2 June 2011

Merchants of doubt

Cosmos Magazine
As the science backing human-induced climate change has firmed, public support has softened and political consensus dissolved. How did this happen? Naomi Oreskes identifies the characters, the tactics and techniques that have undermined the science.
merchants of doubt

Credit: iStockPhoto

In 2005, then Californian governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced an initiative committing to controls on greenhouse gas emissions, saying: “The debate is over, we know the science, we see the threat and we know the time for action is now.” At that time it did seem as if the debate was over.

Yet the global warming theory had prominent contrarians. One of these was Frank Luntz, a strategist for the Republican Party.

Luntz was infamous as the author of a strategy memo leaked to the press in which he advised Republican candidates in the U.S. not to use the phrase “global warming”, but “climate change”.

The reason, he explained, was because climate change is a lot less frightening than global warming. Luntz argued that Republican candidates running for office should use scientific uncertainty as a political strategy, and that they should emphasise the scientific uncertainty around the issue of climate change.

Luntz was factually incorrect; the scientific debate was not still open. In the second assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in 1995, scientists wrote, “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human impact on global climate.”

In my own research as a historian of science, I was interested in the question of whether or not the IPCC reports were an accurate reflection of the rank and file of the scientific community.

Were those summaries in the IPCC, in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Britain’s Royal Society and many other scientific societies who had attempted to summarise the scientific work, consistent with what was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journals?

A random sample of 1,000 articles in the Institute for Scientific Information database, which I conducted in 2003, showed that in fact none of the articles dissented from that IPCC position.

As published in Science in 2004, there was essentially unanimity in the scientific community – the balance of evidence did suggest a discernible impact, and most of the observed warming was likely to have been due to greenhouse gas emissions.

So what happened to this political and scientific consensus? What happened to the United Nations (U.N.) Framework Convention on Climate Change, signed by 192 nations in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, including Australia, in which then U.S. President George Bush Sr called for “concrete action to protect the planet”? What happened was a campaign selling doubt and marketing uncertainty to stave off government regulation and to protect the free market.

The beginning of climate science’s history starts with John Tyndall, who first established the concept of a greenhouse gas. In the 1850s, Tyndall showed that certain gases, particularly carbon dioxide and water vapour, had the distinctive property of being highly transparent to visible light, but mostly opaque to the infrared.

In the Earth’s atmosphere, these gases allow light to come in from the Sun, but trap heat. Tyndall understood this is a very important fact about the Earth, because without this natural greenhouse effect, the Earth would be as cold as the Moon or Mars.

Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius was the first to suggest greenhouse gas concentrations could change the climate. Arrhenius said that in burning fossil fuels, mostly coal, we were adding additional carbon dioxide to the atmosphere above natural levels, and that this could change the climate through an increase in the absorption and trapping of heat in the atmosphere.

Arrhenius did the first calculations of the potential effect of doubling carbon dioxide, which he said would lead to an average global temperature increase of 1.5˚C to 4.5˚C. While Arrhenius was Swedish, and thought global warming was a good thing, British steam engineer Guy Stewart Callendar challenged this view in 1938, suggesting in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society that global warming was already underway.

War broke out in Europe in 1939, and like many other scientists Callendar’s work was sidetracked. The issue was not revisited in a serious way until the 1950s, when Hans Seuss and Roger Revelle, professors at the University of California, San Diego took up the research.

In 1957, in the journal Tellus, Suess and Revelle said mankind was performing a great geophysical experiment by taking carbon dioxide that had been stored in rocks over the course of hundreds of millions of years of geological history, and returning a significant amount back to the atmosphere in just a few decades.

American climate scientist Charles David Keeling began the systematic measurement of carbon dioxide, producing what is now known as the Keeling Curve, probably the single most reproduced time-series data in the history of science.

In 1965, Revelle and Keeling wrote in a Science Advisory Committee report to the White House that “by the year 2000, there will be about 25% more carbon dioxide in our atmosphere than at present, and this will modify the heat balance of the atmosphere to such an extent that marked changes in climate could occur”.

THERE WAS SOON an emerging consensus in the expert community that, sooner or later, warming would occur.

One of the most concise summaries came from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1979, who wrote, “a plethora of studies from diverse sources indicates a consensus that climate changes will result from man’s combustion of fossil fuels and changes in land use”.

So while there was consensus global warming would happen, the question was still ‘when?’. In the 1970s there was a big difference of opinion among scientists about how soon any of these changes might actually become detectable.

