How Can a Handful of Scientists Obscure the Truth on Global Warming?

Why does American politics seem to consistently lag behind the public and the rest of the world on major scientific issues in terms of action? Does the “debate” over climate change feel familiar?

Despite the overwhelming body of evidence (at least 97% of the scientific literature) that supports the idea of man-made (anthropogenic) climate change, there is still a false sense of “debate” in this country, at least in part spurred by an uncritical media, and this sense of doubt has helped stall important legislation, similar to the way it took decades after the discovery of the carcinogenic effects of tobacco to curtail and limit smoking.

A new documentary film, “Merchants of Doubt”, aims to depict the history of science denial and trace the path from the fight against tobacco directly to the fight now to address climate change and global warming.

The film, based on the best-selling book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, has been screening in festivals for over a year but is due for wide release in March. While the book focused on the history of denialism and how it evolved over time, the movie devotes significant time to how lobbyists like the Koch brothers have tried to buy Congress away from climate legislation in America.

The director, Robert Kenner, also made “Food Inc.”, another documentary which attempts to expose the way our society is manipulated by corporate interests.

The book explains how corporate interests were able to recruit former scientists embittered by the changing attitudes towards technology and ethics. As newer voices like Carl Sagan warned of catastrophe such as nuclear winter or even acid rain, thus suggesting a more measured and cautious approach to technological growth and advancement,

Denial tactics which seem to thread through all of these issues include:

  • Misleading the public on the nature of “uncertainty.” Because nothing can be proven with 100 % accuracy, climate deniers exaggerate the extent to which we don’t know or understand the causes and effects of putting more carbon into the atmosphere.
  • Identifying other potential variables as the probable cause; with climate change, deniers point to volcanoes, sun spots and other ‘natural’ phenomena as drivers of climate, which will true, does not exclude man as the current primary driver of global warming. Similarly, there are other causes of lung cancer besides smoking but the link between tobacco and lung damage has been shown conclusively.
  • Pointing to the economic costs, without addressing the benefits. Deniers argue that even if climate change is real and man-made solving the crisis in the short-term will be too expensive.
  • Framing the debate as an issue of freedom; legislating on climate change, as with tobacco use, is in impingement on our basic right to choose how we live our life. This argument conveniently ignores the possibility that the more disastrous effects of climate change could also limit our ‘freedom’ by severely impacting many people’s quality of life.
  • Suggesting conspiracy or portraying scientists as having nefarious ulterior motives. Deniers have argued that scientists and/or advocates just want grant money or notoriety and need the false scare of climate change to achieve their ends.

These false appeals at populism should be exposed for what they are: fear-mongering and public deception.

Aaron Dorman, Intern