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Hurricanes, Global Warming and the Right-Wing Distortion Campaign: The Battle Over Public Awareness

Posted in the database on Monday, December 05th, 2005 @ 08:01:32 MST (3063 views)
by David K. Adams    Dissident Voice  

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A series of recent polls conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA 2005) has demonstrated that public opinion in the United States has become more informed over the years with regard to the “scientific consensus” on global warming. The scientific consensus is in short: Human-induced global warming is occurring and it is presently necessary to take action to curtail production of greenhouse gases. It is referred to as the scientific consensus because it represents the view of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists. The increase in public awareness of the scientific consensus should be considered major progress. This is especially true when one considers the concerted effort from the 1980s to the present by global warming “skeptics” and their corporate sponsors to muddy the issue. The global warming skeptics are a tiny but vocal group of scientists who argue that absolutely no conclusive evidence exists for global warming. Their views have been disseminated very effectively by right-wing think tanks and through Internet websites (e.g., www.junkscience.com and www.techcentralstation.com). A series of articles in the May/June 2005 issue of Mother Jones magazine details the financial ties between the energy industry, conservative think tanks and the skeptics.

What the above and other polls have also shown is that if the public believes scientific consensus exists, it is willing to take appropriate action to curb the emission of greenhouse gases. The polls indicate this is true even in the case where taking action implies significant economic costs for the U.S. It would therefore appear necessary to limit public awareness of the scientific consensus to ensure that little action is taken to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Over the last two decades, the fossil fuel industry, employing a team of global warming skeptics, has managed to do just this. The energy industry seems well aware that a confused public vacillates, leading to the “business as usual” scenario whereby little political pressure is exerted to take steps on global warming.

Despite gains over the last few years in public awareness of the scientific consensus, recent controversies over hurricanes and global warming threaten to setback these gains. Right-wing think tanks and the skeptics are presently on the attack, claiming that global warming “alarmists” are using the hurricane Katrina disaster to promote their radical environmentalist agenda. Given media amplification of the skeptical voices, in all probability, the American public may become more confused with regard to the scientific consensus thereby reversing the trend toward greater awareness over the last decade. In this article, two previous distortion campaigns are examined to provide insight for the evolution of the current assault. In studying these campaigns, a clear pattern of the distortion techniques employed by the skeptics is revealed. Given the effectiveness of the skeptic’s previous attacks in confusing the public, one can speculate that the level of public awareness of the scientific consensus may stagnate or even regress with time. And, as the polls have indicated, as long as the public believes there is no scientific consensus, inaction on anthropogenic climate change is guaranteed.

American public opinion and global warming: Trends

By the early 1990s, a scientific consensus on global warming began to emerge. Previously, climate studies, given the lack of good long-term data records, were more speculative and, therefore, strong scientific consensus was not possible. Nevertheless, public concern about global warming grew and it even became part of public/national discourse (e.g., the Clinton-Gore campaign of 1992). By 1995, with the release of the second Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a scientific consensus had already emerged -- anthropogenic global warming was occurring and mitigating efforts were required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Given the robustness of the scientific consensus, most of the world’s nations met in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan to put forth a plan for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions: The Kyoto Protocol.

In spite of the scientific consensus and the public’s generally favorable view of the Kyoto Protocol, no progress in the U.S. was made toward compliance. In fact, the Senate in 1997 passed a resolution that essentially negated any possibility of treaty ratification. Once President Bush arrived in the White House, the Kyoto Protocol was dead in the water. Furthermore, it appears that in the mid-to-late 1990s the public remained somewhat confused with regard to the occurrence of global warming, the scientific consensus, and Bush’s position on Kyoto. Actually, a shockingly large percentage (43%) still thinks Bush favors implementation of the treaty (PIPA 2005).

Within the last several years, public awareness of the scientific consensus has increased, compared to the mid 1990s (only 28% polled, in 1994, believed scientific consensus existed). However, the percentage of Americans who believes a scientific consensus exists is still disturbingly small, around 50% (PIPA 2005). This is a remarkably small percentage considering an unassailable scientific consensus has existed for well over a decade. That progress in understanding has been extremely slow is due, in no small part, to the efforts of the energy industry to misinform the public.

