Tuesday, April 20, 2010

What On Earth Is Weaker Than Eskimo Chili Salsa?

With PR efforts that have been weaker than Eskimo chili salsa, climate scientists have consistently shown that they just don’t understand public relations, and that’s why American public opinion polls (not that this is any measure of scientific wisdom) now show that only about 57% of us accept the science on global warming, and this is down from 70% back before the economic meltdown. Curiously, in Europe where the downturn in the economy was equally bad, about 90% of the people have unquestioned faith in the data showing that our planet is getting hotter.

One thing that Europe doesn’t have is our system of ideologically conservative think tanks like the CATO Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heartland Institute (my God, don’t these names make you feel safe and comfy)? Fifty years ago when the EPA was moving to ban DDT, these think tanks took money from the chemical and pesticide industry and put the cash into the pockets of scientific experts-for-hire who appeared on television to say that DDT was, not only safe, but a boon to agriculture and food production.

Twenty-five years ago, these think tanks were used to launder money from the tobacco companies and transfer it into the pockets of scientific experts-for-hire who would vouch for the safety of carcinogenic smoke in the human lung. Undoubtedly, this effort helped delay anti-smoking legislation by several years, during which time smokers continued to die who otherwise might have lived. But now the stakes are much higher. For the last dozen years, these very same conservative think tanks have funneled money from oil and coal companies into the pockets of new experts-for-hire to muddy the water around the issue of global warming. In the U.S. this effort has had the same success in delaying needed change that we saw with tobacco. Unfortunately, climate change is a global problem and not just an American policy problem, so the outcome involves— not dead smokers— but flooded coastal dwellers, perhaps a billion of them. That’s billion with a B.

How effective is the campaign to deny global warming? Right outside my back door in Colorado is the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). This is the world’s leading institution for climate modeling, and it should be the world’s strongest voice in raising the alarm about climate change. I’ll bet you’ve never heard of NCAR, but I’ll bet you’ve heard of Exxon Mobil and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. Recently, a friend of mine with a local television station wanted to do an interview at NCAR about the link between the much-publicized rain-induced flooding in Rhode Island and global warming. His producer insisted that he interview an advocate from the “opposing side of view.” In other words, the television piece should be constructed as a balanced debate about global warming. With disgust, I need to say that NCAR and the TV reporter both capitulated, and the illusion was perpetuated that global warming is still an unproven hypothesis. My personal opinion is that none of this matters. The tipping point has already been passed, but twenty years ago a competent PR campaign on behalf of the world’s scientific climatologists might have saved the planet.

No comments: