The Junkyard Dogs

Global Warming Is Good For You

excerpted from the book

Trust Us, We're Experts!

by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber

Jeremy P. Tarcher / Putnam Publisher, 2001, paper


The Junkyard Dogs

Major corporations and petty hustlers O alike use the mantle of science to market all kinds of potions and remedies, many of which have no demonstrable efficacy and some of which are harmful. The history of psychiatry and the other social sciences is also riddled with scientific-sounding explanations for human behavior, on the basis of which innocent people have been sterilized, lobotomized, drugged against their will, or imprisoned.

The concept of "junk science," however, is a particular term coined by corporate attorneys, lobbyists, PR firms, and industry-funded think tanks. It has very little to do with the quality of the research in question. In the hotly contested terrain of regulatory and liability law, "junk science" is the term that corporate defenders apply to any research, no matter how rigorous, that justifies regulations to protect the environment and public health. The opposing term, "sound science," is used in reference to any research, no matter how flawed, that can be used to challenge, defeat, or reverse environmental and public health protections.

"Junk science" first emerged in the courtroom as a disparaging term for the paid expert witnesses that attorneys hire to testify on behalf of their clients. In many cases, of course, an expert witness is unnecessary. If one person shoots another in front of witnesses, you don't need a rocket scientist to know who is responsible. During the twentieth century, however, courts expanded the system of tort law under which personal-injury lawsuits are filed in order to cover cases in which proof of causation is somewhat more complicated. Many of these cases require a scientist's testimony particularly when the injury in question comes from environmental or toxic causes-for example, cancer in army veterans subjected to radiation from atomic bomb tests; asbestos-related mesothelioma; Reyes Syndrome caused by taking aspirin; or the link between swine flu vaccinations and Guillain-Barre Syndrome. By expanding the system of tort law, courts made it possible for people injured through these sorts of causes to collect damages from the companies responsible.

Tobacco Science Meets Junk Science

For big tobacco, the industry campaign against "junk science" presented an interesting opportunity-a chance to reposition itself as something other than a pariah in the scientific community.

Just as every action in the physical world begets an equal and opposite reaction, every risk to public health seems to beget an equal and opposite effort at denial from the industry whose products are implicated. The tobacco industry, which U.S. Surgeons General have cited since the 1 960s as "the greatest cause of illness, disability and premature deaths in this country," helped invent the strategy of using scientists as third-party advocates, and if Oscars were given for such campaigns, tobacco would certainly win a lifetime achievement award. Prior to the 1950s, tobacco companies routinely advertised tobacco's alleged health "benefits" with testimonials from doctors and celebrities. When the first scientific studies documenting tobacco's role in cancer and other fatal illnesses began to appear, the industry was thrown into a panic. A 1953 report by Dr. Ernst L. Wynder heralded to the scientific community a definitive link between cigarette smoking and cancer, creating what internal memos from the industry-funded Tobacco Institute refer to as the " 1954 emergency." Fighting for its economic life, the tobacco industry launched what must be considered the costliest, longest-running, and most successful PR crisis management campaign in history. In the words of the industry itself, the campaign was aimed at "promoting cigarettes and protecting them from these and other attacks," by "creating doubt about the health charge without actually denying it, and advocating the public's right to smoke, without actually urging them to take up the practice."

For help, the tobacco industry turned in the 1950s to what was then the world's largest PR firm, Hill & Knowlton, which designed a brilliant and expensive campaign that was later described as follows in a 1993 lawsuit, State of Mississippi vs. the Tobacco Cartel:

As a result of these efforts, the Tobacco Institute Research Committee (TIRC), an entity later known as The Council for Tobacco Research (CTR), was formed.

The Tobacco Industry Research Committee immediately ran a full-page promotion in more than 400 newspapers aimed at an estimated 43 million Americans . . . entitled "A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers." . . . In this advertisement, the participating tobacco companies recognized their "special responsibility" to the public, and promised to learn the facts about smoking and health. The participating tobacco companies promised to sponsor independent research.... The participating tobacco companies also promised to cooperate closely with public health officials....

