2021-11-12 Doubt Is Their Product – Climate Change


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The next subject the denials and distortions of the Bush administration on global warming is more widely known, but it is too important to pass over entirely. On the other hand, the deniers’ argument is rooted in the classic “Uncertainty!” attack we have seen played out in industry after industry, so this section can be a short one. We know this drill.

Is the greenhouse effect — global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels — fact or fiction? Neither, yet. It is the best hypothesis of the best scientists who have studied these very complex issues over the course of decades. As Dr. James Baker, former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has said, “There’s a better scientific consensus on this than on any issue I know — except maybe Newton’s second law of [thermo]dynamics.” The climate scientists and the policy makers around the world who accept this consensus believe a precautionary approach is the only responsible one. We should act to control fossil fuel emissions. If the global warming hypothesis is correct, we may be able to prevent potentially catastrophic consequences. If it is incorrect, the consolation prize is not too bad: a more energy-efficient global economy and a cleaner environment. Isn’t this a no-brainer? Win-win? A slam dunk? Such is the world wide consensus, and isn’t it interesting that essentially the only voices challenging it are the industries that would be affected by immediate action?

To see the specific tactics that foes of environmental regulation use, it is instructive to return to the operative strategy paper prepared by Frank Luntz, a famous consultant to conservative causes worldwide. He specializes in words that is, convincing his clients that simple code words and phrases are everything in political debate today, when most Americans are paying very little attention and, when we do, are inundated by a flood of conflicting information. Thus, we get “sound science” and “junk science” and “uncertainty.”

The title of this particular Luntz document is “The Environment: A Cleaner, Safer, Healthier America,” and it is dedicated to challenging the presumed orthodoxy that “‘Washington regulations’ represent the best way to preserve the environment” [emphasis in the original]. Of course, the ability of free markets to protect the commons has yet to be proved; the numerous disasters that birthed the regulatory system lead us to believe otherwise. The legal obligation of corporations to serve the interests of shareholders above all else might also lead us to believe otherwise, but it has not been my purpose to get into a grand debate on the attributes and limits of corporations and markets. My purpose has been to get into a grand debate on the nature of science, its role in public policy, and its susceptibility to craven manipulation.

“Winning the Global Warming Debate — An Overview” reads the title at the top of page 137 of Luntz’s document. Item number one is this: “The scientific debate remains open. Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views on global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate, and defer to scientists and other experts in the field”. On the following page is this paragraph: “The most important principle in any discussion of global warming is your commitment to sound science. Americans unanimously believe all environmental rules and regulations should be based on sound science and common sense. Similarly, our confidence in the ability of science and technology to solve our ills is second to none. Both perceptions will work in your favor if properly cultivated.” And below that paragraph is this boxed statement: “LANGUAGE THAT WORKS[:] We must not rush to judgment before all the facts are in. We need to ask more questions. We deserve more answers. And until we learn more, we should not commit America to any international document that handcuffs us either now or into the future [emphasis in the original].

There are thousands of scientists on our side of the debate and a mere handful on the other, but uncertainty can reign in the mass media and the public mind if that handful has a large enough megaphone — and they do because they are underwritten by ExxonMobil, by all analyses the hands down largest funder of the warming deniers. According to the authors of the internal ExxonMobil memo titled “Global Climate Science Communications Action Plan,” “[v]ictory will be achieved when…average citizens understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science; recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the conventional wisdom. ”

The consequences of global warming could dwarf those of all the other issues discussed in this book put together, and the movement to delay and subvert action now has a powerful ally in Washington, D.C.: the second Bush White House. In February 2001 — within a month of George W. Bush’s inauguration — ExxonMobil faxed a memo to the White House that asked, “Can Watson be replaced now at the request of the [United States]?” “Watson” was Dr. Robert Watson, esteemed climate scientist, chief scientist at the World Bank, and chairman of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This panel had been studying the issue for a decade (since the first Bush administration, when it was created by the World Meteorological Organization and the UN Environmental Programme). Its most recent assessment had concluded, “[M]ost of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.”

