The Corporately Funded Campaign to Confuse the Public on Global Warming

The Heartland Institute held the 6th International Conference on Climate Change (ICCC) in Washington, D.C. last week.  The official theme of the conference was “restoring the scientific method,” but the message, loud and clear, was that we should not take action to address global warming, regardless of whether it is happening, threatening, neither, or both.  Although the Heartland Institute’s self-declared mission is to “discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems,” the ICCC did not address a social or economic problem at all, but instead denied the existence of one of the world’s largest social, environmental, and economic problems; Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW).

The Heartland Institute and others who deny that the Earth is warming and that human actions are a central cause, often claim that politics are motivating science when it comes to the theory of AGW, instead of the other way around.  The hypocrisy here is that Heartland is an ideological player, free-market economics being the ideology, trying to use science as a tool to advance policy.  The ICCC mixed cheers for small government, scientific skepticism, and free market economics with attacks on the IPCC, the Obama administration and “environmentalists,” most of which were manifestations of ideology, not science.

Those who refute the theory of AGW are often referred to as “skeptics,” and while skepticism and debate are essential in science, “skeptic” becomes a misnomer when one deliberately introduces confusion and doubt for political and ideological reasons.

The Playbook to Thwarting Climate Change

Regardless of what they may be called, their method is threefold.  First, they do whatever they can to refute or cast doubt on the science that supports AGW.  This usually consists of very narrow attacks on specific models and research methods which in turn lead the AGW deniers to broad conclusions about the validity of AGW.  In many ways, this step is simply to cause confusion.

At the ICCC, there were speakers denying that the Earth is warming, followed by speakers who say the Earth is warming but it is not dangerous or significantly affected by human actions.  The idea that global warming is a positive development also played a role.  In fact, in one of its cartoons the Heartland Institute represents such a view with the words “warmer is better.”  The logical contradiction between denying that the Earth is warming and then arguing that the Earth’s warming is a positive development is somehow overlooked.  Any one of these arguments, however, protects industry and supports the ideological agenda of “free industry” without carbon or environmental regulations.

Meanwhile, in many cases the scientific justification for such comprehensive claims was based on narrow, often unsubstantiated objections.  For example, Anthony Watts, a meteorologist and blogger, spoke about a study he conducted about the potential bias of surface stations where surface temperature data is collected.  While this study is interesting and potentially useful, he only discussed the potential bias that he found, not the subsequent peer-reviewed article, already published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, that found that the bias due to poorly sited field stations was not as implied by Watts.  The study used Watts’ classification of well-sited and poorly-cited stations and compared the raw, unadjusted data of the two, and found that the maximum temperatures were actually negatively biased and the minimum temperatures were only slightly positively biased.  However, Watts stood in front of the ICCC and showed pictures of field stations in grassy meadows and in parking lots, and somehow concluded that AGW is a farce.

The next step in the playbook is to attack the credibility of scientists, politicians and environmentalists who believe in the theory of AGW, and to speculate on ulterior motives for such a belief.  There seemed to be a generally held idea at the conference that so-called “environmentalists,” “warmists,” and “climate alarmists,” are part of a worldwide conspiracy with the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to mold public opinion to generate support for more funding for research on AGW.  Looking past the paranoid absurdity of such an unfounded theory, the hypocrisy here is that money is the driving force behind the ICCC and the Heartland Institute.

This brings us to the third and final step in the playbook; funding their own scientists.  It has been well documented that many of the scientists that contribute to Heartland Institute and the ICCC are or have been funded by companies with clear incentives to cast doubt on AGW, such as Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries.  An example of such can be seen in a recent Greenpeace article on Dr. Willie Soon, astrophysicist and speaker at this year’s ICCC.  Meanwhile, it is hard to imagine that scientists across the world have conspired to generate a false theory on the scale of global warming in order to get more funding.  The money is clearly on the side of the fossil fuel industry, consisting of some of the most powerful companies on the planet.  The science, however, overwhelmingly supports AGW.

Some of the scientists at the conference completely dismiss any theory that reflects poorly on fossil fuel use and CO2 production. Dr. Timothy Ball, a former professor of geography at the University of Winnipeg and a speaker at the ICCC, said that “climate agendas” were being used to “demonize CO2.”  He dismissed ocean acidification as the next step used by environmentalists to justify what he, and others, consider to be their real motive, namely population control, now that, according to Dr. Ball, it is becoming clear that AGW is not actually happening.  Dr. Ball has been a scientific advisor to Friends of Science, an Exxon Mobil funded think tank, as well as other conservative think tanks.

The Fruits of Their Labor

The Heartland Institute’s motivation is to cast doubt over the theory of AGW in the eyes of the public in order to create a political climate in which candidates and elected officials can avoid addressing the issue.  By blurring the picture and rejecting the scientific consensus, they fertilize the political landscape for radical pro-fossil fuel candidates and agendas, something that clearly benefits the fossil fuel industry.

Unfortunately, the tactic has been somewhat successful and the effect can be seen even at the highest political levels with President Obama.  Candidate Obama ran on a platform of addressing energy and climate issues and even spoke about it relevantly frequently early in his term, when the House was still controlled by the Democrats who were trying to pass a bill on the subject. The rise of the Tea Party, the Republicans taking the House, and increasingly effective efforts of organizations like Heartland to cast doubt on AGW, have unfortunately caused Obama to succumb to political pressure.  Although the science has not changed and the vast majority, frequently cited at 97 percent and what many would consider a consensus, of scientists strongly believe that human activity is causing dangerous climate change, the President seldom even utters the words “global warming” or “climate change.”

What makes this strategy of disinformation so dangerous is highlighted in the “climategate” scandal.  In that case, climate scientists were portrayed as fabricating data and conducting unsound scientific practices to support their claims about climate change.  It was later revealed, with far less media coverage, after several investigations that the scientists did nothing to compromise the integrity of their science.  However, the damage had been done and doubt had been cast in the public’s mind, opening the doors for future “skepticism” on the subject.

Without Political Support, Science Will Not Drive Policy

The fact of the matter is that the Heartland Institute is an ideological think tank and, as such, has clear motives to deny AGW.  They preach so-called free market and anti-regulation principles across the board.  Their goal is to maintain the status quo by derailing the very serious and necessary movement to move away from fossil fuels to a cleaner, safer, more sustainable energy economy.  Although the science is steadfast, without political support and mobilization it will not do any good in forming policy, especially when there is an aggressive countermovement.  We must put the political heat on politicians at the local, state and federal levels, to urgently address climate change.

-Scott McDonald, Public Citizen Summer Intern, Senior at Fordham University