By Ed Cara
The Unabomber still believes in global warming, do you?
That was the gist of the idiotic message sent to drivers speeding along the Eisenhower Expressway in Illinois early this month.
Immediately after the billboard’s appearance, a wave of negative publicity was aimed at the originators of the ad, libertarian think tank Heartland Institute (Supporters of such gems as “Secondhand Smoking Maybe Doesn’t Even Exist, Guys” and “We Think The Ozone’s Shiny New Hole Looks Great On It!”). From economists to journalists to bloggers, it seemed no one was shy enough to roundly denounce the Unabomber schtick as malicious, tacky and anti-scientific propaganda. The ad was taken down 24 hours later.
While the research of climate change has solidified into an overarching, if not perfect, conclusion; namely the need to reduce carbon emissions before warming becomes too large a monster to contain, the politics behind it have stymied almost any meaningful action by the United States to do so for decades. Politics funded through lobbyists and organizations like Heartland by corporations and Conservative coffers. All in the name of deliberately stirring up as much controversy and doubt in the public eye as they can.
What’s more frightening is that these tactics are merely holdovers from previously successful campaigns to muddle the public opinion of environmental issues like secondhand smoke, acid rain and the depletion of the ozone layer by CFC’s (chlorofluorocarbons). Even as the scientific consensus insisted that these problems needed a swift and responsible approach, a strategy of delay emerged from a miniscule group of self-proclaimed experts who rarely had any relevant training in the areas of research they debated, all the while hiding their political and financial motivations from policymakers. The point was never to challenge the science, only hold back any efforts of regulation via the release of industry-funded studies, publications and misinformation campaigns. In terms of smoking, it was well over fifty years ago that the tobacco industry knew about the full extent to which their products harmed smokers and nonsmokers alike, yet as the Surgeon General in 2006 put it:
The [tobacco] industry has funded or carried out research that has been judged to be biased, supported scientists to generate letters to editors that criticized research publications, attempted to undermine the findings of key studies, assisted in establishing a scientific society with a journal, and attempted to sustain controversy even as the scientific community reached consensus.
Eventually their attempts would be seen for the disingenuous attacks that they were when the courts found major tobacco companies guilty of civil racketeering laws and willful deception of the American public in 2006. Today a swath of laws designed to minimize secondhand smoke whenever possible have passed around the country (and world) and with the banning of CFC’s in 1996, the ozone layer is estimated to be back to its pre-CFC levels by 2050. Of course, one can only speculate about the number of dollars, wildlife and healthy lungs lost forever to greedy doubtmongering.*
Unfortunately for us, the model of manufactured debate has only continued on in the climate change arena, with millions of dollars being funneled by companies such as Exxon-Mobile (to the tune of 16 million from 1998 to 2005) to anti-global warming groups, eager to dispel public consensus with cherry-picked studies, misinformed articles and appeals to journalistic balance. As far back as 1970, there were calls for the Nixon administration to look into the carbon problem, yet here we stand forty years later, not having taken any major step in stemming it. As in the tobacco debacle though, is there finally starting to be a pushback against the passiveness and outright denialism of those eager to wish away global warming?
According to a extensive survey by the Yale Center of Climate Change Communication, 72% of Americans today support policy changes to handle the looming specter of global warming. From cleaner energy (92%) to regulations on the amount of carbon being pumped out into the atmosphere (75%), there’s a palpable desire to start taking action against a threat that up till recently was still being debated as to its actual existence. This isn’t just a bleeding liberal phenomenon either, as both a majority of Democrats and Republicans agree that steps need to be taken, though still at 68% to 52%. More heartening are the beliefs that corporations need to regulate themselves at 70% and that the initiatives we undertake can still generate more jobs and economic growth at 58%. All across the board, there is wide support for dealing with climate change and its consequences sooner rather than later. It should be noted here that these results reflect a trend as far back as 2008, meaning that as good news as it is, it’s also not anything too surprising.
As to why these numbers are as high as they are, the study’s authors figure that, among other reasons, the effects of a changing Earth, mild as they are now, are emerging clearer to most Americans not heavily invested one way or the other. 2011’s summer amounted to the hottest since 1936, while on the other side of the equation, the fourth warmest winter to date mildly passed us by. Even if these seasons weren’t the direct result of warming, climate being hard to pattern on a short term basis, it’s becoming harder to ignore the enormous elephant of Mother Nature in the room. Coupled with the more aggressive communication by the likes of popular Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye and other experts, there’s been a noticeable offensive on the part of those working with the facts.
