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Climate Hustle

Exxon climate revelations are just part of a long history of science misinformation

Posted on 16 November 2015 by John Cook

The ConversationA recent investigation by Pulitzer Prize winner Inside Climate News has uncovered damning activity by fossil fuel company Exxon. Long before they supplied millions of dollars to conservative think-tanks who misinformed the public about climate science, Exxon’s own scientists informed them of the scientific consensus that fossil fuel burning would cause disruptive climate change.

This echoes past activity of the tobacco industry, who knew from internal research about the health consequences of smoking but nevertheless funded misinformation casting doubt on the link between smoking and cancer. The same misinformation tactics employed by the tobacco industry are used by the fossil fuel industry.

Even the same spokespeople defending tobacco have also attacked the science on climate change. Given the obvious parallels between the activities of the tobacco and fossil fuel industries, the New York Attorney General has issued a subpoena further investigating Exxon’s activities regarding climate change.

Measuring scientific consensus

Research published in 2010 by Uri Shwed and Peter Bearman offers further insight into one aspect of the tobacco and fossil fuel misinformation campaigns. Their study was concerned with the question of scientific consensus – how do we know if and when a consensus forms?

The authors looked at how scientific papers reference other papers, known as citations, in order to construct a network of scientific research. Scientists mostly cite papers they agree with. Consequently, a network of papers where there is scientific consensus will look quite different to a network where there is still ongoing debate.

When the scientific community is undecided about an issue, the published literature will show different “communities” of papers citing each other. In network terms, the community shows higher modularity (in other words, it’s “clumpy”). As scientific consensus forms on an issue, the structure of the community evolves from distinct groups into a single, united community (and the “clumpiness” smooths out).

With the assumption (based on empirical research) that papers mostly cite papers they agree with, Shwed and Bearman took a purely mathematical approach to quantifying consensus, without having to read the content of all the published research. This eliminated the need for domain experts to manually categorise scientific research, as well as removed any possible bias from people who are manually analysing the content.

They looked at the evolving consensus on several scientific issues but we’re interested in two in particular: the consensus linking smoking to cancer and the consensus linking human activity to climate change.

The consensus on climate change followed a “spiral” trajectory where scientific agreement on the major question of human causation was initially settled in the early 1990s. From that point, scientific investigation narrowed (or spiralled) onto more specific questions (for example, the behaviour of clouds in a changing climate or better understanding of regional climate change).

Measure of scientific disagreement about climate change Shwed & Bearman, 2010

This result matches what we found in our analysis of climate papers from 1991 to 2011. There was already a strong consensus that humans were causing global warming in the early 1990s that only strengthened over time.

In contrast, scientific research into the link between smoking and cancer took a cyclical trajectory. Initial evidence linking smoking to cancer emerged in the late 1950s. However, the debate in the published research ebbed and flowed for decades before scientific consensus eventually solidified.

Measure of scientific disagreement on smoking causing cancer Shwed & Bearman

Comparing misinformation tactics

The differing evolution of consensus between these two issues tells us about one difference between the misinformation campaigns waged by the tobacco and fossil fuel industries.

The tobacco industry cooperated closely to fund publishable, but biased research, prolonging the debate in the scientific literature for several decades. It is easy to design smoking studies to find no significant effects, and hard to prove errors in their work, so they were able to inject many such papers into the literature.

It is much harder to do that with climate science, given public measurements, conservation laws of physics, and well-established theory. Consequently, the fossil fuel industry placed more emphasis on PR campaigns through think-tanks and political leaders.

Our own analysis of 21 years of published climate research found that peer-reviewed research rejecting human-caused global warming has had a negligible presence in the scientific literature over the last few decades. The science consensus had already formed, but of course the public consensus had not.

Unfortunately, both approaches have effectively delayed action for decades. Both had excellent lobbyists. Both employed front groups and for-hire think tanks as those grew in the 1990s. Both used whatever media were available, starting with print and radio, and now the Internet. Both funded public misinformation campaigns long after their own scientists had discovered the truth.

