This is the third post in a series that examines the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign through an ethical lens. As we have seen, the purpose of this series is to distinguish between reasonable scientific skepticism, an approach to climate change science that should be encouraged, and the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign, strategies deployed to undermine mainstream climate change science that are often ethically offensive.
This series is not a criticism of skeptical approaches to mainstream climate change science provided skeptics comply with the rules of science including publishing in peer-reviewed scientific journals, don’t make claims unsupported by the relevant scientific evidence, and don’t participate in the tactics discussed in this series.
The first entry in this series explained:
(1) Why ethics requires great care when considering, discussing, and debating uncertainties about climate change impacts.
(2) The consensus position on climate change science and why it is entitled to respect despite some scientific uncertainty about the timing and magnitude of climate change impacts.
(3) The need to acknowledge the important role of skepticism in science even if one is deeply critical of the tactics of the disinformation campaign.
In the second entry, Climate Ethics:
(1) Examined what is meant by the climate change “disinformation campaign” and how it has operated.
(2) Conducted ethical analyses of the following climate disinformation tactics:
a. Reckless disregard for the truth.
b. Focusing on unknowns and ignoring knowns.
c. Specious claims of “bad” science.
d. Front Groups.
This entry examines the following additional tactics:
a. Think Tanks
b. PR campaigns.
c. Astroturf groups.
d. Cyber bullying attacks.
II. Conservative Think Tanks.
As we saw in the last post, conservative counter-movements evolved as a reaction to the social movements in the 1960s and 1970s on the environment, civil rights, human rights, and woman’s rights when conservative philanthropists began to fund, typically through their family foundations, the establishment of conservative think tanks to wage a war of ideas against the progressive gains made by the social movement. (Dunlap and McCright. 2011:149)
Conservative think tanks are non-profit, public policy research and advocacy organizations that promote conservative ideals such as “free enterprise,” “private property rights,” “limited government,” and “national defense.” (Jacques et al., 2008: 355).
It was the conservative think tanks, the key organizational component of the conservative movement that launched a full-scale counter-movement in response to the perceived success of the environmental movement and its supporters. (Jacques et al., 2008: 352) Some conservative think tanks aggressively mobilized between 1990 and 1997 to challenge the legitimacy of global warming science. (McCright and Dunlap, 2003: 349) While many fossil fuel and energy related corporations including ExxonMobil joined conservative foundations in funding the conservative think tanks, the major financers of the right-wing think tanks recently have been conservative foundations, some controlled by people such as Richard Mellon Schaife and David Charles Koch, as well as other conservative philanthropic foundations. (Dunlap and McCright. 2011:149) Both the conservative philanthropic foundations and the corporations funding these think tanks sought to protect unregulated free markets and therefore had a strong interest in undermining scientific claims that support the need of governments to regulate the private sector in regard to greenhouse gas emissions.
Some of the most engaged think tanks working to foreground scientific uncertainty about climate change have included:
• National Center for Policy Analysis
• Heartland Institute
• National Center for Public Policy Research
• Competitive Enterprise Institute
• Marshall Institute
• Cato Institute
• Centers for a Sound Economy Foundation
• American Enterprise Institute
• Reason Public Policy Institute
• Foundation for Research On Economics and the Environment
• Pacific Research Institute
• Claremont Institute
(McCright and Dunlap, 2010: 508)
As we shall see, the tactics of some of these think tanks have often been ethically problematic. Some of these think tanks have often:
(a) sought to emphasize the unknowns about how human actions may affect the climate system while ignoring what is known,
(b) repeated untruthful claims about climate change science,
(c) manufactured bogus scientific claims by such strategies as organizing dubious scientific conferences and paying for scientists to produce criticisms of mainstream climate change science, and
(d) widely published scientific climate change claims that have not been subjected to peer-review.
Those conservative think tanks that deploy these tactics both to protect the interests of their corporate funders and advance the ideological positions of their conservative philanthropic supporters. And so, these think tanks are not serious scientific organizations that consistently promote an unbiased scientific search for the truth, a goal of responsible scientific skepticism, but advocacy organizations engaged in advancing the agendas of their financial backers.
According to McCright and Dunlap some conservative think tanks frequently have:
• Obfuscated the results of scientific research by:selectively promoting publications of contrarian scientists with positions at odds with the scientific consensus;
• Funded contrarian scientists to produce reports that are often not peer-reviewed.
• Misrepresented the results of scientific research by spinning the results or committing errors of omission.
• Manipulated the results of scientific research by editing government agency reports prior to publication.
• Suppressed (by stalling or canceling) scientific reports from government agencies
• Attacked individual scientists who work at public and private universities to discredit their work.
• Worked to silence, censor, or otherwise target individual scientists who work at government agencies by influencing what they can say and to whom they can say it to.
• Enabled politicians to hold seemingly open-ended investigatory hearings where results were pre-determined.
• Exploited the mass-media’s “balancing norm” to promote fringe scientists’ views to near parity with mainstream scientific consensus.
