The Misinformation Network

By: Ty Johnson

Despite the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) September 2013 report unequivocally linking humans to climate change, citizens and government officials alike still face climate change deniers who use a variety of misinformation strategies to instill doubt and halt progress on environmentally friendly practices and legislation.

Robert Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University, believes like-minded organizations have formed what he calls the “climate change countermovement” in an “effort to undermine public faith in climate science and block action by the U.S. government to regulate emissions.” Although these organizations do not openly band together, they have a well-established network of think tanks, media outlets, prominent government officials, and industries that combine to “reposition global warming as theory not fact.” This short Greenpeace film (3:35), titled “The Koch Brothers and Their Amazing Climate Change Denial Machine,” explains the misinformation network.

Similarly, think about how the tobacco industry used misinformation and advertising strategies to confuse the public about smoking and cancer in the ‘60s. Big tobacco stared down the very clear scientific evidence that smoking causes cancer. Its misinformers came up with new strategies of ignoring the evidence, hiring their own scientists, obscuring the truth, and generally selling doubt. When compared side by side, the tactics used by big tobacco to misinform are identical to those used by the fossil fuel industry.

Do me a favor and read those last few sentences, but with a slight change: Today, the oil and gas industry is staring down the very clear scientific evidence that carbon emissions cause climate change. If accepted, that connection would devalue their product. Instead, like big tobacco, they came up with strategies of ignoring the evidence, hiring their own scientists, obscuring the truth, and generally selling doubt. (See the resemblance?)

Ads for smoking used to depict studies by doctors who denied smoke-related health issues (left). Fox News used a anti-climate sanctioned study to refute the IPCC findings on climate change (right).

Ads for smoking used to depict studies by doctors who denied smoke-related health issues (left). Fox News used a anti-climate sanctioned study to refute the IPCC findings on climate change (right).

Brulle sees the climate change counter movement acting the same way with strategies that are focused on communicating misinformation to citizens in order to keep the status quo. He identifies a range of arguments used — from flat-out denial of climate change (which is becoming increasingly hard to back without looking like a moron), to acceptance paired with denial of responsibility (convenient for those who don’t want to look moronic, but still don’t want to change). These arguments serve to delay legislative action intended to help subsidize renewable energy or decrease dependency on fossil fuels.

Recently, Brulle has come out with a new study highlighting the issues behind the funding of the counter movement. “Money amplifies certain voices above others. Without a free flow of accurate information, democratic politics and government accountability become impossible,” said Brulle. And when you look at the results of the study, it seems clear that the countermovement has fossil fuel interests on its side.

A major finding in Brulle’s study shows Koch and ExxonMobil pulling back from public funding since 2008, but indicates a simultaneous increase in funding through “untraceable sources” such as the Donors Trust. The foundation advertises itself as a way for people like the Koch brothers to “fund sensitive or controversial issues groups” —such as those funding the climate change counter movement— without being exposed as anti-green. Greenpeace investigations into Koch funding indicate $61,375,781 spent on the anti-climate movement and front groups from 1997-2010. Keep in mind, that number does NOT include the “dark money” donations that come from funds like Donors Trust. And this is just one of the major contributors to the climate change counter movement. Remember, major conservative foundations such as the John William Pope Foundation and the Searle Freedom Trust also contribute financially.

In the end, it is vitally important to remember who the voice is behind the arguments against climate change. By putting their hands in pockets all around the nation, conservatives and the oil and gas industry can alter the information reaching the public.

Next time you come across a denier, invite them to sit down for a smoke while you explain the irrefutable scientific evidence that connects their gas-guzzling pick-up truck with climate change, just as they can connect their cigarette to that horrible cough.

 

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