Feb 10 2017
H. Sterling Burnett, writing for the Heartland Institute blog, wrote a revealing post titled: Energy Restrictions, Not Climate Change, Put Civilizations at Risk. In my opinion it is a classic example of misleading propaganda, worthy of deconstruction as a case study.
What Is Propaganda?
I always endeavor to be as clear, thorough, and fair in my writing as possible. I am not saying I always succeed, but that is my goal. I have been influenced by my scientific background where clarity and accuracy rises to the level of obsession in the technical literature. It’s not possible to achieve that level in a non-technical blog, but it is a good ideal.
Propaganda is the opposite of clear, thorough, and fair. The purpose of propaganda is to persuade the reader to an ideological or political opinion, or to impugn or cast doubt on other people or other ideas. Being persuasive in an of itself does not make communication propaganda. In order to rise to that level there has to be a willful distortion of facts, a selective use of arguments and information, and the marshaling of any points that suit your ends, regardless of how fair they are.
Propaganda, like pseudoscience, exists on a spectrum. This further means that there is a demarcation problem – there isn’t going to be a bright line beyond which communication is clearly propaganda.
Burnett’s article shows multiple dramatic examples of what constitutes propaganda, and so should serve as an instructive example. This is not surprising since The Heartland Institute is an ideological think tank. They are not a scientific organization.
Anti-Global Warming Rhetoric
The main point of Burnett’s piece is that using the threat of global warming to push radical anti-fossil fuel policy will cause more harm than good. There is actually a kernel of truth there, which is common in propaganda and makes it more effective. Sure, radical and abrupt restrictions on the use of fossil fuel will have a negative economic impact with lots of downstream harm.
The misdirection comes in the implied claim that accepting such extreme proposals (which he does not name specifically) is the same as accepting the idea of global warming itself. Therefore, if you can argue against the most extreme solutions being proposed, you have somehow argued against doing anything at all, or even that global warming is a problem to be solved.
Burnett was responding to an article by Bill McKibben on Wired. He begins:
In a recent article appearing in Wired.com, radical anti-fossil-fuel activist Bill McKibben claimed human actions are putting civilization at risk.
…McKibben and his ilk propose to end fossil-fuel use as part of their efforts to control the weather 100 years from now.
Right out of the gate he uses loaded language, calling McKibben “radical” and framing his position as being against fossil fuel. The article to which Burnett is responding does not contain anything radical, and does not call for an abrupt end to fossil fuel use. McKibben makes the point that we are where we are now because of scientific and political advancements. He briefly reviewed the work of scientists that allowed us to understand the threat of climate change, and the progress of international diplomacy represented by the Paris Accord (which he acknowledged would not solve the problem). He was stating that these are the better parts of civilization and we need to embrace them, not reject them, if we are going to save ourselves.
The end of the first paragraph attempts to ridicule “McKibben and his ilk” as trying to “control the weather.” This, of course, mistakes climate for weather, a common fallacy among climate change deniers. (Calling them deniers is not, by the way, propaganda as they are literally denying the strong scientific consensus on climate change.)
Burnett follows with a classic maneuver of science deniers – quoting individual scientists who said something that is not part of the current consensus.
“What McKibben fails to mention is Arrhenius, rather than thinking rising greenhouse gas levels posed a threat to mankind, looked forward to the warmer world he thought they would bring.”
McKibben was simply giving a brief overview of scientific advances that built our modern understanding of climate change. He never argued or even implied that each of these scientists was prophetic or completely correct. Arrhenius was the first to calculate the relationship between CO2 in the atmosphere and rising temperatures, in the 1890s. He discovered that the amount of CO2 being released by human industry could be enough to actually alter the climate.
McKibben did not “fail to mention” anything relevant about Arrhenius. That fact that in the 1890s Arrhenius did not have the information to understand the impact of climate change is completely irrelevant to our modern understanding.
The fallacy that Burnett is committing is deliberately misinterpreting McKibben’s reference to Arrhenius as an appeal to authority. Burnett then feels he is free to also refer to Arrhenius as an authority on his musings about the impact of a warmer planet.
