Ethics and Climate

Donald Brown

Ethics and Climate - Donald Brown

The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: What Kind Of Crime Against Humanity, Tort, Human Rights Violation, Malfeasance, Transgression, Villainy, Or Wrongdoing Is It? Part Two: Is The Disinformation Campaign a Human Rights Violation Or A Special Kind of Malfeasance, Transgression, Villainy, Or Wrongdoing ?

This is the second in a series looking at how to classify the climate change disinformation campaign given that it is some new kind of assault on humanity,  yet not easily classifiable into existing categories of behaviors that cause great harm.  Part One of this series identified four prior articles and three videos that Ethicsandclimate.org has previously produced on this subject as well as looking at whether this effort to undermine the mainstream scientific view about climate change can be classified as a crime against humanity or a tort under common law.  These previous articles distinguished the tactics of the disinformation campaign from responsible skepticism and the acceptable exercise of free speech after explaining what is meant by the “climate change disinformation campaign” and how it operated.

I. Is The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign A Human Rights Violation?

A. Introduction

A very strong case can be made that human-induced climate change triggers human rights violations because of the destructive nature of climate change damages. If human rights are to be understood to be recognition of those norms that are necessary to protect human dignity, inadequate climate change policies must be understood to trigger human rights violations because climate change will not only make human dignity impossible for millions of people around the world, including countless members of future generations but also directly threaten life itself and resources necessary to sustain life. And so, as we shall see,  climate change causing activities create human rights violations because of the enormity of harm to life, health, food, property, and inviolability of the right of all people to enjoy the places where they live.

Yet finding legal remedies under human rights legal theories for the the destructive role that the disinformation campaign has played in preventing or delaying solutions to climate change will require finding at a minimum: (a) a specific human right under and an existing human rights regime that has been violated by climate change, (b)  a human rights regime that has the jurisdiction and legal authority  to grant the requested remedy in the specific human rights controversy before it, (c)  a legal theory supporting the claim that non-state actors, not just governments, responsible for the violations of human rights have duties to prevent human rights, and (d) a legal justification to link the duties of non-state actors to prevent human rights violations to the activities of the disinformation campaign.

B. Which human rights are violated by climate change and do human rights fora have the authority to adjudicate claims based upon the tactics of the disinformation campaign? 

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is usually viewed to be the foundational document in modern international human rights law. (UN, 1948). The UDHR is a non-binding ‘soft-law’ agreement among nations that over time has been complemented by a series of legally binding international treaties while retaining its status as customary international law. Because it is customary international law it could be relevant to damage claims made in civil litigation requesting damages in cases before international courts such as the International Court of Justice.

The two most important global human rights treaties in addition to the UDHR often stated to be the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights identifies the following as entitled to rights protections that are relevant to climate change:

 (a) Life, liberty, and security of person. (Article 1)

(b) Right to an effective remedy by national tribunals for violations of fundamental or constitutionals rights. (Article 8)

(c) Full equality to a fair public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of a person’s rights and obligations. (Article 10)

(d) Freedom from arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home or correspondence. (Article 12)

(e) Freedom from being arbitrarily deprived of property. (Article 17)

(f) Right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of himself and his family, including food,  clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. (Article 25)

(g) Rights to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms can be fully recognized. (Article 28) (UN1948)

 The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) identifies the following as entitled to rights protections relevant to climate change protections:

 (a) The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent. (Article 11)

(b) The States Parties to the present Covenant, recognizing the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through international co-operation, the measures, including specific programmes, which are needed:

a. To improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food by making full use of technical and scientific knowledge, by disseminating knowledge of the principles of nutrition and by developing or reforming agrarian systems in such a way as to achieve the most efficient development and utilization of natural resources;

b. Taking into account the problems of both food-importing and food-exporting countries, to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need.

