Climate denialists and inactivists are as active as ever, experts and activists warn. David Williams reports

American climate scientist Michael Mann has proved as adept at predicting the behaviour of climate deniers and purveyors of disinformation as he was at using data to prove anthropogenic climate change.

His famous temperature graph, known as the “hockey stick” for its steep rise in the 20th Century showing the influence of humans, attracted fierce attacks, especially after 2001, when it was published in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) third assessment report.

The attacks were scientifically invalid, Mann told Scientific American in 2005, and used “disengenuous arguments and untruths”.

“I imagine it will go on, just as it went on for years and years with tobacco until it was no longer tenable.”

The attacks have persisted, including false claims the hockey stick was proved wrong. (As if problems with a single graph could undo all evidence of climate change, anyway.)

As a Reuters fact check said last year, Mann’s graph shows temperatures rapidly rising since the 20th century, and “multiple studies and independent climate scientists support the findings depicted”.

Some temperatures have been altered and corrected, using more robust reconstruction methods. And as more data has been added the stick head has grown taller – as predicted – underlining the original graph’s reliability.

Just as reliable have been the actions of the merchants of misinformation, deniers, and the promoters of climate delay, whose tactics, often funded by the fossil fuel industry, were on display earlier this week.

“Greta finally gets it!” a headline shrieked on the website Climate Depot, run by well-known denialists the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow, or CFACT. (See what they did there?)

CFACT’s director of communications, Marc Morano – who, for some reason, is attending the latest United Nations climate negotiations in Egypt, starting this coming Sunday – disingenuously celebrated climate activist Greta Thunberg’s “moment of clarity”.

“We welcome Greta now understanding that these summits have nothing to do with the climate.”

This is a gross distortion.

Thunberg did dismiss the climate summit, known as COP27, as an opportunity for “people in power … to [use] greenwashing, lying and cheating”.

The high-profile Swede called the meetings a “scam”, not because they’re about something other than climate but because they “are not really going to lead to any major changes”. “These systems are failing us,” she said at an event in London to promote her book.

Another important reason she’s not going is because of Egypt’s human rights record, and the limited space for civil society groups at COP27.

(A troubling distraction, perhaps, is the controversial appointment of US PR firm Hill+Knowlton, previously accused of greenwashing for oil companies, as communications manager at the Egyptian climate conference.)

Climate Depot also misused Thunberg’s quote, “Blah, blah, blah”, to sum up the last COP, in Glasgow, Scotland.

Earlier this week, on Twitter, Mann, the climate scientist, called Morano “one of the most prominent industry-funded climate change deniers”.

He tells Newsroom via email: “It’s textbook. They can’t deny that climate change is real any more, but they’re sure working hard to prevent anything being done about it.”

Morano has been called the king of the skeptics. He used to work as a producer for shock-jock Rush Limbaugh, and is the former communications director of well-known denier Senator James Inhofe, of Oklahoma.

In 2012, Morano was named Climate Change Misinformer of the Year by Media Matters, and he has said climate scientists “deserve to be publicly flogged”.

In 2009, just before the UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen, Morano’s site Climate Depot helped whip up a media storm by promoting a manufactured scandal. Based on emails – stolen from England’s University of East Anglia – between climate scientists, including Mann, the disinformation campaign tried to cast doubt on climate science by claiming data had been falsified.

The claims were eventually discredited but it cast a shadow over the Copenhagen conference, which ended in disarray.

“The goal is always the same – delay climate action.”
– John Cook

It’s got to be a hard gig being a denier right now, surely, in the face of unequivocal evidence of climate change. It’s not just piling up in academic journals, the evidence might be gushing through the window.

Think of Pakistan’s record floods, the alarming warming in Europe, or melting of the Greenland ice sheet.

But climate experts and activists are still warning about misinformation and disinformation ahead of the climate negotations in Egypt.

John Cook is a post-doctoral research fellow with Monash University’s Climate Change Communication Research Hub.

He’s written books like Cranky Uncle vs Climate Change, to give the public the tools to understand and respond to climate science deniers.

Given the weight of evidence showing human-induced climate change, we asked Cook if denial and disinformation tactics are diminishing or changing?

“Over the last few decades, climate misinformation has been steadily transitioning from science denial to attacks on climate solutions,” he says via email. “As the scientific evidence has accumulated, it’s become more untenable to deny the science. But the goal is always the same – delay climate action.”

Motivations differ, Cook says. Fossil fuel companies want to maintain profits. Conservative groups oppose some proposed solutions such as regulating polluting industries. Political groups go on the attack because the public is becoming polarised – often, no doubt, thanks to disinformation.

“Climate misinformation will continue to persist so long as there are people who oppose climate action.”

(Misinformation, it’s said by academics, is when someone unwittingly spreads false rumours, while disinformation is intentionally starting or spreading those false rumours, maliciously.)

Connor Gibson is a former Greenpeace USA staffer who recently compiled a climate misinformation field guide for journalists, through the group Climate Action Against Disinformation (of which Greenpeace is a member).

Gibson’s specialty is opposition research into individual and corporate donors to anti-climate-change groups – such as Charles and David Koch.

He says deniers are just as active as they’ve ever been.

“It’s pretty much the same group of mostly old white men, mostly in the US, who are still perpetuating the same tired set of lies that they have for decades now.”

Since the election of Donald Trump as US president in 2016, and “a fascist wave swept the world”, there has been more outright denial of climate science, he says. But there are a range of tactics – from arguing humans aren’t the main driver of planetary warming, to tapping into economic pragmatism, or pushing a narrative of hopelessness.

“That menu of rhetorical arguments has always existed, but which ones are more effective during different eras, and in different regions of the world, that’s what has shifted over the years.”

Seeding disinformation is easy and relatively cheap when it’s coordinated, he says, and many of these groups have been working together for years.

Some of the more egregious actors Gibson calls out are the American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil, the Heartland Institute, and the Heritage Foundation. Many key people in the climate denial machine have links to tobacco and oil companies.

He also mentions the Atlas Network as a worldwide funder of free-market think tanks, whose affiliates and funders have been involved in climate denial.

The website DeSmog reports: “Atlas has cosponsored numerous Heartland Institute events dedicated to the proposition that climate change is not a crisis.”

Greenpeace describes Atlas as a “Koch Industries climate denial front group”.

It turns out Atlas has New Zealand connections.

Its archived webpage shows its list of partners include the New Zealand Initiative think tank (which earlier this year published a report Pretence of Necessity, Why further climate change action isn’t needed and won’t help) and the right-wing Taxpayers’ Union.

In a recent podcast about charging farmers for greenhouse gas emissions, Taxpayers’ Union board member Casey Costello said “climate emissions stuff” was “at risk of a distraction”.

“At the end of the day, when people are struggling to put food on the table, and everything’s really expensive, that’s the highest priority – quality of life, and protection of our most vulnerable, should take precedence over the high ideals of a few.”

Jordan Williams, Taxpayers’ Union’s executive director, says via email: “I was not aware Atlas has any interest in climate change policy – I’ve attended about a dozen of their events and I am a graduate of their Think Tank MBA programme and, subsequently, the Smith Fellowship programme.

“Not once have I heard climate change come up as an issue. We have never worked with or been funded by Atlas on a climate change project.”

Oliver Hartwich, NZ Initiative’s executive director, is more succinct: “We haven’t received money from Atlas and haven’t had any interactions with them on climate change.”

Professor James Renwick: “You don’t have to be a carbon Jesus to talk about climate change.” Photo: Climate Change Commission

Newsroom asked climate experts to dispel some popular myths.

Cook, of Monash University, focuses on an argument the climate has always changed.

“The logic is that climate changed naturally before humans so what’s happening now must be natural as well.

“This argument commits single cause fallacy, arguing that whatever caused climate change in the past must be the same cause now, when in fact, climate can be driven by multiple causes and human activity is now the dominant cause.

“This argument is like arguing that people died of cancer before cigarettes were invented, so cigarettes can’t cause cancer.”

New Zealand climate scientist Professor James Renwick, of Victoria University of Wellington, sits on the Climate Change Commission and has been a lead author of IPCC assessment reports. He’s never been to a COP meeting.

We put to Renwick a skeptical view that warming isn’t as bad as early climate models predicted.