Most scientists thought that ‘will result’ meant perhaps by 2000 or even later. Figures like 2030, 2040, 2050 sometimes got bandied about. One scientist I interviewed who briefed the administration of U.S. President Jimmy Carter on this issue in 1979 remembers being asked by an official in the White House, “so when is all of this going to happen?” and one of the scientists said, “well, maybe in 40 years”. The White House official said, “get back to me in 39!”.

But even back then, a few mavericks suggested that climate change might already be underway. One of these was John Perry, the chief staff officer for the Climate Research Board at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

In 1981, Perry pointed out, “Physically, a doubling of carbon dioxide is no magic threshold.

If we have good reason to believe that a 100% increase in carbon dioxide will produce significant impacts on climate, then we must have equally good reason to suspect that even the small increase we have already produced may have suddenly altered our climate.”

This is an important point – people often think nothing will happen until we get to the doubling. But of course, we know that things are already happening now.

The emerging and disturbing evidence of climate change led to the creation of the IPCC, a panel established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organisation and the U.N. Environment Program.

Yet as the scientific understanding began to coalesce, so did a politically motivated campaign to cast doubt upon it. The doubt campaign focussed on the claim that the science was unsettled and therefore it would be premature for governments to act. And the origins of this claim can be traced back to a handful of people at the George C. Marshall Institute, a think tank just outside Washington DC.

For many years, scientists at the institute have either denied the reality of global warming; insisted that if there is warming, it was not caused by human activities; or, as they continue to today, insist that the scientific uncertainties are too great to warrant government regulation.

As recently as 2007, the institute quoted Timothy Ball, a Canadian climatologist, arguing the widely propagated fact that humans are contributing to global warming is “the greatest deception in the history of science”.

Today the Marshall Institute no longer denies the reality of man-made climate change, but they continue to cast doubt on climate science. So where did the Marshall Institute come from? And why do they promote doubt about climate science?

Three physicists – who built their careers in Cold War weapons and rocketry programs – founded the institute in 1984. They’d worked on the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb and other nuclear weapons’ delivery systems.

Robert Jastrow was an astrophysicist who was the head of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and very active in the American space program. Then there was William Nierenberg, a nuclear physicist who had begun his career on the Manhattan Project working on isotope separation.

He was also the long-time director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where he supervised many U.S. Navy-sponsored oceanographic research projects associated with submarine detection, acoustic detection of Soviet submarines and the accurate guidance of submarines launched into continental ballistic missiles.

The third physicist was Fred Seitz, who was a one-time president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and had worked with Eugene Wigner, one of the fathers of the atomic bomb. All three were extremely distinguished men, successful in their careers, and heads of major U.S. scientific research institutes. These men had known each other throughout their career. Both Seitz and Nierenberg had served as science advisors to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, and had been on various advisory committees together.

In the 1980s, they found themselves working together on an advisory panel to the administration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan on the Strategic Defence Initiative, or ‘Star Wars’ missile shield to protect the U.S. from incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Strategic defence was highly controversial, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, because it was a departure from the long established Cold War doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction – in which any nuclear war would effectively result in the destruction of both parties, and was therefore futile.

The vast majority of scientists who had worked on nuclear weapons programs argued that strategic defence was not feasible, that to build a perfect impermeable missile shield was simply not technologically possible.

Even if it were possible, it would be politically destabilising; if you thought you had an effective missile shield, then you might be tempted to launch a first strike.

For this reason, 6,500 American scientists and engineers, many of whom had worked on defence in past decades, signed a petition boycotting strategic defence program funds, a move unprecedented in the history of the Cold War. Never before had there been a wholesale rejection of a nuclear weapons program by American scientists.

This greatly disturbed the Reagan administration and it greatly disturbed Seitz, Nierenberg and Jastrow, who supported strategic defence. Between 1984 and 1989, the three men worked to defend the missile shield by promoting an alarming view of Soviet strength and a very frightening picture of American military weakness.

They wrote numerous articles, opinion pieces and white papers supporting strategic defence and claiming that the Soviet Union was overtaking the U.S. in military and technical superiority.

AND THIS IS where the story gets interesting. Seitz, who was the founding chairman of the board of the Marshall Institute, was a nuclear physicist. But in 1979, he took a new job on in his retirement: he went to work for the R. J.

Reynolds Tobacco Corporation as a consultant, directing a biomedical research program in which he distributed more than US$45 million to scientists doing research that could cast doubt on the science that established the harmful effects of tobacco.

One of the principal strategies of the tobacco industry was ‘doubt-mongering’, insisting that the science was unsettled, that we didn’t really know for sure if tobacco was dangerous, that there were a lot of uncertainties.

