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Lemmings and Lifeguards

by James Hoggan

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The Climate Precipice

We are standing at the edge of a cliff. Behind us is a considerable crowd, 6.7 billion people and counting, and below is a beckoning pool. Some people say that you can jump into that pool without risk. They say that humans have been doing so for ages without any problems. But others say that waves have been eating away at the foot of the cliff, causing big rocks to fall into the water. They say that the risk of jumping grows more frightening by the day. Whom do you trust?

That’s a tricky question because here on the climate change cliff, some of the lifeguards are just not qualified, some have forgotten entirely whose interests they are supposed to protect, and some seem quite willing to sacrifice the whole swim team if they think there is a good profit to be made thereby. This article is about lousy lifeguards—people whose lack of training, conflicts of interest, or general disregard have put us all at risk of storming off the cliff like so many apocryphal lemmings.

I’m not saying that all of the lousy lifeguards are evil or ill-intentioned, although some may shake your faith in humanity. Rather, the whole lifeguarding institution seems to be failing, and not necessarily by accident. In the past two decades, and particularly on the issue of climate change, there has been an attack on public trust and a corresponding collapse in the integrity of the public conversation. The great institutions of science and government seem to have lost their credibility, and the watchdogs in media have lost their focus. Here we are, standing on the most dangerous environmental precipice that the human race has ever encountered, and we suddenly have to take a fresh and frightening look at the lifeguards in our midst.



Lifeguards? Say What?

The view is not reassuring. Take, for example, the case of Freeman Dyson. Dyson is an impressive character, a physicist who many people believe should have been given a Nobel Prize for his early work in quantum field theory. Later in his career he distinguished himself as a good writer with a talent for simplifying and popularizing science. Dyson was always a contrarian, but at age eighty-five, he has become an outspoken skeptic of modern climate science, and a popular "expert" among those who deny the risks of global warming.

It makes sense that skeptics would seek out other skeptics to try to bolster their opinions about climate change. It’s also entirely reasonable that Dyson should want to keep commenting on issues of scientific interest. But it doesn’t explain why in 2009, the New York Times Magazine would have presented an 8000-word cover story on Dyson, lauding him as “the Civil Heretic.” Neither does it explain why the Times, certainly one of the most respected sources of journalistic information, sent a sportswriter to write the story. It’s reasonable to ask why the Times would choose someone with no expertise, education and background in climate science to interview a man dedicated to undermining public confidence in the majority scientific view on global warming.

As a lifeguard, the last time Freeman Dyson went down to the bottom of the cliff to check on the rock pile was never. He has no background in climate science, having done no research whatever on atmospheric physics or climate modelling. Even in theoretical physics, his greatest contributions date to the late 1940s and early 1950s. In a free society, Dyson has every right to stand at the top of the cliff and shout, “Jump!” But it’s reasonable to wonder why the New York Times Magazine would give him the soapbox, especially when it pays relatively little attention to this, the most urgent environmental issue humankind has ever faced.

Another example: the Globe and Mail, Canada’s answer to the New York Times carried an opinion piece in 2009 by Bjørn Lomborg, the self-described skeptical environmentalist. Under the headline Forget the Scary Eco-Crunch: This Earth is Enough, Lomborg dismissed concerns that humans are consuming global resources at a pace that cannot be sustained. He began by criticizing the concept of an ecological footprint. With impenetrable logic, he then implied we can disregard the ecological aspect of our footprint because it’s tricky to tally with absolute certainty. Then he reassures readers: “Due to technology, the individual demand on the planet has already dropped 35% over the past half-decade, and the collective requirement will reach its upper limit before 2020 without any overdraft.”

That’ would be wonderful, if it could be proven. But Lomborg wasn'y sharing any secret source of information for his contention with readers. He threw assertions out without substantiation, ran to the cliff, grabbed the Globe and Mail megaphone, and shouted, “Jump!” So why was Canada’s leading newspaper promoting his viewpoint? Lomborg is not a scientist (his Ph.D is in politics). His previous "work" was widely criticized for its inaccuracy. Why does a "serious" newspaper present unsourced and inexpert argument as worthy of public attention?



No Mystery

It’s not as though the true state of the world’s environment is a mystery—or that it is left unstudied by leading and highly qualified scientists. For example, a collection of 1,360 such experts completed the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2005. Those scientists, all leaders in their fields, concluded:

Over the past 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history, largely to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber and fuel. This has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth.

