Know Your Times

by | Apr 24, 2009

>> UPDATE: Gore uses the flawed NYT article in his testimony to congress. READ MORE. <<

New York Times journalist, Andrew Revkin, generally writes thoughtfully in the paper, and on his Dot Earth blog, even if we generally disagree with him.

However, writing for the paper yesterday, he lowers himself to the level of debate we’re used to seeing from the likes of George Monbiot, who we frequently mention. Indeed, Revkin even quotes Monbiot.

George Monbiot, a British environmental activist and writer, said that by promoting doubt, industry had taken advantage of news media norms requiring neutral coverage of issues, just as the tobacco industry once had.

This is the ‘tobacco strategy’ thesis that Monbiot has taken from Naomi Oreskes. We’ve written about it on several occasions

The thesis needs no exposition here – read the links. Suffice it to say that it attempts (but also fails comprehensively) to show exactly what Revkin aims to show.

For more than a decade the Global Climate Coalition, a group representing industries with profits tied to fossil fuels, led an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign against the idea that emissions of heat-trapping gases could lead to global warming.

That is – a conspiracy to subvert the truth according to environmentalism using those vicious weapons, argument and science within democratic debate! Bastards! How dare they?

The demonstration of the conspiracy’s weight rests on the ‘discovery’ of information (actually it was in the public domain) relating to its budget.

The coalition was financed by fees from large corporations and trade groups representing the oil, coal and auto industries, among others. In 1997, the year an international climate agreement that came to be known as the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, its budget totaled $1.68 million, according to tax records obtained by environmental groups.

That’s right folks, this conspiracy was financed to the tune of a whopping great big massive huge giant vast $1.68 million dollars! A year! Wow, that’s nearly enough money for… erm… a couple of adverts!

As we’ve pointed out, $1.68 million is absolute peanuts in comparison to the spend on propaganda from environmental organisations. But these groups can’t even claim to be providing a useful service, like fuel. 

As we’ve also pointed out, many times, the efforts of these organisations is usually well out of kilter with anything that emerges from the scientific literature.


Environmentalists have long maintained that industry knew early on that the scientific evidence supported a human influence on rising temperatures, but that the evidence was ignored for the sake of companies’ fight against curbs on greenhouse gas emissions. 

We have also pointed out that the tobacco-strategy-conspiracy-theory as put forward by Oreskes substantially depends on a re-writing of scientific history: that it has long been ‘known’ as ‘fact’ that mankind is influencing the climate. In fact, the IPCC process did not produce any putative ‘certainty’ until TAR2001.

Similarly focussing on what was known by the conspiracy, and what it published, Revkin compares two statements, one public, distributed in the early 1990s, and the other private, produced in 1995:

[PUBLIC, early 1990s] “The role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood,” the coalition said in a scientific “backgrounder” provided to lawmakers and journalists through the early 1990s, adding that “scientists differ” on the issue.

[PRIVATE, 1995] “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,” the experts wrote in an internal report compiled for the coalition in 1995.

This is silly. Even if the private memo wasn’t written AFTER the first, the two statements are not incompatible. The role of greenhouse gasses in climate change ARE NOT well understood, even if the POTENTIAL impact of human emissions has been documented. That is why the Kyoto protocol was advanced, under the terms of the Rio Declaration, not on the basis of knowledge or of certainty, but according to the precautionary principle. The ‘potential impact’ of anthropogenic climate change has, since the dawn of climate alarmism, been understood as anything between slightly better conditions for agriculture, and total annihilation of life on Earth.

The Environmentalists’ case rests on the claim that the knowledge of the fact that CO2 can influence climate is equivalent to knowledge that it will produce widespread effects, not just to climate, but to society.

Moreover, Revkin, seemingly in search of a scoop, quotes selectively from the private document. In context, the apparent contradiction evaporates:

The potential for a human impact on climate is based on well-established scientific fact, and should not be denied. While, in theory, human activities have the potential to result in net cooling, a concern about 25 years ago, the current balance between greenhouse gas emissions and the emissions of particulates and particulate-formers is such that essentially all of today’s concern is about net warming. However, as will be discussed below, it is still not possible to accurately predict the magnitude (if any), timing or impact of climate change as a result of the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations. Also, because of the complex, possibly chaotic, nature of the climate system, it may never be possible to accurately predict future climate or to estimate the impact of increased  greenhouse gas concentrations.

The New York Times publish this comment attached to the documents.

The Public Message: Climate Uncertainty: In the early 1990s, the Global Climate Coalition was the leading voice for industries concerned that a prompt push to cut heat-trapping emissions could raise energy costs. It produced a series of “backgrounders” available to the press and policymakers. This flier appears to contradict what the coalition’s science and technology advisers were saying about the basic science pointing to substantial warming from a buildup of such gases.

 Revkin has failed to notice the incoherence of the arguments made by environmentalists. 

In summary:

1. Environmentalists confuse the ‘fact’ of anthropogenic CO2’s unquantified influence with the range of nth-order effects that it may (or may not) cause. But the fact of the influence of anthropogenic CO2 on the climate is distinct to facts of the degree of that effect, which is again logically distinct from the facts relating to the effects produced as second, third, and fourth order effects on climate systems, ecosystems, species, primary industry and civil infrastructure, economy, and society. 

2. The document contradicting the claims made in the briefing document was written after the briefing document was circulated. Therefore, no contradiction emerges from the evidence. 

3. The documents only contradict each other when quoted from selectively. 

4. The environmentalists’ case only exists by blurring distinctions between logically distinct categories of knowledge, by ignoring the order of events, by reducing matters of degree to binary true/false axioms, and by exaggerating the influence of the alleged conspiracy. 

[ETA: We have been unclear in the above post. There are two sentences which appear in the document published by the NYT.

The first says 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.”

The second says “The potential for a human impact on climate is based on well-established scientific fact, and should not be denied.”

The first sentence appears ahead of the second in the document. The second paragraph is part of the larger paragraph, as quoted.

This changes nothing about the meaning, nor of the failure of the NYT to check their story but we thought we ought to draw people’s attention to the two instances. – Editors]


  1. Major Mike

    We know the effects of a warmer climate: during the past 10,000 years, human civilizations have prospered during the warmer Holocene Climate Optimum (7,000 to 3,000 BC) and the Medieval Warm Period (800 to 1350 AD). Human civilizations have struggled because of reduced economic productivity, stronger storms, and plague during the colder periods, more recently the Little Ice Ages (1350 to 1850 AD). Our current warm climate is not remarkable compared to naturally warmer periods in the past 10,000 years. It is intellectual dishonesty to declare the coincidence of slightly warmer weather and increased CO2 to be a cause of catastrophy to our Earth. The one has not been proven to cause the other, and the outcomes of a warmer climate could as easily be beneficial as otherwise. Since the Earth has been much warmer during about 90% of the past 300 million years, mankind will eventually have to learn to adapt to a naturally warmer climate or perish. Mankind won’t be able to stop the warming, or even more threatening, the brief but inevitable periods of cooling.

  2. geoff chambers

    On the subject of the evils of being financed by Big Business:
    On March 31st Guardian environment editor John Vidal published an article quoting the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, to the effect that temperatures are due rise 5-7°C this century.
    I commented, pointing out that the MIT Joint Program is financed by Shell, BP, and Exxon, among others, and asking what the Guardian was doing publicising propaganda financed by Big Oil. After 5 comments (3 by me) discussion was closed. Guardian Environment hasn’t referred to the MIT Joint Program since.
    Business puts its money where it thinks it can do itself good. I don’t think environmentalists are being falsely naive. They really don’t seem to understand this.


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