What is the connection between the referendum on our membership of the European Union, climate change denial and fracking?
Well, by and large it is the same set of politicians who are engaged in the Brexit campaign who do not accept climate science and who promote hydraulic fracturing for unconventional gas. Climate science is uncontentious mainstream science which shows that the Earth is warming and that the current warming trend is caused by humans burning fossil fuels – including unconventional gas – and that it is potentially dangerous. Misrepresenting climate science to the public, and indeed Members of Parliament, subverts our democratic process which can only function based on good information.
The scientific consensus on climate science is challenged by some politicians such as Lord Lawson and Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg MP . Indeed, it is UKIP policy to deny climate science and burn more fossil fuels. The vested interests of the fossil fuel industry have for decades secretly funded climate scepticism and a sector of politicians have picked it up and run with it. For example, Dr Julia Reid MEP (UKIP) regularly berates the European Parliament with climate change myths. Roger Helmer MEP (UKIP) has spoken twice at the Heartland Institute’s climate change denial conference presenting climate science as a EU power grab, as has local journalist Christopher Booker. Christopher Monckton (formally of UKIP) goes so far as to equate climate science with “global communist tyranny”. These misrepresentations of science are well and truely in Flat Earth territory.
The funding of science denial by the fossil fuel industry is starting to unravel with Exxon Mobil’s role now being legally challenged. Peabody Energy’s recent filing for bankruptcy is uncovering another can of worms with funding of organisations and individuals to promote climate change denial. Closer to home Lord Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) is embroiled in similar accusations.
Lord Lawson is the chairman of the GWPF and was formally chairman of the Vote Leave campaign. The GWPF is regarded in the science community as a dangerous joke with the President of the Royal Society saying on climate change Lawson has “lost his way” whilst Sir David Attenborough says “I think that most people would recognise that Lawson is up a gum tree“. FFCV analysis has shown that the GWPF is as much about promoting shale gas as it is about global warming denial. Judging from the content of the VoteLeave leaflet which dropped through doors the other day, Lawson is bringing his considerable skills at spreading misinformation to the Brexit debate. Nissan is apparently taking legal action over the same leaflet.
EuroActive.com: Brexit campaign leadership dominated by climate-sceptics
The Economist: Where Brexit and climate-change scepticism converge
DesmogUK: Brexit Climate Deniers
For a more detailed analysis of these issues we are republishing the following article by John Cook of the University of Queensland.
A brief history of fossil-fuelled climate denial
The fossil fuel industry has spent many millions of dollars on confusing the public about climate change. But the role of vested interests in climate science denial is only half the picture.
Interest in this topic has spiked with the latest revelation regarding coalmining company Peabody Energy. After Peabody filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, documentation became available revealing the scope of Peabody’s funding to third parties. The list of funding recipients includes trade associations, lobby groups and climate-contrarian scientists.
This latest revelation is significant because in recent years, fossil fuel companies have become more careful to cover their tracks. An analysis by Robert Brulle found that from 2003 to 2010, organisations promoting climate misinformation received more than US$900 million of corporate funding per year.
However, Brulle found that from 2008, open funding dropped while funding through untraceable donor networks such as Donors Trust (otherwise known as the “dark money ATM”) increased. This allowed corporations to fund climate science denial while hiding their support.
The decrease in open funding of climate misinformation coincided with efforts to draw public attention to the corporate funding of climate science denial. A prominent example is Bob Ward, formerly of the UK Royal Society, who in 2006 challenged Exxon-Mobil to stop funding denialist organisations.
The veils of secrecy have been temporarily lifted by the Peabody bankruptcy proceedings, revealing the extent of the company’s third-party payments, some of which went to fund climate misinformation. However, this is not the first revelation of fossil fuel funding of climate misinformation – nor is it the first case involving Peabody.
In 2015, Ben Stewart of Greenpeace posed as a consultant to fossil fuel companies and approached prominent climate denialists, offering to pay for reports promoting the benefits of fossil fuels. The denialists readily agreed to write fossil-fuel-friendly reports while hiding the funding source. One disclosed that he had been paid by Peabody to write contrarian research. He had also appeared as an expert witness and written newspaper op-eds.
The bigger picture of fossil-fuelled denial
Peabody’s funding of climate change information and misinformation is one episode in a much larger history of fossil-fuel-funded misinformation. An analysis of more than 40,000 texts by contrarian sources found that organisations who received corporate funding published more climate misinformation, a trend that increased over time.
The following figure shows the use of the claim that “CO₂ is good” (a favourite argument of Peabody Energy) has increased dramatically among corporate-funded sources compared with unfunded ones.
In 1991, Western Fuels Association combined with other groups representing fossil fuel interests to produce a series of misinformation campaigns. This included a video promoting the positive benefits of carbon dioxide, with hundreds of free copies sent to journalists and university libraries. The goal of the campaign was to “reposition global warming as theory (not fact)”, attempting to portray the impression of an active scientific debate about human-caused global warming.
ExxonSecrets.org has been tracking fossil-fuel-funded misinformation campaigns for more than two decades – documenting more than A$30 million of funding from Exxon alone to denialist think tanks from 1998 to 2014.
Exxon’s funding of climate science denial over this period is particularly egregious considering that it knew full well the risks from human-caused climate change. David Sassoon, founder of Pulitzer Prize-winning news organisation Inside Climate News led an investigation into Exxon’s internal research, discovering that its own scientists had warned the company of the harmful impacts of fossil fuel burning as long ago as the 1970s.
Even Inside Climate News’s revelation of industry’s knowledge of the harmful effects of climate change before engaging in misinformation campaigns has precedence. In 2009, an internal report for the Global Climate Coalition, a group representing fossil fuel industry interests, was leaked to the press.
It showed that the coalition’s own scientific experts had advised it in 1995 that “[t]he scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO₂ on climate is well established and cannot be denied”. Nevertheless, the organisation proceeded to deny climate science and promote the benefits of fossil fuel emissions.
Ideology: the other half of an “unholy alliance”
However, to focus solely on industry’s role in climate science denial misses half the picture. The other significant player is political ideology. At an individual level, numerous surveys (such as here, here and and here) have found that political ideology is the biggest predictor of climate science denial.
People who fear the solutions to climate change, such as increased regulation of industry, are more likely to deny that there is a problem in the first place – what psychologists call “motivated disbelief”.
Consequently, groups promoting political ideology that opposes market regulation have been prolific sources of misinformation about climate change. This productivity has been enabled by the many millions of dollars flowing from the fossil fuel industry. Naomi Oreskes, co-author of Merchants of Doubt, refers to this partnership between vested interests and ideological groups as an “unholy alliance”.
Reducing the influence
To reduce the influence of climate science denial, we need to understand it. This requires awareness of both the role of political ideology and the support that ideological groups have received from vested interests.
Without this understanding, it’s possible to make potentially inaccurate accusations such as climate denial being purely motivated by money, or that it is intentionally deceptive. Psychological research tells us that ideologically driven confirmation bias (misinformation) is almost indistinguishable from intentional deception (disinformation).
The fossil fuel industry has played a hugely damaging role in promoting misinformation about climate change. But without the broader picture including the role of political ideology, one can build an incomplete picture of climate science denial, leading to potentially counterproductive responses.