Public antipathy to the tobacco industry increased strongly as it became clear that the industry knew about links to cancer decades earlier. It will be interesting to see if similar revelations about the fossil fuel industry yield similar changes in the public viewpoint.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Comments

Comments 1 to 13:

  1. My apologies for not putting this snippet of news in the above post but I have only just become aware of it.  It appears the NSW government is advising councils to no longer follow the predictions of the IPCC on climate change and sea level rise when considering applications for building.  The Planning Minister has advised he will be announcing  “a much more scientific and evidence-based ­approach … it reflects recognition that what is happening on the coast is a product of what is happening to the sand off the coast,” he said.

    “We will be integrating coastal management and planning with what is happening in the adjacent seabed.”   The reference is here.  

    It will be interesting to see if similar changes to other IPCC predictions result in changes in the public viewpoint.

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Here is Ryland's "above post". I deleted it by mistake. My apologies to Ryland and everyone else reading this thread. 

    Mr Cook, you make this comment with regard to the Tobacco and Fossil Fuel industries:

    "Both had excellent lobbyists. Both employed front groups and for-hire think tanks as those grew in the 1990s. Both used whatever media were available, starting with print and radio, and now the Internet".

    Isn't this exactly what the proponents of AGW also do to get the message across?  Isn't it rather hypocritical  to condemn the tobacco and fossil fuel industries for doing what the IPCC and sites like this also do?

    In fairness, you do go on to say "Both funded public misinformation campaigns long after their own scientists had discovered the truth".  There are many outside the community of climate scientists, who, while perfectly sure climate change is happening, are not convinced humans are as much to blame as is suggested by politicians and climate scientists.  See examples here and here. These people may well be and from their comments indeed are,  of the opinion that they are subject to "public misinformation campaigns"  and that the truth has yet to be discovered

  2. Not quite sure what point you are aiming to make there, Ryland @ #1.

    If you are stating that promoting a lie is no better or worse than promoting truth . . . then you are simply being absurd. If you are stating that knowingly promoting a lie is no better or worse than unwittingly promoting a lie . . . then you are simply being absurd, also.

    For a quarter-century or more, there has been "nowhere to hide" for the climate-science deniers who would wish sincerely to consider their viewpoint somehow valid. And even a half-century or more, for the tobacco-science deniers.

    Being duped by propaganda is a separate matter ~ but nobody is seriously suggesting that it is the "dupes" who are deliberately funding the science-denying propaganda.

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  3. ryland, what "for-hire think tanks" do you believe "proponents of AGW" employed? NASA?

    What industry do you believe has been 'funding a public misinformation' campaign to promote the existence of global warming? Where is your evidence of the big payments this group (the Illuminati?) has made to Fourier, Tyndall, Arrhenius, Callendar, Keeling, and other scientists who have been building this 'false story' for the past 200 years?

    As to NSW, the article you linked requires a site-subscription to view, but others on the subject quote the same man as saying, "Changes to climate are likely to intensify our existing hazards", and give the impression that what he is advocating (and it is apparently being hotly disputed, rather than the settled government policy you suggest) is a change to  local beach maintenance regulations from the 70s - rather than anything to do with the IPCC at all. Which makes sense, given that the IPCC reports don't even have that kind of district planning guidance in them. Basically, it looks like you have just fallen for yet more propaganda... frauds recasting an announcement about local government organizational minutiae into a slam on the IPCC.

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  4. The New York Times article referenced below details how Exxon's own research in 1995 concluded CO2 emissions were causing global waarming.  The link still works.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/24/science/earth/24deny.html

    “Back in the 90s, the Global Climate Coalition, led by ExxonMobil, did fund scientists to determine the cause of global warming. GCC’s own scientists concluded that human emissions of GHGs were responsible so they promptly squelched that report and began funding front groups to deny the science and to confuse the public.

