No Doubt About It: Climate Denialists Have Undermined Public Understanding of the Science

October 24, 2012
Alden Meyer

Last night, FRONTLINE premiered its new documentary, Climate of Doubt, a chilling chronicle of the decade-long-plus campaign to confuse the public and policy-makers about the reality of human-induced climate change. As the PBS press release puts it, “Climate of Doubt describes the individuals and groups behind an organized effort to attack science by undermining scientists, and to unseat politicians who say they believe there is current climate change caused by human activity.’

The show looks at denialist groups such as the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. It also discusses how the Tea Party seized on climate legislation, along with President Obama’s health care plan, as indicators of a “frightening expansion of government.” As the Politics & Global Warming report put out last year by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found, self-identified Tea Party members largely reject climate change science. While majorities of Democrats (78%), Independents (71%) and Republicans (53%) believe that global warming is happening, only 34 percent of Tea Party members believe global warming is happening, while 53 percent say it is not happening.

Watch Climate of Doubt on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Although the Tea Party started as a grassroots movement and continues to retain grassroots support, it’s been widely reported how large monied corporate interests and groups such as Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works provided training and organizational support for Tea Party activists and have helped shaped the Tea Party agenda. AfP President Tim Phillips told FRONTLINE about the role his group played in stoking Tea Party anger on the issue during the summer of 2009:

“We certainly did TV ads, radio ads, social media, we did rallies, events, we launched something we called Hot Air. We got up a hot-air balloon, put a banner on the side of it that said cap-and-trade means higher taxes, lost jobs, less freedom. And we went all over the country doing events and stirring up grassroots anger and frustration, concern.”

Climate of Doubt outlines the impact these organizations had on the Congressional debate on climate legislation in 2009-2010. It also explores the impact of the denialists’ campaigns at the state and local level. It interviews North Carolina State Senator David Rouser, author of the bill prohibiting the state’s Coastal Commission from basing its development plans on scientific predictions that sea level rise will accelerate over the next century. (My colleague Michael Halpern outlined the origins and impacts of this legislation in a blog post last August.) Here’s how Senator Rouser explained the scientific basis of his bill to FRONTLINE:

“Well, you know I don’t necessarily listen to any one person and I can’t you know tick off a whole list of scientists who are pro sea level rise and a whole lot of scientists who aren’t. I’m just coming at it from a common sense standpoint. The earth has been warming and cooling since day one. And you know, the effect on sea level rise, what do we know about it?”

Climate of Doubt also discusses the extensive effort by organizations such as the American Tradition Institute to harass climate scientists with sweeping requests for e-mails and other internal records. Texas A&M climate scientist Andrew Dessler tells FRONTLINE that after he was quoted in a front-page New York Times article on climate change, “within hours of that story coming out, the university received a FOIA request for my email. The goal of this was to try to find something in the e-mails that would be used to embarrass climate science. They were just rolling the dice. It was completely random. They had no reason to think there was anything improper.” But Dessler says “I don’t let it stop me…As a climate scientist, I think a lot about the future…I want to make sure that in fifty years or a hundred years or two hundred years, nobody could say we didn’t warn them.”

Though he wasn’t featured in the FRONTLINE piece, Michael Mann has probably faced more attacks on his work than any other scientist. UCS has been tracking the legal harassment Mann has faced from a member of Congress, a state attorney general and front groups.

Climate of Doubt does a good job of portraying the scientific weaknesses of the denialist spin campaign, most effectively when it shows how by carefully selecting certain start and end dates for graphs of historical temperature data, denialists can claim the Earth is experiencing a cooling trend when any fair reading of the data shows an unmistakable warming trend over the past several decades. But the program also makes clear how effective these campaigns aimed at fostering doubt and delay can be in blocking responsible actions to deal with the climate threat.

The program doesn’t cover some of the more recent developments that provide some hope that the effectiveness of the denialists’ campaign to “manufacture doubt” on the scientific reality of the climate threat is starting to wane. For example, a new poll by the Pew Research Center finds that “increasing numbers of Democrats, Republicans and independents saying there is solid evidence of warming, although there continues to be a substantial partisan divide on this issue.” While encouraging, the poll finds that public belief in climate science reality is only about halfway back to its 2006-2007 peak.

There are also signs of increasing public awareness of the links between climate change and the recent heat waves, drought, flooding and other extreme weather events. And there are high-profile efforts by Republicans such as former South Carolina Congressman Bob Inglis and his Energy and Enterprise Initiative to move their party beyond the false debate over climate science to the more honest conversation about appropriate policy responses to the climate change threat.

Climate of Doubt closes with clear warnings from a range of credible scientists about the ever-more-apparent reality and dangers of climate change. As FRONTLINE correspondent John Hockenberry concludes, “inaction has consequences. There is now no concerted national response to climate change. And delay, the scientific community says, is what the planet simply cannot afford.” On that, there can be no doubt.