Monday, February 10, 2014


By Ronald Fox

In an earlier post, Chuck expressed shock that, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there are some politicians, think tanks, “scientists,” and average Americans who still aren’t convinced that global warming is real and human caused (see: The Climate Change Saga: Oh My, What is Wrong with Us?) This skepticism challenges the consensus opinion of 97% of climate scientists as well as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which gives a 95% guarantee of human causation of global warming, a rare consensus among scientists on any natural phenomena.
Just 63% of Americans believe climate is changing, and of these only 47% of believe the change is human caused (this represents a decline of 7% since 2012). These numbers stand in contrast to IPCC findings as well as public opinion in European nations, where governments have made far more significant strides in phasing out fossil fuels. Why do so many Americans disregard climate change science? Why are so many indifferent to a global crisis of such monumental proportions?

Part of the problem is the nature of the subject itself. Climate change translates poorly into daily headlines for the American market-driven media. In its essence, it’s a story about a possible futureless humanity, which is too ghastly for many to seriously contemplate, let alone figure out what to do about it. It’s a tough story to write. What can be said that hasn’t been said? Many Americans seem weary of hearing repeated doomsday warnings about melting glaciers and Arctic ice, rising sea levels, and other predicted catastrophes. Unlike current events, these far off possibilities don’t have the immediacy to capture public attention. A mega storm or a draught can captivate an audience, but since scientists can’t say with certainty that a particular event was caused by global warming, other than painting it as part of a continuing trend, many Americans have difficulty grasping the connection between our consumption of fossil fuels and rising global temperatures and volatile weather patterns. The climate change question with its potential devastations is simply too abstract for most people to feel personally threatened.
The paucity of in-depth mainstream media coverage of climate change in the U.S. has left Americans half educated. They know climate is changing (or most do), but they don’t fully understand how this relates to human behavior or how the present is different from the past. Into the void of public information has stepped a network of free-market ideologues and special business interests with anti-climate change agendas. These individuals and groups have declared war on climate science much like many of them did in challenging scientific evidence about the harmful effects of tobacco, acid rain and ozone depletion.

Foremost among these are the oil and energy behemoths. Threatened by the connection science has made between the extraction, production, and burning of fossil fuels and the warming of our planet, these wealthy players have invested billions into the funding of campaigns that foster climate science doubt and even denial. In America they have also padded the pockets of politicians, think tanks, and independent organizations willing to do their bidding.
And now, there is evidence to document this claim. Robert Brulle, professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University, recently conducted the first peer-reviewed comprehensive analysis of the sources of money behind the climate change countermovement. His analyses, published in the February 2014 issue of Climate Change, a leading climate science journal, documents a well-funded organized effort by trade associations, advocacy groups, and conservative think tanks and foundations, with close links to sympathetic media outlets and politicians, to raise public doubt about climate science and prevent government regulation of hydrocarbon emissions.

This organizational effort is increasingly bankrolled by donors who wish to remain anonymous. They include donors like the Koch and Scaife families, and ExxonMobil, who previously gave publicly, but now thanks to the Citizens United decision are able to utilize untraceable avenues. The preferred route now is to pass contributions through donor-directed organizations like the Heartland Institute, Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, which can legally keep their contributors anonymous. Donations are then distributed through such ultra-free-market promoting climate denial groups as the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, Bradley Foundation, Olin Foundation, Searle Freedom Trust, Sarah Scaife Foundation, John William Pope Foundation, the Howard Charitable Foundation, and the Cato Institute, to name only a few. Foundation money is tactically deployed to advance the anti-climate change agenda.  Brulle estimated that between 2003 and 2010 over a half a billion dollars was spent on a massive "campaign to manipulate and mislead the public about the threat posed by climate change."

The privately-funded climate change countermovement has been enormously successful in fomenting doubt and denial about global warming among the American public. Public support for the consensus position of climate scientists that human beings are causing the planet to warm, has been steadily declining. Now over a majority of Americans are non-believers, a message that has resonated in Washington. As Brulle put it, “the climate change countermovement has had a real political and ecological impact on the failure of the world to act on the issue of global warming.”

The climate change denying campaign has proven politically potent.  The big money spent has enabled deniers to essentially control the Republican party, especially those in the U.S. Congress. Seventy-two percent of the Republican Senate caucus, for example, are now on record as climate deniers.  We can expect that every Republican candidate in the 2016 presidential primary will either express doubt or outright rejection of climate science.

Shouldn’t deniers have a voice in the climate change discourse? Of course they should; such is the imperative of a democracy. However, it is fundamental to democratic principles that the individuals and groups advocating against climate science are disclosed. The public has a right to know.

The real issue, though, is not one of free speech; it’s about democratic accountability. When money allows certain voices to be magnified far beyond their numbers, in this case when climate change deniers use a public megaphone to convey the impression of much greater scientific doubt about climate science than the facts warrant, and these denials shift public opinion against seriously confronting the global climate change problem, then we’re talking about plutocracy, not democracy. If you want to find out what's really behind American politics, follow the money.

1 comment:

  1. I have to stop reading the NYTimes -- I thought most people accepted the idea of climate change (albeit without understanding the science behind it). You've depressed me. On the other hand, in a democracy when is leadership defined as reacting to majority opinion? Without the need to get re-elected, which encourages "leadership from behind," Obama must follow through on this promise to take executive action to combat climate change. Of course, the USA is just one of the culprits, so true leadership must encompass more than American-based actions.


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