Climate denial and conservative think tanks

2009-11-24

in Books and literature, Economics, Politics, Rants, Science, The environment

Tree shadow in autumn

In 2008, three academics published the paper “The Organization of Denial: Conservative Think Tanks and Environmental Scepticism” in the journal Environmental Politics. The researchers analyzed 141 books published between 1972 and 2005, all of which expressed skepticism about the seriousness of environmental problems, including climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, biodiversity loss, resource shortages, air pollution, and others. Of these, the researchers found that over 92% were published by conservative think tanks, written by authors affiliated with those think tanks, or both.

Contrast that with Naomi Oreskes’ 2004 Science article: “Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” in which she examined the positions taken on climate change within peer-reviewed scientific articles. Of the 928 articles examined, none expressed disagreement with the consensus view that humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions are causing climate change.

Peter Jacques uses their survey to argue that “scepticism is a tactic of an elite-driven counter-movement designed to combat environmentalism.” That is to say, groups with an economic or ideological commitment to the present arrangement – where most energy comes from fossil fuels and the atmosphere is a free dumping ground for greenhouse gasses – are continuing to press for policy inaction by self-serving means, using information and arguments at odds with that in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. None of that is surprising, though it does demonstrate the irony of climate change deniers claiming to be an embattled and persecuted minority, concerned only with getting the truth out despite the efforts of nefarious scientists and environmentalists to silence them.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Antonia November 24, 2009 at 11:50 am

This isn’t an argument I enjoy poking holes in but your piece doesn’t deal with counterarguments about the gates to peer-reviewed scientific literature being guarded by some sort of green faction or other. I’m sure the counterarguments to that are out there and I’d like to see more of them.

Milan November 25, 2009 at 11:07 am

This is the argument that people who disagree with the consensus view of climate change want to publish in academic journals, have work that is of sufficient quality to do so, but are blocked by a conspiracy of environmentally-inclined climatologists?

I suppose that is one way to justify why so much output comes from conservative think tanks. That said, I don’t find the argument too credible. I think if someone had a paper with data and analysis showing that the consensus has a major flaw, scientific journals would be eager to publish it, once it had been appropriately vetted and confirmed.

Publishing papers that diverge from what people already believe gets a lot more attention than publishing papers that confirm it. So much so, indeed, that journals are sometimes accused of publishing things that have been inadequately confirmed, for the sake of provoking controversy and/or discussion.

. November 20, 2010 at 4:32 pm

“The network of right-wing foundations, the corporations that fund them, and the journalists who echo their claims has created a tremendous problem for American science. A recent academic study found that of the fifty-six “environmentally skeptical” books published in the 1990s, 92 percent were linked to these right-wing foundations (only thirteen were published in the 1980s, and 100 percent were linked to the foundations). Scientists have faced an ongoing misrepresentation of scientific evidence and historical facts that brands them as public enemies – even mass murderers – on the basis of phony facts.

There is a deep irony here. One of the great heroes of the anti-Communist political right wing – indeed one of the clearest, most reasoned voices against the risks of oppressive government, in general – was George Orwell, whose famous 1984 portrayed a government that manufactured fake histories to support its political program. Orwell coined the term “memory hole” to denote a system that destroyed inconvenient facts, and “Newspeak” for a language designed to constrain thought within politically acceptable bounds.

All of use who were children in the Cold War learned in school how the Soviet Union routinely engaged in historical cleansing, erasing real events and real people from their official histories and even official photographs. The right-wing defenders of American liberty have now done the same. The painstaking work of scientists, the reasoned deliberations of the President’s Science Advisory Committee, and the bipartisan American agreement to ban DDT have been flushed down the memory hole, along with the well-documented and easily found (but extremely inconvenient) fact that the most important reason that DDT failed to eliminate malaria was because insects evolved. That is the truth – a truth that those with blind faith in free markets and blind trust in technology simply refuse to see.”

Oreskes, Naomi and Erik Conway. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. p.236 (hardcover)

. November 20, 2010 at 4:33 pm

“Lately science has shown us that contemporary industrial civilization is not sustainable. Maintaining our standard of living will require finding new ways to produce our energy and less ecologically damaging ways to produce our food. Science has shown us that Rachel Carson was not wrong.

This is the crux of the issue, the crux of our story. For the shift in the American environmental movement from aesthetic environmentalism to regulatory environmentalism wasn’t just a change in political strategy. It was the manifestation of a crucial realization: that unrestricted commercial activity was doing damage – real, lasting, pervasive damage. It was the realization that pollution was global, not just local, and that the solution to pollution was not dilution. This shift began with the understanding that DDT remained in the environment long after its purpose was served. And it grew as acid rain and the ozone hole demonstrated that pollution traveled hundreds or even thousands of kilometres from its source, doing damage to people who did not benefit from the economic activity that produced it. It reached a crescendo when global warming showed that even the most seemingly innocuous by-product of industrial civilization – CO2, the stuff of which plants depend – could produce a very different planet.

To acknowledge this was to acknowledge the soft underbelly of free market capitalism: that free enterprise can bring real costs – profound costs – that the free market does not reflect. Economists have a term for these costs – less reassuring than Friedman’s “neighbourhood effects.” They are “negative externalities”: negative because they aren’t beneficial and external because they fall outside the market system. Those who find this hard to accept attack the messenger, which is science.

We all expect to pay for the things we buy – to pay a fair cost for goods and services from which we expect to reap benefits – but external costs are unhinged from benefits, often imposed on people who did not choose the good or service, and did not benefit from their use. They are imposed on people who did not benefit from the economic activity that produced them. DDT imposed enormous costs through the destruction of ecosystems; acid rain, secondhand smoke, the ozone hole, and global warming did the same. This is the common thread that ties these diverse issues together: they were all market failures. They are instances where serious damage was done and the free market seemed unable to account for it, much less prevent it. Government intervention was required. This is why free market ideologues and old Cold Warriors joined together to fight them. Accepting that by-products of industrial civilization were irreparably damaging the global environment was to accept the reality of market failure. It was to acknowledge the limits of free market capitalism.”

Oreskes, Naomi and Erik Conway. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. p.237-8 (hardcover)

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