Energy Policy

Manufactured Climate Science Uncertainty


Sometimes, strong opponents of climate science use dishonest or unethical tactics to counter climate change science. This can create a false equivalency in the climate narrative, in which public news outlets offer equal air time to dissenting views, which leads viewers to believe that the jury is still out on climate science.

One of the most damning indictments of deniers’ culpability is a 2007 publication by the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Smoke, mirrors and hot air: How ExxonMobil uses big tobacco’s tactics to manufacture uncertainty on climate science.” Here is the executive summary from that report:

In an effort to deceive the public about the reality of global warming, ExxonMobil has underwritten the most sophisticated and most successful disinformation campaign since the tobacco industry misled the public about the scientific evidence linking smoking to lung cancer and heart disease. As this report documents, the two disinformation campaigns are strikingly similar. ExxonMobil has drawn upon the tactics and even some of the organizations and actors involved in the callous disinformation campaign the tobacco industry waged for 40 years. Like the tobacco industry, ExxonMobil has:

  • Manufactured uncertainty by raising doubts about even the most indisputable scientific evidence.
  • Adopted a strategy of information laundering by using seemingly independent front organizations to publicly further its desired message and thereby confuse the public.
  • Promoted scientific spokespeople who misrepresent peer-reviewed scientific findings or cherry-pick facts in their attempts to persuade the media and the public that there is still serious debate among scientists that burning fossil fuels has contributed to global warming and that human-caused warming will have serious consequences.
  • Attempted to shift the focus away from meaningful action on global warming with misleading charges about the need for “sound science.”
  • Used its extraordinary access to the Bush administration to block federal policies and shape government communications on global warming.

The report documents that, despite the scientific consensus about the fundamental understanding that global warming is caused by carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping emissions, ExxonMobil has funneled about $16 million between 1998 and 2005 to a network of ideological and advocacy organizations that manufacture uncertainty on the issue. Many of these organizations have an overlapping — sometimes identical — collection of spokespeople serving as staff, board members, and scientific advisors. By publishing and republishing the non-peer-reviewed works of a small group of scientific spokespeople, ExxonMobil-funded organizations have propped up and amplified work that has been discredited by reputable climate scientists.

ExxonMobil’s funding of established research institutions that seek to better understand science, policies, and technologies to address global warming has given the corporation “cover,” while its funding of ideological and advocacy organizations to conduct a disinformation campaign works to confuse that understanding. This seemingly inconsistent activity makes sense when looked at through a broader lens. Like the tobacco companies in previous decades, this strategy provides a positive “pro-science” public stance for ExxonMobil that masks their activity to delay meaningful action on global warming and helps keep the public debate stalled on the science rather than focused on policy options to address the problem.

In addition, like Big Tobacco before it, ExxonMobil has been enormously successful at influencing the current administration and key members of Congress. Documents highlighted in this report, coupled with subsequent events, provide evidence of ExxonMobil’s cozy relationship with government officials, which enable the corporation to work behind the scenes to gain access to key decision makers. In some cases, the company’s proxies have directly shaped the global warming message put forth by federal agencies.

As far back as 1978, one of Exxon's own scientists warned that increasing CO2 emissions could have negative consequences. (Click here for the internal memo from 1978 - it is an interinteresting, and surprisingly accurate!) You can see a timeline of many of Exxon's (now Exxon-Mobil) warnings about climate change and actions resisting efforts to address it from Greenpeace here.

There are many sad conclusions that emerge from this and other efforts of deniers. Scientists have had their research vilified and their motives and ethics questioned. The public has become distrustful of scientists and as a result has grown increasingly skeptical about climate change. Ultimately, deniers’ tactics have delayed mitigation and worsened climate change, with the public suffering the consequences. Climategate is the most egregious example of deniers’ work and their greatest success.

Listen in as Penn State's Michael Mann discusses How Climate Change Denial is Ruining Our Planet on WPSU.

