Climate sceptics are recycled critics of controls on tobacco and acid rain

19.2.2010   (Guardian)
We must not be distracted from science’s urgent message: we are fuelling dangerous
changes in Earth’s climate
by Jeffrey Sachs 
In the weeks before and after the Copenhagen climate change conference last December, the science of climate change came under harsh attack by critics who contend that climate scientists have deliberately suppressed evidence —
and that the science itself is severely flawed. The Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change (IPCC), the global group of experts charged with assessing the state of climate
science, has been accused of bias.


The global public is disconcerted by these attacks. If experts cannot agree that
there is a climate crisis, why should governments spend billions of dollars to
address it?


The fact is that the critics — who are few in number but aggressive in their
attacks — are deploying tactics that they have honed for more than 25 years. During
their long campaign, they have greatly exaggerated scientific disagreements in
order to stop action on climate change, with special interests like Exxon Mobil
footing the bill.


Many books have recently documented the games played by the climate-change deniers.
Merchants of Doubt, a new book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway set for release in mid-2010, will
be an authoritative account of their misbehaviour. The authors show that the same
group of mischief-makers, given a platform by the free-market ideologues of
The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, has consistently tried to confuse the public and discredit the scientists whose
insights are helping to save the world from unintended environmental harm.


Today’s campaigners against action on climate change are in many cases backed by the same lobbies, individuals, and organisations
that sided with the tobacco industry to discredit the science linking smoking
and lung cancer.
Later, they fought the scientific evidence that sulphur oxides from coal-fired
power plants were causing “acid rain.” Then, when it was discovered that certain
chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were causing the depletion of ozone
in the atmosphere, the same groups launched a nasty campaign to discredit that
science, too.


Later still, the group defended the tobacco giants against charges that second-hand
smoke causes cancer and other diseases. And then, starting mainly in the 1980s,
this same group took on the battle against climate change.


What is amazing is that, although these attacks on science have been wrong for
30 years, they still sow doubts about established facts. The truth is that there is big money backing the climate-change deniers, whether
it is companies that don’t want to pay the extra costs of regulation, or free-market
ideologues opposed to any government controls.


The latest round of attacks involves two episodes. The first was the hacking of a climate-change research centre in England. The emails that were stolen suggested a lack of forthrightness in the presentation of some climate data. Whatever the details of this specific case, the studies in question represent
a tiny fraction of the overwhelming scientific evidence that points to the reality
and urgency of man-made climate change.


The second issue was a blatant error concerning glaciers that appeared in a major IPCC report.     Here it should be understood that the IPCC issues thousands of pages of text.
There are, no doubt, errors in those pages. But errors in the midst of a vast
and complex report by the IPCC point to the inevitability of human shortcomings,
not to any fundamental flaws in climate science.


When the emails and the IPCC error were brought to light, editorial writers at
The Wall Street Journal launched a vicious campaign describing climate science
as a hoax and a conspiracy. They claimed that scientists were fabricating evidence
in order to obtain government research grants — a ludicrous accusation, I thought
at the time, given that the scientists under attack have devoted their lives to
finding the truth, and have certainly not become rich relative to their peers
in finance and business.


But then I recalled that this line of attack — charging a scientific conspiracy
to drum up “business” for science — was almost identical to that used by The Wall
Street Journal and others in the past, when they fought controls on tobacco, acid
rain, ozone depletion, second-hand smoke, and other dangerous pollutants. In other
words, their arguments were systematic and contrived, not at all original to the


We are witnessing a predictable process by ideologues and right-wing think tanks
and publications to discredit the scientific process. Their arguments have been
repeatedly disproved for 30 years — time after time — but their aggressive methods
of public propaganda succeed in causing delay and confusion.


Climate change science is a wondrous intellectual activity. Great scientific
minds have learned over the course of many decades to “read” the Earth’s history,
in order to understand how the climate system works. They have deployed brilliant
physics, biology, and instrumentation (such as satellites reading detailed features
of the Earth’s systems) in order to advance our understanding.


And the message is clear: large-scale use of oil, coal, and gas is threatening
the biology and chemistry of the planet. We are fuelling dangerous changes in
Earth’s climate and ocean chemistry, giving rise to extreme storms, droughts,
and other hazards that will damage the food supply and the quality of life of
the planet.


The IPCC and the climate scientists are telling us a crucial message. We need
urgently to transform our energy, transport, food, industrial, and construction
systems to reduce the dangerous human impact on the climate.     It is our responsibility
to listen, to understand the message, and then to act.