A few weeks ago, 12 states joined in an ongoing lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to block regulation of carbon dioxide, citing faulty scientific data. If we are to judge by an All Headline News report, the faulty data amounts to a misquote in a scientific report and a deliberate misreading of “statistically significant” as “no significant warming.” Unfortunately, drawing upon fabricated and exaggerated data to “disprove” climate change is just the latest in a long history of corporate attacks on scientific research to avoid regulation. You may have noticed the pattern: corporations and their supporters say the science is out, then throw out a variety of different studies, researchers and bits of information that “proves” the science is out. These tidbits of supposed evidence never end and that is exactly the point: to get people arguing about the data and not doing something about the problem.
Tracing history, social scientists have identified this tactic, what some have called the “scientific certainty argumentation method,” or a SCAM. As science historian Naomi Oreskes pointed out, science is not about certainty, it is about doing rigorous research that can be verified and replicated, establishing areas of consensus and building upon the findings for greater understanding. By demanding absolute certainty as the only acceptable standard for acknowledging global warming, climate change “skeptics” are deliberately ignoring the overwhelming evidence, stacking the deck in their favor since none of the chips are on their side.
This tactic has a long history. In the early 1900s, scientists had accumulated evidence that lead was a neurotoxin, leading to an international ban on its use. The US, however, was not part of this ban. Instead, US manufacturers added lead to gasoline and paint, promoting its use and spreading the toxin throughout the country. Their argument? Prove to us that lead is harmful. By demanding nothing less than 100 percent scientific certainty as a basis for regulation, they were able to keep their products on the market for decades. The same is true of asbestos. And that is why so many areas are still tainted with the stuff and so many became ill and died from their use.
As documented by David Michaels in “Doubt Is Their Product,” the tobacco industry took this tactic to whole new levels. They conducted research on tobacco smoke designed not by scientists, but by their lawyers, to purposefully create doubt about the link between smoking and disease in litigation. In other words, they demanded certainty as the only acceptable standard for acknowledging that smoking is harmful, while simultaneously manufacturing uncertainty, to make sure such “certainty” is never reached.
To make this process easier, Philip Morris consultant Jim Tozzi helped pass the Shelby Amendment in 1998, which makes government-funded science available at its earliest stages under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. This allowed tobacco companies to scour and cherry-pick for attack less certain areas of government research on secondhand smoke, in an effort to undermine its regulation. Meanwhile, tobacco lawyers Arnold & Porter created the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, run by Fox columnist Steve Milloy, to “debunk” scientific studies, seeking out other industries at risk of regulation to become part of their anti-science effort, such as fossil fuel companies.
Fossil fuel companies have followed the tobacco playbook to a tee, as can most recently be seen with “Climategate.” While climate change deniers claim the hacked Climatic Research Unit emails show that climate scientists are holding back data because their research is falsified and global warming a myth, the emails actually reveal the scientists’ frustrations at being inundated with FOIA requests from climate skeptics. In fact, climate scientists have faced harassment, lawsuits and even death threats – yes, death threats. And while some emails do express uncertainty with certain sets of data, an Associated Press investigation concluded the uncertainties expressed were a far cry from disproving the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change.
Yet, the certainty tactic has been very successful with staunch conservatives, many of whom believe global warming is a hoax. More damaging, perhaps, is the effect it is having on the rest of the American public, who are not fully hearing the message of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is telling us that present-day climate trends are along the lines of worst-case scenarios. The problem, of course, is the feedback: greenhouse gases accumulate, trap heat and melt glaciers, which create more heat as they now absorb rather than reflect the sun’s rays and release the glaciers’ once-trapped methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide, which is presently leaching from the Arctic at record levels. Given these feedbacks, we do not want to end up at a point where it is too late to do anything.
The effort to undermine climate science has been all too successful; enough time has been wasted and we cannot take comfort in manufactured uncertainty. Let’s remember that tobacco executives swore under oath as late as 1994 that cigarettes are not addictive nor hazardous. We cannot allow this attempt to stave off regulations – no matter what the costs to the public – to determine our response to climate change. As laid out by Google, multiple reports suggest switching to renewable resources could meet our energy needs while stimulating the economy, creating jobs and cleaning up our environment. It’s a no-brainer, and we should keep these reports in mind as our government debates a climate bill because there may not be many chances to get this right.