Burnett then does it again:
McKibben also lionizes U.S. oceanographer Roger Revelle, the former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, for his early work on global warming.
Alarmed his work on climate was being used in an effort to coerce legislators into taking dramatic actions to fight global warming, in 1991, the last year of his life, Revelle co-authored an article in which he wrote, “The scientific base for a greenhouse warming is too uncertain to justify drastic action at this time. There is little risk in delaying policy responses.”
McKibben did not “lionize” Revelle. This is what he actually wrote:
Think of Hans Suess and Roger Revelle in the 1950s, fumbling toward an understanding that the oceans would not absorb excess CO2—the first modern realization that CO2 must be accumulating in the atmosphere and hence, as Revelle put it, “human beings are now carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future.”
Burnett uses his mischaracterization to then justify quoting a scientist from 26 years ago saying that the science on climate change is uncertain. There is no point in arguing whether or not Revelle was justified in that opinion in 1991, because it is now 2017. The science has advanced considerably since then, and all that matters is the consensus of scientific opinion today.
Burnett next moves on to the Paris Agreement:
The Paris climate agreement is a paper tiger. The emissions cuts it promises are not binding on the countries who signed it, and the agreement carries no penalties for countries failing to meet their voluntary goals.
So first he criticizes climate change “alarmists” for going too far, then for not going far enough. No one thinks the Paris Agreement is sufficient. At best it is a start. McKibben says as much, referencing it to make the point that diplomacy can work. We should do more of it. He also makes the point that if Trump unilaterally abandons the agreement it would be taking a diplomatic step backwards.
Finally Burnett tells us how important energy is:
Fossil fuels are the lifeblood of modern civilization. As Alex Epstein demonstrates in his brilliant book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, they make possible modern agriculture, necessary to feed the planet’s billions of people, and modern medicine, which has reduced infant mortality and lengthened lifespans.
The logic here is: energy is important, we get energy from fossil fuels, therefore fossil fuels are important. This ignores what McKibben (at least in this article) and others, including myself, are actually saying. The mainstream of those warning about climate change and calling for action are not saying we should immediately get rid of fossil fuels regardless of the consequences to civilization. I’m sure there are some actual radical environmentalists who do say this, but portraying the most extreme position as the mainstream is, again, classic propaganda.
McKibben says in the article nothing, actually against fossil fuels. What he does say is that we need to accelerate adoption of wind and solar. These renewable energy sources are advancing quickly and we will eventually adopt them more broadly. He correctly points out that pace is everything. Our technological advancement is racing against climate change.
I agree with this. What we should be doing is investing in research and development of not only wind and solar, but nuclear as well. We should also be investing in technologies that improve energy efficiency. These advances will all be net gains, even if you don’t accept the consensus on climate change. They will reduce pollution and the negative health effects they bring. They will actually be cost beneficial. Any country that takes the lead in these emerging technologies will have a competitive advantage in the coming century.
Burning fossil fuel is dirty old tech. It is not the future. Further, if 97% of the world’s climate scientists are correct, if we burn much more fossil fuel there will be climate change with massive negative impacts on humanity costing far more money than it will cost to prevent it.
Investing in carbon neutral energy sources is an investment in the future and will save future costs.
In fact I would argue that a free-market pro-industry organization like Heartland should get with the program. They are being regressive by defending the harmful and outdated fossil fuel industry. In fact, all some of us are saying is that the energy production industry should be accountable for their externalized costs created by climate change and the health effects of pollution. If you do that, which is entirely fair, renewable energy sources suddenly become incredibly cost effective.
You have to ignore (deny) the externalized costs to persist in the illusion that fossil fuels are cost effective.
The political right, including the Heartland Institute, would be better served by stopping their denial of reality. Instead they should focus their energy on finding market-friendly and effective solutions to accelerating the technological advancements we need to improve our energy infrastructure, take a leading role in the world, and avoid the worst negative outcomes from burning fossil fuel.
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