News / USA

Politics Overtaking Science in Global Warming Debate

Public less certain that humans cause climate change

Multimedia

Audio
Rosanne Skirble

Polls in recent years show that fewer Americans believe global warming is a threat or that it is driven by human activities.

That’s despite consensus among scientists that climate change is not only very real, but also that it is caused largely by the burning of fossil fuels in cars, trucks and power plants.

'Merchants of Doubt' explores the gap between what scientists say and what the public believes about global warming.
'Merchants of Doubt' explores the gap between what scientists say and what the public believes about global warming.

University of California history professor Naomi Oreskes explores why so many Americans are mistrustful of science in "Merchants of Doubt," a book she co-authored with science historian Erik Conway.  

The subtitle sums up their thesis: “How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.”  

Changing the narrative

The story begins 50 years ago in the tobacco industry, with the announcement by medical researchers that the tar in cigarettes causes cancer. According to Oreskes, tobacco industry leaders were fearful of the financial harm the news might do to their lucrative products, so they turned to a public relations firm to cloud the issue and change the narrative.  

“The pattern that they put together was to use many statements that any one of them by themselves might have not been untrue," Oreskes says, "and yet, taken together, created a picture that was untrue. It’s really an extremely clever strategy because the strategy is not to say that 'Tobacco is safe.' The strategy is to say that 'We don’t really know for sure.'”

The tobacco industry funded studies and recruited distinguished scientists to lend authority to these doubts. But Oreskes notes that the specialists’ expertise was not public health, but rather in rocket science and weapons.  

“This was part of the strategy that the industry settled on very early in that they would fight science with science, or, as we say in the book, at least with scientists.”  

New threat

The same group of scientists later worked together in a Washington think tank to combat the Soviet threat. When the Cold War was over, Oreskes believes they turned their attention to what they saw as a new threat: radical environmentalism.

“It’s what they think is the exaggeration of environmental issues for political reasons. Because they fear that environmental issues like global warming will be used as an excuse for the expansion of government power, the expansion of regulation, the expansion of government control over the marketplace and therefore a kind of slippery slope to socialism.”

In her book, Oreskes argues the current climate change debate is not about the physical warming of the planet - which is well-documented by scientific evidence - but about politics. This explains, she says, why the U.S. Congress rejected an emissions trading plan which would have capped climate-changing carbon emissions.  

“Because if the science were truly not settled, then it would be logical to say that we’re not really sure. It would be a mistake to spend a lot of money on alternative technologies, a mistake to have intrusive government regulations, a mistake to have a carbon tax, if we don’t really need those things, if this problem isn’t really real anyway.”

Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry has said he believes scientists are manipulating global warming data.
Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry has said he believes scientists are manipulating global warming data.

Politicizing the issue

That’s the same line Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry used on a recent campaign stop in New Bedford, New Hampshire. He voiced his opposition to spending what he says would be billions of dollars on emissions reductions programs.

“And I don’t think from my perspective that I want America to be engaged in spending that much money on (what is) still a scientific theory that has not been proven and from my perspective is more and more being put into question,” Perry said.

But the debate over global warming science must be fought on a level playing field, insists Oreskes. Science is not about opinion, she says, it’s about evidence. If a research group claims global-warming is not real or human caused, she says, then they should prove it.  

“The burden should be on them to come up with the evidence to show that. And if journalists would demand evidence, what they would find is these people either have no evidence at all in many cases or the supposed evidence that they have is actually distorted. It’s taken out of context. It’s misrepresented or in some cases they are arguments that were published 20 to 30 years ago that have since been refuted.”

In "Merchants of Doubt," Oreskes writes, “Acid rain, secondhand smoke, the destruction of the stratospheric ozone and global warming are all real problems. The real question is how to address them."

Denying their truth, the author argues, “does not make them go away.”

You May Like

Arrested Football Officials Come Mainly From the Americas

US Justice Department alleges defendants participated in 24-year scheme to enrich themselves through corruption of international soccer More

Video Kenyans Lament Al-Shabab's Recruitment of Youths

VOA travels to Isiolo, where residents share their fears, struggles to get loved ones back from Somalia-based militant group More

This US Epidemic Keeps Getting Worse

One in 4 Americans suffers from this condition More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensionsi
X
May 26, 2015 11:11 PM
When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Film Festival Looks at Indigenous Peoples, Culture Conflict

A recent Los Angeles film festival highlighted the plight of people caught between two cultures. Mike O'Sullivan has more on the the Garifuna International Film Festival, a Los Angeles forum created by a woman from Central America who wants the world to know more about her culture.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video US-led Coalition Gives Some Weapons to Iraqi Troops

In a video released Tuesday from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, Iraqi forces and U.S.-led coalition troops survey a cache of weapons supplied to help Iraq liberate Mosul from Islamic State group. According to a statement provided with the video, the ministry and the U.S.-led coaltion troops have started ''supplying the 16th army division with medium and light weapons in preparation to liberate Mosul and nearby areas from Da'esh (Arabic acronym for Islamic State group).''
Video

Video Amnesty International: 'Overwhelming Evidence' of War Crimes in Ukraine

Human rights group Amnesty International says there is overwhelming evidence of ongoing war crimes in Ukraine, despite a tentative cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels. Researchers interviewed more than 30 prisoners from both sides of the conflict and all but one said they were tortured. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Washington Parade Honors Those Killed Serving in US Military

Every year, on the last Monday in the month of May, millions of Americans honor the memories of those killed while serving in the armed forces. Memorial Day is a tradition that dates back to the 19th Century. While many people celebrate the federal holiday with a barbecue and a day off from work, for those who’ve served in the military, it’s a special day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Arash Arabasadi reports for VOA from Washington.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.

VOA Blogs