(c) The right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health… The steps to be taken by the States Parties to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include those necessary for:… (c) prevention, treatment  and control of epidemic, endemic, and occupational and other diseases. (Article 12)

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) identifies the following as entitled to rights protections that are relevant to climate change protections:

(a) Inherent Right to Life. This right shall be protected by law. (Article 5)

(b) Right to be protected from arbitrary and unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home…. (Article 15)

A strong case can be made that climate change prevents people all around the world from enjoying the above rights.

These three documents i.e. the UDHR, the ICESCR, and the ICCPR are often considered to be the foundational documents that comprise an international bill of rights. Yet not all nations have adopted all three documents. Although the UDHR has been accepted by most nations of the world, the ICPCR and ICCPR have been less widely so.  In fact the ICESCR has not been ratified by the United States and therefore may be inapplicable to climate change caused human rights violations in the United States. To date, these two treaties have been ratified by about 75 percent of the world’s countries.  The UDHR is a “soft-law” document which has normative,  but not legal force in the international system. The ICESCR and ICCCPR  were the first of many treaties that have been enacted to give the protections identified in the UDHR the force of law.

A country ratifying a UN human rights treaty agrees to respect and implement within domestic law the rights the treaty covers. It also agrees to accept and respond to international scrutiny and criticism of its compliance. It does not necessarily agree to make the human rights norm directly enforceable in domestic courts. That usually requires implementing legislation.

Treaty enforcement is accomplished within the UN often with the creation of a body to monitor states’ performance, and to which member states are required to submit periodic reports on compliance.   For instance, the ICCPR is implemented through the Human Rights Committee (HRC) which was created to promote compliance with its provisions. The HRC frequently expresses its views as to whether a particular practice is a human rights violation, but it is not authorized to issue legally binding decisions.   Other treaties and bodies exist within the UN system with varying enforcement and implementation powers and duties to implement human rights goals.  For the most part, these enforcement powers are weak and  improvements in human rights violations are best achieved through holding offending nations to the court of international opinion rather than law.

In addition, several regional human rights regimes have been enacted that promote human rights in particular parts of the world. These regions include Europe, the Americas, and Africa which have their own declarations and conventions for enforcement of human rights on a regional basis.

Thus far no one has successfully brought a human rights claim for climate change caused damages although the Inuit Peoples filed such a claim in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Before a successful human rights claim can be brought in an existing legal forum in regard to climate change, several potential legal hurdles need to be overcome that have little to do with whether a nation or an individual  has committed a human rights violation. These hurdles include jurisdictional, issues, questions of proof, and authority of the relevant forum.  For this reason, the failure to successfully bring legally recognized human rights claims may have little to do with whether the offending behavior has created a violation of the protected right but more with the limitation of the existing legal regime. And so, the failure to bring a successful action against the climate change disinformation campaign in an existing human rights forum does not mean the disinformation campaign is not responsible for human rights violations.

Examining climate change through a human rights lens has the benefit of providing potential access to legal fora that have been created to adjudicate aspects of human rights violations. Given that there are no obvious legal fora to bring civil actions against those who have participated in the climate change disinformation campaign, pursuing remedies for human rights violations caused by climate change has the advantage of being able to file legal claims in existing judicial fora.

Potential fora include, at the global level, the Human Rights Committee established by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights established by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Regional tribunals include the Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights. In addition, claims could potentially be pursued in national courts–for example, in the United States under the Alien Tort Statute.

Yet each of these fora have different jurisdictional limits on bringing legal actions on human rights basis. In this regard, a case brought on behalf of the Inuit Peoples in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights sought to find that the United States was responsible for international human rights violations is illustrative of potential road blocks to bringing successful cases for human rights violations in existing legal rights fora.

The petition detailed the effects of rising Arctic temperatures on the ability of the Inuit to enjoy a wide variety of human rights, including the rights to life (melting ice and permafrost make travel more dangerous), property (as permafrost melts, houses collapse and residents are forced to leave their traditional homes) and health (nutrition worsens as the animals on which the Inuit depend for  sustenance decline in number). The petition connected the rising temperatures to increasing levels of greenhouse gases, and in particular, to the failure by the United States to take effective steps to reduce its emissions.

In November 2006, the Commission informed the petitioners
that it had determined that “it will not be possible to process your
petition at present.” The IACHR did not explain its reasoning, stating only that “the information provided does not enable us to determine whether the alleged facts would tend to characterize a violation of [protected human] rights.” The Commission did hold a hearing on the connection between climate change and human rights in March 2007, but it has taken no further action.

It would appear that IACHR did not believe it had the legal authority to order the specific relief requested by the petitioners, namely to issue an order to the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. And so the IACHR did not decide the case on the merits of the underlying claim that the United States had contributed to human rights violations of the Inuit people, it appeared to decline to act on the basis of legal issues about its own authority.

(B) Do the duties to prevent human rights violations bind  non-state actors including corporations?

It is not clear as of yet the extent to which human rights regimes create duties for individuals and corporations, that is non-state actors. Bodansky summarizes the current state of this legal question.

[A] crucial question is whether the duties to respect, protect and fulfill apply to private actors as well as states. International criminal law demonstrates that international law can in some case impose duties directly on individuals, and some have proposed that corporations have duties to respect human rights. So, at least in theory, human rights law could impose a duty on private actors to respect human rights by limiting their emissions of greenhouse gases. But generally, human rights law – like international environmental law – imposes duties on states rather than on corporations. If this is true of climate change,then human rights law limits the activities of non-state actors only to the extent that states have a duty to protect against climate change by regulating private activities.

And so, it is not clear whether the corporations that have participated in the disinformation campaign can be sued in the various human rights tribunals, yet nations may have a duty to regulate emissions from those corporations participating in the climate change disinformation campaign under human rights theories.

(C) Are  the participants in the disinformation campaign liable for contributing to human rights violations? 

A final issue that needs to be overcome to successfully bring a legal action against the participants in the disinformation campaign for violating civil rights of people around the world is identifying a legal basis for concluding that the disinformation campaign unlawfully caused the violation of civil rights. Because most of the participants in the disinformation campaign are corporations that are also emitters of greenhouse gases, these corporations like all greenhouse gas emitters arguably have duties to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to levels that in combination with other emitters do not deprive people around the world from enjoying legally protected rights. Yet it is not clear, that the tactics of the disinformation campaign alone make the participants in the disinformation campaign responsible for human rights violations by themselves.

However, most governments make it a crime for individuals to conspire to deprive people of their human rights. For instance, under US law it is a crime for persons to conspire to deprive another of the  rights of an individual that has been secured by the individual through the United States Constitution or through any other laws of the United States. Although this specific law has not been tested in regard to climate change, it is generally viewed to be a breach of civil and sometimes criminal law to conspire to deprive people of their rights. As we saw in Part One of this series, the Plaintiffs in the case of Kivalina versus ExxonMobil et al asserted that the fossil fuel companies that have been part of the disinformation campaign conspired to harm the residents of Kavalina. And so there may be sufficient facts about the disinformation campaign that could form the basis of a claim that if proven could be the basis for finding responsibility for individuals participating in the climate change disinformation campaign yet only an actual case will test this possibility.

(D) Conclusions in regard to classifying the disinformation campaign as a violation of human rights.

There is little question that the more than 20 year delay in taking action on climate change in the United States for which the disinformation campaign is at least partially responsible for has prevented people around the world from enjoying a host of human rights that are now recognized in a variety of human rights regimes around the world. Yet, as was the case in categorizing the disinformation as a crime against humanity or a common law tort, there may be no existing legal remedy under existing human rights law that can be deployed to deal with the harms created by those  participating in the disinformation campaign. And so once again, there may be serious deprivations of human rights caused by the disinformation campaign without legal remedies. Only time will tell whether those who have been harmed by climate change will be able to successfully bring a legal action against those engaged in the disinformation campaign for damages.

