This is part of my LIS 101 lecture series. I will teach the information/media literacy component of a 12-hour superclass on global warming. I will teach research skills and provide cultural, scientific, historical, and political background in order to help college freshmen understand our current course of inaction. If you are interested, please look at the other diaries in this series.
By and large the comments and suggestions of Kossaks much smarter than I have been extremely informative and helpful. I thank you on behalf of my students. Please keep the suggestions coming!
A Brief Look at Typical Arguments Against Anthropogenic Global Warming
According to Dunlap and McCright’s Challenging Global Warming as a Social Problem: An Analysis of the Conservative Movement's Counter-Claims the conservative movement and its think tanks play a large role in "denying the reality and significance of anthropogenic global warming.” Shortly after James Hansen’s 1988 testimony to Congress that the science was fairly certain and that we needed to start taking action to prevent the worst effects of manmade climate change, the campaign to undermine the science began. The denial machine is a sophisticated, pro-business, politically active, and well-funded network of thinktanks, lobbyists, editorialists, and bloggers. We’ll talk more later in the semester about how they are connected and how they get their message out. But for now we are going to talk about the specific kinds of arguments that they make.
The first time we really started hearing about global warming on the news or in mainstream publications was in 1989. I was about to graduate from highschool. The reason it made its way into the mainstream was because a NASA scientist named James Hansen had appeared before Congress to tell them about global warming. Specifically, that the evidence was quite convincing that humanity was driving it via its means of energy production and industry. There was an explosion of coverage about the idea between 89 and 90, and the coverage by and large sought the opinions and judgments of practicing scientists. As time went on, global warming dropped out of the popular press for the most part, but when it DID appear, there was an increased likelihood that the coverage would not be focused on scientists but on politicians, economists, or think tank spokespeople. According to the Dunlap and McCright:
As the proponents of global warming theory eventually lost media dominance, the "skeptics" and politicians critical of the scientific evidence gained more visibility in the media (Lichter and Lichter 1992, p. 3; McComas and Shanahan 1999, p. 48; Wilkins 1993, p. 78). The prevalence of the "dueling scientists scenario," the tendency of most science-related news articles to cite scientists with opposing views, probably contributed to this shift in news coverage of global warming. Many researchers assert that the rising skepticism also reflected the entry of political sources, especially members of the Bush administration, into the media debate (Lichter and Lichter, p. 3; McComas and Shanahan, p. 51; Nissani 1999, p. 36; Trumbo 1995, p. 26; Ungar 1992, p. 494). Media attention eventually began to decrease after 1990 to levels lower than the peak coverage in 1989, but higher than the level prior to 1988 (Ungar, p. 493; Williams and Frey 1997, p. 298).So what were these non-scientists and skeptical scientists saying? This handy chart taken from the McCright and Dunlap article summarizes the core arguments that climate change skeptics make:
The evidentiary basis of global warming is weak and even wrong.
The scientific evidence for global warming is highly uncertain.
Mainstream climate research is "junk" science.
The IPCC intentionally altered its reports to create a "scientific consensus" on global warming.
Global warming is merely a myth or scare tactic produced and perpetuated by environmentalists and bureaucrats.
Global warming is merely a political tool of the Clinton Administration.
Global warming would be beneficial if it were to occur.
Global warming would improve our quality of life.
Global warming would improve our health.
Global warming would improve our agriculture.
Global warming policies would do more harm than good.
Proposed action would harm the national economy.
Proposed action would weaken national security
Proposed action would threaten national sovereignty
Proposed action would actually harm the environment.
Science writer Christie Aschwanden further noted what climate scientist Sean Carroll called the “denialist playbook.” Carroll pointed out that the arguments against global warming mostly follow the same basic pattern:
1. Doubt the Science
(i.e.: It is warming on Mars too!)
2. Question the scientists’ motives and interests
(ie: Those scientists have to say that global warming is happening so they can keep getting grant money!)
3. Magnify legitimate, normal disagreements among scientists and cite gadflies as authorities.
(i.e.: Publishing leaked drafts passed between scientists before a final report is peer-reviewed and published, and making claims based on unfinished work. See also, using S. Fred Singer as a source.)
4. Exaggerate potential harms.
(i.e.: If these scientists have their way, we will all be living in caves again!)
5. Appeal to personal freedom.
(i.e.: Who is the government to tell me what kind of light bulbs to use? OR We’re Americans! We don’t do things because the UN tells us to!)
6. Show that accepting the science would represent the repudiation of a key philosophy.
(These scientists just want a government nanny state that tells us what to do.)
It is interesting to note how closely this playbook adheres to the blueprints provided by various think tanks, lobbyists, and political strategists. According to Rick Piltz’s The Denial Machine, in which he discusses the 1st Bush administration’s propensity to listen to political advisers and lobbyists before scientists:
In so doing, the administration became part of what I later termed thePiltz later outlines one of the specific planks of global warming denialism and its origin:
global warming denial machine. Outside of government, political operatives working for policy groups and 'think tanks', funded by corporate sponsors, most notably ExxonMobil, the largest US oil company, sought to undermine the essential conclusions reached by the leading climate scientists. Making use of a small number of 'contrarian' scientists whose views they found convenient, they succeeded in elevating their views in the political arena, in the media, and with public opinion, far out of proportion to their standing in the science community.
In 1998, a 'Global Climate Science Communication Action Plan' developed at the American Petroleum Institute (the leading trade association and lobbying arm of the US oil industry) by industry representatives and political operatives with advocacy groups, laid out a media relations campaign in which contrarian scientists would be recruited, trained, and deployed to promote an air of scientific uncertainty about global warming. 'Victory will be achieved when average citizens "understand" (recognise) uncertainties in climate science,' the plan concluded. Thus, a method pioneered decades earlier by the tobacco industry was to be applied to fighting the battle against climate change regulatory policy. It wasn't necessary for them to 'win' the debate about the reality of anthropogenic global warming; rather, it was necessary only to create the appearance of a deeply divided science community, thus helping to dissipate the will to action among political leaders and the public. When the Bush-Cheney administration came to power in 2001, this campaign was able to move directly into the White House.Though this playbook was established over 20 years ago, the arguments against taking action on global warming still take this shape. When you read articles that claim global warming is not happening or is not driven by humankind, check for the kinds of arguments made above. I am willing to bet you will find them.