The Case Against the Skeptics Stirring Up the Warming Debate

The recent controversy over hacked e-mails in the climate science community has emboldened global warming skeptics who dismiss the notion that humanity is dangerously heating up the planet. But James Hoggan, founder of the Desmogblog, is taking on the deniers, accusing them of cynically obfuscating an issue long ago settled by mainstream science.

Four years ago, public relations executive James Hoggan began looking more deeply into the issue of global warming. The more he read, the clearer it became that the overwhelming majority of the world’s scientists, representing the globe’s leading scientific institutions and academies, agreed on the basic facts: The world was heating up rapidly, industrial activity was driving much of that warming by pumping heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and continued temperature rises threatened the relatively stable climate under which civilization had flourished for the past 12,000 years.

Yet despite this near-unanimity in the scientific community, Hoggan realized that some segments of the mainstream media and an overwhelming majority in the conservative media were telling another story: The world might not be warming, and even if it is, that could be a good thing. Little evidence exists that humanity is influencing climate, the story line went, and spending billions of dollars to tackle a problem that might not exist is folly.

Hoggan began looking into what he describes as a well-funded and highly

Jim Hoggan

organized PR campaign designed to do one thing: sow doubt among the general public about the reality of global warming, thereby staving off government regulation of greenhouse gases. The more he looked, he says, the more outraged he became, leading to the creation of the well-known Desmogblog — whose stated mission is “Clearing the PR Pollution that Clouds Climate Science” — and a new book, entitled Climate Cover-Up.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360 senior editor Fen Montaigne, Hoggan discusses the hundreds of millions of dollars that oil and coal companies and conservative foundations have spent to spread the message of doubt; describes the ersatz grassroots organizations or “astroturf groups” that were created to front the interests behind the skeptics’ campaign; excoriates those scientists who he says are often unqualified but who have taken up the banner of global warming skepticism; and concludes that one day these deniers will look as foolish as the scientists who once claimed that smoking did not cause cancer.

Speaking of the forces behind the campaign to belittle global warming, Hoggan said, “I think they have a lot to answer for today, and they will have a lot more to answer for down the road.”

Yale Environment 360: I wanted to talk to you first about this so-called “Climate-gate” that has been in the news, which has a lot to do with public relations. First of all what is your opinion of this controversy, and how much damage do you think this has done to the effort to persuade the general public about the seriousness of global warming?

Jim Hoggan: I do think it has done some damage. You know, that said, I would caution that from the conversations I’ve had with climate scientists about this, it certainly doesn’t reflect on climate science. It’s not in any way undermining the consensus that climate change is a serious problem and that we need to be doing something about it. That said, you know, some of the people there were very frustrated with the attacks from these climate change deniers and I think they reacted in ways they shouldn’t. So you know, I wouldn’t want to go very far defending some of the things that were said in these e-mails, but it really doesn’t have anything to do with whether climate change is actually happening.

e360: But from the point of view of a public relations person, if you look at this very organized and well-funded lobby that has for 20 years tried to purposely sow doubt about the inconclusiveness of the scientific proof of global warming, this has been a gift to the so-called denier camp.

“We had a lot of difficulty finding legitimate climate scientists who say that climate change is not a problem.”

Hoggan: Absolutely, it will be a longtime vehicle because they have so much difficulty on the science side that they need to look for anything they possibly can use to reinforce their message, which is a message of doubt. Over the four years that we were doing research into Climate Cover-Up we had a lot of difficulty finding legitimate climate scientists who say that climate change is not a problem. There are very, very few of them out there. You know this debate — we consider it a fake debate — is basically a confusion campaign that has been initiated by these people that’s taking place not in the scientific literature, it’s taking place in mainstream media. So people have the impression that there is this raging debate among climate scientists about whether or not climate change is happening, but that is actually not true at all.

e360: Do you see in the fingerprints on this so-called “Climate-gate” some of the tactics that have been used in previous, if you will, disinformation campaigns?

Hoggan: Yes. These kind of aggressive, no rules, everything-is-up-for-play kind of tactics. That is the style that these folks use. And the other thing that I think is very familiar is that they are extremely quick off the mark on these things. You would think that they had been working on a campaign to get this information out for months, it came out so quickly, and they were so quick all over the world, you just basically see publicity everywhere. So there’s something very, very fishy here. That said, I mean, there is no excuse for some of the things that people were writing about.

e360: You mentioned earlier that a recent Pew poll shows that the percentage of Americans who believe that global warming is a serious problem has dropped from about 71 percent to 57 percent.

Hoggan: Yes.

e360: Now it is a fact of physics that CO2 and greenhouse gases heat the Earth’s atmosphere. How can it be that after so many years of this debate, there is still such confusion?

Hoggan: Well, you know, just from a public relations point of view, facts and opinions are very, very different. And people’s opinions are based on a lot more than just facts. They’re based on beliefs, they’re based on lack of understanding, there may be science literacy issues. I mean there are a lot of people out there who believe that humans and dinosaurs walked the Earth together. So there is a lot of scientific misinformation out there. So people have very strong views about things that have no scientific validity at all. I think this is one of them.

e360: And the sizeable percentage who now either don’t think global warming is a problem or don’t think man is responsible, how much of that attitude can be attributed to this campaign of deliberate sowing of doubt? Has this campaign been successful in that it is now really confusing the public?

