Climate Change Deniers — How they do it Part II: Trolling and fear

The article below is a synthesis from these two sources: Naomi OreskesMerchants of Doubt—How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, and Naomi Klein‘s This Changes Everything—Capitalism vs The Climate. Whenever a subsection below contains information from both books, I have indicated [Oreskes] or [Klein] to note the source.*

How they do it Part II: Trolling and fear

In the United States, a 2007 Harris poll found that 71 percent of Americans believed in man made climate change. By 2009 the figure was down to 51 percent, and in June 2011 the number had further dropped to 44 percent—well under half the population. Similar trends have been tracked in the U.K. and Australia. Changes on people’s perceptions of social and political issues are generally gradual, only dramatic events such as wars precipitate abrupt shifts like this one observed towards climate change in just four years. Director of survey research at the Pew Research Center for People & the Press Scott Keeter described the statistics as “among the largest shifts over a short period of time seen in recent public opinion history.” Similarly remarkable and remarkably similar are all the news stories about climate change that were never published and never aired in the media in this same time period. Despite a rise in extreme weather, the three major US networks—CBS, NBC, and ABC— ran a paltry 14 stories on climate change in 2011, way down from 147 stories in 2007.[Klein]

What had caused these abrupt changes? This is the denier strategy at work, spreading doubt and fear. Below several of the tactics used by the deniers.

Smear campaigns and online trolling

The Chicago-based think tank Heartland Institute, which is devoted to “promoting free-market solutions”, regularly runs hate-provoking smear campaigns concerning climate change. In 2012, it run a billboard campaign that compared people who believe in climate change to murderous cult leader Charles Manson and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. In one of the ads, Kaczynski is portrayed to be saying “I still believe in Global Warming. Do you?”

Leo-blog-The-Heartland-I-007

The Heartland Institute does not limit itself to runs its own smear campaigns, actually far from it. The institute has been holding the International Conference on Climate Change since 2008, sometimes twice a year. The organizers purposedly mimic credible scientific conferences, calling the gathering “Restoring the Scientific Method”, and portraying its rejection of climate science as rooted in serious disagreement about the scientific data—not by coincidence its acronym ICCC is confusingly similar to IPCC, which belongs to the world’s leading authority on climate change, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. However, most of the speakers are not scientists but rather hobbyists: mostly engineers, economists, and lawyers, who are convinced they have outsmarted 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists with their “expert” calculations. Discussing science is not the main objective of the gathering though. Its real target is to provide ideological ammunition to be used by hundreds of die-hard denialists, right-wing commentators and politicians with which they will attempt to club environmentalists and climate scientists in the weeks and months to come, and to provide fodder for contrarians to engage in online smear campaigns, making climate change so stinky that normal people won’t want to discuss the topic.

These are some comments provided by the conference speakers to their audience in the June 2011 gathering:

“In America today we are regulated down to our shower heads, to our light bulbs, to our washing machines,”
“We’re allowing the American SUV to die right before our eyes.”
If the greens have their way, we will be looking at “a CO2 budget for every man, woman, and child on the planet, monitored by an international body.”
Marc Morano, editor of the denialists’ go-to news site Climate Depot

“You can believe this is about the climate, and many people do, but it’s not a reasonable belief.”
“no free society would do to itself what this agenda requires. . . . The first step to [doing] that is to remove these nagging freedoms that keep getting in the way.”
Chris Horner, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute

Internet trolls, who post inflammatory and off-topic messages in online channels with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response to disrupt the on-topic discussion, will pick this rhetorical cudgel and use it to jam the comments section beneath each website article and YouTube video that contains the phrase “climate change” or “global warming”, sowing discord, upsetting people and creating an atmosphere of hate.

Admins of the science subchannel on the popular Reddit website know trolls too well. When it came to climate change, the subchannels’ comment sections became a battleground. Contrarians, not capable of making thoughtful arguments based on peer-reviewed science to support their skepticism on climate change, immediately resorted to aggressive behavior. The admins got fed up of the personal insults and bitter accusations and, in December 2013, banned comments from global warming skeptics. The conversations in the thread once again became reasoned and civil. According to forum moderator Nathan Allen, removing an entire faction of commenters resulted in a change in the culture within the comments. “We discovered that the disruptive faction that bombarded climate change posts was actually substantially smaller than it had seemed. Just a small handful of people ran all of the most offensive accounts. What looked like a substantial group of objective skeptics to the outside observer was actually just a few bitter and biased posters with more opinions than evidence.”

