The bad news, and the good

By Bryan Walker 12/06/2010

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have an interesting article in Yale Environment developing ideas from their book Merchants of Doubt. Some of it summarises the findings of the book concerning the organised campaigns of denial of science, but there are some new expressions of anxiety which are deserving of notice.

They draw attention to the fostering of a public image of climate science as a criminal conspiracy by a group called Cooler Heads Coalition, a creation of the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). The CEI itself has accused NASA, the largest funder of climate science, of faking important climate data sets. And earlier this year Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, whose positions are frequently cited and promoted by CEI, called for a criminal investigation of 17 climate scientists from a variety of institutions for allegedly falsifying or distorting data used in taxpayer-funded research.
The shift in the community of global warming deniers from merely attacking mainstream climate scientists to alleging their involvement in criminal activity Oreskes and Conway describe as ’an unsurprising but alarming development’ in the continuing campaign to discredit the science.

They admit to having often felt demoralized as they researched their book by the efficacy of doubt-mongering tactics over a range of issues, and depressed that the American public had been repeatedly fooled by the same strategy and tactics. But they allowed themselves some cautious optimism for climate change because disputes over other issues – tobacco smoking, acid rain, second-hand smoke, and the ozone hole – ended with the scientific evidence prevailing, and with regulation that (however delayed or weakened) addressed the problem.

It has appeared in recent years that the science of global warming was also on the way to prevailing. They note, for example, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger saying in 2005: ’The debate is over. We know the science. We see the threat posed by changes in our climate.’

However, they express anxiety that progress may now have been reversed, pointing to the stepped-up effort on a broad front in recent months to belittle the overwhelming evidence of human-caused global warming. This has intensified as the US Senate prepared to consider climate and energy legislation. The overriding goal is to sow doubt in the public’s mind and head off government regulation.

They see evidence that the contrarian campaign is enjoying significant success, with many Americans accepting the deniers’ allegations as true, or at least being confused by them. The undermining of science has eroded public support for the decisive action needed to avoid the worst effects of global warming. They cite recent polls showing that more than half of Americans are not particularly worried about the issue and that fully 40 percent believe there is major disagreement among scientists about whether climate change is even occurring.

Oreskes’ and Conway’s pessimism about the poll findings may prove to be undue if a recently conducted poll commissioned by Stanford University presents a clearer picture of public opinion. Jon Krosnick, a Stanford professor, offers his interpretation in the New York Times, which is that when simple and direct questions are asked, polls reveal huge majorities of Americans still believe the earth has been gradually warming as the result of human activity and want the government to institute regulations to stop it. When respondents to the Stanford poll were asked if they thought that the earth’s temperature probably had been heating up over the last 100 years, 74 percent answered affirmatively. And 75 percent of respondents said that human behavior was substantially responsible for any warming that has occurred.

Perhaps the denialist campaign is having less success in the US than Oreskes and Conway fear. Their own thorough exposure of its unprincipled tactics can only help ensure its ultimate defeat.