James Hoggan’s Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming is a valuable exposé of the efforts that have been made by self-interested actors to prevent political action on climate change, by manipulating the public debate and confusing people about the strength of the science. Written by a Canadian public relations professional, and written with a focus on actors and events in Canada, Hoggan’s book examines how the media has been involved in the debate, how companies have worked to create false grassroots campaigns (‘astroturfing’), the role played by think tanks, the use of lawsuits to intimidate and silence critics, the ‘echo chamber’ effect wherein false claims are endlessly repeated by sympathetic sources, and more. Hoggan makes a convincing case that status quo actors – particularly petrochemical firms – have been working for decades to keep the public confused, and keep legislators inactive.
Hoggan provides both logical and documentary evidence to back up his claims – pointing out things like how most of the scientists that actively deny the consensus view of climate change are being funded as advocates, not as scientists:
The Intermountain Rural Electric Association isn’t paying Pat Michaels to go back into his lab and do research helping the world to a better understanding of how human activities are affecting the climate. The coal-fired utility owners are paying him to “stand up against the alarmists and bring a balance to the discussion.”
Hoggan provides many specific examples of malfeasance, and argues that the public relations personal directing the campaign against action on climate change are often indifferent to whether the claims they are making are true or false. They are tested for how well they affect public opinion, not how well they represent the reality of the situation.
Hoggan does sometimes present information in a misleading way. For instance, he compares the risk of climate change with the risk of car and house insurance, and says that: “in both cases the risk of disaster is significantly less than the greater than 90 percent certainty that scientists ascribe to the climate crisis.” He is referring to how the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report concluded that: “Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations.” and defined ‘very likely’ as cases where “expert judgment and statistical analysis of a body of evidence” support an assessed probability of over 90%. The IPCC was saying that there is a scientific consensus that there is a 90% chance that the unequivocal warming that has been observed has anthropogenic causes, not that the “risk of disaster” is 90%. The question of how serious the consequences of warming will be is distinct from the question of what is causing warming. Another odd error is one sentence written as though the consulting company McKinsey was a person: “When McKinsey talks about a carbon revolution, he strikes the right tone.”
That said, Climate Cover-Up succeeds in its key purpose: revealing that not everyone is engaging in the climate debate in an honest or ethical manner. The scientific consensus that climate change is real and risky is exceedingly strong, and yet the public and policy-makers have been very effectively confused and encouraged to delay action. By revealing the extent to which the debate has been manipulated, Hoggan’s book will hopefully contribute to the eventual improvement of public understanding of climate change, and the development of a will to act sufficiently strong to sort out the problem before the worst potential consequences become inevitable. Hoggan also continues that effort through DeSmogBlog – a site he created to provide ongoing updates on climate change misinformation campaigns.
[Update: 13 October 2010] Another good book on the same topic is Naomi Oreskes’ Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.