Why is there still so much public confusion about climate change?

 


My dad has been a high school biology teacher for the last thirty years. He delights in educating his students about evolutionary theory by discussing the genetics of ear lobes, eye color, among other inheritable traits; he also enjoys helping them dissect small animals—mostly frogs and cats—in order to learn basic anatomy and physiology. This spring, at his small-town high school in Idaho, my dad’s science department received a curious package for teaching its students about climate change.

Inside was a small booklet entitled Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming: The NIPCC Report on Scientific Consensus,[1] published in 2016 by the Heartland Institute, with the following message attached in a letter:

“A recent survey found most K-12 science teachers who address climate change in their classrooms treat the science as ‘settled’ and focus on ways to reduce human emissions of greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps you are one of those teachers. I am writing to ask you to consider the possibility that the science in fact is not ‘settled.’”[2]

The Heartland Institute sent out 200,000 such paperbacks to educators across the nation.[3]

After reading the booklet myself, red flags emerge in the first chapter, which details how there is no scientific consensus about human-induced climate change. This has been disproven. In a 2004 article in the highly-respected journal Science, historian of science Naomi Oreskes reviewed nearly one thousand abstracts from peer-reviewed sources and found that “none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position.”[4]

If that doesn’t raise some eyebrows, the booklet cites very little peer-reviewed science (and when it does, it is merely to attack the position); one of its lead authors, S. Fred Singer, also directed campaigns in the 1980s and the 1990s to dispute that tobacco smoke caused lung cancer and that CFC aerosols caused the ozone hole; and its publisher, a “free market” think tank called the Heartland Institute, received almost $750,000 from ExxonMobil.[5]

This is where the emerging field of “agnotology,” or the formal study of ignorance, can help us out. Agnotology investigates how we come to not know certain things and why we don’t know them.[6] One form of ignorance comes as a strategic ploy. The goal of spreading confusion—or false knowledge—about the links between human activities and global warming is a corporate means to avoid government regulation. In the case of the Heartland booklet, the NIPCC in the subtitle stands for the “Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change” and the foreword criticizes the EPA’s Clean Power Plan as unnecessary federal intervention.

We can see a similar ideology in past visual culture. In 1991, the Informed Citizens for the Environment (ICE) mailed out flyers, entitled “Who told you the earth was warming…Chicken Little?” and “The most serious problem with catastrophic global warming is—it may not be true,” to thousands of Americans. Sounds like legitimate group, right? Wrong. ICE was actually an astroturf organization sponsored by coal and utilities companies and established for the sole purpose to convince people that negotiations at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit were wrongheaded.[7] In 1997, the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) ran a one-page advertisement in the New York Times newspaper forecasting economic insecurity if President Bill Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol. Again, the GCC wasn’t really concerned about the intergenerational impacts of climate change. It was a lobbyist group, underwrote by Big Oil and Big Coal, which feared U.S. entry into an international treaty would harm company profits.[8]

By combining history and agnotology, a pattern becomes clear: much of the public confusion about global warming today owes itself to the undercover work of powerful (wealthy) interests.[9]

As an environmental historian, I talk with a lot of scientists, mostly professional biologists and ecologists. Much of what they have to say concerning the public’s opinion about human-induced global warming starts out: “If only they really knew…” From scientists’ perspective, climate change inaction comes from a general absence of knowledge among our citizenry, that is, the problem stems from ignorance.

This view, however, overlooks the fact that public doubt can be manufactured. By recognizing that ignorance can be strategically constructed, we take one first step in addressing the historical roots of our current predicament.

I asked my dad what he was going to do with the Heartland booklet. He told me that “it was going in the trash. Wait—it would go to better use if it was recycled.”

—Will Wright, PhD Student, Montana State University

[1] Craig D. Idso, Robert M. Carter, and S. Fred Singer, Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming: The NIPCC Report on Scientific Consensus, Second Edition (Arlington Heights, IL: Heartland Institute, 2016).

[2] Memorandum, Lennie Jarratt to Science Teachers and Science Department Chairs, 3 March 2017.

[3] Katie Worth, “Climate Change Skeptic Group Seeks to Influence 200,000 Teachers,” FRONTLINE PBS, 28 March 2017, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/climate-change-skeptic-group-seeks-to-influence-200000-teachers/

[4]Naomi Oreskes, “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” Science 306 (December 2004): 1686, http://science.sciencemag.org/content/306/5702/1686.full

[5] Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010); Juliet Eilperin, “Climate skeptic group works to reverse renewable energy mandates,” Washington Post, 24 November 2012, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/climate-skeptic-group-works-to-reverse-renewable-energy-mandates/2012/11/24/124faaa0-3517-11e2-9cfa-e41bac906cc9_print.html; “Factsheet: Heartland Institute,” ExxonSecrets, http://www.exxonsecrets.org/html/orgfactsheet.php?id=41

[6] Robert N. Proctor and Londa Schiebinger, eds., Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008).

[7] Informed Citizens for the Environment, “Who told you the earth was warming…Chicken Little?” 1991, Coal Ads Archive, Polluter Watch, Greenpeace Organization. http://polluterwatch.com/coal-ads-archive; Informed Citizens for the Environment, “The most serious problem with catastrophic global warming is—it may not be true,” 1991, Coal Ads Archive, Polluter Watch, Greenpeace Organization. http://polluterwatch.com/coal-ads-archive;  “Information Council on the Environment 1991 Climate Denial Ad Campaign,” ClimateFiles, http://www.climatefiles.com/denial-groups/ice-ad-campaign/

[8] Global Climate Coalition, “Don’t Risk Our Economic Future” a page-B5 advertisement in New York Times, 19 June 1997, Coal Ads Archive, Polluter Watch, Greenpeace Organization. http://polluterwatch.com/coal-ads-archive; Andrew C. Revkin, “Industry Ignored Its Scientists on Climate,” New York Times, 23 April 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/24/science/earth/24deny.html

[9] Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010).

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