    But a document filed in a federal lawsuit demonstrates that even as the coalition worked to sway opinion, its own scientific and technical experts were advising that the science backing the role of greenhouse gases in global warming could not be refuted.”

    “The 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,” the experts wrote in an internal report compiled for the coalition in 1995.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Fixed link

  5. CBDunkerson @3, the NSW Coastal Planning Guideline that is being superceded is this one, implemented under the previous Labor government in 2010.  The discontent by developers over the Guideline was a requirement that councils take into account the benchmark for sea level rise of "... an increase above 1990 mean sea levels of 40cm by 2050 and 90cm by 2100."  It also required councils to advise developers on present and future hazards.  The Liberal/National Coalition government that superceded it in March 2011, and modified the Guidline with a circular to councils.  That made, as near as I can tell, the reporting of future hazards optional for councils, and required that any future hazards be identified as future hazards.  Thus the change is that, under the first policy the reporting of future hazards was mandatory, while it was optional that they be identified as future hazards; while under the policy as of 2012 (ie, the issuance of the circular) the reverse was true.

    The current change to the policy, under the Baird Liberal/National Coalition government will require that greater account be taken of local conditions.  It does not challenge the benchmark of sea level rise, nor dispute it.  Indeed, under the O'Farrell L/NP govenment, the NSW Chief Scientist issued a report those benchmarks, saying:

    "In considering the science behind sea level rise benchmarks, the one constant that emerges
    is change. The way the science has been used to determine benchmarks is adequate, given
    the current level of knowledge. However, for some years to come there will be more and
    better models for predicting sea level rise which will be informed by more and better data
    enabled by rapid advances in sensing, positioning, computational and imaging technologies."

    and:

    "In 2009 the then NSW Government developed two benchmarks - for 2050 and 2100 sea
    level rise. Overall, the approach was one whereby projections for global sea levels at the
    middle and end of the 21st century were added to other more regional estimates for these
    time periods, as well as a global accelerated ice melt factor. This methodology is similar to
    that used in other jurisdictions in Australia and around the world, with some international
    jurisdictions utilising more extreme climate modelling approaches to explore possible worst
    case scenarios."

    Despite Ryland's fantasies, there is no indication that the review will reduce expectations of sea level rise built into the new benchmarks.  Indeed, given that the old benchmark was based on the IPCC TAR (2001), it is more likely that they will increase that expectation.  What it will do is make allowance for locations like Newcastle, where due to ongoing subsidance the local effective rise in sea level is likely to be larger than that indicated by the benchmark, while also allowing that for some other locations in NSW, they may also be slightly less.

    It is only denier politicians and media playing this up as a rejection of IPCC predictions.  In fact, and because it is purported to be science based, it is nothing of the sort.

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  6. Tom Curtis  I am well aware of your disdain but what I wrote was not fantasy but fact substantiated by appropriate references.  Are you saying thr comment by Mr Stokes that the draft regulations "recognise that the coastline is dynamic and ever-changing, rather than static" is fantasy? Or is it fantasy that the goverment is intent on changing the existing criteria, that are based on IPCC predictions, for assessing coastal development  Or that the emails to which I referred are fantasy?  Or it is fantasy to state that a considerable and significant prercentage  of the global population is not convinced that climate change is due only to human activities?  Or is there some other statement of mine that you regard as fantasy?   

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  7. "Or it is fantasy to state that a considerable and significant prercentage of the global population is not convinced that climate change is due only to human activities?"

    It might not be a fantasy, but AGW is a fact whether it suits people to believe in it not. Similarly it is also absurb for policy-makers not to base policy on scientific consensus especially when it is strong.

