by Elizabeth Woodworth and Dr. Peter Carter
Climate change denial has been led by industry disinformation, which, according to Merriam-Webster, is “false information deliberately and often covertly spread in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.”
A crime against humanity is, according to the Oxford Dictionary, “a deliberate act, typically as part of a systematic campaign that causes human suffering or death on a large scale.”
A brief look at the origins of denialism
In 2010, a landmark book, Merchants of Doubt, showed how a small group of prominent scientists with connections to politics and industry led disinformation campaigns denying established scientific knowledge about smoking, acid rain, DDT, the ozone layer and global warming.
Written by Dr. Naomi Oreskes, Harvard science historian, and NASA historian Erik Conway, Merchants was reviewed by Bill Buchanan of The Christian Science Monitor as “the most important book of 2010” and by The Guardian’s Robin McKie as “the best science book of the year.” It was followed by the 2014 documentary of the same name, also widely seen and reviewed.
The research showed how the disinformation tactics of the tobacco companies in the 1960s to undermine the scientific link between smoking and lung cancer served as a model for subsequent oil company tactics suppressing climate change science.
Following the U.S. Surgeon General’s landmark report on smoking and lung cancer in 1964, the government legislated warning labels on cigarette packages. But a tobacco company executive from Brown & Williamson had a brainwave: people still wanted to smoke and doubt about the science would give them a ready excuse.
His infamous 1969 memo read: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”
Tobacco industry executives never directly denied the mounting evidence that cigarettes were linked to lung cancer. Instead, they stated publicly that the science was controversial. In this way they managed to delay regulation and lawsuits until the 1990s.
When the global warming science began to emerge in the 1980s, the oil industry employed the same deceptions. The whole focus was now on creating doubt in the minds of the politicians, the media and the public about whether we really know for sure that climate change is a problem. Doubt, as the tobacco industry had learned so profitably, delays action.
When the IPCC was formed in 1988 and began documenting and publicizing the impacts of climate change, the climate disinformation campaign grew more intense. Big Oil employed the same tactics, arguments, vocabulary and PR firms that the tobacco companies had used to cast doubt on the dangers of smoking 25 years earlier.
The American Petroleum Institute convened a Global Climate Science Communications Team in 1998 to devise a plan targeting the media, schools, government officials, Congress and other influential groups.
The team’s mission, exposed in a leaked 1998 memo, was to initiate “a national media relations programme to inform the media about uncertainties in climate science; to generate national, regional and local media on the scientific uncertainties and thereby educate and inform the public, stimulating them to raise questions with policymakers.” They said victory would be achieved when:
- Average citizens understand (recognize) uncertainties in climate science; recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the “conventional wisdom.”
- Media “understands” (recognizes) uncertainties in climate science.
- Media coverage reflects balance on climate science and recognition of the validity of viewpoints that challenge the current “conventional wisdom.”
- Industry senior leadership understands uncertainties in climate science, making them stronger ambassadors to those who shape climate policy.
- Those promoting the Kyoto treaty on the basis of extent science appears [sic] to be out of touch with reality.
A 2009-2014 study shows that climate change deniers promoting these uncertainties were prominently featured on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, Fox Business, ABC, CBS, and PBS in a striking number of TV appearances – indeed three years after the publication of Merchants of Doubt. These deniers included the non-climate scientists:
- Marc Morano (Bachelor PoliSci) from Climate Depot, 30 TV appearances.
- Tim Phillips (Bachelor PoliSci) from Americans for Prosperity, 7 appearances.
- Fred Singer (physicist) from the Science and Environmental Policy Project, 8 appearances.
- James Taylor (lawyer), from the Heartland Institute, 8 appearances.
Although these men lack credentials in climate science and have been widely exposed as imposters, the major cable TV and networks still give them credibility on their free media platforms.
The corporate media has thus given a relatively small group of science deniers with financial connections to the fossil fuel industry immense influence in sowing doubt on the scientific consensus of human-made climate change.
Climate denial propaganda & influence continue to rise
In 2016, the Union of Concerned Scientists reported that “an in-depth analysis of eight leading fossil fuel companies finds that none of them has made a clean break from disinformation on climate science and policy.” The companies included were ArchCoal, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Consol Energy, ExxonMobil, Peabody and Shell. The industry has responded to the spotlight by intensifying propaganda through the agents below.
The Heartland Institute: In March 2017, the Heartland Institute began targeting the nation’s 200,000 science teachers by mailing each a copy of its new book and DVD, Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming. The slick package stated that, even if climate change were real, “it would probably not be harmful, because many areas of the world would benefit from or adjust to climate change.”
The Koch Brothers: The multibillionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch are two of the most powerful people in the global oil industry, owning Koch Industries, a $100-billion conglomerate employing 100,000 people in 60 countries. They control 1-2 million acres of Alberta’s tar sands. The Kochs, bigger than either of the Democratic or Republican parties, manipulate both. A major focus of Koch money has been to ensure that no legislation is passed to curb the burning of fossil fuels. The brothers have gained pledges from 170 members of Congress that they will never support a tax on carbon. While attacking legitimate climate scientists, the Kochs were funding prominent pseudo-climate-scientists.
ExxonMobil: In 2015, we learned from its own research that Exxon has known since 1980 that global warming is real. Kert Davies, former research Director of Greenpeace USA, revealed through ExxonSecrets.org that, meanwhile, ExxonMobil’s climate change denial funding totaled at least $33 million during the period 1997-2016. “At least $33 million” because much of the funding has been channeled through dark identity scrubbing groups such as Donors Trust and Donors Capital.
Secret funding by coal companies: In April 2017, Peabody Energy, the country’s largest investor-owned coal company, declared bankruptcy, following Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources. In all three cases, court-ordered disclosures revealed creditors well known as climate science deniers. These included Chris Horner, who regularly disparages climate science on Fox News and has called for investigations of IPCC and NASA scientists.
As Dr. James Hansen had observed in 2012, this is “not an accident. There is a very concerted effort by people who would prefer to see business continue as usual.”
Whitehouse was one of the first in Congress to propose a civil case, similar to the racketeering suit Bill Clinton brought against the tobacco industry, against fossil-fuel companies for deliberately misleading the public on climate science.
Dr. Michael Mann sums it up: “The gulf between scientific opinion and public opinion has been bought with hundreds of millions of dollars of special interest money… The number of lives that will be lost because of the damaging impacts of climate change is in the hundreds of millions; to me, it’s not just a crime against humanity; it’s a crime against the planet.”
Climate change denial as a crime against humanity
As cited earlier, a crime against humanity is “a deliberate act, typically as part of a systematic campaign that causes human suffering or death on a large scale.”
We have established that the decades-long blocking and lying about scientific evidence on the dangers of human-caused global warming has been deliberate. So the question arises, how many people have been, or will be, hurt or killed by climate change?
Many studies have been done over time. To cite a few:
“Climate change is increasing the global burden of disease and in the year 2000 was responsible for more than 150,000 deaths worldwide. Of this disease burden, 88% fell upon children.”
According to a March 2017 report from the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, “a quarter of Americans can name one way in which climate change is affecting their health. This is seen by physicians across the country.”
A 15-author 2016 report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program warns that people suffering chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, mental illness and obesity are being threatened by climate change.
A global estimate was supplied by an independent report commissioned by 20 countries in 2012 to study the human and economic costs of climate change. The DARA study wrote that it linked 400,000 deaths worldwide to climate change each year, projecting deaths to increase to over 600,000 per year by 2030… Heat waves kill many, to be sure, but global warming also devastates food security, nutrition and water safety. Since mosquitoes and other pests thrive in hot, humid weather, scientists expect diseases like malaria and dengue fever to rise. Floods threaten to contaminate drinking water with bacteria and pollution.
When the report looked at the added health consequences from burning fossil fuels – aside from climate change – the number of deaths jumps from 400,000 to almost five million per year. Carbon-intensive economies see deaths linked to outdoor air pollution, indoor smoke from poor ventilation, occupational hazards and skin cancer.
When disinformation known to be false is systematically used to deny dangerous realities that harm public health and kill millions of people, the deception clearly crosses the line to become a crime against humanity.
The 2014 IPCC 5th assessment Summary for Policy Makers, along with previous IPCC assessments, is solid proof of the unprecedented crime represented by today’s level and rate of increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas pollution. It is definite because policy makers representing all world governments sit on the IPCC Panel and before the assessment can be published, they scrutinize the assessment line-by-line for government approval.
As governments from high-emitting countries continue – against the will of their own citizens and of the nations most vulnerable to climate change – to allow the global climate catastrophe to unfold, they simply cannot say that they did not know. Participation in formulating the IPCC summaries makes the large GHG-polluting national governments undeniably culpable for their continued lack of action to bring about a rapid decline in global emissions.
Not only have they betrayed the IPCC science. While doing so, they have pampered the lucrative fossil fuel industry with trillions of dollars in subsidies worldwide. But worst of all they have failed to protect their citizens – now and for future generations. This is the crime of all time.
Excerpted with permission from Unprecedented Crime: Climate Science Denial and Game Changers for Survival by Elizabeth Woodworth and Dr. Peter Carter (Clarity Press). Elizabeth Woodworth is a writer on climate change science and activism, co-author of Unprecedented Climate Mobilization and co-producer of the COP21 video A Climate Revolution for All. Dr. Peter Carter is founder of the Climate Emergency Institute. He served as an expert reviewer for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) fifth climate change assessment in 2014. He is a former family and emergency medicine practitioner.