This is the first part of a two-party series about conspiracies concerning climate change. The second part can be found here.

By Aishwarya Siva

What does smoking have to do with global warming? Not much if you aren’t considering a secret cabal of conspirators leading the charge against solid science and reputable scientists in an attempt to mislead the world for the sake of corporate greed. It almost sounds like a movie complete with a seedy room filled with diluted light and cigar smoke where evil men plan the downfall of the world. Unfortunately this conspiracy is not restricted to the fictions of Hollywood. As the old adage goes, fact is often stranger than fiction and… more sinister as well.

Global warming is a well documented fact yet it has joined the likes of evolution in a pantheon of inconvenient realities that certain parties have a vested interest in obfuscating. The science behind global warming is solid and irrefutable, much like evolution, yet it is constantly being questioned. 

While global warming has gained traction in recent years, it is not a new development. Back in 1965, scientists had already extensively studied the effects of greenhouse gases on the environment and brought these findings to President Lyndon Johnson. They explained that burning fossil fuels was causing worldwide climate change and that it was vital to reduce its effects. However, as often is the case, the situation was put aside to be dealt with later. In the 1980s, scientists once again brought this to President Ronald Reagan’s attention and in 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established to verify this research with rigorous, peer-reviewed science. 

In 1995, the IPCC published a report on the state of global warming in the world. This assessment is a dense 500 page document filled with extensively peer reviewed data. Climatologist Ben Santer authored chapter 8 of the assessment where he concluded that the cause of global warming was man-made greenhouse gases. 

He was immediately accused of having altered the report to suit his agenda. The leaders of this accusation were a group of physicists working at the George C. Marshall Institute, a think tank in Washington D.C. They attempted to bully the Department of Energy into firing him for his “negligent” reporting and even published an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway extensively documents this political ploy, on which this article is based, and they explain that during the course of extensive peer-review, Ben Santer had made changes to his report according to comments given by his peers.

Comments given during peer-review are to be taken seriously and changed as needed. This is the basis of scientific integrity, vital to keeping science pristine in its search for the truth and to prevent any wrongful conclusions. The physicists in Washington were aware of this, so why then did they decide to smear Ben Santer in such a way? Note that they didn’t reach out to him or the IPCC and instead publicly derided him. That was because their intention was not to have a scientific debate but a public one. Ben Santer published a reply to these allegations a week later but his reputation had already been damaged. 

According to Oreskes and Conway, this group was not new to controversy or to twisting scientific facts. In fact, they had done this before, from claiming that acid rain was caused by volcanoes to denying the existence of a growing ozone hole. Where they could not refute the science, they claimed academia had rigged it. Science is a complicated field, highly technical in nature and based on statistical evidence. As such, a scientific debate can only be had by scientists in their field of expertise, in the arena of their peers and not in a public forum. It should be noted that while the science skeptics were scientists, they were physicists and their attacks were aimed at climatologists, biologists and other scientists who were in entirely different fields of study. The physicists were out of their depth.

According to the authors of Merchants of Doubt, the leaders of this group were Frederick Seitz and Siegfried Fred Singer. Both men had enjoyed illustrious scientific careers before joining the tobacco industry in the 1980s when the industry set up a team to counter conclusive scientific evidence proving that smoking was hazardous to health.  

In 1953, biologists at Sloan-Kettering Institute conducted a study in which tar applied on mice caused fatal cancers. This resulted in a media panic as outlets ran to announce the dangers of smoking. 

It marked the fateful moment that the tobacco industry would set up the machinery of fraud, that would culminate in a litigation some 50 years later. The top four tobacco companies at the time met to discuss the imminent threat to their business. The meeting included John Hill, the founder of a top-tier PR firm in New York. He was the sinister genius behind the idea to employ scientists to fight science. He reasoned that lay people could not refute hard science and insisted on recruiting scientists to combat the irrefutable science. They Singer and Seitz to this end. 

In the 1990s, mounting scientific evidence prompted the Surgeon General (SG) to announced that second-hand smoke was hazardous. Singer attacked the SG in the same manner he and Seitz would later attack Ben Santer, accusing the SG of being a political puppet and of altering data to suit policies in an attempt to increase governmental oversight. Oreskes and Conway state that Singer was, at this time, paid by the Tobacco Institute but that the group would later be recruited by other industries interested in their services. They allege that each of their campaigns was powered by money from various industries and interest groups, backed by lawyers and managed by PR personnel who are essential in any avenue involving the court of popular opinions.

Some questions Seitz and Singer asked to fuel public doubt included: if smoking causes cancer, why doesn’t everyone get cancer? Why do cancer rates differ across cities? Has the incidence rate of cancer increased or are we now able to detect it better? While on the surface these could be legitimate questions to be answered by scientists, the answers are complicated and nuanced, something sensationalized news often doesn’t report well. These are loaded questions which act on premade assumptions and are not aimed at seeking the truth.

Such questions are being asked today but it is beyond a reasonable doubt that smoking is hazardous. This fraud resolved itself to the tune of a $360 billion lawsuit filed by 40 states in the USA against the top four tobacco firms, aiming to recover healthcare costs from smoking related diseases. The misinformation media debacle prevented the government from enacting policies against the tobacco industry and against informing the public of the hazards of smoking, resulting in an epidemic of smoking related diseases which descendants of smokers still face. 

It took decades for the truth about cigarettes to overcome skepticism yet the same machinery is at work in the case of global warming. They have provided ‘alternate findings’ and thrown doubt over credible findings, smeared reputable scientists and have made a media circus in the public forum. Regardless of how irrefutable the data is, doubt over properly peer-reviewed scientific findings has prevented any effective policy from being enacted in the US. Political opponents of global warming often juxtapose the economy against global warming, as if we must pick one or the other to survive when in reality, the cost of not reversing climate change is the collapse of whole ecosystems which will invariably affect the economy. It is critical to identify blatant misinformation and stop it in its tracks.

To read in more detail, please check out Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.

Illustration: Michelle Sara Pencarski

Aishwarya Siva is currently working on her master’s in biology. When she is not languishing in the depths of BMC, she’s catching a beer with friends, trying to salvage pictures from her century old phone or making references to New Girl that no one knows. She wants to use her opinionated disposition and penchant for writing to work at the intersection of science and policy.

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