Skepticism

Study: How Conservative Think Tanks are Destroying the Planet

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When I first got involved in the skeptic community I was under the impression that my main job was to help individuals learn to use the tools in their “bullshit detector.” I was mostly interested in topics like “how psychic mediums trick people into thinking they talk to the dead,” and “why people think the moon landing didn’t really happen.” I just figured if we teach critical thinking, we can slowly root out harmful superstitious beliefs.

I was so, so naive.

Because it turns out that we can’t just teach individuals how to think critically and send them on their way. It’s simply not enough. And the reason why it’s not enough is, well, because there is a large, complicated, well-funded shadowy conspiracy that billionaires have enacted to make themselves richer by destroying the public’s trust in science and ultimately destroying the planet Earth, making it uninhabitable for future generations of humans.

That’s right, I can’t just debunk conspiracy theories because of an actual conspiracy that is happening now. I’m as shocked as you are.

Remember a few months ago when the IPCC released their report showing that it is now an accepted scientific fact that climate change is really happening, is caused by humans, and is really fucking bad for humanity? Well! Turns out, those are three of five major claims that conservative think tanks and blogs have attempted to stop the public from understanding in a massive, coordinated effort that has spanned at least the past 20 years.

In a juicy new study published this month in Nature Scientific Reports, researchers trained an algorithm to sort through a quarter of a million documents produced by dozens of conservative think tanks and blogs over the past 20 years, identifying every piece of misinformation about climate change they could find. And yeah, they found a lot. They sorted them into these five major categories of lies (which they distinguish from mere rational skepticism):

It’s not happening

It’s not us

It’s not bad

Solutions won’t work

Climate science/scientists are unreliable

They then plotted the popularity of each of these lies over time to see how they evolved between 1998 and 2020. This is helpful in a few ways: we can see how the contrarians’ tactics changed along with political mix-ups, like when the Democrats took control of both houses of Congress in 2007, and we can also see how their tactics are trending for the future, so that we might better counter them. They also broke the five major claims down into sub-claims so they could better see which of those sub-claims are the primary drivers of the major claim.

The data shows that the first three categories, which are the pseudoscientific claims of it’s not happening, it’s not caused by humans, and it’s not that bad, were popular prior to 2010 but have been declining in recent years. My guess is that as more data came in in the past decade, the science has just become completely overwhelming. Arguing that the science is wrong is becoming a fringe belief akin to flat Earthers. And that’s good! Remember that whenever you read news of a scientific finding and think “Well duh, we already knew that.” There’s definitely a number of good reasons to do more research even when you think it’s a stone cold fact. You might find you’re wrong, or you might add another pebble to the pile of evidence that becomes harder and harder to ignore.

Claims 4 and 5 (solutions won’t work and science is unreliable) were the most common pieces of disinformation this study found, and in particular the policy claim of #4 really took off after 2008. Drilling down on that claim, they found that the main argument used by the conservative think tanks was “mitigation and adaptation measures will be harmful to the economy, environment, and society more generally.”

When the researchers laid the popularity of claim 4 out over time, they noticed spikes in the messaging at interesting points in American political history: 

Point (A) is 2003, when Senators John McCain (Republican) and Joseph Lieberman (Democrat) introduced the first Climate Stewardship Act, which would have capped co2 emissions at the level they were at in 2000 (plus provided a scholarship for people studying climatology, how nice!). The act died in committee after the fossil fuel industry funded a report that said it would have negative economic effects on the US.

Points B and C were the follow-up 2005 and 2007 bipartisan Climate Stewardship and Innovation Acts, which was essentially the same as the first act, just reintroduced to new Congresses. Both died in committee despite vast popular voter support.

Point D is the Climate Security Act of 2007, another cap-and-trade bill that would limit emissions. The act died due its inability to overcome a Republican filibuster after outlets like the Washington Post ran statements from fossil fuel CEOs saying that the bill would be economically devastating.

Point (E) is the Waxman-Markey Bill, aka the American Clean Energy and Security Act, another cap and trade bill that came to a Democrat-held Congress in 2009 and actually PASSED in the House. It was never even brought to the floor in the Senate after conservative Think Tank the Heritage Foundation wrote a report claiming that passage of the bill would lead to an energy crisis.

Finally, point (F) is when President Obama introduced the Clean Power Plan in 2015, an initiative that provided each state with a goal of reducing their carbon emissions however they wanted. Congressional Republicans tried to block the plan, with groups like Americans for Prosperity arguing that the plan would have a “devastating effect on the economy”. Donald Trump did away with the plan when he took office.

See the pattern? Every time the US had a chance to pass legislation that the IPCC says is necessary for the survival of the human race, conservative think tanks like the Heartland Institute (funded in part by the fossil fuel industry) started talking more about how alternative solutions to fossil fuels simply will not help.

Speaking of who is funding all this, the researchers took the further step of plotting that out. They relied on previous research that identified the major funders of climate change misinformation and were able to see that the more money a think tank took from those key funders, the more likely that think tank was to spread the specific misinformation that climate scientists can’t be trusted. They also found that since 2010, more and more donors to these think tanks are using anonymous ways to donate like Donors Trust, a fund set up for the purpose of “safeguarding the intent of libertarian and conservative donors”. That makes it more difficult to now see who is paying for these organizations to lie to the general public, but we don’t need the Mystery Machine to help us figure out that yeah, it’s probably the fossil fuel industry.

There’s a lot more in this study, and it’s available for free for you to read in full. The researchers point out that the trends suggest we’re going to see more and more of Claim #4, the idea that nothing we do will help stop climate change and anything we try is only going to make things worse, either environmentally or economically. The correlation between spikes in that claim and climate change bills getting shot down in Congress is just too perfect. Why wouldn’t they do more of what seems to work?

So keep that in mind as we desperately beg our government to do something — anything — to reduce emissions. If you hear about how gas prices will go up? Great. They should go up. Gas should be expensive, it’s made of fucking dinosaurs. If you hear about how the US will be plunged into a depression? It’s a lie. If you hear that it’s not worth doing something that will “only” prevent an extra degree of warming? That’s a lie, too. Money is fake and the planet is real. Whatever the “cost,” it’s worth saving the planet. It’s where we keep all our stuff.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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