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The Danger of Misinformation about Climate Change

Global Experiment With the Climate

I want to preface this column by saying that I am very concerned about climate change. The rapid growth of atmospheric carbon dioxide shows no sign of abating, and I have concerns over what this will ultimately mean for the climate. The fact is that we are conducting a global experiment with the atmosphere, and predictions of severe consequences as a result should be taken with the utmost seriousness.

Having said that, I think it is important to maintain a healthy scientific discourse on the matter. “The science is settled” is just not a statement that I am comfortable with, and I am uncomfortable labelling those who question climate change with something that evokes comparisons with Holocaust denial.

Without a doubt, some of the attacks against climate science are ignorance-based. But some of those challenges and questions are by sincere people — sometimes scientists — who doubt the science in the same way that there have always been skeptics in science. In most cases the small band of skeptics is wrong, but sometimes they overturn entrenched paradigms. Those skeptics should be engaged on the basis of science, and not politics or personal animosity. (Hint: If your willingness to accept the conclusions of a report is based on whether it agrees with your position, then your position isn’t based on science nor is it objective — regardless of which side you are on).
So, in a nutshell I accept that accumulating carbon dioxide has the potential to change the climate — and may very well be doing so now — but I believe skeptics should be engaged scientifically rather than shouted down. On the flip side, I believe skeptics must engage on the basis of the science and not engage in ad hominem attacks.

Not all skeptics are idiots. But not all proponents are well-informed, as I show in today’s column.

Organized Environmentalists are Often Naïve

I have always considered myself an environmentalist, in that 1). I care about the environment; 2). I want to protect and preserve our wildlife; 3). I try to promote sustainability; and 4). I try to minimize my impact on the environment in my personal life. I recycle, drive a fuel efficient car, grow a portion of my family’s food, walk or bike when I can, etc.

However, the “environmental movement” has often come to represent something I do not wish to associate myself with, because it often appears to me to be synonymous with wilful ignorance. Certainly, many (if not all) who would characterize themselves as being a part of this movement are sincere and caring people who believe their actions are just, warranted, and effective. But far too often their actions are based upon misinformation.

An example of just how misinformed this group is can be seen in the recent “Twitter storm” against fossil fuel subsidies. The Guardian described the campaign: Activists hail success of Twitter storm against fossil fuel subsidies

Climate and anti-poverty activists have launched a 24-hour “Twitter storm” against the hundreds of billions of dollars of government subsidies paid each year to the petroleum and coal industry, despite the global economic downturn and the rise in emissions. The blitz, which has been supported by Stephen Fry, Robert Redford, actor Mark Ruffalo, politicians and environmentalists, took the hash tag #endfossilfuelsubsidies up to number two in the ranking of globally trending topics and number one in the US.

“This world has a few problems where a trillion dollars might come in handy – and we’d have a few less problems if we weren’t paying the fossil fuel industry to wreck the climate,” said 350.org founder Bill McKibben. “This is the public policy no-brainer of all time.”

As I will show here, there is great irony in the fact that anti-poverty activists were actively involved, and a great deal of misinformation along the lines of McKibben’s claim that we are “paying the fossil fuel industry to wreck the climate.” Incidentally, McKibben is the friend of a good friend of mine. My friend – who walks the talk because he lives the life of an environmentalist – described McKibben to me as a caring and sincere human being, but said that he is “in error”, that “environmentalists don’t understand energy,” and that “I suspect they are naive, well-intended idealists.” So please don’t misconstrue this as a personal attack on McKibben. I just believe he is wrong.

Fossil Fuel Subsidy Numbers: Full of Misinformation

The source that McKibben and company relied up for the claim that $750 billion or $1 trillion of fossil fuel subsidies is being paid out each year is Oil Change International. (I know this because I asked). The site claims $775 billion in global annual fossil fuel subsidies — a number that was repeated often during the Twitter storm — and they said the number was “quite possibly higher.” Naturally advocates went with the “quite possibly higher” number, which is the source of the $1 trillion claim.

