Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Putting a pricetag on the media’s objectivity

Posted by metaphorical on 6 January 2007

In an effort to deceive the public about the reality of global warming, ExxonMobil has underwritten the most sophisticated and most successful disinformation campaign since the tobacco industry misled the public about the scientific evidence linking smoking to lung cancer and heart disease. As this report documents, the two disinformation campaigns are strikingly similar. ExxonMobil has drawn upon the tactics and even some of the organizations and actors involved in the callous disinformation campaign the tobacco industry waged for 40 years.

So begins a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, issued a few days ago.

The report says that “By publishing and republishing the non-peer-reviewed works of a small group of scientific spokespeople, ExxonMobil-funded organizations have propped up and amplified work that has been discredited by reputable climate scientists.” It claims that the company “[m]anufactured uncertainty by raising doubts about even the most indisputable scientific evidence.” How much did all this cost? A mere $16 million.

The UCS report is being widely reported, but not in its striking details. The AP story, for example, mentions the similarity to tabacco-industry propaganda campaigns (though it doesn’t call them that) but doesn’t mention the important fact that some of the same organizations and actors are involved.

Specifically, the UCS report charges that one of the organizations funded by ExxonMobil was something called The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition or TASSC. It turns out that TASSC was “covertly created” as “a front organization” by Philip Morris in 1993. The report devotes its lengthy Appendix C to this nexus of the tobacco industry’s front organizations, ExxonMobil’s and others in the oil industry, and officials of the Bush administration.

ExxonMobil put forward “scientists” and other “experts” to appear in the media, and paid for the phony science that they would rely on. The company played on the media’s natural inclination to suppose there are two sides to every question, and that each deserves to be represented. And it exploited the media’s failure to appreciate the cavernous difference between peer-reviewed science and stuff that’s alleged to be science but isn’t peer-reviewed. The latter can just be ignored, but the media doesn’t.

So the media completely failed to properly represent to the public global warming—and the role of humans in it—as the rock-solid fact that it is. How solid? A 2004 study of the literature showed that of 928 studies, which represented “a random sample of approximately 10 percent of the literature,” not a single one disagreed with “the consensus view that humans are contributing to global warming.”

The report’s Appendix A is devoted to documenting this scientific consensus. It’s not that lengthy, and it’s rather an astonishing read for those who have been hearing two sides to this question for the past six years or so, so here it is, reformatted and reproduced in full.

Appendix A

The Scientific Consensus on Global Warming

The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action. It is vital that all nations identify cost-effective steps that they can take now, to contribute to substantial and long-term reduction in net global greenhouse gas emissions. —Joint statement by the science academies of 11 nations, June 7, 2005

Ever since Svante Arrhenius published “On the influence of carbonic acid in the air upon the temperature of the ground” in 1896, scientists have appreciated the fundamental principle regarding heat-trapping emissions and their influence on Earth’s temperature. The burning of fossil fuels in power plants and vehicles releases heat-trapping emissions, principally carbon dioxide, which accumulates in the atmosphere. These emissions function much like a blanket, trapping heat and warming the planet. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has already increased nearly 40 percent since the dawn of the industrial era and average global temperature is around 1 degree Fahrenheit higher then a century ago.

If global warming emissions grow unabated, climate scientists expect mean temperatures around the world will rise dramatically this century.[165] Without concerted human intervention to try to correct or at least stabilize this trend, researchers have identified a host of disruptive and possibly irreversible consequences, including coastal flooding caused by rising sea levels, an increase in powerful tropical storms, extreme heat waves in summer, and reduced productivity of farms, forests, and fisheries worldwide.[166]

This unprecedented rate of recent warming is caused primarily by human activity. That, in a nutshell, is the overwhelming scientific consensus about global climate change, ever since the publication of a landmark review in 2001 by an international panel of leading climate experts under the auspices of the United Nations, called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).[167] The 2001 IPCC assessment drew upon more than 1200 scientist and approximately 120 countries. It quickly became a standard reference and solidified the scientific consensus about global warming internationally. Released just days after the inauguration of President George W. Bush, the IPCC report laid out the mounting and consistent scientific evidence of global warming.

