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Silencing Science

How ExxonMobil and the Whitehouse have duped the public about the "uncertainty" behind climate change.

March 3rd, 2007 · Written by · No Comments


If you’ve seen Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, allegations that the Bush Administration manipulated federally-funded studies in order to downplay the threat of global warming are hardly any surprise. These manipulations have expectedly muddied the picture on global warming throughout the general public’s mindscape.

But now Congress is finally taking notice.

Hearings this February by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform marked the first official inquiry into the administration’s systemic disregard for the scientific process.

The deceit began with the advice of Frank Luntz, a master propagandist who’s played a frequent role in assisting Republicans with spin campaigns. He constructed a 16-page document detailing the proper protocol for speaking about climate change. Rule number one: Never, EVER use the words “global warming.” The term is too cataclysmic. Other advice included emphasizing a supposed “scientific uncertainty” surrounding the issue.

Next came the appointment of former oil lobbyist Phil Cooney to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, where he began editing federal reports on climate change to fit within the framework of Luntz’s playbook. Cooney resigned in 2005 after a New York Times article exposed his censorship. He quickly found a job working for ExxonMobil. The Times story centered on government whistleblower Rick Piltz, who had resigned from the Climate Change Science Program to protest what he considered the politicization of science.

Piltz revealed more in his testimony before the House Committee. He detailed an all-encompassing report prepared by his program – the “most comprehensive effort to assess the potential implications of global warming and climate change for the U.S.” – that predicted a range of bad news scenarios for the environment and society.

“This report has essentially been made to vanish by the Bush Administration,” Piltz testified.

Esteemed Goddard Institute scientist, Drew Shindell, also testified to the intimidation of climate scientists at NASA; specifically government “minders” who had to be present for any interviews with the press. He also detailed how press releases regarding climate change were edited and misrepresented.

As if this wasn’t condemning enough, a recent study conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Government Accountability Project surveyed hundreds of scientists at seven federal agencies, discovering evidence of widespread political interference. Forty-three percent of respondents experienced changes or edits during review of their work that altered the meaning of their scientific findings.

“The new evidence shows that political interference in climate science is no longer a series of isolated incidents but a system-wide epidemic,” said Dr. Francesca Grifo, a senior scientist with UCS who also testified.

The White House claims it only tried to inject balance into reports on climate change. The “balance” being alternative views pointing to non-human causes, or even flat-out denials of global warming. Such statements demonstrate the success of conservative pundits in making a far-reaching consensus across the scientific community seem like a tumultuous debate.

The words “far-reaching consensus” shouldn’t be taken lightly.

The words “far-reaching consensus” shouldn’t be taken lightly. Scientists around the world agree upon the fact that greenhouse gasses, emitted through the burning of fossil fuels, are causing an unprecedented rise in average global temperatures. These conclusions were reached by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – one of the largest, peer-reviewed scientific studies in history, consisting of 2,000 scientists from more than 100 countries. The scientific academies of all G8 nations, along with China, India, and Brazil, released a joint statement in 2005 stating global warming is occurring, and likely due to human activities. The American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences have all issued similar statements in recent years.

So where did the Bush Administration get the idea reports they were receiving weren’t balanced? The answer lies in a campaign of misinformation which rivals past efforts by the tobacco industry to cast doubt on the carcinogenic nature of their products.

Big Oil was never going to take the impending threat of mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions lying down. Companies like ExxonMobil began funneling millions of dollars into front groups composed of scientists who doubted the findings of the IPCC – many of whom aren’t climate scientists and haven’t done any original research on the subject. Yet they demand equal weight in media coverage for their fringe positions.

“People don’t ask about their credentials,” said James Hoggan in an interview with CBC. Hoggan is the creator of the DeSmogBlog – a website aiming to “clear the PR pollution surrounding the climate change debate.”

“Most of these guys that you see quoted aren’t climate scientists,” Hoggan said. “Some of them do have PhDs and a science background, but they aren’t doing science, they’re doing PR.”

Dr. Fred Singer, Dr. Fredrick Seitz, and Dr. Tim Ball are some of the better-known skeptics. They argue that global warming part of a natural cycle and might actually be beneficial. All three have received funding from the oil industry. Singer and Seitz were formally funded by the tobacco industry as well. They’ve all even participated in global warming denial conferences funded by a PR firm called APCO – the very same firm that sowed doubt in the public about the risk of cigarettes.

Tactics utilized to create an illusion of uncertainty about global warming range from dubious petitions and misleading facts to half-truths. One petition supposedly signed by 15,000 skeptical scientists was later found by the Associated Press to include the names of numerous fictional characters. Deniers frequently assert that satellite data doesn’t indicate warming is occurring – a discrepancy that’s been resolved for years. Another frequent claim involves the supposed thickening of glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica, despite NASA findings to the contrary. But the bulk of their arguments rely on the theory that climate change is merely a natural occurrence, perhaps caused by increases in solar radiation.

However, all these hypotheses have been thoroughly examined and discarded by the mainstream scientific community. The only remaining uncertainties revolve around the effects of global warming, not its existence or cause. And with a report commissioned by the British Treasury projecting costs of climate change to be as expensive as both world wars and the Great Depression added together, even arguments that it isn’t economically feasible to curb emissions are laughable at best.

The bottom line: You wouldn’t walk into a dental clinic for help with a toothache, and then leave to seek a second opinion from a proctologist. So why are we taking our cues on climate change from non-climate scientists?

The fact that such a vital and threatening issue has been ignored and spun by White House to suit corporate interests is rooted in an endemic governmental flaw: A revolving door between big business and politics which must be vastly curtailed, or the federal government’s response to environmental threats will continue to be contingent upon the profit margins of CEOs.

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