(McCright and Dunlap, 2010; 508)
Some of the specific think tank tactics have also included the following:
• Emphasizing unknowns
As we have seen in the last post, a major tactic of the disinformation campaign has been for participants to publicize a few issues in climate change science about which there is some scientific uncertainty while ignoring the huge number of well-settled climate change facts that are not in serious scientific contention. To foreground scientific uncertainty in the public’s understanding of the state of climate change science, a major tool employed by the conservative think tanks has been the production of an unremitting flow of printed material ranging from books and editorials designed for public consumption to policy briefs aimed at policy-makers and journalists, combined with frequent appearances by spokespersons on TV and radio. (Jacques et al., 2008: 355).
In these publications, the science these think tanks use is not always bogus. As George Monbiot writing for the Guardian notes:
On the whole, they use selection, not invention. They will find one contradictory study – such as the discovery of tropospheric cooling….They will continue to do so long after it has been disproved by further work. So, for example, John Christy, the author of the troposphere paper, admitted in August 2005 that his figures were incorrect, yet his initial findings are still being circulated and championed by many of these groups, as a quick internet search will show you. (Monboit, 2006)
Out of 141 books published between 1972 to 2005 that promoted environmental skepticism, 130 had affiliations with conservative think tanks. (Jacques et al., 2008: 360). The number of books connected to think tanks have continued to increase over the last four decades not only in the United States but also in Europe, Australia, Canada, and South Africa. (Jacques et al., 2008: 361)
To support the claim that the consensus view on climate change is weak, conservative think tanks routinely rely upon contrarian publications that stress scientific uncertainty about climate change while ignoring the scientific evidence that supports the conclusion that humans are affecting the climate system. (McCright and Dunlap, 2010: 111). As we have seen in the last post, stressing what is not known while ignoring elements of climate science that is not in contention is misleading and therefore ethically troublesome.
There are many facts about climate change science that are not in contention. These include:
• The undisputed fact that if greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations increase in the atmosphere there will be increased absorption and re-radiation of heat energy or what is usually referred to as climate “forcing.”
• The initial forcing of each greenhouse gas is known precisely even though there is uncertainty about final global warming at equilibrium or “climate sensitivity.”
• Atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations are increasing in the atmosphere in direct proportion to human use of fossil fuel and activities that release greenhouse gases.
• The planet is roughly warming as expected as atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases increase.
• The CO 2 in the atmosphere is largely coming from fossil sources. There are several robust lines of evidence to support this including carbon isotope evidence.
• Although the models to predict future warming will always contain uncertainties that will limit the ability to predict impacts precisely, they have roughly accurately been predicting observed warming.
• There are numerous attribution and fingerprint studies that point to human causes for warming.
Now these uncontested facts do not absolutely prove that future warming described by the IPCC will happen as predicted, nevertheless these uncontested matters clearly are support for the conclusion that human-induced climate change is a significant threat. Thus, to claim there is no evidence that humans are threatening the climate is a falsehood.
The materials produced by the conservative think tanks often rely upon a handful of cherry-picked studies by contrarian scientist that ignore the evidence on which the scientific consensus position is based. (McCright and Dunlap, 2010: 112) Such tactics are not consistent with reasonable skepticism but constitute deceptive misinformation.
• Making claims in reckless disregard for the truth.
Some of the conservative think tanks often promote claims that conflict with well-settled scientific conclusions. As we have seen, this is also not reasonable scientific skepticism but misleading disinformation.
One of the most active conservative think tanks engaged in climate change issues is the Heartland Institute. According to the Heartland website, its mission is to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems. (Heartland, 2012)
According to the website Source Watch, Heartland received the following funding from Exxon Mobil during the years 1998 to 2006 although Heartland claims it has received no Exxon Mobil money since 2006 :
• $30,000 in 1998;
• $115,000 in 2000;
• $90,000 in 2001;
• $15,000 in 2002;
• $85,000 for General Operating Support and $7,500 for their 19th Anniversary Benefit Dinner in 2003;
• $85,000 for General Operating Support and $15,000 for Climate Change Efforts in 2004;
• $119,000 in 2005;
• $115,000 in 2006.
One of the Heartland Institute’s publications is The Skeptics Handbook. This is a slim volume that Heartland distributed to more than 150,000 people across the United States including 850 journalists, 26,000 schools, and 19,000 leaders and politicians. (Powell, 2011: 99) The handbook’s four major points conflict with well-established scientific conclusions. (Powell, 2011: 99) These major claims are:
• The greenhouse gas signature is missing.
• Something else other than CO2 has caused the warming.
• Temperatures are not rising.
• CO2 is already doing most of the warming it can do.
(Powell, 2011: 99-100).
Powell explains how each of these claims has been thoroughly refuted by mainstream science. (Powell, 2011: 99-100). For instance, to claim that the “the greenhouse gas signature is missing” is to contradict: (a) the numerous attribution and fingerprint studies that point to human causation of climate change, (b) the indisputable fact that greenhouse gases are increasing in the atmosphere in direct proportion to human activities, and (c) the other scientifically established facts not in question mentioned above. Although there are remaining uncertainties about magnitude and timing of future warming, it is untruthful to claim there is no evidence of human causation of the observed warming. In fact human causation is the very subject of numerous attribution and fingerprint studies that have formed the basis of an international agreement that observed warming is very likely caused by human activities.
