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Climate change

Denying the changes

Book shows how three physicists dedicated themselves to fighting the idea of global warming in the USA


In court when the evidence against the defendant is huge and being found guilty seems only a matter of time, defense lawyers can always resort to a final tactic: raising any doubt whatsoever, sometimes on a secondary aspect of the offense, in order to befuddle the reasoning of members of the jury and thereby avoid, or at least postpone the sentence for as long as possible. From the late 1980’s, a version of this classic legal ploy that, both inside and outside the courts, had been used effectively by the tobacco industry for decades to deny and minimize the known dangers of smoking, has been employed in the United States to question the existence of global warming and the contribution that human activities make, especially the burning of fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases, to unleashing climate change.

Whenever a serious new study on the nature of global warming was published, three veteran researchers of enormous prestige, based in a private entity in Washington, the George C. Marshall Institute, publicly and openly queried the new data. “First, they said that climate change did not exist. Then they stated that temperature changes were a natural phenomenon (they tried to put the blame on changes in solar activity). Then they started arguing that, even if there were changes and even if they were our fault, it did not matter because we could always adapt to them,” said science historian, Naomi Oreskes, from the University of California in San Diego (UCSD), in a lecture for Latin American journalists during the 7th Annual Jack F. Ealy Workshop on Science Journalism, which took place in July in the university. “In all cases, they denied that there was a scientific consensus on the issue, despite the fact that, essentially, they were the only ones against it.”

In May in the United States, along with another science historian, Erik Conway, who works at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Naomi released a book “Merchants of doubt – How a handful of Scientists obscured the truth on issues from global to tobacco smoke warming”. In the well documented work, which has received praise in both the lay press and scientific journals, Naomi and Conway, who is a specialist in the history of space exploration, show that there already exists, and it is not from today, scientific consensus on global warming and detail the trajectory of the leaders of the institute and their climate change denial tactics.

In the United States, a country that has historically been the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and also the most stubborn about adopting policies to mitigate climate change, the action of global warming skeptics has been led over the last two decades by a trio of influential, retired or semi-retired physicists who are now all dead: the specialist in solid matter physics, Frederick Seitz (1911-2008), who took part in the project to build the atomic bomb during World War II and was president of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States in the 1960’s; astrophysicist Robert Jastrow (1925-2008), founder and director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA in the 1960’s and an important figure in conducting several of the space agency’s projects; and William Nierenberg (1919-2000), a researcher who was passionate about the sea and who was for more than 20 years the director of the prestigious Scripps Institution of Oceanography. None of them was an expert on climate models, but this detail did not diminish their influence in the American media and administration, particularly in Republican governments.

In 1984 the three founded the George C. Marshall Institute, whose slogan was (and still is) “Science for a better public policy.” The original objective of the think tank was to lobby in favor of the controversial project to build a space shield capable of defending the United States from a possible attack from ballistic missiles fired by the Soviet Union. Dubbed Star Wars, the defense initiative, which was conceived during the Ronald Reagan administration, never got off the ground. With the collapse of the Soviet empire between the end of the 1980’s and the beginning of the 1990’s, the space shield project was shelved and Seitz, Jastrow and Nierenberg redirected the Institute’s activities towards a more contemporary theme: the fight against environmentalism, in general, and the denial of global warming. “They had the idea that environmentalists were like watermelons: green on the outside and red inside,” said Naomi.

The two who wrote the book met at a conference on the history of meteorology in Germany in 2004. Both soon realized they had reached the same conclusion: the scientists in the United States who most actively fought against the idea that the global temperature of the planet was rising were the same ones who, in the recent past, had denied or were still denying the existence of a hole in the ozone layer, the dangers of acid rain, the harmful effects of DDT and the health problems caused by tobacco in passive smokers. “In all these scientific themes they were always on the wrong side,” stated Naomi, who has taught at Harvard, in Stanford, at New York University, and is now director of the Sixth College at UCSD. “When we discovered that between 1979 and 1985 Seitz had coordinated the research program at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, which invested US$ 45 million in scientific studies, we saw we had a good story.”

The activities of members of the institute sought (and seek) to show that there was no scientific consensus on the existence of climate change and much less certainty about what its causes might be. So, said the scientists from the George C. Marshall Institute, the debate in this field of science was wide open and it made no sense for the United States to adopt any legal or practical measure to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels. Exactly the same tactic had been used for decades by researchers and doctors linked to or sponsored by the tobacco industry, which, despite the growing evidence of the harm caused by tobacco, denied and minimized the conclusions of scientific studies.