Here is the irony. Of the total of $775 billion, $630 billion was for “Consumption Subsidies in Developing Countries” and another $45 billion was for “Consumption Subsidies in Developed Countries.” In contract to McKibben’s claim that these are handouts to the fossil fuel industry, they are overwhelmingly handouts to poor people so they can afford fuel. Examples of these subsidies are Venezuela’s policy of keeping gasoline prices very low for consumers, and the Low Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP) in the U.S. that liberals have staunchly defended. Thus, you have anti-poverty activists and liberals arguing to eliminate programs they actually staunchly support because they are ignorant of what these subsidies actually entail.

Of course some will argue (and indeed have argued with me) that these aren’t really fossil fuel subsidies, and that isn’t what they are against. The problem is that LIHEAP, for instance, is mentioned by name as a fossil fuel subsidy and the amount spent on that program is included in the total. Thus, 87% of the total subsidies being cited are directed at making energy more affordable for consumers. A fossil fuel subsidy? Sure. A “massive giveaway to Big Oil” which is how the issue has been framed? No, and by constantly framing the issue as such people are being grossly misinformed.

Thus, climate change advocates are shooting at the wrong target. They are making a lot of noise for sure. They are raising a lot of money (more on that below). But do you think their campaign is going to have any impact on policies in Venezuela or Nigeria to stop subsidizing fuel for their citizens? Of course not. Thus, campaigns like this are totally impotent at getting the desired results because they have spent their money and their time in the wrong area.

The Environmental Movement is a For-Profit Industry

I am not so cynical to believe that this is all about money, but I do question how money influences some of the environmental organizations. I recently spent some time looking through the financials of a prominent environmental “non-profit.” They have $250 million in assets, annual donations of more than $100 million, and a dozen employees listed as receiving more than $200,000 a year in compensation. I think it is safe to say that environmentalism is indeed a lucrative business for some.

Climate change advocates would argue that this sort of funding is necessary because they are up against the deep pockets of Big Oil. I am sure they would deny that money influences their objectivity just as it influences the objectivity of the banking industry, the pharmaceutical industry, or the oil industry. I do not reject this notion, because I get press releases every day from environmental organizations that are misleading, factually incorrect, and grossly misinformed.

Waging Battle Away From the Wrong Target

Yet despite all of the funding and activity of the advocates, carbon dioxide emissions are not only increasing, in the past few years they have accelerated. Why haven’t the advocates managed to make a major impact? Because most climate change advocates in the U.S. are fighting a tiny local skirmish, while the real war rages elsewhere. The following graphic from my recent article Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions — Facts and Figures tells the story:

CO2 Emissions 1965-2011

From that graphic, one can see that U.S. emissions 1). Are a small fraction of Asia Pacific’s; and 2). Have declined in recent years. In fact, since 2006 the U.S. is the world leader in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. But the biggest reasons for the decline in carbon emissions have nothing to do with the environmental movement. People have cut back on fossil fuel consumption due to high oil prices and a recession. Low natural gas prices have resulted in a large shift for power producers from coal to natural gas. Not only did environmentalists have nothing to do with any of this, they have actively fought against the growth of natural gas.

Further, if one were to limit the emissions to only emissions from U.S. consumption of oil (which I will do in a follow-up), you can immediately see that a lot of money is being spent in an area that will have little to no impact on the overall problem. It’s as if you are trying to cure obesity by launching a major campaign to ensure that everyone clips their toenails. Sure, it will help you lose a tiny fraction of an ounce, but is that really where you want to focus your efforts? Does that really address the root problem?

The Danger of Misinformation

I believe some of these organizations do more harm than good by misleading people, because misinformation causes people to spend their money and expend their time in the wrong places. Meanwhile, a new year brings a new record for global carbon dioxide emissions.

The truth is that current and future emissions are being driven by developing countries, and developing countries are the overwhelming source of fossil fuel subsidies cited in the recent Twitterstorm. The narrative being spun by the environmental movement tells a story that is disconnected from the facts.

Environmentalism is big business, so there is a large incentive to spin misleading narratives that stir people’s emotions if that helps with the fundraising. Perhaps most of these organizations are started with the purest of intentions, but I suspect somewhere along the line the people in charge recognized a profitable opportunity. So if they can keep people angry enough about fossil fuel subsidies to companies like ExxonMobil, the donations come pouring in.

