(The following is a response to a recent op-ed in the Vancouver Sun.)
It began, in earnest, a month ago with wide release of a letter from 60 “experts” taking issue with the current consensus on climate change. That petition was repudiated by a second letter, signed by 90 of the top climate scientists in the country, but it didn’t stop those in the first group from flooding the country’s opinion pages with “climate skeptic” reports and, most recently, from hitting the talk circuit.
What we have here is a small clutch of contrarians with a big budget.
Dr. Tim Ball, for example, has been working the halls in Ottawa, making speeches, doing radio and newspaper interviews – his activities paid for by the counter-intuitively titled “Friends of Science.” The pricy Fleishman-Hillard PR fixer who has been making Dr. Ball’s arrangements is Morten Paulsen, a Conservative party insider. For example, Mr. Paulsen was the co-chair for the Alberta Progressive Conservative AGM and convention this year.
Coincidently, it was only a very short time ago that Frank Luntz, the U.S. Republican party’s favourite PR pro, met personally with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other high-ranking Conservatives. Mr. Luntz won unwelcome fame in 2003 with a leaked memo advising the Republicans on how to promote public skepticism in the climate change debate. In the months since his visit to Canada, the Harper government’s language has begun to reflect perfectly that which Luntz recommended in the memo.
For example, Luntz suggested putting the cost of climate change regulation in human terms and emphasizing how specific activities will cost more. True to Luntz’s recommendation, Environment Minister Rona Ambrose has repeatedly claimed that “we would have to pull every truck and car off the street, shut down every train and ground every plane to reach the Kyoto target. Or we could shut off all the lights in Canada tomorrow.” Beginning in 2003, the Republicans started calling for a “made-in-America solution.” Ever since Luntz left town, Minister Ambrose has been urging a “made-in-Canada solution.”
Most recently, the Vancouver Sun carried an opinion piece by Tom Harris (Environmental Heresy: Failing to Question the Scientic Assumptions Underlying Kyoto Isn’t Fair to Citizens Concerned About Climate, Sun, June 8), a perfect example of a tactic the U.S. PR community refers to as the Echo Chamber.
So, what are these people saying?
Well, ex-climate scientist Tim Ball says, “In reality, CO2 is essential for photosynthesis and its rise and fall has never been closely correlated with the warming and cooling of the planet.” Look at the attached graph and see if that seems like a reasonable contention.
Harris quotes Ex-Environment Canada research scientist Madhav Khandekar as saying “there has been no increase in extreme weather events in Canada.” Most people will find that suspicious just based on their own experience, but what about something substantive? Since 1979, there have been more major floods in Manitoba than at any time since record-keeping began. Khandekar also says: “I base my conclusions on what the data is really telling us, not on computer models of hypothetical futures. We need a reality check, using observed data, about how the climate is changing.”
How about this for observed data, from NASA:
- every year since 1992 has been warmer than 1992
- the 10 hottest years on record occurred in the last 15
- every year since 1976 has been warmer than 1976
- the 20 hottest years on record occurred in the last 25
- every year since 1956 has been warmer than 1956
- every year since 1917 has been warmer than 1917
As for Dr. Patterson, he says: “People in our group feel that the science has progressed now … we now feel that climate is driven by changes in the sun.” Ask him to produce a single graph more recent than, say, the mid 1980s to support his sun-spot theory. “Observed data” show that while warming tracked sun spot activity for the first part of the 20th century, solar radiation has dropped off dramatically in the last 25 years, while warming has spiked in the other direction.
What we have here is a small clutch of contrarians with a big budget. We have a campaign, unfolding in lock step with the federal government’s efforts to withdraw from Canada’s Kyoto commitments. It also mirrors a concurrent campaign in the U.S. Look, for example at Dr. Ian Clark’s characterization of CO2 as “a benign gas, a nutrient for plants,” and compare it to the big U.S. ad campaign by the industry-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute: “They call it pollution, we call it life.” Yes, carbon dioxide can be a good thing; so can water, right up to the point where you start drowning in it.
I’m predisposed to thinking that public relations can be a good thing, too, when it is pursued openly and honestly, when it is used to educate rather than confuse, to spread information rather than to sow doubt.
So, keep a wary eye, because lately, we have been suffering too much of a good thing.