Casting doubt about mainstream scientific findings that upset powerful financial interests – from the health risks of tobacco to the reality and risks of global warming - is a tactic that has been used time and again to delay or avoid regulation. But those getting ready to use it this time should remember that it can backfire.
Congressional hearings can have a powerful impact on public perceptions of major scientific issues. In June 1988, for example, NASA climate scientist James Hansen brought the first evidence to the Senate that human activity was demonstrably warming the planet. His testimony galvanized public concern around global warming and, initially, motivated a constructive bipartisan response.
Vice President George H.W. Bush, who was then running for president, seized the moment by proposing to counter the “greenhouse effect with the White House effect.” As president, he took several steps toward this end and in 1992, signed the U.N Framework Convention on Climate Change, promising to avoid dangerous human-caused interference in the climate system.
Polls show that as late as 1997, Republicans and Democrats had virtually indistinguishable views on the science of global warming. But an aggressive campaign by the fossil fuel industry and conservative think tanks to cast doubt about the scientific evidence that human activity is warming the planet changed that. Today, public understanding of climate science reflects a deep division along partisan lines. Tea Party Republicans are particularly inclined to deny the reality of global warming, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll.
Public reaction to another prominent congressional hearing, however, suggests that doubt-mongering has its limits. In 1994, the chief executives of the nation’s seven largest tobacco companies appeared before a House committee hearing. For three decades, their industry had invested heavily in a campaign to mislead the public about the health risks of cigarettes. Then, in the spotlight of national television, and in the face of persistent educational efforts by public health scientists, the executives testified that they believed nicotine was not addictive, and that smoking did not cause cancer.
That claim was widely recognized as incredible. The tobacco industry executives had overreached. In sticking to their guns despite the robust scientific evidence, they laid the groundwork for public rebuke, rejection by long-standing congressional allies, federal prosecution under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) statutes, and, finally, to long-awaited and meaningful regulation.
The sister campaign by the fossil fuel industry and its political allies to sow doubt about climate science might be reaching a similar limit. The widespread evidence for human-caused climate change is becoming increasingly difficult to deny with a straight face.
Globally, the decade from 2000 to 2009 was the warmest on record; across the continental United States, record high temperatures outpaced record lows by more than two to one, a marked increase from previous decades. In 2010, wildfires driven by scorching summer heat in Russia and catastrophic flooding in Pakistan vividly called attention to the extreme weather that is increasing in a warming world. The year 2010 tied for the hottest year on record, and the34th year in a row that the global average temperatures topped the 20th-century average.
And there are signs that voters may be growing weary of industry-financed efforts to undermine climate science and policy. In California, the one state where climate policy was explicitly on the November ballot, voters - on a strikingly bipartisan basis - decisively rejected Proposition 23, the oil-industry-bankrolled initiative aimed at rolling back the state’s landmark carbon emissions-reduction law.
Those who are contemplating aggressive doubt-mongering on climate science to further delay or avoid regulation of global warming pollutants may be over-reaching. Like the tobacco industry executives, they may well be hastening the demise of their inherently deceitful strategy. And the American people deserve better. We deserve solutions.
Peter C. Frumhoff is the director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientist in Cambridge, Mass. He is an ecologist and a lead author of multiple Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports. Naomi Oreskes is a professor of history and science studies and the Provost of Sixth College at the University of California, San Diego. She is co-author of “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.”