I am not suggesting that there is nothing at all to be done in the U.S., but I am suggesting that a disproportionate amount of money is being spent on an increasingly marginal part of the problem. So it should come as no surprise that while their misleading narratives are effective at raising money, these organizations have been wholly ineffective at impacting the real problem.

By. Robert Rapier

Link to Original Article: Environmentalism is a Profitable Business

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Leave a comment
  • CarbonBridge on July 16 2012 said:
    The URL below links you to a 26 second video, thus a very condensed encapsulation of earth temps over the past 131 years. Kinda puts the 'planet warming' issue into a simplistic visual perspective while forest fires rage thus summer.


    Watch 131 Years of Global Warming in 26 Seconds - Source NASA

    Since this video was launched in late January, hundreds of thousands of people have watched it as it has bounced around the digital globe. The video, which comes from NASA, is an amazing 26-second animation depicting how temperatures around the globe have warmed since 1880. That year is what scientists call the beginning of the “modern record.” You’ll note an acceleration of those temperatures in the late 1970s as greenhouse gas emissions from energy production increased worldwide and clean air laws reduced emissions of pollutants that had a cooling effect on the climate, and thus were masking some of the global warming signal.

    The data comes from NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, which monitors global surface temperatures. As NASA notes, “in this animation, reds indicate temperatures higher than the average during a baseline period of 1951-1980, while blues indicate lower temperatures than the baseline average.” 

  • Mel Tisdale on July 18 2012 said:
    A very informative article, thanks. It is clear that when one leaves the pure science of climate change then one enters a region of not only murky waters, but murky waters in a state of turmoil. It is better to stick to the pure science, such as that found at scepticalscience.com. Being a scientific site, the issues are debated in an adult fashion and all sides given the opportunity to comment. Some issues cannot be resolved yet, because the jury is still out, so to speak. But those issues are not forgotten.

    Typical, and fundamental to the whole climate debate, is that of climate sensitivity (temperature rise for a doubling of CO2 since the start of the industrial revolution). A few scientists claim that this is about one degree Celsius, while most say it is about three degrees Celsius (there are varying tolerances either side of both figures). If one follows the debate over time, one can see the one degree figure becoming less and less likely while the three degree figure becomes much firmer. That said, the matter is still not fully resolved, so we have to await more evidence to be gathered. I find that much more informative than listening to or watching histrionics concerning some political aspect of the matter. (For a really entertaining show of histrionics, it is difficult to beat Alex Jones discussing almost anything. But there again, we have someone whose career is reliant on garnering popular support.)

    I would take issue with one point. We can say that ‘the science is settled’ when we talk about the basics of what is at the heart of the matter, namely what is commonly called the greenhouse effect, even though it is far removed from the earth being literally enclosed in a greenhouse. This has been proven innumerable times since it was first advanced by Fourier in 1827 and can clearly be said to be settled science.

    There is the wider issue to contend with. Quite reasonable people can be misled by misinformation, which is the main thrust of the article. Present these people with the truth and they will change their viewpoint. However, there is a body of people who are unreasonable and will never agree with anything that contradicts their opinion, regardless of the evidence. No matter how much one presents them with reasoned argument, they will still deny that climate change is happening, or if it is, deny that it is a problem. Such people are not confined to climate change discussions. Take 9/11. It is a simple matter of fundamental science that the official line concerning the collapse of both of the twin towers contravenes Newton’s third law of motion, a science that has been settled for over 300 years. Yet people such as myself who point this out are disparaged by being called ‘conspiracy theorists’.

    Sadly we have a long way to go before science will automatically win the day. Meanwhile the planet overheats with potentially catastrophic results and people guilty of 9/11 walk free when they should be behind bars.
  • Joseph Stubbs on October 11 2012 said:
    This article, which states provocatively that environmentalism is big business, does not appear to acknowledge that big oil is also big business, and that the now well reported on strategy of this stakeholder has been an organized campaign to fund studies refuting man made climate change. The aim has not been to win the argument so much as just creating enough "doubt" about it in the public sphere that such doubt can be leveraged to prevent new legislation which would harm their interests. That this organized endeavor has not been included in the considerations of this article puts the genuine objectivity of this inquiry into serious question. In my opinion this must be a part of any serious and balanced inquiry into this issue.

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