Cowards in Our Democracies: Part 1

The threat of human-made climate change and the urgency of reducing fossil fuel emissions have become increasingly clear to the scientific community during the past few years. Yet, at the same time, the public seems to have become less certain about the situation. Indeed, many people have begun to wonder whether the climate threat has been concocted or exaggerated.

Public doubt about the science is not an accident. People profiting from business-as-usual fossil fuel use are waging a campaign to discredit the science. Their campaign is effective because the profiteers have learned how to manipulate democracies for their advantage.

The scientific method requires objective analysis of all data, stating evidence pro and con, before reaching conclusions. This works well, indeed is necessary, for achieving success in science. But science is now pitted in public debate against the talk-show method, which consists of selective citation of anecdotal bits that support a predetermined position.

Why is the public presented results of the scientific method and the talk-show method as if they deserved equal respect? A few decades ago that did not happen. In 1981, when I wrote a then-controversial paper ( about the impact of CO2 on climate, the science writer Walter Sullivan contacted several of the top relevant scientific experts in the world for comments. He did not mislead the public by dredging up and highlighting contrarian opinion for the sake of a forced and unnatural “balance”.

Today most media, even publicly-supported media, are pressured to balance every climate story with opinions of contrarians, climate change deniers, as if they had equal scientific credibility. Media are dependent on advertising revenue of the fossil fuel industry, and in some cases are owned by people with an interest in continuing business as usual. Fossil fuel profiteers can readily find a few percent of the scientific community to serve as mouthpieces — all scientists practice skepticism, and it is not hard to find some who are out of their area of expertise, who may enjoy being in the public eye, and who are limited in scientific insight and analytic ability.

Distinguished scientific bodies such as national science academies, using the scientific method, can readily separate charlatans and false interpretations from well-reasoned science. Yet it seems that our governments and the public are not making much use of their authoritative scientific bodies. Why is that?

I believe that the answer, and the difficulty in communicating science to the public, is related to the corrosive influence of money in politics and to increased corporate influence on the media.

It is a tragic and frustrating situation, because when all the dots in the climate-energy story are connected it becomes clear that a common-sense pathway exists that would solve energy needs, stimulate the economy, and protect the future of young people. As I discussed in “Storms of My Grandchildren”, a gradually rising carbon fee should be collected from fossil fuel companies, with the money distributed uniformly to legal residents. This would stimulate the economy, making it more efficient by putting an honest price on fuels, incorporating their costs to society.

“Captains of industry” told me they would prefer such a course with knowledge of a steadily rising carbon price, which would stimulate innovations in efficiency and clean energies.

Despite the obstacles presented by the role of money in politics and by the huge advertising campaigns of the fossil fuel industry, the urgency of addressing the climate-energy issue demands that we do the best that we can to inform the public. One of the things we can do is try to expose how the public and our democracies are being manipulated for the benefit of those profiting from the public’s fossil fuel addiction.

For that purpose I provided a witness statement in support of an effort to reveal the name of the seed funder of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) in the UK. GWPF is “successful” in casting doubt on the reality and significance of human-made climate change.

The newsletters of Benny Peiser, Director of GWPF, can be quite entertaining and sometimes include useful references. He pings the impracticality and costliness of an energy approach that relies excessively on renewable energies. But ultimately his purpose seems to be to persuade the public that climate science is flawed. I don’t know if GWPF is supported by the fossil fuel industry, but it seems to me that the public has the right to know.

Ultimately, I hope and believe, the public will be able to appreciate how our democracies are being twisted by people with money for their own purposes. But that requires freedom of information.

Reprinted with permission from the author, James Hansen, PhD.

James E. Hansen, PhD, heads the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City and is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. Hansen is best known for his research in the field of climatology, his testimony on climate change to congressional committees in 1988 that helped raise broad awareness of global warming, and his advocacy of action to limit the impacts of climate change. His first book, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, was published in 2009.

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