For years, free-market fundamentalists opposed to government regulation have sought to create doubt in the public’s mind about the dangers of smoking, acid rain, and ozone depletion. Now they have turned those same tactics on the issue of global warming and on climate scientists, with significant success.
In recent months, a group called the Cooler Heads Coalition - a creation of the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) - has fostered a public image of climate science as a criminal conspiracy. The CEI itself has accused NASA, the largest funder of climate science, of faking important climate data sets. In February, US Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, whose positions are frequently cited and promoted by CEI, called for a criminal investigation of 17 climate scientists from a variety of institutions for allegedly falsifying or distorting data used in taxpayer-funded research.
The recent shift in the community of global warming deniers from merely attacking mainstream climate scientists to alleging their involvement in criminal activity is an unsurprising but alarming development in the long campaign to discredit the established scientific fact that burning fossil fuels is causing the world to warm. This latest escalation fits seamlessly into a decades-old pattern of attempts to deny the reality of environmental ills - smoking, acid rain, ozone depletion, and global warming.
Similar or even identical claims have been promoted for decades by other free-market think-tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Heartland Institute, and, most persistently, the George C. Marshall Institute. These think tanks all have two things in common: They promote free-market solutions to environmental problems, and all have long been active in challenging the scientific evidence of those problems.
In researching a book on global warming deniers, we often felt demoralised by the efficacy of doubt-mongering tactics and depressed that the American public had been repeatedly fooled by the same strategy and tactics. On the other hand, we felt cautiously optimistic because disputes over other issues - tobacco smoking, acid rain, second-hand smoke, and the ozone hole - ended with the scientific evidence prevailing, and with regulation that (however delayed or weakened) addressed the problem.
Global warming was the great unfinished story, but with the mainstream media and many politicians acknowledging the reality of global warming in recent years, it seemed that there was real progress. “The debate is over,” California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared in 2005. “We know the science. We see the threat posed by changes in our climate.”
Now it seems that progress has been reversed. In recent months, as the US Senate prepared to consider climate and energy legislation, there has been a stepped-up effort on a broad front to belittle the overwhelming evidence of human-caused global warming. As they did with smoking and acid rain, the so-called global warming sceptics have had one overriding goal: to sow doubt in the public’s mind and head off government regulation.
In the case of global warming, there is strong evidence that this contrarian campaign is enjoying success, with recent polls showing that more than half of Americans are not particularly worried about the issue and that fully 40 per cent believe there is major disagreement among scientists about whether climate change is even occurring. This confusion is no doubt due, at least in part, to the persistent campaigns of obfuscation by the Competitive Enterprise Institute and other global warming deniers who use right-wing talk radio, the Internet, and television programs such as Fox News to propagate their message of doubt.
The story begins with the tobacco companies’ long-running effort to cast doubt on the links between cigarette smoking and human health effects, including lung cancer. One of the scientists the tobacco industry recruited to this cause was Frederick Seitz. Seitz was a distinguished solid-state physicist, who believed strongly in the role of science and technology in defending the United States during the Cold War. In the late 1950s and 1960s he rose to high levels in national science policy, serving, among other positions, as president of the US National Academy of Sciences.
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