Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Who's bankrolling climate-change denial?

From Time magazine, here's a rather scary article about the effective political campaign to deny real science. It isn't the first time we've seen this, but these people are getting better and better at manipulating public opinion.

Some excerpts:
Not too long ago, belief in climate science wasn't a political issue. Honestly! As recently as the 2008 U.S. presidential election, both the Democratic and Republican candidates professed belief in the threat of global warming, and each advanced policies designed to curb U.S. carbon emissions. Senator John McCain had even co-sponsored one of the first congressional bills to create a carbon cap-and-trade system. And it wasn't just McCain; Mitt Romney, runner-up for the GOP nomination last time around, supported a regional cap-and-trade program while he was governor of Massachusetts. ...

Not anymore. With the exception of Jon Huntsman — who barely registers in polls — you can't find a Republican presidential candidate who unequivocally believes in climate science, let alone one who wants to do anything about it. ...

As the sociologists Riley Dunlap of Oklahoma State University and Aaron McCright of Michigan State University suggest, climate denialism exists in part because there has been a long-term, well-financed effort on the part of conservative groups and corporations to distort global-warming science. That's the conclusion of a chapter the two researchers recently wrote for The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society. "Contrarian scientists, fossil-fuel corporations, conservative think tanks and various front groups have assaulted mainstream climate science and scientists for over two decades," Dunlap and McCright write. "The blows have been struck by a well-funded, highly complex and relatively coordinated denial machine."

For those who've followed the seesaw of the climate debate in the U.S., there's not much new in Dunlap and McCright's chapter, but they do lay out just how long and how intensively some conservatives have been fighting mainstream climate science. Fossil-fuel companies like Exxon and Peabody Energy — which obviously have a business interest in slowing any attempt to reduce carbon emissions — have combined with traditionally conservative corporate groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and conservative foundations like the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity, to raise doubts about the basic validity of what is, essentially, a settled scientific truth. That message gets amplified by conservative think tanks — like the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute — and then picked up by conservative media outlets on the Internet and cable TV.

All of the naysayers seem to be following the playbook written by the tobacco industry in its long, ongoing war against medical findings about the dangers of smoking. For both Big Oil and Big Smoke, that playbook is lethally simple: don't straight-up refute the science, just raise skepticism and insist that the findings are "unsettled" and that "more research" is necessary. Repeat that again and again regardless of the latest research, and you help block the formation of the solid majority needed to create any real political change. That's made all the easier because whether you're quitting smoking or oil, the job is painful — and voters don't like pain.

Voters don't like pain, and it's always easy to believe what you want to believe. We want to believe that we can have our cake and eat it, too - that constant tax cuts will actually cut the deficit and establish a utopia in America, that oil will never run out and never cause any problems, that America can be "exceptional" without making the slightest effort to maintain that status.

And Americans are hopelessly ignorant about science. Think about it, the most technologically advanced nation in the world, yet we're one of the most backward in our beliefs about science. But you see, we're also the most religious of the advanced nations. And science has always told us things that religion does not want to hear.

If I want to believe that the Earth is flat, I'm going to be eager to think that those egghead scientists are wrong about other things, too. I'm not going to understand the value of the scientific method if my peace of mind depends on my not understanding it.

This all began with evolution, I suspect. Once you deny science just because you don't want to believe it, well, it then gets easier to deny other science, too. Pretty soon, you just sneer at science and scientists in general. And we end up with one of our two main political parties completely anti-science.

To my mind, willful ignorance is cowardice. This is what happens when human beings are too cowardly to face reality. But it's also a result of greed - the greed for short-term profits, no matter what happens to our world in the long-run, and the greediness of political ambition. If it helps elect Republicans, then do it. The end justifies the means.

It's very, very scary stuff. Because if we don't smarten up, if we don't man up and face reality, if we don't stand up and work for change in the real world, instead of our fantasies, we face a bleak future. We're on the wrong path here in America, and there's only a limited time to change course. Yet we seem to be rushing faster and faster down that road to ruin.

PS. My thanks to Jim Harris for the link!

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