Climate Change Information and Disinformation

Disinformation, claims of competing economic imperatives and an inadequately informed public account for why governments have not acted effectively in response to the grave dangers posed by climate change.

The disinformation campaign promotes the view that climate change is not so serious that major actions are required. The global political economy has long been one in which exploitation greatly overpowers conservation.  As well, many people simply do not have sufficient understanding of the complex interdependence of human life, other life forms, and the planetary environment. This often results either in believing it will not affect them or, conversely, in a fatalistic sense that action is futile.

Increasing Danger

There should be no doubt that climate change is caused by anthropogenic global warming and is a growing problem, with 2016 “the third year in a row to set a new record for global average surface temperatures,” NASA reported. Also, in the period since the mid-twentieth century the global average surface temperature has risen by almost 1.0 degree Celsius. “A one-degree change is significant because it takes a vast amount of heat to warm all the oceans, atmosphere, and land by that much.” In 2016 an additional milestone was passed as the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal greenhouse gas rose to a new level: “the annual minimum CO2 level has now exceeded 400 ppm [parts per million]—not just in one location, but over the entire globe.” This is a more than 40% increase from the preindustrial-age level of 280 ppm and is unprecedented during many millennia. The CO2 rise is due mainly to combustion of fossil fuels, but secondary factors such as deforestation also contribute to global warming.

The trend of CO2 concentration has been upward for decades.[1] However, the full adverse effects of the high level of CO2 already in the atmosphere are delayed because much of the resulting heat is initially absorbed by the oceans. It is subsequently released through various processes, with the result that warming-induced climate change will continue “even if by some superhuman effort we stop emitting greenhouse gases very quickly,” Peter Wadhams explained.[2]

Life and the Carbon Cycle

 Peter Ward and Joe Kirschvink describe the carbon cycle on which human life depends:

"Carbon dioxide is transformed into living tissue, which eventually decays and helps form the skeletons of other kinds of animals and plants, which eventually fuse into lava and gas deep in the Earth, which is then brought back into the surface to renew the cycle."[3]

The carbon cycle played a major role in creating the atmosphere that sustains much of life on the planet. Its processes also created fossil fuels, massive combustion of which is the main cause of the present crisis. Daniel Rothman summarized the complex interdependence: “the carbon cycle represents the coupling between life and the environment—metabolism at a global scale.” Should our species Homo sapiens fail to resolve the climate crisis, it will in effect be choosing to destroy the global metabolism necessary for its own existence.

Global Interdependence

 Among factors contributing to inadequacy of public comprehension of the scope and complexity of the problem is that mainstream media coverage is often fragmentary, conveying the impression that many of the changes are isolated or geographically remote. There is public awareness of some climate changes but inadequate public discussion of their significance. These include ocean warming and acidification, more frequent extreme weather events, and more frequent droughts. Such climate processes are coupled through nonlinear feedback interactions to other processes of comparably great significance that are less known outside the scientific community. The interactions include: “feedbacks involving water in the atmosphere, as water vapour, clouds and aerosol; feedbacks involving ice (on both land and sea); and feedbacks involving greenhouse gases and the carbon cycle.” There is continuously ongoing interdependence on a planetary scale.

Among the changes are rapid loss of Arctic sea ice and more rapid melting of glaciers in the Polar Regions. The first contributes to further warming by reducing the planet’s capacity to reflect solar radiation, while the second contributes to changes in ocean salinity. The Polar Regions exert major influences on global climate, stabilizing it for many centuries but now contributing to destabilization. Among Polar influences are those involving major ocean currents, such as the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and the Atlantic Gulf Stream system. These currents are driven primarily by density gradients caused by temperature and salinity variations. Their horizontal and vertical components (together with surface currents driven by wind or other forces) help to distribute heat, CO2, and nutrients (and also chemical, radioactive, and plastic pollutants) locally and globally.

Potential Further Danger

Scientific and technical advances of the past decade have uncovered additional adverse effects, potentially very serious although understanding the full extent of their implications requires further observation and analysis. Examples include significant undersea releases of methane (CH4) from the Arctic Ocean due to warming, and adverse effects of warming and acidification on oceanic plankton.

