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Oil burning at night in the Sahara Desert. Photo/Getty Images

How manipulation of climate change science polluted the debate

Deliberate manipulation of science and the media has delayed a meaningful reaction to climate change by decades, argues science historian Naomi Oreskes. Her new book lays out how scientists can fight back.

Early last month, President Donald Trump began the official, year-long process of withdrawing the US from the Paris climate agreement. But just a few days earlier, a major climate change lawsuit against ExxonMobil opened in New York, with the oil giant accused of defrauding investors by misleading them about the risks from future climate regulations.

At the same time, Naomi Oreskes, a science historian at Harvard University, was giving evidence at a congressional committee hearing into the oil industry’s efforts to suppress and undermine evidence about climate change – a deliberate tactic of obfuscation that began about 40 years ago.

This deliberate, strategic denial of scientific evidence is the subject of Oreskes’ ground-breaking 2010 book Merchants of Doubt (co-authored with Erik M Conway), which tells the story of how a relatively small but politically well-connected band of scientists, funded by the fossil-fuel industry and libertarian think tanks, hoodwinked the public by promoting doubt about several environmental and public-health issues, beginning with the health effects of tobacco smoking, the toxicity of DDT and the effect of ozone-destroying chemicals, and how the same tactics of denial (and even the same people) worked to thwart meaningful and timely action on climate change.

Naomi Oreskes. Photo/Getty Images

Oreskes has now published a new book, Why Trust Science?, in which she lays out how scientists can help put an end to doubt-mongering and anti-science politics. “Most people still trust science far more than politicians or business leaders, but we have been cynically manipulated to distrust climate science,” she says in an interview from her home.

In her evidence to Congress, she told the committee that Earth scientists were well aware of the consequences of “burning fossil fuels at a prodigious rate” in the late 1950s, and some warned back then that returning the carbon stored in petroleum over hundreds of millions of years to the atmosphere and the oceans was akin to conducting a massive experiment with the planet’s climate.

Oreskes chronicled the progress from these early alerts to clean-air laws in the 1970s, the formation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the 1980s and the 1992 Earth Summit where the elder George Bush signed up the US to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which commits signatory nations to global action to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference” with the climate system. Since then, says Oreskes, “there have been hundreds of scientific reports and assessments and tens of thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers on the issue … there have been laws passed, statements made, resolutions galore … children have refused to go to school”. But greenhouse-gas emissions continue to rise regardless, not because of a lack of information about climate change but, partly, because of a “systematic, organised campaign by the fossil-fuel industry and its allies to sow doubt about the science and prevent meaningful action”.

Unplanned flaring at ExxonMobil’s ethylene plant in Fife, Scotland, in April. Photo/Getty Images

Denial and deception

A decade after Merchants of Doubt, it seems wilful denial has gained ground and moved well beyond self-interested corporations to sections of the media and politics, including a US president who remains largely unchallenged when he posits that climate change is a hoax. Oreskes says it is deeply problematic that the top tier of the US government is rejecting science, because it signals that it is okay to ride roughshod over established evidence. She also sees it as further proof that climate denial is not a question of lacking information. “The US President has access to more scientific information than probably anybody on the planet – but he actively rejects it on a number of issues because it conflicts with his own interests.”

This, Oreskes says, makes it even more important to continue to expose that the fossil-fuel industry’s tactics, including cherry-picking data and proffering fake experts to challenge scientific evidence on climate change, come straight out of the tobacco industry’s playbook for delaying tobacco control.

Other witnesses at the congressional hearing included two former ExxonMobil scientists – Ed Garvey and Martin Hoffert – who recalled how they were initially hired during the late 1970s and early 80s to support inhouse research to develop a carbon-dioxide monitoring programme. Both described how the company changed tack soon after and began spinning scientific findings. “Although my experience with Exxon researchers was positive,” Hoffert told the committee, “I was greatly distressed by the climate science denial campaign that Exxon’s front office launched around the time I stopped working as a consultant for Exxon. The advertisements that Exxon ran in major newspapers raising doubts about climate change were contradicted by the scientific work we had done and continued to do. Exxon was publicly promoting views that its own scientists knew were wrong. This was immoral and has greatly set back efforts to address climate change.”

