Climate Science Watch participated in the Power Shift 2011 conference, including speaking about how to deal with climate change denialists, on a panel titled “Winning the Climate Argument.” We said: You can’t get away from it. If you say let’s not talk about climate change, it’s too controversial, let’s just talk about clean energy and green jobs, you hand a victory to the denialists. And the same forces that are blocking meaningful climate policy will block effective clean energy policy. Text below.
“Winning the Climate Argument: Health, National Security, Economics, and Climate Denial” was one of numerous panels, workshops, and training sessions held on April 16 during the Power Shift 2011 conference, which brought thousands of climate and clean energy activists to Washington, DC, April 15-18.
At our panel we were probably lucky no one called the fire department, because our modest-sized room was packed, surely beyond allowable capacity, with about 200 mostly student-age citizens crammed into all available seating and floor space. It was great to see them there and have a chance to talk with them.
My fellow panelists, all young public interest advocates, included:
Richard Graves (Moderator), Fired Up Media
Kristen Welker-Hood, Physicians for Social Responsibility
Brittany Mouzourakis, Central Michigan University
Michael Moschella, Operation Free, Truman National Security Project
My talk, intended to fulfill a request to frame the topic of ‘climate denial’ very concisely for this community, went like this:
I run the public interest advocacy project Climate Science Watch, based here in Washington. We put a lot of our attention into trying to push back on the war on climate science that is being waged by what I’ve come to call the global warming denial machine. I want to talk a bit about how to deal with that, when it gets in the way of your organizing and communicating.
I’m not talking about climate skeptics who are legitimately interested in science and are amenable to paying attention to experts and scientific education and communication. I’m talking about a political disinformation campaign – in some cases driven by corporate interests, ideological interests, political power interests – who hide behind a predatory approach to climate science in order to prevent the political system from dealing effectively with climate change as a policy problem.
It has been there almost since global warming emerged as an important political issue in the late 1980s – which is how long I’ve been working on this issue. You could see it – people who had coal interests, oil interests, or automobile interests back home had an interest in not paying attention to what the climate scientists were saying.
From the 1990s onward you’ve had a global warming disinformation campaign. It had funding from the coal industry. It was picked up by the oil industry – the American Petroleum Institute, the lobbying arm of the big oil companies – ExxonMobil put tens of millions of dollars into this. Now we see the notorious Koch brothers, the multibillionaire owners of the largest private company in the country, based on oil and other interests.
What they did was support a PR propaganda campaign that drew a lot on the strategic and tactical lineage of the tobacco industry, from the tobacco wars – and even some of the same cast of characters. One of the things they did was elevate a handful of skeptic, or contrarian, scientists who were outside the mainstream, and using their political influence and the media elevated them to a position far above their standing in the scientific community.
They didn’t have to win the ‘debate’. They only have to create the impression that there is a big debate going on, about the science. And then they win, because it confuses public opinion, it undermines the clarity of media coverage, and it gives craven politicians something to hide behind.
But even the tobacco industry did not attack the personal integrity of the entire cancer research community. What we see now from the war on climate science is something that’s even more vicious than that – the attack on global warming science as some kind of fraud, some kind of hoax perpetrated by scientists who are only interested in research funding, and so forth.
I thought we had them on the defensive by the end of the Bush Administration. The Bush Administration was starting to back off from its denialism. Not that they were going to do anything about the problem. But what we see today makes the Bush-Cheney Administration look subtle and nuanced by comparison. It’s so nasty. And it’s taken over the Republican Party as almost a kind of litmus test – you know, you have to be a global warming skeptic or science denier in order to be supportable. It really undermines the ability to get anything done in Washington.
It’s not really about science. That’s a main thing you need to keep in mind.
So, what is to be done?
You can’t get away from this. You can’t just say, well, climate change is just such a politically sensitive issue, such a hot potato, so controversial – let’s not talk about climate change. Let’s talk about clean energy and green jobs. Everyone can support that. Let’s just work around this climate change issue.
And when you do that, you give the victory to the global warming denial machine. That’s what they want to do. They want to force you to take discussion of the potentially disastrous consequences of climate change caused by human activity out of your arsenal. They want to make you stop talking about it. They want to cut through your approach like some kind of political shrapnel if you try to do it.
But unless you’re willing to give up any role for government policy in expediting the clean energy transformation, the same people, the same forces that are blocking meaningful climate policy will block effective clean energy policy. It’s in their corporate and political interest to do so.
And now, it’s rolled into the larger battle over the role of government. Do we want an activist government that deals proactively with social and economic problems? Or do we want to tear government down? There’s no way to deal with global climate disruption without an activist, proactive, problem-solving, competent government at all levels. The whole attack on funding for research, funding for technology development, government regulation, international treaty agreements, legislation, makes it impossible for us to really get our arms around the climate change problem.
So, basically, to conclude: you have to keep control of your framing, you have to keep control of your narrative. Don’t let them take it away from you and don’t let them block the discussion of the climate change problem.
And don’t get drawn into some kind of pseudo-scientific ‘debate’. It’s not something that you ‘debate’ on the science. It’s a question of expertise. There are people who are climate scientists. You can read their reports – from the National Academy of Sciences, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.S. Global Change Research Program. If you know how to read the science literature, 97 percent of the climate scientists who are the most published and most cited in the science literature are in basic accord with the broad outlines of defining the climate change problem.
But the science community has identified and is characterizing a problem that they can’t solve. It has to be solved in the political arena, and with public opinion, and with community action.
Don’t get pulled off into a science debate with someone who’s not even a climate scientist. It’s like, if your cardiologist tells you you have a heart problem, you pay attention to your cardiologist. Maybe you get a second opinion, but you get it from another cardiologist. And the same thing if you have a cancer problem, you want to hear from the top oncologist. And you don’t go to the oncologist for your heart problem, and you don’t – I mean, you want to go to the top experts.
We rely on top experts in every area of our lives. And climate science is an area of expertise where, if you’re a ‘civilian’, if you’re not a climate scientist, if you’re a nonspecialist, you need to pay attention to what the most credible experts are saying.
That is something you point to. And when they say, ‘well you’re just being an elitist, you don’t really know about this’, you have to fall back on, when the National Academy of Sciences puts out four volumes on America’s Climate Choices that outlines the problem in a way that you can understand, if you get the books and read them – this is something that politicians and community organizers, the public in general, and the media, need to pay attention to, and take seriously, and act on it.
Don’t let the global warming denial machine disrupt you from that narrative by pulling you off into something that really has nothing to do with climate science, but is just an effort to disrupt what you’re trying to accomplish.
Interview with Stephen Schneider on climate science expert credibility study
(And thanks once again to Steve for the cardiologist analogy.)