A Misinformation Campaign

Copyright 1998 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
April 28, 1998

There's about to be a lot of hot air blown around on the matter of global warming.

For two months, large oil companies and other businesses have been meeting in the Washington, D.C., office of the American Petroleum Institute. They're interested in maintaining high use--and thus high sales--of fossil fuels, which are responsible for the greenhouse gasses that cause global warming.

The oil companies have been plotting an attack on the large body of scientific evidence on global warming. With a two-year, $5 million campaing aimed at science writers and radio talk shows, the group hopes to convince the public that the science behind global warming is shaky.

The scheme was exposed by the release of an eight-page industry memo obtained by the National Environmental Trust, which hopes to scuttle the plan. Any special interest--including oil giants like Exxon, Chevron, and the Southern Co. (all named in the memo)--has the right to try to win over public opinion. But this alliance is intent on spreading misinformation and doubt for its own self-interested ends. These companies and their allies have no interest in presenting dissenting scientific opinion on global warming so the public can make the best policy decisions on how to safeguard our planet. Their interest is safeguarding the bottom line.

Greenhouse gases from the burning of fissil fuels act as a blanket over the Earth. Over time, scientists predict, this can cause the average temperature of the Earth to rise--from 2 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit in the next century. The temperature rise could result in melting glaciers and ice caps, coastal flooding, heat waves, crop failures, loss of fresh water supplies and the spread of tropical diseases.

In reaction, last year in Kyoto, Japan, an international agreement was reached to lower greenhouse emissions further than had originally been agreed at the summit in 1992 at Rio de Janeiro. Many details of the treaty still have to be worked out this November, and the U.S. Senate has not yet approved American participation. The oil companies' campaign blitz is clearly aimed at influencing these events.

Oil companies and their allies intend to recruit bona fide scientists to help muddy the waters about global warming. The memo calls for recruiting scientists and training them in "public relations."

Opponents of the science behind global warming have already stooped to some dirty tricks. On April 20, the prestigious National Academy of Sciences distanced itself from a statement and petition from Dr. Frederick Seitz, who doesn't believe in global warming. Mr. Seitz--a physicist who was president of the academy in the 1960s--issued a petition and an accompanying article attacking the science of global warming. His document was formatted to resemble peer-reviewed articles that appear in the National Academy of Science' well-respected journal. But the article itself never appeared there.

Experts warning about global warming admit there is room for argument on the fine points of how fast it is happening, whether the trend can be reversed, and how much of a cutback in fossil-fuel emissions is needed.

But there is strong scientific evidence that global warming is real, and dangerous. Just days before the public airing of the memo exposing the misninformation campaign, scientists at the University of Massachusetts published research that indicates that 1997 was the warmest of the past 600 years.

The same study shows an undeniable increase in global temperatures this century, believed to be directly related to modern consumption of fossil fuels.

The public must now be on guard when it hears arguments that global warming is not happening. Don't be fooled by organizations with fancy-sounding names--many of them are pseudo-scientific, such as the George C. Marshall Institute, where Mr. Seitz is chairman, or the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, where Mr. Seitz is on the science advisory board. When you hear scientists dismissing the threat of global warming, ask whom they are affiliated with, who is sponsoring the talk and who is paying the honorarium.

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