10 Jun 2010: Opinion

Global Warming Deniers and
Their Proven Strategy of Doubt

For years, free-market fundamentalists opposed to government regulation have sought to create doubt in the public’s mind about the dangers of smoking, acid rain, and ozone depletion. Now they have turned those same tactics on the issue of global warming and on climate scientists, with significant success.

by naomi oreskes and erik m. conway

In recent months, a group called the Cooler Heads Coalition — a creation of the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) — has fostered a public image of climate science as a criminal conspiracy. The CEI itself has accused NASA, the largest funder of climate science, of faking important climate data sets. In February, U.S. Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, whose positions are frequently cited and promoted by CEI, called for a criminal investigation of 17 climate scientists from a variety of institutions for allegedly falsifying or distorting data used in taxpayer-funded research.

The recent shift in the community of global warming deniers from merely attacking mainstream climate scientists to alleging their involvement in criminal activity is an unsurprising but alarming development in the long campaign to discredit the established scientific fact that burning fossil fuels is causing the world to warm. This latest escalation fits seamlessly into a decades-old pattern of attempts to deny the reality of environmental ills — smoking, acid rain, ozone depletion, and global warming. Similar or even identical claims have been promoted for decades by other free-market think-tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Heartland Institute, and, most persistently, the George C. Marshall Institute. These think tanks all have two things in common: They promote free-market solutions to environmental problems, and all have long been active in challenging the scientific evidence of those problems.

In researching a book on global warming deniers, we often felt demoralized by the efficacy of doubt-mongering tactics and depressed that
There is strong evidence that the contrarian campaign is enjoying success.
the American public had been repeatedly fooled by the same strategy and tactics. On the other hand, we felt cautiously optimistic because disputes over other issues — tobacco smoking, acid rain, second-hand smoke, and the ozone hole — ended with the scientific evidence prevailing, and with regulation that (however delayed or weakened) addressed the problem.

Global warming was the great unfinished story, but with the mainstream media and many politicians acknowledging the reality of global warming in recent years, it seemed that there was real progress. “The debate is over,” California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared in 2005. “We know the science. We see the threat posed by changes in our climate.”

Now it seems that progress has been reversed. In recent months, as the U.S. Senate prepared to consider climate and energy legislation, there has been a stepped-up effort on a broad front to belittle the overwhelming evidence of human-caused global warming. As they did with smoking and acid rain, the so-called global warming skeptics have had one overriding goal: to sow doubt in the public’s mind and head off government regulation.

In the case of global warming, there is strong evidence that this contrarian campaign is enjoying success, with recent polls showing that more than half of Americans are not particularly worried about the issue and that fully 40 percent believe there is major disagreement among scientists about whether climate change is even occurring. This confusion is no doubt due, at least in part, to the persistent campaigns of obfuscation by the Competitive Enterprise Institute and other global warming deniers who use right-wing talk radio, the Internet, and television programs such as Fox News to propagate their message of doubt.

The story begins with the tobacco companies’ long-running effort to cast doubt on the links between cigarette smoking and human health effects, including lung cancer. One of the scientists the tobacco industry recruited to this cause was Frederick Seitz. Seitz was a distinguished solid-state physicist, who believed strongly in the role of science and technology in defending the United States during the Cold War. In the late 1950s and 1960s he rose to high levels in national science policy, serving, among other positions, as president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

However, in 1979, toward the end of his career, he took a new job: running a $45 million program for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco to support scientific research to defend the “product” — that is to say, tobacco — long after scientists and physicians had come to virtually unanimous agreement on the overwhelming harm that it caused.

In the words of one industry document, Seitz’s program was to develop “an extensive body of scientifically, well-grounded data useful in defending the industry against attacks.” The goal was to fight science with science — or at least with the gaps and uncertainties in existing science, and with scientific research that could be used to deflect attention from the main event. Like the magician who waves his right hand to distract attention from what he is doing with his left, the tobacco industry would fund distracting research, such as studies on the dietary causes of atherosclerosis and the role of patients’ psychological attitudes on the progression of disease.

