Big Oil has attacked a global scientific consensus on climate change; now some local authors are exposing its tactics.
For many years, University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver has watched with horror as the deniers of climate change have managed to confuse the public about global warming. Weaver, a lead author with the Nobel Prize–winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told the Georgia Straight in a recent phone interview that he has “lived the misinformation” and “lived the propaganda” that are being fomented by think tanks and advocacy groups financed by oil and coal companies.
Weaver said that on many occasions, he has seen people pretend that they’re experts on climate science when they’re not. “In the climate-science community, we think we’ve been screaming inside a closed room and nobody is listening,” Weaver declared.
So after veteran Vancouver public-relations executive James Hoggan and writer Richard Littlemore finished a new book called Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming (Greystone Books, $20), Weaver said it felt like somebody had pulled an angry gorilla off his back. “You feel this big sense of relief,” he said. “Finally, the truth is coming out.”
Climate Cover-Up is one of two new books written by local authors—the other being Donald Gutstein’s Not a Conspiracy Theory: How Business Propaganda Hijacks Democracy (Key Porter Books, $22.95)—that show how the fossil-fuel industry has sunk millions of dollars into campaigns designed to derail public concerns about human-induced climate change. Both books demonstrate how the world’s largest oil company, ExxonMobil, has funded numerous think tanks, including the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, which later issued reports criticizing the IPCC’s scientific consensus on global warming.
In December, a major United Nations climate conference will begin in Copenhagen to try to reach a new international treaty on global emissions that will be approved by the United States, China, and India. Climate Cover-Up and Not a Conspiracy Theory offer compelling insights for anyone interested in learning why there is so much confusion about this issue in the media. The Hoggan and Littlemore book focuses exclusively on global warming, touching on such things as the coal industry’s efforts to sideswipe mitigation measures. It also focuses on how clever use of language is helping to undermine action on climate change.
In the other book, Gutstein, a retired SFU communications professor, doesn’t merely look at how industrial forces have used propaganda to stall action around climate change. He includes case studies showing how business groups have also influenced the debate about medicare, continental integration, DDT, and other areas through slick public-relations techniques that often zero in on key decision makers and sympathetic national media commentators.
The two books both describe how industry-created front groups—such as the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, the Global Climate Coalition, Friends of Science, and the Canadian Coalition for Responsible Environmental Solutions—have tried to convince politicians, the media, and the public that there is a vigorous scientific debate about climate change. Weaver said that these campaigns can yield tremendous returns for industry if they stall emission reductions. Right now, he suggested, “ideology” seems to be driving the debate.
“You get far more bang for the buck if you can get the Vancouver Sun editorial staff to believe that this global warming is nothing more than a socialist conspiracy to transfer wealth to the developing world,” he said.
However, according to Weaver, there is little scientific debate, notwithstanding what you might read in Canadian newspapers. In his 2008 book, Keeping Our Cool: Canada in a Warming World (Viking Canada), he highlights how the IPCC—a collection of 2,000 international climate scientists—has achieved a broad scientific consensus that human beings are changing the climate by burning fossil fuels such as oil and coal, which increases the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
These gases, including carbon dioxide, form a blanket around the earth, trapping heat. Warmer temperatures have prolonged B.C.’s mountain-pine-beetle infestation and contributed to forest fires around the world, the melting of glaciers, the shrinking summer ice in the Arctic Ocean, and expanded deserts. Fisheries and Oceans Canada has even suggested that the loss of Pacific salmon could be linked to warming ocean temperatures.
In 2007, the IPCC stated in its Fourth Assessment Report that most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the middle of the 20th century “is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic [human-generated] greenhouse gas concentrations”. Canada emitted 22.6 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide between 1990 and 2002. “This is almost the same as the 23.1 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted by India, even though its population is thirty-four times greater than ours,” Weaver writes in his book.
Weaver told the Straight that science is about gathering available information and then developing an explanation for it. “It explains all known observations with a theory,” he said. “Propaganda is the opposite—you find the observations that support the theory.”
To cite one recent example of the latter, Weaver said he was recently given a copy of lesson plans on global warming that were distributed to B.C. schools by the Fraser Institute. He described these lessons as “shocking” and “shameful”.