For Oreskes, the fact that a congressional committee is now hearing these stories as part of formal evidence represents some progress. “A decade ago, many people were a bit dismissive when we tried to pitch Merchants of Doubt. They thought it was a sideshow. Now I don’t think anyone thinks that. But the problem is that we are running out of time. As the IPCC has told us, we only have about 11 years left to start making massive reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, and right now that is just not happening.”

She says it is a tragedy that we’ve wasted half a century. “People are now seeing climate change with their own eyes, and also seeing that climate change is not, as the fossil-fuel industry would have us believe, manageable.”

With catastrophic bushfires threatening lives and ecosystems and intensifying hurricanes and cyclones destroying livelihoods, “people also see the costs, and are starting to understand how the fossil-fuel industry has profited and is now saddling us with the bill for the damages. The problem, of course, is what scientists predicted decades ago: once you see climate change, it is too late to stop it. So, now we are not talking about preventing ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference’ with the climate system. We are just talking about limiting the damage. And that is a tragedy. It might also be a crime.”

Several court cases are now under way in the US against the fossil-fuel industry, and Oreskes expects that much more evidence will emerge about “industry malfeasance and its influence on the political system”.

Looking at vintage advertisements for cigarettes is both infuriating and heartbreaking, but Oreskes has identified clear parallels to the oil industry’s key strategy of fabricating controversy to make it seem as if climate science is contested. She says such deception is not necessarily targeting politicians but journalists.

A controlled burn of oil near the source of the BP Deepwater Horizon spill – the biggest in US history –  in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Photo/Getty Images

Media manipulation

In July this year, during a keynote speech at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Lausanne, Oreskes showed how media coverage of climate change in the US jarred with scientific thinking. “As the science was getting stronger and coalescing … the coverage was getting more out of sync with what the scientific community was saying – and that means that the contrarian effort was having an effect.”

She highlighted polls from 2007, which showed that 72% of Americans were completely or mostly convinced that global warming was happening, and recent surveys that suggest the numbers are similar today. “Everybody is boasting about how people are waking up to it and now realise that climate change is real, but actually they knew it 10 years ago, but in the interim the numbers fell dramatically and have only recently recovered.

“Our research showed that the centrepiece of the strategy of sowing doubt was to target journalists to tell both sides of the story, because if you could get journalists to tell both sides, then the American people would get the message that we didn’t really know. The fossil-fuel industry exploited the journalistic ideals of fairness, objectivity and particularly the idea of balance to manipulate journalists into presenting what was essentially propaganda, what we would now call fake news, as the other side of a science story – not as a political story or an economic story but as the other side of a science story, when, in fact, it wasn’t a science story at all. And, sadly, it worked.”

Propaganda is an old art and beyond deliberate manipulation of mainstream media it has found new forms of expression through social media. Oreskes says she supports any initiative to rein in the spread of mis- and disinformation on social platforms. “All previous electronic media – radio, telephone, television – have been regulated. There’s absolutely no reason why this newest form should not be regulated. And people who cry ‘free speech! free speech!’ are ignoring history.

“Long ago, the US Supreme Court articulated the ‘clear and present danger’ doctrine. Free speech does not give you the right to incite a riot, or, as Oliver Wendell Holmes said in the case of Schenck v United States, to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. We need a grown-up discussion of this issue. So far, we have not had one.”

Decades of obfuscation may have left climate science on the back foot, but in Why Trust Science?, Oreskes argues that we should trust science not so much because of its method of gathering and testing evidence but because of its social processes of rigorously vetting claims through self-correcting debates and peer review and its insistence on the reproducibility of results – all of which eventually lead to consensus. Consensus across the scientific community shows that a matter has been settled and that findings and conclusions are trustworthy, she says.