Global warming skeptics running interference for the fossil fuel industry

In their in-depth study of the defeat of the Kyoto Protocol, McCright and Dunlap (2003) discussed the concerted effort by the energy industry to utilize right-wing think tanks as sounding boards for the tiny minority of skeptical scientists. The confusion about global warming sown by this very vocal minority was part and parcel of the energy industry’s scheme to impede efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to the authors, the skeptics achieved “non-problematicity” of anthropogenic climate change by striking directly at the “legitimacy of global warming as a social problem.” That is, the public would not see global warming as a threat as long as they felt that scientists were unclear about the occurrence and possible consequences of global warming. The authors demonstrated the pivotal role the media played in elevating and legitimizing the skeptic’s views. Their study showed that the media, specifically the print media, gave the climate skeptics equal access for expounding their unsubstantiated claims. As a result, given the disproportionate media exposure of the skeptics, the political climate (Republicans took both Houses of Congress in 1994) and the poorly informed public, inaction on the Kyoto Protocol was assured.

The defeat of Kyoto, however, has not lessened the skeptic’s assault. A more recent case exposing how the global warming skeptics operate involves the paleoclimate study of Wille Soon and Sallie Baliunas (2003). Climate scientists Michael Mann, Ray Bradbury and Malcolm Hughes (1998, 1999) released studies in prestigious scientific journals that revealed a sharp upward trend in northern hemisphere air temperatures in the latter half of the 20th century. The sharp rise in temperature over the last 50 years, preceded by 1000 years of relatively small temperature changes gave the graph a unique shape, something akin to a “hockey stick.” This recent warming trend, unprecedented over the last millennium, could not, according to the authors, be explained solely by natural climate variability. Soon and Baliunas, both astrophysicists with fossil fuel funding, assailed this conclusion. The Soon and Baliunas study, published in the second tier climate journal, Climate Research, claims that 20th century warming is not unusual relative to the last 1000 years and, therefore, cannot be attributed to anthropogenic causes. Within the mainstream climate science community, the Soon and Baliunas paper was roundly criticized as wrought with errors and untenable conclusions. In fact, several Climate Research editors offered their resignation in protest over the unusual review process that resulted in the paper’s publication. The Bush administration, on the other hand, quickly cited the Soon and Baliunas article as evidence that global warming research is inconclusive. Soon was invited to testify before a Senate committee on climate change where he criticized the “hockey stick” of Mann, Bradbury, and Hughes. The press lapped up the “controversy.” In addition, there was a chorus of condemnation of the Mann, Bradbury and Hughes work in commentaries, position papers and press releases by right-wing think tanks and on the skeptic’s websites. All this commotion even recently lead Senator Barton (R-Tx) to call for reexamination of the data and techniques used to derive the “hockey stick.” Regardless of the correctness of the Mann, Bradbury and Hughes studies, the scientific consensus, based on hundreds of climate studies, had already been well established. Nevertheless, the damage had been done. It is not difficult to imagine why, given the cacophony of “opposing scientific views” on 20th century temperature trends, the public could conclude, erroneously, that scientific consensus on global warming is still lacking.

Hurricane Katrina and the right-wing attack

The controversy over global warming and hurricane intensity had already been heating up prior to Katrina. Although previous IPCC reports have been inconclusive with regard to trends in hurricane frequency or intensity with global warming, theoretical and modeling studies have indicated global warming could entail hurricanes of greater intensity. The rather active 2004 hurricane season in the North Atlantic Ocean caught the attention of climate scientists. It was pointed out that this activity was consistent with the decadal trend towards warming tropical sea surface temperature. The skeptics began to stir, questioning these reports. However, a study by Kerry Emanuel (Nature 2005) on the increased intensity of hurricanes over the globe has really created an uproar.

The basic contention of the Emanuel paper (Kerry Emanuel is a Professor of Meteorology at M.I.T.) is that warmer tropical ocean temperature will, according to his theory, increase the intensity, not necessarily the frequency, of hurricanes. In recent decades, his paper shows, a warmer tropical sea surface has been observed particularly in the North Atlantic Ocean. Likewise, his study indicates a trend towards increasing hurricane intensity. He states that this decadal increase in intensity “probably reflects the effect of global warming.” This study immediately drew the wrath of the skeptics and, in fact, several mainstream hurricane scientist as well. Then, only a few weeks later, Katrina struck.

