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Climate Hustle

Climate contrarians are more celebrity than scientist

Posted on 8 November 2013 by John Abraham

By now, we must all be aware that it no longer takes hard work and talent to become a celebrity. The media (and public) are drawn to loud and flamboyant caricatures, not careful and studious characters. To most this means not much more than the annoyance of hearing about the latest celebrity "scandal." But for all of us here on planet Earth, it has very real consequences.

New research clarifies exactly what those consequences are: Celebrities in scientists' lab coats have played a role in the public discourse on climate change that far outweighs their scientific credibility.

In the journal Celebrity Studies, Dr. Maxwell Boykoff and Shawn Olson trace the history of climate contrarians back to the 1980s and discuss their potential motivations and strategies. The study identifies these contrarians as a "keystone species;" climate contrarians are more influential than their scant numbers and limited expertise would suggest, and exert an outsized media impact. According to the authors, it's these keystone species that hold the ecosystem of climate denial together. Since, as we all know, 97% of climate scientists affirm the reality of human-caused climate change, what is it that motivates this handful of contrarians who make no small effort to attract so much more than 3% of the media's attention?

The 1960s and 1970s brought a wave of environmentalism through America. By the 1980s, conservatives were ready for their own counter-movement. Out of the earlier "Sagebrush Rebellion" and a desire to stem conservation efforts in the American west, the "Wise Use" movement gained prominence in 1988. The authors explain how members of trade organizations and off-roaders came together at a Christian-right conference to create "a unified platform aimed to 'destroy environmentalism.' "

This movement, the authors argue, marked the creation of the specious dichotomy of environment versus economy as well as an early example of astroturfing — when you present an organization funded and defined by corporate interests as supposedly grassroots. The "grassroots" Wise-Use movement counted none other than President of the United States Ronald Reagan among its supporters.

The Wise Use movement claimed to fight distant urban elite environmentalists on behalf of everyday rural residents. In reality, the movement itself was closely tied to and funded by urban elites and their corporations, and the movement served the business interests of these institutions. Coalescing under the auspices of free-market ideology, Wise Use argued that environmental regulations threatened the profits of companies, and insisted the residents of the environment being regulated had a right to speak out.

For those who have read about climate denial, the Wise Use language will be immediately recognizable. Accusations of "bad science," unsupported claims that environmental regulations have "been costly to people and harmful to the land," and the wholesale dismissal of the growing fields of ecology and environmental science were the staples of their rhetoric.

How has this toxic terminology fared over the years? To answer, the paper provides an interesting graph that tracks the media's coverage of various contrarian groups.

Climate countermovement presence in English-language news outlets, 1988–2012. This graphic represents nine of the 110 groups that were identified as the ‘core’ of the US climate countermovement. Years noted in parenthesis after each organization's name denotes the year of formation. Climate countermovement presence in English-language news outlets, 1988–2012. This graphic represents nine of the 110 groups that were identified as the ‘core’ of the US climate countermovement. Years noted in parenthesis after each organization's name denotes the year of formation.

One of note is the now discredited Heartland Institute, which saw a large spike in coverage during the summer of 2012. The research attributes the surge to a disastrous billboard comparing people who accept climate change to the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. This event shattered what credibility Heartland had; its corporate sponsors and board members promptly fled the group, rescinding funding and crippling its reputation in the process.

One of the groups that has held on to some credibility is the CATO Institute. This libertarian group focuses on free-market capitalism and is generally opposed to environmental regulations (as well as most other regulations).

As the authors examine some of the psychological aspects of these contrarian celebrities an additional wrinkle appears. CATO's Pat Michaels, one of the few climate contrarians with appropriate credentials, describes the Koch-funded think tank as the first place where he was employed that "people actually like me".

Boykoff explains that this sense of belonging is a recurring theme of contrarian movements and of climate contrarianism specifically. After being marginalized by the rigors of independent and objective peer-reviewed academia, contrarians move to overtly free-market focused think tanks where political beliefs trump the restrictions of scientific method and academic discourse. Through this process, they reject academic ethics and view their being ostracized as a badge of honor.

In a particularly egregious episode, the American Enterprise Institute, which is partially funded by Exxon Mobil, offered a $10,000 bounty for any papers that could cast doubt on the 2007 United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. Attempts to award a predetermined finding is so anti-science and unethical it would be unbelievable if not reported by an organization as respectable as The Guardian.

