“Climate of Doubt” — Money Buys Skepticism


PBS FRONTLINE’s “Climate of Doubt,” an investigation of the global warming disinformation campaign and its sources of support, aired on October 23 and featured a number of prominent faces that will be familiar to readers of Climate Science Watch.  And there are some newer players, hiding the anonymous funders who stand behind the denialist political operatives and court jesters. Sen. John Kerry said on the program, “American politics is being completely defined by huge sums of money. … And it has now made many people in public life very gunshy because they are afraid of having those amounts of money spent against them.”

The state of climate change is dramatically different now than just four short years ago.

Today, President Obama and GOP hopeful Governor Romney go to great lengths to avoid talking about climate change.  Today, for the first time in nearly 25 years neither candidate touched on climate change in any of the three Presidential debates.  Today, extreme weather bombards the United States and the Arctic has experienced an unprecedented low in sea ice coverage.  Today, the scientists studying climate change, the most unbiased of all parties involved, are being attacked on all sides by right-wing organizations.

Rewind just four years ago and the shift in public and political perception on climate change is astounding.  It’s hard to believe, but in 2008 both future President Obama and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) agreed that climate change was a problem worth solving.  Both candidates campaigned strongly in favor of climate change.  President Obama described climate change as a “matter of urgency and national security.”  McCain also took a progressive stance on limiting greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change.  The recent tectonic shifts in public opinion and political call to action from 2008 have not gone unnoticed.

PBS FRONTLINE aired an investigative report on October 23 titled “Climate of Doubt.”  The report focused on the disinformation campaign on climate change.  John Hockenberry, narrator of the report, places into context the happy marriage between climate denialism and right-wing “free market” organizations serving as fronts for corporate interests.  You can watch the report in its entirety here.

The PBS report features a collection of prominent faces of the disinformation campaign, from interviews with Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), leaders of right-wing organizations like the Americans for Prosperity’s (AFP) Tim Phillips, Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), Fred Singer, a former space scientist, and Christopher Monckton, a self-proclaimed climate expert.  Conservatives call upon these people and organizations to express their minority opinion on climate change routinely.

According to Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), “what we are fighting is the expansion of government and there are many pretexts for expanding government.  If you concede the science is settled and there is a consensus, the moral high ground has been ceded to the alarmists.  We did it because we believed the consensus was phony.  The so-called global warming consensus was not based on science, but a political consensus.”

In other words, in the war of misinformation, climate science — with its factual information and scientific review process ­­­– has stumbled into the crosshairs of these right-wing organizations.  Using their trusty Winchester Model 70 bolt-action hunting rifle, these organizations started firing away at the science of climate change.  If the public thinks the basic science is settled, then the logical next step is political and policy movement on the issue — something these organizations are struggling against.

Tim Phillips of Americans for Prosperity (AFP) had this to add about the scientific consensus.  “If we win the science argument I think its game, set, match.  If the science argument is won I do believe it would pull out the final underpinning of this legislative effort and regulatory effort the left is undertaking.”

As odd as it may seem, climate propaganda has been relatively successful at propagating lies and misrepresenting scientific data.  “The explicit goal that was written down as part of this campaign was let’s create doubt, create the sense of a balanced debate, and make sure that these lines of skepticism and dissent become routinely a part of public discussion about climate science.  And in fact they succeeded at that,” said Steve Coll of the New American Foundation.

You’re thinking, how did they do this so easily?  Well, apart from clever framing and messaging tactics used most notably by the tobacco industry and adapted to climate change disinformation, their success boils down to one thing: money.  According to Coll, this money has bought for the oil, gas, and coal industries the services of “free enterprise” groups that are “run by economists, litigators, lawyers, and public policy specialists, people who specialized in getting a message out.”

The saying “money talks” must to be amended in this instance to “money yells lies over and over and over again at your face until you start believing them.”  We aren’t talking about a few dollars here and there, but very large amounts of funding to sway public opinion.  These “free market” organizations are like puppets being pulled by the strings of the fossil fuel industry, along with true believers carrying water for wealthy right-wing ideologue donors.

In the case of climate denial, money buys you voices in the room to overpower your opposition’s.  It buys you a seat at the decision-making table and it buys people whose “skepticism” is up for sale.  It buys you biased studies and even counterfeit ones designed to cloud the subject in manufactured doubt.  It buys you politicians’ allegiances and clever marketing campaigns.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) had this to say to PBS:  “American politics is being completely defined by huge sums of money.  We had a very broad coalition of people who believed that we ought to move forward and do something.  But as the campaign of fear built up, people began to retreat.  They spent huge sums of money in a campaign of major disinformation that had an impact.  It had a profound impact.  And it has now made many people in public life very gunshy because they are afraid of having those amounts of money spent against them.”

Both sides of the aisle are now weary of addressing climate change or its impacts.  Former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC) was a conservative party member who believed the science behind climate change and that something had to be done about it.  He lost his seat in 2011 during the height of climate denial in the United States.  According to Inglis, the financial collapse, along with effective funding, led to this change in public opinion.

“When you get the financial collapse going, that’s what made it possible for some well-spent money to blow doubt into the science.” Inglis had this to say about the viewpoint of a denier: “Because the bankers failed us, the federal government failing us by spending too much money, and these scientists that are funded by that federal government they are probably in it too, and besides they are all godless liberals.”