The answer from the White House was “sorry, no” because Dr. Watson still had one more year in his five-year term. When his time was up, the White House refused to support him for a second term and pushed for and got Rajendra Pachauri, an Indian engineer. Perhaps Pachauri has surprised the White House with the outspoken approach he has taken on global warming issues since his term began because administration officials still seemed unwilling to accept the IPCC’s findings. In May 2001 the White House asked the National Academy of Sciences to look yet again at the work of the IPCC. The ensuing report stated, “The changes observed over the last several decades are likely mostly due to human activities, but we cannot rule out that some significant part of these changes is also a reflection of natural variability.” That second clause is what the administration was after all along. Ignore the first clause, emphasize the second, call for more research, and buy more time. Uncertainty!

Within two months of taking office, the president stepped back from his campaign promise to lower carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants. Among other points, the White House argued that CO2 was not a pollutant under the Clean Air Act,” a specious assertion reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s famous observation that trees cause more pollution than do automobiles.

Every two years, the United States has to report to a UN body on its greenhouse emissions, efforts to reduce them, and consequences of action and inaction. As we have seen, one of the first petitions filed under the Data Quality Act challenged the dissemination of this report, the National Assessment on Climate Change, on the grounds that it is based on faulty computer models and did not undergo proper peer review — charges that are simply false. The EPA did deny the petition under the DQA, but when that agency’s six-hundred-page draft report for 2003 included all of six paragraphs on global warming, the White House deleted five of them. The one that made the cut contained no reference to repercussions from global 35 warming. The White House also instructed the agency to insert a reference to a study disputing the global warming hypothesis (and not just human activity as the major factor, but the warming itself), written by scientists associated with the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, one of the “think-tanks” funded by ExxonMobil.

When the Bush administration pulled out of the Kyoto Accords, it offered a specious sop to the world by establishing a voluntary goal to reduce emissions intensity by 18 percent by 2012. “Intensity”? That’s output per economic unit. With robust economic growth, therefore, we could achieve such a reduction in “intensity” while contributing more greenhouse gases to the environment — and would in fact. When it comes to global warming, actual emissions are the only ones that count. Moreover, the Government Accountability Office had already estimated that the United States would achieve a reduction of 14% in intensity over the next decade, thanks to already planned improvements in efficiency.

After Dr. James Hansen, chief of the NASA Institute for Space Studies and one of the nation’s leading climate scientists, called for limiting green house gas emissions, White House appointees threatened him with “dire consequences.” NASA scientists, many of whom worked on global climate issues, were a particular target. New York Times reporter Andrew C. Revkin documented NASA’s almost comedic attempt to spin the agency’s science. In the months leading up to the 2004 election, Revkin reported, the White House told NASA’s public affairs directors to highlight the president’s “vision” for space travel to Mars in NASA news releases, even if the subject at hand was earth science. This manipulation initiative was transparent: A December 2004 news release describing research on the relationship between wind patterns and recent warming of the Indian Ocean included a statement that the analytical tools used in the study “may someday prove useful in studying climate systems on other planets.” The term “climate systems” by itself must have been a red flag for the political apparatchik who reviewed it because NASA scientists were subsequently not allowed to talk about new satellite data on ozone and air pollution until after the 2004 elections. Meanwhile, news releases were compiled by political appointees who held little regard for the science. George Deutsch, a NASA public affairs political appointee with little technical background (who left the agency after his resume was alleged to contain false statements), considered it his assignment to insert the word “theory” after every reference to the Big Bang. In an email later leaked to the press, Deutsch explained, “It is not NASA’s place, nor should it be[,] to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator.

Scientists at NOAA were also targets for manipulation and censorship. Following the devastating 2005 hurricane season, the agency put out a statement that there was a consensus among its experts that natural, rather than man-made, factors were to blame. Several scientists within the agency (as well as many outside it) disagreed with this statement and some reported that they had been censored in conversations with the media on this topic. In the end, the attempted silencing of James Hansen and the other scientists at NASA and NOAA backfired to some extent. Formerly well known among scientists, Hansen was interviewed on CBS’s Sixty Minutes and became a media star. The administrators at both NASA and NOAA have issued policy statements that declare their dedication to “scientific debate and transparency,” although it is not clear that this affirmative policy has trickled down to the rank and file in those agencies that are not working on the high-profile issue of global warming.