Put this way, the denial of global warming seems to have been the target of a conspiracy headed by a group of conservative scientists. The book’s authors, however, are quick to dismiss any suggestion along these lines. They say they found nothing illegal in the activities of Seitz, Jastrow and Nierenberg and that everything was done more or less openly. Among the ploys of the institute was that of invoking a classic principle of the American and Western press: reminding journalists that they always have to listen and give equivalent column space to views that are contrary to the dominant ones. In reports on climate change, the leaders of the George C. Marshall Institute and other global warming skeptics were often the other side. “Merchants of doubt” presents Seitz, Jastrow and Nierenberg as fervent advocates of deregulation of the economy, confirmed anti-communists, ‘hawks’ in the service of the fossil fuel industry and conservative interests. “Their lobby was very efficient because the American culture at the end of the Cold War was permeated by a belief in market fundamentalism, the idea that markets were always good everywhere, and that regulation is always bad,” says Conway. “This idea allowed the denial of global warming to function so well. Propaganda is more efficient when it is based on something that people already believe.”

Reaction to the book
Publication of the book led to a reaction by the current leaders of the George C. Marshall Institute. In an article published in June on the think tank’s website, William O’Keefe and Jeff Kueter, respectively CEO and Chairman of the institute, say that the work lacks scientific basis and distorts reality. They defend the good services rendered to science by the founders of the institute, say that Seitz, Jastrow and Nierenberg were always anti-communists and defenders of the free market – and that this is far from being a defect in the United States.

In concrete terms, the response does not disprove any of the central facts reported in the book. For example, O ‘Keefe and Kueter admit that Seitz really did head up the research program at R.J. Reynolds after he retired as president of Rockefeller University, something they say was no secret and was in the physicist’s autobiography. But they say the program’s purpose was not to generate data that questioned the dangers of cigarette smoking; at least this was not Seitz’s objective, even though it might have been the objective of the tobacco industry.

On the question of climate change, the responses of the current leaders of the institute seem to give more credence to Naomi and Conway than to contradict them. “In fact, the only consensus (on global warming) that exists is between those who write (the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC),” state O’Keefe, a former vice president of the American Petroleum Institute, and Kueter. Therefore, they advocate more scientific research on the theme and no immediate action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, “Are we against policies for reductions in the emission of pollutants and mechanisms similar to the Kyoto Protocol?” Yes. They’re expensive and are going to result in little environmental return.”

For climatologist Carlos Nobre, coordinator of the FAPESP Global Climate Change Research Program and from the Earth System Science Center (CCST) of the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), the actions of conservative lobbies linked to the fossil fuel industry, as conducted by the George C. Marshall Institute, are delaying obtaining a major global agreement for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “They know they’re in a losing battle, as happened with the debate on the evils of tobacco,” argues Nobre, who is one of a team of 600 scientists from more than 40 countries that make up the IPCC. “What they want is to delay the adoption of measures to force American industry to reduce its emissions of pollutants by as long as possible.”

Physicist Paulo Artaxo, a professor from the University of São Paulo (USP), Brazil’s other representative on the IPCC, thinks along the same lines.”They want to gain time,” says Artaxo. “In science, there is never 100% certainty. But the data compiled by the IPCC represents the best available science on the issue of global warming.” In its latest report, the IPCC, with a level of reliability of 95%, attributed climate change to the increase in human activities on the planet. Set up in 1988, the IPCC is not perfect and is correcting its inaccuracies and the way it works. But its data, say most of the researchers, are reasons to act and not to do nothing, as climate change skeptics advocate.

Has the view of Washington on global warming changed with the arrival of Democrat Barack Obama in the White House? For Conway, the current administration seems to accept the reality that climate change is real and arises essentially from human activities. “But the United States has not been very proactive on this issue,” acknowledges Conway. “We’re the world leaders in climate science. However, in practical terms, in measures for mitigating warming, the Scandinavian countries are way ahead of us.”

* Journalist Marcos Pivetta took part in the 7th Annual Jack F. Ealy Workshop on Science Journalism conference at the invitation of the Institute of the Americas