The Carillon, Vol. 52, Issue 17 | Feb. 11 – 24, 2010
Describing climate change critics as cranks, incompetents, or oil industry mercenaries, Richard Littlemore didn’t pull any punches during his talk at the University of Regina on Feb. 3. Before an audience of roughly 70 people, Littlemore declared that the uncertainty about climate change is “not science, but public relations,” and that the public misunderstanding of climate change is not accidental, but has been deliberately engineered by “dubious characters” with a “severe impact” on public discourse.
“Is there a real debate?” he said. “No.”
Littlemore is a freelance journalist and environmental advocate who writes for desmogblog.com, a website that aims towards “clearing the [public relations] pollution that clouds climate science.” He was trained by Al Gore as part of The Climate Project, an initiative aimed at educating the public about climate change, and was also here to promote his recent book, Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming, which he co-wrote with DeSmogBlog founder James Hoggan.
The debate about climate change has been settled for many years, argued Littlemore. He offered quotes from Mobil Corporation’s senior scientist Leonard S. Bernstein and former president George H.W. Bush, who both recognized and declared in the ’90s that global warming is a scientific fact. However, said Littlemore, a coordinated campaign of deception has undermined public understanding of the scientific consensus. Public relations firms, such as APCO Associates, were hired by the oil industry to handle how the public saw the issue of global warming, by submitting “fraudulent” opinion pieces, offering media training to scientists willing to criticize global warming, and sowing dissent in small media markets. The firms succeeded by exploiting the desire of journalists to be impartial and to give equal hearing to both sides of an issue. As Littlemore pointed out, “liar is a bad word in journalism.”
Littlemore didn’t pull any punches against prominent scientific critics of climate change, calling them “hired guns” or “cranks.” He pointed out that Steven Milloy, the “junk science” commentator for foxnews.com and creator of junkscience.com, receives financial support from the oil industry. Fred Singer, the atmospheric physicist, “will deny almost anything you like,” while theoretical physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson is “an 87-year-old crank. He’s a curmudgeonly old contrarian who just argues about everything. His wife says that he’s crazy on climate change.” He also dismissed “denier for hire” Tim Ball, former professor of geography at the University of Winnipeg.
Littlemore said that he has a test he applies to climate change opponents: Are they an expert in the field of climate science? Have they recently performed relevant research? Are they taking money from the oil industry? “We cannot find anybody who passes the test.”
Unfortunately, the deniers seem to have gained ground in recent years. When it comes to doubts about human-caused climate change, the difference between the scientific literature and media-fuelled public perception is startling. Littlemore pointed to science historian Naomi Oreskes’ 2004 study, which analyzed the 928 peer-reviewed scientific articles on climate change published between 1993 and 2003, and found that zero per cent were in doubt.
In another study, out of 636 articles on climate change in prestigious U.S. news sources between 1988 and 2002, 53 per cent were ambivalent enough to cause doubt. This uncertainty in the media has been reflected in public opinion, in a trend that appears to be accelerating. Littlemore referred to last year’s Pew Center poll that suggested that only 53 per cent of Americans believe that climate change is occurring, and that only 36 per cent believe that it is caused by humans. The former percentage dropped 20 per cent over two years, which Littlemore described as a “horrifying trajectory.”
Littlemore still holds out hope for the future, but admitted that the situation seems dire. “It’s not a technical problem,” he said. “It’s a public policy problem … We need a degree of activism that I haven’t seen since the ’60s.”