Substantial and largely irreversible. That sounds more newsworthy than Lomborg’s reassuring promise of “no ecological collapse.” The whole Millennium Ecosystem Assessment suggests specifically that humankind is destroying the environment at a frightening pace. We are burning down forests, trashing the ocean, and changing global climate in a way that is making it extremely difficult for other species to survive. In a way, we have to hope that Lomborg is right: we have to hope that this Earth is enough—and it may be, if humans pay attention to the warning signs and start behaving differently. But Lomborg is mounting a transparently fatuous argument to convince us that we don’t have to pay attention to our ecological footprint. While more than thirteen hundred of the world’s leading scientists try in good faith to back us away from the cliff, Lomborg grabs a soiled lifeguard T-shirt from a bin and tells us to ignore the risks and keep jumping. The Globe and Mail cheers him on.



Positively Orwellian

A story broke in 2009 that cast light on the weakness of modern lifeguard recruitment. The New York Times’s science writer Andrew Revkin reported on a now-defunct organization called the Global Climate Coalition, primarily a group of companies whose operations or products are heavy producers of greenhouse gases. For more than a decade, the coalition spent millions of dollars on advertising and lobbying campaigns aimed at convincing public officials and the public that climate change was not proven and that mitigating action was unnecessary. Yet, as Revkin reported, recently released court documents show that its own scientists had said in their 1995 report Predicting Future Climate Change, “The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied.”

Revkin reported that someone within the organization deleted the above reference and never distributed the report. And the group spent a fortune (the 1997 budget alone was $1.68 million) sowing confusion and lobbying against climate change policies, a gesture that served the financial interests of its major funders: ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Texaco, General Motors, Ford, DaimlerChrysler, the Aluminum Association, the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute.

To take the crowded-cliff analogy one step further, it was as if some of the lifeguards had been charging thrill-seekers money to jump into the water, and they didn’t want to give up the income. Not only did they pass up the opportunity to check the rocky bottom themselves, but when they hired someone to check, and that someone (in this case, a Mobil Corporation chemical engineer and climate expert named Leonard S. Bernstein) came back and said there was trouble below, they buried the report—and kept selling the tickets.



The Campaign of Confusion

You may conclude from all this that reputable newspapers and magazines are today acting in a confused and confusing manner because a great number of people have worked very hard and spent a great deal of money in an effort to establish and spread that confusion. You will also see that their efforts have been disastrously successful. We have lost two decades—two critical decades—during which we could have taken action on climate change but didn’t, because we were relying on bad advice. We were listening to lifeguards whose primary agenda had nothing to do with protecting our safety.
 
It’s possible that when you see the full extent of the campaign of confusion, you will drift into irritation and anger. You may want to blame the bad advisors—the freelance lifeguards whose real goal was often something other than swimmer safety. You may, especially, lose faith in mainstream media as a reliable source of credible information. Finally, you might begin to lose hope. You might come to question our ability to have a credible public conversation about science and to arrive at a reasonable set of policies to address climate change. You might be tempted to throw up your hands in despair.

That would be the worst possible result. Just by reading this article, you have made the first, critical step toward being part of the solution. Information like this will at least help inoculate you against the public relations spin, the confusion and misinformation that has led us through two decades of inaction. At best, it will inspire you to learn more about climate change and more about the practical, affordable, and essential things that we all need to do to conquer the problem.

Our species has proved itself capable of great stupidity and palpable evil. Human history is full of pogroms, holocausts, wars, genocides and societal collapses. Equally, however, we have proved ourselves intelligent and adaptable. When we stepped back from the brink of global nuclear annihilation, we showed that when the conversation is open and accurate, we can make good, even altruistic decisions.

It’s time for such a decision now. It’s time for good people to inform themselves, to help lead and guide their families, their friends, and their neighbors back from a path that threatens the habitability of planet Earth to one that will be sensible and sustainable. We don’t have to jump off the cliff, and if someone tells you that we do, check his credentials. You may be surprised by what you find.

The above article was slighly edited from the first chapter of Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming. This widely-praised volume is available from its publishers & online booksellers. David Suzuki commented: "
Climate Cover-Up" documents one of the most disgusting stories ever hidden about corporate disinformation. What you’ll discover in this book amounts to proof of an intergenerational crime.  Lester Brown called it a clear & courageous battle cry against those who, for profit’s sake, would lead us to environmental &  economic ruin

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