It is a greater example of reckless regard for the truth to claim that there is no evidence that observed warming is related to increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations. There is a strong correlation between rising CO2 concentrations and rising temperatures not only recently, but also extending through the entire historical climate record. Moreover, there is no serious scientific question about whether if atmospheric concentrations of CO2 increase in the atmosphere there will be some increased initial climate forcing. It is just basic physics that if CO2 increases in the atmosphere there will some initial warming measurable in watts per square meter, despite the fact that there is admitted uncertainty about the magnitude and timing of final warming given different CO2 atmospheric concentrations, an issue referred to as “climate sensitivity.” To say that there is no “evidence” if CO2 increases in the atmosphere there will some initial warming is to encourage people and the media to confuse “evidence” with absolute “proof.”
There is a large body of abundant “evidence” that links rising CO2 atmospheric concentrations with observed warming that cannot be denied even if one claims that there are other causes of observed warming that have not yet been recognized. It is simply misinformation to claim there is no “evidence” of connections between increases CO2 atmospheric concentrations and melting glaciers, sea ice, and sea level rise. To claim there is no evidence is a falsehood, not reasonable skepticism.
A notable example of conservative think tanks pushing clearly untruthful claims are continuing assertions about what is often referred to as the “hockey stick” controversy. The “hockey stick” describes a reconstruction of the Earth’s past temperatures over the last 1,000 years. (Mann, 1999) The reconstruction of the temperatures for the last 1,000 years made by Mann and his associates described temperature trends in the shape of hockey stick with the temperature curve approximating the shape of the blade of the hockey stick indicating unprecedented warming in the 20th Century.
Figure 1: Northern Hemisphere temperature changes estimated from various proxy records shown in blue. (Mann, 1999). Instrumental data shown in red.
Beginning in 2003, McKintrick and McIntire published several articles criticizing issues associated with the Mann et al hockey stick. (See, McKintrick and McIntire, 2005) Although a few minor errors were found with the original hockey stick reconstruction, these errors have been corrected by Mann and his colleagues and several new reconstructions have confirmed the essential conclusions of the original hockey stick regarding the basic shape of the historical temperature curve. As one commentator on the hockey stick controversy has noted:
More than a dozen other scientists have come up with numerous reconstructions, which all feature a long, relatively straight line through most of the past millennium punctuated by a sharp upturn in the middle of the last century. (Hoggan, 2009 :111)
In summary, the basic description of temperature trends described by the shape of the hockey stick has been confirmed by many scientists around the world. Some of these reconstructions are depicted in the following figure:
Figure 2, (Mann et al., 2003)
It is simply not true that the hockey stick controversy has undermined the consensus position on climate change. And unremitting claims made by some participants in the climate change disinformation campaign are untruthful that errors discovered in the hockey stick controversy undermine the IPCC led consensus on climate change.
Yet the controversy over the hockey stick became a proxy attack on the entire science of climate change in the think tank echo chamber explained in the last post. This assault on the entire basis for the mainstream view on climate change has been continued despite the fact that the evidence of the type displayed in the Mann reconstruction is simply one in a number of independent lines of evidence supporting the strong likelihood that human influences on climate play a dominant role in the observed 20th century warming. (Hoggan, 2009: 110) In fact the claim widely circulated in the think tank echo chamber that the hockey stick controversy undermines the consensus view contains several untruths. As we have seen, the first untruth is that the basic shape of the temperature curve described by the original Mann hockey stick has been demonstrated to be erroneous. A second untruth is that the hockey stick was essential to the climate change consensus claim that human activities are changing the climate system. As we have seen above, the conclusion that humans are affecting the climate system is based upon many independent lines of evidence that are in addition to and independent of historical temperature trends described by the Mann reconstruction. And so any assertion that the hockey stick controversy completely undermines the mainstream scientific position on human-induced climate change constitutes a reckless disregard for the truth.
In addition to untruthful claims about the significance of the hockey stick, the think tank echo chamber continues to repeat many other claims about climate change that must be understood as untruthful such as assertions that: (a) the mainstream scientific position is a hoax or has been completely debunked, or (b) that there is no evidence of human causation of observed warming. As we saw in the last post, these claims cannot be understood to be based upon responsible skepticism but constitute deceptive misinformation. And so, some think tanks engaged in climate change continue to make claims to undermine the mainstream scientific view on human-induced climate change that are clearly untruthful.
• Manufacturing dubious science
Some of the conservative think tanks have engineered efforts to make marginal, untested, or speculative scientific claims about climate change appear to be non-controversial, fully tested scientific conclusions.
One striking example of this occurred in November of 2006 before the release of the fourth assessment of IPCC in 2007. Kenneth Green, a resident scholar of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), offered $10,000 plus expenses for any scientist who would write a critique of the then soon to be released IPCC report. (Hoggan, 2009: 74) The AEI representative apparently decided that his institution would not like the conclusions of the IPCC and was eager to find scientists who were willing to criticize IPCC even before the final IPCC report was issued. (Hoggan, 2009: 74) Mr. Green did not seem to be interested in publicizing any valid scientific IPCC conclusions but instead was interested in undermining any IPCC claims that supported the conclusion that human-induced climate change is a threat. In addition, Mr. Green was not asking scientists to submit critiques of IPCC that were based only upon peer-reviewed science. He clearly was interested in gathering criticisms untested by the rigor of fact checking that occurs in peer-review of scientific claims.