“It’s not science that’s being given out,” Weaver charged. “It’s propaganda.”
Hoggan, the author of Climate Cover-Up, told the Straight by phone that average people need to gain a greater understanding of the issue to avoid being misled by the media, which echo the claims of industry-financed groups. He described these campaigns as “manipulation of the highest order” and “Darth Vader public relations”, suggesting that consulting firms can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars by coming up with simple phrases like “junk science” or “clean coal” to downplay the issue.
James Hoggan says Climate Cover-Up
exposes “Darth Vader public relations”.
“This is a very, very serious problem, and the way it’s being reported on is completely misleading and, I think, irresponsible,” Hoggan said, singling out the National Post and its owner, Canwest Global Communications Corp., for special criticism.
Hoggan, who chairs the David Suzuki Foundation, said climate change could have a dramatic effect on people’s lives around the world. “We’re talking about people starving,” he said. “We’re talking about mass migrations away from uninhabitable parts of the globe in parts of Africa and Asia, in places like Bangladesh.”
On the day that Hoggan spoke to the Straight, Globe and Mail columnist Rex Murphy wrote yet another column denying the seriousness of climate change. Hoggan claimed that all of Murphy’s points that day were originally conceived by industry-funded front groups. “Those are paid arguments,” Hoggan said. “He just happens to pick them up as an ideologue. I think that [if] you repeat disinformation enough, people actually start to believe it.”
He added that journalists should ask “very basic questions” of anyone who suggests that climate change is not a problem. “The first question we have to ask is whether or not they’re actually climate scientists,” Hoggan said. “Then I would ask whether or not they’re practising climate science. Are they actually doing climate science? Then the third question we have to ask is, ”˜Are they taking money from industry?’”
On October 18 at the Hollywood Theatre on Vancouver’s West Side, the Fraser Institute hosted a screening of Not Evil Just Wrong, which is an attack on former U.S. vice president Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. It was a classic example of the type of communication on global warming that Hoggan, Littlemore, and Gutstein warn about in their books.
Created by Irish filmmaker Phelim McAleer and his wife, Ann McElhinney, the film zeroes in on Gore’s opposition to new fossil-fuel-fired power plants that don’t capture and store their carbon emissions. Not Evil Just Wrong suggests that this approach will harm the U.S. economy and impose hardship on working families. It slickly intersperses images of Gore and an outlandish Christian televangelist, as if to convey that Gore’s forecasts about global warming are as kooky as anything you might find on Sunday-morning television. It also takes a run at James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who declared in 1988 that he was 99 percent confident that global warming was under way.
Almost everyone quoted in the film is not a practising climate scientist. Some of the sources—including Fred Singer, Roger Innis, Ross McKitrick, and Steve McIntyre—are covered extensively in Not a Conspiracy Theory. One practising climate scientist in Not Evil Just Wrong who is a critic of the climate-change consensus—Richard Lindzen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—was described as a “lone voice in the wilderness” by the Los Angeles Times in 2001.
McAleer gave extensive screen time to Patrick Moore—a B.C. industry consultant who claims to be a cofounder of Greenpeace—to criticize environmentalists and offer his views on global warming. “I don’t believe there is a climate catastrophe,” Moore says at one point in the film. On other occasions, he suggests that environmentalists really don’t like people, which is why they’re more concerned about protecting wildlife.
In a discussion with the audience after the screening, Moore said it’s “simply wrong” to think that climate change has become “almost the only important issue” in the world. “They have tried to make the word skeptic into a dirty word when, in fact, it is every thinking person and every scientist who needs to be a skeptic,” Moore declared to sustained applause from the audience.
McAleer, who is not a climate scientist, later told the crowd at the Hollywood Theatre that international treaties on climate change are “the longest and least read suicide notes in history” because they will wreck people’s quality of life. “No one reads these treaties,” he claimed. “But they’re going to radically change our lives—radically—you know, because it’s a tax on everything you do and everything you are. It’s a tax on every light switch. It’s a tax on every room in your house from the attic to the garage. It’s a tax on your car. It’s a tax on your insulation. It’s a tax on your heat. It’s a tax on your thermostat.”
