Tuesday 3 June 2008

Sound Science and Climate Change or What are the Denialists Smoking?

George Monbiot, in his book Heat, reveals the link between organized tobacco and organized climate change denial. I followed up his references and the documents he found make for interesting reading: memos from APCO, a PR firm, to Philip Morris on how to fake a grassroots movement (what we'd call astroturfing today). I strongly recommend reading Heat but in the meantime here are some examples, in which APCO is discussing the strategy for setting up The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC).

In proposing a European version of TASSC, the following are suggested, in a document dated March 25, 1994:
  • Preempt unilateral action against industry.
  • Associate anti-industry "scientific" studies with broader questions about government research and regulations.
  • Link the tobacco issue with other more "politically correct" products.
  • Have non-industry messengers provide reasons for legislators, business executives and media to view policies drawn from unreliable scientific studies with extreme caution.
And what were those "broader questions"? Here's a list from the same document:
  • Global warming
  • Nuclear waste disposal
  • Diseases and pests in agricultural products for transborder trade
  • Biotechnology
  • Eco-labeling for EC products
  • Food processing and packaging
So the agenda was this: confuse the public on the merits of science in the tobacco arena, but create a smokescreen (how appropriate) by having similar debates in other areas and – here's the critical point – ensure that the same people were involved so it would be harder to see the whole thing for what it was, a front for tobacco. Here's another snippet (document dated September 30, 1993):
APCO recommends that we steer away from launching TASSC in Washington, D.C. or the top media markets of the country. Rather, we suggest creating a series of aggressive, decentralized launches in several targeted local and regional markets across the country. This approach:
  • Maximizes recruitment efforts. Stresses that TASSC is a grassroots effort that will fight unsound science on both the local and national levels.
  • Avoids cynical reporters from major media. Less reviewing/challenging of TASSC messages; increases likelihood of pick up by media.
  • Limits potential for counterattack. The likely opponents of TASSC tend to concentrate their efforts in the top markets while skipping the secondary markets. Our approach sends TASSC's messages initially into these more receptive markets - and enables us to build upon early successes.
  • Allows for a national coordinating effort. Publicize, in each market, a national 800 number, the supporters of TASSC and the existence of the TASSC Public Information Bureau.
Now, of course, it is unlikely that the majority of people who have taken a pro-industry stance on these matters are in the pay of organized tobacco or their successor in the climate change debate, Exxon, but the planting of these seeds is all that's necessary. As uninformed members of the public pick up a perception that there's a vast groundswell of scientists who disagree with the position they see from the mainstream media, they are conned into thinking the debate is real. It's even possible that some genuine scientists were sucked in (I've noticed how most of those are retired or late-career scientists, playing on their standing, but likely to be out of touch with the latest science). Sadly, some of the mainstream media consequently pick up the spin as real, the approach of seeding it in less critical media having done the job of giving the position legs. Reporters in publications like The Economist, The Wall Street Journal and The Australian, seeing the story coming at them from many sources, mistakenly believe what they are seeing represents a genuine grassroots movement of concerned scientists. So why, now that this whole thing has been exposed, do some of these publications continue to take the inactivist position so seriously? Because no one likes to admit to being a dupe. Or maybe because no one likes to admit that they need to make major lifestyle changes to eliminate a social harm – in other words, that they are part of the problem. This is why climate change persists as a misreported issue. And why the original "junk science" myth, tobacco is not that harmful, persisted so long, in smokey editorial offices. So, what's to be done? We must recognize that in the Internet age, knowledge is not created centrally, but by networks of potentially disorganized individuals. APCO tapped into this concept in an era when the Internet was not as universal as it is today, so they needed significant funding to set up their astroturf operation. The good news is that, today, you do not need major funding to set up a genuine grassroots movement. All you need to do is to recruit friends who recruit friends, via personal networking sites like FaceBook. So, now you know what to do: take the message out there. The climate inactivist movement is an outgrowth of the tobacco denial movement, and just as bogus. Equip yourself with the facts by reading sites with real science (to which you will find pointers on this site: I do not claim to be a great primary source; for example, the RealClimate site is run by real climate scientists). This article is another take on APCO's role in creating TASSC.


I add new links here as I discover new data sources:
Finally, a really good authoritative book by Naomi Oreskes, published in 2010, details the whole denial industry right back to its roots:
Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming


Anonymous said...

"climate inactivist movement" - is a great phrase. Call it CIM.


Philip Machanick said...

I like it too but it's not original. I first saw it on RealClimate.

Anonymous said...

I think it was Frank Bi that invented the term and started the hilariously official-looking 'Int. J. Inact.'.


Philip Machanick said...

wq, I guess you mean this:

International Journal of Inactivism

Nice find, thanks.

Philip Machanick said...

And here's some great stuff, with classic contributions by John Mashey, for once provoked into flashing his impressive resumé. I knew him slightly as he would have known thousands of people while he was at SGI, and he was an examiner on my PhD. For insightful comments on this and many other areas, google his name.