Click for transcript from "How Climate Change Denial is Ruining Our Planet." This will expand to provide more information.
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>> Welcome to Take Note on WPSU; I'm Patty Satalia [phonetic]. Polls show that the overwhelming majority of Americans recognize the urgency of acting on human induced climate change. So why haven't we done more to address the problem? Today's guest says politicians are doing the bidding for powerful fossil fuel interests while ignoring the long-term good of the people they're supposed to represent. Michael Mann is a distinguished professor of meteorology and director of Penn State's Earth Systems Science Center. He was a member of the IPCC committee that won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for its work on climate change. His newest book, The Madhouse Effect, with editorial cartoonist Tom Toles, was released earlier this year. Thank you so much for joining us.

>> Thank you Patty, great to be with you.

>> The hockey stick graph became a central icon in the climate wars after it appeared in a 2001 UN report on climate change. You were the lead author of the original paper in which that first hockey stick appeared. First explain to us what that hockey stick graph is and what it has come to represent.

>> Sure. Well we only have about a century of widespread thermometer measurements around the world. And those thermometer measurements tell us that the globe has warmed, it's warmed about a degree Celsius, that's about a degree and a half Fahrenheit. What the thermometer records can't tell us alone, is how unusual is that warming? And how might it be tied to what we're doing with the burning of fossil fuels. Back in the late 1990's, my coauthors and I attempted to address that question by turning to what are known as proxy climate records. These are things like tree rings, and corals, and ice cores.

>> Another way to look at what the temperature was?

>> Absolutely they're natural archives. That just by their very nature record something about climate conditions in the distant past. And we used an array of those data to reconstruct the large-scale temperatures in past centuries, in fact going back 1000 years. And ultimately it led to a curve depicting temperature changes over time, which showed that the warming we've seen of the past century -- again about a degree and a half Fahrenheit, is unprecedented as far back as we could go at the time a thousand years. And if you look at the shape of the curve, there's this sort of long-term cooling as you descend into the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries -- the Little Ice Age. And then, the abrupt warming that coincides with the industrial revolution. And it resembles a hockey stick with the abrupt warming representing the blade of the so-called hockey stick. The term was actually introduced by a distinguished colleague of mine Jerry Mahlman, who was the former director of Princeton's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab.

>> So it's an easy to understand graph that in just a glance you know it illustrates how global temperatures have risen with the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because of industrialization.

>> Right, you don't have to understand the complex workings of the climate system, how a theoretical climate model works, any of that to understand what this curve is telling us. That there is something unprecedented in the warming that we're seeing today. And, by implication, it probably has to do with us, with what we're doing.

>> In your earlier book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines, you describe this ongoing assault on climate science in the US. Give us a snapshot of who's waging this war, how it's being fought, and from your vantage point exactly what's at stake here?

>> Yeah, well, I mean the Earth literally does lie in the balance here. Because what we're talking about is the greatest challenge, the greatest threat that we've faced as a civilization. And whether we are willing and able to face that threat head-on. So you know we know decades ago when research -- medical research had determined that cigarettes, that tobacco products were causing cancer. The tobacco industry rather than accepting those findings and engaging in a worthy discussion about what to do about it, instead spent millions of dollars funding a disinformation campaign, a PR campaign to attack the science, to confuse the public and the policymakers. So this has been going on for decades. What the fossil fuel industry did in the 80s and 90s as evidence was growing that the burning of fossil fuels was causing warming of the planet and these other changes in our climate, faced again with increasingly convincing evidence rather than face the problem head-on and engage in that worthy discussion about what to do about it. Chose to spend tens of millions of dollars on a massive misinformation campaign, a disinformation campaign to confuse public and policymakers.

>> And we can say that the same sorts of things are happening within the NFL where they have scientists saying that these concussion studies are inaccurate, they're sowing doubt.

>> Yeah when I saw the movie, when I saw Concussion, it sent chills down my spine because the analogy is so striking.

