Do Skeptics ‘Reposition’ Warming as ‘Theory’ or Do Alarmists ‘Reposition’ Fear as ‘Fact’? Revisiting an Urban Legend

by Marlo Lewis on March 21, 2014

in Blog

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How many times have you heard climate activists claim skeptics are just latter-day “tobacco scientists?” Google “tobacco scientists” and “global warming,” and you’ll get about 1,110,000 results. With so much (ahem) smoke, surely there must be some fire, right?

Al Gore helped popularize this endlessly repeated allegation. In An Inconvenient Truth (p. 263), he contends that just as tobacco companies cynically funded corrupt scientists to cast doubt on the Surgeon General’s report linking cigarette smoking to cancer, so fossil fuel companies fund “skeptics” to create the appearance of scientific controversy where none exists.

Here’s the pertinent passage:

The misconception that there is serious disagreement among scientists about global warming is actually an illusion that has been deliberately fostered by a relatively small but extremely well-funded cadre of special interests, including Exxon Mobil and a few other oil, coal, and utilities companies. These companies want to prevent any new policies that would interfere with their current business plans that rely on the massive unrestrained dumping of global warming pollution into the Earth’s atmosphere every hour of every day.

One of the internal memos prepared by this group to guide the employees they hired to run their disinformation campaign was discovered by the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Ross Gelbspan. Here was the group’s stated objective: to “reposition global warming as theory, rather than fact.”

This technique has been used before. The tobacco industry, 40 years ago, reacted to the historic Surgeon General’s report linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer and other lung diseases by organizing a similar disinformation campaign. 

One of their memos, prepared in the 1960s, was recently uncovered during one of the lawsuits against the tobacco companies in behalf of the millions of people who have been killed by their product. It is interesting to read it 40 years later in the context of the global warming campaign:

“Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing controversy.” Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company memo, 1960s

There’s just one problem with this tale of corruption and intrigue — much of it is false and all of it is misleading. Let’s examine the flaws in this urban legend, going from minor to major.

First, Gore’s alleged source, Ross Gelbspan, is not a Pulitzer Prize winner. Gelbspan’s 1997 book, The Heat Is On, supposedly exposes how fossil fuel companies and conservative politicians collude to “confuse the public about global warming.” The jacket of the book describes Gelbspan as a “Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist.” But former JunkScience.Com blogger Steve Milloy searched the list of Pulitzer journalists, and found that Gelbspan was not among them. Gelbspan later claimed only to have conceived, directed, and edited a series of articles that won a Pulitzer in 1984.

Second, Gelbspan was not the source of Gore’s story. Gore discussed the leaked documents in his 1992 book, Earth in the Balance (p. 360), which was published five years before Gelbspan’s book. So how did Gore find out about it? Blogger Russell Cook notes that the documents were first “reported in a 1991 New York Times article which claimed they came from an unnamed source at the Sierra Club.”

Why did Gore credit Gelbspan with breaking the story? Who knows! Maybe because information sourced to a “Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter” sounds credible even if the reporter neither won a Pulitzer nor broke the story.

Third, Gore gives the false impression that ExxonMobil and other oil companies were part of the “group” behind the “disinformation campaign” supposedly revealed in the memo that Gelbspan supposedly “discovered.”

The memo was one of several documents drafted by an ad hoc group calling itself Information Council for the Environment. ICE was a project of Southern Company (an electric utility) and Western Fuels Association (a non-profit supply cooperative of consumer-owned electric utilities). No oil companies were involved.

Fourth, the documents are not an adopted plan to “reposition” global warming but a proposal to “test market” the effectiveness of such messaging.

The actual objectives of the project were to:

1) Demonstrate that a consumer-based media awareness program can positively change the opinions of a selected population regarding the validity of global warming.
2) Begin to develop a message and strategy for shaping public opinion on a national scale.
3) Lay the solid groundwork for a unified national electric industry voice on global warming.

The plan was never developed, much less implemented. As the 1991 New York Times article reported, different members of the electric utility industry took different positions on climate change:

The utility industry is divided on the question of global warming. Two California utilities, Southern California Edison, the nation’s second-largest utility after the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and the Los Angeles Water and Power Department, the largest municipal company, volunteered in May to cut their carbon-dioxide emissions by 20 percent in the next 20 years. Most of the savings, they said, would come from efficiency improvements in lighting, motors and cooling that would pay for themselves.

The Arizona Public Service Company, which serves Flagstaff, declined an invitation to participate in ICE. Mark De Michele, president and chief executive, did not reply to repeated phone calls seeking comment. But he told The Arizona Daily Sun in May, “The subject matter is far too complex and could be far more severe than the ads make of it for the subject to be dealt with in a slick ad campaign.”

The Edison Electric Institute, a utility trade group based in Washington that also helped organize the ICE campaign, takes the position that because of the possibility that climate change is a real threat, steps should be taken to cut carbon-dioxide output if those steps are justifiable for other reasons — for example, saving money through higher efficiency or reducing the output of sulfur dioxide from power plants. That chemical causes acid rain.

Some of the advertising messages test-marketed in Flagstaff, Ariz., Bowling Green, Ky., and Fargo, N.D., were just plain goofy. From the Times article:

In Bowling Green, an ad showed a cartoon horse in earmuffs and scarf and said, “If the Earth is getting warmer, why is Kentucky getting colder?” Another, with a cartoon man bundled up and holding a snow shovel, appeared in Minnesota and substituted “Minneapolis” for “Kentucky.”

Did any skeptical scientists endorse those messages? No. As the Times reported, Patrick Michaels, Robert Balling, and Sherwood Idso, the ICE science advisory panel, “said in telephone interviews that the salient element in two of the ads, that some areas might be getting cooler, did not contradict the theory of global warming.” The article also reported that Balling and Michaels “have both asked to have their names removed from future mailings.”