Many think tank publications frequently publish assertions of those who disagree with IPCC conclusions without regard to how scientifically credible the disagreements with IPCC conclusions are.
Some conservative think tanks also frequently convene conferences that highlight speeches by climate deniers without regard to whether the speakers are reporting on peer-reviewed literature. (Hoffman, 2011:9) One think tank that has frequently sponsored such conferences is the Heartland Institute. (Hoffman, 2011:11)
At the Heartland Institute organized conference in May of 2010, 70 climate deniers and 2 climate believers spoke. (Hoffman, 2011:11) The majority of the climate deniers at this conference focused on the science, ideology, and economics of climate change policies. On science issues, many of the presenters claimed that the peer-reviewed science on which the consensus view was based was generated by a deeply corrupt and flawed peer-review process. (Hoffman, 2011:11)
Some of the deniers at this conference also claimed that editors of science journals only publish works that conform to their own political beliefs. (Hoffman, 2011:11) These claims are not attacks on hyperbolic assertions of environmental advocates but direct assaults on mainstream climate science. Sweeping claims such as these that the huge body of peer-reviewed science supporting the consensus scientific views is flawed or corrupt are not credible; they are unfounded accusations, not supported by credible evidence. Even if a few among the thousands of peer-reviewed articles published in reputable scientific journals on which the IPCC conclusions are based contain errors, this is not credible evidence that the entire peer-review scientific process on which the consensus scientific view is based is biased or corrupt. Yet, such claims are frequently made not only at the conservative think tank conferences but in subsequent literature.
The think tank organized conferences thus have become a public stage to publish science related claims that by-pass the rigors of legitimate scientific analysis while making undisciplined charges about the mainstream scientific processes. Thus, some of the think tank conferences are a frontal assault on mainstream science.
These scientifically dubious conferences also have been an arena for unsupported ad hominem attacks on mainstream climate scientists. Presenters at the Heartland 2010 conference claimed that climate believers “hate people” and they hate the Western economy. (Hoffman, 2011:11) During this conference, climate believers were frequently referred to as “warmists”, “alarmists,” “AGW (Anthropocentric Global Warming) lefties, communists, and Obama-ites.” (Hoffman, 2011:11) And so the think tank organized conferences also frequently publicize broad sweeping attacks on the integrity of mainstream climate scientists usually without specific supporting evidence.
• Publicizing questionable scientific claims
McCright and Dunlap examined 224 publications on climate change produced by major conservative think tanks between 1990 and 1997 and found that the think tanks produced 12 books or sections in books, 25 op-ed entries in popular media, 44 think tank magazines or newsletter articles, 14 articles in World Climate Report, 53 policy studies or policy analyses, 24 speech transcripts , and 52 press releases. (McCright and Dunlap, 2010: 508). McCright and Dunlap concluded that 159 documents produced by think tanks included specific counter-claims that attempted to discredit the scientific evidence of global warming and, thereby, undermine the mainstream climate science in the eyes of the public. (McCright and Dunlap, 2010:508) Most of the conservative think tank publications have a paucity of citations to scientific authority. (McCright and Dunlap, 2003: 359 ) By publically promoting the ideas of climate change skeptics that are not supported by peer-reviewed literature, the think tanks are often engaged in an end-run around established scientific norms. (McCright and Dunlap, 2003: 359 )
Most conservative think tanks have publishing capacities (e.g., Cato Press and American Enterprise Institute Press) providing them with perceived legitimacy in the eyes of the general public and allowing them to advance science-related positions outside the peer-reviewed scientific community. (McCright and Dunlap, 2003: 356)
Conservative think tanks also sponsor policy forums, public speeches, and press conferences to present their scientific counter-claims on global warming to policy-makers and the general public. (McCright and Dunlap, 2003: 356) Elected officials are often invited to these policy forums and summarized transcripts are regularly disseminated to a wide-range of policy makers and, in this way, the think tanks obtain access to elite policy makers and media outlets. (McCright and Dunlap, 2003: 357) And so conservative think tank publications have become a device for foregrounding non-peer reviewed scientific claims in the minds of politicians.
Members of conservative think tanks have also frequently testified at Congressional hearings on global warming to which they have been invited by conservative politicians. (McCright and Dunlap, 2003: 357) In this way, the conservative think tanks provide an opportunity for a skeptical scientific minority to speak to politicians without regard to how representative the minority opinions are among climate scientists that actually do research on climate science. (McCright and Dunlap, 2003: 358)
Some think tanks have additionally created special ad hoc projects specifically to challenge the legitimacy of global warming. (McCright and Dunlap, 2003: 357) Through these special projects and other activities, the conservative movement vigorously has promoted its general anti-environmental frame and specific counter-claims challenging the legitimacy of global warming. (McCright and Dunlap, 2003: 358) These claims have included assertions that:
• There is no scientific consensus about the likelihood, extent, or even reality of human-induced global warming.
• There is no scientific consensus that global warming is a problem or that humans are its cause.
• A decade of focus on global warming and billions of dollars of research funds have still failed to establish that global warming is a significant problem.
• Scientists do not agree on the human effect on climate and it is unlikely that they will know the answer to this question anytime in the near future.
