Climate Change Debate: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

18 August 2017

EPA chief Pruitt borrows from an old but effective denialist playbook

John Cook

John Cook

John Cook is a research assistant professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. In 2007, he founded Skeptical Science, a...


This month Scott Pruitt, head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, continued his push for a so-called “red team/blue team” exercise to evaluate mainstream climate science, telling a radio host he hopes to stage it “sometime this fall.” It is a concept borrowed from the military, where one team probes the other’s defenses for weaknesses. Reporting by E&E News first revealed the red team/blue team scheme early in the summer, and Pruitt told Reuters he wants to put climate science debates on television.

As many scientists have pointed out, there is much wrong with this plan. For one thing, science already has a time-tested means of getting ever-closer to the truth, specifically, the process of peer review and replication, to which climate science has been thoroughly subjected. For another, red team/blue team exercises were designed to figure out courses of action, not determine what is true. And, of course, television debates are primarily about theatre and rhetoric, rather than scientific truth.

Pruitt’s proposal, though, is nothing new. In fact, it is a rebranded public relations exercise that borrows from misinformation campaigns dating back to the 1990s. Unfortunately, those misinformation campaigns were quite effective, and Pruitt’s rehashed idea could be too.

For nearly three decades, opponents of policies to address climate change have implemented similar strategies, with the goal of confusing the public about the scientific consensus and undermining efforts to take action. In 1991 the Western Fuels Association, a coal cooperative, spent half a million dollars on a misinformation campaign designed to “reposition global warming as theory (not fact).” The intent of this campaign was to convince the public that scientists were still debating the causes of climate change.

In 1998, the American Petroleum Institute, other fossil fuel associations, and right-wing think-tanks collaborated to develop the “Global Climate Science Communications Plan” report. Their survey of 1,100 Americans found that casting doubt on scientific agreement was effective in reducing concern about climate change. The strategy to manufacture doubt involved recruiting a handful of “independent scientists” who would promote their talking points in newspapers, radio, and television.

Around the same time, Republican strategist Frank Luntz was conducting market research into messaging about climate change. In a memo drafted in the late 1990s and leaked in 2002, he advised Republicans to cast doubt on the scientific consensus in order to win the public debate about climate policy. His market research indicated that if people thought the experts disagreed about human-caused global warming, their opinions would change accordingly: They would reason that if scientists hadn’t figured out whether humans were contributing to the problem, then government should hold off on acting to solve it.

In short, staging “debates” about matters of scientific consensus and encouraging false-balance media coverage have been longtime central strategies in climate change misinformation campaigns. Claiming that there is no consensus has been one of the number one arguments used. Disturbingly, one analysis found that 70 percent of television coverage of climate change between 1995 and 2004 presented a false balance. In other words, it presented well-established scientific truth on equal footing with groundless assertions.

Social science catches up. In 2011, social scientists began exploring the important role of perceived consensus that opponents of climate action had known about and operationalized over a decade earlier. Analysis of survey data found that perception of the degree of consensus among climate scientists influenced a range of other climate attitudes, including whether individuals supported particular policies. That is, if citizens believed there was a high level of agreement among experts on the causes of global warming, they were more likely to want to do something about it. This finding was subsequently confirmed by experimental studies and other research.

More recently, social scientists including myself have been researching the impact of misinformation, including false-balance coverage, designed to cast doubt on scientific agreement. One experiment found that when people are presented with conflicting pieces of information, the two sides cancel each other out so that the subjects end up believing neither statement. I replicated this result in a similar experiment, which found that when people are presented with media coverage of climate change that gives science denialists an equal voice alongside climate scientists, the result is a reduction in the perception of consensus. In short, the very structure of much media coverage of climate change has the effect of misinforming people.

False-balance media coverage bears a striking resemblance to the type of television debate Pruitt proposed—which the research says will be all too effective in achieving two goals: confusing the public about the scientific consensus, and reducing support for policies that would curb climate change.

Science’s version of red team/blue team. Science has its own method of interrogating itself to discern validity: a two-stage process involving peer-review and replication. In order to be published in scientific journals, research must first be scrutinized by other experts in the field. Once results are published in a peer-reviewed journal, other scientists attempt to replicate them in subsequent research. If the results can’t be replicated, they fall out of favor. On the other hand, our confidence in a scientific result grows stronger each time it is replicated by an independent study.

Through this process, scientists have examined and ruled out many alternative explanations for climate change. As the scientific evidence accumulated, so did agreement among climate scientists. That is why statements on the causes of climate change from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change evolved from a tentative “discernible human influence” in 1995 to “extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming” in 2013. To put this language into context, “extremely likely” (meaning greater than 95 percent chance) is scientists’ equivalent of a mic drop.

The strengthening scientific agreement is also reflected in the peer-reviewed literature. In an analysis of climate studies I conducted with colleagues, we found that the scientific consensus had already formed in the early 1990s, at the same time fossil fuel companies and conservative think-tanks began their misinformation campaigns.

Other scholars have also found that a consensus on climate change formed at that time. Findings that the consensus is incorrect, on the other hand, have had a vanishingly small presence in published scientific research. In fact, climate science denialists don’t tend to participate in the scientific process. Instead, their efforts have concentrated on public relations campaigns like Pruitt’s proposed red team/blue team debate. But the impact of such efforts should not be underestimated. While opponents of climate action have long denied the scientific evidence on climate change, they have been all-too-attentive to the market research on how to confuse the public. Consequently, they have been effective in reducing public support for policies to deal with global warming.

Countering red team/blue team misinformation. If Pruitt proceeds with a red team/blue team exercise, how might its misleading influence be countered? I’ve tested two ways of countering false-balance media coverage. One approach simply informed people that 97 percent of climate scientists agree on human-caused global warming. Another approach explained how false-balance media coverage has the effect of confusing the public about issues where scientific consensus exists. Both methods were effective in neutralizing the negative impact of false-balance media coverage.

Comedian John Oliver entertainingly adopted both approaches in a 2014 television segment. He exposed the fallacy of false-balance media coverage by bringing 97 scientists on stage to debate three climate-change deniers, and pointing out that “you don’t need people’s opinion on a fact.” (Social scientists have even tested the effect of Oliver’s video on audiencesfinding it was effective in increasing acceptance of climate science.)

These types of inoculations against misinformation are much needed, as the era of climate science denial is not over. Misinformation is not going quietly into the night.