After thus beginning to lull the public into a false sense of security concerning smoking and health, the Tobacco Industry Research Committee continued to act as a front for tobacco industry interests. Despite the initial public statements and posturing, and the repeated assertions that they were committed to full disclosure and vitally concerned, the TIRC did not make the public health a primary concern.... In fact, there was a coordinated, industry-wide strategy designed actively to mislead and confuse the public about the true dangers associated with smoking cigarettes. Rather than work for the good of the public health as it had promised, and sponsor independent research, the tobacco companies and consultants, acting through the tobacco trade association, refuted, undermined, and neutralized information coming from the scientific and medical community.

Defining Terms

The absence of real standards for distinguishing between junk science and sound science allows corporate apologists to use the term with confidence, while simultaneously managing to amicably disagree about an issue as fundamental and important as tobacco. The concept of junk science serves as a convenient way of reconciling their pro-corporate bias with pretensions of scientific superiority, while simultaneously glossing over ethical conflicts of interest.

Equally disturbing is the sheer amount of rhetorical venom and bile that the junkyard dogs of science have injected into public policy discussions, polarizing debates and lowering rather than elevating the tone of public scientific discourse. Some of the most respected voices in public life have been targeted for attack. Since its founding in 1936, Consumers Union and its monthly publication, Consumer Reports, have been icons of integrity, offering impartial scientific testing of consumer products and also serving as advocates for real consumer protection. None of this matters to "Junkman" Steven Milloy. In l999 he launched a second website, called "Consumer Distorts" (, which accuses Consumer Reports of socialism, sensationalism, and "scaring consumers away from products." ACSH has also gone to war repeatedly with Consumers Union, accusing it of "irresponsible fear-mongering" for its reports on health threats represented by pesticides and other chemicals found in foods and common household items.

The failure of the self-proclaimed "sound science" movement to provide a sound methodology is doubly disappointing because, in the end, the critics of junk science have a certain amount of truth on their side. There is indeed a great deal of bad science in the news media and in courtrooms, and not all of it comes from corporations. Over the years, both business marketers and advocacy groups have become highly skilled at inventing and exaggerating fears, dealing in dubious statistics and using emotional appeals to sell products or mobilize public support for causes. The time constraints and visual nature of television make simple messages stand out more easily than complex ones, and marketers have learned to exploit this reality of the modern mass media. In addition to the political goals that underlie these appeals, sometimes there are commercial motives as well. Great profits can be made by selling overhyped "natural" food supplements like shark cartilage and melatonin.



Global Warming Is Good For You

Automobile exhausts, coal-burning power plants, factory smoke stacks, and other vented wastes of the industrial age now pump six billion tons of carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse gases" into the earth's atmosphere each year. They are called greenhouse gases because they trap radiant energy from the sun that would otherwise be reflected back into space. The fact that a natural greenhouse effect occurs is well-known and is not debated. Without it, in fact, temperatures would drop so low that oceans would freeze and life as we know it would be impossible. What climatologists are concerned about, however, is that increased levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are causing more heat to be trapped. Concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are currently at their highest level in 420,000 years.

"The basic science of global warming has not changed since the topic was raised earlier in this century," notes a December 1999 open letter by the directors of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the British Meteorological Office. "Furthermore, the consensus of opinion has been growing, within both the scientific and the business communities. Our new data and understanding now point to the critical situation we face: to slow future change, we must start taking action soon. At the same time, because of our past and ongoing activities, we must start to learn to live with the likely consequences-more extreme weather, rising sea levels, changing precipitation patterns, ecological and agricultural dislocations, and the increased spread of human disease.... Ignoring climate change will surely be the most costly of all possible choices, for us and our children."

"There is no debate among statured scientists of what is happening," says James McCarthy, who chairs the Advisory Committee on the Environment of the International Committee of Scientific Unions. "The only debate is the rate at which it's happening." Between 1987 and 1993, McCarthy oversaw the work of the leading climate scientists from 60 nations as they developed the IPCC's landmark 1995 report.

