An inconvenient truth is a truth no one likes to admit, and thus it is inconvenient and causes problems or difficulties for someone. The truth about the climate crisis is an inconvenient one that means we are going to have to change the way we live our lives. Our climate crisis may at times appear to be happening slowly, but in fact it has become a true planetary emergency and we must recognize that we are facing a crisis. The 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, starring former US Vice President Al Gore, did raise public awareness – we seem to be sitting on a ticking time bomb. So why is it that some leaders seem not to hear the clarion warnings? Big oil companies have spent millions of dollars over the last decade trying to confuse the public on global warming in order to maintain the status quo.
An Inconvenient Truth identified the facts that humans are responsible for climate change, and the effects can be devastating. Since the 1970s, the extent & thickness of the Arctic ice cap has diminished precipitously. There are now studies showing that if we continue with business as usual, the Arctic ice cap will completely disappear each year during summertime. At present, it plays a crucial role in cooling the Earth. Preventing its disappearance must be one of our priorities. The message is current technology can reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 1970 levels. This response involves multiple approaches: reduction of oil consumption by the more efficient use of electricity in heating and cooling systems, lighting, appliances and electronic equipment; increased vehicle efficiency by manufacturing cars that run on less gas and putting more hybrid and fuel-cell cars on the roads; reduction of use of fossil fuels can be achieved by changes in transport efficiency, such as designing better mass transit systems, and increased reliance on renewable energy technologies that already exist. All these actions impact the oil industry’s bottom line.
The correlation between temperature and carbon dioxide concentrations over the last 1,000 years – as measured in the ice core record from Greenland – is striking. Nevertheless, the so-called global warming skeptics often say that global warming is really an illusion reflecting nature’s cyclical fluctuations. To support their view, they frequently refer to the Medieval Warm Period. But the historical thermometer shows the vaunted Medieval Warm Period was tiny compared to the enormous increases in temperature of the last half-century. There is a debate over how fast the polar ice caps will melt – and detractors use databases with the minimal rise in ocean levels excluding Greenland and Antarctica (because researchers could not quantify the amount of melt, not because it will not be significant). The documentary suggested the conveyor (thermohaline circulation) in the north Atlantic would disappear, while IPCC model has it slowing down by 30%. We don’t know what the consequences of a slow down will be, or when it will appear, because it depends on the efforts put in place to reduce the pollution that causes global warming. However, thousands of other facts in the movie have gone unchallenged.1
Cigarettes did not become popular until the development of automated equipment to make them in the 19th century. The tobacco industry was set up to reap huge profits. During the 1940s, the tobacco companies promoted the health benefits of cigarettes – preventing colds and relaxing individuals. Lung cancer was rare in the early 1900s but by the mid-20th century it had become an epidemic. A 1950 medical report described a casual association between the smoking of cigarettes and lung cancer.
In 1952, a Readers’ Digest article decried the negative health consequences of cigarette smoking. The following year was the first year in two decades that the sale of cigarettes dropped. The tobacco industry responded by setting up the Council for Tobacco Research. This was the beginning of a survival strategy. This meant denying the health consequences of smoking. Deceiving customers about the true nature of cigarettes through marketing and PR, as well as damaging the credibility of industry opponents. This including introducing distractions by drawing attentions to other agents like radon gas, asbestos, arsenic, silica and chromium. The tobacco companies joined many associations who typically oppose taxation and promoted themselves as supporters of freedom of expression, but blocked making available any information linking smoking to death or any negative outcomes.
In the 1960s lung cancer was only a few per 100,000 in non-smokers, but over 300 per hundred thousand in smokers. At the time, the Tobacco Research Council funded studies that suggested there was no cause and effect between smoking and lung cancer, and suggested that air pollution should be considered. A long series of court cases (all of which the tobacco lobby won) were based on a lack of evidence – the illness was not causally related. In 1978 scientists discovered the suppressor gene p53 – when it detects DNA damage p53 halts cell division and stimulates the DNA repair enzymes that fix the problem. Mutations that inactivate p53 remove a key barrier to unrestricted cell decision. Benzopyrene, a potent mutagen found in cigarette smoke, binds directly to the tumor suppressor gene p53 and mutates it into the inactive form. This was the link proving chemicals in cigarette smoke cause mutations causing lung cancer and after this study cigarette companies abandoned their claim that cigarettes have not been shown to cause cancer.
