The climate change smoke screen

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, 2 August

When the tobacco industry was feeling the heat from scientists who showed that smoking caused cancer, it took decisive action.

It engaged in a decades-long public relations campaign to undermine the medical research and discredit the scientists. The aim was not to prove tobacco harmless but to cast doubt on the science. In the space provided by doubt, billions of dollars in sales could continue. Delay and doubt were crucial products of its PR campaign.

In May this year, the multi-billion dollar oil giant Exxon Mobil acknowledged that it had been doing something similar. It announced that it would cease funding nine groups that had fuelled a global campaign to deny climate change.

Exxon's decision comes after a shareholder revolt by members of the Rockefeller family and big superannuation funds to get the oil giant to take climate change more seriously. Exxon (once Standard Oil) was founded by the legendary robber-baron, John D. Rockefeller.

In 2007 the chairman of the US House of Representatives oversight committee on science and technology, Brad Miller, said Exxon's support for skeptics 'appears to be an effort to distort public discussion'.

The funding of an array of think tanks and institutes which house climate sceptics and deniers also worried Britain's premier scientific body, the Royal Society. It found that in 2005 Exxon distributed nearly $3 million to 39 groups which 'misrepresented the science of climate change by outright denial of the evidence that greenhouse gases are driving climate change'. It asked Exxon to stop the funding and its protests helped force Exxon's recent retreat.

The chief scientist of New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric research, Dr Jim Salinger, knows all about misrepresentation. Two months ago, he was named by an Exxon-funded group, the Heartland Institute, as a scientist whose work undermined the theory that burning carbon was a cause of global warming.

The Heartland Institute - essentially a free market lobby group - emphasises that 'the climate is always changing'. It is a common theme of many climate change deniers who talk about a so-called 'Little Ice Age' (1300-1900) and 'Medieval Warm period' (800-1200). Salinger's research studied variation in climate, so his research was enrolled in the denial campaign.

Variations in the climate are normal, Salinger said, but this did not in any way weaken conclusions about the dangers of burning oil and coal. 'Global warming is real,' he said, and demanded reference to his work be removed. The institute refused. The Heartland Institute received almost $800,000 from Exxon, according to Greenpeace's research based on Exxon's corporate giving disclosures.

Another regular piece of evidence in the denial lobby's PR campaign is the 'Oregon Petition'. This urges the US government to reject the Kyoto Protocol and claims there is 'no convincing scientific evidence' for global warming. It has been cited in by climate sceptics such as the Herald Sun's Andrew Bolt among others. It is said to be signed by 31,000 graduates most of whom appear to have nothing to do with climate science.

The petition originated in 1998 with a scientist, Dr Frederick Seitz, who had been president of the US National Academy of Science in the 1960s (and a tobacco consultant in the 1970s). The petition was accompanied by a purported review of the science which was co-published by the George C. Marshall Institute. This Institute has received at least $715,000 from Exxon Mobil since 1998. On its website, the Oregon Institute appears to be a large shed in a small town in Oregon. It also offers research on beating cancer with a diet and 'nuclear war survival skills'.

Claims about the world cooling, not warming, are common in the world of deniers. Cardinal George Pell referred to this possibility recently. In his recent book Heat, George Monbiot gives the example of the TV presenter and botanist, David Bellamy, who is also a climate skeptic. He told the New Scientist in 2005 that most glaciers in the world are growing, not shrinking. He said his evidence came from the World Glacier Monitoring Service in Switzerland, a reputable body. When Monbiot checked the service they said that Bellamy claim was 'complete bullshit'. The world's glaciers are retreating.

When pressed, Bellamy pointed to a website which claims we are heading for new ice age. Last week, this website published an article that stated that in July 2008 the American Physical Society had 'reversed its stance on climate change and is now proclaiming that many of its members disbelieve in human-induced global warming.' This is stunning. Global warming is all about physics and the APS was the premier body of US physicists. But a check with the APS website showed the opposite. Prominently displayed was a press release re-affirming that the evidence for global warming was 'incontrovertible'. Once again the skeptic website was simply lying.

In Australia, the main group which tries to undermine the science of global warming is the Lavoisier Group. It maintains a website with links to the Competitive Enterprise Institute (over $2 million from Exxon) Science and Environmental Policy Project ($20,000) and the Centre for the Study of Carbon Dioxide (at least $100,000). The Competitive Enterprise Institute returns the compliment to Lavoisier in its publication Cooler Head Digest which praised the The Lavoisier Group for its work in defeating the Kyoto Protocol. The Group, it said 'provides the principal intellectual and organizational opposition in Australia to Kyoto.' Its sources of funding are not public.

The Lavoisier group is certainly influential in the federal opposition. A senior figure in the group told Guy Pearse, author of High and Dry, a study of climate policy in Australia, that there 'is an understanding in cabinet that all the science is crap'.

But perhaps the oil companies' PR campaign is not the main reason for the success of the climate change deniers. There are at least three others. First, the implications of the science are frightening. Shifting to renewable energy will be costly and disruptive. Second, doubt is an easy product to sell. Climate denial tells us what we all secretly want to hear. Third, science is portrayed by the free market right as a political 'orthodoxy' rather than objective knowledge, a curiously 'postmodern' argument.

The tide slowly turned on tobacco denial and the science was accepted in the end. Some people still choose to smoke and some pay a price for it.

But climate is different. There are no 'smoke free areas' on the planet. Climate denial may turn out to be the world's most deadly PR campaign.