by David le Page, BusinessDay January 14 2014, 05:44

THE public debate about climate change is an aberration because we do not have debates in newspapers about the validity of medical science, physics, aeronautics, geology or genetics. So what is different about climate science?

Two things, perhaps: its conclusions demand that most of us make significant adjustments to our lifestyles, and it threatens major vested interests: the fossil fuel industry that supplies the world’s coal, gas and oil.
But, like the tobacco industry before it, the fossil fuel industry has funded a vast campaign of lies and disinformation to undermine public trust in science. To understand the so-called climate debate, one must understand this context, rarely if ever acknowledged in South Africa. A debate fuelled mostly by propaganda is not a real debate.

As Jeremy Grantham, a leading US fund manager, observes: “We have the energy industry — the only other vested interest as powerful as that of the financial world — egging people on to be confused about the issues. They do it very successfully, with foundations with misleading names, think-tanks like the Cato Institute and the Hudson Institute, whose job in life appears to be propagandise anything and everything that is useful for energy interests.”

There is a climate-change disinformation pipeline. Part of it was described in April in the US Congress by senator Sheldon Whitehouse: “For more than two decades, the fossil-fuel companies and certain right-wing extremists have cooked up a well-organised campaign to call into question the scientific evidence of climate change. The paid-for deniers then manufacture an interesting product; they manufacture uncertainty so the polluters who are doing the paying can also keep polluting, because a sufficient atmosphere of uncertainty has been created to inhibit progress.”

US President Barack Obama told a rally in California on October 22 2010: “Oil companies and the other special interests are spending millions on a campaign to gut clean-air and clean-energy standards, jeopardising the health and prosperity of this state.”

Whitehouse pointed out that this organised assault on science is not new. Similar campaigns were deployed in the past to fight the science on the toxicity of lead, the need for seatbelts and the deadly effects of smoking tobacco. From 2006 to 2010, four fossil fuel-funded organisations alone contributed more than $16m to conservative “think-tanks” in the US that “go about the business of being publicly critical of climate science and clean energy”: the Charles G Koch Foundation, the Claude R Lambe Charitable Foundation, the Earhart Foundation and, blatantly, the giant oil company, ExxonMobil.

Whitehouse listed the supposedly independent foundations that benefited from this dirty money: among many others, the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, the Institute for Energy Research and the George C Marshall Institute.

The American Petroleum Institute, an industry association funded by the likes of ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Dow Chemical, Halliburton and Shell, resists action on pollution and climate change. Back in 1998, it fought the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions using faked grassroots actions.
These industry front organisations generate a stream of climate denialist opinion that is published or cited in the media, recycled on a multitude of blogs and even pushed into schools.

According to Whitehouse: “From 2007 to 2011, these 10 organisations that I cited, the top 10, were quoted, cited or had articles published over 1,000 times in 60 mainstream newspapers and print publications, and invariably they were promoting fossil fuels, undermining renewable energy or attacking environmental policies.”
The oil-money funding of the sources was disclosed in only 6% of these instances. That supposed bastion of quality journalism, The New York Times, ignored it in 90% of instances, regularly turning to dial-a-denialist sources for quotes. Big oil fights the evidence on climate change so blatantly that in 2006 the British Royal Society, a pre-eminent scientific body, wrote to ExxonMobil demanding it cease its propaganda activities.

On the other hand, leading companies without core interests in fossil fuels mostly take the position that it is indeed human activity that causes climate change. Notable examples include Apple, Google, Facebook, Ford, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Walmart, insurance giant Munich Re, Alcoa, Maersk, Procter & Gamble, Fedex and Intel.
The US Chamber of Commerce also fights serious action on climate change — leading to the loss of some of its most credible members.
In 2009, Apple, Levi Strauss, Pacific Gas & Electric, PNM Resources and Exelon withdrew their membership. Apple vice-president Catherine Novelli wrote at the time: “Apple supports regulating greenhouse gas emissions, and it is frustrating to find the chamber at odds with us in this effort.”

As the science of climate change has become even more unequivocal, some giant corporate carbon emitters with large South African interests now profess concern — while still fighting effective measures to stop global warming. Stand up Shell, BP, ArcelorMittal and Bayer.

Given the threat that climate change poses to South Africa, all should be called to account in Parliament. As with the tobacco industry, they and their industry peers will one day find themselves hauled before courts around the world. But the outrage will be even greater, and the costs to them and their shareholders more devastating.
Of course, there are many honest doubters who have never touched a cent of dirty money. The scientific method serves us incredibly well, not least in the fields of medicine, physics, geology, meteorology and materials sciences. But most of us enjoy its benefits without completely understanding its methods. It is difficult for most lay people to sift through the ocean of lies now spilled on the internet. It takes an often painful imaginative leap to connect the ways we live with such enormous consequences.

There are, however, some sceptics whose names appear again and again in the South African media, with motives either mischievous or profoundly misguided. David Gleason, Stephen Mulholland, Ivo Vegter, Philip Lloyd, Andrew Kenny: these men have clearly spent time on these issues. They must have heard of peer-reviewed science (though this is doubtful when the UK’s Daily Mail is cited), on which they would likely be all too happy to rely when seeking medical treatment. They must be aware of the propaganda with which they align themselves. Yet on climate change they improbably present themselves as better informed than thousands of climate scientists, which none of them is, constantly recycling half-truths without being fact-checked.

They are not, as they like to suggest, Galileos fighting a mistaken consensus. Galileo is celebrated because he stood up for the scientific method against vast institutional power. Sceptics trash the scientific method in the witting or unwitting service of a fossil-fuel industry far more powerful than modestly paid climate scientists.
Their understanding of science is as poor, and their actions every bit as potentially lethal, as those of the AIDS denialists whose ignorance and obstinacy contributed to the deaths of so many South Africans in the past decade, and who have never been called to account. Climate change is a human rights issue — it threatens human life — and those who trivialise it have a great deal to answer for.

Le Page is an independent journalist.