II. What Kind of Malfeasance, Transgression, Villainy, Or Wrongdoing is The Behavior of the Disinformation Campaign?

We have seen thus far from the previous analysis in this two part series that there may be no legal remedy under existing law relating to crimes against humanity, civil tort, or human rights law for the harms caused by the climate change disinformation campaign. Yet the harms attributable to the disinformation campaign are so potentially catastrophic to hundreds of millions of people around the world that laws relating to crimes against humanity, civil tort, and human rights should be amended to provide legal sanctions under these legal theories for at least for the more egregious tactics that have sometimes been deployed by some participants in this campaign.

Yet there is no doubt that some of the tactics deployed by the disinformation campaign, to be distinguished from responsible skepticism that should be encouraged, constitute some kind of malfeasance, transgression, villainy, or wrongdoing. To understand the full moral abhorrence of the disinformation campaign, a complete description of the tactics employed by the disinformation campaign is necessary and how the moral abhorrence of these tactics can be distinguished from the reasonable exercise of free speech, the right of individuals to express opinions, and the benefits to society from skeptical inquiry.  Ethicsandclimate.org reviewed these issues in four articles and three videos. These prior articles explained what is meant by the disinformation campaign, distinguished the tactics of the campaign from responsible scientific skepticism which should be encouraged, and described how the disinformation campaign was funded and organized.

The four part written series can be found at:

1. Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Introduction to a Series.

2.Ethical Analysis of the Disinformation Campaign’s Tactics: (1) Reckless Disregard for the Truth, (2) Focusing On Unknowns While Ignoring Knowns, (3) Specious Claims of “Bad” Science, and (4) Front Groups.

3.Ethical Analysis of Disinformation Campaign’s Tactics: (1) Think Tanks, (2) PR Campaigns, (3) Astroturf Groups, and (4) Cyber-Bullying Attacks.

4. Irresponsible Skepticism: Lessons Learned From the Climate Disinformation Campaign.

The three part video series can be found at:

Why The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign Is So Ethically Abhorrent.

The Ethical Abhorrence of The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign, Part 2.

The Ethical Abhorrence of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign, Part 3.

We particularly recommend the first video for an overview of why the disinformation campaign is so morally abhorrent. Here it is:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPdMFYMJ8dc

 

This video explains how destructive the disinformation campaign has been in preventing or delaying government action to reduce the threat of climate change.

In summary, at least some of the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign are some new kind of assault on humanity which could be dealt with under expanded legal theories about crimes against humanity, civil tort, or human rights.

The philosopher Hans Jonas argued that the potential of new technologies to create great good and great harm creates the need to establish new social norms about how to deal with scientific uncertainty. Following Jonas’ logic, the enormity of potential harms from a problem like climate change creates the need to establish new norms about the need to be extraordinarily careful about claims that there is no danger threatened by certain human activities.  We have examined in the last of the four articles above, what these new norms might look like given the need to encourage responsible skepticism yet assure that assertions that there is no danger are made responsibly. Because the climate change disinformation campaign deployed tactics that were designed to undermine the scientific basis that supported taking policy action to reduce the threat of climate change and in so doing used tactics that are ethically abhorrent, the climate change disinformation campaign should be used to develop new legal and moral norms about the need to be responsible when discussing very dangerous human activities. Just as it would be morally abhorrent for someone to tell a girl who is lying on a railroad track that she can continue to lie there because no train is coming when that person did not have reliable knowledge that no train was coming while having an economic interest in the girl staying on the track,  so it is deeply ethically troublesome for those engaged in the disinformation campaign to tell the US people that there is no evidence that fossil fuels are causing climate change without subjecting their claims to the rigor of peer-review.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

The Grave US Media Failure to Report On The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign

I. Introduction

This is the sixth in a series of articles that examines tragic communications failures of the US media about climate change. In this series we examine how the American media has utterly failed to communicate to US citizens about five essential aspects of climate change that need to be understood to know why climate change is a civilization-challenging problem that requires dramatic, aggressive, and urgent policy action to avoid harsh impacts to hundreds of millions of people around the world.  EthicsandClimate.org has developed a video that summarizes these failures: Five Grave Communication Failures of US Media on Climate Change that can be found at: http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2012/10/15/five-grave-communications-failures-of-the-us-media-on-climate-change/

