By David Michaels
Last week, the Washington Post’s Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin reported that “top executives at many of the nation’s largest energy companies have accepted the scientific consensus about climate change and see federal regulation to cut greenhouse gas emissions as inevitable.” John Hofmeister, president of Shell Oil Co, said
We have to deal with greenhouse gases. From Shell’s point of view, the debate is over. When 90-plus percent of the world’s leading figures believe that greenhouse gases have impacted the climate of the Earth, who is Shell to say, ‘Let’s debate the science’?”
Yet on Wednesday, in front of the US Supreme Court, the Bush Administration said “Let’s debate the science.”
Arguing on behalf of the US government, against 12 states and 13 public interest groups, Deputy Solicitor General Gregory C. Garre conjured up the same argument the Tobacco Industry used first in 1954, attempting to convince the public cigarettes didn’t cause lung cancer.
Mr. Garre invoked scientific uncertainty as one of the reasons the Environmental Protection Agency should not be compelled to treat the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide as a pollutant.
Justice John Paul Stevens questions Mr. Garre about a National Academy of Sciences report that was quoted in an amicus brief written by several global warming deniers. The back and forth starts on page 29 of the transcript:
JUSTICE STEVENS: I find it interesting that the scientists whose [sic] worked on that report said there were a good many omissions that would have indicated [in their own amicus brief] that there wasn’t nearly the uncertainty that the agency described.
MR. GARRE: Your Honor, if you are referring to the amicus brief, Your Honor, there are — assuming there are amicus briefs on the other side. The Ballunas amicus brief — I think it is fair for the Court to look at, to look at the document that the agency had before it. That — that document produced by the National Research — Research Council, that’s the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences. And it’s one of the gold standards of research.
JUSTICE STEVENS: But in their selective quotations, they left out parts that indicated there was far less uncertainty than the agency purported to find.
MR. GARRE: Well, Your Honor, I think one thing that we ought to be able to agree on is there is that there is uncertainty surrounding the phenomenon of global climate change. I think the debate is on which areas are more uncertain than the others. But certainly I think the agency was entitled to conclude, particularly if you take into account the deference this Court should give to that kind of determination, that the scientific uncertainty surrounding the issue of global climate change, surrounding issues of the extent of natural variability in climate, surrounding the issues of impact of climate feedbacks like ocean circulation, and low cloud cover, are permissible considerations for the agency to take into —
JUSTICE STEVENS: Is there uncertainty on the basic proposition that these greenhouse gases contribute to global warming.
MR. GARRE: Your Honor, the report says that it is likely that there is a — a connection, but that it cannot unequivocally be established.
The strategy of the global warming deniers (and Bush Administration) is so reminiscent of Big Tobacco’s strategy that it is painful. For fifty years, the cigarette manufacturers employed a stable of “scientists” to assert (sometimes under oath) that they did not believe there was conclusive evidence that cigarettes cause lung cancer, or that nicotine is addictive. They dissected every study, highlighted every question, magnified every flaw, cast every possible doubt every possible time. They also conjured their own studies with conclusions foregone. It was all a charade, of course, because the real science was inexorable, and everyone knew smoking causes lung cancer, that nicotine is addictive. Still, this uncertainty campaign delayed public health protections, along with compensation for tobacco’s victims, for decades.
Confronted by the overwhelming scientific consensus on the role played by human commerce in the global warming of the past century, the fossil fuel industry has reacted predictably. In a communication strategy memo delivered to his clients, Frank Luntz, a leading Republican political consultant wrote:
“The scientific debate remains open. Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming in the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly” (emphases in the original).
This week, they brought the argument to the Supreme Court. Decades from now, this campaign will be viewed with the same dismay and outrage with which we now look back on the deceits perpetrated by Big Tobacco. But will decades down the line be too late?
The manufacture and magnification of scientific uncertainty endangers the public’s health, and it endangers programs to protect that health and to compensate victims
David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.