Climate realists are fighting an uphill battle against professional climate disruption deniers who have media bias, time, money, and an apathetic public on their side.For the other posts in this series, click here.
Today scientists are as certain about the threat of industrial climate disruption as they are about tobacco smoke causing lung cancer, yet neither the United States nor the broader international community has made any significant progress toward addressing the disruptions expected as a result of the Earth’s changing climate. The question is why.
When we look at the public discussion of industrial climate disruptionA (aka global warming or climate change), it’s clear that the playing field is not level. It’s very clearly slanted in favor of peddlers of deceit like Tom Harris, Executive Director of the International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC), and his fellow professional climate disruption deniersB for four main reasons. First, the media prefers publishing disinformation that’s interesting to publishing uninteresting “me too” articles. Second, professional climate disruption deniers simply have more time and money available with which to push their disinformation. Third, writing disinformation is remarkably easy when you’re not inhibited by facts, yet correcting the disinformation is difficult partly because it requires strict adherence to the facts. And fourth, Harris et al are peddling disinformation that people want to hear, rather than an unpleasant reality that they need to hear.
The media prefers interesting disinformation to boring reality
There are four main reasons why the media has a bias toward accepting disinformation. First, disinformation tends to run counter to conventional wisdom, and that makes disinformation seem new or controversial. The media, driven by an endless need to draw attention in order to support advertising revenues, have always craved the new and interesting, but controversy draws eyeballs to videos or articles even more effectively. The classical example of this is that the story “Dog Bites Man” doesn’t get published but “Man Bites Dog” does. With respect to climate disruption, Harris’ false claim that climate science is still “rapidly evolving” sounds controversial when compared to the accurate perception that global warming is actually a mature scientific theory, so the media would naturally see Harris’ disinformation as an opportunity to draw attention and the associated advertising revenues.
Second, once a media outlet runs a piece filled with disinformation, they’re going to resist running a correction or retraction if someone can prove the original piece is wrong. Admitting error is never pleasant and running a correction is embarrassing because it means that the media outlet either lacked the ability or the interest to fact check the original piece. It’s even more embarrassing to run a full retraction because that means that the media outlet has to admit it got hoodwinked by the original piece.
That said, if you can convince a media outlet to run a correction or retraction, the editors and journalists at the media outlet are very unlikely to forgive and forget. This is what happened with Climategate in November 2007. What looked bad initially was later shown by multiple investigations to be nearly completely innocuous. This is part of why every subsequent attempt to fabricate another controversy like Climategate, ranging from the release of additional emails in 2010 (initially dubbed “Climategate 2.0”) to the recent brouhaha over adjustments to surface station temperature measurements has failed to get traction outside of the strictly partisan and denialist media like Rush Limbaugh, Christopher Booker at the Telegraph, and Breitbart News. The editors and journalists who initially got hoodwinked by Climategate remember being burned and have no interest in repeating the experience.
Third, corrections represent a net loss for the media outlet. Not only are they an embarrassment that might damage the outlet’s reputation, they also take a journalist’s and/or editor’s time to write and publish. That time could be “better” spent generating new content that will draw fresh eyeballs, rather than drawing a small fraction of the original eyeballs. Not only that, but on a newspaper or news website the correction takes up valuable print area that could also be drawing in new readers, and a correction on a radio or video media uses time that could be put to more effective use.
Finally, smaller, local media outlets often lack the resources to employ dedicated science or environmental journalists and are thus less likely to be able to differentiate between fact and fiction on technical subjects like climate disruption. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and other major news outlets have editors and journalists who either have the experience to know when they’re being fed disinformation or they have enough scientists in their contact lists that they can get help filtering fact from fiction. Most smaller media outlets don’t have this kind of access (although the Climate Science Rapid Response Team was formed to help address this problem with respect to climate science). It’s no coincidence that Harris’ commentaries were all aimed at smaller media outlets. The largest was the Deseret News in Utah, which had a daily circulation of about 100k in 2012, most of whom are Mormons (the News is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints).
Time and money are both tilted in favor of climate disinformation
With respect to climate science, the professionals who are spreading disinformation (like Harris) have access to significantly more resources than the climate realists who are correcting and rebutting the disinformation. First off, there is a whole lot more money in fossil-fuel related industries than there is in all of government climate research and every climate and environment/conservation-focused non-governmental organization (NGO) combined. In 2013, Charity Navigator estimated that environment/conservation NGOs received a total of $9.72 billion. The fiscal year 2013 budget for all agencies associated with the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) was $2.38 billion. For comparison, S&R calculated in 2010 that fossil-fuel related industries (extraction, transportation, and burning of fossil fuels) had about $9 trillion of revenues in 2008. Just the Forbes 500 companies had $371 billion in profits on about $6.5 trillion in revenues. Assuming the profits scale linearly, that would be about $513 billion in profit over the full $9 trillion of revenues globally for all fossil fuel-related industries. That’s more than 40x more profits in fossil-fuel related industries than donations to environmental NGOs.
Now, not all that profit is directed toward crafting disinformation for public consumption, but even if a small percentage of it is, that’s still a significant financial advantage. After all, the Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, and League of Conservation Voters are involved in far more than just climate activism. And the scientists funded under the auspices of the USGCRP are primarily researchers, not public relations professionals.
