The Cassandra Syndrome: Prediction, Uncertainty, and Fear of (Climate) Change, Part Eight

The eighth installment of a ten part series which considers the warnings of climate scientists in the context of historical revolutionary scientific theories that met strong resistance from guardians of the status quo…

by: Arthur Hoyle

Read Part One Here! Read Part Two Here! Read Part Three Here! Read Part Four Here! Read Part Five Here! Read Part Six Here! Read Part Seven Here!

Part Eight — Doubt, Disinformation, and Deceit — Climate Change Deniers

The strategy to discredit climate science was built from a memorandum by Republican pollster Frank Luntz and orchestrated by Fred Palmer, a lobbyist for Peabody Energy, an American coal mining company. The goal was to instill doubt in the public mind by stressing the uncertainties of climate science and giving political allies in the Republican Party the cover they needed to stall. They created organizations with neutral sounding names like “Global Climate Coalition” to disseminate their propaganda and disinformation, and hired hack scientists to dispute the findings of the IPCC. They were aided in their campaign by the timidity of the IPCC and the gullibility of the media, which presented the propaganda as the other side of the argument. This effort represents a stand by the old order (fossil fuel interests that control our energy supply) against science’s call for change that has obvious parallels with the Church’s resistance to Copernican theory and the creationists’ resistance to Darwin. If you don’t like what science is telling you, bash the science and the scientists.

The underbelly of climate science, as it attempts to predict the future, is uncertainty. The number of variables that must be accommodated in modeling climate trajectories is vast, and their behavior is difficult to foresee. Economic growth, technological advances in energy sourcing, geologic events such as volcanic eruptions, changes in solar activity and ocean current patterns, all affect the course that global warming, and the climate’s response, will take. What climate modelers can do, and have done, is project a range of probable outcomes, qualified by words such as “likely” and “extremely likely”—words that convey uncertainty.

The other weakness of the predictive models that lends itself to skepticism is that they are not, and cannot be, based on empirical data—the ground of “sound science” — because the future hasn’t happened yet. Climate models can project into the future from past trends that are based on concrete evidence, but the reality of variability in nature remains a constant. That is why the projections issued by the IPCC in its periodic reports point to a range of possible outcomes, and tend to err, if they must err, on the conservative side.  

The vested interests that have an economic motive to discredit climate science and to sow doubt in the mind of the public that can be used to justify inaction aimed their propaganda campaign at the uncertainties.

The campaign of denial began during the Reagan administration, shortly following James Hansen’s testimony and the formation of the IPCC. The George C. Marshall Institute attacked climate science and climate scientists, and proposed that increased solar energy output was the cause of global warming. The campaign went into high gear after the IPCC, in its third report (2001), attributed most of the warming of the atmosphere over the course of the twentieth century to human activity. The major culprit was the fossil fuel industry. The burning of coal and petroleum to provide energy was spewing megatons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, and as the economy grew, so did the quantity of emissions. Progress based on energy derived from fossil fuels was threatening the planet. This idea is anathema not only to the fossil fuel industry, but to capitalism, our reigning secular religion.

The industry responded by orchestrating a communications effort channeled through organizations that it funded. The Global Climate Coalition, the Information Council for the Environment, think tanks such as the George C. Marshall Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Cato Institute, joined lobbying entities like the American Petroleum Institute in commissioning their own sets of reports in a concerted effort to reposition global warming as theory rather than fact. Politically conservative scientists, such as S. Fred Singer, Frederick Seitz, and Sallie Baliunas, who were greenhouse skeptics, were enlisted to question climate science and to propose alternate theories to explain global warming.

Their cause was greatly aided in 2001 when Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish statistician and economist, published The Skeptical Environmentalist, which argued that the threat of global warming was greatly exaggerated, and the measures proposed to address it were too drastic. The prestige of the press that issued the book (Cambridge University Press) prompted several respected mainstream publications—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs—to review the book favorably, spreading the skepticism throughout their readerships and the world of journalism. The message was, “Relax, everybody, we don’t have to worry about climate change,” a message preferable to the warnings of the IPCC. Business as usual could continue.

Although the Union of Concerned Scientists convened a forum in 2001 that pointed out flaws in Lomborg’s analysis, the groundswell of skepticism was picked up by Republican politicians already sympathetic, and indebted, to the fossil fuel industry. The George W. Bush administration cited the uncertainty of climate science, and the threat to the US economy, as the pretext for withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol. James Inhofe, former Chair of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, echoing the doubts of creationists about evolution, called the threat of global warming “a hoax.” The mantra for Republicans postponing action on climate change became, “we need sound science.” By that they meant observed empirical evidence—certainty. But as Paul Edwards points out in his comprehensive overview of climate science, perfect certainty is an unrealizable ideal, left over from the Enlightenment. He reminds us that all knowledge is provisional. “Knowledge once meant certainty, but science long ago gave up that standard. Probabilities are all that we have, and the probability that the skeptics’ claims are true is vanishingly small.” He asserts, “You will never get a single definitive picture, either of how much the climate has already changed or of how much it will change in the future. What you will get, instead, is a range. What the range tells you is that ‘no change at all’ is simply not in the cards, and that something closer to the high end of the range—a climate catastrophe—looks all the more likely as time goes on.” Cassandra is speaking.

To Be Continued


Arthur Hoyle is the author of The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur, published in March 2014 by Skyhorse/Arcade. He has also published essays in the Huffington Post and the zine Empty Mirror. His second non-fiction book, Mavericks, Mystics, and Misfits: Americans Against the Grain, will be published later this year through Sunbury Press.

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