How come two sisters could both smoke a pack a day, and one gets cancer while the other doesn’t? Because of these uncertainties, they argued, it would be premature for the government to intervene to regulate tobacco use.

In 1989, these two stories merged. The Cold War ended and the Soviet enemy began to disintegrate. The West had won the Cold War and you might have thought that these old Cold Warriors would be satisfied that their life’s work had come to such a positive fruition. That they might have rested content. But they didn’t. It’s kind of like old generals who can’t stop fighting the last war.

What we see is that they found a new enemy, which they called ‘environmental extremism’, and which they considered an exaggeration of environmental threats by people with a left-wing agenda. They began to see ‘reds under the bed’, and the bed was environmentalism.

Following on the lessons that Seitz had learned working for the tobacco industry, they applied the same strategy – doubt-mongering. They began to insist that the science was unsettled and that there wasn’t a consensus among the scientific experts.

“Doubt is our product” ran the infamous memo written by one tobacco industry executive in 1969, “since it is the best means of competing with the body of fact that exists in the minds of the general public.”

But one of the key insights the tobacco industry realised early on was that for this doubt-mongering campaign to be credible, it needed scientists. If tobacco companies could get distinguished scientists, prestigious scientists, to say the science was unsettled, that would have a lot of credibility with the media.

They might not quote a tobacco industry executive, but they would quote the president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. So a key component of this strategy was the recruitment of scientists who would be willing to participate in this activity.

This strategy spread to a whole set of other environmental issues. We see scientists supplying, exaggerating, emphasising and amplifying doubt about the reality of acid rain, the harmful effects of DDT, the severity of the ozone hole and, of course, the human causes of global warming.

In every one of these cases, we see this small group of physicists denying the severity of these problems. The same pattern is evident over and over again, insisting that the science is too uncertain to justify government action. It involves the systematic misrepresentation of the actual scientific evidence, just as the tobacco industry did before.

The pattern is one of cherry-picking individual pieces of evidence that didn’t seem to support the mainstream view and taking them out of context and amplifying them. Find one glacier in New Zealand that isn’t retreating and insist that there’s no global warming.

There were also personal attacks on leading scientists, such as stealing private emails – which has been going on since the 1980s – and pressuring journalists to write ‘balanced’ stories, giving equal weight to the industry position – even though that position is not supported by scientific evidence.

Then finally, finding a tiny handful of dissenting scientists – three physicists in America, two geologists in Australia, one climate scientist in New Zealand – and promoting them on television, radio and in print media to create the impression of real scientific debate.

The question I’m asking is: why? Why would distinguished scientists misrepresent scientific evidence? Why would a former president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences attack his own scientific colleagues, misrepresent their work, launch personal attacks on them and accuse them of fraud? Why would a scientist do that to his peers?

Everyone always assumes this is a story of corruption for money, yet it’s more complicated than that. There is no evidence that Seitz, Nierenberg or Jastrow did this for personal monetary gain.

Rather, the motivation was ideological and driven by ‘free market fundamentalism’ – the endpoint of a wide spectrum of beliefs that can be broadly categorised as modern neoliberalism.

This is a set of beliefs that are focused on the value of deregulation and releasing the so-called ‘magic of the marketplace’.

It’s not a coincidence this ideology came to prominence in the early 1980s. Just as the scientific evidence of global warming was coalescing, a political consensus was moving towards deregulation.

But the intellectual roots of modern neoliberalism are much earlier, in the ideology of two key thinkers, Milton Friedman, the American economist and founder of the Chicago School of Economics, and Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian economist considered one of the founders of modern neoliberalism.

Friedman’s argument of neoliberal ideology was an argument against communism and in favour of capitalism. Civic freedom and free markets are inextricably linked, he said, because if a state wants to control markets through centralised planning, it can only do so by controlling the people who act in those markets. Therefore it’s inevitable that if you abandon free markets, you abandon freedom and head down a slippery slope to tyranny and Soviet-style communism.

The contrarians in our story took this argument even further and argued that environmentalism was the slippery slope to socialism. Why? Because environmentalists almost invariably argued for regulation. Whether acid rain, the ozone hole or passive smoke, the issues seemed to imply that the government needed to step in to protect people from these harms. They argued that it was only a small step from the regulation of acid rain to government control of our lives more broadly.

A fourth scientist who joined the cause articulated these ideas most clearly. Fred Singer, a former space scientist and government scientific administrator, was the bête noire of many climate scientists, and continues his attack today.

Like the others, Singer was a Cold War physicist. He had worked on the early satellite rocketry programs in the 1950s and was the first director of the U.S. National Weather Service’s satellite division.

