Newsweek cover story focuses on the global warming denial machine

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Global Warming Deniers: A Well-Funded Machine,” a 4,700-word cover story in the August 13 issue of Newsweek [2013 update: available at the author's website, but no longer via Newsweek], explores the history and current situation with what the article terms the global warming denial machine. “Killing bills in Congress was only one prong of the denial machine’s campaign,” the article says at one point. “It also had to keep public opinion from demanding action on greenhouse emissions, and that meant careful management of what federal scientists and officials wrote and said. ‘If they presented the science honestly, it would have brought public pressure for action,’ says Rick Piltz, who joined the federal Climate Science Program in 1995…Following the playbook laid out at the 1998 meeting at the American Petroleum Institute, [administration] officials made sure that every report and speech cast climate science as dodgy, uncertain, controversial -­- and therefore no basis for making policy.

[UPDATE:  For much more on the global warming denial machine, see Climate Science Watch archived posts here.]

Thanks to Newsweek for covering this story and our compliments to the reporters who worked on it. A few excerpts (in block quotes), with a few comments and links:

If you think those who have long challenged the mainstream scientific findings about global warming recognize that the game is over, think again….[T]he denial machine is running at full throttle­and continuing to shape both government policy and public opinion….Since the late 1980s, this well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks and industry has created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change….As a result of the undermining of the science, all the recent talk about addressing climate change has produced little in the way of actual action….

We first used the term “denial machine” in our interview with the CBC-TV (Canada) “fifth estate” investigative public affairs program, “The Denial Machine,” which first aired on November 15, 2006.  See our November 16, 2006, posting. A webcast of the program is archived on the CBC web site.

The reason for the inaction was clear. “The questioning of the science made it to the Hill through senators who parroted reports funded by the American Petroleum Institute and other advocacy groups whose entire purpose was to confuse people on the science of global warming,” says Sen. John Kerry. “There would be ads challenging the science right around the time we were trying to pass legislation. It was pure, raw pressure combined with false facts.”...

There’s a good quote from an interview with David Goldston, House Science Committee Chief of Staff under former chairman Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) (a moderate who retired from Congress after 2006):

Challenging the science wasn’t a hard sell on Capitol Hill. “In the House, the leadership generally viewed it as impermissible to go along with anything that would even imply that climate change was genuine,” says [David] Goldston, [former Republican [ chief of staff for the House of Representatives science committee until 2006]. “There was a belief on the part of many members that the science was fraudulent, even a Democratic fantasy. A lot of the information they got was from conservative think tanks and industry.” When in 2003 the Senate called for a national strategy to cut greenhouse gases, for instance, climate naysayers were “giving briefings and talking to staff,” says Goldston. “There was a constant flow of information -­ largely misinformation.” Since the House version of that bill included no climate provisions, the two had to be reconciled. “The House leadership staff basically said, ‘You know we’re not going to accept this,’ and [Senate staffers] said, ‘Yeah, we know,’ and the whole thing disappeared relatively jovially without much notice,” says Goldston. “It was such a foregone conclusion.”...

No wonder Chairman Boehlert went lengthy stretches without holding hearings on global warming. Many, if not most, of his own Majority members were fronting for the disinformation campaign.

Every effort to pass climate legislation during the George W. Bush years was stopped in its tracks. When Senators McCain and Joe Lieberman were fishing for votes for their bipartisan effort in 2003, a staff member for Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska explained to her counterpart in Lieberman’s office that Stevens “is aware there is warming in Alaska, but he’s not sure how much it’s caused by human activity or natural cycles,” recalls Tim Profeta, now director of an environmental-policy institute at Duke University. “I was hearing the basic argument of the skeptics -­- a brilliant strategy to go after the science. And it was working.” Stevens voted against the bill, which failed 43-55. When the bill came up again the next year, “we were contacted by a lot of lobbyists from API and Exxon-Mobil,” says Mark Helmke, the climate aide to GOP Sen. Richard Lugar. “They’d bring up how the science wasn’t certain, how there were a lot of skeptics out there.” It went down to defeat again.

Killing bills in Congress was only one prong of the denial machine’s campaign. It also had to keep public opinion from demanding action on greenhouse emissions, and that meant careful management of what federal scientists and officials wrote and said. “If they presented the science honestly, it would have brought public pressure for action,” says Rick Piltz, who joined the federal Climate Science Program in 1995. By appointing former coal and oil lobbyists to key jobs overseeing climate policy, he found, the administration made sure that didn’t happen. Following the playbook laid out at the 1998 meeting at the American Petroleum Institute, officials made sure that every report and speech cast climate science as dodgy, uncertain, controversial­and therefore no basis for making policy. Ex-oil lobbyist Philip Cooney, working for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, edited a 2002 report on climate science by sprinkling it with phrases such as “lack of understanding” and “considerable uncertainty.” A short section on climate in another report was cut entirely. The White House “directed us to remove all mentions of it,” says Piltz, who resigned in protest. An oil lobbyist faxed Cooney, “You are doing a great job.”...

One point of clarification: In the second quote, we were referring specifically to administration officials, with the acquiescence of the Climate Change Science Program leadership, requiring the deletion, in program reports to Congress, of references to the National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts—an important federally supported scientific assessment that has been praised by the National Academy of Sciences and that was subjected to a denialist legal and propaganda attack by the Competitive Enterprise Institute and other elements of the global warming denial machine, in collusion with White House operatives.

This issue, and the politics of global warming and the disinformation campaign, were dealt with well in the PBS FRONTLINE program “Hot Politics,” which first aired on April 24, 2007.  See our April 26 posting. A webcast of the program is archived on the FRONTLINE web site.  FRONTLINE also has posted extended text from our interview for the program.

Also see our June 29 posting, “Rolling Stone article on White House global warming denial links Cooney to V-P’s office and Rove.” This excellent investigative article, “The Secret Campaign of President Bush’s Administration To Deny Global Warming” in the June 28 issue is posted on the Rolling Stone web site.

The response to the international climate panel’s latest report, in February, showed that greenhouse doubters have a lot of fight left in them….[T]hey are emphasizing a new theme. Even if the world is warming now, and even if that warming is due in part to the greenhouse gases emitted by burning fossil fuels, there’s nothing to worry about. As Lindzen wrote in a guest editorial in NEWSWEEK International in April, “There is no compelling evidence that the warming trend we’ve seen will amount to anything close to catastrophe.”....

For an extended critique of the Lindzen piece, see our May 12 posting, “MacCracken on Lindzen’s misleading Newsweek Op-Ed.”

As the disinformation campaign loses the ability to make political headway by denying the reality of human-induced change in the physical climate system, we expect that they will shift the terms of their argument and use similar tactics to undermine scientific communication about the observed and likely adverse impacts of climate change, as a fallback position for heading off support for a stronger global warming policy. And they also will shift to manipulating public discourse about the costs and benefits of mitigation options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Stay tuned.

Still, like a great beast that has been wounded, the denial machine is not what it once was….

Perhaps we are making a contribution on that score.

 

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