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
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
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
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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
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.