Mass media disinformation

A 2013 study by Riley Dunlap and political scientist Peter Jacques found that, excluding self-published books (which are increasingly common), a striking 87 percent of climate denial books were linked to right-wing think tanks, mostly published since the 1990s. (Including self-published books it is still an astonishingly high 72%). The climate change denial movement—far from an organic convergence of “skeptical” scientists—is entirely the creation of the ideological network of individuals and institutions advocating for `laissez-faire` economics, the same ones who deserve the bulk of the credit for transforming our hearts and souls over the last four decades.[Klein]

Complicit journal The Washington Times

The Washington Times

Mass media channels are complicit, not just right-wing newspapers like the Washington Times but mainstream outlets too, as they feel obligated to treat issues such as climate change as scientific controversies. Journalists are constantly pressured to grant the professional deniers equal status—and equal time and newsprint space—and they usually do. In his book Winds of Change, former environment reporter for Time magazine Eugene Linden commented that “members of the media found themselves hounded by experts who conflated scientific diffidence with scientific uncertainty, and who wrote outraged letters to the editor when a report didn’t include their dissent.” Editors evidently succumb to this pressure, and reporting on climate becomes biased toward the skeptics and deniers because of it.[Oreskes]

Consider the following examples on how mass media publications were used by the contrarians to generate doubt-mongering about acid rain, to launch a revisionist attack against the banning of DDT, and to deny the findings of the IPCC on climate change.

Example 1: Acid Rain not a threat?

By 1984, after twenty-one years of scientific work, the source of acid rain had been demonstrated to be man-made sulfur dioxide emissions. However, “We don’t know what’s causing it” became the official position on acid rain of the Reagan administration, and this doubt message was picked up by the media, which increasingly covered acid rain as an unsettled question, despite the evidence to the contrary. Fortune ran an article, whose author was associated with the Cato Institute, insisting that the “standard scientific view of acid rain’s effects may be simply wrong”. BusinessWeek attacked the Environmental Protection Agency as “activist” for trying to take action on acid rain—in effect, for doing its job. Consumers’ Research Magazine (which despite its name was a journal that consistently took probusiness positions) demanded to know: “Acid Rain: How Great a Threat?” Fortune run a new piece in 1986, “Hysteria about Acid Rain”. The Futurist joined the chorus, insisting that “the jury is still out on acid rain.”[Oreskes]

Biologist Gene Likens tried to shut the deniers up and set the record straight with an article entitled “Red Herrings in Acid Rain Research” in the scientific journal Environmental Science and Technology. However that article would only be read by the scientists who read scientific journals, and not by the general public.

In a pattern sadly too familiar, while the unscientific claims get published in mass circulation outlets, scientific facts get only published in scientific journals, where very few ordinary people would read them. So the majority of the public is unjustly left with the impression from the contrarians.[Oreskes]

Example 2: Carson killed more people than Hitler!?

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson

In her early 1960s book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson explained how pesticides were accumulating in the food chain, damaging the natural environment, and threatening animal species. Because of her work, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded in 1972 that the scientific evidence was sufficient to warrant the banning of the pesticide DDT in America. This was a success story of government regulation.[Oreskes]

Fast-forward to 2007, the contrarians had launched a shrill revisionist attack against Carson (more than thirty years after DDT was banned in the United States!). Free marketeers had realized that if you could convince people that an example of successful government regulation wasn’t, in fact, successful—that it was actually a mistake—you could strengthen the argument against regulation in general.

So Carson became a victim of the vicious attack, under the claim that millions of Africans died of malaria due to Silent Spring leading to the banning of DDT. The Internet got flooded with the assertion that Carson was a mass murderer, worse than Hitler. The Competitive Enterprise Institute tells us that “Rachel was wrong”, their site asserts that “millions of people around the world suffer the painful and often deadly effects of malaria because one person sounded a false alarm. That person is Rachel Carson.” In his bestselling book The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, Danish economist Bjørn Lomborg (who has links to think tanks Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institution, and the Heartland Institute) stated that Carson’s argument for banning DDT was more emotional than rational, insisting that more lives were saved by disease control and improved food supply than were ever lost to DDT. (Lomborg’s book has been criticized as a textbook example of the misuse of statistics. In Denmark, Lomborg was leveled charges of scientific dishonesty. Ultimately, the Danish Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation ruled Lomborg could not be guilty of scientific dishonesty, because it had not been shown that The Skeptical Environmentalist was a work of science!)[Oreskes]

