In a special message to Congress, a president of the United States made the following statement: “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through … a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”
Who was that president? Not Barack Obama, although he has said similar things, and not George W. Bush, whose standard line was that we needed to study the problem more. It was President Lyndon Johnson, issuing what may have been the first ever warning by a political leader on the potential for what we now call climate change – way back in 1969.
Johnson, of course, had a foreign war on his hands and other more pressing issues to deal with at home. And while there was already a scientific consensus at that early date that the burning of fossil fuels would gradually warm the planet, nobody could say for sure how soon the impacts would be felt or how significant they were likely to be.
Fast forward to today. Climate change is no longer a theory about the conjectured future, but a fact documented by climatologists and apparent to just about anyone who has been paying attention to their local weather. Yet if you have been following the story in the media, you can be forgiven for thinking that the researchers are not yet agreed on what is taking place. A recent poll found that 40 percent of Americans believe the scientists are still arguing about whether climate change is real.
This is simply not true. The science only gets better with time, and climate change is now virtually undisputed – by the people who are doing the science, at any rate. That it remains a “controversial issue” long after the results are in is thanks to a well-funded cabal of free-market think tanks, corporations and business groups that hope to win in the political arena a fight that they have long since lost in the halls of science. They are abetted by a media whose relish for conflict and a scientifically nonsensical sense of supposed “balance” has led them to give the deniers equal airtime.
In May, the Heartland Institute put up a billboard on the Eisenhower Expressway outside of Chicago comparing believers in climate change to the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. A firestorm in the press quickly convinced the Institute to pull the plug on the offensive billboard campaign.
While the efforts of the Heartland Institute and other likeminded groups have so far not managed to convince – over 70 percent of Americans believe that climate change is either happening now or will be soon – many remain divided about how serious the problem is; 42 percent of those polled by Gallup in March believed that the impacts were being exaggerated.
This confusion seems to have been the intention of the denialists all along – not to disprove climate change (the evidence is too strong for that) but to cast just enough paralyzing doubt to muddy the waters and prevent the United States from getting serious about restricting greenhouse gas emissions. The appearance of controversy has given our elected officials the political cover to do nothing.
Another likely intentional result has been to put a damper on public discussion of the issue. Newspaper coverage of global warming dropped more than 40 percent in 2011 since its peak two years earlier, according to a study by The Daily Climate. Environmentalist author Bill McKibben says that in 2011, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox spent twice as much time discussing Donald Trump as climate change.
During hard economic times, it is difficult to get people to focus on an environmental issue which seems to have little immediate bearing on their lives. The public’s weariness with the climate change issue has also been exacerbated by the endlessly equivocal “he said, she said” nature of the coverage itself. In one study of four leading newspapers (The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times) over half the articles presented a scientist on one side and a corporate-friendly spokesperson (usually a non-scientist) on the other. Readers are left with the impression that the whole thing remains a muddle and that it is better to let the experts sort it out for themselves.
But the question remains: why is the media paying any attention to the discredited ideas of the denialists? We don’t give Holocaust deniers equal time to vent their noxious views, so why offer it to the climate change deniers?
The analogy might seem far-fetched, but the findings of climate scientists tell us that it is apt. We are facing a potential holocaust for life on earth, which could destroy entire ecosystems, turn productive regions into dust bowls, multiply catastrophic weather events, wipe out a large proportion of the planet’s species and cost us more in dollars (not to mention lives) than all the wars in history combined.
You would think that even conservatives would appreciate the huge economic threat this poses. When you get right down to it, acting to minimize the effects of climate change is a quintessentially conservative cause; it is about conserving the earth and our way of life for future generations. So, if the real conservatives are not behind the war against climate science, who is?
Until recently, the groups pushing the denialist agenda have lain low to avoid public scrutiny. Before they were outed by a leak of incriminating documents in February, few had heard of the Heartland Institute. Other big wheels in the denialist camp include the American Petroleum Institute, the American Enterprise Institute and – you guessed it – Charles and David Koch. A report by Greenpeace revealed that, in the last decade, the secretive brothers’ oil and manufacturing company channeled over $50 million to a number of front groups that promote skepticism about climate change.
That’s about double what ExxonMobil is currently spending to recruit “experts” to debunk climate science. Nine out of ten of the published papers dismissive of climate change, according to an analysis conducted by The Carbon Brief, were penned by authors who had received cash grants from the oil giant.
One of the most effective, if shadowy, figures in the denialist camp is the George C. Marshall Institute, which was set up by a group of cold-warrior scientists in 1984 to lobby against scientific criticism of Ronald Reagan’s missile defense system popularly known as Star Wars. Since then, the Marshall Institute has turned its attention toward other assaults on mainstream science on issues ranging from acid rain, the chemical threat to the ozone layer, the effects of secondhand tobacco smoke and, most recently, global warming.
In each case, the Institute’s goal, according to professor Naomi Oreskes of the University of California, San Diego, was to cast enough doubt on the prevailing science to delay needed legislation and government regulation for years and even decades.
As Oreskes documented in her book “Merchants of Doubt,” many who are fighting this behind-the-scenes war on climate science are the very same people who spearheaded earlier efforts of cigarette makers to deny that smoking was harmful, and they have adopted the same strategy here – setting up front groups with grassroots- or scientific- sounding names to confuse the public about the science.
Now that the Supreme Court has overruled a law that would have set limits on corporate spending for political purposes, we have become even more vulnerable to these wolves in sheeps’ clothing, according to Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“That has opened the gates for corporations – often those associated with coal and oil industries – to flood the market with adverts that support rightwing politicians and which attack government bodies that impose environmental regulations that these companies don’t like,” Grifo told the Guardian in February. “The science that supports these regulations is attacked as well. That has made a terrible difference over the past year and it is now bringing matters to a head.”
To make the right decisions about climate change and how to limit its destructive impacts, Americans need accurate information, not ideologically motivated propaganda. Let’s hope that the recent Heartland crash and burn will help give the media the backbone it needs to stop equivocating and tell the climate change story straight.