The Climate Change Mythbuster
"I am stunned—absolutely stunned," says Jim Hoggan, author of the new book Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming (Greystone Books) and a chair of the David Suzuki Foundation.
He's not shocked by how climate change deniers managed to stall global awareness and action on global warming—though many people are. He's shocked that the people who deny the very existence of climate change are actually still around, and amazed that there is even the need for his book, which outlines their lies and the PR machine that drives them.
If anybody is in a position to understand how the art of public relations has furthered the cause of global warming denialists, he should: As president of the PR firm Hoggan & Associates in Vancouver, he has worked in the field for decades. “Public relations is about fostering relationships and helping people communicate—not about spreading misinformation,” he says.
Offended and incensed by the way oil and coal companies hired PR firms from the 1980s onwards to manufacture doubt about the reality of global warming (just as they did to spread uncertainty about the hazards of second-hand smoke and a litany of other scientifically solid issues), he founded an online resource, DeSmogBlog.com, five years ago.
“When we started it, a small blog run out of a closet in Vancouver, I never thought we would have 1.3 million visitors by now,” he says—nor did he think the blog would still be in existence.
In fact, Hoggan says, not only are the deniers still around, “they seem to be on the increase.” As the public grows more aware of the unshakeable strength of the scientific consensus and the urgency of the problem, so does the desperation and the stubbornness of those determined to deny its importance for the sake of big money. “This isn't a conspiracy—it's an industry,” he says.
In the late 1980s, Hoggan writes in the Climate Cover-Up, the recognition of climate change and of man-made greenhouse gases as the primary cause was so accepted that even George Bush Sr., said “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect forget about the 'White House effect': as president I intend to do something about it.”
But 20 years of oil companies (plus their hired PR guns) manufacturing doubt with “phony scientists, phony scientific reports, phony grassroots organizations and phony think tanks putting out press releases and press kits with the objective of undermining any effort by political bodies to put legislation in place to reduce greenhouse gases” means that we really, haven't done anything about the problem.
Greenhouse gases continue to rise (Canada is now roughly 30 percent above its 1990 levels, when it should have made cuts), public awareness continues to stagnate (a recent Gallup poll estimated that 48 percent of Americans think the threat of global warming is exaggerated), political movements are slowed (the B.C. carbon tax was notoriously rejected, “when people should have been crying out for a carbon tax,” Hoggan says; it has since been implemented) and the media continues to quote global warming skeptics in the same space as bona fide climate change scientists. Most notoriously, he writes, The Calgary Herald.
With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (along with Al Gore) winning the Nobel Prize and the upcoming UN meeting in Copenhagen on everybody's radar, outright denial of the existence of climate change is becoming less and less commonplace. But in that place, he says, we are now seeing more and more “energy” and “environmental”
experts saying that it is indeed a problem and it is indeed our fault, but that it would be too costly to prevent. Other problems, such as AIDS or poverty, rank higher on our priority list, and we can't possibly deal with climate change at the same time, they argue.
“They give people the sense that it's not something they can do anything about—it's a very clever strategy,” Hoggan says.
Media-friendly figures like Britain's Christopher Monckton (featured on CBC's The Hour) and Bjorn Lomborg (graced with a TED talk) continue to find megaphones for their views that climate change is just too big a problem for us to fix, “without ever being asked where they get their money from,” he says.
Reason to hope
But, he adds, “The number of people who understand the problem and who are concerned grows by the day.”
“I really feel my job is to help improve the way that we talk about [climate change] to people so that they can understand it better—to help shed light on those people who are just trying to confuse the public,” says Hoggan. “I think that is something that I will spend the rest of my life on.”