These venomous claims should be safely ignored, however they have been repeated in mainstream newspapers. In 2007, the San Francisco Examiner ran an op-ed piece alleging that “Carson was wrong, and millions of people continue to pay the price.” The Wall Street Journal argued that Carson’s work led to the attitude that “environmental controls were more important than the lives of human beings.” The New York Times has run several articles and op-ed pieces doubting the wisdom of U.S. action on DDT. “What the World Needs Now Is DDT” ran the title of a Sunday New York Times Magazine piece in 2004. “No one concerned about the environmental damage of DDT set out to kill African children,” the article began, but their deaths happened all the same. “Silent Spring is now killing African children because of its persistence in the public mind.”[Oreskes]

Example 3: Global warming has stopped?

Consider how the New York Times communicated the findings of an IPCC report: through climate change contrarian Richard Muller, who did not waste his chance to misrepresent and deny the facts, leading readers to believe that global warming is soon stopping. In his article “Something Is Rotten at the New York Times“, director of Penn State Earth System Science Center Michael E. Mann made a wonderful analysis of the NYTimes misdeed. The following is just an extract, click on this link to read the whole article.

Rather than objectively communicating the findings of the IPCC to their readers, the New York Times instead foisted upon them the ill-informed views of Koch Brothers-funded climate change contrarian Richard Muller, who used the opportunity to deny the report’s findings.

In fact, in the space of just a couple months now, the Times has chosen to grant Muller not just one, but two opportunities to mislead its readers about climate change and the threat it poses.

Muller, who lacks any training or expertise in atmospheric science, is more than happy to promote with great confidence the unsupportable claim that global warming will actually decrease tornado activity. His evidence for this? The false claim that the historical data demonstrate a decreasing trend in past decades.

To allow Muller to so thoroughly mislead their readers, not once, but twice in the space of as many months, is deeply irresponsible of the Times. So why might it be that the New York Times is so enamored with Muller, a retired physicist with no training in atmospheric or climate science, when it comes to the matter of climate change?

Muller is known for his bold and eccentric, but flawed and largely discredited astronomical theories. But he rose to public prominence only two years ago when he cast himself in the irresistible role of the “converted climate change skeptic”.

Muller had been funded by the notorious Koch Brothers, the largest current funders of climate change denial and disinformation, to independently “audit” the ostensibly dubious science of climate change. This audit took the form of an independent team of scientists that Muller picked and assembled under the umbrella of the “Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature” (unashamedly termed “BEST” by Muller) project.

Soon enough, Muller began to unveil the project’s findings: First, in late 2011, he admitted that the Earth was indeed warming. Then, a year later he concluded that the warming was not only real, but could only be explained by human influence.

Muller, in short, had rediscovered what the climate science community already knew long ago.

The narrative of a repentant Koch Brothers-funded skeptic who had “seen the light” and appeared to now endorse the mainstream view of human-caused climate change, was simply too difficult for the mainstream media to resist. Muller predictably was able to position himself as a putative “honest broker” in the climate change debate. And he was granted a slew of op-eds in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, headline articles in leading newspapers, and interviews on many of the leading television and radio news shows.

And while Muller has now admitted that the Earth had warmed and that human-activity is largely to blame, he has used his new-found limelight and access to the media to:

  1. Smear and misrepresent other scientists, including not just me and various other climate scientists.
  2. Misrepresent key details of climate science, inevitably to downplay the seriousness of climate change, whether it is the impacts on extreme weather and heat, drought, Arctic melting, or the threat to Polar Bears.
  3. Shill for fossil fuel energy, arguing that the true solution to global warming isn’t renewable or clean energy. No, not at all! Muller is bullish on fracking and natural gas as the true solution.

To (a) pretend to accept the science, but attack the scientists and misrepresent so many important aspect of the science, downplaying the impacts and threat of climate change, while (b) acting as a spokesman for natural gas, one imagines that the petrochemical tycoon Koch Brothers indeed were probably quite pleased with their investment. Job well done.