Leaders of organizations like the Americans for Prosperity worked to make crossing the denialist party line on climate change unacceptable.  Tim Phillips (AFP) said:  “I remember 4, 5, or even 3 years ago a lot of Republicans would play games with this [climate change].  ‘Ok well gosh I think I need a green energy agenda, but I won’t go all the way and support cap and trade.’  They tried to walk down the middle and that’s wrong.  I think it’s philosophically inconsistent, but it’s also politically disadvantageous and we have worked hard to make that so.”  What we are now seeing is Republicans moving farther to the right due to pressure from well-funded and organized groups like AFP.

Where is this money coming from to bankroll the fight against climate science?  Well, from the usual host of organizations and individuals with much to gain from lower taxes and less environmental regulation.  Robert Brulle, a sociologist studying charitable giving to radical groups had this to say: “The major funders of the climate counter-movement are ideologically driven foundations that are very much concerned about conservative values and world views.”

ExxonMobil has been one of the largest contributors to the “fear campaign,” as Kerry labeled it.  Other “free market” groups like AFP have close ties to industrial corporations.  David Koch, part owner of Koch Industries, the second largest privately owned company in the United States, is the chairman of the AFP’s foundation.

After the public relations headache that resulted from ExxonMobil’s outright funding of such organizations, anonymous funding has become the most secure way to donate without political backlash.  Brulle discovered that a charity in Alexandria, Virginia, dubbed Donors Trust has become the number one funder for the “free enterprise” groups.

According to Brulle, “We don’t know a lot about Donors Trust.  It is a black box with a few little clues coming out here and there, but no real image can be formed.  So you see this shift from attributable funding to anonymous funding, which insulates the giver from any kind of political fallout from their giving.  This is because people were organizing around ‘oh evil ExxonMobil, oh evil Koch brothers.’  Now it’s Donors Trust, Donors Capital, who are they?  They get money, they give it out.”

The clash between climate change and the denial movement in US politics has led to the current state of affairs.  Neither party is focusing on climate change or championing climate science like in 2008.  Rather, political leaders are ducking the issue to focus on re-election — but climate does not wait for election cycles.  This year’s unprecedented string of extreme heat, forest fires, natural disasters, and drought have made the visible reality of climate change so painfully obvious that people cannot deny it anymore.

One thing that has remained consistent through this changing climate is the credibility of science. Ralph Cicerone, President at the National Academy of Sciences, added that, “scientists are trying to shoot it [science of climate change] down all the time, and for years and year and years nobody has been able to.  So at some point you have to be able to say maybe it’s right.”

People like Texas A&M Professor Andrew Dressler are still undeterred by the actions of the counter climate movement.  “You know I don’t let it stop me.  I fully expect after this program airs I will get another FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] request for my emails with you.  As a climate scientist I think a lot about the future, it goes with the job.  And I want to make sure that in 50 years or 100 years or 200 years that no one can say we didn’t warn them.”

The climate denial campaign is in many ways like the Great and Powerful Oz from the 1939 film Wizard of Oz.  As you may or may not remember, Oz uses tricks and illusions like blasts of fire and lightning much like the denialist groups use skeptics and cherry-picked data to mislead people.  It isn’t until Toto rolls back the curtain to reveal the truth that the Great and Powerful Oz is seen to be just a man, no different than you or me.  In our case I like to think of the man behind the curtain as a Koch brother, and the series of unnatural climatic events happening this past year as the catalyst for the curtain rolling back and revealing the truth.  After the fossil fuel industries have been exposed they will still shout, “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” but the illusion will be over.


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6 Responses to “Climate of Doubt” — Money Buys Skepticism

  1. Danny Heim says:

    Very good article. Of course it’s a money thing. It’s money creating illusuion (I like your OZ analogy). Sad to say, it won’t be money doing the talking anymore when we see Miami trying to stay above water. But much sooner than that we’ll see food starting to dissappear from the store shelves. That’s when ALL, including deniars, will say, “whoops, we screwed up…” There’s nothing like hunger and thirst to disolve illusions. Free enterprise won’t save the day, legislation won’t ether, nor litigaton, nor taxes, and not even clean energy, it’s too late. Our hope is adaptation, severe adaptation, like a return to a subsistence society. And that society won’t come from ideology or utopian hopes, but instead the need to simply save our butts and it is from that point we’ll finally have the mind to know what to do next. Pain, the great healer.

  2. ronald says:

    Its now (just about) officially against the law to disagree with any view expressed by whoever has the money and power, if that view might mean less profits for those in power. Nothing else matters. Shut up or get thrown in the can.

    Or die trying to voice any truth.

  3. Anne says:

    The best response to the classic economist’s argument that infinite money infinitely solves infinite problems is: “You can’t eat money.” Money is a proxy for value, and when the inherent value is compromised, degraded, destroyed, then money does no good at all. We’ve taken a sledge hammer to Earth’s delicate ecosystems with resiliency built up slowly over eons, and then expect money to bail us out. It’s a ridiculous notion that will be “correct” in the short term but tragically wrong in the longer term. Food will be in short supply, water too, and those with the big bank accounts will suddenly and sadly realize, you can’t eat, or drink, money.

  4. bobarl says:

    I agree with the three responses for this article only I’m not so sure Danny Heim’s conclusion about denialists finally agreeing with scientists about climate change being real and a real threat to ALL of us. I don’t think some of these people like James Inhofe of Oklahoma will believe even if a disastrous weather event destroyed his own home. These guys just won’t believe it. I don’t know where their reasoning is and it is primarily them, denialists, especially rich denialists and maybe most Tea Partiers, who will be remembered by historians and the general population as bringing this calamity upon the world. As I’ve said before, I worry about my 11 year old grand-daughter and my 18 year old grand-daughter, a cereabral palsy sufferer.

  5. Pingback: Climate Change Debate – It’s All About Money | Clearing House for Environmental Course Material

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