Mongabay: In Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science, Dr. John J. Berger deconstructs the climate change denialists’ myths in simple, easy-to-read terms.
According to the Pew Research Center: “Nearly seven-in-ten (69%) [Americans] say there is solid evidence that the earth’s average temperature has been getting warmer over the past few decades, up six points since November 2011 and 12 points since 2009.” Yet implementing national-level climate change mitigation legislation is not occurring in the U.S. This is not because we lack scientific evidence. This is not because we do not know what actions to take. This is because of wordsmithing and marketing of ideas, conflating scientific concepts, obscuring reality, and deliberately applying denialism tactics within public discourse. Denialism is a culture of denying an established fact. This exhibited when a person or group chooses to refuse to believe a theory, fact, or evidence of well-established authoritative discipline.
When institutions choose to ignore the facts surrounding climate change, instead of pursuing to debate these institutions based on scientific logic, we can choose to debate their logic based on rhetorical theory. Dr. John J. Berger provides us these tools in Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science.
He describes the origins of the climate “debate”, the strategy of purposeful climate “disinformation”, and conflation of arguments used as a way to disrupt appropriate prudent immediate action.
AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN J. BERGER
Mongabay: John Berger: , thank you for discussing climate “myths” with us. What inspired you to write Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science?
Desert landscape in drought-hit New Mexico. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.
John Berger: : After following global warming issues for more than 30 years, I became concerned that despite the growing climate emergency, climate change is not being taken seriously enough by government or the people, and that much of the public is being seriously misled by arguments sponsored by the fossil fuel industry. The industrial opposition to climate science and climate-safe energy policies has grown more sophisticated and varied over the past decade. It operates through dozens of industry-funded institutes, policy centers, councils, research foundations, and societies that speak for industry on climate and energy. Their strategy has often been to hide the sponsorship and the ideologically based misrepresentations of climate science beneath a mantle of science. I have watched for a long time now as the fossil fuel industry has put forward a succession of meritless arguments and has somehow gotten phenomenal traction with them. For example, I watched in 1997 while their arguments persuaded the Senate to reject the Kyoto Protocol, the first international agreement that strove to limit the emission of CO2 and other heat-trapping gases. Had the U.S. embraced this very modest agreement and taken the lead internationally by showing a seriousness to reduce heat-trapping gas emissions, we would have a great deal more leverage today in negotiating with developing countries which are rapidly expanding their heat-trapping gas emissions and furthermore, I daresay the world would be a lot closer today to lowering global emissions to protect the climate.
Earlier, in 1993, industry opposition halted the Clinton Administration’s efforts to pass a modest tax on the energy content of fuels, which would have helped control carbon emissions. This intervention set back the nation’s efforts to control its emissions by at least 20 years. Climate Myths is my response to the flood of misinformation that has blocked progress on climate change policy and legislation for far too long.
In the book, I not only try to rebut specific misleading claims about climate science, but I also try to offer insights into why so little progress has been made domestically and in international negotiations to cut greenhouse gas emissions at the rate and scale needed. If we as a society are to meet the climate threats we face now, people really need to understand the political and economic motivation behind climate science denial and how it’s been deliberately fostered by the fossil fuel industry.
Mongabay: What signs do you see that climate change “myths” are being replaced with scientific, reality based conversation?
John Berger: : To some extent, the conversation is changing, but not enough. On the plus side, President Obama in his Inaugural Address vowed to take action on climate change and correctly stated that failure to act would betray our children and future generations. He referred dismissively to denial of climate science, which he contrasted with “the overwhelming judgment of science” on climate change.
John J. Berger.
He repeated these themes in his State of the Union Address and added that we can either choose to believe that all the extreme weather of the past 15 years is pure coincidence, or we can believe—and he used the phrase again, in “the overwhelming judgment of science.” Then he outlined important actions that his Administration is taking or will take to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency. That’s a dramatic contrast to the Bush-Cheney Administration, which preceded Obama and was a staunch supporter of the fossil fuel industry. Remember, both President Bush and Vice President Cheney were oil industry executives.
When you look at public attitudes on climate change, the polling is a bit inconsistent but you can see that we still have a long way to go. Some 42% of Americans polled by Gallup this month do not believe climate change will ever happen or believe it will happen at some time in the future. Only about half the population even understands that climate change has already begun.
A Duke University poll came to the conclusion that whereas only half the population thinks climate change is happening, roughly another third think it’s probably happening. So when you total the two groups, more people now think human activity causes climate change than at any time since 2007. But there’s a sharp ideological divide on this issue. Whereas 70 percent of Democrats are convinced the climate is changing, only 27 percent of Republicans do. It is disheartening to see decisions about nonpolitical scientific issues reached based on political ideology. I think that’s a reflection of the way the issue has been politicized by the fossil fuel industry and its allies.