Of course, peer review is flawed and reproducibility rates are far from perfect, but Oreskes says the problems are not nearly as large as some people have claimed. “I think there are some people out there who are relishing the opportunity to point out flaws in science. There’s a bit of schadenfreude in it – bringing down the great men and all that. Of course some scientists are arrogant, and we all know that pride goeth before the fall, but if you look at the statistics, the retraction rate in science is minuscule. It’s far lower than what would be considered an acceptable error rate in many other activities.”

Although many media organisations now recognise the trap of false balance, Oreskes says scientists can and should do more to improve trust. One important step would be to increase diversity.

Climate sceptics often raise historic examples of when scientists got it wrong, to suggest that they could be wrong again about climate change. Eugenics is the most heinous example frequently revisited for this purpose and Oreskes devotes a chapter of her book to exploring case studies of science gone awry. The eugenics movement managed to capture politics and unleash unfathomable evil, but she shows that there never was any consensus among scientists, with several high-profile geneticists and evolutionary biologists – famous names such as JBS Haldane and Julian Huxley among them – calling out eugenics for its biases and hidden motivations. Had the science community been less uniform and conforming at the time, perhaps underlying assumptions might have been challenged more vehemently and sooner.

Other examples include a 2016 study of more than a million Danish women that suggested a link between depression and hormonal contraception. The researchers analysed prescription records from practitioners and showed a higher risk of depression for women on the pill. The research received a lot of media attention but the findings were nothing new for women who had been describing effects on mental health for decades. Their self-reporting had often been discounted as unreliable or “iffy” by predominantly male medical scientists. “A demographic diversity is a proxy for diversity in perspectives,” Oreskes writes. “Our perspectives depend to a great extent on our life experience, so a community of all men – or all women, for that matter – is likely to have a narrower range of experiences and therefore a narrower range of perspectives than a mixed one.”

Fire crews work to extinguish an oil well in Iraq set ablaze by Isis. Photo/Getty Images

Skin in the game

Perhaps the most fundamental change would be to acknowledge more clearly that science is not value-neutral, and nor are the individuals pursuing it, Oreskes says. “The dominant style of scientific writing is not only to hide the values of the authors but to hide their humanity altogether. Not only are values unexpressed, emotions expunged and adjectives eschewed, but the word ‘I’ is implicitly forbidden. This is, of course, tied to the notion of objectivity, but by suppressing their values and insisting on value neutrality of science, scientists have gone down the wrong road.”

Some scientists, and climate scientists in particular, are already heeding this advice. Forty years after researchers from 50 nations met at the First World Climate Conference in Geneva in 1979, more than 11,000 scientists from around the world signed and published a letter on November 5 stressing that “scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and to tell it like it is”. On that basis, they wrote, “we declare … clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency”.

Oreskes agrees with the framing of climate change as an emergency. “Carbon dioxide is at 410 parts per million and rising [in May this year, it touched 415ppm for the first time in human history], and we are doing bugger all about it. How is that not a crisis?”

In her evidence, she told the congressional committee that she comes to the issue of climate change not as a politician or activist, but as a scholar and teacher. “That said, the issue before us … is so serious, so imperative, that at this moment in history, we must all become active to fix it, before the opportunity to do so is lost.”

At the time of the publication of Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes wrote a cautiously optimistic note. “Of the many cases of doubt-mongering that we have studied, most ended for the better. At a certain point, the companies manufacturing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) admitted their link to ozone depletion and did the right thing by committing to phasing them out. The public is now firmly convinced of the link between cigarettes and cancer. Inductive reasoning implies that the same should happen with climate change: the consensus scientific view will eventually win public opinion. But, in the meantime, irreversible damage is being done – to the planet, and to the credibility of science.”

Why Trust Science?, by Naomi Oreskes (Princeton University Press, $55).

This article was first published in the December 14, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.