>> You say that in the 1980's, 50 companies formed a consortium to oppose energy policy. It was made up of oil companies and others who sow doubt similarly to the way the tobacco industry did. Explain how when 97% of the top climate scientists in the country believe that man-made climate change is causing significant environmental damage. Who are these 3% of scientists who are denying that it's happening?

>> Well you know that's actually, that 3% is generous. One study that you referred to found that 97% of scientists, and 97% of the published articles in the field, agree with the consensus that the globe is warming, the climate is changing, and we're the cause. There is a very small percent, some studies find it less than 1% of sort of publishing scientists who argue the contrary. And invariably almost to a person typically they are allied with fossil fuel interests. They get funding from fossil fuel interests, they do public relations work for fossil fuel interests or conservative foundations tied to the fossil fuel industry like those tied to the Koch brothers. So that very small percentage of scientists who disagree with the overwhelming scientific consensus, in many cases they're acting more like advocates than scientists in their denial of the plainest of evidence.

>> You say that the intent of these contrarians who criticized your graph, and criticized the science, they're not interested in adding to the scientific conversation, their goal is to undermine the IPC and climate science. So my question is what are concerned citizens supposed to do about that? What can they do about that?

>> And you know there actually were -- it was a worthwhile debate in the literature about the methods we had introduced, the data we had used. Other scientists in a constructive effort produced reconstructions of their own using different data, different methods. That's how science works, and it really is -- skepticism is a good thing in science, it's part of the --

>> It's self-correcting.

>> Exactly.

>> Because I'll take a look at your research findings and I'll test them out on my own. And I'll either add to it or say there's something wrong here.

>> Yeah. The great Carl Sagan called it the self-correcting machinery that keeps science true, that keeps it aimed at an increasingly better understanding of the way the world works. And so I distinguish between that good faith back and forth, and ultimately it's led to you know an even more robust consensus within the scientific community that the recent warming is unprecedented now probably in many thousands of years. So that back and forth ultimately reaffirmed our key conclusions and introduced better methods. And we've all -- you know the scientific community has prospered as a result of that. But in addition to that you have what I would describe as not so good faith attacks. Efforts to discredit the hockey stick by discrediting me personally, by saying nasty things about me and not taking --

>> Character assassinations.

>> Character assassination absolutely. And not taking place within the legitimate scientific discourse: the peer reviewed literature, the give-and-take at scientific meetings. But on the editorial pages of conservative leaning newspapers and conservative websites.

>> You actually talked about this as Serengeti style attacks. Where scientists are literally isolated from the herd and personally attacked.

>> Yeah that's right. I coined the term the Serengeti Strategy, and it's the strategy that was deployed against me. And is now I see it being deployed against other young scientists who are vulnerable. They don't have tenure, they're not yet established. And when they come out with findings that have you know profound implications for climate change, which is inconvenient to certain vested interests -- fossil fuel interests. They too find themselves subject to attacks that are aimed at discrediting their work in the eyes of their colleagues. Isolating them, denying them funding, and ultimately it's to make an example of them -- for other scientists.

>> You say you received death threats.

>> I have. Some years ago there was police tape over the door to my office. In the Walker building at Penn State I had received an envelope containing a white substance. The FBI had to come in and check it out. So yeah you know it's not what I signed up for when I decided to major in math and physics as an undergraduate and go into the field of climate science. But it is part of the job description today. If you are a climate scientist out there talking about the science and the implications of the science, you better have a thick skin.

>> Well there are lots of people who say that we don't have enough good or effective communicators among scientists. Do you think scientists have a duty to defend the science and engage the public on climate change?

>> Indeed I do. I actually wrote an op-ed in the New York Times a couple years ago entitled: If You See Something Say Something. Which of course is the motto of our Department of Homeland Security. But it applies every bit as much to us as scientists. Where we are funded by the taxpayers to study this problem and it would be a dereliction of our responsibility were we not to report in clear and understandable terms both our findings and the implications that they have. Now that isn't to say that scientists should be trying to prescribe the policy solutions. I leave that to politicians, policymakers in good faith to do that. To debate the policies and there should be conservatives and progressives at the table. There's an equal place at the table for people of all political ideologies in that discussion. But we can't pretend that there's still a debate about the science, that policy discussion has to be premised on an acceptance of the scientific evidence. And that's where scientists play a key role.

