Jun 19, 2009

Slurs, Smears & Money

The debate about global warming is a nasty one. Anonymous people calling other people "climate criminals" online. Scientists getting watchlisted on Greenpeace's ExxonSecrets website even when they deny categorically any association with any oil company.

Accusations, as we all know, are not proof. Everyone has a right to be presumed innocent - especially when being accused by anonymous individuals on the Internet.

With so many aspersions being cast so casually, separating fact from fiction is difficult. Is it possible some scientists have accepted research funding from oil companies and that their conclusions were improperly influenced? Absolutely. But does that mean all of their work - including research conducted beforehand or ten years later - should be disregarded? Does it mean that nothing they might say is worth listening to?

Hard-core environmentalists frequently advise people like me (who insist on hearing all sides of the global warming debate) to "follow the money." All right then. Let's do that.

Al Gore's speaking fee is $175,000. If financial gain isn't part of his motivation, why doesn't he deliver the same speech for, say, $50,000? That way, audiences inspired by his talk could use the remaining $125,000 to do good things for the environment in their own communities.

Greenpeace (which would receive fewer public donations if it weren't constantly hyping the fragility of the planet) makes a huge deal about the fact that ExxonMobil donated $2.2 million to the Competitive Enterprise Institute think tank between 1998 and 2006. This works out to less than $250,000 annually for nine years. These are, by the way, the only hard numbers in Greenpeace's lengthy ExxonSecrets FAQ.

Let's compare those numbers to the funding received by people whose research happens to align with the theory of global warming. Back in 2000, Daniel Sarewitz observed that the US federal government was spending $1.8 billion annually on the U.S. Global Climate Change Research Program. That's one initiative, in one country, in one year.

On some level, people employed by such programs know they might be out of a job if they all wake up one morning and declare climate change to be a minor phenomenon unworthy of concern. Do we really suppose this fact never influences their research?

Which takes us back to Greenpeace. According to its annual report, it spent $40 million in US dollars on climate-change-related campaigns in 2007, up 11% from the previous year. In the space of two years, then, one environmental group amongst dozens spent $70 million on activities intended to persuade all of us - including climate scientists - that global warming is a crisis.

And it has the nerve to whine about the improper influence Exxon might have exerted when it spent a measly half-million in a similar time frame? 140 to 1. That's the skew we're talking about here. It appears that, when it beats up on little kids in the playground, Greenpeace thinks those kids should have both hands tied behind their back and be blindfolded, too.

It gets worse. In August 2007, Newsweek columnist Robert J. Samuelson, sharply criticized a cover story his magazine had run the previous week:

If you missed NEWSWEEK's story, here's the gist. A "well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks and industry has created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change."

Coincidentally, this isn't just a fair summation of the article, it encapsulates nicely Greenpeace's ExxonSecrets FAQ. Trouble is, as Samuelson points out, that narrative is "fundamentally misleading."

There are practical, real-world reasons, writes Samuelson, why advanced economies cannot quickly switch from one kind of energy source to another. Any news story that scapegoats skeptical scientists is "peripheral and highly contrived." He continues:
NEWSWEEK implied, for example, that ExxonMobil used a think tank to pay academics to criticize global-warming science. Actually, this accusation was long ago discredited, and NEWSWEEK shouldn't have lent it respectability. The company says it knew nothing of the global-warming grant, which involved issues of climate modeling. And its 2006 contribution to the think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, was small: $240,000 out of a $28 million budget.) [emphasis added]
The fact that a neutral third party considers allegations of this type less-than-credible hasn't discouraged Greenpeace from using them, to this day, to justify its ExxonSecrets watchlist website. (Like Roman Catholic hardliners with their Index of banned books, climate idealogues appear to consider this list of those-to-whom-thou-shalt-not-lend-thine-ear to be the final word.)

It's time to end this foolishness. Between them, governments, charitable foundations and environmental organizations spend billions - that's a "B" - of dollars each year on research and educational campaigns that start from the premise that life as we know it is endangered by global warming.

The notion that scientific research and public debate has been unduly influenced by Exxon's relatively puny expenditures is a sick joke.

When I was 19, I joined a peace group protesting American cruise missile testing over Canada's north. Back then we'd daydream about a world in which schools were adequately funded while the military was required to hold bake sales.

In the climate debates, one side is, indeed, lavishly funded. The skeptics, meanwhile, are making rice krispie squares.