That is only possible because, unfortunately, much of the American public today does not really understand science very well—our educational system has let them down. Many people therefore do not understand the scientific method, scientific reasoning, critical thinking, peer review, or what a scientific theory is or is not. And climate science is particularly complex science. It involves many other sciences from atmospheric physics to oceanography and so on. Therefore, without scientific training and knowledge, many well-intentioned people have genuine difficulty understanding what climate scientists are trying to tell them.
Mongabay: What do you think are the most pervasive and destructive climate myths currently being propagated?
John Berger: : I think the most pernicious myths are that contemporary climate change is being produced by natural causes not by human activities and that we therefore have no control over, nor any responsibility for, what is going on. Nearly 40 percent of Americans polled by Gallup this month still hold to this incorrect opinion that current climate change is natural. Another serious misconception is that global warming is not going to be a threat in our lifetime. A third destructive myth is that climate change will be mild and that we can reverse it at will by simply making some modest changes at our leisure in how much carbon dioxide we emit. People simply don’t understand that we are already in a global emergency and that positive climate feedback, climate thresholds, climate tipping points combined with what we’re doing to the climate today put us at great risk of triggering catastrophic climate changes that are irreversible on any timescale meaningful to present generations–and conceivable future generations as well.
Mongabay: What are the rhetorical tools used by climate change denialists and how can institutions challenge this rhetoric with positive proactive rhetoric?
Wind farm in the Dominican Republic. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.
John Berger: : One favorite tool is to raise spurious yet plausible sounding questions that confuse the nonprofessional. It is easy enough to pose a thorny, misleading question. It then may take a great deal of expert time and effort to conclusively demonstrate the incorrect nature of the assumptions underlying the question. Another favorite tactic is to cherry pick the evidence. Another is to make ad hominem arguments, for example, that climate scientists are distorting or exaggerating the scientific evidence to attract more research funding. Still other rhetorical devices involve use of logical fallacies, or misrepresenting the facts. Another favorite tactic is to propound unprovable conspiracy theories, like “global warming is a hoax.” These tactics are well described in an excellent book by Hayden Washington and John Cook called, Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand. James Lawrence Powell also has a very good book out about climate science denial called, The Inquisition of Climate Science. There’s no magic rhetorical bullet to defeat misguided climate arguments. The only effective way to defeat them is with knowledge of the facts and the truth.
Mongabay: How would you recommend institutions and citizens be proactive, as opposed to reactive, in addressing climate change “myths” as propagated by the denialists?
John Berger: : Become as well informed about these issues as you can be and speak up when nonsense is spoken. In Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science I provide pages and pages of reliable information sources that people can use to become well informed about climate change. I am also about to release a second book on climate change called, Climate Peril: The Intelligent Reader’s Guide to Understanding the Climate Crisis. You can find more about it on my website, www.johnjberger.com.
Mongabay: One way I have challenged denialist rhetoric is to ask them to explain to me “where is the data wrong?” and another way to challenge denialist rhetoric would be to mock them with humor. Do you have rhetorical advice on how to use humor to challenge denialist rhetoric?
John Berger: : I suppose you could carry their arguments to absurd length. For example if someone were trying to tell me that global warming is good, I might say, well I understand the importance of growing pineapples in Greenland and raising crocodiles in the Arctic, but is it really worth flooding lower Manhattan? Alternatively, with respect to sea level rise, perhaps you could refer to the benefits of all the new beachfront property that will be created in backyards along the coast thanks to sea level rise.
Mongabay: What is one thing you would like each of Mongabay’s global readers to do today after reading you interview?
John Berger: : I discuss this question at some length in an interview for the international online magazine Synchronized Chaos. My short answer is, become as knowledgeable as you can about climate change and then, guided by an awareness of your own skills and abilities and how you can be most effective, spring into action. If we remain passive and assume that others will take care this for us, we are complicit in the bad outcome that is likely to ensue. As Carl Sagan said, “Don’t sit this one out. Do something. You are by accident of fate alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet.” As I said in that Synchronized Chaos interview (http://synchchaos.com/?p=7560 ), “We don’t have time any more to lament the situation or make excuses for inaction. Everyone can do something. We need all hands on deck. Be determined. Fight the good fight. Do something, no matter how insignificant you may think it is. Chances are you have more power and influence than you think. Millions of other people are out there who already silently agree with you. They will stand up if you do. Use your power. Amazing and tremendous things have been done and will be done by committed individuals.”
How to order:
Paperback: Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science
Publisher: Northbrae Books
Author: Dr. John J. Berger
Started in year 2010, ‘Climate Himalaya’ initiative has been working on Mountains and Climate linked issues in the Himalayan region of South Asia. In the last five years this knowledge sharing portal has become one of the important references for the governments, research institutions, civil society groups and international agencies, those have work and interest in the Himalayas. The Climate Himalaya team innovates on knowledge sharing, capacity building and climatic adaptation aspects in its focus countries like Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan. Climate Himalaya’s thematic areas of work are mountain ecosystem, water, forest and livelihood. Read>>