When scientific facts and corporate fiction collide

The article below ran in the Business Post in late January. Just days after the inauguration of a new US president, it seemed like an opportune time to explain to a wider audience how the blitz of malignant lies aimed at scientists whose findings potentially threatened corporate profits had presaged the rise of malignant Trumpism.

TO THE POLITICAL classes and wider public still reeling under the avalanche of Fake News and incredulous that the very foundations of democracy can be swept away in a blizzard of lies, climate scientists might well say: hold my beer.

Take Prof Phil Jones, a quietly-spoken climatologist at the University of East Anglia in the UK. In 2009, he was caught up in an illegal hacking attack on the university’s email servers, later dubbed ‘Climategate’.

A couple of phrases cherry-picked from thousands of emails between scientists stretching back over a decade were maliciously leaked to the media, triggering an international furore. Jones, in the firing line and entirely unprepared for such a situation, contemplated suicide.

Then, dozens of death threats rolled in. ‘Just a quick note to encourage you to do the right thing and shoot yourself in the head’ wrote one. ‘You are a fucking scumbag, a liar and a fraud. I hope someone puts a bullet between your eyes’ wrote another. And on it went.

Eight committees conducted separate investigations into the Climategate allegations, and all found zero evidence or fraud or scientific misconduct. However, their vindication didn’t make the front pages, and the atmosphere of intimidation continued unabated.

I had my first glimpse into the alternate reality inhabited by climate scientists when, in early 2008, I interviewed climatologist, Stephen Schneider in Stanford University, California. Before agreeing to the interview, I was rigorously vetted by his office, including having to submit multiple forms of ID.

This struck me as paranoid in the extreme, and Schneider in person was gracious and apologetic, explaining that the constant threats of violence against him and his family meant he couldn’t take chances on agreeing to meet a stranger in his office.

Shortly before his untimely death in 2010, Schneider published a book titled ‘Science as a contact sport’ which drew particular attention to the people who he said “would stop at nothing to deny that climate change is happening.”

It is worth noting that most scientists go about their professional lives far from the public gaze. Their debates are fought out largely behind closed doors, in the halls of science and in specialist journals. When one scientist publishes a new hypothesis, others will seek to replicate or falsify the study’s findings. If the evidence does not stack up, the hypothesis will be ruthlessly discarded.

The self-correcting scientific method has led to unprecedented advances across almost all areas of human endeavour. This is why your smartphone can live-stream video to the other side of the world, an everyday feat that 15 years ago would have seemed fantastical. And this is how vaccines for Covid-19 were developed in record time.

However, climate science found itself unwittingly on a collision course with the world’s most profitable industry, the energy sector, and its many allies in politics and right wing organisations, most notably Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire.

Some of the best early climate science work was actually carried out by scientists employed by energy companies such as Exxon as far back as the 1970s, but their findings were hushed up and the companies instead lavishly funded ‘think tanks’ and Astroturf (fake local activism) groups, as well as a network of scientists-for-hire and ideologically motivated columnists and bloggers.

Collectively, they created and maintained a media echo chamber, where minor inconsistencies or trivial errors in a scientific paper were confected into a faux controversy, which was then spread globally via a combination of network TV, syndicated columns and online activists.

This relentless conveyor belt of fake news helped sway both public opinion and the mainstream media into focusing on supposed uncertainties in climate science while clouding over the crucial point that the world faces an ever-deepening and entirely real climate emergency.

A sacred convention of journalism is the pursuit of balance. In political affairs, for instance, this makes perfect sense. Where this breaks down is in science coverage, where facts, not opinions or oratory, are all-important. If there is an overwhelming consensus of relevant experts on one side of an argument, how does the media present this?

“There’s asymmetrical warfare between us scientists and good faith communicators trying to inform the public discourse and those looking to pollute it”, Prof Michael Mann of Penn State University told me.

Mann came to international prominence for developing the ‘hockey stick’ graph showing a sharp recent uptick in global temperatures, and for his pains, has received multiple death threats as well as hostile questioning in the US Congress and legal assaults from climate deniers. His key findings have since been replicated and confirmed beyond doubt.

Earth science is hugely complex and full of legitimate uncertainties that can be easily exploited by people acting in bad faith. Research into climate denial, which is most widespread among elderly, conservative white males, has identified it is largely driven not by science ignorance but by ‘regulation phobia.’

Researchers note that white males in particular display “atypically high levels of environmental risk acceptance,” driven largely by their generally privileged life experience relative to most other groups. Elderly deniers have the added bonus of not having to be around to face the consequences of their deceit.

Facing climate change squarely requires accepting harsh realities, such as the need to set strict limits on consumption, pollution and emissions. This presents a happy hunting ground for purveyors of fake news. After all, how many of us would rather hear reassuring lies than face deeply uncomfortable truths?

  • John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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