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Comments

Comments 1 to 7:

  1. Speaking from his uniquely, ironically qualified perspective, Richard Lindzen:

    "When an issue like global warming is around for over twenty years, numerous agendas are developed to exploit the issue."

    Dr. Lindzen liked the sound of that piece so well that he offered it to two different publishers, with each accepting it. One of those publishers appears to have made an exception to accomodate the duplication, taking it on over 2 years after it was originally published.

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  2. The sagebrush rebellion itself was for the most part a genuine grass-roots movement.  It lost steam after ronald reagan was elected in part because of his endorsement of one of the goals of the movement: the ceding to the states of most federal BLM grazing lands.  Unfortunately for the ranchers involved in the sagebrush rebellion, Reagan embraced it partially for economic reasons: getting rid of federal grazing lands would lead to an end of federal subsidies to ranchers who graze on federal lands.  And western states, for the most part, weren't (and aren't) nearly as generous in doling out public funds to ranchers who graze on state lands.  Once ranchers understood that winning their battle against federal control of most of western grazing lands meant they'd lose their substantial subsidy (by various measures federal grazing permits were priced anywhere from $2 to $6 per "animal grazing unit" (cow-calf pair) under market value, it's even more extreme now), their interest in seeing the feds shed these lands waned.

     

    The "wise use" movement has largely been an astroturf affair, as mentioned.  Lots of money from large mining companies, in particular gold mining (fighting looming regulations on cyanide heap leach technology, which was mostly unregulated in the 1980s).

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  3. It is weird to see religion get so involved in this anti-science fight. My hunch is that this is mainly a by-product of anti-regulation lobbies that end up using religion to manipulate people against science.

    I'm no fierce defender of my homeland Brazil - plenty of dumb problems and avoidable errors here - but here there's no debate, for example, whether evolution should be taught in schools. It simply is, as it should be. In general, science does not bother the Church (mainly Catholic here) and vice versa. I consider myself to be a fairly good catholic and no scientific knowledge bothers my faith.

    Religious right-wing politicians here (in turn mainly protestant) usually lobby against things like abortion, or gay marriage, or noise restrictions (because of loud services...) I'm not with them on these issues, but at least I think they make sense - I think that's what concerns religion.

    Religious people should not let their causes be hijacked by destructive, selfish, and utterly non-religious motives. Man, religion against environmentalism? Really?

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  4. I just don't understand the right wing of various countries and especially those in the US of A.    By and large, the Republicans and their nutty fringe, the Tea Party, seem to contain a huge proportion of religious fundamentalists.    By contrast, the Democrats, the left wing, seem rather rich in atheists and agnostics. I mean, can you imagine someone like Bill Maher in the US or Richard Dawkins in the UK belonging to the right wing. Not on your Nelly.

    In the good book that the Religious right constantly harks back to, god gave us dominion over the beasts in the fields, the birds in the Air and the fish in the sea. Dad was passing on the family business to us. He didn't specifically say, "take care of it" but I think we would be justified in assuming that was his intention.

    Why is it then that by and large, the religious right that wants to drill, mine, log fish, and exploit the environment with no thought for the future while the agnostic left wants to preserve gods bounty.

    *Senator Joe Barton of Texas just tried to deny climate change by saying that the biblical flood was an indication of climate change before there was any significant increase in CO2. Jeeessssh!!

    **Read Farley Mowat's book, Sea of Slaughter.

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Correction. Joe Barton is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He is not a member of the U.S. Senate. 

  5. as per mankind understanding which degree of woe we accomplish so far such as distracting ecosystem? and what would be the most respected wise people input towards house or upcoming household in Mankind!
    Wish to know about home, please educate me!

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  6. "I consider myself to be a fairly good catholic and no scientific knowledge bothers my faith"

    How about population genetics?

    Our most recent common female ancestor lived about 160,000 years ago (mitochondrial Eve). Our most recent common male ancestor (y chromosome Adam) lived about 60,000 years ago. There never was a time in the past when the world's population dropped below a few thousand.

    That would tend to conflict with the story of Adam and Eve, and therefore Original Sin, and therefore the need for Redemption, don't you think? It would seem to me that science has actually caused serious damage to the very foundations of your faith.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PW] These posts excoriating various religious isses wrt climate change, interesting though they are, are off-topic for this thread. Lert's ratchet down the religion-bashing (Full disclosure: I am an atheist.) and get back to the subject of the thread.

  7. "the agnostic left wants to preserve gods bounty"

    An agnostic does not even hold a belief in god(s), so why would you characterise his or her objective as preserving god's bounty. 

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