(McCright and Dunlap, 2010: 508)
These claims, as we have seen in earlier posts, all ignore the scientific consensus view that has been supported by academies of science around the world, most scientific organizations whose members have relevant scientific expertise, and the vast majority of scientists that actually do research on climate science.
The conservative think tanks often claim to be a source of “accurate”, ” rigorous”, and “objective” analyses on science issues, yet these institutions demonstrate a consistent bias toward free-market activities unfettered by regulation. (Lashen, 2005:154) To accomplish this objective, conservative think tanks engage in tactics to undermine mainstream climate science that ranges from manipulation of information and subtle “diversionary reframing” to define potential environmental impacts as non-problematic. (McCright and Dunlap, 2003: 351)
The conservative think tanks also help shield the efforts of corporations and philanthropists to combat climate change policy by discreetly funneling millions into think tanks that sponsor contrarians and organize campaigns. (Dunlap and McCright. 2011: 150) Think tanks have also worked with American corporations to set up a maze of front groups, and Astroturf campaigns that will be discussed below to combat the science of climate change and related policy making while at least partially hiding the real parties in interest. (Dunlap and McCright. 2011:150)
And so the conservative think tanks engage in ethically problematic behavior to the extent that they publicize claims that constitute reckless disregard for the truth, push unknowns while ignoring knowns about climate science, communicate untested scientific claims as if they were settled scientific matters, or make unsupported ad hominem attacks on mainstream climate scientists.
As we have seen throughout this series, if conservative think tanks limited their criticisms of mainstream climate science to claims that are supported by responsible scientific skepticism they would be providing a public service because responsible skepticism should be encouraged rather than vilified. However, some conservative think tanks frequently obfuscate, misrepresent, manipulate, and suppress mainstream climate science while regularly attacking the integrity of mainstream climate change research scientists. To the extent that these practices are engaged in by conservative think tanks, they are ethically reprehensible given the potential harsh impacts of climate change on tens of millions of existing people, countless members of future generations, and the ecological systems on which life depends.
III. Public Relations Firm Led Campaigns.
Fossil fuel related organizations and other participants in the climate change disinformation campaign have sometimes hired or worked with public relations (PR) firms or used PR tactics to create campaigns to convince citizens that climate change science is deeply unsettled and therefore that any policy action taken is a waste of money. (Lashen, 2005: 150) This ethically troublesome tactic was originally honed by tobacco companies to fight regulation of cigarettes by emphasizing scientific uncertainties about the link between smoking and cancer. (Mooney, 2005:67). This tactic is aptly summarized in a 1969 document of Brown & Williams, a tobacco company, which stated: “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with a ‘body of fact’ in the mind of the general public. It is also a means of establishing a controversy.” (Mooney, 2005: 67, quoting a Brown & Williamson document, approximately 1969)
The PR doubt campaigns have taken several forms. One public relations firm, APCO, created the front group The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC) which proclaimed that it was a grassroots based not-for-profit watchdog group but was actually an organization created by a PR firm originally on behalf of the tobacco company Philip Morris. (Monboit, 2006) TASSC later became involved climate change issues. (Monboit, 2006)
TASSC’s early membership included “sound science” supporters like Amoco, Exxon, Occidental Petroleum, Santa Fe Gold Corporation, Proctor & Gamble, The Louisiana Chemical Association, the National Pest Association, General Motors, 3M, Chevron, and Dow Chemical. (Hoggan 2009, 41)
One of the TASSC projects on climate change was a thousand-dollar “Global Warming Sweepstakes” contest to generate letters to President Clinton opposing the Kyoto Protocol. (PR Watch, 2012) And so, at the suggestion of a public relations firm, an Astroturf organization (a phenomenon discussed below) was created to implement a campaign to prevent the United States from joining the Kyoto Protocol. To enter the Global Warming Sweepstakes, a contestant needed to visit the Junk Science Home Page (http://www.junkscience.com), a web site related to TASSC, and send an e-mail to President Clinton expressing an opinion whether the United States should sign the Kyoto Protocol. (PR Watch, 2012)
The Junk Science website contained several model letters that citizens could use to send in opposition to the global warming treaty. (PR Watch, 2012) And so industry funders worked with a PR firm to create an Astroturf process to undermine mainstream climate science, a process that hid the real parties who were organizing this effort.
A front group funded by coal companies, electric utilities, and manufacturers, the Information Council on the Environment (ICE), used PR strategies to create a campaign to undermine proposed legislation that would impose energy taxes and regulations on the funding companies. (Lashen, 2005: 150) Among other things, this campaign supported advertisements that invited citizens to conclude that global warming could not be happening because some parts of the world had a cold spell. Yet climate change theory anticipates both that some parts of the world will get colder as the planet warms and that warming trends will include cold weather intervals due to regular natural cycles of oceans and the atmosphere. For this reason, the mainstream scientific view on climate change assumes that local weather will not always be a reliable predictor of global climatic changes. Yet the PR campaign misled people about the significance of local and regional weather as global warming theory does not preclude local cooling. One could reasonably conclude that the PR campaign was not interested in anything other than undermining mainstream climate science in the eyes of the public.
