapter to fit the structure of the rest of the paper (205). That left an opportunity for skeptics to accuse Santer of “removing material,” which sounds dubious to those who don’t know what he might have omitted. In a letter published in the Wall Street Journal, cold-war-era physicist S. Fred Singer accused Ben Santer of being “tampered with for political purposes”(4).
Misrepresenting the existing scientific evidence and literature can also be a useful tactic. Singer wrote to Science alleging that the IPCC report ignored satellite data that showed cooling, as well as ignoring its own rules by citing fingerprinting work that hadn’t yet been peer-reviewed (205). He further admonished the IPCC for turning climate change “into a problem, a crisis, or a catastrophe—‘the greatest global challenge facing mankind [sic].’” (Tom Wigley responded to Singer’s letter in a later edition of Science, showing all Singer’s arguments to be false, including his supposed quote from the report.) Similarly, Patrick J. Michaels claimed that Syukuro Manabe’s IPCC climate model didn’t match data from the satellites of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (203). (Manabe’s model only included the impact of carbon dioxide, not other factors like volcanic dust, so of course it can’t be compared to satellite data.)
4. Make Your Own Science or Go Around Science
While delegitimizing existing climate science, one must create the appearance that climate change skeptics’ claims are scientific. We do this by setting up institutes like the George C. Marshall Institute, writing professional-looking reports, and even establishing journals to publish industry’s research in, which can later be cited as an independent source (243). The vast majority of climate change skeptics are not climate scientists, and most are not involved in peer-reviewed research at all, making these smokescreens all the more necessary (269).
We can also go around scientific avenues altogether, straight to the people. Since most skeptics’ papers are reviewed by peers and rejected from scientific journals (elitists!), it’s useful to go outside the scientific realm to push our point. Physicist Frederick Seitz did this when he began the Petition Project, asking for “scientists” who didn’t believe in climate change to sign an online petition (243-44). This became a particularly useful piece of “evidence” to tout when alleging that scientists are divided on the issue.
5. Use the Media to Go Straight to the People
One can rely on journalists’ notions of the Fairness Doctrine to present “both sides” of the issue. To many reporters, “balance” is interpreted “as giving equal weight to both sides, rather than giving accurate weight to both sides” (19). Thanks to the success of the aforementioned tactics, the mainstream media often feel obligated to treat climate change as a scientific controversy (214). A 2004 study on media coverage of global warming from 1988 to 2002 found that 53% of articles gave equal time and space to climate change skeptics, while another 35% presented the correct view of the majority of climate scientists but still gave space to skeptics (215). “Balance” itself has become a sort of bias in favor of the minority – the deniers (242). Thankfully, the media continue to frame climate change as a debate 25 years after the National Academy of Sciences announced that climate change would occur from fossil fuel use (242).
We can also take advantage of the circulation gap, which tends to keep scientists’ opinions within the scientific community. Scientists usually publish their studies, opinions, and critiques solely in peer-reviewed journals, which most laypeople don’t read. Conversely, claims of nonscientists or non-experts on scientific matters often make it into mainstream media. In the case of climate change, unscientific claims have been circulated broadly, but only scientific journals would publish the scientists’ refutations (194). Climate change skeptic Fred Singer co-wrote a paper with Roger Revelle and published it in Cosmos without addressing Revelle’s edits (192). Two of Revelle’s colleagues wrote a letter refuting the paper, but Cosmos wouldn’t publish it (194). Revelle’s grad student Justin Lancaster and his colleague Dave Keeling wrote a letter to the New Republic challenging an article by Gregg Easterbrook on climate change, and it was never published either (195). After Fred Seitz accused Ben Santer of fraud in the Wall Street Journal, Santer wrote a reply signed by 40 of the other IPCC lead authors (208). The Wall Street Journal rejected Santer’s letter twice. On the third try, it was published, but only after being heavily edited and all 40 cosigners’ names deleted. As a skeptic, publishing in mainstream media outlets is an effective way to go straight to the people with your message, without any nosy scientists butting in.
There are, of course, many other techniques for fueling controversy and pushing doubt, but the above handful are the base of any convincing anti-climate change message.