There are, of course, areas of considerable outstanding dispute and genuine scientific uncertainty. No one knows how rapid or drastic global warming will turn out to be, or how severely it will affect food production, ocean levels, or the spread of disease. There is also debate over the extent to which global warming has already contributed to droughts, intense hurricanes, and environmental degradation such as coral bleaching. Given these uncertainties, it is difficult to talk of a "worst-case scenario," but the scenarios that are plausible include many that are dire enough.

... For the oil, coal, auto, and manufacturing industries, warnings of the sort involve another kind of high stakes. Any measures to control emissions of greenhouse gases threaten their long-standing habits of doing business.

They view scientists' conclusions about global warming with the same interest-driven hostility that the tobacco industry shows toward scientists who study lung cancer. Like the tobacco industry, they have pumped millions of dollars into efforts to debunk the science they hate. They have found little support, however, among the "statured scientists" to whom McCarthy refers-the people who are actually involved in relevant research and whose work has been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. The global warming consensus among these scientists is so strong that the oil and auto industries have been forced far afield in their search for voices willing to join in their denial. What is remarkable, given this fact, is the extent to which industry PR has been successful in creating the illusion that global warming is some kind of controversial, hotly disputed theory.

Lobbying for Lethargy

In 1989, not long after James Hansen's highly publicized testimony before Congress and shortly after the first meeting of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Burson-Marsteller PR firm created the Global Climate Coalition (GCC). Chaired by William O'Keefe, an executive for the American Petroleum Institute, the GCC operated until 1997 out of the offices of the National Association of Manufacturers. Its members have included the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, Amoco, the American Forest & Paper Association, American Petroleum Institute, Chevron, Chrysler, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Dow Chemical, Exxon, Ford, General Motors, Mobil, Shell, Texaco, Union Carbide, and more than 40 other corporations and trade associations. The GCC has also used "Junkman" Steven Milloy's former employer, the EOP Group, as well as the E. Bruce Harrison Company, a subsidiary of the giant Ruder Finn PR firm. Within the public relations industry, Harrison is an almost legendary figure who is ironically considered "the founder of green PR" because of his work for the pesticide industry in the 1960s, when he helped lead the attack on author Rachel Carson and her environmental classic Silent Spring.

GCC has group in the United States battling reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Its activities have included publication of glossy reports, aggressive lobbying at international climate negotiation meetings, and raising concern about unemployment that it claims would result from emissions regulations. Since 1994 GCC alone has spent more than $63 million to combat any progress toward addressing the climate crisis. Its efforts are coordinated with separate campaigns by many of its members, such as the National Coal Association, which spent more than $700,000 on the global climate issue in 1992 and 1993, and the American Petroleum Institute, which paid the Burson-Marsteller PR firm $1.8 million in 1993 for a successful computer-driven "grassroots" letter and phone-in campaign to stop a proposed tax on fossil fuels.

These numbers may not seem huge compared to the billions that corporations spend on advertising. The Coca-Cola company alone, for example, spends nearly $300 million per year on soft drink advertisements. But the Global Climate Coalition is not advertising a product. Its propaganda budget serves solely to influence the news media and government policymakers on a single issue and comes on top of the marketing, lobbying, and campaign contributions that industry already spends in the regular course of doing business. In 1998, the oil and gas industries alone spent $58 million lobbying the U.S. Congress. For comparison's sake, environmental groups spent a relatively puny total of $4.7 million-on all is- a sues combined, not just global warming.

Industry's PR strategy with regard to the global warming issue is also eminently practical, with limited, realistic goals. Opinion polls for the past decade have consistently shown that the public would like to see something done about the global warming problem, along with many other environmental issues. Industry's PR strategy is not aimed at reversing the tide of public opinion, which may in any case be impossible. Its goal is simply to stop people from mobilizing to do anything about the problem, to create sufficient doubt in their minds about the seriousness of global warming that they will remain locked in debate and indecision. Friends of the Earth International describes this strategy as "lobbying for lethargy".