Internal ICE documents revealed that the strategies of the campaign included to “reposition global warming as a theory (not a fact) and target print and media for maximum effectiveness.” (Lashen, 2005: 150) The ICE documents also described the organization’s strategy as targeting less-educated segments of the population, which ICE’s test marketing had identified as the most receptive to the message. (Lashen, 2005: 150)
And so, PR strategies supplement efforts to undermine mainstream climate science by bringing to the disinformation campaign the messaging, targeting, and communications skills of PR professionals. These strategies often consciously target segments of civil society that are vulnerable to sophisticated messaging and that gives economic interests the opportunity to obfuscate, deceive, and derail public debate on key issues. If PR tactics mislead the public on climate change science, they reduce society’s capacity to respond effectively to a potentially devastating threat like climate change.
Although there is nothing morally problematic with generating knowledge with effective PR skills to communicate important messages to the general public, well-financed misinformation managed by PR firms magnifies the harms that are caused by the misinformation.
The code of the Public Relations Society of America calls for PR firms to adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those they represent and in communicating with the public. (PRSA, 2012) Therefore PR firms that help the climate change disinformation campaign transmit misinformation about climate change violate their own code of ethical responsibility. Of course, fossil fuel and other corporate interests that hire PR firms to mislead the public about climate change are also engaging in ethically reprehensible behavior.
IV. Astroturf Groups.
Organizations engaged in the disinformation campaign have created Astroturf groups designed to give the impression that there is wide-spread, bottom-up opposition to climate change policies that disguise that the funding and organization of these efforts actually come from organizations engaged in the disinformation campaign. An Astroturf group is a fake “grassroots” organization often organized by a public relations firm that has been hired by a corporation or group of corporations to influence public policy. (Hoggan, 2009: 36) Like the Front Groups, the Astroturf organizations are designed to keep the real parties at interest under the public radar. (Hoggan, 2009: 39). The Astroturf groups are often created to lobby on behalf of their sponsors who strive to remain hidden from view. (Dunlap and McCright, 2011: 154)
One common tactic of the Astroturf groups engaged in global warming policy is to assure that skeptical climate science arguments are sent to newspapers to be published as letters to the editor. (Hoffman, 2011: 12) Letters to editors are often accepted by newspapers because they articulate the positions of regular citizens not corporations.
For this reason, Astroturf groups that fabricate misleading climate change claims while convincing media outlets that they are the positions of normal citizens are doubly misleading. They mislead the newspaper about whose opinions are being expressed while transmitting untruthful climate change claims.
Many of the grassroots organizations developed by PR firms and front groups did not exist before they were organized by the climate change denial campaign; they were organized from the ground up by organizations funded by fossil fuel interests. (Hoggan, 2009: 47)
These organizations were not formed to promote real dialogue about climate science but to serve the energy industry interests of preventing regulation and the adoption of climate change policies. (Hoggan, 2009: 47)
Grassroots lobbying is also a communications technique that encourages individual members of the public or organizations to communicate directly with public office holders in an attempt to influence the decisions of the government. (Hoggan, 2009) By appearing to be positions of ordinary citizens, these fake grassroots communications hide from the public official that the views expressed in the communication are those of economically interested participants in the climate change disinformation campaign.
The climate change Astroturf groups neither arose spontaneously nor continue without being tended, nurtured, and financed by fossil fuel interests or other participants in the climate change disinformation campaign. (Hoggan, 2009: 46)
According to SourceWatch, Astroturf groups work by using sophisticated computer databases, telephone banks, and hired organizers to convince less-informed activists into sending letters to their elected officials or engaging in other actions that create the appearance of grassroots support for their client’s cause. (SourceWatch. 2012 b)
In 2009, one front group, Energy Citizens, was exposed for orchestrating Astroturf rallies attacking climate change legislation. (Jerving, 2012) An internal memo about this of the American Petroleum Institute (API) was leaked to Green Peace. The memo called on CEOs of oil companies to ensure employees involvement in the rallies, even offering transportation to company members. The memo noted that “API will provide the up-front resources to ensure logistical issues do not become a problem. This includes contracting with a highly experienced events management company that has produced successful rallies for presidential campaigns, corporations and interest groups.” (Jerving, 2012)
For the debate over the Waxman-Markey climate change bill, proposed legislation that was under consideration in Congress in the last few years, the American Coalition For Clean Coal Energy (ACCCE), a front group controlled by the coal industry, hired a Washington, D.C. Astroturf specialist called Bonner & Associates to generate fake grassroots opposition. Bonner employees got scripts directing them to hide who they were working for. (“Hi, I’m working with seniors/retirees to help stop their utility bills from doubling.”)
Bonner employees forged letters on purloined letterhead and sent them to Congress ahead of the vote. Congressman Markey’s office discovered the scripts and forgeries and publicized the deception. (Jerving, 2012)
According to Pooley, ACCCE also activated its Astroturf organization, Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC), that had recruited members through the use of the Hawthorne Group, a direct mail and marketing group. (Pooley, 2011: 236) This effort led to flooding US Senators district offices with more than 30,000 emails and telephone calls opposing pending federal climate legislation being sponsored by Senators Lieberman and Warner. (Pooley, 2010: 236)
The practice of using Astroturf groups is expressly prohibited by the code of ethics of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). (PRSA, 2012) This code requires that PR professionals expressly identify real sponsors of PR activities. (PRSA, 2012) Because front groups and Astrotuf organizations often are designed to hide the real parties in interest, an ethics advisory of the Public Relations Society on these practices proclaims that it is unethical for PR professionals to represent front groups and/or other deceptive or misleading descriptions of goals, tactics, sponsors, or participants. (PRSA advisory, 2012) This advisory specifically includes Astroturf groups as an unethical front group activity covered by the ethics advisory. (PRSA advisory, 2012)
The Astroturf practice of creating the misleading impression that there is a widespread grassroots objection to proposed climate change policies is ethically misleading if the position expressed is actually the view of a few-deep pocketed funders.
