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

UN Ambassador Power Highlights Plight of Women Prisoners

She launches the 'Free the 20' campaign, aimed at profiling women being deprived of their freedom around the world More

Satellite Launch Sparks Spectacular Light Show

A slight delay in a satellite launch lit up the Florida sky early this morning More

Fleeing IS Killings in Syria, Family Reaches Bavaria

Exhausted, scared and under-nourished, Khalil and Maha's tale mirrors those of thousands of refugees from war-torn countries who have left their homes in the hopes of finding a better life 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.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs