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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Global Warming

Air Date: Week of

A new report confirming that humans are a key contributor to global warming raises questions for commentator Ross Gelbspan about the public’s misconceptions of scientific knowledge.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's official. The United Nations scientific panel has released a long-awaited report on global warming, which confirms what most scientists had believed for some time. Humans are a key cause of global warming. While this isn't much of a scientific surprise, as commentator Ross Gelbspan points out, it does raise a major question about public misconceptions of the state of scientific knowledge.

GELBSPAN: For at least the last 4 years the coal and oil industries have spent millions of dollars on a campaign of propaganda and disinformation to downplay concerns about global climate change. Much of that money has gone to amplifying the views of about a half dozen dissenting researchers, giving them a platform and a credibility in the public arena, which is grossly out of proportion to their influence in the scientific community. In 1991, for instance, the coal industry launched a disinformation campaign designed to, quote, "reposition global warming as theory rather than fact." They used 3 of the so-called scientific skeptics, Doctors Robert Bolling, Pat Michaels, and Sherwood Idso, in broadcast appearances, in newspaper columns, designed to target quote "older, less educated men and young, low-income women."

Later that year, Western Fuels, a coal industry collaborative, spent a quarter of a million dollars to produce a video narrated by Dr. Idso, which extolled the agricultural benefits of increased levels of carbon dioxide. What the widely-circulated video failed to mention is that even a slight increase in the global temperature could trigger an explosion of the planet's insect population with its potential for vast crop destruction and the spread of infectious disease.

The disinformation campaign is almost predictable given the staggering magnitude of the stakes. The trillion dollar a year fossil fuel industry versus the ability of the planet to sustain civilization. What is more difficult to accept is the undisclosed funding of some of the skeptics. Dr. Michaels, for instance, has received more than $115,000 in the last 3 years from US and foreign coal interests. Dr. Bolling has received about $300,000 in the last 5 years from US, German, and British coal interests, as well as from the government of Kuwait.

Can one say that the work of these scientists is tainted because it is funded by industry? Absolutely not. But one can say that given their frequent pronouncements in arenas as diverse as the Rush Limbaugh Show, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the US Congress, these few skeptics have an ethical obligation to tell their audience where they get their money.

Ultimately, however, even the funding question is a diversion from the real issue. Are we confronting a potentially catastrophic era of climate instability and planetary warming? The scientific opinion breaks down to something like 2,495 to 6. Without the millions of industry dollars being spent to amplify their views, the handful of skeptics would be no more than footnotes to the leading climate scientists of the world.

CURWOOD: Journalist Ross Gelbspan's article on global warming is the cover story in the December issue of Harper's Magazine.



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