This is the fifth paper that examines in more detail the issues briefly examined in the video. In previous entries we examined the failure of the US media to communicate about: (a) the nature of the strong scientific consensus about human-induced climate change, (b) the magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change,(c) the practical significance for policy that follows from understanding climate change as essentially an ethical problem, and (e) the consistent barrier that the United States has been to finding a global solution to climate change in international climate negotiations.  In this paper we look at the failure of the US media to help educate US citizens about the well-financed, well-organized climate change disinformation campaign.

II. The US Media Failure to Educate American Citizens About The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign

For over 30 years, there has been a debate about climate change that most Americans are at least dimly aware of.  In this debate, sometimes those opposed to action on climate change are characterized as climate “skeptics.” Skepticism is the oxygen and catalyst of science and should be encouraged. Yet most Americans are completely unaware that a well-financed, well-organized climate change disinformation campaign has been operating for over two decades that has used tactics which cannot be classified as responsible skepticism. In fact, this campaign has been engaged in tactics that are deeply ethically abhorrent. To the extent that the US mainstream press has covered this controversy, it has reported on disputes between mainstream climate scientists and scientific skeptics and in so doing ignoring the ethically abhorrent tactics of the disinformation campaign discussed in this article and at the same time giving opposition to climate change policy legitimacy that the disinformation campaign does not deserve because its tactics cannot be understood as responsible skepticism. Also, as we have described in considerable detail in a prior entry, the mainstream press has utterly failed to cover the strength of the climate change scientific consensus position on climate change.

This disinformation campaign has largely been responsible that the United States failure to enact comprehensive climate change policies. Given the enormity, harshness, and destructiveness of climate change impacts, the duties that high-emitting countries like the United States have to not harm hundreds of millions of people around the world who are vulnerable to climate change, and the fact that the world has now lost several decades in finding a solution to climate change at a time when the world may be running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change, the failure of the US media to report on the nature of this campaign to the American people is a grave, tragic, and profound failure.

There is a growing peer-reviewed sociological literature on the disinformation campaign which describes this phenomenon as a counter-movement. (See, for example, McCright and Dunlap 2000: 559) A counter-movement is a social movement that has formed in reaction to another movement. (McCright and Dunlap 2000: 504.) The climate change disinformation campaign can be understood to be a continuation of the counter-movements that arose among US political conservatives in reaction to the environmental, civil rights, women’s rights, and anti-war movements that arose in the 1960′s in the United States. And so, the climate change disinformation campaign’s methods and processes can be understood to be an extension of strategies that had already been developed among some, although not all, conservatives to counter the environmental movement that had developed in the late 1960s and 1970s around other environmental issues such as air and water pollution, safe disposal of waste and toxic substances, and protection of wetlands and endangered species.

Yet the emergence of global warming as an issue in the 1980s with its potential for large-scale social change needed to ameliorate its threat was seen as more threatening to conservatives in regard to industry, prosperity, life-style, and the entire American-way of life, than were traditional pollution problems. (McCright and Dunlap 2000: 503) In other words, climate change directly threatened the central values of the US conservative movement even more than other environmental problems. (McCright and Dunlap 2000: 505) As a result climate change has become the key environmental focus of the US conservative movement.

In addition there have been some American industries whose welfare depends upon fossil fuel use have also participated in the disinformation campaign by funding this effort. The climate change disinformation movement can be understood to be comprised of many organizations and participants including conservative think tanks, front groups, Astroturf groups, conservative media, and individuals. This disinformation campaign frequently has used certain tactics to convince people and politicians that the science supporting climate change policies is flawed. The central claims of the climate change disinformation movement have been:

• There is no warming.
• Its not caused by humans.
• Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will cause more harm than good.
(McCright and Dunlap 2010: 111)

To support these claims, the climate denial machine frequently has made claims that: (a) mainstream climate scientists are corrupt or liars, (b) descriptions of adverse climate change impacts are made by “alarmists,” (c) scientific journals that publish climate related research are biased against skeptics, and (d)  mainstream climate science is “junk” science. The climate change disinformation machine also has made frequent ad hominem attacks on those who produce climate change science and sometimes has cyber-bullied both climate scientists and journalists.  In summary, the climate change disinformation campaign has engaged in these tactics and others identified in this paper that may not be classified as responsible skepticism, yet the US media has covered this campaign as if it was the output of reasonable scientific  skepticism.