Then he said it was “no coincidence” that environmentalism rose to prominence as communism declined, because environmentalists and communists both “take money from the middle class, bring it into the government, and then rely on government to distribute it to tax-free job projects run by their own supporters”.
Dean Pelkey, communications director of the Fraser Institute, later told the Straight by phone that the producers paid for their own travel arrangements and the institute incurred costs for hosting screenings in different Canadian cities. “We did not receive any funding for publicizing Not Evil Just Wrong from any oil company or any coal company,” Pelkey said, noting that the institute is in “general agreement” with the film’s message.
In Not a Conspiracy Theory, Gutstein points out that the Fraser Institute has been challenging the scientific consensus on climate change since the 1990s. He notes that former staffer Laura Jones, now with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, edited a Fraser Institute book in 1997 called Global Warming: The Science and the Politics, which included chapters by several U.S. global-warming deniers.
Mother Jones once reported that ExxonMobil provided $8.6 million between 2000 and 2003 to a bunch of think tanks and other groups that have raised public doubt about global warming. Gutstein notes in his book that this included $960,000 to the American Enterprise Institute, $1.4 million to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, $340,000 to the Heritage Foundation, $310,000 to the George C. Marshall Institute, and $140,000 to the Hoover Institution. Pelkey said that ExxonMobil contributed $63,000 to the Fraser Institute in 2003, and another $63,000 in 2004.
In his book, Gutstein traces the first media mention of a “made-in-Canada solution to climate change” to a 2002 speech by then-outgoing Imperial Oil president Robert Peterson. Peterson, an opponent of the Kyoto Protocol, told shareholders at the annual general meeting that there were “too many theories chasing not enough facts to support the theory of global climate change”.
From that point forward, Gutstein reports, Conservative politicians and commentators began calling for a “North American solution” or a “made-in-Canada solution” to climate change. This coincided with National Public Relations launching the Canadian Coalition for Responsible Environmental Solutions with the goal of planting the made-in-Canada solution.
The propaganda campaign included television advertisements and a Canadian Taxpayers Federation–financed study on the impact of the Kyoto Protocol on Canadian paycheques. It was prepared by Ross McKitrick, an economist and Fraser Institute fellow who shows up in Not Evil Just Wrong. Gutstein noted that a key operative in the NPR campaign, Guy Giorno, later became Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff.
In a phone interview with the Straight, Gutstein said the Fraser Institute’s budget doubled over a recent five-year period, rising from $6.9 million in 2004 to $13.9 million in 2008. Gutstein said the media “are enormously at fault” for not pressing the Fraser Institute harder to reveal who funds its research.
“I think the Fraser Institute is kind of funding-driven,” he said. “They’re still inviting these guys like Lord Lawson and Lord Monckton [two British climate-change deniers] out here. Why are they doing that? Because they’ve got the money to do it. The oil patch wants them to keep doing it.”
Pelkey, however, insisted that the institute’s board of trustees and the contributors have no impact whatsoever on what issues come under scrutiny. “The research that we do is determined by the directors of the various research departments,” he said.
For his part, Hoggan said he thinks think tanks and industry front groups should be stripped of their right to hide their sources of funding. “Canadians are concerned about climate change in general, although they are confused about it,” he said. “But we also don’t want to see ourselves embarrassed internationally by our government—and our government failing to live up to its international obligations on the most important environmental issue we’ve ever faced.”
So what does Weaver, one of the world’s top climate scientists, think Canada should do at the Copenhagen climate talks, which begin on December 7? “I could sum it up very quickly,” he replied. “Canada should just shut up because it has lost all credibility in the last few years on this portfolio. Nobody respects Canada’s opinion on this anymore.”
Weaver said that if he’d been asked six months ago, he would have said that the Copenhagen negotiations are “crucial” for the future of the planet. However, he explained that China’s recent public recognition of the problem—and President Hu Jintao’s promise last month to curb the increase in carbon-dioxide emissions—have given him hope for the future, even if the climate treaty gets hijacked by backroom deals. “I actually think China is going to show leadership on this, and the rest of the western world will follow,” Weaver predicted.