In June 2005 we learned from the front page of the New York Times and elsewhere that one Philip Cooney, chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, edited a federal report on climate change to magnify the level of uncertainty. Suddenly the word “uncertainties” was preceded by significant and fundamental.” Or consider the following sentence: “The attribution of the causes of biological and ecological changes to climate change or variability is extremely difficult.” Cooney added the “extremely.” Well, so what, we might ask. These are not really substantive changes. No, they are not, and this document is not going to make or break any policy on climate change, but it is all of a piece with this administration. Before his appointment by the president, Cooney was a lobbyist with the American Petroleum Institute, one of the nation’s leading manufacturers of scientific uncertainty, and immediately following the New York Times report he left the White House for a post at ExxonMobil.” His job title may have changed, but his job description did not.

As late as June 2006 President Bush was still claiming it wasn’t certain whether humans had any role in global warming.” A few weeks later, when the U.S. Supreme Court was hearing arguments on a suit that was attempting to compel the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, the Bush administration said, “Let’s debate the science.” Referring to a legal brief written by a familiar group of global warming deniers whose work the oil industry supports and promotes, the administration argued that the EPA’s inaction was justified by the differences among scientists (specifically between those paid by the industry and everyone else). “I think one thing that we ought to be able to agree on,” asserted the deputy solicitor general, “is that there is uncertainty surrounding the phenomenon of global climate change.”

Such uncertainty is just what ExxonMobil, the coal industry, and the other carbon polluters want and are paying for because it avoids discussion of the much tougher set of policy choices necessary to reduce carbon levels in the atmosphere. Rest assured, we will eventually be forced into that discussion.

Almost inevitably, the global warming deniers will go the way of the tobacco lung cancer deniers. It is happening already, overcoming the rear-guard efforts by the Bush administration, which continued to follow Luntz’s advice. Even the oil companies, whose products make a substantial contribution to the atmospheric accumulation of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, are coming around. In October 2006 John Hofmeister, president of Shell Oil Company, said, “We have to deal with greenhouse gases. From Shell’s point of view, the debate is over. When 90-plus percent of the world’s leading figures believe that greenhouse gases have impacted the climate of the Earth, who is Shell to say, ‘Let’s debate the science?

Let us just hope we overcome the obstruction before we reach the tipping point for the Greenland glaciers, when their melting cannot be stopped; before dramatic increases in insect-borne diseases like malaria further afflict poor populations throughout the tropics; and before lower crop yields devastate regions where much of the world’s population is already hungry. If we get to this point, billions of tons of carbon dioxide later (along with billions of dollars of corporate profits), how many lives and opportunities will have been squandered? How much harder will it be to work our way out of these problems?

Near the end of the Clinton administration, the EPA issued regulations aimed at reducing the allowable drinking-water level of arsenic, a known human carcinogen, from 50 parts per billion (ppb) to 10 ppb, the level recommended by the World Health Organization and already in effect in Europe.” “Junk science!” cried the antiregulatory crowd, and its cronies within the new Bush administration immediately froze that recommendation and made plans to kill it. They probably did not expect the public outcry (which was loud) or the vehement response from the scientific community. In fact, I will bet that Karl Rove, President Bush’s political guru, did not even know about this decision because he would have understood the potent symbolism: Here was a new group in Washington, D.C., so beholden to industry that it balked at removing from our drinking water a chemical whose name is almost synonymous with poison. Requested by the EPA to review the proposed standard, a panel of the National Academy of Sciences stated that, if anything, the proposed standard should be lowered to 3 ppb, since 10 ppb represented a risk of 30 excess cancer deaths for every ten thousand people exposed. The EPA did not go that far, but in October 2001, eight months into the new administration, it embraced the previously derided 10 ppb standard.

