A brief history of fossil-fuelled climate denial


John Cook, The University of Queensland

The fossil fuel industry has spent many millions of dollars on confusing the public about climate change. But the role of vested interests in climate science denial is only half the picture.

Interest in this topic has spiked with the latest revelation regarding coalmining company Peabody Energy. After Peabody filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, documentation became available revealing the scope of Peabody’s funding to third parties. The list of funding recipients includes trade associations, lobby groups and climate-contrarian scientists.

This latest revelation is significant because in recent years, fossil fuel companies have become more careful to cover their tracks. An analysis by Robert Brulle found that from 2003 to 2010, organisations promoting climate misinformation received more than US$900 million of corporate funding per year.

However, Brulle found that from 2008, open funding dropped while funding through untraceable donor networks such as Donors Trust (otherwise known as the “dark money ATM”) increased. This allowed corporations to fund climate science denial while hiding their support.

The decrease in open funding of climate misinformation coincided with efforts to draw public attention to the corporate funding of climate science denial. A prominent example is Bob Ward, formerly of the UK Royal Society, who in 2006 challenged Exxon-Mobil to stop funding denialist organisations.

John Cook interviews Bob Ward at COP21, Paris.

The veils of secrecy have been temporarily lifted by the Peabody bankruptcy proceedings, revealing the extent of the company’s third-party payments, some of which went to fund climate misinformation. However, this is not the first revelation of fossil fuel funding of climate misinformation – nor is it the first case involving Peabody.

In 2015, Ben Stewart of Greenpeace posed as a consultant to fossil fuel companies and approached prominent climate denialists, offering to pay for reports promoting the benefits of fossil fuels. The denialists readily agreed to write fossil-fuel-friendly reports while hiding the funding source. One disclosed that he had been paid by Peabody to write contrarian research. He had also appeared as an expert witness and written newspaper op-eds.

John Cook interviews Ben Stewart, Greenpeace at COP21, Paris.

The bigger picture of fossil-fuelled denial

Peabody’s funding of climate change information and misinformation is one episode in a much larger history of fossil-fuel-funded misinformation. An analysis of more than 40,000 texts by contrarian sources found that organisations who received corporate funding published more climate misinformation, a trend that increased over time.

The following figure shows the use of the claim that “CO₂ is good” (a favourite argument of Peabody Energy) has increased dramatically among corporate-funded sources compared with unfunded ones.

Prevalence of denialist claim from corporate funded and non-funded sources.
Farrell (2015)

In 1991, Western Fuels Association combined with other groups representing fossil fuel interests to produce a series of misinformation campaigns. This included a video promoting the positive benefits of carbon dioxide, with hundreds of free copies sent to journalists and university libraries. The goal of the campaign was to “reposition global warming as theory (not fact)”, attempting to portray the impression of an active scientific debate about human-caused global warming.

ExxonSecrets.org has been tracking fossil-fuel-funded misinformation campaigns for more than two decades – documenting more than A$30 million of funding from Exxon alone to denialist think tanks from 1998 to 2014.

Exxon’s funding of climate science denial over this period is particularly egregious considering that it knew full well the risks from human-caused climate change. David Sassoon, founder of Pulitzer Prize-winning news organisation Inside Climate News led an investigation into Exxon’s internal research, discovering that its own scientists had warned the company of the harmful impacts of fossil fuel burning as long ago as the 1970s.

John Cook interviews David Sassoon from Inside Climate News.

Even Inside Climate News’s revelation of industry’s knowledge of the harmful effects of climate change before engaging in misinformation campaigns has precedence. In 2009, an internal report for the Global Climate Coalition, a group representing fossil fuel industry interests, was leaked to the press.

It showed that the coalition’s own scientific experts had advised it in 1995 that “[t]he 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”. Nevertheless, the organisation proceeded to deny climate science and promote the benefits of fossil fuel emissions.

Ideology: the other half of an “unholy alliance”

However, to focus solely on industry’s role in climate science denial misses half the picture. The other significant player is political ideology. At an individual level, numerous surveys (such as here, here and and here) have found that political ideology is the biggest predictor of climate science denial.

People who fear the solutions to climate change, such as increased regulation of industry, are more likely to deny that there is a problem in the first place – what psychologists call “motivated disbelief”.

Consequently, groups promoting political ideology that opposes market regulation have been prolific sources of misinformation about climate change. This productivity has been enabled by the many millions of dollars flowing from the fossil fuel industry. Naomi Oreskes, co-author of Merchants of Doubt, refers to this partnership between vested interests and ideological groups as an “unholy alliance”.

Reducing the influence

To reduce the influence of climate science denial, we need to understand it. This requires awareness of both the role of political ideology and the support that ideological groups have received from vested interests.

Without this understanding, it’s possible to make potentially inaccurate accusations such as climate denial being purely motivated by money, or that it is intentionally deceptive. Psychological research tells us that ideologically driven confirmation bias (misinformation) is almost indistinguishable from intentional deception (disinformation).

Video from free online course Making Sense of Climate Science Denial (launches August 9).

The fossil fuel industry has played a hugely damaging role in promoting misinformation about climate change. But without the broader picture including the role of political ideology, one can build an incomplete picture of climate science denial, leading to potentially counterproductive responses.

The Conversation

John Cook, Climate Communication Research Fellow, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why so many Australian species are yet to be named


David Yeates, CSIRO

Turns out that in Australia, you are probably closer than you think to hundreds or thousands of species that don’t have names. They are scientifically and culturally anonymous Australians.

If you live in a capital city, these unnamed Aussies are in your state or territory museum, and if you live in a regional area, they are living in your local nature reserve.

Why is this the case? Australia is acknowledged as a “megadiverse” nation, with a particularly large slice of the world’s biodiversity. Our natural environments span from tropical forest to alpine meadow, and from some of the driest deserts to mangrove swamps.