"People generally do not favor action on a non-alarming situation when arguments seem to be balanced on both sides and there is a clear doubt," explains Phil Lesly, author of Lesly's Handbook of Public Relations and Communications, a leading PR textbook. In order for the status quo to prevail, therefore, corporations have a simple task: "The weight of impressions on the public must be balanced so people will have doubts and lack motivation to take action. Accordingly, means are needed to get balancing information into the stream from sources that the public will find credible. There is no need for a clear-cut' victory.' ... Nurturing public doubts by demonstrating that this is not a clear-cut situation in support of the opponents usually is all that is necessary."

Hot Talk, Slow Walk

During the 1 990s, Clinton-bashing was a common theme in industry's appeals to conservatives, using the argument that the global warming issue was a liberal attempt to replace private property with "socialism," "bureaucracy," and "big government." Particularly strong criticisms were leveled at then-Vice President Al Gore, who has spoken with occasional eloquence about the greenhouse effect and wrote about it in his book Earth in the Balance. Ironically, industry's attacks on Clinton and Gore helped conceal the Clinton administration's own complicity in the effort to prevent any effective regulations on greenhouse emissions.

On the eve of Earth Day in April 1993, Clinton announced his intention to sign a treaty on global warming, only to spend the rest of his two terms in office waffling and backpedaling. His "Climate Change Action Plan" of October 1993 turned out to be a "voluntary effort," depending entirely on the goodwill of industry for implementation. By early 1996, he was forced to admit that the plan was off track and would not even come close to meeting its goal for greenhouse gas reductions by the year 2000.

In June 1997, Clinton addressed the United Nations Earth Summit and pledged a sustained U.S. commitment to stop global warming. Painting a near-apocalyptic picture of encroaching seas and killer heat, he acknowledged that America's record over the past five years was "not sufficient.... We must do better and we will." Four months later, however, he announced that realistic targets and timetables for cutting greenhouse gas emissions should be put off for 20 years, prompting Australian environmental writer Sharon Beder to comment that "champagne corks are popping in the boardrooms of BP, Shell, Esso, Mobil, Ford, General Motors, and the coal, steel and aluminum corporations of the US, Australia and Europe.... The new limits are so weak, compared with even the most pessimistic predictions of what the US would offer in the current negotiations, that two years of hard work by 150 countries towards reaching an agreement in December are now irrelevant."

During negotiations in Kyoto, the United States lobbied heavily and successfully to weaken the treaty's actual provisions for limiting greenhouse gases. The resulting treaty proposed a reduction of only 7 percent in global greenhouse emissions by the year 2012, far below the 20 percent cut proposed by the IPCC and European nations or the 30 percent reduction demanded by low-lying island nations that fear massive flooding as melting polar ice leads to rising sea levels. The United States also successfully won a provision that will allow countries to exceed their emission targets by buying right-to-pollute credits from nations that achieve better-than-targeted reductions.

Greenpeace called the resulting Kyoto treaty "a tragedy and a farce." It was condemned as "too extreme" by U.S. industry, declared dead on arrival by Senate Republicans, and praised by some environmental groups; and it provided all the political wiggle room that the Clinton administration needed to have its cake and eat it too. Clinton embraced the agreement but simultaneously said he would not submit it to the Senate until impoverished Third World nations agreed to their own cutbacks in greenhouse gas emissions.

There is a method to this madness that is well understood in Washington lobbying circles, although it is rarely discussed in public. By talking tough about the environment while sitting on the Kyoto treaty, Clinton and Gore were able to preserve their "green credentials" for political purposes while blaming the treaty's demise on anti-environmental Republicans and an apathetic public. For Democrats, it was a "win-win situation." They could stay on the campaign-funding gravy train by doing what their corporate donors wanted, while giving lip service to solving the problem. The December 12,1997 New York Times reported that Clinton was "in the risk-free position of being able to make a strong pro-environmental political pitch while not having to face a damaging vote in the Senate.... One senior White House official . . . said it was possible that the treaty would not be ready for submission . . . during the remainder of Mr. Clinton's term in office." And indeed, this prediction proved correct. Industry's "lobbyists for lethargy" had succeeded.

