Monday, 23 January 2017

How 'Merchants of Doubt' convinced the US to ignore climate change

In 1988, Dr. James Hansen, senior climate scientist at NASA, testified to the US Senate that global warming caused by burning fossil fuels was a serious threat. Yet for 28 years the world did practically nothing, and both greenhouse gas emissions and global warming continued. Global inactivity was largely due to successive US governments pretending that the science of global warming was still uncertain and not worth the expense of reducing coal, oil and gas use. The willful ignorance of climate science on the part of the American politicians was encouraged by a small group of right-wing scientists who were not specialists in climate change, but were rather driven by ideological opposition to the increased government regulation that would obviously be required to tackle issues such as global warming. Reluctance of US authorities to consider reducing fossil fuel use resulted in all other countries refusing to to act as well. How this happened is the subject of Merchants of Doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.

Oreskes, a professor of history of science at Harvard University, points out that a number of the prominent scientific advisors of the US government (recurring names are Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, Robert Jastrow and Bill Nierenberg) started their careers in nuclear weapons and missile research in the midst of Cold War conflicts with Russia. Thus these scientists were reflexively anti-Communist and inclined to oppose any scientific research that made a case for more government regulation; they saw such regulations as a sign of the socialism which they had opposed all their careers growing within the US. Hence this small but influential group of senior scientific advisors continuously opposed emerging scientific findings that tobacco caused cancer, that industrial pollution caused acid rain, and finally that dangerous climate change would be caused by burning coal, oil and gas. Unfortunately, these anti-regulation/pro-market scientists found support in the fossil fuel industry, various pro-market media and think tanks, and various US politicians whose political campaigns received money from coal/oil/gas companies. The result was that the science of global warming and climate change was perceived by the media, the government and the public as contested for decades after a scientific consensus on these issues was in fact established. Due to these manufactured doubts, government policy was slow to accept the scientific evidence on the danger of man-made global warming.

Of the various scientific issues discussed by Oreskes, climate change has by far the biggest impact on humanity as a whole and thus also created the most resistance amongst anti-regulation scientists, corporate lobby groups and politicians. Reading Oreskes' book, one sees how na├»ve it is to expect that worldwide government policies regarding global warming would be simply be decided based on scientific evidence. The fact is that the political systems which have been established to govern democratic countries are not set up to make decisions based on science. Rather they are set up to encourage politicians to make decisions based on the likelihood of winning the next election. Multinational coal, oil and gas companies have more than enough money to make political donations big enough to legally “buy” political support for their industries in spite of dire scientific warnings. The public has largely been deceived by fake science produced by non-specialists in climate change presenting themselves as 'experts' and muddying up the waters with doubt.

The past 30 years has shown that voters around the world, and especially in the US, have not been sufficiently informed of the dangers of catastrophic global warming which could cause worldwide water shortage, crop failures and famines resulting in hundreds of millions of deaths if left unchecked. Fossil fuel companies and anti-regulation scientists and politicians have taken advantage of the lack of knowledge of climate science among the public to deceive and endanger us all. Hopefully this will change as the media and the public wake up to the threat of global warming. Otherwise the world will continue getting hotter, and our children might grow up to inherit a climate running amok.

Copyright 2016 by Zeeshan Hasan. First published in Bangladesh on June 1, 2016 in Dhaka Tribune.