In May 2001, the White house officially asked the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to conduct its own review of the IPCC assessment.[168] Within a month, in June 2001, the NAS confirmed the conclusions of the IPCC that global warming is occurring and that it is caused primarily by human activity.[169] More recently, 11 of the world’s major national scientific academies including those from the leading industrialized nations issued a joint statement that declared, “The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action. It is vital that all nations identify cost-effective steps that they can take now to contribute to substantial and long-term reduction in net global greenhouse gas emissions.”[170]

One of the reasons scientists consider the evidence so compelling is that it draws on such a broad range of sources. In addition to climate specialists who use sophisticated computer models to study climatic trends, researchers from an array of disciplines, including atmospheric scientists, paleoclimatologists, oceanographers, meteorologists, geologists, chemists, biologists, physicists, and ecologists have all corroborated global warming by studying everything from animal migration to the melting of glaciers. Evidence of a dramatic global warming trend has been found in ice cores pulled from the both polar regions, satellite imagery of the shrinking polar ice masses, tree rings, ocean temperature monitoring, and so on.

Ralph Cicerone, President of the National Academy of Sciences stated during a U.S. house of Representatives hearing for the Committee on Energy and Commerce on July 27, 2006: “I think we understand the mechanisms of CO2 and climate better than we do of what causes lung cancer…In fact, it is fair to say that global warming may be the most carefully and fully studied scientific topic in human history.”[171] Similarly, Donald Kennedy, the editor of Science, has noted, “Consensus as strong as the one that has developed around [global warming] is rare in science.”[172]

To get a sense of just how powerful the scientific consensus about global warming is, consider this: in a December 2004 article published in the journal Science, Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at the University of California, San Diego, reviewed the peer-reviewed scientific literature for papers on global climate change published between 1993 and 2003. Oreskes reviewed a random sample of approximately 10 percent of the literature; of the 928 studies, not one disagreed with the consensus view that humans are contributing to global warming.[173]

Despite what ExxonMobil might try to tell you, today, in 2006, there is widespread agreement among credentialed climate scientists around the world that human-caused global warming is well under way. Without a concerted effort to curb heat-trapping emissions, it spells trouble for the health and well-being of our planet.

165 For a helpful review of climate change science, see http://www.pewclimate.org. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projections for 21st century average global temperature increase is 2.5-10.4 degrees Fahrenheit, based upon multiple climate models and a range of assumptions regarding future greenhouse gas heat-trapping emissions. Regional warming may be greater or less than the global average. For example, temperature increases in the United States are projected to be approximately 30 percent higher than the global average and the arctic is likely to experience the greatest warming.

166 See, for instance, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2001, Third Assessment Report, 2001, Vol. 2, Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, http://www.ipcc.ch and National Academy of Sciences, The National Assessment, http://www.usgcrp.gov/usgcrp/nacc/default.htm, accessed December 10, 2006.

167 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Third Assessment Report, 2001. Vols. 1-4. The specific scientific summaries are available at http://www.grida.no/ climate/ipcc/, accessed December 10, 2006.

168 The White House letter, dated May 11, was signed by John M. Bridgeland, Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, and Gary edson, Deputy Assistant to the President for International economic Affairs.

169 National Academy of Sciences, Commission on Geosciences, environment and Resources, 2001, Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions, http://newton.nap.edu/catalog/10139.html#toc, accessed December 10, 2006.

170 The National Academies, Joint science academies’ statement. The eleven academies include Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, and the United States.

171 Hearing before the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House energy and Commerce Committee, July 27, 2006.

172 Science, 2001, An unfortunate u-turn on carbon, editorial, March 30, http://www. sciencemag.org/cgi/content/summary/291/5513/2515, accessed November 29, 2006.

173 Oreskes, N., 2004, Beyond the ivory tower: The scientific consensus on climate change, Science, December 3.

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5 Responses to “Putting a pricetag on the media’s objectivity”

  1. I get to wear shorts. Global warming is gooooooooood!

  2. Micke N said

    Very interesting article. I think the oil companies games with our planets future is sickening, and for what, some more money?

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