Stormy Weather

While Nero fiddles, the burning of Rome is proceeding and even appears to be occurring faster than some climatologists expected. The twelve warmest years in recorded history have all occurred since 1983. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the World Meteorological Association concurred that 1997 was the hottest year ever, only to be surpassed by 1998, which was in turn surpassed by 1999. In January 2000, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences Fred Seitz's former stomping grounds issued a major report concluding that global warming is an "undoubtedly real" problem and is in fact occurring 30 percent faster than the rate estimated just five years earlier ...

A series of extreme weather events also seemed to corroborate the IPCC's predictions. In 1998, a January ice storm caused widespread power outages in eastern Canada and the northeastern United States. In February, Florida was hit by the deadliest tornado outbreak in its history. April through June was the driest period in 104 years of record in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and New Mexico, and May through June was the warmest period on record. Heat and dry weather caused devastating fires in central and eastern Russia, Indonesia, Brazil, Central America, and Florida. Massive floods hit Argentina, Peru, Bangladesh, India, and China, where the flooding of the Yangtze River killed more than 3,000 people and caused $30 billion in losses. Droughts plagued Guyana, Papua New Guinea, Pakistan, the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and southern Russia. On October 4, 1998, Oklahoma was hit by 20 tornadoes, setting a national record for the most twisters ever during a single day. Three hurricanes and four tropical storms caused billions of dollars of damage to the United States. In late September, Hurricane Georges devastated the northern Caribbean, causing $4 billion in damages. A month later, Central America was devastated by Hurricane Mitch, Central America's worst natural disaster in 218 years, which killed more than 11,000 people and displaced another 2.4 million. In the Pacific, October's Super typhoon Zeb inundated the northern Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan. Only eight days later, Super typhoon Babs struck the Philippines, submerging parts of Manila.

In 1999, farmers in the northeastern and mid-Atlantic regions of the United States suffered through a record drought. A prolonged heat wave killed 271 people in the Midwest and Northeast. Hurricane Floyd battered North Carolina, inflicting more than a billion dollars in damages, while Boston marked a record 304 consecutive days without snow. In India, a supercyclone killed some 10,000 people. Torrential rains and mudslides killed 15,000 in Venezuela. Hurricane-force windstorms destroyed trees, buildings, and monuments in France, leaving more than $4 billion in damages. The South Pacific islands of Tebua Tarawa and Abunuea in the nation of Vanuato disappeared beneath the ocean, the first victims of the global rise in sea levels. The wave of catastrophes continued in 2000, with a prolonged drought in Kenya while wet, warm weather spawned billions of crop-threatening locusts in Australia and drought driven fires devastated Los Alamos. The melting and fissuring of Antarctica's ice shelf, which first became dramatically evident in 1995, led in l May 2000 to the calving of three enormous icebergs with a combined surface area slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut.

"You can't stop climate change given what we're doing right now,'' said Michael MacCracken in February 2000. MacCracken is director of the National Assessment Coordination Office of the U.S. Global Climate Change Research Program, which was launched by President Bush in 1989. It is already too late to stop global warming, he said, due to the accumulated carbon-dioxide emissions that have already entered the atmosphere. The best that can be hoped for is to minimize the problem and adapt to the changes. In the United States, necessary measures will include changing the way water supplies are managed in the western United States, beefing up public health programs, building higher bridges, and rethinking massive environmental restoration projects.

For years, the PR apparatus of big coal and big oil persuaded many key decision-makers that global warming was a phantom-that it was not even happening. As the scientific data proving otherwise has accumulated, the contrarian line of argument has also shifted. Industry voices have begun to admit that the industrial greenhouse effect is real, and some are attempting to argue, like Arthur Robinson of the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, that it is actually a good thing-that it will enhance plant growth or that it will be of no consequence because the anticipated temperature changes will be relatively slight. Other voices are stepping forward with industry's standard lament, claiming that even if global warming is a bad thing, fixing the problem is impossible because it will cost trillions of dollars, ruin the economy, and eliminate jobs.

Trust Us, We're Experts!

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