The climate change debate is complicated. Unscientifically sound challenges to the validity and severity of climate change have misdirected public debate from effecting governmental policy change. People like Frank Luntz explicitly advocate questioning the validity of climate change to help win elections, and Exxon Mobil has funded multiple efforts to encourage professionals to do the same. These exploits, confessed and documented respectively, have contributed to the public’s perception that the debate on climate change is still open.
In the meantime, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change went about creating its most comprehensive report yet, assimilating the efforts of 2,000 scientists in a resounding consensus that asserts humans created climate change and that it will get worse. Yet the climate change debate continues. Even though the IPCC report was received as a veritable demand for action in other nations, America has instead been embroiled in debate over the existence of climate change, leaving the next generation to bear the increasingly heavy burden of alleviating the worldwide catastrophe.
To show that the climate change debate has been misdirected, it must be first be assumed that climate change is occurring. The IPCC report should serve as proof of that, considering its breadth of information assembled and the overwhelming number of scientists contributing from all over the world. The report even admits that some of the IPCC’s past assessments had made a few faulty predictions, showing that these scientists are not above admitting fault.
Yet what the report does claim is that it is either “likely” or “more likely than not” that human activity contributes to increases in “heavy precipitation events,” the “area affected by droughts,” “intense cyclone activity,” and the “incidence of extreme[ly] high sea level.” It is either “likely,” “very likely,” or “virtually certain” that these trends will continue into the next century. There is another explicit warning: “continued greenhouse gas emissions at or above current rates would cause further warming and induce many changes in the global climate system during the 21st century that would very likely be larger than those observed during the 20th century.” The consensus on climate change is nearly universal, as the IPCC report illustrates. The report also contributes recommendations for action to the climate change debate.
Exxon Mobil makes the most explicit example of an attempt to extend the climate change debate. As reported by the Inter Press Service News Agency, Exxon Mobil “contributed nearly 16 million dollars between 1998 and 2005 to a network of 43 advocacy groups that questioned the increasingly solid consensus that greenhouse emissions contribute to climate change” in an effort to “deliberately spread disinformation about climate.” This multitude of groups serves to make claims discrediting climate change resonate, given the assumption that climate change would be a weaker theory if multiple sources attacked it.
The article describes an “echo chamber” in which a questionable scientific source will have its research expounded and repeated by a variety of media outlets. Thus the disinformation spreads exponentially, as there are many groups making reports, and each report can be name-checked by various opponents of climate change. For example, Sallie Baliunas wrote a paper “alleging that temperatures have not changed significantly over the past millennia,” which can be used by innumerous pundits, despite the fact that its sources have claimed their research was misinterpreted.
The article also reports that the American Enterprise Institute, largely funded by Exxon Mobil, requested that companies give “‘logistical and moral support’ to dissenters from the growing scientific consensus regarding the human causes of climate change, ‘thereby raising questions about and undercutting the ‘prevailing scientific wisdom.’’” This makes extremely clear the intentions of Exxon Mobil; while pundits claim to be waiting for “all the evidence to be in,” behemoth corporations fund scientists to create studies that question climate change. As reported in the Guardian, the AEI also offered $10,000 each to scientists and economists “to undermine” the findings of the IPCC report.
Although Exxon Mobil’s motives may be fairly obvious, I’ll let Naomi Oreskes begin the discussion. In “Global Warming – Signed, Sealed, and Delivered,” she wrangles with the ability of rogue scientists to deny new contemporary ideas. Speaking in the generalities of history, she says, “In any scientific community, there are always some individuals who simply refuse to accept new ideas and evidence. This is especially true when the new evidence strikes at their core beliefs and values.”
Since it is an American corporation, the core value of Exxon Mobil is profit. As a corporation it has a legal imperative (read: encouraged by the laws of our government) to increase its capital for the sake of its shareholders. Any scientific report that links a side effect of its product, being the greenhouse gasses released in the burning of gasoline, to harm to the environment would have a detrimental effect on its profits. The IPCC report suggests that a significant lessening of the release of greenhouse gases needs to occur to curb the effects of climate change, and capping those emissions would be extremely costly to the corporation. So it is understandable why Exxon Mobil would attempt to defend itself by attacking the validity of the IPCC report, but its efforts are based solely to purport its own profit at the expense of the world, literally.
As a more subtle exercise in prolonging the “debate” over the existence of climate change, the memo “The Environment: A Cleaner, Safer, Healthier America” outlines ways in which politicians can redirect discussion of the environment to win political favor. One of the prefaces Luntz lays out in the overview is that, “a compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth.” While this statement was not made in specific relation to climate change, it exposes the troubling truism that politicians will create whatever narrative they have to in order to gain votes. If the story of climate change is not a desirable tale to bear, since it is fraught with the implications of changing the way Americans live, then it may not be as compelling (read: appealing, or having an irresistible effect) as the story of a sun spot causing the rise in global temperature.
The first strategy in directing the climate change debate is to assert that “the scientific debate remains open.” Luntz elaborates saying, “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate, and defer to scientists and other experts in the field.” This is where the corporate sector participates in some mutual back scratching: Exxon Mobil funds the research that continues the debate over climate change, and politicians use that research to justify their positions on deregulation. Through this symbiotic relationship, politicians can herd in voters by ignoring policy change, and Exxon Mobil can continue to reap record profits.
This is where the climate change debate ends: the media, that place where all of the corporately manufactured information and political procrastination are filtered through to average citizens. Saturated with pseudo-scientists, politicians who appease their most charitable [sic] campaign financers, and difficult to discern “real” or “independent” researchers, the public debate has not broken through to the reality of the problem. If the media were actually beholden to the consensus of the IPCC report, then the American public would in the majority believe in the occurrence and severity of climate change.
They would be discussing how to solve the problem, but since the majority of America is not yet at that point, then there is no pressure on our politicians to even consider discussing anything, let alone what. Without the threat of being dethroned by their constituencies, politicians are not obliged (nor compelled, unless there were some anomaly of corporate prodding) to address the issue.
Distraction has proved to be a useful tactic in combating the inconvenient truths of climate change. In an effort to sustain its own profitability, Exxon Mobil funds research that is strong enough to create debate over the existence of climate change in the media that clamors for such “controversy.” Politicians perpetuate this debate in their attempt to justify deregulation and inaction over climate change. But what about those of us who actually believe the scientific majority (the people who know what they’re talking about)? Public policy change remains a distant thought when discussion is bogged down in the morass of the American media.