The Denial Machine: Interview on KPFK-FM Los Angeles


CSW director Rick Piltz and Climate Cover-Up co-author Richard Littlemore of DeSmogBlog were interviewed on KPFK’s “Insighters” program aired April 22. See Details for transcript and webcast.

KPFK, 90.7 FM, Pacifica Radio, Los Angeles, California

Archived webcast of the program (April 22, “Four O’Clock Thursdays – The Insighters” program hosted by Maria Armoudian, available for 90 days after original airing)

The following is a lightly copyedited transcript of most of the interview, prepared by Climate Science Watch.

Maria Armoudian: In this hour: the denial machine.  A look inside the multi-million dollar campaign to discredit climate science…For decades, scientists have been warning policymakers about the gradual making of an uninhabitable Earth, through the pillaging of resources, pollution, and climate change.  But the public is still skeptical about the scientific findings, and policymakers are still delaying legislation that would help to allay climate change.  What is leading to the confusion?  Our next guests say it’s a vast campaign, funded primarily by polluters, to discredit climate science and scientists. … 

MA: I think it’s important for some listeners to understand the scientific process, peer review, and the process of refutation, the important journals, so they understand what this means when we’re talking about the scientific community.  When you say 90 percent —  scientists work in probabilities.  Can you talk about how science works, and when scientists say these things, how much rigor there is in it?

Rick Piltz: Global warming and climate change — one of the extraordinary things about it as a public issue is the extent to which it has been driven by the advancing scientific understanding of the problem over a period of decades.  There is a large climate science community, and now related ecosystem researchers, who have amassed a mountain of evidence.  Rather than being blown by this way and that by what’s the latest thing that you read in the press about a study coming out — Antarctica is melting faster, Antarctica is not melting faster — the climate science community has made a heroic effort over the years to periodically assess and synthesize the state of knowledge in terms that it’s possible to understand…

Maria Armoudian: I guess what I was trying to get at here with this question was about how rigorous the process really is when scientists do go for publishing a finding, and the peer review process and what that means, so that people understand the difference between scientific journals and what we see in the mainstream press.

Rick Piltz: Generally speaking, there is a ferocious integrity in the science community, and to bring about a new finding and have it hold up under challenge is something that involves the highest intellectual standards.  It’s always ironic — or ironic is probably too soft a word — to have political operatives with the denial machine and elected politicians saying that there is a lack of integrity in the scientific community, because their own statements are not subject to any kind of quality control for accuracy.  Whereas in the science community, a reputation for credibility and accuracy is painstakingly acquired.  So the peer review journal is as good as you can get.  It’s a self-correcting process, it’s empirically based, it’s based on observations, it’s based on expert review.  Now what we have is a complex body of information, it’s not just one study, all kind of pointing in the same direction in characterizing the multiple aspects of this problem. 

But when they synthesize the findings for society and policymakers, there are judgment calls involved.  So then they speak in terms of levels of confidence and levels of certainty, and they’re never going to say 100 percent.  They’ll say “likely”, or “very likely,” and they’ll use somewhat qualitative language, because it’s the balance of evidence tells us this, and that’s what we have to go by in making public decisions. 

MA:  Richard Littlemore, I’d like to turn to you and talk about some of the findings in your book, where you talk about these organizations such as the Western Fuels Association, National Coal Association, that have funded and put together campaigns to discredit climate scientists.  Who are these organizations and what have they been doing?

Richard Littlemore: There are a lot of participants on this whole side.  And further to what Rick was saying — scientists are infuriatingly forthright about their doubt, about the weaknesses in their argument.  If there is any flaw in a scientific argument, when a scientist is making an argument or publishing a new paper, the very first thing they tell you about is the weakness or the flaw and how much that might undermine the certainty of what they are about to say.  They are really, really conscientious. 

On the flip side, you have people like the Western Fuels Association, which was the association of the big coal-fired electricity plants, especially across the American north and Midwest.  Theirs was one of the early campaigns, it was in 1991.  They started a campaign to tell people that climate change might not be happening, that if it was happening it might not be the responsibility of human beings, notwithstanding good evidence at the time, and in fact, because CO2 was an important thing in the growth of plants, that it might be a good thing. 

They did videos, public relations campaigns, they hired the kinds of scientists who are less than perfectly rigorous about what they say to sign newspaper articles — not peer-reviewed science journal articles — but newspaper articles, saying hey, this may not be the case.  They began in 1991, a very organized, very strategic and really expensive campaign, to try to get people to wonder, in the same tradition of the tobacco campaigns of the 50s and 60s and 70s and even now, to try to get people to wonder whether the science was certain. 