The climate change disinformation campaign began in the 1980s when some of the same scientists and organizations that fought government regulation of tobacco began to apply the tactics perfected in their war on the regulation of tobacco to climate change. (Oreskes and Conway 2010:169-215). According to Pooley the disinformation campaign began “spinning around 1988 in response to the increasingly outspoken scientific community…” (Pooley 2010: 39) For almost 25 years this campaign has been waged to undermine support for regulation of greenhouse gases.

To say that the campaign has been “waged” is not to claim that it has been a tightly organized, completely coordinated effort by a few groups or individuals or that all participants have the same motives. In fact different participants may have radically different motives including the fact that some may be sincere, some appear to be motivated by protecting free markets without government intervention, and many appear to believe that no restriction on fossil fuel use can be justified without very high levels of proof of harms. Yet, these different participants, according to Newsweek, since the 1990s for the most part have acted in a well-coordinated campaign among contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks, and industry to create a fog of doubt around climate change. (Begley 2007) They have accomplished this through the production of advertisements, op-eds, lobbying, books, media attention, and quotations from skeptical scientists often associated with conservative think tanks. They have argued first that the world is not warming, measurements that indicate otherwise are flawed, any warming is natural, that is not caused by human activities, and if warming does occur it will be miniscule and harmless. (Begley 2007)

Different groups created this counter-movement often acting independently of each other, yet connected through the internet to create a denial machine that has effectively responded to any public pronouncement by scientists or journalists that have asserted that human-induced climate change is a serious problem. (Begley 2007) Conservative activists wrote hundreds of documents (including policy briefs, books, press releases, and op-eds), held numerous policy forums and press conferences, appeared regularly on television and radio programs, and testified at congressional hearings on global warming. (Dunlap and McCright 2008)

As a result of the internet communication between participants in this campaign, charges by one of the participants have been quickly transmitted to others creating an echo chamber of counter-claims made in opposition to the mainstream scientific view of climate change.

The disinformation campaign’s most important participants have been conservative think tanks according to the sociological literature. (Jaques et al 2008) As we shall see, these think tanks developed the ideas, communications and media strategies, literature and press releases that have been widely deployed in rhetorical strategies to defend conservative interests by creating doubt about mainstream climate change scientific claims.

Initially most of the funding for this disinformation campaign came from fossil fuel interests and corporations whose products produce high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. On October 21, 2010, John Broder of the New York Times reported that:

“the fossil fuel industries have for decades waged a concerted campaign to raise doubts about the science of global warming and to undermine policies devised to address it.” (Broder 2010)

According to Broder, the fossil fuel industry has:

“created and lavishly financed institutes to produce anti-global-warming studies, paid for rallies and Web sites to question the science, and generated scores of economic analyses that purport to show that policies to reduce emissions of climate-altering gases will have a devastating effect on jobs and the overall economy.” (Broder 2010)

Not surprisingly, the fossil fuel industry funded many of the initial efforts to prevent adoption of climate change policies. Both individual corporations such as ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal, as well as industry associations such as American Petroleum Institute, Western Fuels Associations, and Edison Electric Institute provided funding for individual contrarian scientists, conservative think tanks active in climate change denial, and a host of front groups that we will discuss below. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:148)

Although the initial funding in the campaign may have come from certain corporations, McCright and Dunlap argue that recently conservative, free-market, and anti-regulatory ideology and organizations have been the main forces fueling the denial machine first and foremost. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:144)