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  8. ryland @6, the NSW government has a policy of replacing a planning framework that takes IPCC projected sea level rises into account using a single value for the entire state with one that takes into account IPCC projected sea level rises but allows variation across local government areas based on differences in sedimentation and erosion, subsidence and uplift and (presumably) the fact that sea level rise is partially abated as you move northward (and exagerated as you move south ward) due to uplift in northern regions related to the colission of the Australian continental plate with that of Asia.  You glossed that as "NSW government is advising councils to no longer follow the predictions of the IPCC" even though no such statement was made by the NSW government, the minister or any of the spokepeople, and indeed the minister has made statements directly contradicting that delusion.  That is your fantasy.

    You have additional fantasy's evident above in your belief that not only are their people who think "they are subject to misinformation campaigns" by people reporting the findings of the IPCC, but you think they are rational in that assessment.  In fact such people are delusional on a conspiracy theorist level - something quite evident from the facts that:

    a)  They in fact subscribe to a conspiracy theory with regard to the findings of the IPCC; and

    b)  They appear untroubled by the even more delusional conspiracy theories from the likes of Christopher Monckton.

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  9. I think you probably didn't see the piece from the Australian that stated

     

    "The initiatives mark the second phase of the Coalition government’s demolition of the previous Labor government’s policy, which among other things directed local councils on the coast to enforce the climate change and sea level rise predictions of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

    Under that regime, councils in some cases included sea-level rise warnings on the planning certificates of some seaside properties based not on what was happening on the beaches concerned — including one that is acquiring sand naturally and pushing back the sea — but on IPCC predictions.

    Many owners found that under this policy, their properties became almost unsaleable.

    “It sterilised land from development because it was a very cautious approach,” Mr Stokes said.

    The new strategy will employ scientists and engineers to look at what is happening in each of 47 coastal sediment compartments, and make that information available to councils through a new NSW coastal council.

    I think that, especially the last paragraph, makes it fairly plain the NSW government is changing the policy and will not be basing decisions on IPCC predictions but on empirical assessment of the local beaches. 

    As for your other comment, yes I'm sure there are those that consider the belief in man made climate change is akin to a religion and also there are those who believe there is a conspiracy.  Remember perception is reality so those that have these perceptions may well also consider the prophecies of doom regularly emanating from the IPCC, climate scientists and politicians to be misinformation campaigns.  Personally, I don't subscribe to those perceptions but accept that others do. 

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] For future reference, please specifiy who you are responding to. Thank you.

  10. ryland @9, I did read the piece in The Australian.  I have previously noted that The Australian's coverage of climate science bears more resemblance to propoganda than to reportage (See here and here).  The article to which you linked is a case in point.  The passages you so heavilly bold consist almost entirely of editorial content by The Australian.  The only direct quote of Bob Stokes, to the effect that the prior policy "...sterilised land from development because it was a very cautious approach" says nothing about whether or not projections of rising sea levels will be used in the new standards.  Your bolding of it, therefore, amounts to a rhetorical bluff.  The quote does not support your opinion, and the opinions of The Australian's journalist as to the reasons for and effect of the policy do not constitute reporting on the policy, but editorializing on it.

    Better is the reporting by the Sydney Morning Herald (linked above, but which you ignored) where we learn that:

    ""Changes to climate are likely to intensify our existing hazards," Mr Stokes told Fairfax Media, adding that while many of the problem areas are known, other new ones may emerge."

    Note the difference between The Australian's heavily editorialized reporting and the direct quote and attribution from the SMH.  However, 'climate change' is used as a weasel word by some deniers, so I looked further, including to the report by the Chief Scientist under the L/NP coallition which resoundingly endorses use of IPCC projections of sea level - giving a clear indication of the position of the government.  You ignored that as well.  No doubt you will also ignore the NSW governments page on the impacts of sea level rise, which so resoundingly rejects the IPCC position that it states it as the likely impact, and links to the relevant IPCC chapter. 

