Past lives of climate deniers


in Canada, Economics, Politics, Rants, Science, The environment

My friend Antonia sent me a nice article by Jeffrey Sachs, describing what today’s most prominent climate change deniers were doing, before they took up this cause:

Today’s campaigners against action on climate change are in many cases backed by the same lobbies, individuals, and organisations that sided with the tobacco industry to discredit the science linking smoking and lung cancer. Later, they fought the scientific evidence that sulphur oxides from coal-fired power plants were causing “acid rain.” Then, when it was discovered that certain chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were causing the depletion of ozone in the atmosphere, the same groups launched a nasty campaign to discredit that science, too.

Later still, the group defended the tobacco giants against charges that second-hand smoke causes cancer and other diseases. And then, starting mainly in the 1980s, this same group took on the battle against climate change.

What this reinforces is how artificial the climate change denial movement is. Status quo actors, from Duke Energy to Saudi Arabia to Canada’s oil-sands-funded politicians, want to avoid climate change legislation. They have found some shills happy to spread confusion, in order to advance that aim. What is sad is how many ordinary people have lined up to be duped.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. February 23, 2010 at 1:56 pm

These people are helped enormously by the sheer willingness of the public to believe their claims.

When people are fishing for excuses to keep believing and acting as they have in the past, they don’t demand the best credentials or personal records from the people who stand up to provide those excuses.

Antonia February 24, 2010 at 1:00 pm

Of course we now have the additional voices of those convinced by the layered confusions and misinterpretations that those founding and funding this doubt industry promulgated.

Antonia February 24, 2010 at 3:01 pm

On doubts:
A lot of the doubts cast can seem plausible, as much value to be drawn from research processes and emerging data lies in, or is underpinned by, understanding the complexities of statistics and of the research processes themselves, which necessarily leaves non-specialists vulnerable to confusion. ‘Research’ is a singular word but multiple processes as the humanities / hard sciences spectrum of academic activity shows. Even in science, a specialist used to working within the greater predicatability and constraints of, for example, immediately observable short-term experimental (chemical, biological or physics) processes would be inherently likely to consider any processes for the production and output of any research purposed to primarily produce a prediction rather than an observation as inherently suspect.

Experts voices are often stilled, outside peer publications and inter-departmental discourse) by the fear that any judgement they have formed and communicate on the basis of data they have looked at to date will be interpreted as indicating a bias contaminating any future contribution either to their subject, to professional advice, or to public debate in future. The strength of concern about the severity of potential climate change impact led to more scientists speaking out, only to have these fears confirmed, reinforcing the gag.

On artificiality:
When I think of the current level of nit-picking and data dissection of experts’ results and opinions I think of a how a structural engineer would respond to a similar level of enquiry. For example, on examining the building in which his office is located thoroughly, the engineer advances an opinion that there is a risk of collapse in 30-40 years without significant remedial work which should start within the next decade. They are then asked to indicate meter-by-meter (internal to the structure as well as surface) throughout the exact wear and stress damage leading to that conclusion and produce a month-by-month forward-timeline for the progress of the building’s degredation, which specific blocks of concrete, girders etc will fail and in what order. No (effective) action will be taken at all until that information is provided, tested by observation over a significant period (preferably over 15 years) of further observations, though signs may be posted in the corridors and, of course, the report distributed for discussion amongst all the interested parties. Before any actual work on the the building is initiated, it will be vital to convince a large majority of members of the public and the building’s leaseholders of the absolute accuracy of the projection, which will involve convincing them of the utility and effectiveness of all aspects of the engineers methodology, the engineer’s application of same in this case and that other techniques could not have yielded a different result. There are also parties who may be willing to assume the assessment of the building’s current condition is entirely accurate but need clearer evidence of why current rolling repairs will not suffice to keep it in order indefinitely. Some of that group feel that there is no problem at all as the building and its maintenance schedule was designed to cope with ongoing wear and tear therefore will also have no problem with an additional ton of office equipment and additional 5% occupation density increase per annum so the entire assessment was a pointless exercise and should be ignored, however robust the current observations. In the meantime 20 separate firms of architects, engineers and other related experts are commissioned to make their own assessments. 90% reach the same conclusions as the initial assessment, though some of their figures and timescales vary. Tennants with flat rents facing increased charges for the maintenance levy claim that the engineer and later experts are only interested in further consulting fees and all the observations are in fact based on superficial wear to the decor. Their decorators agree. Further, no remedial action will be taken until all interested parties have achieved consensus on all the above aspects, agreed which of the repairs listed as necessary are in fact necessary, provided a deposit and put the funding mechanism in place as nothing other than further investigatory work can be done on credit and the repairs contribution hike (or separate major repairs fund fee) won’t be levied until significant ‘live’ H&S issues appear and start to impact occupiers, and it is shown that any such incidents are not merely a usual variation in the usual pattern of such events.

Hostility to expertise isn’t a newly discovered and brilliant survival or success mechanism except, it appears, in the restrictive worlds of media and lobbying.

Reality can often confound the experts, and expertise does not equate to infallibility, or to uniformity of opinion. That doesn’t mean that (even legitimate) criticism of an expert makes it sensible to discount their findings. This is especially true when many agree.

Lay challengers are sometimes Einsteins (though he devoted years to exploring his subject and developing proofs and is more properly regarded as a non-professional scientist rather than non-expert scientist); such sparse exceptions may not prove the rule that experts specialists in their field should be largely relied upon in matters concerning their field, but certainly don’t disprove it.

Complex systems are complex. Predictions are not hindsight and significant climate change is only irrefutably verifiable by observation after enough time elapsed for tipping points have been crossed.

Of course, the issues of actually managing a recognised risk of climate change are hardly simple. But then all the more need to concentrate on those.

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