Climate change: Why is the public so confused when the science is so certain?

Photo: Dawn Ellner

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) just released a new report titled “What We Know.” The report has a singular objective: to clarify exactly where the scientific community stands on climate change. According to the report, 97 percent of climate scientists believe that global warming is real and caused by humans. With such a large majority of scientists in agreement on this topic, it may seem odd that there is so much public confusion.

“We have to turn the tide. We have to get information out there that is scientifically-rich and credible, and communicate on the same playing field that people who have other interests are doing as well,” noted Dr. Marshall Shepherd in an interview for the American Association as part of the What We Know Report.

Behind the confusion

In 1992, a lesser known document was published, titled “Bad Science.” It was developed for use by the tobacco industry, which was knee deep into its fight to keep smoking in public places. Second hand smoke had been linked to cancer, which meant smoking no longer just impacted the individual smoker but everyone else around them.


This was clearly not good for business. Tobacco companies were already very familiar with how to deal with problems that came out of science. “Bad Science” was meant to be a summarization of what to do when an industry is at the threat of losing profits due to scientific findings.

This tactic has been coopted by the fossil fuel industry in regards to climate change. Central to this strategy has been the development of a network of think tanks, experts for hire, and media that have created a false equivalency between these groups and credible scientific institutions.

A prime example of an industry funded propaganda organization is the think tank The Heartland Institute. The Heartland Institute was founded in 1984 by David Padden. Based in Chicago, it markets itself as a libertarian think tank.

Heartland initially came to national attention for its role in the fight over second hand smoke. To this day, it continues to extol the idea that second hand smoke does not cause cancer. While Heartland has ceased identifying individual donors, they received roughly $395,000 USD dollars from the tobacco company Phillip Morris.


These days, they have made themselves prominent on the issue of climate change. This July they will hold the 9th International Conference on Climate Change in Las Vegas, where they will host talks on climate change. Their line up is made up almost exclusively of climate deniers including the likes of Willis Eschenbach whose credentials include a bachelors degree in pyschology and a massage therapy certificate.

Forbes magazine consistently published work by those associated with Heartland, and a 2012 document leak revealed that Heartland was worried about how they had begun publishing work by climate scientist Peter Gleick. Joseph Bast (CEO of Heartland) has been amongst the Heartland representatives consistently represented in Forbes. Bast holds no scientific credentials.

In 2012, Heartland directly paid three of the largest names in climate denial: Craig Idso ($11,600 a month), Fred Singer ($5,000 a month), and Robert Carter ($1,667 a month). In the meantime, they have received up to $531,000 from Exxon Mobil, which as an oil company has a vested interest in preventing action on climate change. Singer will be speaking at the conference in July.

By having individuals with research credits, an organization can claim to have a legitimate scientist on their side. Singer, Carter, and Idso are paid to hold their opinions on climate change. This undercuts their credibility. The reason tenure exists in academia is so that a professor can take an intellectual stand on an issue without the risk of being fired. Tenured climate scientists are paid whether or not their work suggests warming occurs.

One of the highest level authorities on climate science is the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC was established by the United Nations Environmental Program and the World Meteorological Organization. Their reports on climate change are largely considered to be the gold standard by scientists in the field.

An IPCC report is one of the largest reviews of scientific literature in the world. Their reports are written by 500 lead authors and reviewed by 2,000 expert reviewers, all of whom are unpaid volunteers. In addition, each line of these reports must be agreed upon by all participating countries. It goes through three stages of review.

These include countries that have an economic interest in stalling the development of climate change policy, such as oil producers like Saudi Arabia and the United States. In comparison Heartland puts out the NIPCC (nongovernmental international panel on climate change) report, which has three paid lead authors (Carter, Singer, and Idso), and eight reviewers. They do not follow the same process of scientific review as the IPCC.

False balance in the media

The media has not helped on this issue. Numerous cases of a false equivalency problem on climate change (as well as other scientific issues such as vaccinations) exist in the media. False equivalency is when two sides are presented on an issue, despite the fact that one side is objectively correct. Some media outlets such as Fox News have out right mis-reported on the issue to create this false balance.

In September 2013, Fox News claimed that the NIPCC had published a brand new report debunking climate change. However, the NIPCC report had been discredited by Climate Science Watch and the scientists at Real Climate. Furthermore, the report was four years old, and was just being translated into Chinese.

The AAAS hopes to break up the confusion on climate change with new efforts. The most recent IPCCreport concluded that the impacts of climate chance will be far reaching and dangerous.

The U.N. even recently released a report explicitly stating that climate change is impacting the planet now, raising the risk of hunger, floods, and conflict.

Still industry backed forces like the Heartland Institute seek to stall action on climate change. The more media outlets like Forbes give them a microphone and allow them to cast doubt on the established science of climate change, the harder it will be for meaningful action to take place.

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