Indeed, as Gelbspan acknowledged in his book, “Michaels has insisted that he dissociated himself from the ICE campaign when he learned of what he called its ‘blatant dishonesty.'” When Balling and Michaels pulled out, the ICE project collapsed. So much for the grand fossil-fueled conspiracy.

Fifth, there is no shame in repositioning as theory that which is not fact.* The “repositioning” memo is dated May 15, 1991 — not long after publication of the IPCC’s First Assessment Report. The FAR did not declare anthropogenic global warming to be a fact. Rather, it stated: “The size of the warming is broadly consistent with predictions of climate models, but it is also of the same magnitude as natural variability. Thus the observed increase could be largely due to this natural variability….The unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect is not likely for a decade or more.”

It was not until four and a half years later, in the Second Assessment Report, published in November 1995, that the IPCC famously concluded: The “balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate.” Note too that even this iconic formulation is not an assertion of what is demonstrably true, only an assessment of what the “balance of evidence” “suggests.”

From 1979 to 1991, two of the three main data sources — satellites and radiosondes (weather balloons) — showed no warming or even a slight cooling trend in the bulk atmosphere (troposphere). It was the land record that was the odd man out. Given that radiosondes were calibrated to measure global temperature and the satellites were specifically designed for that purpose, while the surface network was designed to measure agricultural weather, which should objective scientists trust least?

In 1998, the Remote System Sensing (RSS) team led by Frank Wentz discovered an orbital decay-induced spurious cooling in the University of Alabama-Huntsville (UAH) satellite record. The UAH scientists corrected their record, the balloon record was also revised, so all three records showed a warming trend. Only at that point did global (as distinct from urban or local) warming become a “fact” — a trend confirmed by multiple independent observations. But then, irony of ironies, global warming plateaued in the RSS record, and “the pause” has persisted for 17 and a half years.

Even today, calling anthropogenic global warming a “fact” — meaning conclusively demonstrated — would still be an exaggeration.

A study published last year by Benjamin Santer and colleagues in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), alluding to the IPCC’s iconic attribution statement, proudly proclaimed “clear evidence for a discernible human influence on the thermal structure of the atmosphere.” Since 1979, the troposphere (middle atmosphere) has warmed (albeit less than predicted) while the stratosphere has cooled. This observed pattern matches the model-predicted vertical structure (“fingerprint”) of anthropogenic climate change.

Santer in an interview with PNAS explains why his fingerprinting study is evidence of anthropogenic warming. If the Sun were responsible for global warming, then the stratosphere should also get warmer. Instead, it has cooled, which is consistent with the hypothesis that rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the troposphere are trapping more heat that would otherwise radiate out to space through the stratosphere.

Such evidence, however, is not conclusive, as Santer et al. seem to acknowledge through their careful — perhaps artful — choice of words. A “discernible human influence” can include the cooling effects of manufactured substances, chiefly hydroflourocarbons, that destroy ozone in the stratosphere. Ozone is itself a greenhouse (heat absorbing) gas. So some significant part of stratospheric cooling could be due to ozone depletion rather than to greenhouse gas emissions trapping more heat in the troposphere. A study cited by the Santer team, led by one of its co-authors, acknowledges that possibility:

In the mid and upper stratosphere the simulated natural and combined anthropogenic responses are detectable and consistent with observations, but the influences of greenhouse gases and ozone-depleting substances could not be separately detected in our analysis.

Sixth, when read in context, “reposition as theory, rather than fact” refers not to anthropogenic warming per se but to the prediction “that higher levels of carbon dioxide will bring a catastrophic global warming.” For example, an ICE document quotes then University of Virginia climatologist Patrick Michaels: “I am one of many scientists who believe the vision of catastrophic global warming is distorted.”

The key climate science question for policymakers and citizens is not whether anthropogenic global warming is real but whether, in Al Gore’s words, climate change is “a planetary emergency — a crisis that threatens the survival of civilization and the habitability of the Earth.” The climate alarm narrative was not a “fact” in 1991 and certainly is not today.

Mounting evidence indicates that the climate is substantially less sensitive (reactive) to greenhouse gas emissions than “consensus” science had assumed. The oft-asserted link between warming and extreme weather continues to elude researchers. More importantly, the climate trilogy of terror — ocean circulation collapse, rapid ice sheet disintegration, and runaway climate change (the methane “bomb”) — has far less scientific plausibility today than it did in 1991.**

Gore and other climate campaigners have been trying for decades to reposition fear as fact. Their j’accuse directed at skeptics is Orwellian.

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* In colloquial English, a “theory” is any supposition or hypothesis, which may or may not jibe with “facts” or observations. In strict scientific parlance, however, a “theory” is the highest form of cognition. As one commentator explains:

A theory is really one of the pinnacles of science – what nearly everyone strives to make out of their hypotheses. A hypothesis is elevated to a theory when it has withstood all attempts to falsify it. Experiment after experiment has shown it sufficient to explain all observations that it encompasses. In other words, a “theory” has never been shown to be false, despite – usually – hundreds if not thousands of separate attempts to break it. It explains the observations with one or more mechanisms and, because it provides that mechanism, it is considered to be above the level of a Law.

** For references to the peer-reviewed literature, see pp. 23-26 of the free-market organizations’ comment letter on the social cost of carbon.

mememine69 March 21, 2014 at 7:02 pm

32 years of “95%” certainty is what feeds the doubt and denial so why can’t science be 100% certain that THE END IS NEAR before it’s too late when unstoppable warming finally does arrive? Nobody can be certain until science is.

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