Methane constitutes a much smaller fraction of the atmosphere than CO2 (approximately 2 ppm) but is a far more potent greenhouse gas—20 to 100 times more (depending on time frame). Observations in Siberian Arctic coastal waters demonstrate that there is a “potentially catastrophic feedback effect” between the retreat of Arctic sea ice and release of CH4, a phenomenon not previously anticipated.[4] This occurs because: many of the coastal shelves are shallow; the frozen seabed sediments hold large quantities of methane hydrates trapped by ice and pressure; and solar energy can now penetrate shallow ice-free water columns, warm the seabed, and thus release plumes of CH4.

Large seabed CH4 releases were assigned low probability and not significantly considered in the 2013 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the basis for the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate action. However, in the years since the report was written, Arctic sea ice has continued to retreat and additional observations of elevated atmospheric CH4 concentrations have been made from both Siberian and Canadian Arctic marine areas. The possibility of major releases from these regions presents “one of the greatest immediate risks facing the human race,” Wadhams concluded in 2016.[5] Arctic warming is also beginning to cause terrestrial CH4 releases from melting permafrost areas where additional quantities of this gas are generated by various processes. Observations in 2017 show elevated concentrations of CH4 in Antarctic, as well as Arctic regions due to warming feedbacks.

Plankton constitute a vital component of the marine food web and one group, the phytoplankton also produces vast amounts of oxygen by photosynthesis. Much of the oxygen so produced is transferred from the oceans to the atmosphere where it constitutes more than one-half of this gas essential for respiration by all terrestrial animals, as well as for combustion. Diverse species of plankton can be significantly affected by ocean warming, acidification, or salinity changes, in ways adverse to some and favourable to others. Effects on plankton may be adverse to many other life forms, both marine and terrestrial.

Disinformation Campaign

Three decades ago an international scientific consensus was reached that anthropogenic climate change was occurring, would have serious adverse effects, and required action. At the time, this was accepted by governments worldwide, as well as major private-sector corporations and the general public. US Congressional testimony by James Hansen, a severe drought across much of the US and parts of Canada, and positive mainstream media coverage were among influences generating broad receptivity and concern. Among the results were that the IPCC was established by the United Nations in 1988, and an international conference in 1992 developed the Kyoto Protocol committing states to greenhouse gas emission reductions.

However, in the quarter century since their Kyoto commitments, few states have taken significant action to control their emissions, despite mounting evidence confirming adverse effects were becoming more diverse and dangerous. China is an exception, having embarked on expansion of photovoltaic and nuclear power installations in an effort to reduce reliance on coal and other fossil fuels. (Nuclear power has its own risks, as the ongoing serious problems at Chernobyl and Fukushima demonstrate.)

A key cause of inaction is the climate-change denial campaign undertaken by the fossil fuel industry, beginning in 1988 and expanding thereafter. This influenced the policies of some political parties, including the Republican and Conservative parties in the US and Canada, respectively. Globally, the campaign helped to ensure continuation of massive public subsidies for the industry and to retard development of renewable energy sources.

Already in 1988 ExxonMobil, one of the world’s largest private corporations began to alter its earlier acceptance of the scientific consensus, and initiated a propaganda and lobbying campaign to undermine the consensus. Koch Industries, another very large private corporation pursued a similar strategy. The impetus appears to have been that corporation leaders became concerned that governments might respond democratically to public demands for effective action.[6] Governments might then impose taxes or regulatory restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions, or regulations on extractions, or reduce subsidies, thereby establishing new economic imperatives.

The disinformation strategy was adapted from that long used by the tobacco industry to allay concerns about health hazards from its products. The result was a denial campaign based on a particular conception of the term uncertainty, promoted through various means such as mass-media coverage and political campaign contributions. In the context of the campaign, uncertainty was assigned the particular meaning that there was in effect no scientific consensus. The purpose was to convince “policy makers and the public that climate change was still insufficiently understood and that more research needed to be done before significant action could be warranted.”[7] This form of climate-change denial has been increasingly successful in the US, globally still the most powerful state, one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters, and the corporate headquarters location for Exxon and Koch.