Astroturf practices are proclaimed unethical by the PR code of conduct because they deceive people and public servants that they are hearing the voices of ordinary people while they are actually listening to the propaganda of commercial interests. For this reason, Astroturf practices deployed by some members of the disinformation campaign are fraudulent. The ethical dubiousness of this practice is made worse if the content of the Astroturf messaging also contains untruthful claims about climate change science because it not only is misleading recipients about who the message is coming from but also on the substance of the message. Given that mainstream climate science has concluded that policy reducing greenhouse gas emission are necessary to avoid catastrophic harms to millions of people and the ecological systems on which life depends, the misleading tactics used by Astroturf groups are particularly ethically reprehensible
V. Cyber-Bullying of Scientists and Journalists.
As we have seen in the discussion of think tanks, some participants in the climate change disinformation campaign frequently engage in character attacks on mainstream climate change scientists by relentlessly calling them demeaning names such as “alarmists, “commies” or “lefties.” As we shall see, some participants in the climate denial machine go much further by cyber-bullying scientists and journalists by transmitting expletive- filled hate mail and occasionally threats of bodily harm and death threats. These personal attacks range from more mild forms of character assassination to out and out threats of harm meant to intimidate.
Attacks on the character of an opponent in an argument are often referred to as “ad hominem” arguments. Ad hominem arguments are usually understood to be logical fallacies because they divert attention from the substance of the argument to the character of the opponent in an argument. Because it is a logical fallacy, an ad hominem attack usually is understood to weaken the force of a substantive argument although it is usually conceded that an ad hominem argument may have some rhetorical force. A logical fallacy does not necessarily raise ethical questions unless the ad hominem attack is based upon untruthful or baseless assertions. Any form of character assassination may be ethically problematic particularly if it is based upon fallacious or groundless assumptions. Without doubt many of the personal attacks on mainstream scientists have been vicious assaults, not only without any factual grounding, but often built on complete fabrications.
Now, of course, some who advocate adoption of climate change policies may also be charged with indefensible character assassination of skeptical scientists if an ad hominem attack has no basis in fact. All people have duties to be careful about harming the reputation of others, an obligation that requires truthfulness and care before making claims that could damage the reputation of others.
Although there may be examples of troublesome ad hominem attacks from both sides of the climate change debate, the personal attacks on mainstream climate change scientists and journalists by some participants in the disinformation campaign have been frequent, unremitting, and viscous. For this reason, recently the American Association for the Advancement of Science issued a statement which said in relevant part:
We are deeply concerned by the extent and nature of personal attacks on climate scientists. Reports of harassment, death threats, and legal challenges have created a hostile environment that inhibits the free exchange of scientific findings and ideas and makes it difficult for factual information and scientific analyses to reach policymakers and the public. This both impedes the progress of science and interferes with the application of science to the solution of global problems. AAAS vigorously opposes attacks on researchers that question their personal and professional integrity or threaten their safety based on displeasure with their scientific conclusions. (AAAS, 2011)
Several recent books by climate scientists document how some participants in the climate denial machine have tried to destroy the reputations of mainstream climate scientists . These include James Powell’s, The Inquisition of Climate Science, (Powell, 2011) Raymond’s, Global Warming and Political Intimidation (Bradley, 2011), Michael Mann’s, The Hockey Stick and The Climate Wars: Dispatches From the Front Lines. (Mann, 2012)
A few climate scientists have described the unremitting harassment that they have continued to experience that includes: (a) being called demeaning names, (b) receiving hate mail, (c) onerous demands to produce documents initiated by politicians influenced by the disinformation machine often about matters about which the scientists have been exonerated by prestigious scientific organizations, and (d) most troubling, cyber-bullying.
Scientists around the world are describing a torrent of relentless harassment from people who have been encouraged by the kinds of tactics we have examined in this series engaged in by elements of the disinformation machine.
The ethically most troubling assault is cyber-bullying, that is bullying through email, website posts, or other digital communications. Climate scientists and journalists around the world that report on climate change science have become targets of cyber-bullying.
Although much of the cyber-bullying appears to be the product of individuals acting alone, some organizations engaged in the climate change campaign have encouraged this cyber-bullying by the posting of pictures and personal email addresses of scientists and journalists on web sites underneath scurrilous and often inaccurate claims about what the scientists and individuals have said about climate change.
