Hot Air on Global Warming

Since the idea of global warming first captured attention in the 1980s, scientists have cautioned the public not to jump to conclusions. With recent advances in the understanding and modeling of climate change, however, those cautious experts now warn that the evidence clearly shows global warming is taking place, and that the time has come for action.The stakes are high -- not only for the global climate, but also for the international energy industry, an endeavor with daily sales in excess of $2 billion. In response to the new scientific consensus, the energy industry has stepped up a massive public relations campaign to deny the existence of global warming and delay meaningful action.In 1988, the United Nations created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of 2,500 of the world's leading experts on climate change, to study and evaluate the scientific merit of the global warming theory. In September 1995, the IPCC released a comprehensive document which summarized its findings. Unlike years past, when scientists cautioned of insufficient evidence and uncertainty in the computer models of climate change, by 1995 both the IPCC and World Meteorological Organization unequivocally stated not only that the world has warmed, but that the rise in temperature has been caused by human activity. Boosted by growing confidence in the accuracy of climatological studies, the IPCC clearly declared "the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on the global environment."More specifically, the IPCC reports that the last few decades have been the warmest this century, and that the last 30 years have seen the warmest average surface temperatures in recorded history. The average surface temperature for the first seven years of the 1990s is already higher than the average for the entire decade of the 1980s, which had previously been the warmest decade in recorded history. Sea levels have risen four to 10 inches this century. The IPCC warns that without specific policies to reduce the growth of greenhouse emissions, the Earth's average surface temperature is projected to increase by about 1.6 to 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2100, a rate faster than anything observed since the last ice age 10,000 years ago. Sea level is predicted to rise from six to 38 inches by 2100. Even if emissions are stabilized by 2100, temperatures would continue to rise for several decades and sea level would continue to rise for centuries.Scientists warn of additional effects from rising global temperatures, including extreme weather patterns, declining plant and animal populations, massive crop failures, and the increasing spread of tropical diseases. Around the world, scientists are now documenting the rapid retreat of mountain glaciers, unusually large chunks of the Antarctic ice shelf breaking up, rising ocean temperatures, shifting deep sea currents, and dying plankton populations over large areas. According to the experts, global warming is no longer mere scientific speculation. Uncertainty remains only as to how severe the effects will be.In response, the developed nations of the world are planning a crucial international meeting in Kyoto, Japan this December to enact limits on greenhouse gas emissions for each country. In the U.S., however, the mainstream media continues to report on uncertainty surrounding the very existence of global warming.For years industry has waged war on the idea that global warming is real. Even if real, the argument goes, global warming is natural and poses no threat. Now the oil, coal, and electric industries, along with the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers, and OPEC nations are directing their attacks at the IPCC. They have deployed a massive public relations campaign with the aid of PR consultants, expensive radio and TV ads, and a flurry of op-ed pieces in the nation's leading newspapers. Conservative foundations and right-wing think-tanks have rallied to assault the new certainty within the scientific community.Industry-created groups peddle their scientific-sounding views via organizations that masquerade as "grass-roots" citizens' groups. For instance, the Cooler Heads Coalition, under the direction of a vice president from the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, publishes consumer-oriented information on the global warming debate. While pretending to be a Ralph Nader-like independent watchdog for consumers, it is in reality an anti-environmentalist project of the industry-funded National Consumer Coalition. According to a study done by the genuine consumer groups Consumers Union and California PIRG, the National Consumer Coalition routinely takes positions which "tend to save industry money at the expense of consumer interests, such as health and safety, product testing, educational benefits and health." Not surprisingly, the organization maintains that neither global warming, acid rain, pesticides, nor asbestos have any serious impact on the environment.Industry promotes its attack through the use of a handful of scientists directly supported by coal, oil, and utility companies, whose work is typically unreviewed in the wider peer literature and outside the scientific mainstream. Much to industry's delight, the media have used these privatized "experts" to present the global warming issue as if there is a still a fundamental split of opinion within the scientific community. Fewer than a dozen of industry's scientists (some not even involved in climate research) are given equal weight by the media to the exhaustive research and overwhelming agreement of the world's top climatologists.Frequently-cited skeptic Dr. Pat Michaels received at least $167,000 from coal and energy interests, mainly the Western Fuels Association, to publish the World Climate Report, a scientific review to provide "policy-makers, journalists, and the interested public with an ongoing and accurate portrayal of the science of global climate change." Western Fuels' 1995 Annual Report refers to the World Climate Report as "our publication." While pretending to be an objective source of information, every article feverishly attacks the mainstream of global warming science.Journalist Ross Gelbspan reported in "Harper's" that high-profile skeptic Dr. Robert Balling received more than $200,000 from coal, mining and oil interests. When confronted by another reporter, Balling corrected that he had actually received $700,000 from such sources over the last five years. Similarly, Dr. Fred Singer receives consulting fees directly from Exxon, Shell, Unocal, Arco, and Sun Oil.Skeptics of global warming boldly assert that their funding sources have no bearing on the merit of their arguments. Still, their purpose is not to win a scientific debate, but to run interference so that debate never turns to action. The complicated and technically confusing objections raised by the skeptics are magnified far beyond their actual scientific merit by an elaborate public relations and lobbying network. No matter how thoroughly or frequently their claims are debunked the media continues to report "disagreement" within the scientific community. Thus industry creates the expensive illusion that the time is still ripe for debate rather than action. According to Stephen Schneider, a climatologist at Stanford University, "It's the Tobacco Industry strategy all over again."There is little doubt that industry's campaign has been successful. "The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal", the conservative magazine "National