Hardball Politics vs. Climate Change

Quote mining.   Cherry Picking.   Data Mining.   Character Assassination.

These are tried-and-true techniques for people who are trying to advance a political agenda.  Politicians have to deal with this all the time.  Their words are deliberately distorted by taking them out-of-context.  Or a casual comment is misinterpreted in the most damaging possible way.  It is part of the “art” of politics in this new take-no-prisoners environment we now live in.  “My honorable opponent,” has become evil and corrupt, to be ridiculed and demonized at every opportunity.

For the most part, scientists and scientific issues were not subject to hardball political attacks until the “tobacco controversy.”  About seventy years ago, scientists determined that tobacco smoke was a health hazard, causing all kinds of human ailments, especially lung cancer.[1].   Tobacco companies were outraged, and fought back with every kind of political trick they could think of.  In the end, the science was too convincing, and they had to back down.  Not that they stopped selling tobacco products.  Even with the “warning labels,” they were…and still are…making tons of money selling their poisonous and addictive products.  But they were able to hold off meaningful legislation for years with their stonewalling tactics.  That lesson was not lost on the fossil fuel industry when climate scientists noticed that the climate was changing, and the combustion of fossil fuels was fingered as the cause.

We now have a new and even more ominous threat to human life than cigarettes.  The temperature of the earth is increasing.  Worse yet, the increase (by huge scientific consensus) is the result of human activities, primarily the burning of hydrocarbons.  This time, the opposing forces are even more powerful than the tobacco companies.  The fossil fuel industry includes some of the richest and most powerful corporations on the planet.  It is no surprise that they are opposed to any government regulations that would reduce the use of their products.

The techniques they use to discredit climate change science come right out of the operating manual written by tobacco companies.  First, deny.  Then throw up a smokescreen, claiming that the data is inconclusive.  Demand endless “studies” to delay any action.  And finally, play hardball political games to demonize opponents, and if possible, intimidate them.  What games?  Look at the top line of this article.

Sadly, their tactics have been very successful.  The American public’s concern about global warming has been declining steadily for the past few years, mostly due to the attacks.  The stagnant economy has also played a part.  Opponents have emphasized the economic impact of corrective actions, and played on the fears of people who are already nervous about their jobs, if they have one, or their prospects for finding one if they do not.

Will curtailment of the burning of fossil fuels destroy our economy?  What about the economic stimulus provided by the development of clean, renewable energy?  The payoff from current renewable energy programs will not be instantaneous.  Development of any new energy source is a long-term effort.  How long did it take to drill oil wells, build refineries and the vast network of gas stations?  Fossil fuel companies continue to receive huge subsidies,[2]  while they fund political action to limit subsidies for renewable energy.  Part of that effort is a relentless barrage of climate change denial in the media.  Fox News has produced over 70% of the cable news programs on climate change, the vast majority of which are “dismissive” of fears about global warming.[3]

On the Internet, denialist forces are especially dominant, with endless blogs and quasi-scientific web sites that spew disinformation, distortion and even outright lies…the whole bag of hardball political tricks.  Anything that casts doubt on climate science or the scientists that practice it is repeated endlessly.  But it has gone beyond merely questioning the data and mining quotes.  There is a calculated, and very well funded effort to undermine the public’s regard for science and scientists.[4].   The result is that there are a number of “believers” in the denialist myths…of vast conspiracies of evil scientists bent on establishing a world government.  They quote from the web sites ad nauseam, as if they are quoting from the Bible, and disparage legitimate scientific sites and organizations that collect climate data and do climate modeling.

It’s one thing to cast doubt on climate science, but demonizing the scientists with ad hominem attacks, claiming that they are engaged in a sinister conspiracy to gain control of governments worldwide has had disastrous side-effects.  Science education is declining in this country..[5]

A career in science or technology is no longer sought by many college students.  Instead, they opt for law or finance, and end up working on Wall Street dealing derivatives.  No doubt they make a lot of money that way, but that is the road to oblivion for our nation.  Even the Department of Homeland Security is worried about it. [6]

Demonization of climate scientists is not the only reason for the decline in science education.  There is a longstanding tension between evangelical Christianity and science.[7]

This tension has intensified in recent years due to the increasingly aggressive involvement of Christian organizations in the political process, especially their attempts to introduce religious teaching into science classes.  The result is that many students from Christian families are discouraged from science careers. [8]

The resultant distrust of scientists and disinterest in science education has led to widespread scientific illiteracy and lack of critical thinking skills, especially in the Bible Belt areas in the south.  Such people are an easy mark for the charlatans pushing climate change denial with their pseudoscience.


[1] http://edition.cnn.com/US/9705/tobacco/history/

[2] http://www.eli.org/Program_Areas/innovation_governance_energy.cfm

[3] http://thinkprogress.org/green/2011/11/18/372313/yes-virginia-fox-news-lies-about-climate-change/

[4] Denialist Demagogues and the Threat to Science (Skeptic Magazine article by Donald Prothero)

[5] Darpa Report

[6] http://www.homelandsecuritynewswire.com/decline-math-and-science-education-imperils-us

[7] http://www.arn.org/docs/newman/rn_crackpot.htm

[8]  Ibid

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