In 1984, Seitz took up another cause, joining with two other prominent physicists, William Nierenberg and Robert Jastrow — both also long active in space and weapons programs — to found the George C. Marshall Institute. They created the institute to defend President Reagan’s Strategic
After the Cold War, the Marshall Institute found a new enemy: environmentalists.
Defense Initiative (SDI) from attacks by the mainstream physics community. The Marshall Institute drew its funding from a handful of conservative political foundations, and it defended SDI by loud claims of Soviet military superiority, claims that were found only a few years later — when the USSR disintegrated and the Cold War ended — to have been exaggerated, at best. However, although the Soviet threat was gone and the Cold War was won, the institute didn’t go out of business. Instead, it found a new enemy: environmentalists.

In the early 1980s, Nierenberg had chaired a major National Academy of Sciences review of global warming. Scientists had formed a consensus in the late 1970s that global warming was likely to result from increasing greenhouse gases released by burning fossil fuels, and that this would have serious consequences: glaciers and polar ice sheets would melt, causing sea levels to rise and inundating coastlines and major port cities; deserts would expand, reducing food production; and rapid habitat change could lead to serious biodiversity loss. But as chairman of the panel, Nierenberg rejected the conclusions of his fellow physical scientists and recruited several economists who argued that, rather than trying to prevent climate change, we should simply wait and see what happened and then adapt as events unfolded. If adaptation proved impossible, humans could always migrate, Nierenberg concluded, ignoring the overwhelming historical evidence of the widespread human suffering that has typically accompanied mass migration.

Nierenberg also joined with another physicist, S. Fred Singer, to undermine regulatory action on sulfur dioxide, the principal cause of acid rain. In response to two National Academy reports suggesting that acid rain was real and serious, and its primary causes known, President Reagan commissioned an independent peer review of the existing scientific evidence. Most of the panel members were, actually, independent, and agreed with the National Academy that regulatory action to control sulfur
The contrarian attacks became more virulent, more unprincipled, and more personal.
emissions was warranted. However, Nierenberg and Singer worked to challenge that conclusion, adding a policy-oriented appendix by Singer — which was not approved by the entire panel — that first advocated free-market approaches to controlling pollution, and then concluded (but without a real quantitative analysis) that the cost of reducing acid rain would very likely exceed the benefits. Nierenberg also worked behind the scenes with White House Science Advisor George Keyworth to soften the conclusions of the report’s executive summary and to make them seem more ambiguous than they had originally been. (Something Nierenberg would later accuse climate scientists of doing — only in the reverse.)

Despite these machinations, the acid rain report was still stronger than the Reagan White House wanted, and the administration delayed releasing it until after Congress had defeated pending acid rain legislation. Several congresspersons later stated that had the peer review report been available when the vote was taken, it might well have gone the other way.

It took several more years before the administration of George H. W. Bush implemented an acid rain reduction program organized around a cap-and-trade system. In one sense, this program has worked, reducing acid deposition in the Northeast by more than 50 percent, and — contrary to Singer’s claims — at one-tenth of the projected cost. But it was also too little, too late. Continued work by ecologists such as Gene Likens shows that Northeastern forests are still dying.

In the late 1980s, the Marshall Institute turned to the denial of global warming. As scientific evidence emerged that warming was not only going to happen, but was perhaps already happening, the institute’s attacks became stronger and more unprincipled. These “contrarians” — because their positions were contrary to the majority scientific view — began taking evidence out of context, cherry-picking data, and misrepresenting what was actually being published in the scientific literature. For example, they distributed a “white paper” in 1989 falsely claiming that a review from NASA climate scientist James Hansen showed that recent warming was largely due to increased solar activity.

When confronted with incontrovertible evidence that their arguments and cherry-picked facts were incorrect, the deniers refused to correct their mistakes and continued to spread the same misinformation. Indeed, as the science strengthened, and the evidence of the human fingerprint on the climate system began to strongly emerge, the contrarian attacks became more virulent, more unprincipled, and more personal.

In 1995, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change prepared to release its second assessment report, which would declare that the human effect on climate was now “discernible.” That same year, a fossil-fuel industry-funded group called the Global Climate Coalition accused Benjamin Santer, a scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and lead author of a key IPCC chapter, of committing


Climategate: Anatomy of
A Public Relations Disaster

The way that climate scientists have handled the fallout from the leaking of hacked e-mails is a case study in how not to respond to a crisis. But it also points to the need for climate researchers to operate with greater transparency and to provide more open access to data.
“scientific cleansing” — that is, of removing mention of uncertainties in the chapter to make global warming appear more certain than it was. The men of the Marshall Institute then splashed that accusation onto the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal. Investigations found nothing untoward had happened. All Santer had done was include new findings on global warming suggested by fellow scientists during the peer-review process and to clarify language that was also suggested in the peer review process. Various colleagues and IPCC officials defended Santer and tried to set the record straight, but it didn’t matter. Indeed, in 2007, Fred Singer repeated the charges in a new book, and they continue to be repeated on the Internet today.