Views of scientists opposed to the majority consensus assisted the campaign, intentionally or otherwise. Coincidentally or otherwise, personal and professional criticisms were directed at leading climate scientists, such as Robert Watson and Michael Mann. In addition, several purportedly scientific controversies arose over climate data or analyses and were characterized as scandals in some mainstream and social media, although each subsequently was shown not to be well founded.[8] Another aspect was cooperation between a variety of environmental non-governmental organizations and large corporations. Such linkages sometimes resulted in the NGOs adjusting the focus or tone of their messages and the sponsors gaining improved public images, as Naomi Klein described.[9]

Substantial factors having the effect of bolstering the disinformation campaign are the dominant meaning of the term economy and related public concerns about employment. The term economy (together with the social science disciplines of economics and political economy that frame, explain and promote it) has long meant a production and exchange system heavily dependent on fossil fuels, and which has treated our finite planet as if it were an inexhaustible source for resources and an unlimited sink for toxic wastes.

Those (whether rich or poor) who benefit from this economy are understandably reluctant to contemplate alternative arrangements. But the present arrangement is no longer sustainable. Arguments that grave climate implications need not be heeded because of economic considerations can be viewed as another aspect of disinformation. Failure to move rapidly to a sustainable arrangement could result ultimately in global circumstances where no coherent large-scale economy is possible.

The 2016 US national elections yielded a comprehensive victory for the Republican Party: majorities in both Houses of Congress and the presidency. A measure of the climate-change denial campaign’s success is that the Party’s election platform included opposition to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate action, signed in 2016 by the US along with Canada, China, Russia and more than 100 other states. Its platform also included weakening regulations for environmental matters. This American political development is internationally significant, not least because substantial funding support may now be cut from the budgets of major climate monitoring agencies such as the EPA, NOAA and NASA, and the research programs of climate scientists.

Certainty and Uncertainty

There is genuine scientific uncertainty, not about the basic observational facts of the phenomenon, but about specific predictions as to how soon the problem will become much worse. Predictions of time frames and magnitudes for adverse effects are made using climate models. These necessarily include estimates of numerical values for model parameters based on current observations, together with historical records and geological and paleontological data. For example, estimates for the sensitivity parameter (SP, the amount of global average surface warming that would be caused by a doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentration) range from 1.5 to 7.8 degrees Celsius, with approximately 3.0 degrees considered most probable by some scientists. Model predictions depend on the value selected, and the IPCC considered the SP range of 1.5 to 4.5 degrees in its modeling.[10]

Some types of predictions can be made by methods relatively independent of particular models. For instance, the duration of significant impact caused by CO2 already in the environment was studied by Susan Solomon and colleagues using available climate projections that were “broadly robust across models.” In 2009 they reported:

"It is sometimes imagined that slow processes such as climate change pose small risks, on the basis of the assumption that a choice can always be made to quickly reduce emissions and thereby reverse any harm within a few years or decades. We have shown that this assumption is incorrect for carbon dioxide emissions, because of the longevity of the atmospheric CO2 perturbation and ocean warming." [11]

They found that global warming and resulting climate change are “largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop,” in the sense that only after a period of “at least” one millennium would atmospheric temperatures begin to drop significantly. Among the important policy development implications are that “discount rates used in some estimates of economic trade-offs” are flawed because the selected rates “neglect the irreversibility shown” in the study.

Prospects for Global Action

The International Energy Agency stated in November 2016 that while the commitments in the 2015 Paris Agreement were significant, they were not adequate to limit the global average temperature increase in this century to not more 2.0 degrees above the pre-industrial level (in other words, not more than about 1.0 degree above the 2016 level). Thus a further agreement with stronger and more comprehensive measures must be negotiated, implemented and enforced—and must include China, Russia, and the US, as well as a great many other states.