“The changes in temperature we’ve seen since the IPCC got going 30 years ago have been in line with the model projections.”

No model is perfect, he says, and model predictions are only as good as the assumptions plugged into them.

“It’s easy enough to find simulations from 30 years ago that had much more warming than we’ve experienced because they had much more in the way of greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s easy to be disingenuous about all of this and say, ‘Oh, look, what really happened was way less than what this model was saying’.

“And that’s because that model was forced with very high CO2 emissions. So when you match up the actual emissions to the modelled emissions you find that model temperatures follow the actual temperatures pretty closely. And the same goes for sea level rise.”

In terms of the seemingly perverse situation of negotiators, politicians, activists, and media taking flights to climate conferences, Renwick says that doesn’t invalidate the arguments that emissions reductions are urgent.

“You don’t have to be a carbon Jesus to talk about climate change.”

Climate action supported

Renwick says he doesn’t think anti-establishment groups vocal during Covid-19 lockdowns and vaccine mandates have shifted led to an uptick in climate denialism in New Zealand.

“I know that some of the main people involved in the Voices for Freedom and so on are anti-climate-change, but I don’t have the sense that, that that’s really changed the public conversation much.”

Looking beyond our shores, Bronwyn Hayward, a professor of political science and international relations at University of Canterbury, says there’s been a political shift since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015.

“While there’s a storm of social media debate, the fundamentals are that governments and businesses, banks and insurance companies recognise that climate change is a really significant risk now for doing business and for human life and infrastructure. And that’s a huge and fundamental shift.”

Public surveys also show support for emissions cuts.

The new denialism, she says, is an emphasis on only adapting to climate change, and not continuing to cut emissions. A sort of doomism that suggests the situation is so bad there’s nothing we can do. It’s not true, she says, adding: “Every effort that we make does make a major difference.”

Yet, the need for deep cuts is urgent and the picture of a future warmed world is worrying.

A United Nations Environment Programme report released last week said on current emissions reduction pledges, the world was likely on track for 2.6C of warming on pre-industrial levels.

Incremental change is no longer an option, the report warned. What’s needed is a “wide-ranging, large-scale, rapid and systemic transformation”.

Hayward says any increase over 2C would be dangerous.

“There’s millions more people who will be affected by water shortages, heat stress, and storms and sea-level inundation.”

Renwick, of Victoria, hopes policymakers understand the urgency of the problem.

“They’ve been told this over and over again, through the IPCC and any number of other avenues, but I don’t have the sense that it’s really got through.

“You can argue that the political processes are slow, and that can be a good thing. But, boy, this is a problem we need fast action on, and I would love to see some real moves coming from the governments of the world to really start to reduce emissions as fast as we possibly can.”

Confronting the facts

Back in 2009, during the Copenhagen climate summit, I had my own brush with CFACT, at its Climate Sense Conference. As I said in my article for Stuff, it was “really a chat with a few dozen Scandinavian students, bolstered by American imports”.

The “large and prestigious” CFACT delegation of “experts and advisors” included Marc Morano, of Climate Depot. I didn’t meet him, but I interviewed S Fred Singer, the godfather of the skeptic movement, who told me: “We look at the data, we tend to believe what the atmosphere tells us and then disbelieve what the models say.”

Singer, a physicist, said 31,000 scientists agreed with his “realist” views. But they’re not climate scientists? No, but one-third have PhDs. “They know how to read graphs, they know statistics – that’s really all you have to know.”

Then he changed tack – if the science is settled, why spend more money on it? Perhaps to better understand the processes behind the climate.

After taking a deep breath, Singer said: “Yeah, OK.”

And with that, the interview was over.

While they were in Copenhagen, the CFACT delegation was happy to talk to media about the leaked emails from the University of East Anglia.

Some were written by climate scientist Mann, he of the hockey stick graph, who accused the email leakers of cherry-picking and citing scientists out of context.

Weeks later, in San Francisco, addressing an American Geophysical Union meeting, Mann said: “Scientists must play a key role in combating the disinformation effort, presenting a positive case for science and turning lemons into lemonade, while readily acknowledging the real uncertainties and distinguishing them from manufactured ones.”

Seeding doubt, it seems, is a great deal easier than explaining the complex and nuanced climate science.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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