Scientific American has recently reported that cyber-bullying of climate scientists has become more intense and described some of the experiences of scientists that have been victimized in the United States and Australia. (Scientific American, 2010) According to Scientific American, climate scientists must continually deal with extremely foul, nasty, and abusive hate mail that sometimes contains threats of physical violence. (Scientific American, 2010)
According to an Australian commentator on this practice, Clive Hamilton:
Australia’s most distinguished climate scientists have become the target of a new form of cyber-bullying aimed at driving them out of the public debate. In recent months, each time they enter the public debate through a newspaper article or radio interview these scientists are immediately subjected to a torrent of aggressive, abusive and, at times, threatening emails. Apart from the volume and viciousness of the emails, the campaign has two features – it is mostly anonymous and it appears to be orchestrated. (Hamilton, 2010)
It is obvious that this cyber-bullying has been encouraged by specific individuals or organizations because as Hamilton notes:
Few of those on the receiving end of this hatred doubt that the emails are being orchestrated. Scores of abusive emails over a few hours are unlikely to be the product of a large number of individuals spontaneously making the effort to track down an email address and pour forth their rage. (Hamilton, 2010)
In regard to whether the cyber-bullying has been orchestrated by specific organizations or individuals, the website SourceWatch has said:
While some individuals act alone, increasingly the attacks are arranged by one or more denialist organizations. It’s fair to assume operatives in these organizations constantly monitor the media and, when a story or interview they don’t like appears, send messages out to lists of supporters, linking to the comments, providing the scientist’s email address and urging them to let him or her know what they think. (Sourcewatch, 2012b)
In the United States there is one website, ClimateDepot.com, that appears to be frequently at the center of cyber-bullying. This website routinely posts pictures and personal emails of scientists and journalists it has targeted because he or she has done or said something that is supportive of action on climate change. Often within hours after the targeted person’s picture and personal email is posted, he or she receives a torrent of nasty, threatening, demeaning emails that sometimes include death threats. Obviously, this practice is shear intimidation, not responsible skepticism. This author has been the target of this practice four times.
According to the website Sourcewatch:
ClimateDepot.com is being financed by the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, a nonprofit in Washington that advocates for free-market solutions to environmental issues. Public tax filings for 2003-7 (the last five years for which documents are available) show that the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Exxon Mobil Foundation and foundations associated with the billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, a longtime financier of conservative causes….. (Sourcewatch, 2012c)
Several commentators on this behavior have summarized the expletive-filled content of this hate mail. Clive Hamilton’s description of the content of emails received by Australian scientists and journalists includes the following small sampling from a longer list:
• It is probably not to (sic) extreme to suggest that your actions (deceitful) were so criminal to be compared with Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. It is called treason and genocide.
• There will be a day of facing the music for the Pitman type frauds… Pitman you are a f**king fool!”
• If we see you continue, we will get extremely organized and precise against you.
• “F**k off mate, stop the personal attacks. Just do your science or you will end up collateral damage in the war, GET IT.”
• Did you want to offer your children to be brutally gang-raped and then horribly tortured before being reminded of their parents socialist beliefs and actions?
• Burn in hell, or in the main street, when the Australian public finally lynchs you.”
• Or you will be chased down the street with burning stakes and hung from your f**king neck, until you are dead, dead, dead!
• F**k you little pieces of sh*t, show yourselves in public!!!”
A sampling of hate mails received by scientists and journalists published by the Guardian newspaper includes the following.
• You, sir, are a nazi. Go gargle razor blades, you f**king bastard!!!!!!!!
• Hey scumbag Nazi moron, Are you still drawing a paycheck? Hopefully
for not too much longer. Crime doesn’t pay.
• Rot in hell you piece of garbage. Tell the truth and you will probably only get 10 to 15 years keep lying and see what happens
• You are a climate change nazi. F**k you and your armed UN security
guards who try to stifle free speech and investigative journalism.
• You are a f**king douchebag. You pathetic fucking Phony. I hope there
is an earthquake right under your f**king house and swallows you into
• As a US taxpayer I want a fucking refund of all the wages you have
fraudulently collected you asshole. Same goes for Jim THE F**KING RAT Hansen.
• You f**king fraud! Watch it all fall apart you cunt!
• You are a pathetic f**king c**t. You are a liar! You are a criminal! You
are a fraud! Don’t you dare try to weasel your way out of this one!
These vile cyber-bullying tactics promoted by a few participants in the climate change disinformation machine would be deeply morally reprehensible if they were used as a tactic to influence any public policy issue under consideration. Given that so much is at stake, cyber-bullying is particularly loathsome as long as there is the remotest of chances that the consensus view on climate change is correct.
Of course, not all participants in the climate change disinformation campaign have engaged in or supported the cyber-bullying that now has become a common phenomenon. Yet many of the other tactics discussed in this series contribute to an atmosphere which encourages the vitriol seen in the cyber-bullying because the other tactics have created a culture uninterested in logic of sound reasoning, tolerant of deceptive practices and baseless character assaults, and utterly unconstrained by principles of civil discourse.
The cyber-bullying that has become an all too common experience of climate change scientists and journalists can be linked to the other tactics discussed in this series even if only a few of the participants in the climate change disinformation machine are actually participating in the cyber-bullying.
This series has reviewed eight tactics deployed by the climate change disinformation campaign and found them to be ethically reprehensible. The next and last post in this series will translate lessons learned from issues discussed in this series so far as the basis for developing normative guidance for responsible climate science skepticism. As we have noted several times, responsible skepticism about climate change science is to be encouraged. Yet skeptics must play by the rules of science and not engage in the tactics discussed in this series.
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Donald A. Brown
Associate Professor, Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law
Penn State University.