In spite of the scientific revolution, new ideas from science can take awhile to have an effect. Corporations have adopted the disinformation programs perfected by the tobacco industry over the past fifty years. These tactics include introducing manufactured uncertainty by raising doubts about even the most indisputable scientific evidence, by setting up so called independent front organizations to publically promote its desired message. This includes cherry picking scientific spokespeople whose interpretations of the peer-reviewed literature suggest to the media and the public that the debate amongst scientists continues, and the results are not definitive. Industries sponsor sophisticated research activities that include both funding of established research institutions, as well as funding of advocacy and ideological organizations to conduct disinformation campaign – leaving public and law makers confused. The best example of recent public health advocacy and eventually control of a chronic disease was the success of 50 years of efforts in tobacco reduction strategy, and second-hand smoke control. 2
The chief propagandists of neoliberalism, were Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, who, in 1947, founded the Mont Pelerin Society, to coordinate the creation of an international network of think-tanks and foundations, to spread trickle down ideology.3 Subsequently, right-leaning think-tanks were established around the world “to improve public understanding … of the role of markets in solving economic and social problems.” Hayek inspired Antony Fisher to establish the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) in London during 1955, the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., during 1973, and the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research in New York City during 1977 and the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in 1981. In turn, the Atlas Foundation supports a wide network of think tanks, including the Fraser Institute (established in 1974 in British Columbia). As the think-tanks evolved they took a page out of the tobacco industry playbook and incorporated it into their communication strategy.4
The oil industry is known for their heavy financial support to organizations that promote doubt over climate science, peddle fossil fuel use and attack clean energy alternatives. The Heritage Foundation has played a consistent role in promoting the oil ideology. Senator Jim DeMint became the president of the Heritage Foundation in 2013. As a Senator, he defended the fairness of giving billions of dollars in subsidies to Big Oil. As president of the Heritage Foundation he champions slashing funds for welfare programs to support a pro growth agenda. The problem, DeMint claims, is centralized planning of big government that doesn’t work – it creates a culture of dependency that can trap people. In fact, he is aware that Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute scoured dozens of research studies and found no evidence that income inequality causes less economic mobility or slower economic growth. This he claims, supports his ideas that government programs are stifling upward mobility.5
The Fraser Institute, a right-leaning think tank, has supported climate-change skeptics for nearly a decade. The Fraser Institute has argued that right-to-work states have seen more rapid employment growth than those without. An analysis of the Ontario conservative party plans for right-to work would put the middle class out of reach for many. Using Statistics Canada’s Longitudinal Administrative Databank, a recent Fraser Institute study, Measuring Income Mobility in Canada, tracks a cohort of over a million Canadians from 1990 to 2009 to see how their incomes changed. Their study claims that the middle class is not in trouble – over the period studied low-income individuals were advancing economically.6 However, Michael Wolfson, a former statistician from Statscan, had previously used the same database and came to the opposite conclusion. The authors of the Fraser Institute study have yet to publish the details of their income groups.7
A study reported in Psychological Science in 2011 claims that statisticians can prove almost anything. This is otherwise known as confirmation bias, or the tendency to favour ideas that fit with one’s settled positions. The study reports that it is not unusual for a researcher to falsely find evidence that an effect exists than to correctly find evidence that it does not. This report creates significant doubt on any researcher who claims his findings are ‘statistically significant.’ One field, which is losing credibility because of this factor, is psychology, and, in particular, social psychology that merges with economics. The root problem is researchers’ degrees of freedom – the flexibility on data use – that “lead to bias at best, and nonsense at worst”.8 The Fraser Institute article identifies the need for more details to determine the significance of the income mobility report. So just when there is a requirement for better data to target programs on poverty, Prime Minister Steven Harper, a politician well connected to the Fraser Institute, cancelled the long census form in 2013, that used to accompany tax forms – pandering to the speaking points of less government carries the day.
The agenda of organizations like the Heritage Foundation and the Fraser Institute include industrial and environmental deregulation, the privatization of government services, deep reductions in federal anti-poverty spending and the transfer of authority and responsibility for social welfare from the national government to the charitable sector and state or provincial and local government. Occupy Wall Street protesters challenged the excesses of the corporations in general, and in particular, a government controlled by corporate money and the growing income gap between the very wealthy and the rest in society. The singular success of Occupy Wall Street is to put inequality on the political agenda. The truth is as income inequality increases social mobility decreases.
The tobacco industry was involved in over fifty years of minimizing the hazards of cigarette smoking through various methods, such as suggesting factors like air pollution may be involved in lung cancer. The consequence of these activities was the delaying of the decision to intervene with public health programs to reduce smoking in the general public to prevent chronic disease and early deaths. Another inconvenient truth, but a truth that must be addressed, nonetheless, is the increasing income gap between the wealthy and the rest of society and the subsequent loss of social mobility. There is a need in the 21st century to circumvent activities by various think-tanks to create doubt of the effects of inequality that prevents progressive government initiatives to address the issue. Changes are necessary to address wealth distribution to ensure the freedom of individuals to reach their full potential.
1Masters, Jeffery. “Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.” http://www.wunderground.com/resources/education/gore.asp
2Horsman, Greg. Evolutionary Economics and Equality: An age of Enlightenment, p 25-26.
3Horsman, Greg. ( 6 Oct 2012) “Trickle Down Ideology.” http://questioningandskepticism.com/2012/10/06/trickle-down-ideology/
4Livingston, David. The Fraser Institute and the Subversion of Canadian Society http://www.thedyinggod.com/node/108
5DeMint, Jim. (18 Jan 2014) Why President Obama’s Approach to Poverty Won’t Work http://blog.heritage.org/2014/01/18/president-obamas-approach-poverty-wont-work/
6Veldhuis, Niels, Lammam, Charles, Karabegovic. (Jan 2013) “The ‘poor’ are getting RICHER” http://www.fraserinstitute.org/uploadedFiles/fraser-ca/Content/research-news/research/articles/poor-are-getting-richer-jan2013.pdf
7Wolfson, Michael. (4 Dec 2012) “In Canada, “Rags to Riches” Is a Myth.” http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/michael-wolfson/income-inequality-canada_b_2234034.html
8Brean, Joseph. Statisticians can prove almost anything, a new study finds. (20 Nov 2011) http://news.nationalpost.com/2011/11/20/statisticians-can-prove-almost-anything-a-new-study-finds/