Merchants of Doubt
Pundits have mused that Al Gore needs to produce an imperative sequel to his documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth." In this second version, he would explain why—given the great, even overwhelming, convergence among scientists on the primarily human caused global warming--so few people seem to register its dangers or respond to its potential challenges. I was asked just that question by a high school student last week when I gave a lecture on eco-justice and creation care. My response to her was threefold. First, the issue itself is so vast, so global, so complicated to address that ordinary people feel they have little to offer by way of any solution. They defer to the "experts." As Thomas Friedman seems to argue in his 2008 book, Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution, only large scale planning on an intergovernmental level can really address the massive scope of the climate issue.
Next, most scenarios about global warming tend to stress the dangers, indeed possible catastrophes, in not addressing the issue rather than Friedman’s alternative emphasis that a green revolution might actually be a potential boon for technological innovations and the production of new jobs. Even though we clearly know death and taxes are impossible to elude, we tend to be in denial about these realities which get painted in pastels of gloom and inevitable loss or failure.
But, I had just finished reading the excellent new 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway (both of them historians of science), Merchants of Doubt. Its subtitle throws some light on the skepticism (despite the scientific consensus) about global warming: “ How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming.” Oreskes and Conway document, through a series of case studies--about the health harms of tobacco and second-hand smoke; acid rain; the ozone hole caused by chlorofluorocarbons released by spray cans, air-conditioners and refrigerators; about the harmful effects of the insecticide, DDT; about global warming--how a handful of contrarian scientists (almost none of them, in fact, specialists on health or climate-issues) crop up again and again as skeptics about the harms of tobacco and second-hand smoke, about acid rain, the ozone hole, the effects of
DDT or global warming.
It is instructive to know who has funded these skeptics’ research. Over and over again, the names include Phillip Morris (on the tobacco issues), the right-wing Scaife, Olin, Adolph Coors Foundations, Exxon Mobil (which dispensed 8 million dollars to 40 different organizations to challenge the science on global warming), the Heritage Foundation, The American Enterprise Institute, The Heartland Institute, and the George Marshall Institute. Of the 56 environmentally skeptical books published in 1990, for example, 92% were linked to one or other of these right-wing foundations. Many of the scientists who became the skeptical voices against the need for some governmental regulations against environmental harms were old-style cold-warriors who had worked on nuclear weapons and the Star Wars Initiatives of the Reagan administration. Fred Singer, Fred Seitz, William Nierenberg, Robert Jastrow, Stephen Milloy show a decided pattern. Part of their argument appeals to normal scientific uncertainties to undermine the status of actual scientific knowledge.
For example, no one now doubts the scientific links between tobacco (directly inhaled or second-hand) and cancer. Yet, of course, not everyone who smokes gets cancer. There may also be some genetic predispositions to cancer, as well. This uncertainty why some may be immune does not really undermine a striking statistical probability of the linkage between tobacco and cancer. Nor are the deleterious effects of DDT on the environment really in doubt.
When debate raged on the impact of acid rain from sulfur dioxide during the Reagan Administration, Fred Singer (an atomic physicist, not a climatologist) argued vigorously (an argument typical of the skeptics) that dealing with acid rain involved "a billion dollar solution to a million dollar problem.æ As it turns out, in 2003 the Environmental Protection Agency reported to Congress that the costs of air pollution control for the previous 10 years had been 8-10 billion dollars, with its benefits reckoned at 101-119 billion dollars. At the time of the ozone hole controversy, Fred Singer had argued that the science was incomplete and uncertain (science, by its nature, is almost always incomplete but that does not make it basically uncertain. There are always ordinary uncertainties in science which do not rule out some scientific sureties). Singer also contended that replacing chlorofluorocarbons would be difficult, dangerous and expensive (in the event, a cap and trade scheme proved very workable). His final claim was that the scientific community is corrupt and motivated by self-interest.
The scientific claims supporting the dangers to health from tobacco, DDT, acid rain, the ozone hole, global warming all appear in reputable scientific journals. The unscientific skeptical views appear in the mass media (for example, in The Wall Street Journal or on NBC). You could never, at present, publish an article in a peer-reviewed scientific journal claiming that there is no global warming or that it is not, fundamentally, based on human carbon footprints. Paradoxically, however, one impact of the 1949 "Fairness Doctrine" which demanded, on broadcasts and journalism, a sort of balance is that it is, then, applied to science. The Fairness Doctrine makes sense for politics but not for science. Science is about evidence and close peer scrutiny, not about mere opinion. As Oreskes and Conway argue, “Balance was interpreted by journalists and broadcasters as giving equal weight to both sides rather than giving accurate weight to both sides.” After all, just because I may believe the earth is flat, does not give me some right to equal-time with true science.
Many of the skeptics argue their case in terms of liberty. Singer, for example, sees the issue of environmentalism as close to a slippery slope to socialism. He resists, fiercely, any governmental intrusion on the workings of the free-market. But as Isaiah Berlin once
famously argued: “Liberty for the wolves means death to the lambs.”
Anyone who wants to know what science has to say about global warming (and the legitimate areas for uncertainties) should read James Hansen’s 2009 magisterial book, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity. Hansen carefully documents why human green house gas is the culprit “forcing” climate change and , then, discusses, with great care, some remaining uncertainties about possible feed-backs mechanisms which lead scientists to debate, somewhat, about timing, the amount of possible increases of greenhouse gas which can be absorbed , etc.
But as Oreskes and Conway argue, “the ideal of balance leads journalists to give minority views more credence than they deserve.” Nicholas Stern, chief economist and senior Vice President of the World Bank from 2000-2003 and the principal author of The Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change (which was commissioned by the then British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown ) has called climate change “the greatest and widest ranging market failure ever seen." Right-wing foundations and some of their "scientific" hired guns can not stomach any talk about market failure and fear that governmental standards and regulations lead us down some slippery slope toward socialism. For them, as George Will once said, environmentalism is a green tree with red roots. Pity a world where forces of money and mere opinion undermine the legitimate counsel of science! Or, where the media, in the spurious name of "fair and free speech," actually contributes to skepticism about global warming!
John Coleman, S.J.