Which brings us to the second resource that the professional deniers have more of than climate realists – time. In my experience, nearly every climate realist who spends time debunking disinformation like Harris’ commentaries has a day job doing something else. Most are engaged in scientific research or some other trade, not public relations. This means that people like Harris, Joanne Nova, Anthony Watts, Christopher Monckton, S. Fred Singer, and others can focus exclusively on misinforming the public while the people who refute them do so largely on their own personal time – mornings, evenings, and weekends.
Fabricating disinformation is easy – rebutting it is hard
Harris’ first commentary at YourHoustonNews was 715 words long (exclusive of title, headings, and byline). The longest versions I’ve seen to date (at the Heartland Institute) was 835 words long. I estimate that it probably took Harris between four and eight hours to craft the original commentary and then another four to eight hours total to modify the original commentary enough to fit within word limits, address any copyright concerns, and tune the language to match the readership of each of the other seven media outlets.
By contrast, my five part refutation of Harris’ commentaries contains about 11,000 words and took about 80 hours total to research, write, and publish. That’s about 14x more words and between five and ten times longer than my estimate of Harris’ original effort.
This illustrates another advantage the peddlers of disinformation have – disinformation is fast and easy to generate but slow and difficult to correct. After all, spreading disinformation can be as simple as generating a list of plausible-sounding talking points, choosing the ones that match today’s intended message and audience, and then repeating them over and over again on subsequent days and weeks. Harris (with Willie Soon and Bob Carter) did this very thing on February 18 in Westmoreland Times op/ed titled Scientific fraud underlies global warming scare. This op/ed contains the extensively debunked “carbon dioxide (CO2 is plant food” talking point and the (also widely debunked)”global warming is an artifact of corrections to the temperature measurements” talking point, amon others.
Rebutting disinformation, however, requires someone who understands the difference between fact and fiction to explain a) why the disinformation is fiction and b) what the facts actually are. For example, it took Harris about 30 words to accuse anyone who uses the word “denier” of an ad hominem logical fallacy, but it took me 80 words – and a reference to a 1,200-word post exclusively on the word “denier” – to correct his disinformation. Refuting his deceptive and unproven assertion that climate science is “rapidly evolving” took me hundreds of words because I had to prove not only that he was wrong, but that I was right. Anytime someone spreads disinformation that has to be corrected with actual proof, the correction is going to take more time and effort than spreading the original disinformation did. And while the original disinformation is being corrected, Harris or someone else like him has generated yet more disinformation to be corrected.
People are inclined to believe disinformation if it tells them what they want to hear
Consider the two following examples:
We all need to drive less and eat less meat. We need to buy expensive LED light bulbs instead of the cheap incandescent bulbs. We need to spend more money on electricity and heating our homes and businesses. We need to tell people who have been flooded out of their homes that they’re not allowed to rebuild and that they have to move to higher ground and away from the only homes they’ve ever known. We need to get used to not being able to ski at our favorite ski areas some winters. If we don’t make a bunch of changes the world our children will inherit from us will be worse than the world we inherited from our parents.
There’s no need to change your habits – drive as much as you want and enjoy that steak. Only replace your bulbs if you think it saves you money overall. We should keep building coal and natural gas power plants so we can keep electricity cheap. Go ahead and rebuild in that floodplain and along that shoreline – the government can always build more levees and truck in more sand to keep your brand new homes safe for next time. There’s no evidence that your favorite ski areas will ever run out of snow, so don’t worry about that either. Everything’s fine as it is and your kids will be better off when they grow up than you are now.
Which would you rather believe, the first example or the second? The best available science says that the first example is closer to the reality of industrial climate disruption than the second, but most people, including me, would prefer to believe the second example. And this is perhaps the biggest advantage that Harris and his fellow peddlers of deceit have – they’re selling a comfortable and pleasant fiction that people want to believe, rather than selling an uncomfortable and unpleasant reality that no-one really wants to believe.
Harris and his fellow peddlers of deceit have four major advantages working in their favor. The media is biased toward their disinformation, they have lots of both time and money to spend, fabricating talking points is both easy and fast, and the public wants to hear their message. It’s easy to see why the USA and the international community have made so little progress toward addressing industrial climate disruption. The advantages are so significant that I estimate it takes between 10 and 20 climate realists to correct the output of each and every professional climate disruption denier.
But there is one advantage that the peddlers don’t have – physics. Physics doesn’t care about media biases, money, political ideology, personal biases, or even truth. Physics doesn’t care whether we want to believe in it or not. And physics always has the last word. The problem is that, if we don’t stop listening to the peddlers of deceit and start listening to physics, that last word may well be one we don’t want to hear.
- Industrial climate disruption: the position that climate is changing, that the emission of greenhouse gases by human industry is the dominant driver of those changes, and that the changes will almost certainly be disruptive to human society and global ecology
- Climate disruption denier: someone who denies that industrial climate disruption is supported by multiple independent lines of evidence and is derived from well established physical laws
- Climate realist: someone who accepts the overwhelming data demonstrating that industrial climate disruption is real