If all this sounds familiar, it should. Similar attacks were launched against the scientific evidence of the ozone hole, of second-hand smoke, and of the harms of DDT. As one tobacco executive put it in 1969, “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.” Casting doubt about climate science is simply part of the effort to prevent regulation of fossil fuels. The point of merchandising doubt was, and remains, the prevention of government regulation.

These opponents of science are free-market fundamentalists, unwilling to accept that global warming and many other pollution-induced ills are market failures, and that government action of some kind will be needed to address it. Market fundamentalists believe that free markets are the solution to social problems and government intervention can only do harm. The reality, however, amply demonstrated by experience, is that pollution is external to the market system — there’s no cost to dumping waste into the air and water. And as Lord Nicholas Stern has recently noted, global warming is the biggest market failure of them all. But this is yet another truth that the free market fundamentalists prefer to ignore.

Meanwhile, the contrarians’ campaigns continue, and with significant success: Many Americans accept the deniers’ allegations as true, or at least are confused by them, and therefore do not know what to think or whom to trust. Science has been effectively undermined, which has eroded public support for the decisive action needed to avoid the worst effects of global warming.

POSTED ON 10 Jun 2010 IN Climate Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Sustainability Water North America North America 


Thank you. This is a great summary and I have linked to this article at the top of my Global Warming Denial Machine page at:


Scott A. Mandia, Professor of Physical Sciences
Selden, NY

Posted by Scott A Mandia on 10 Jun 2010

If only scientists and others would make a concerted effort to focus on the harmful effects of POLLUTION (tangible, hard to refute) instead of on global warming (based on evidence that, to many, seems abstract)... I believe we could be having a far more efficient and productive discussion.


Posted by alyce santoro on 10 Jun 2010

Most of the fish caught in the US were too polluted to eat and the great lakes caught fire before people accepted the science of pollution. Millions of people had to die of lung cancer before we accepted the science of cancer.

If we wait untill there is extreme enviornmental harm and until millions of people die from global warming to accept the science of gloabl warming, it will be too late.

Posted by TC on 10 Jun 2010

There is nothing "wrong" with the global climate. It is responding via the laws of science to a disease organism, us. That "economic organism" believes that mined materials (uranium, coal, petroleum and methane) are "energy resources," rather than explosive materials that are toxins in numerous ways (e.g. carbonic acid gas). A civilization built on hubris will eventually collapse (such as through disease, famine or submergence). Unfortunately, this time we will take much of biodiverse life with us.

By the way, what is so "free market" about identified trillions of dollars of historical subsidies in the U.S. for "fuels," and one-half trillion dollars of global fossil subsidies per year? (See recent chief economist for International Energy Agency) And where is my nuclear bailout bucket?

The incongruities and contradictions in the corporate position are astounding.

Posted by James Newberry on 10 Jun 2010

Science has been effectively undermined and it has been undermined by climate scientists who have to push their agenda and use junk science to do it. Do not blame the skeptics, blame yourselves.

Posted by Eve on 10 Jun 2010

Why is anyone surprised that Big Business will use the Big Lie to protect its profits. As always the call for profits overcomes any and all ethics. These people will and have lied, cheated and stolen for greed. They will continue to do so as long as Mammon is the god of commerce.

Why should they care if the globe gets warmer and millions of humans and countless animals have their lives shortened or directly killed by Global Warming? They and their friends won’t be damaged. They will build survivable enclaves have the huge amount of money needed to defend them from the starving masses. They could not and do not care one whit about the environment we live in but only about the environment, physical and economic they live in.

I can only wish there was a way to stop these lying thieves but I fear there is not. They understand the art of propaganda or have hired the advertizing flacks that already do know how to get people to behave against their self interest. The rest of us, endowed with a conscience, but not with an unlimited fortune, can do very little to actually minimize the emissions of greenhouse gasses. Producing an inventory of these pollutants is underway but
will be too little too late.

We can be cheered by the realization that life on this planet has been hammered almost into extinction several times in the geologic past but has eventually recovered. Life will survive but humans and their technical civilization may not.