In the 1980s, Singer worked with the Reagan administration to cast doubt on the significance and severity of acid rain, arguing that controlling sulphur emissions was a “billion dollar solution to a million dollar problem”, implying that environmentalists had exaggerated the danger of acid rain and it wouldn’t be significant enough to justify what it would cost to fix. This is an argument we hear again today regarding global warming.

In the 1990s, Singer teamed up with Seitz and Nierenberg to cast doubt on the scientific consensus over the ozone hole and the evidence of the harms of global warming.

He also joined forces with the Philip Morris tobacco company to defend tobacco against claims that passive smoke was harmful. This defence took the form of offence: an attack on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Ironically, this was one of the few places that the tobacco industry made a serious tactical error.

It started when the tobacco industry didn’t like the term ‘second-hand smoke’, because they reasoned that Americans didn’t like second-hand things.

Instead they called it ‘environmental tobacco smoke’, which they thought sounded less frightening and more congenial.

The only problem was that it now invited the scrutiny of the EPA. In 1993, Singer and a man named Kent Jeffreys attacked the EPA over this scrutiny in a report called The EPA and the Science of Environmental Tobacco Smoke.

Why the report? Because the EPA had reviewed the scientific evidence and concluded that second-hand or passive smoke was a proven carcinogen, a result affirmed by the U.S. Surgeon General and many studies in Europe, Japan and elsewhere.

An independent expert panel reviewed the scientific evidence and concluded passive smoking was responsible for 3,000 additional adult cancer deaths each year in the U.S. alone, and as many as 300,000 additional cases of bronchitis and pneumonia in infants and young children. They also concluded that second-hand smoke was correlated with an increase in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Why would a rocket scientist challenge these findings? Indeed, why would anyone defend a product that killed infants in their cribs? Singer explained why on page two of his report.

“If we do not carefully delineate the government’s role in regulating dangers, there is essentially no limit to how much government can ultimately control our lives,” he wrote. And this is the road-to-serfdom argument, Hayek’s slippery slope to communism: if we protect babies from passive smoke, then ultimately the government can control everything.

It’s this worry, this anxiety, this fear that leads to the suspicion that environmentalists are really socialists in disguise. As quoted in The Times Review, the allegation was that environmentalists were ‘watermelons': green on the outside, red on the inside. Throughout their writings, we see contrarians asserting or implying that environmentalists and scientists working on environmental issues have a hidden socialist agenda.

Singer said this explicitly in an article in 1989 about the ozone hole, in which he wrote, “and then there are probably those with hidden agendas of their own, not just to save the environment, but to change our economic system. Some of these coercive utopians are socialists, some are technology-hating luddites, and most have a great desire to regulate on as large a scale as possible.”

It’s this conviction that environmentalism is actually a rearguard attack on freedom that helps to explain the origins of the story, which lie in strategic defence. The merchants of doubt were all Cold Warriors who saw the defence of the ‘free world’ – and therefore free markets – as an extension of their life’s work.

It also explains one additional key part of the story that links this rather American tale to the rest of the world, and that’s the promotion of this doubt-mongering campaign by think tanks promoting free enterprise, supported in turn by major corporations whose money is at stake.

If we go back for a moment to Singer and Jeffreys’ 1993 report, we notice that while it was funded by the tobacco industry, it was published by the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, a think tank whose goal is the “extension and perfection of democracy and economic liberty and political freedom”.

Who was Jeffreys, Singer’s co-author? It turns out he was a lawyer affiliated with the Cato Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. What is the Cato Institute?

A think tank dedicated to individual liberty, limited government and free markets. The Competitive Enterprise Institute? It’s dedicated to expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity and strengthening free markets.

By the 1990s, the story of uncertainty that began in the Cold War was expanding. In response to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, we see the growth of a network of think tanks and organisations spreading doubt about climate science.

Some of these, like the Competitive Enterprise and the Heartland Institute, have been active in Australia, where there’s also the Institute of Public Affairs, who have been extremely active in promoting doubt about climate change and also linked to an agenda of promoting free markets and less regulation.

All of these groups promote freedom and liberty. And who could disagree with that? But if we ask who funds these groups, and who they really represent, then what we find is that they’re funded by regulated industries that produce products that have serious negative consequences not addressed by the free market - what economists call the negative externalities, consequences that are not reflected in the market price.

At the very beginning of this story, it’s the tobacco industry. Here, it’s also the fossil fuel industry, the mining industry and the chemical industry. Funding for these think tanks comes also from libertarian foundations with roots in the fossil fuel industry.

