New book outlines the PR effort behind climate-change skeptics
Public relations specialist and former Sun writer help dismantle the 'denial machine' that argues against global warming
Climate change skeptics regularly denounce me as a disgrace to journalism for declining to accept their dogma, which is mostly received wisdom from sources that I'd trust to evaluate the published science about as much as I'd trust a plumber to perform open heart surgery.
Nothing against plumbers, mind you. They're just not heart surgeons. And the economists, statisticians and agenda-driven politicians routinely cited by the skeptics aren't glaciologists, botanists, biologists, oceanographers, atmospheric physicists or computer modelling specialists.
In the world of climate skeptics, skepticism is apparently acceptable only when it agrees with the climate change skeptics' point of view. Show skepticism toward their own implausible theory of a vast scientific conspiracy at leading universities to deceive the world about global warming with fraudulent "junk science" and it's just unworthy scoffing from a lazy, dishonest hack.
However, I take heart from a fascinating new book by public relations specialist James Hoggan, written in collaboration with former Vancouver Sun writer Richard Littlemore.
Over 25 years, Hoggan has built his Vancouver firm into an international PR powerhouse with clients in North America, Europe and Asia, so I take what he says quite seriously when it comes to the world of public perception, image-management and strategic communications.
Climate Cover-up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming is a remarkable deconstruction of what he argues is a carefully orchestrated propaganda campaign whose goal is to set the agenda in climate policy by discrediting legitimate science and manipulating public perceptions of the scientific evidence.
This isn't a book about the science behind global warming scenarios, it's an analysis by a well-informed insider of how the debate was skilfully framed by public relations experts to call that science into question, exploit the media's weakness for a good controversy and ultimately to sow confusion and doubt in the public's mind.
It began, the book says, with fossil fuel industry associations, which had the most to lose financially from any serious attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by curbing the burning of coal, oil and natural gas.
These interests, says Hoggan, deployed strategies developed in Big Tobacco's campaign against the anti-smoking movement. Purported research documents were commissioned with the aim of raising questions about climate change science even though their own scientific advisers knew that science to be sound. Meanwhile, he says, a select group of free-market think tanks implemented the strategy and in the process deliberately polluted public discourse on the subject.
"Reputable newspapers and magazines are today acting in a confused and confusing manner," Hoggan argues, "because a great number of people have worked very hard and spent a great deal of money in an effort to establish and spread that confusion."
Chapter by relentless chapter, Hoggan dismantles what some have called the denial machine.
He begins with an outline of the origins of propaganda and how mercenary spin doctors employed the techniques devised by fascist dictators -- and later refined for war and Cold War by Allies and Axis, capitalists and communists alike -- to deftly frame a broad and benign scientific consensus as a fiercely partisan debate over doubts as to whether or not global warming is actually occurring.
There's a chapter on "astroturfing," the strategy of setting up what appear to be grassroots citizens' groups which are actually fronts for special interests, a process with which British Columbians are already intimately familiar from the erstwhile "War in the Woods" during the 1990s.
There's a chapter on the strategic whitewash and a chapter on the tactical use of lawsuits to silence critics. Another addresses the use of charged language to distort and polarize discussion -- the term "junk science,"
"Junk science" is often used by non-scientists to imply that work by scientists is false or incompetent, although the term is an oxymoron since if it's "junk" it can't, by definition, be science. And if it is genuine science, it can't, by definition, be junk.
Particularly interesting for me is a chapter dissecting the mass media.
I have no doubt that Climate Cover-up is going to stir up controversy, particularly in the United States where many of these strategies were deployed and fine-tuned.
Good. It's about time we all started thinking about what are facts, what are opinions, what is meant by scientific consensus and what is merely self-interested spin-doctoring intended to manipulate a discussion about the future of humanity that's far too important to be left to politicians, corporations, pundits and public relations machines.