Posted by Greg Warner on 11 Jun 2010

Doubt is the Scientific Method.

Posted by Prof P C Patton on 11 Jun 2010

"Doubt is the Scientific Method. "
Prof P C Patton.

Only when harnessed in the pursuit of clarity, not obfuscation.

Posted by R Christie on 11 Jun 2010

I would offer one small correction. The Right Wing Think Tanks, or more properly the Wrong Wing Un-think tanks don't promote free market solutions to environmental problems--carbon taxes, effluent fees, and other ways of internalizing externalities. They deny the problems exist or claim the solution is worse then the problem. And with Senator Inhoax and many a senseless burning congressman they have had just enough allies to stop any real action on climate or even energy. Getting the 1990s Fred Seitz article about climate that was laid out the look like a National Academy of Sciences paper was just the tip of the iceberg, or perhaps heating pad.

Lee Schipper, Ph.d.
Stanford and Berkeley

Posted by Lee Schipper on 13 Jun 2010

No matter how effectively the Deniers convince the politicians to ignore the global warming problem it probably will not make a difference. I believe we are past the tipping point and global warming is inevitable as the warming oceans release CO2 along with man’s combustion of carbon based fuel. In addition I this will happen a lot faster than most predictions. I expect to live long enough to see definite changes and I am now 64. As the curse goes, “may we live in interesting times.”

Posted by Greg Warner on 01 Jul 2010

Note that most of the think tanks mentioned are partially funded by Koch Industries and ExxonMobil. See in particular the Greenpeace report on Koch at http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/campaigns/global-warming-and-energy/polluterwatch/koch-industries - Tom Gray, American Wind Energy Association

Posted by Tom Gray on 11 Jul 2010

The issue of global warming really strikes right at the heart of what it is to be a human. Industrial civilisation emerged from the west and has successfully converted pretty much the entire world. Western civilisation, in turn, is largely influenced by Jude/Christian thinking and one of the core beliefs that cause the current trouble can be found in Genesis 1:26 where man has dominion over the world. This meant that when the 15th century Italian accountants invented the system of double-entry book keeping that is still the core method of running our economies today and which has the concept of “balance” at its heart, they simply didn’t think there was any cost involved in using the Earth’s resources or services.

That might have been an ok assumption if our numbers had remained in the hundreds of million but certainly doesn’t work with a global population of near 7 billion. Just as you wouldn’t dream of running a multi-million turnover corporation the same was as you manage a mom & pop store, we simply have to update the way we account for our economic activity to take account of the cost of pollution, be it carbon or other forms.

And remember, the economy runs on the purchase decisions of individuals: never doubt your power.

Posted by Harold Forbes on 28 Sep 2010

This is an interesting article concerning the funding of climate science. Science on both sides is bought and paid for by interested parties.


Posted by Rick Haines on 19 Oct 2010

alyce santoro comment on 10 Jun 2010 is a tactic I've successfully used with friends who are deniers regarding any human influence on climate change: focus on the pollution, which people can see with their own eyes. When I lived in China in Tianjin and Beijing for a few years in the late 1980's, on still winter days I could go outside and hold my hand out, then watch it turn black remarkably quickly, largely due to the heavy reliance on coal, not only for power generation, but back then, a great many people burned coal in their homes for both cooking and heating, plus many offices and business had coal-burning space heaters. Now I live in central Bangkok, and some days the air pollution is so thick that although the skies are clear in terms of weather, you can barely discern the Sun.

People sometimes are susceptible to that approach, even if they remain convinced that claims by the vast majority of the world's climate scientists are all built on Al Gore's fevered dreams.

Posted by Mekhong Kurt on 01 Nov 2010

That's just why governments are so eager to finance global warming scientists. Denying
environmental problems would be impossible. But it's possible to divert the attention of the public from John Smith who is pumping pollutants in the atmosphere or from Pablo Juarez who's clearing the forest to an indefinite moltitude of responsibles of global warming against whom a not existing global authority should take action.

Posted by Carlo Castellani on 16 Apr 2012

Comments have been closed on this feature.
naomi oreskes and erik m. conwayABOUT THE AUTHORS
Naomi Oreskes is a professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego. Erik M. Conway is the author of several books, including Atmospheric Science at NASA: A History. They are co-authors of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.



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