At the heart of this problem (and in a way, at the heart of what I consider to be almost the tragedy of global warming) is that scientists, not socialists, discovered in the 1980s a set of serious problems – acid rain, the ozone hole, global warming – that were not amenable to local solutions.

Problems that couldn’t just be solved by local governments or individuals acting on their own, problems that seemed to require national or even international cooperation.

Now of course the environmental movement has changed quite a bit since the days of John D. Rockefeller, and some environmentalists may well be socialists. But it doesn’t mean the science is wrong.

It doesn’t mean that DDT and acid rain and the ozone hole and second-hand smoke weren’t real problems that needed real solutions, problems that don’t go away by denying them. It certainly does not justify the misrepresentation of science or shameless personal attacks on scientists.

Moreover, the claims that are often made about what would happen if we did regulate these markets have been shown by history to be incorrect.

We know something about what emissions trading systems look like, because the U.S. implemented emissions trading in the 1980s in southern California to control air pollution, and in the 1990s in the industrial Midwest to prevent acid rain in the U.S. and Canada.

In the 1990s, when the U.S. government instituted a cap-and-trade system to prevent acid precipitation, acid emissions fell – as they were intended to do.

Electricity prices fell as utilities incorporated new and better technology that actually worked more efficiently and caused operating costs to fall. People in the Midwest did not find themselves, as some people feared, with noticeably less liberty than other U.S. citizens.

Moreover, we’ve learned a few things since then. Hayek was wrong about the ‘road to serfdom’. Among other things, he predicted that if the Labour Party came to power in the United Kingdom and instituted social democracy, it would lead to fascism. But it didn’t.

Virtually every major European country after World War II instituted some form of social democracy, and none of them became fascist. On the contrary, these countries all became more egalitarian and more democratic than they had been before the war.

We have had capitalist dictatorships. Capitalism does not automatically lead to democracy and liberty.

In China today, we have a new form of government emerging, a previously unimagined form of communistic capitalism, recently referred to by The Economist as ‘market authoritarianism’.

In England, where capitalism was invented, the emigration of skilled workers was prohibited in the 19th century.

And what about the long history of slavery in the U.S.? So the slippery slope to socialism just isn’t true. History shows us that the relationships between political and economic freedom are complex and diverse.

There have been oppressive capitalist governments, and there have been liberal socialist and social democratic governments. These relationships are complicated and cannot be simplified as a ‘road to serfdom’.

We also know from history as well as from recent events, from Wall Street to the Gulf of Mexico, that free markets require regulation and enforcement to exist as free markets and to prevent unavoidable costs to bystanders, the costs that accrue to people who do not reap the benefits of these activities.

Of course, global warming is one of the ultimate examples of a negative externality.

Wealthy regions such as the U.S., Canada, Western Europe and Australia have reaped the benefits of burning fossil fuels, but many of the adverse impacts of climate change are already beginning to be felt by island nations and other people who have never benefitted from them.

While we have delayed acting on global warming, the problem has gotten steadily worse. Many scientists now think we are reaching – or may have passed – crucial tipping points that could lead to true crises like the break-up of West Antarctica, leading to metres rather than centimetres of sea level rise.

The profound irony at the heart of this story is that the longer we wait, the more we increase the likelihood that we will need intrusive government action to prevent such catastrophes.

By fostering delay, the merchants of doubt have made it more likely that the very thing they most dreaded will actually occur.

While no one is an advocate of intrusive government, as the Latvian-born philosopher Isaiah Berlin once said, liberty for wolves means death to sheep. All societies accept some limitations on the actions of others, because without such limits there would be no civil society.

We regulate behaviour and we do it to protect people from negative externalities, from unintended consequences, from unacceptable costs to bystanders. We create those limits based on our judgment of the potential harms and risks, based on our judgment of what those negative externalities are.

This is why it is so important for us to understand the science, because it’s the science that tells us what is happening and what is likely to happen if we don’t do something to control greenhouse gases. Science explains the risks and the harms that we face, and it’s for that reason that science that has come under such virulent attack.

In 1990 Richard Darman, the director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George Bush Sr, dismissed the concerns of environmentalists derisively, saying “Americans did not fight and win the wars of the 20th century to make the world safe for green vegetables”.

We haven’t made it safe for polar bears or Pacific Islanders either, and if we don’t address climate change soon, it may not be safe for us either.

Naomi Oreskes is a professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego. Her book, Merchants of Doubt is co-authored with Erik Conway and published in Australia by Bloomsbury Press. This is an edited version of a public address at the University of New South Wales.

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