Earlier this year for instance, when the Wall Street Journal published a grossly inaccurate editorial written and signed by sixteen known skeptics alleging that the jury is still out on the science and we shouldn’t be too hasty in rushing to conclusions, a group of thirty-eight climate specialists quickly mobilized and shot off their own rebuttal in a letter to the WSJ (though only after they had rejected a similar essay on the actual climate data signed by 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences a year earlier). And in April, a bill in the Oklahoma legislature that would have allowed teachers to directly contradict the scientific teachings of climate change and evolution ultimately died in the Senate. The misinformation campaign of Heartland and Co isn’t just being fought back against in editorials or local governments either; look deep enough on the internet and you’ll find plenty of men and women dedicated to debunking climate myths, no matter how often they rear their ugly heads. Sadly enough though, this renewed fight to take back the science from denialists hasn’t come without its own ethical lapses.
In February, internal Heartland documents were leaked to multiple news outlets by an anonymous source, documents which among other things detailed a budget financed by corporate giants like Phillip Morris and plans to fund a campaign teaching high school kids all the myths galore about global warming. Eventually the leaker revealed himself to be Peter Gleick, a noted climate analyst and advocate. Via his own blog, Gleick confessed that he used a fake guise to obtain said information, looking to confirm a document about Heartland’s goings on he received earlier from his own anonymous source. Even as Heartland only tepidly questioned the authenticity of one of the leaked documents, Gleick was jumped on by all sides for his ethical betrayal of standards and for providing fodder for those who paranoidly insist that the global warming narrative is being written by unscrupulous experts looking to cash in on their own fear-mongering for a chance at grant money. Soon after his reveal, Gleick would take a leave of absence from the institute he founded while an external investigation of his actions began.
Gleick’s deception aside, the leak in many ways was the catalyst to unraveling Heartland and others’ strategy of created unease. Financial donors who normally defended themselves by pointing out their contributions to the organization were unrelated to the climate front of Heartland, such as General Motors, now faced bad PR for supporting in any way a thoroughly unbalanced and nonobjective propaganda machine and quickly pulled out. Which brings us back to our good friend, the Unabomber.
With their motivations clear as day now yet perhaps desperate to throw off the scent of bias, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that Heartland decided to step out of their cloak-and-dagger routine to throw a haymaker at climate change advocates with their murderer-sponsored billboard. Far from being a provocative and thought-provoking message to the drivers of the Eisenhower Expressway however, their attack only alienated just about anyone with a sense of taste, regardless of where they laid on the political spectrum.
Bluntness being no substitute for substance, many of their allies, tentative in the wake of Gleick’s leak already, left in droves within hours of the unveiling, and with them their monetary support. From State Farm to Pepsico to AT&T, over $800,000 of corporate money has evaporated in the last few months. The staff of their Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate project? Split off to form their own think-tank, one not interested in “promoting climate change skepticism” as their former Washington head Eli Lehrer succinctly put it. Along with the money and staff loss came a large brain drain, as experts that they called upon time after time also began their mass exodus from any further association with the institute. With nowhere else to turn, Heartland abandoned all pretense and began accepting funds from such objective groups as the Heritage Foundation and the Illinois Coal Association to help buoy up their annual climate conference set this week. The most damaging fallout from their Unabomber fiasco isn’t anything you’d see on a spreadsheet though, it’s the transformation from an influential voice of doubt to an embarrassing caricature whose voice will only go so far as their echo chamber allows it. In short, they’ve become the butt of a joke that no one ever really found funny in the first place.
Does all this mean that the denialists and “delayists” are in full retreat? No. Not so long as the interests of those who hesitate to stop feeding from the carbon cash cow are still aflush with plenty of money to influence policy unchecked from criticism. Whether it’s oil companies recording some of their highest profits ever, or bankrolled politicians (namely Republicans, who received 88% of political contributions made by gas and oil industries in 2011) blocking progress of cleaner technologies and regulations, money inevitably talks. That’s not even considering that in some ways, doubt has already won the day over reasonable science in the public square, because while a majority of us do seem to want environmental change for the better, it’s only a paltry 46% of the country that believes global warming is a mess that we ourselves created, and barely 66% who believe it’s even a real thing, a sharp contrast to 97% of researchers.
But the battle over the language of climate change isn’t a loss one should lament for too long, not when the stakes over its consequences are that much higher. As sound as the science might be, it will only be the newfound outspokenness of climate researchers, journalists and Presidential incumbents that proves to be our saving grace from a warming Earth. The truth matters, but it’s having the strength to stand behind that truth that affects any real change. Climate or otherwise.
Peter Gleick was recently cleared of any suspicion of having forged any of the Heartland documents. The conclusions from the external investigation are set to publicly released soon.
*Highly recommend science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s 2010 book Merchants of Doubt for anyone interested in an in-depth and extensive look at the men and organizations that manufactured doubt on the issues of secondhand smoke, acid rain and other pivotal environmental issues of the day.
Follow Ed Cara and his writings at his twitter, TheImprovateer.