The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition picked up the ball a couple of years later, and that was an organization that was developed by Phillip Morris.  Phillip Morris threw their hands across the aisle to a bunch of other organizations like fossil fuel companies to say, let’s not just attack tobacco science, let’s attack all science because that might help us win our case.  So they started questioning climate change around 1993. 

The American Petroleum Institute jumped in in 1997.  There were any number of other groups, the Global Climate Coalition, lots of coalitions of fossil fuel, major manufacturing, heavy industry, everybody who is addicted to oil, the huge number of corporations whose income is closely associated with fossil fuels have been participants in this campaign. 

RP:  If I could add — recently we’ve posted our investigation on this — you have very wealthy, politically right-wing backers of a wide range of policy advocacy front groups in the global warming denial campaign.  The Koch brothers, David and Charles, who head up Koch Industries, whose fortune was based on petroleum and has now extended to a lot of other things, have personal fortunes of upwards of $15 billion dollars each.  So they can fund a massive amount of activity almost out of their petty cash, and they do. 

What they fund tends to be organizations that call themselves libertarian.  This translates to no government regulation of corporate power, and low taxes.  So it’s partly the money interests of the fossil fuel industry, but it’s also this ideology of cripple the government’s ability to do things proactively or protect people, keep taxes on wealth down, all in this ideology of libertarianism.  It extends not just to global warming but to the entire range of issues.  They’ll fund the opposition to the health care legislation, they’ll fund opposition to taxes and so forth, and global warming has gotten swept up into the maw of this political push. 

And it’s almost now become part of the culture war against any kind of reform, it’s anti-intellectual, nihilistic, and its political operatives have a predatory relationship with the scientific community’s willingness to confess some uncertainty. As predators they go in and use it to confuse and blow smoke in the face of public opinion in order to further their political agenda. 

MA: You talk a bit about some of the means of them doing this—like the op-eds and that sort of a thing.  I think some of the important things for the public to understand include the use of these deceptive names that sound really good.  One of them that Richard Littlemore, you talked about in your book, was this Greening Earth Society, that would be one example.  So if you were going to take some of these organizations and take them apart, who would be the members, and what are some of the names? 

RL:  Talking about Koch Industries is a really good one because one of the ones that is extremely current is the whole Tea Party protest thing.  The Tea Party protests have been characterized as a serendipitous upwelling of public concern over a few issues, all of them not surprisingly right of center and fairly libertarian.  It turns out that the great part of it was organized and orchestrated by two fake grassroots organizations, one of them Freedomworks and the other one Americans for Prosperity, and both of those were founded and are largely funded on the Koch fortune. 

So when you ask who are the members, the first two members are the Koch brothers, who are tied for the nineteenth richest men in the world.  But they come up with these organizations like Americans for Prosperity or Freedomworks, casting the thing as some sort of little guys against the establishment, they create fake grassroots organizations that we call Astroturf groups, and they actually solicit participation from people who really are legitimately and sincerely concerned about too much government intervention in their lives. 

So you begin with a very professional, well-funded activist organization that then goes out into the community.  They begin first of all by paying a few people to come to the early demonstrations, and as it begins to look like there is a tide building, other sincere people who have been bamboozled by the whole thing join the protest.  So suddenly you’ve got thousands of people marching on Washington, many of them really honestly believing that they are there doing the right thing, standing up against too much intervention by government, when in fact they’ve been played for suckers from the outset by some of the richest men in the world.

MA:  Richard Littlemore, I just wanted you to briefly talk about a couple other phenomena that you talk about in your book.  One is the use of … petitions with these so-called scientists.  If you could talk about that briefly.

RL:  In terms of the petitions, this has been a great and popular strategy … where people who characterize themselves as scientists put together huge petitions of other people who also characterize themselves as scientists saying they’re not convinced that climate change is happening.  But there are a few of these petitions, the most famous is the Oregon petition which has upwards of 30,000 signatures, and some of those include the Spice Girls and Perry Mason and very questionable signatures along the way. 

The overwhelming majority of them are people who are not climate scientists, who don’t do climate science, who were tricked in many cases into even signing the petition, and whose opinion about all of this is in any case kind of irrelevant, because they’re not the people who understand the issue, they’re just people who happen to have had some kind of science training some time in their life and decided that for whatever reason, they were going to sign a petition. 

