Cash big voice in US climate debate

November 24, 2015 6:49 pm

Study highlights link between corporate funds and voices stirring doubt over human role in warming planet. 

 Destruction after Typhoon Haiyan. Photo / AP

has long been a highly polarising topic in the
, with Americans lining up on opposite sides depending on
their politics and worldview. Now a scientific study sheds new light on
the role played by corporate money in creating that divide.
The
report, a systematic review of 20 years’ worth of data, highlights the
connection between corporate funding and messages that raise doubts
about the science of climate change and whether humans are responsible
for the warming of the planet. The analysis suggests that corporations
have used their wealth to amplify contrarian views and create an
impression of greater scientific uncertainty than actually exists.
“The
contrarian efforts have been so effective for the fact that they have
made it difficult for ordinary Americans to even know who to trust,”
said Justin Farrell, a Yale University sociologist and author of the
study, released yesterday in the peer-reviewed journal, Proceedings of
the National Academy of Science.

Numerous previous studies have examined how
corporate-funded campaigns have helped shape individual views about
global warming. But the Yale study takes what Farrell calls the
“bird’s-eye view”, using computer analytics to systematically examine
vast amounts of printed matter published by 164 groups – including
thinktanks and lobbying firms – and more than 4500 individuals who have
been sceptical of mainstream scientific views on climate change.
The
study analysed the articles, policy papers and transcripts produced by
these groups over a 20-year period. Then it separated the groups that
received corporate funding from those that did not.
The results,
Farrell said, revealed an “ecosystem of influence” within the
corporate-backed groups. Those that received donations consistently
promoted the same contrarian themes – casting doubt, for example, on
whether higher levels of man-made carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere were
harmful to the planet. There was no evidence of such co-ordination among
the non-funded groups.
The existence of corporate money “created
a united network within which the contrarian messages could be
strategically created” and spread, Farrell said.
“This
counter-movement produced messages aimed, at the very least, at creating
ideological polarisation through politicised tactics, and at the very
most, at … refuting current scientific consensus with scientific
findings of their own,” he said.
The report did not examine the
impact of outside money on the messages of groups that encourage
activism on climate change. Farrell suggested that there were
qualitative differences between such groups and those that sought to
advance corporate interests by promoting scepticism about science.
“Funders
looking to influence organisations who promote a consensus view are
very different from funders looking to influence organisations who have
the goal of creating polarisation and controversy and delaying policy
progress on a scientific issue that has nearly uniform consensus,” he
said.
The publication of the report comes two weeks after New
York prosecutors announced an investigation into whether ExxonMobil
misled the public and investors about the risks of climate change. The
probe was prompted in part by reports in the Los Angeles Times and the online publication Inside Climate News,
alleging that Exxon researchers expressed concerns about climate change
from fossil fuel emissions decades ago, even as the company publicly
raised doubts about whether climate-change was scientifically valid.
Exxon
has declined to comment on the investigation while acknowledging that
its position on climate change has evolved in recent years. “Our
company, beginning in the latter part of the 1970s … has been involved
in serious scientific research, and we have been supporting since that
time scientific understanding of the risk of climate change,” Exxon’s
vice-president of public and government affairs Ken Cohen told reporters
after the New York probe was revealed.

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