Review", and columnist George Will have all attempted to cast doubt by reporting on an alleged recent poll showing that 83 percent of the members of the American Geophysical Society do not believe in global warming. As revealed by David Corn in the Nation, this supposed "recent poll" was actually a study conducted of 400 scientists in 1991, four years before the IPCC released its findings. Also conveniently unmentioned was that the same study found "67 percent of scientists directly involved in global climate research believe human-induced greenhouse warming is now occurring."The Business Roundtable recently spent $1 million on ads opposing the upcoming Kyoto treaty. The Global Climate Coalition, a lobbying group funded by the fossil fuels industry, spends nearly a million dollars a year to deny the existence of global warming. In September of this year, the Global Climate Information Project, a collection of trade associations, announced it would spend a whopping $13 million on advertising to encourage public opposition to an international treaty. The National Coal Association spent more than $700,000 on the global climate issue in 1992-93. The American Petroleum Institute, just one of the 54 members of the Global Climate Coalition, paid $1.8 million to the public relations firm of Burson-Marsteller in an effort to defeat a proposed tax on fossil fuels. In comparison to this onslaught, the combined yearly spending on global warming campaigns of the five major environmental groups that focus on climate issues is a mere $2.1 million.Many groups in the industry coalition, such as the Western Coal Association and the libertarian Cato Institute, still vehemently cling to the hard-line position that global warming does not exist. As the scientific evidence mounts, however, focus groups from the public increasingly react to such flat denials with the same suspicion they view tobacco industry claims that there is no link between smoking and lung cancer. As a result, sophisticated industry PR firms are now crafting a more refined message to appeal to the general public. The new media campaigns play upon the useful tools of fear and nationalism.The Global Climate Information Project purchased $200,000 in radio time for the Washington D.C. area alone to promote this new message. Recalling the "Harry and Louise" ads paid for by the insurance industry during the health care debate, these ads feature a young couple complaining about a hypothetical 50 cent per gallon gasoline tax, and electric bill hikes of up to 30 percent -- grumbling that India, China, and Mexico get off the hook while "we" shoulder the burden. Industry now promotes the message that emission limits will cause economic catastrophe, while the Third World takes advantage of the U.S., since the proposed treaty only includes the developed countries.Similar emotional predictions of economic collapse have been routinely used to stir up opposition to nearly every significant environmental regulation in the twentieth century -- from clean water to clean air. Yet these fears fail to materialize when the regulations are implemented and economic growth continues. The Business Roundtable published a study predicting that the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments would lead to immediate job losses on the order of one to two million, a number which was featured on the front pages of the nation's leading newspapers. Economist Eban Goodstein, who tracked the job losses, reported that by 1996 the real number had been approximately 3,000 workers. Goodstein concluded that while there have been small localized hardships caused by environmental regulation, for the economy as a whole there is no trade-off between jobs and environmental regulation, and that such regulation has not damaged the international competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing.In 1997 more than 2,500 economists, including eight Nobel laureates, signed a declaration stating, "Sound economic analysis shows there are policy options that would slow climate change without harming American living standards, and these measures may in fact improve U.S. productivity in the longer run." Such measures include increasing energy efficiency, boosting mileage standards for vehicles, expanding the use of renewable energy sources, and increased public transportation.International global warming negotiations have been designed so that those most responsible for current emissions will make the first cuts. The U.S., with only four percent of the world's population, produces about 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. The developed world as a whole produces about two-thirds of the world's emissions. While comprising a huge segment of the world's population, greenhouse gas emissions in China are eight times lower per capita than the U.S., and 20 times lower in India than in the U.S. India and China both argue that until the U.S. begins to curb its own emissions, their obligation to develop their own economies takes precedence. Both countries have been parties to international negotiations, and are generally committed to reducing emission levels once the developed world takes action. Both will meet their current obligations to communicate emission inventories to the U.N. at the due date. By contrast, it is already abundantly clear that the U.S. will fail to stabilize greenhouse emissions to the voluntary limits set for itself in the year 2000 under the current U.N. climate change treaty.Pointing the finger at India and China only distracts from the U.S.'s failure to acknowledge its heavy responsibility for world greenhouse emissions, and failure to meet its current obligations. Once countries like the U.S. begin their own transitions to energy efficiency, lower emissions technologies can be shared with developing nations so that Third World countries might avoid the carbon emission-intensive path already taken by the developed nations. If the First World delays, developing nations will have no choice but to purchase and use the current generation of polluting and inefficient technologies.During the Earth Summit, candidate Al Gore traveled to Rio to criticize then-President Bush on his weak proposal for voluntary reductions to 1992 levels by the year 2000, followed by reductions to 1990 levels by 2010. Now, Clinton and Gore have all but adopted the Bush proposal. Clinton plans to put off legally binding deadlines to curb greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels until 2010. Until then, Clinton proposes that the U.S. maintain voluntary targets, a policy which has already failed to produce significant reductions. The U.S. will exceed the year 2000 voluntary emissions target by an estimated 13 percent. What's more, Clinton is attempting to woo industry by endorsing a global emission trading scheme that would allow U.S. industries to purchase the right to exceed limits from other countries.Ordinary citizens concerned with the future, and well-informed scientific experts have great difficulty cutting through industry's expensive and well-orchestrated public relations campaign in order to address a serious social and environmental problem. The global warming crisis vividly illustrates much of what is wrong in a society where both the media and political leaders are unduly influenced by concentrated corporate power. It remains to be seen whether industry's agenda will win out over the health and well-being of the world's population and environment at the Kyoto treaty negotiations this December.


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