According to Dunlap and McCright the glue that holds the elements of the climate disinformation campaign together is a shared hatred for government regulation of private industry. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:144) And so, a staunch commitment to free markets and a disdain for government regulation are the ideas that most unite the climate denial community. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:144)

The mainstream conservative movement, embodied in conservative foundations and think tanks, quickly joined forces with the fossil fuel industry (which recognized very early the threat posed by recognition of global warming and the role of carbon emissions) and wider sectors of corporate America to oppose the threat of global warming, not as an ecological problem, but as a problem for unbridled economic growth. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:144) And so the disinformation campaign has been a movement that has been waged both by conservative organizations and some corporations.

To use the word “campaign” is not meant to connote an organized conspiracy led by one or a few entities who coordinate all actors, but rather a social movement that creates widespread, predictable, and strong opposition to climate change policy and that consistently uses scientific uncertainty arguments as the basis of its opposition. This movement is a campaign in the sense that it is a systematic response of aggressive actions to defeat proposals to limit greenhouse gas emissions even though no one organization is coordinating all other organizations or individuals that participate in responses. And although some of the actors may be sincere, the tactics discussed in this article are, as we shall see, ethically reprehensible.

Those engaged in this disinformation campaign can be distinguished from responsible climate skeptics because the climate change denial campaign is a collective social movement run by professional advocacy working to discredit climate change.” (Hoffman 2011: 5) As such, this movement is not engaged in reasonable scientific skepticism but advocacy that stresses scientific uncertainty. In fact McCright and Dunlap summarize the disinformation machine as having been engaged on misrepresenting, manipulating, and suppressing climate change research results. (McCright and Dunlap 2010: 111)

Although almost all of the disinformation campaign led opposition to climate change policies has been on the basis of inadequate scientific grounding for action, scientific arguments are usually coupled with economic arguments such as claims that climate change policies will destroy jobs, hurt specific industries, lower GDP, or are not justified by cost-benefit analysis.
Although these economic arguments often have their own ethical problems, a series on Ethicsandclimate.org has examined in considerable detail the ethical problems with tactics used by the disinformation campaign that rely on scientific uncertainty arguments.

The original organizations that sought to undermine public support on climate policies by exaggerating scientific uncertainty have expanded to include ideological think tanks, front groups, Astroturf groups (i.e. groups organized by industry that pretend to be a legitimate grassroots organization), and PR firm-led campaigns. (Oreskes and Conway 2010:169-215)
The tactics deployed by this campaign are now all well documented in the books and peer-reviewed sociological literature identified in the Appendix to this article. The tactics used by the climate change disinformation campaign have included the following ethically abhorrent tactics:

  • Lying or reckless disregard for the truth
  • Cherry picking the science
  • Cyber-bullying and ad hominem attacks on scientists and journalists
  • Manufacturing bogus, non-peer-reviewed science in fake conferences and publications
  • The use of ideological think tanks
  • The use of front groups that hide the real parties in interest
  • The use of fake grass-roots organizations known as Astroturf groups
  • Specious claims about “bad science” that are based upon the dubious assumption that no conclusions in science can be made until everything is proven with high levels of certainty.

EthicsandClimate.org has described this in a four part paper series and a three part video series that has demonstrated that these tactics are ethically abhorrent.

The four part written series can be found at:

1. Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Introduction to a Series.

2.Ethical Analysis of the Disinformation Campaign’s Tactics: (1) Reckless Disregard for the Truth, (2) Focusing On Unknowns While Ignoring Knowns, (3) Specious Claims of “Bad” Science, and (4) Front Groups.

3.Ethical Analysis of Disinformation Campaign’s Tactics: (1) Think Tanks, (2) PR Campaigns, (3) Astroturf Groups, and (4) Cyber-Bullying Attacks.