    Finally, I watched Bob Stokes talk introducing NARClim (the NSW government funded regional climate modelling project to aid future development decision making), in which he briefly mentions the reforms on coastal planing, saying (at 15:17):

    "Finally I just wanted to refer to coastal reforms.  Obviously one of the key impacts in relation to climate security is the impacts of rising sea levels and greater storm activity on coastline.  That's something we are dealing with through coastal reforms - effectively working with local councils to find out what the impacts are embayment by embayment of rises in sea level, and how that needs to be factored into decisions about development."

    Of course, all that must be irrelevant.  After all you have The Australian's editorializing masquerading as reporting so can turn a blind eye to everything else, including the actual opinions of the minister involved.

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  11. ryland originally (now inline @1):

    "There are many outside the community of climate scientists, who, while perfectly sure climate change is happening, are not convinced humans are as much to blame as is suggested by politicians and climate scientists. See examples here and here. These people may well be and from their comments indeed are, of the opinion that they are subject to "public misinformation campaigns" and that the truth has yet to be discovered"

    ryland @9

    "As for your other comment, yes I'm sure there are those that consider the belief in man made climate change is akin to a religion and also there are those who believe there is a conspiracy. Remember perception is reality so those that have these perceptions may well also consider the prophecies of doom regularly emanating from the IPCC, climate scientists and politicians to be misinformation campaigns. Personally, I don't subscribe to those perceptions but accept that others do."

    ryland @9 is a bit of an evasion, in that my other comment was not that he also shared those views, but that he considered them rational.  However, supose he intends it as an adequete response to my claim, ie, that he acknowledges the existence of those views without considering them rational.  In that case it completely destroys the logic of his point in his initial post.  I acknowledge the existence of people who think the Earth is flat, or that the Sun orbits the Earth.  I wouldn't dream of bringing them up as a relevant issue in a discussion such as in the OP in that their views are clearly irrational.  So what if people can only irrationally (or being deluded by others due to limited sources of information) claim the IPCC or other climate scientists indulge in "public misinformation campaigns".  That has zero bearing on the fact that documentary evidence proves that Exxon was advised by their own scientists that global warming was real, and that they then funded organizations claiming the opposite.  Indeed, the mere falseness of "those perceptions" mean that the documented behaviour by Exxon does not have equivalents from the climate science side of the debate.

    So, granted that those deluded about climate can also make a "tu quoque" which is not only a fallacy of reason, but grounded on false premises as well.  So what!

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  12. Ryland, permit me to take you to task on your comment: "Perception is reality", in Ryland @ 9 [or thereabouts ~ as the commentary enumeration has been re-jigged a little bit, in this thread].

    Perception is certainly not identical to reality . . . but, where sanity prevails, perception closely approximates reality.

    Fantasy (as exhibited by frequent propaganda pieces in The Australian) is where the perception [ of Global Warming / Climate Change ] has little overlap with reality.

    "Fantasy" [ no double entendre intended :-)  ] there includes the determined effort to deny reality . . . and is clearly a way of thinking divorced from sanity.

    I would like to be able to say candidly that it is "un-Australian" to be fantastically divorced from reality . . . but if I were to do so, then my perception would indeed be faulty. Still, we can hope ~ that in 10 years or so, The Australian will eventually embrace scientific reality in place of the [current] fantasy. Then, it will be worth subscribing to that paper.

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  13. I found a line in Ryland's article at 9 interesting:

    "Many owners found that under this policy, their properties became almost unsaleable"

    If acknowledging projected sea level rise makes properties unsalable, how long will it be before most sea front land becomes worthless?  After Katrina many inland states complained about insuring the coastline property damage  After Sandy they raised insurancce rates so that in my area (Florida) some houses had larger insurance payments than mortgage payments.  Those increases were withdrawn.  After the next hurricane will the properties become insurable?  

    Investors will notice when properties start to fall in value due to sea level rise.  It might be sooner rather than later if acknowledging sea level rise caused properties in Australia to become unsalable.  Perhaps then the conservatives will want to take action.

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