Sunday, January 07, 2007

Scientists say ExxonMobil is using junk science to muddy the waters on global warming

By Nancy Jane Moore

ExxonMobil is funding front organizations that use junk science to argue that global warming is not a problem, the Union of Concerned Scientists said in a report issued Jan. 3.

In fact, the UCS said, Exxon's campaign strongly resembles Big Tobacco's major disinformation campaign that contradicted overwhelming evidence about the risks associated with cigarettes. Exxon is even using some of the same people, the report says.

In their press release for the report, the UCS says Exxon:
  • raised doubts about even the most indisputable scientific evidence
  • funded an array of front organizations to create the appearance of a broad platform for a tight-knit group of vocal climate change contrarians who misrepresent peer-reviewed scientific findings
  • attempted to portray its opposition to action as a positive quest for "sound science" rather than business self-interest
  • used its access to the Bush administration to block federal policies and shape government communications on global warming
Campaigns that manipulate information to protect a company's business interests are a modern fact of life. I suspect most companies do it, in one way or another. And, unfortunately, most of us go along with this: It appears to be a sad truth of modern corporate life that people who are generally quite moral in their personal lives don't raise strong objections when their company does something that they know is wrong. (If you have ever worked for a large company, you are probably uncomfortably aware of just how easy it is to convince yourself that you can't stop bad decisions anyway, so why should you put your job at risk.)

But Exxon's efforts are particularly heinous, because we must make some serious immediate changes to prevent long term disaster from human-caused climate change.

It's difficult enough for human beings to wrap their brains around the idea that we are affecting the climate. As Daniel Gilbert points out in his witty book about how the human mind works, Stumbling on Happiness, we are very good at appreciating the danger of immediate attack -- like a charging tiger -- but lousy at understanding risks where the potential disaster is years down the road.

Global warming is just that kind of problem: By the time we see unmistakable signs, it's going to be way too late to stop it. We have to use our intellectual skills to understand the problem, because our instincts aren't so finely tuned that they react to long term dangers. That's why we need good science -- and we also need to educate ourselves and our children so that we can understand good science.

Funding junk science and using corporate power to encourage journalists and policymakers to treat crackpots with the same respect as the real experts undermines our efforts to truly understand what is happening to our planet. The process is difficult enough when we don't have to wade through distortions. ExxonMobil and the others who are cynically creating uncertainty must be stopped.

You can link to a pdf copy of the full report, "Smoke, Mirrors & Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco's Tactics to 'Manufacture Uncertainty' on Climate Change," from the UCS press release.

The Union of Concerned Scientists also has a nice FAQ section on global warming.

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