Two major impediments to such action are: the new US government’s present intention not to implement the 2015 Paris commitments; and relations among China, Russia, and the US are seriously strained at present. Nevertheless, as outlined below there are reasons for mild optimism.

The danger is existential and cannot be resolved solely by people adhering to any specific political ideology or by specific means they might prefer. This is illustrated by historical examples in which major international problems were effectively addressed (such as those listed in the CFE blog post of December 28). Thus the effectiveness of the framework promoted by Klein was limited by her addressing it to “progressive forces.”[12] Neither in the past nor present has concern for the environment been confined to progressives. It may suffice to recall that the support of Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan was key for the 1987 Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer, and that Margaret Thatcher was one of the first political leaders to speak out strongly on the need for action on climate change.

Although some people cannot change their positions on important issues, throughout history there have been many instances in which influential people did so. The several agreements and treaties and between the US and USSR/Russia to reduce the risks from nuclear weapons had bipartisan political support in the US, and endured despite several leadership changes in the USSR/Russia. The circumstances leading to the initial Treaty (1963) remain instructive. It was achieved despite the early 1960s being a time of dangerously strained relations between the US and USSR.[13] This also was a time of political repression in each state (much more severe in the USSR but still significant in the US).

Quite recently a group of prominent Republican Party supporters (the Climate Leadership Council) put forward a substantial proposal for action on climate change. Although ideologically narrow and designed to appeal to conservatives, it has the potential to give the present US government an opportunity to begin changing course. Unsurprisingly, it emphasizes neoliberal economic measures and opposes regulations of any kind, but if adopted by the US government it could form a basis for productive and wider international discussions. This is because in the neoliberal era, economic measures do not offend ideology to the extent regulatory measures do. Paris Agreement signatories such as Canada are in the process of imposing economic measures (carbon-emissions pricing) to assist in meeting their Paris commitments.

Ultimately, significant regulatory measures also will be needed, accompanied by inspection and enforcement regimes. An agreement on economic measures could help build confidence for more comprehensive actions to be developed and negotiated later, analogous to the process of expanding risk reduction for nuclear weapons. However, as in that instance, a major crisis (or crises) may be necessary before stronger actions are taken on climate. In such event the more immediate risk could be a crisis (or crises) so severe as to overwhelm global response and adaptation capacities. And by that stage, the adverse climate changes could already be on unstoppable trajectories.

There are various possibly effective actions to slow or mitigate global climate change processes, such as those discussed by Michael Mann[14], Johan Rockström, and Thomas Piketty involving regulatory or economic devices or both. Many of these should be pursued, promptly and vigorously.

 

[1] The upward trend with ongoing minor fluctuations can be seen from the Keeling curve: http://scrippsco2.ucsd.edu/

[2] Peter Wadhams, A Farewell to Ice (Toronto: Penguin Random House, 2016), 61

[3] Peter Ward and Joe Kirschvink, A New History of Life (New York, Bloomsbury, 2015), 23

[4] Wadhams, A Farewell to Ice, 121

[5] Wadhams, A Farewell to Ice, 128

[6] Two review essays by David Kaiser and Lee Wasserman in the New York Review of Books discuss the climate-change denial campaign, the leading role of ExxonMobil, and the political impacts, providing many references: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/12/08/the-rockefeller-family-fund-vs-exxon/ ; https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/12/22/rockefeller-family-fund-takes-on-exxon-mobil/

[7] The quotation is from the first of the first of the two essays by Kaiser and Wasserman.

[9] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything, (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), Chapter 6

[10] Sensitivity parameter estimation is explained in Wadhams (cited above), Chapter 5, and in Michael E. Mann and Lee R. Kump, Dire Predictions (New York: DK Publishing, second edition, 2015), Part 2.

[11] S Solomon, G-K Plattner, R Knutti and P Friedlingstein, “Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions,” Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci., 106, 6, February 10, 2009, 1704-1709, (http://www.pnas.org/search?fulltext=susan+solomon&volume=106&issue=6&submit=yes )

[12] Klein, This Changes Everything, 466

[13] A brief summary is given in the CFE blog post cited above.

[14] Mann and Kump, cited above, Part 5