Attacking scientists

If the skeptical arguments pursued by the deniers are not about science—if they are politics camouflaged as science—then why don’t scientists recognize this, and say something? Why does the scientific community stand by while this is happening? Among other reasons, scientists have been afraid to get involved because they have seen what happens when they do.

Dr. Benjamin D. Santer's research supports the finding that human activity contributes to global warming (Photo: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

Dr. Benjamin D. Santer’s research supports the finding that human activity contributes to global warming (Photo: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

Consider the case of Ben Santer (extract taken from Merchants of Doubt, from its Introduction. A more comprehensive extract is available in this link):

In 1995, the IPCC declared that the human impact on climate was now “discernible.” This wasn’t just a few individuals; by 1995 the IPCC had grown to include several hundred climate scientists from around the world. But how did they know that changes were under way, and how did they know they were caused by us? Those crucial questions were answered in Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change, the Second Assessment Report issued by the IPCC. Chapter 8 of this report, “Detection of Climate Change and Attribution of Causes,” summarized the evidence that global warming really was caused by greenhouse gases. Its author was Ben Santer.

Santer had impeccable scientific credentials, but now a group of physicists tied to a think tank in Washington, D.C., accused him of doctoring the report to make the science seem firmer than it really was. They wrote reports accusing him of “scientific cleansing”—expunging the views of those who did not agree. They wrote reports with titles like “Greenhouse Debate Continued” and “Doctoring the Documents,” published in places like Energy Daily and Investor’s Business Daily. They wrote letters to congressmen, to officials in the Department of Energy, and to the editors of scientific journals, spreading the accusations high and wide. They pressured contacts in the Energy Department to get Santer fired from his job. Most public—and most publicized—was an op-ed piece published in the Wall Street Journal, accusing Santer of making the alleged changes to “deceive policy makers and the public.” Santer had made changes to the report, but not to deceive anyone. He had made changes in response to peer review. He had done what the IPCC rules required him to do. He had done what science requires him to do. Santer was being attacked for being a good scientist.

Santer tried to defend himself in a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal—a letter that was signed by twenty-nine co-authors, distinguished scientists all. Bert Bolin, the founder and chairman of the IPCC, corroborated Santer’s account in a letter of his own to the Journal, pointing out that accusations were flying without a shred of evidence, and that the accusers had not contacted him, nor any IPCC officers, nor any of the scientists involved to check their facts. But the Journal only published a portion of both Santer and Bolin’s letters, and two weeks later, they gave the accusers yet another opportunity to sling mud, publishing a letter declaring that the IPCC report had been “tampered with for political purposes.” The mud stuck, and the charges were widely echoed by industry groups, business-oriented newspapers and magazines, and think tanks. They remain on the Internet today. If you Google “Santer IPCC,” you get not the chapter in question—much less the whole IPCC report—but instead a variety of sites that repeat the 1995 accusations.

The experience was bitter for Santer, who spent enormous amounts of time and energy defending his scientific reputation and integrity, as well as trying to hold his marriage together through it all. (He didn’t.) Today, this normally mild-mannered man turns white with rage when he recalls these events. Because no scientist starts his or her career expecting things like this to happen.

Why didn’t Santer’s accusers bother to find out the facts? Why did they continue to repeat charges long after they had been shown to be unfounded? The answer, of course, is that they were not interested in finding facts. They were interested in fighting them.

These attacks have had a chilling effect in the scientific community. In IPCC discussions, some scientists have been reluctant to make strong claims about the scientific evidence, lest contrarians attack them, and they’d rather err on the side of conservatism in their estimates, as to feel more “secure.” Biologist Kåre Fog has described how many Danish scientists gave up trying to correct the many false claims propagated by Bjørn Lomborg because they did not wish to be subject to misrepresentations of their work and victims of vicious personal attacks. Intimidation works.


*The first subsection of the article (“Trolling / smear campaigns“) comes mostly from This Changes Everything, except the bit on Reddit’s science subchannel. The second subsection (“Mass media disinformation“) is mostly a mix from This Changes Everything and Merchants of Doubt, except the bit on the New York Times’ reporting of the IPCC findings. The third part (“Attacking scientists“) was extracted entirely from Merchants of Doubts, from its Introduction.

In the article above, I left plenty of valuable information out from the 2 books, to better accommodate for web reading. If you have the chance, please read these two books in their entirety, I promise you will get enlightened with both Naomis’ wisdom.

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