>> You know and so often there is this false equivalence. Bob Inglis who is a conservative former congressman from South Carolina says: You know if you look at the 114th Congress, there are 118 climate deniers. That's 70% of the US Senate denies the scientific consensus on climate change. And yet 76% of the American public believes that this is a real problem.

>> Well you know there's a famous saying attributed to Upton Sinclair: It's very difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it. And of course it's a dated expression, it applies to men and women alike. But that I think is the fundamental problem here. We do have a number of politicians who are in the pay of the fossil fuel industry. Who see themselves as advocates for fossil fuel interests rather than objective arbiters of the evidence and what it implies.

>> You know there have been efforts over the years. I think of work you and other scientists did in creating to counter all of the misinformation that is on the Internet. And more recently the American Geophysical Union -- 700 scientists, their staff formed what they called a rapid response team. So that the scientists could respond to the media with inquiries about climate change. And I'm just wondering how effective are those sorts of things? And what role does the media play in sort of disseminating misinformation perhaps unwittingly?

>> Well you know I wish that all media organizations were as good as WPSU is. In both providing attention to this issue and providing objective opportunities to talk about issues like climate change. And there are a lot of really good science reporters, journalists out there doing their best. But it's an increasingly difficult atmosphere within which they work. You know the sort of world of click bait, where the more inflammatory or you know remarkable a headline, the more likely it is to get page views and clicks. And I think that leads to the sort of polarization in our discourse that we've seen. I think it makes it very difficult to discuss with nuance an issue like climate change. So I see both opportunities with the new media. And there are many scientists as you allude to, who are now out there and participating in social media and talking with journalists. I think over the last decade or two as the science has been under attack, we've actually seen a new breed of younger scientists who have emerged. Who are both interested in doing science, but they're passionate about communicating it to the public. And I think that's made a positive difference, but we operate in a pretty challenging media environment now. And issues like climate change don't often get the attention they deserve. And they're often covered in that sort of -- he said, she said, false balance way of --

>> And as Bob Inglis said you would need 97 scientists talking about the dangers of climate change on the stage. With three who were saying it's not happening for that to be an accurate equivalence.

>> Absolutely. In fact John Oliver, the comedian, did a segment where he had my good friend Bill Nye the science guy out on the set along with some guy you know named Joe off the Internet who doesn't believe in climate change right, as if it was a debate between the two of them. And then he invited 96 additional lab coat wearing scientists onto the stage to convey in obviously an amusing but very graphic way. How absurd it is that we treat an issue like this as if there's an equal weight on both the side of the science and the anti-science.

>> And that will bring us to your book in just a moment. So if you are just joining us this is Take Note on WPSU, I'm Patty Satalia. And our guest is Dr. Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science and director of Penn State's Earth Systems Science Center. He's also co-author of The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, And Driving Us Crazy. You created this book with an award-winning -- a Pulitzer prize-winning editorial cartoonist by the name of Tom Toles. Explain how this book is different from other books on climate change. And why you use satire and humor to communicate to the public.