Because almost all of our species only live on this continent, it is up to us to study them. Here is the catch – because this is a large continent with relatively few people, there are also few dollars to fund such discovery research.

Of the estimated 500,000 Australian species, half are insects and only perhaps 20% to 30% of these have been named, so there are at least 100,000 unnamed Australian insect species. These unknown elements of biodiversity represent an almost completely untapped opportunity and resource.

What’s in a name?

So what’s in a name and why does it matter, all this naming in the name of science? Is it just a pointless, egotistical quest for scientific immortality?

No, turns out that it’s important, and often quite challenging. When they are minted, species names are carefully crafted so that they do not duplicate other species’ names.

The Chrysolophus spectabilis weevil.
CSIRO/Rolf Oberprieler, Author provided

For example, one of the first Australian insects to be given a scientific name was the metallic green weevil discovered during James Cook’s first voyage, Chrysolopus spectabilis, also known as the Botany Bay Weevil.

The Danish zoologist Johan Christian Fabricius gave it that name in 1775, and no other animal can now have the name. Type that name into Google, and you will retrieve all sorts of information on it, including beautiful pictures, maps of its distribution, plants that it feeds on.

Worldwide, we have named more that 1.5 million species over the past 250 years, so finding a unique name also can take some careful sleuthing in online databases, such as the Australian Faunal Directory.

This is because species names are used as globally unique passwords to information. You can use the species name to search for information on the species in books, and online resources such as the Atlas of Living Australia.

If a species doesn’t have a name, any information on it is impossible to find. Conversely, if we gave every species the name Bob, information on any particular Bob would be impossible to separate out.

The research to figure out if a species is new can be very challenging. Some species physically look almost exactly the same as other species (they are called sibling species). And this can have real-world consequences.

I estimate that distinguishing a Queensland fruit fly (scientific name Bactrocera tryoni), a major fruit pest, from one of its many closely related but harmless sibling fruit fly species, would be impossible for all but a few well-trained entomologists.

The biosecurity factor

But being able to accurately distinguish these species matters a lot in the real world when it comes to biosecurity and developing international trade.

It is almost always the case that species that are siblings in an anatomical sense are also very difficult to distinguish genetically; they very often have the same DNA barcode sequences, or overlapping sets of DNA sequences.

CSIRO postdoctoral fellow Dr Bryan Lessard is part of the team involved with naming new species.
CSIRO/Alan Landford, Author provided

Government quarantine services often contract our scientists to develop protocols for distinguishing quarantine threats from harmless local species.

If you live in Canberra, you are very close to swarms of unnamed species in CSIRO’s Australian National Insect Collection. We manage a collection of more than 12 million specimens, almost all of them from Australia.

Not surprisingly, it is the largest collection of Australian insects in the world.

We have the vast majority of named Australian insect species in the collection, plus tens of thousands of unnamed species. The collection is like a vast hard drive of Australia’s biodiversity.

Our researchers continue the task of describing and understanding Australia’s insect species using more and more sophisticated techniques.

Unnamed species belong to a wide range of groups such as mosquitoes that bite humans, and innocent native beetles that look just like major timber and grain pests native to our overseas trading partners.

Often species wait in the collection for decades before study. A PhD student and I are in the process of naming an entire new lineage of flower pollinating insects in the collection, from specimens found in a remote corner of Western Australia 35 years ago.

One of a new lineage of flies about to be formally named.
Xuankun Li (CSIRO and ANU), Author provided

We decide if a species is new by comparing it closely with all its named relatives, siblings and others. Hence the need to have a comprehensive set (a collection) in one physical or virtual place.

Because there are so many insect species, there are too many to compile a book or website with every species photographed and listed. Even if we did, it would have too many pages of very similar-looking species to flick through to make the comparisons.

So we use various identification tools to help us work out if a newly collected species already has a name, or needs one.

I name that critter…

Traditionally, we have used anatomical keys (What bug is that?), that guide the user to an identification by making a series of carefully selected physical observations and comparisons.

But more recently, we’ve been using vast databases of molecular sequence barcodes, analogous to the white pages for biodiversity, to help us decide whether the species is new or not.

The number of genetic mutations shared among populations are increasingly used as evidence of species status.

We are also experimenting with image recognition software to help us. A little bit like a criminal investigation, the best result is when all lines of evidence point in the same direction, telling us that the species is new.

Federal government and private industry joint initiatives, such as Bush Blitz, are providing valuable information on the species in our national parks and other reserves, but we have a long way to go.

While we continue to grapple with the task of keeping trade routes open and managing and conserving our biodiversity for future generations and opportunities, remember the salient point here: most of Australia’s species are unnamed, and we know next to nothing about them.

If we have information on where these unnamed species occur, what features they have, or what they do in the environment, we cannot easily retrieve and analyse it. Hence we cannot readily distinguish native species from important overseas pests.

We also don’t have the information needed to make a choice about where to invest our conservation resources optimally. Efforts to build trade and conserve our biodiversity are compromised until we know more about Australian species. This compromise is a risk we don’t need to take.

The census is coming

We are on the eve of the 2016 Australian census. What a great nation-building goal it would be to initiate a species census.

It would give us the confidence that we had a good handle on our biodiversity – what it is, where it occurs, how well we are conserving it and what properties make it beneficial or harmful to us.

In terms of Australia’s federal budget (somewhere around A$450-billion dollars), the annual resources required for such a species census would be a drop in the ocean.

Are we responsible stewards of this ancient and fascinating land, or are we renting a share house? And can we really say that we know what it is to be Australian when we don’t know the names and addresses of most Australians?

The Conversation

David Yeates, Director of the Australian National Insect Collection, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.