Hoggan: Yes. You can have an opinion that is contrary to the facts that if you continue repeating enough, people will come to agree with. Especially if they don’t actually understand the scientific basis for this concern about climate change. And that’s what the climate change denier industry has been so successful at, is creating what you might call an echo chamber of messages. Maybe the most recent one is this idea that the Earth is actually not warming anymore, it’s cooling. And that has been repeated so many times that quite large numbers of people are actually starting to think that. And it’s just the repetition of it that’s enough. It’s not true at all. But it’s what people would like you to believe from these industry front groups. The key focus of their campaign is to create doubt. That’s really their strategy. And they have been very, very successful at it.

e360: When you look at the doubt that has been sown in the public’s mind, what portion of that do you lay at the doorstep of this industry that has set about to create this doubt, and how much do you blame the mass media for poorly covering this issue of global warming?

“We should be pressuring reporters to ask these so-called skeptics tougher questions about their scientific credentials.”

Hoggan: I would certainly blame this climate change denial industry far more than I would blame the media, but mainly because I think that their intentions are clearly deceptive. To have doubt as your objective, your communications objectives, there is something, in my mind, wrong with that. Being incompetent, which is more what we’re talking about with the media, and being understaffed, or uninformed, or not well-educated on science — those are more competence issues, and I think that that’s a lot less blame-worthy in my mind. Nevertheless, I think we should be pressuring reporters to start asking these so-called skeptics tougher questions about their scientific credentials, the science that they are publishing, and who’s funding them.

e360: Do you think there’s a direct line of descent between the climate denier industry and the same techniques that were used to create doubt about the scientific findings about tobacco?

Hoggan: Yeah, I think these public relations techniques that are used to sell doubt were born in the advancement of the Sound Science Coalition, that group that was put together by Phillip Morris. And later a lot of companies from the oil and gas industry joined, like Exxon, and they basically started to hone their techniques and declare war on science.

e360: Although it’s ironic that this resurgence of doubt in the public is occurring at a time of precipitous warming, of the Greenland ice sheet melting, the contraction of Arctic sea ice, the warming of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The physical evidence of warming is mounting by the day, yet at the same time, doubt is increasing in the public.

Hoggan: The history of propaganda is not a history of people understanding issues better. The history of propaganda is the history of misunderstanding. It’s the history of misdirection. You know we look back at the days when the tobacco industry was claiming that there was no scientific consensus of a link between tobacco and cancer — we know what that was about now.

e360: Do you think at some point — two, three decades down the line — when the Earth is even hotter, the melting at the poles is more rapid, that people will look back with the same clarity on the reality of climate change and the obfuscation of the denier campaign?

Hoggan: I would not be wanting to invest anything in the futures of the reputation of the American Petroleum Institute. Or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. I think they have a lot to answer for today, and publicly they will have a lot more to answer for down the road.

e360: If you step back and look at the lobbying groups, the front groups, and the corporations, that have been most active in funding and spreading this campaign of doubt about global warming science, what are the top three, four, or five that have been in the forefront of this industry of doubt?

Hoggan: Well, one of the biggest organizations is a group called Americans for Clean Coal Electricity. They were behind the clean coal campaign. They were behind hiring Bonner & Associates to fight the Waxman-Markey [climate] bill. And because they hired Bonner & Associates, I think they have to take some responsibility for the behavior of that company, which was caught forging letters from legitimate seniors groups and using those forged letter to try and persuade elected officials in Washington to oppose the Waxman-Markey bill. Also the American Petroleum Institute. They have an ongoing campaign against climate science and they were caught this last summer stacking anti-Waxman-Markey meetings with employees from oil companies, and scaring them with misinformation about the cost of a tank of gas and quite dishonest campaigning messages. I guess the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. There’s a real job of spin going on there I think because on the one hand they say they’re very supportive of controlling greenhouse gas emissions and then, on the other hand, they resist any attempt to do it.

e360: You mentioned in your book that a group called “Americans for a Balanced Energy Choices” — it’s now become the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity — spent $40 million in the most recent presidential campaign to promote clean coal.

Hoggan: That money was basically used to kind of brainwash people into thinking that there is such a thing as clean coal.

e360: Do you have a rough estimate of how much money has been spent over the last two decades to fund and spread this campaign of doubt about global warming science? It’s obviously in the tens of millions of dollars.

Hoggan: I would say hundreds of millions.

e360: Funded primarily by whom?

Hoggan: It’s a wide range of companies. You could basically go onto the members’ list of the American Petroleum Institute. You could go to Western Fuels Association was one of the original funders of this. The coal industries, the [Charles G.] Koch Foundation, which is another big funder. Exxon Mobil is a big funder. Basically the utilities industry, the coal industry, and the oil and gas industry. And manufacturing.

e360: Is there not behind all of this spending and behind these messages a very strong current of doing all that is possible to avoid any government regulation, be it of tobacco or CO2 emissions? Isn’t this about a very conservative philosophy about fighting any kind of effort to regulate things that might be hurting human health?

There’s nothing in those e-mails that should make anyone worried about whether the science behind climate change is real.”

Hoggan: I think that the crowd behind this is, some of it is just pure business interest. But some of it is also ideological. So some of it is anti-government, right-of-center political philosophies, groups who are libertarian groups, right-wing media. The part that interests me the most is this whole industry-funded, what we call astro-turfing, which is fake grassroots organizations where you set up a group, like the Americans for Clean Coal Electricity. It sounds like it’s some kind of community group. Well, it’s not. It’s an industry group that presents themselves as something that they’re actually not. That I find really kind of distasteful and I think it kind of poisons public conversations around solving problems like climate change. Some of the other groups that are more ideological, I can understand. I mean I don’t necessarily have a problem with somebody who is right of center and doesn’t believe in government interference in various things. They have a right to think what they think and say what they say.

e360: You said something very interesting which is that everyone has a right to their own opinions, but everyone does not have a right to their own set of facts.

Hoggan: That’s right. There’s a difference between an opinion and findings from a scientific study that has been peer-reviewed and refereed and made its way into a legitimate scientific journal.

e360: If you’re looking at reasons why public doubt about global warming science at least in the United States is on the increase, one could look at 24-hour cable, where you have people like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, who are repeating these falsehoods like the Earth is cooling, when in fact it’s warming in the last decade. Like you said, an echo chamber. It seems for people trying to spread doubt, the current cable news, talk radio, Internet environment is a perfect environment.

Hoggan: Absolutely. And the think tanks and these other industry front groups are fabulous sources of news and comment because, you know, Rush Limbaugh needs somebody to interview. Basically I think that there was a big effort on the part of extreme right-wing thinkers to set up a kind of an infrastructure like this in the United States where you have these think tanks and you have these media that are sympathetic to these extreme anti-government points of view. So you can actually create this type of echo chamber. It works. And when they become anti-science, they become really problematic.

e360: You mentioned this this debate about how temperature graphs over the past century do look like a hockey stick, temperatures humming along at a certain level and then spiking. Many studies show this, yet there was a tremendous attack on that as well, right?

Hoggan: Yes. It’s a very good example, the hockey stick. It was actually a couple of Canadian researchers who went after Michael Mann and his hockey stick, and showed that there was some kind of statistical anomaly in his calculations, which really didn’t have much of an impact on the final results of his research. They just jumped on this and tried to magnify it into something that it really wasn’t. So rather than being honest, you get this over-focus on trying to actually take this problem in the Mann hockey stick and turn it into some kind of conclusive evidence that climate change isn’t happening. They use this kind of stuff all the time. They’re doing the same type of thing right now with the e-mails scandal. There’s nothing in those e-mails that should make anyone worried about whether the science behind climate change is real.

e360: How would you characterize the oil companies now in their support of these denier efforts?

Hoggan: I think they continue to fund these front groups. They are members of the American Petroleum Institute, which is a huge supporter of these front groups, and as I mentioned earlier, was caught stacking fake public rallies across the country. Well, the efforts of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, there is oil money behind that. In Canada there is the Friends of Science, there is oil money behind that. These groups who are carrying this kind of anti-science climate-change-isn’t-happening-message, this is not anything that is taking place within the scientific community, this is a PR campaign, that continues to be funded by oil and gas, coal, and utilities.

e360: Could you briefly list the favored techniques for getting this message across?

Hoggan: The number one is astro-turfing, and that is basically setting up fake grassroots organizations to create a credibility you wouldn’t have if you were just speaking as an oil company. The next one is a version of that, we call it ventriloquism. And it’s basically where you as an oil executive, you wouldn’t be believed if you went out and said, “Climate change isn’t happening.” So you set up one of these phony grassroots organizations, you hire a scientist who is willing to say almost anything for a paycheck, and they go out and they basically say what you couldn’t say with any credibility. So essentially they’re saying climate change isn’t happening.

e360: The upshot of all of these campaigns is what? What is the impact on policy, on action, etc.?

Hoggan: It creates a massive, widespread doubt. And it makes it extremely difficult for political leaders or business leaders who want to do the right thing, to do the right thing on climate change.

e360: And so you think that explains this paralysis that exists in much of the world for action about reining in emissions?

Hoggan: That is a large part of it.

e360: As an experienced PR man, if you had to advise the climate scientists, the conservation groups, the public relations people involved in the effort to convey the urgency of global warming, what do you do differently to try and better convey the message that this is real, it’s urgent, and action needs to be taken?

Hoggan: I would say don’t be afraid of repetition. Keep it simple. And focus on solutions. Don’t get caught up in presenting yourself so that you might be seen as an environmentalist. I think Obama does a fabulous job of talking about climate change. He talks about climate change, but the focus is on the opportunity. There’s clean technology jobs, there’s clean technology, there’s a technological future. America has done such an incredible job with computer technology and digital technologies and communications technologies. Why couldn’t we be developing these kinds of green technologies, energy-efficient technologies, and leading the world in these kind of technologies? There is a big opportunity there.