>> Yeah you know it's been -- you know if it weren't such a dire problem that we're talking about in this book, I would say it was a lot of fun writing it. And it was in a sense because I've been a fan of Tom Toles for many years. He does brilliant cartoons that many of your listeners have probably seen before. The square cartoons in the Washington Post with the little guy down in the corner. Which it turns out is Tom himself. You have to read that footnote, you have to read the small text. Because he's usually saying something quite witty and important, and it provides a context for the full cartoon. And you know I already -- we already mentioned John Oliver. I think one of the changes in our media culture is that it's become comedians who have the greatest opportunity to tackle some of the more contentious topics. Because our politics has become so polarized, and people are so bunkered in terms of their thinking and their opinions. Sometimes you need a way of trying to bring that wall down. And one of the ways of doing that -- one of the ways of disarming people of their preconceptions and misconceptions and biases, is through humor and satire. And I think we see that in our discourse today. I think it's part of why you know Stephen Colbert, and you know Samantha Bee, and John Oliver, and Bill Maher, why these comic figures have become such powerful voices in our discourse. And so you know Tom Toles is no different. He has engaged in what I would describe as perhaps the hardest hitting commentary on the issue of climate change, on the pages of the Washington Post in the form of his cartoons. And to be able to work with a, you know, a comic genius like him is obviously the opportunity of a lifetime. But more then that I think it provides this team of me -- a climate scientist who's interested in communicating to the public. And Tom Toles -- an editorial cartoonist who communicates to the public in a different way, to bring these tools together. That's what the book really represents.

>> You know you're also involved in something called 314 PAC, which is committed to getting pro-science candidates elected to Congress. I said just a moment ago that more than 70% of the 114th Congress is made up of climate deniers. Tell us a little bit about who's funding 314 PAC, how successful you were, and just how many pro-science candidates you got into office.

>> Yeah so I'm on the advisory board of the organization. My understanding is their funding comes from -- you know it's crowd raised funding, they get contributions. They have targeted scientists, a lot of the scientists. Some of your audience members if they are academic scientists may well have received you know correspondence from 314 PAC. It's an inside joke of course to those in the world of science and math, 3.14, you know pi. And so it is the case I think -- not that all scientists should want to become politicians, or would even be good politicians. But there are probably a select few individuals who have training in science, who also have both an interest and a proclivity for policy. And why shouldn't we be looking for folks like that to be in Congress. To make sure that there are people you know in you know the highest decision making levels of our government. Who have a very informed understanding of so many issues today that reflect the intersection of science and policy. Climate change obviously being just one. And there are a few folks, right now I think there are two physicists in Congress. And so they are a rare breed indeed. But I think you know organizations like 314 -- 314 PAC are really trying to provide support for scientists both to come into the world of policy, and ideally to be competitive and successful.

>> Before The Flood, which is a new National Geographic documentary film about climate change, it featured Leonardo DiCaprio as the narrator, it was screened at Penn State before the election and in other places around the country. And in a statement about the film, DeCaprio said: There is no greater threat to the future of our society then climate change. And it must be a top issue for voters this election season. Clearly it was not a top issue in this election season. And in fact it wasn't one question delivered by the moderators in the three national debates that we watched. The only question about climate change came from an audience member in the second debate. And his red sweater got more attention then the fact that he works for a coal fired power plant. Why didn't this rise to the level of importance that other things like jobs did in this election?

>> You know I've forgotten his name, we all knew his name at least for a little bit there. And even though he did work I think in the fossil fuel industry as you say, I thought his question was actually a pretty good one. It was about you know the fact that we have these competing goals. You know we want to grow the economy, we want to deal with environmental issues. And the good news is you can do both at the same time. You can you know walk and chew gum when it comes to solving environmental problems. Often you can grow the economy by solving these problems. And it was a worthy question, but it was only tangentially related specifically to the issue of climate change. And as you say Leo DiCaprio who I've come to know very well, and is I think a very effective spokesperson for this issue. As he said, and as you know we've had former admirals of the Navy who have said climate change is the greatest threat we face from a national security standpoint in the decades ahead. How is it that the greatest threat that we face as a civilization, was not on the agenda in these three or more debates in fact?

>> And in fact you said that one of the things that gave you optimism about a Trump presidency, effective January 21st 2017, is the fact that President Trump will be getting national security alerts that will lead him to know just what a national security threat climate change is. And yet here he is -- he has only attended two national security briefings. When he could have sat in on many many more at this point. How concerned are you about that? And are you still optimistic?