4. Irresponsible Skepticism: Lessons Learned From the Climate Disinformation Campaign

 The three part video series can be found at:

Why The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign Is So Ethically Abhorrent

The Ethical Abhorrence of The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign, Part 2

The Ethical Abhorrence of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign, Part 3

Although the mainstream US media has sometimes but infrequently covered the disinformation campaign, missing from their coverage has been:

(a) A stronger sense of the strength of the consensus view on climate change, (every academy of science in the world supports the consensus view, over a hundred scientific organizations whose members have relevant scientific expertise support the consensus view, much of the science that should have been the basis for US action on climate change was settled 150 years ago, and there are clear qualitative differences between peer-reviewed science and the manufactured, non-peer reviewed science usually relied upon by the disinformation campaign),

(b)  A description of the tactics of the disinformation campaign which cannot be understood as responsible skepticism, such as: (1)  making claims that not only have not been peer-reviewed but are at odds with well-settled science, (2) cherry picking the science, (3) treating one study as undermining the entire body of climate science even though the issue in contention is not consequential in regard to the major mainstream scientific conclusions, (4) cyber-bullying scientists and journalists that publish statements that climate change is a significant threat, (5) making completely false claims that are either lies or reckless disregard for the truth such as the claim that the entire scientific basis for action is a hoax when every academy of science supports the consensus view, and (6) the use of front groups and Astroturf groups that hide the real parties in interest behind the disinformation campaign, namely fossil fuel companies and free-market fundamentalist foundations.

(c) The fact that it already too late to prevent climate-change caused grave suffering for some people in some parts of the world and that the world has lost over twenty years during which action could have been taken to reduce the now enormous threat,

(d) The fact that hundreds of millions of people around the world who are most vulnerable to climate change’s worst threats have never consented to be put at risk while the United States waits for absolute certainty.

(e) The fact that for each year the United States has waited to take action, the problem has become worse.

Given what is at stake from climate change, the failure of the US media to cover the disinformation campaign is a tragic, profound, and grave error.  The mainstream US media has not only failed to cover this campaign, it has treated it as if it was reasonable scientific skepticism giving it a legitimacy that has increased its influence.

References:

Begley, S. (2007) Global Warming Deniers: A Well-Funded Machine, Newsweek, http://msl1.mit.edu/furdlog/docs/2007-08-13_newsweek_global_warming_denyers.pdf (visited Jan. 13, 2011)

Boycoff, J. and M. Boycoff (2004) Journalistic Balance as Global Warming Bias
Creating Controversy Where Science Finds Consensus Fair,
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1978

Broder, John, (2010) Climate Change Doubt Is Tea Party Article of Faith, New York Times, October 21, 2009, http://community.nytimes.com/comments/www.nytimes.com/2010/10/21/us/politics/21climate.html?sort=newest&offset=2

 

Dunlap, Riley E. and Aaron M. McCright (2008) A Widening Gap: Republican and Democratic Views on Climate Change. Environment 50 (September/October):26-35.

Dunlap, Riley E. and Aaron M. McCright (2010) Climate Change Denial: Sources, Actors and Strategies Pp. 240-259 in Constance Lever-Tracy (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Climate Change and Society London: Routledge.

Hoffman, Andrew J. (2011) Talking Past Each Other? Cultural Framing of Skeptical and Convinced Logics in the Climate Change Debate, Organization & Environment 24:3-33.

Jacques, Peter, Riley E. Dunlap, and Mark Freeman (2008) The Organization of Denial: Conservative Think Tanks and Environmental Skepticism, Environmental Politics 17:349-385.

McCright, Aaron M. and Riley E. Dunlap (2000) Challenging Global Warming as a Social Problem: An Analysis of the Conservative Movement’s Counter-Claims, Social Problems 47:499-522.

McCright, Aaron M. and Riley E. Dunlap (2010) Anti-Reflexivity: The American Conservative Movement’s Success in Undermining Climate Science and Policy, Theory, Culture and Society 26:100-133.

Oreskes, Naiomi and Erik Conway (2010) Merchants of Doubt, How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth On Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Bloosmbury Press, New York.

Pooley, E. (2010) Climate Wars, True Believers, Power Broakers and The Fight to Save the Earth, Hyperion, New York

 

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com