Climate change, smoking, and gaming mental models

The environmenal journalist Mark Hertsgaard has an article about climate change politics and journalism in Vanity Fair (May 2006) that shows how climate denial was involved many of the same people who worked to deny the health impacts of smoking.

Although scientists apply the neutral term “climate change” to all of these phenomena, “climate chaos” better conveys the abrupt, interconnected, wide-ranging consequences that lie in store. “It’s a very appropriate term for the layperson,” says Schellnhuber, a physicist who specializes in chaos theory. “I keep telling politicians that I’m not so concerned about a gradual climate change that may force farmers in Great Britain to plant different crops. I’m worried about triggering positive feedbacks that, in the worst case, could kick off some type of runaway greenhouse dynamics.”…

No one pretends that phasing out carbon-based fuels will be easy. The momentum of the climate system means that “a certain amount of pain is inevitable,” says Michael Oppenheimer. “But we still have a choice between pain and disaster.”

Unfortunately, we are getting a late start, which is something of a puzzle. The threat of global warming has been recognized at the highest levels of government for more than 25 years. Former president Jimmy Carter highlighted it in 1980, and Al Gore championed it in Congress throughout the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher, the arch-conservative prime minister of Britain from 1979 to 1990, delivered some of the hardest-hitting speeches ever given on climate change. But progress stalled in the 1990s, even as Gore was elected vice president and the scientific case grew definitive. It turned out there were powerful pockets of resistance to tackling this problem, and they put up a hell of a fight.

Call him the $45 million man. That’s how much money Dr. Frederick Seitz, a former president of the National Academy of Sciences, helped R. J. Reynolds Industries, Inc., give away to fund medical research in the 1970s and 1980s. The research avoided the central health issue facing Reynolds—”They didn’t want us looking at the health effects of cigarette smoking,” says Seitz, who is now 94—but it nevertheless served the tobacco industry’s purposes. Throughout those years, the industry frequently ran ads in newspapers and magazines citing its multi-million-dollar research program as proof of its commitment to science—and arguing that the evidence on the health effects of smoking was mixed.

In the 1990s, Seitz began arguing that the science behind global warming was likewise inconclusive and certainly didn’t warrant imposing mandatory limits on greenhouse-gas emissions. He made his case vocally, trashing the integrity of a 1995 I.P.C.C. report on the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal, signing a letter to the Clinton administration accusing it of misrepresenting the science, and authoring a paper which said that global warming and ozone depletion were exaggerated threats devised by environmentalists and unscrupulous scientists pushing a political agenda. In that same paper, Seitz asserted that secondhand smoke posed no real health risks, an opinion he repeats in our interview. “I just can’t believe it’s that bad,” he says.

Al Gore and others have said, but generally without offering evidence, that the people who deny the dangers of climate change are like the tobacco executives who denied the dangers of smoking. The example of Frederick Seitz, described here in full for the first time, shows that the two camps overlap in ways that are quite literal—and lucrative. Seitz earned approximately $585,000 for his consulting work for R. J. Reynolds, according to company documents unearthed by researchers for the Greenpeace Web site and confirmed by Seitz. Meanwhile, during the years he consulted for Reynolds, Seitz continued to draw a salary as president emeritus at Rockefeller University, an institution founded in 1901 and subsidized with profits from Standard Oil, the predecessor corporation of ExxonMobil.

Seitz was the highest-ranking scientist among a band of doubters who, beginning in the early 1990s, resolutely disputed suggestions that climate change was a real and present danger. As a former president of the National Academy of Sciences (from 1962 to 1969) and a winner of the National Medal of Science, Seitz gave such objections instant credibility. Richard Lindzen, a professor of meteorology at M.I.T., was another high-profile scientist who consistently denigrated the case for global warming. But most of the public argument was carried by lesser scientists and, above all, by lobbyists and paid spokesmen for the Global Climate Coalition. Created and funded by the energy and auto industries, the Coalition spent millions of dollars spreading the message that global warming was an uncertain threat. Journalist Ross Gelbspan exposed the corporate campaign in his 1997 book, The Heat Is On, which quoted a 1991 strategy memo: the goal was to “reposition global warming as theory rather than fact.”

“Not trivial” is how Seitz reckons the influence he and fellow skeptics have had, and their critics agree. The effect on media coverage was striking, according to Bill McKibben, who in 1989 published the first major popular book on global warming, The End of Nature. Introducing the 10th-anniversary edition, in 1999, McKibben noted that virtually every week over the past decade studies had appeared in scientific publications painting an ever more alarming picture of the global-warming threat. Most news reports, on the other hand, “seem to be coming from some other planet.”

The deniers’ arguments were frequently cited in Washington policy debates. Their most important legislative victory was the Senate’s 95-to-0 vote in 1997 to oppose U.S. participation in any international agreement—i.e., the Kyoto Protocol—that imposed mandatory greenhouse-gas reductions on the U.S.

Tim Lambert on Deltoid provides some further background on the funding of smoking and climate denialists documented in tobacco documents.

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