That isn’t how science works.  Science doesn’t work because you get eight guys who are not experts to agree about something.  Science works by long, careful argument and refutation and the adducement of evidence to stand up to criticisms and it works phenomenally well in peer-reviewed journals.  These petitions, which work really well on the op-ed page or on the front page of a newspaper, are irrelevant in the court of advancing science. 

MA:  Well, irrelevant except in that they impact the policymaking, which is what I’d like to end with, is how is this apparatus — both of you called it a machine, a denial machine — how is that impacting our current public policy?  We’ve got a climate bill on the table, we have a president who had promised to address climate change and has now said we are going to open for more drilling and we are going to move to nuclear energy as well.  He’s got a very good climate scientist, nuclear scientist as the head of his Department of Energy, Secretary Chu.  What is the impact of this machine on the current debate and on the current policy, and what are the consequences?

RP:  I think one of the reasons that there is not a stronger concern about climate change is because of the confusion that has been sown by the global warming disinformation campaign.  But I will say that this issue is so complex that it’s going to be difficult to deal with, even if everyone were being legitimate, intelligent and public-spirited, and not manipulating the communication for a political agenda.  It’s a tough one for our society to confront because it implicates our entire way of life, our entire energy system. It’s going to call over a period of time for a radical transformation of our energy system. It will affect our lives; it will be difficult. 

And in order to mobilize public support for that it’s not enough to say, well, the polls show that the public doesn’t make this their highest priority relative to the economy, to things that are of immediate concern that people obviously have, with good reason.  It’s going to require not only a push from the grassroots but leadership from the top that we’re not getting.  When Obama was elected and before he was inaugurated he said that global warming is an urgent problem, a problem of global security, a problem of national security.  But what do we see with the leadership now?  We see an administration and a Congress acting as though they don’t consider this to be something urgent. 

Obama is not the first, but no American president has ever really given a serious climate change talk to the American people, I mean laying it out, being seen to be meeting with the leading scientists and saying here’s what they’re telling me.

MA: And yet he’s got Steven Chu as the Secretary of Energy.

RP:  Yes, and John Holdren as the White House Science Advisor, and they know and they understand, and they talk within limits — except that the administration seems to have adopted a strategy of using the mantra of clean energy and green jobs to frame their policy position on this.  The President doesn’t really talk about climate change and the implications for the United States and the world and the consequences of inaction.  You won’t maintain the long-term public support for action if people don’t understand more about the climate change problem than they do right now.  It’s not just the denial machine, it’s a failure of leadership even among people who know better.

MA: When people are reading their paper of interest or website of interest, listening to their radio station of interest, how can they discern fact from not fact?  In Richard’s book, he actually talks about the New York Times Magazine doing a cover story on this one particular scientist who decided to be a contrarian, and dedicated many pages to it, Freeman Dyson.  And so we have this kind of activity going on in mainstream media, and in very respectable media.  How do people discern and understand issues when they are not immersed in the subject?

RP:  I think it’s really tough with mainstream media now.  Most of them don’t have any kind of science coverage at all, science reporters are being laid off, environmental reporters are being laid off and downsized, and the media tends to look for a political controversy rather than looking at trends and evidence and science.  So it’s been so much easier to cover something like, let’s look at the controversy over the stolen scientists’ e-mails, or let’s look at Senator so-and-so’s accusations about the IPCC — because that’s covering a big fight, and it’s kind of a he-said, she-said type of thing, and it’s very difficult to make sense out of that. 

You need to go beyond the news of the day, mainstream sources, to dig down a little bit deeper.  But you know, in the bookstore and on the web there is a wealth of information out there on climate change.  I would say, pay attention to what the leading scientists are saying, look for the great body of evidence that has been built up.  It is a complex issue.  If you read books, read the Rough Guide to Climate Change by Bob Henson.  There are various others.  The website RealClimate has climate scientists writing in relatively plain English about the developing issues. 

But then what you do with that really depends a lot on, every individual has to decide how to be a citizen — how you enter the process and do something creative with your knowledge and your concern.

Earlier CSW post:

Climate Cover-Up: New book by the DeSmogBlog team is a take-down of the denial machine (October 21, 2009) 

A few more very accessible readings I could have mentioned include, for example:

Gavin Schmidt, et al., Climate Change: Picturing the Science (W.W. Norton, 2008)

Tom Karl, et al., Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States (U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2009)

Climate Progress (Joe Romm’s blog at Center for American Progress)

DeSmogBlog (Canadian blog devoted to investigating and countering the global warming disinformation campaign)

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