>> Well you know I will resist the -- you know the temptation to criticize a president elect. We have to give him you know his fair chance. And we have to hope and assume you know that he will ultimately communicate with national security leaders and other leaders, to make sure that his policy decisions are informed by the facts. The, you know, in the piece that you're referring to, I would say our optimism is somewhat tempered. Maybe I'd call it cautious optimism. Or a hopefulness that he will ultimately talk to national security leaders. And when he does they will tell him. Like you know admirals and generals have gone on record saying that climate change is you know one of the great security threats we face. He's going to be hearing that. If he's talking to our national security leaders he's going to be hearing that. And one has to hope that it may inspire him to think about this issue maybe in a different way from the way he's thought about it. Maybe he's thought that climate change is an issue of the environmental left, it's for granola chewing you know progressives. And I think if as he comes to understand that there are a lot of conservatives like Bob Inglis -- a former republican congressman who you mentioned. And national security leaders who are telling us that this is a real problem, it doesn't matter what your politics are. We need to do something.

>> In fact Bob Inglis says that Donald Trump's public stance on climate change -- which is that it is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, and his professional stance in terms of what he said for instance regarding his luxury golf course in Ireland, that climate change and sea level rising is a threat to his golf course, is diabolical.

>> Right. Do as I say not as I do. Well and again you could -- there is that conflict right. There's that internal contradiction in his actions, his deeds, and you know what he's said on the campaign trail. And if you're an optimist right you can hope that that -- that that inconsistency ends up being resolved on the side of what the actual facts have to say. That you know the fact that in his business decisions he has specifically had to deal with climate change. Let's hope that that informs the approach he takes to this issue as a president.

>> Getting back to Bob Inglis and actually an editorial that you just wrote for the American Scientific. Bob Inglis says that the problem with the way the left has framed this problem is that it's left handling the problem is framed only as a problem and not an opportunity. And you say that Donald Trump can achieve his primary goals if he recognizes and deals with the threat that climate change poses. Explain what you mean by that.

>> Yeah thanks. Yeah this is online at Scientific American, it's going to be in the next print issue of the magazine. And the point we make in the piece is that if Donald Trump wants to be true to his campaign promise, that he wants to bring manufacturing back to his country, well the only way that's going to happen is if we start competing with other countries like China which are moving ahead of us when it comes to clean energy. They're leading the world in the manufacturing of solar cells, solar panels. They recognize, and other countries recognize that this is the great economic revolution of our century, is the clean energy revolution. Now are we going to get left behind? Or are we going to cease upon that as an opportunity. Donald Trump has an opportunity to be a great president if he ceases upon that opportunity.

>> And many say that with or without us, the world is moving toward clean energy.

>> Absolutely. So we just have to decide whether we're going to get left at the train station, or whether we're going to get aboard this train into the 21st century.

>> So going forward if we don't take meaningful action soon, what level of environmental damage do you and other leading climate scientists foresee? And equally important what constitutes meaningful action?

>> Well meaningful action at this stage would mean making good on the commitments that we've already made.

>> The Paris Agreement for example.

>> Absolutely. The building on the progress that's been made over the last four to eight years. The Paris Agreement, the Clean Power Plan, various successes that we've seen and we're turning the corner. We see a rapid increase in renewable energy in this country, globally. We've seen carbon emissions globally, for the first time in decades, stopped increasing last year. Even as the global economy continued to increase. And we know that's because of this decarbonization of our economy. It has to happen faster. We've made some real progress, but if we are to avert truly dangerous and potentially irreversible changes in climate we've got to do even more. We've got to build on the success that we've seen in recent years.

>> And on that note we are out of time. Thank you so much for talking with us.

>> Thank you Patty.

>> That was Penn State climatologist Michael Mann director of the Earth Systems Science Center, and author with political cartoonist Tom Toles, of The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, And Driving Us Crazy. It's published by Columbia University press. To learn more check the links on our website I'm Patty Satalia, WPSU.

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