Almost overnight the topic of global warming returned to the headlines. An enormous amount of press has been given to the possible relationship between global warming and the destruction wreaked by hurricane Katrina. Many press reports and commentaries have even claimed that Katrina was certainly an indication of global warming and what we may expect in the future. This linking of hurricane Katrina directly to global warming has actually given the skeptics a powerful weapon with which to strike at those they call global warming “alarmists.” The skeptics can now claim, disingenuously perhaps, that the “alarmists” are acting unscientifically by drawing conclusions not supported by the data. Unlike the battle over the Kyoto Protocol and the Mann, Bradbury, Hughes studies, several mainstream hurricane scientists have also criticized the reports tying global warming and hurricane Katrina together. They argue that the global warming “signal” in the data on hurricane intensity is probably too weak to make any kind of definitive statement linking the two. Likewise, all climate scientists, including Emanuel himself, have noted the absurdity of attributing a single weather event (hurricane Katrina) to global warming. Nevertheless, the skeptics, consistent with their past distortions, have failed to acknowledge that the hurricane experts they cite are not necessarily rejecting global warming. These climate scientists are simply stressing that the hurricane data is presently inconclusive, which is not at all the same as denying the existence of global warming. The point is subtle, but critical to understand. Nevertheless, if past behavior is any indication, the skeptics will muddy the waters by insinuating that the controversy over linking hurricanes and global warming is indicative of the lack of scientific understanding of global warming in general.

The fossil fuels industry’s well “oiled” disinformation machinery

The energy industry’s disinformation campaign over the long haul has benefited enormously from the confusion created by its platoon of global warming skeptics. In fact, it would be difficult to imagine any successful campaign on the part of the fossil fuel industry and associates without scientists who lend their name and credentials to an effort to maintain a possibly very harmful status quo. With this brief overview of the distortion campaigns against Kyoto, Mann and coauthors, and the hurricane-global warming link, one gains insight into the skeptic’s modus operandi. Firstly, the skeptics typically single out a particular global warming study (e.g., Mann, Bradbury, Hughes). The data or methodology employed by the scientist is attacked (e.g., the “hockey stick”) and/or minor or trivial errors in the study are overemphasized relative to their importance. This has the effect of devaluing the study’s conclusions. With the skeptics’ ability to project the attacks into the public forum, the smearing of the study is used to denigrate, by extension, all global warming research. Secondly, the skeptics eschew the scientifically rigorous “peer-review” process for their own studies. Peer review of research is common to all scientific fields. Instead, skeptics most often present their research or critiques on websites, through position papers published by right-wing think tanks, or directly through the mass media. When they do manage to publish in peer-reviewed journals, they tend to be second tier as in the case of the Soon and Baliunas article. However, and most importantly, the skeptics are extremely capable of getting their position into the mass media. And the media has been more than obliging in giving the skeptics equal time. In fact, the coverage skeptics receive is vastly disproportionate to their numbers. In some sense, the fact that the fossil fuel industry can depend on the media to give equal access to global warming skeptics has been the backbone of their disinformation campaigns. When the media juxtaposes the views of skeptics and climate scientists, it gives a false impression as to the scientific weight of each argument, creating the illusion that debate is raging within the climate science community. The rational conclusion the public would draw is that the global warming issue is entirely unresolved.

What can we expect in the near future? The debate over hurricanes and global warming will continue long after this hurricane season ends. More studies linking hurricanes to global warming are presently coming out. Given the necessarily tentative conclusions of these studies, the global warming skeptics can be expected to have a field day. Their distortions will greatly influence public misperceptions about the strength of the scientific consensus. When Americans finally become more informed about the scientific consensus, they will be willing to act to counter global warming, even to their own economic detriment. This is what the PIPA (2005) and other polls suggest. Until this happens, further confusion on anthropogenic climate change will lead to inaction on the political front and business as usual.

* This article is based on a presentation entitled “Calentamiento Global: Consenso y Controversias” (Global Warming: Consensus and Controversies) given at the Universidad Nacional Agraria, Managua, Nicaragua in September 2005.

David Adams received his Ph.D. in Atmospheric Sciences from the Institute of Atmospheric Physics, University of Arizona. He is a research meteorologist with additional interests in Latin America and Spanish language/linguistics. He can be reached at: dadams@fiji.ucsd.edu.

REFERENCES

Emanuel, K. A., 2005: Increasing destructiveness of tropical cyclones over the past 30 years. Nature, 436, 686-688.

Mann M. E., Bradley R. S. and Hughes M. K., 1998: Global-scale temperature patterns and climate forcing over the past six centuries. Nature, 392, 779-787.

Mann M. E., Bradley R. S. and Hughes M. K., 1999: Northern Hemisphere temperatures during the past millennium: inferences, uncertainties, and limitations. Geophysical Research Letters, 26, 759–762.

McCright, A. and R. Dunlap, 2003: Defeating Kyoto: The Conservative Movement’s Impact on the U.S. Climate Change Policy, Social Problems, Vol. 50, No. 3, pp 348-373.

Program on International Policy Attitudes (2005) report on climate change can be found here.

Soon, W. and Baliunas, S., 2003: Proxy climatic and environmental changes of the past 1000 years. Climate Research, 23, 89-110.



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