This did not stop the “Republican war on science,” as journalist Chris Mooney has called it. And why should it have? No one knows better how to play the regulatory game in Washington. I have described in some detail how OSHA has surrendered to special interests and used the scientific uncertainty subterfuge to stall or weaken protections for workers in a host of industries. An even longer list of polluters has been able to weaken or eliminate regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency during this second Bush administration. Portions of the agency’s proposed regulations to control mercury emissions from power plants were written by industry lobbyists and simply inserted verbatim into the rules. Congress’s Government Accountability Office has determined that the EPA’s mandatory cost benefit calculations in 2004 had skewed the numbers to make the administration’s “cap and trade” approach seem more cost effective than simply capping pollution at every power plant. This was nothing new; the political appointees in the agency have wanted to weaken the Clean Air Act since they took power in 2001. They doctored the cost-benefit analysis presented to Congress to promote the administration’s proposed “Clear Skies” legislation over the alternative that environmentalists backed. “Clear Skies”? Pure Orwell. The Congressional Research Service determined that the agency’s analysis exaggerated the costs and underestimated the benefits of enacting more protective legislation.”

In 2004 the EPA issued rules exempting much of the U.S. plywood industry from controlling emissions of formaldehyde. It justified the new, less stringent rules by using a risk assessment conducted by the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology (CIIT), a laboratory, as its name suggests, run by the chemical industry. The agency ignored two studies published in the months before the rule change, one by scientists at the National Cancer Institute, the other from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, both of which found increased risk of leukemia among workers exposed to the chemical. Using the same data as CIIT, a scientific advisory committee in California unanimously rejected the formaldehyde industry’s request to reconsider the state’s risk assessment. A few weeks later the International Agency for Research on Cancer designated formaldehyde as a human carcinogen.

The list of similar stories is too long for me to chronicle here. Some involve lying about or manipulating science, others issuing bad or no regulations. Each would also require me to emphasize that what is going on within the agency is not the fault of most of the career employees, many of whom are heartsick that their work has been so undermined, to put it mildly, and that their once-proud agency has become just another enabler for the polluters and the poisoners. I could also devote dozens of pages to stories about every other agency involved in regulation and some that are not, but I will settle for a brief selection that demonstrates the range of the issues at stake, both at home and abroad.

I begin with rare wildlife species. It is difficult if not impossible to attack the position that these creatures merit special protection from development that threatens the destruction of their habitats. On this question at least, the American public is close to united. We understand that while the snail darters and spotted owls and sea turtles may not be vital to the ecology, the <i>principle</i> is vital because this really is a slippery slope. So, save the spotted owls and the old growth forests in which they live. Corporate interests understand that public opinion is adamant, so they have tried a clever and run by going after the science that estimates the population of a species — in effect, its degree of endangerment. For decades, wildlife biologists have employed statistical models to estimate the size of animal populations because the money involved in trying to count all animals would be prohibitive. This is standard practice, and it is never challenged within the scientific community.

Starting in 2003, Republican opponents of the Endangered Species Act introduced several bills that would limit regulators’ ability to use statistical models to estimate species populations.” Instead they want us to count every bird instead — an onerous and unnecessary obligation. If the tree huggers cannot prove with an actual head count that an elusive creature is endangered, they cannot stop development in order to protect it — a new wrinkle in the same old uncertainty game. At a hearing on the bill before a committee of the House of Representatives, I testified that legislators dictating the scientific methods a policymaker may or may employ is antithetical (and probably damaging) to the science enterprise itself. I compared the proposal to Lysenkoism, the label given the Soviet Politburo’s campaign to dictate methodologies to Soviet scientists. Actually, the name of the proposed legislation tells anyone who is paying attention all they really need to know about its provenance and its purposes: The Sound Science for Endangered Species Act Planning Act of 2003. In September 2005, when the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed another version of the bill, it was misnamed the Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act. Fortunately, the Senate failed to act on this misguided legislation and, with the 2006 election of a Democratic controlled Congress, this initiative appears to be doomed.

In June 2005 two retired scientists — a biologist and a hydrologist — from the Bureau of Land Management, a division of the Department of the Interior, charged that their analysis of the impact of cattle grazing on public lands had been changed in order to smooth the way for new regulations that would relax grazing restrictions. The initial statement that the new regu lations would have “significant adverse impact” on wildlife was replaced by the statement that the rules would be “beneficial to animals.” That is a substantive change. Missing entirely from the final rules was their statement: “The Proposed Action will have a slow, long-term adverse impact on wildlife and biological diversity in general.” The biologist called the promulgated rules a “whitewash.” The bureau called the changes to the original study “standard editing.”

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